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No, this is not a blog post about Harry Potter as Allen Ginsberg. This is the admonishment attributed to Arthur Quiller-Couch to aspiring writers: “Whenever you feel the an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”
William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekov, Eudora Welty, and Stephen King have ladled out similar advice. This from Stephen King: “…kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
All I know is that I fall in love with my insightful, witty, beautiful lines mainly because they’re damned hard to come up with. Yes, the story rules. Yes, if I want a successful story I need to be ruthless.
What do I do if a line or a passage needs to be cut to serve the story? I send those precious words to a notebook of orphaned lines. This can be a print notebook or a computer file—I copy them in both places. Once I know the darlings are safe and tucked in, I can be the ruthless professional I need to be.
Take Woody Allen as our shining role model for the cut-and-use-later school. He had a hilarious elevator to hell scene in Annie Hall, each floor of the elevator designated for a different level of sin—fifth floor for organized crime, fascist dictators and people who don’t appreciate oral sex. Allen cut this great scene to shape the Oscar for Best Picture, Annie Hall, but used it twenty years later in Deconstructing Harry.
Do your darlings ever find a home? The answer is a resounding yes—that is if they remain darling through the years until you find their story.
There’s a reason why so many famous writers advise us to write every day. My sweetie and I just got back from a marvelous 3 week vacation during which time I didn’t cook a meal or write a word. Now that we’re back home, I’m working mightily to finish my second Lennox Cooper mystery, Betting Blind, by early next summer.
It’s hard as hell to re-enter the fictive dream I’d worked so hard to build. And the writing itself is excrement. I have to type with one hand and hold my nose with the other. Let me tell you, it’s painful to write so badly.
What keeps me going is Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Lamott coined the term “shitty first drafts” saving legions of aspiring writers from committing seppuku. Most of us believe that the writers we admire sit down at their desks and gorgeous sentences come out the tips of their fingers and onto the page. Not true, Lamott tells us.
Here’s how she describes her process: “It’s over, I’d think calmly. I’m not going to make the magic work this time. I’m ruined. I’m toast. Maybe, I’d think, I can get my old job back…I’d get up and study my teeth in the mirror for a while. Then I’d stop, remember to breathe, make a few phone calls, hit the kitchen and chow down. Eventually I’d go back and sit at my desk, and sigh for the next ten minutes. ..and every time the answer would come: all I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph. And no one was going to see it. So I’d start writing without reigning myself in…”
Don’t you feel like less of an idiot? I do. And once I have those pages I can shape them into something wondrous (or least, acceptable.)
My lesson? The next time Mr. Sweetie suggests a trip to Rome, I’ll think twice before leaving my manuscript behind.
Characters that know what they want, but don't know what they're doing—writing advice from the master.
Elmore Leonard, the Dickens of Detroit, died August 20th at the age of 87. The beloved writer was working on his 46th novel when he suffered from a stroke a month ago.
In 2009 the American chapter of PEN awarded Leonard with a lifetime achievement award, stating that his books “are not only classics of the crime genre, but some of the best writing of the last half-century.”
If you’ve somehow missed Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, here they are:
1. Never open a book with the weather
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Here’s some additional writing wisdom I gleaned from various obits and interviews. The examples are from my favorite Leonard novels:
11. Character Driven Plots
“I start with a character. Let’s say I want to write a book about a bail bondsman or a process server or a bank robber and a woman federal marshal. And they meet and something happens.” Leonard stated that when he started a new book he doesn’t know the ending. “I’d rather wait and see what happens. I get a better idea of what’s going to happen as I go along. I get to know who the people are—some become more or less important or somebody unknown will come along and play a major role.”
12. Strong Use of Voice
“I always write from a character’s point of view,” Leonard said. He never began writing a new scene until he decided which character would narrate. “Because then the narrative will take on somewhat the sound of the person who is seeing the scene.”
After writing 100 pages Leonard said, “Sometimes, if a character has trouble expressing himself, he gets demoted. He’s given less to do or gets shot.”
13. Alienated Protagonists
Leonard said that his protagonists are easily misjudged, and when called to action there’s no telling what they might do. Leonard said, “He may solve the crime—or commit it.”
Here’s a passage from Unknown Man #89
(Ryan, a process server is tracking a missing person and has put an ad in the city’s two papers.)
“…he picked up the phone and said hello.
It was his sister, Marion. She hadn’t called in at least six months, but she picked today. She was wondering how things were going, living alone. He’d been living alone for four and a half years, but Marion was still wondering and asked him when did he want to come over for a home-cooked meal. Ryan said anytime, you name it. Marion was not that much of a cook. In fact she was pretty bad. But he always said that, anytime. She never picked a date beforehand but always waited until she got him on the phone and then would have to go and get her calendar and study it and try to remember what nights Earl bowled or had Cub Scouts or an Ushers Club meeting. Ryan told he was expecting an important phone call, but it still took another ten minutes.”
14. Unforgettable Crooks
“The bad guys are the fun guys,” Leonard said. “The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types.” In another interview he said: “ I don’t think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank.”
Here’s a sampling of Leonard’s crooks:
“Cundo Rey sipped his coffee—very poor coffee, like water—watching Nobles wiping his big thick hands on a golden arch napkin, sucking at his teeth. The Monster from the Big Scrub, with a neck so red it could stop traffic. Cundo Rey had come ashore in Dade County only a few years ago, boat-lifted out of Cambinado del Este prison and had worked hard to learn English—asking the girls why they didn’t correct him and the girls saying, because he talked cute.”
Riding the Rap
“Bobby’s first impression of Chip Ganz, he saw a skinny guy in his fifties trying to look hip: the joint, a full head of hair with gray streaks in it brushed back uncombed, and tan. Bobby had never seen an Anglo this tan and thought at first Chip Ganz was lying there with nothing on but his sunglasses. No, the guy was wearing a little swimsuit, a black one.”
Bobby tries to collect on Chip’s gambling debt. He pulls out a nasty pair of pruners and tells Chip: “‘You don’t pay me the day after tomorrow I prune something from you. Like what do you think, this part of your ear? You don’t need it—you don’t wear no earring, do you? Okay, you still don’t pay in two more days, I prune the other ear. You don’t look so good then. Okay, you still don’t pay then I have to prune something else like let me see, what’s a part of you you never want me to prune? What could that be?’
Chip surprised him saying, ‘I get the idea.’ Pretty calm about it. Maybe it was the weed let him talk like that.”
“Man, she did not like to be argued with. Never did. It tightened up her face, put a killer look in her eyes.
‘Okay, they informed on us and now they’re sitting on fifty million bucks. You look around this dump you’re living in and you feel they owe you something. Am I telling it right?’
‘We feel they owe us something,’ Robin said.”
15. Humor in Contrasts
Elmore Leonard wasn’t a gag writer, but his writing crackles with wit. He said he found humor in “gathering an odd assortment of characters”— characters that knew what they wanted but didn’t know what they were doing. Here are a few examples:
A exhibition high-diver, a con man with the research skills of an ace librarian, and the Dixie Mafia come together during a Civil War re-enactment.
A loan shark, a horror movie producer and a B actress try to wrestle their movie from some drug-runners.
A redneck, a retired Jewish businessman and a FBI agent turned photographer all have the hots for an aging movie star.
A hard-assed judge, his crazy wife, a crack addict dermatologist, an alligator poacher, and a whole nest of ex-felons, the Crowe family, are out to kill one another.
Elmore Leonard said this about why he kept writing: “It’s the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing. To write that scene and then read it and it works. I love the sound of it. There’s nothing better than that…I’ve been doing it for 47 years, and I’m still trying to make it better.”
RIP Elmore Leonard. I’m sure going to miss you.
“I am against female detectives on principle. It’s not always and everywhere a tough game, but most of the time it is, with no room for the friendly feelings and the nice little impulses. So a she-dick must have a good thick hide, which is not a skin I’d love to touch; if she hasn’t, she is apt to melt just when a cold eye and hard nerves are called for, and in that case she doesn’t belong.” Archie Goodwin from Too Many Detectives, by Rex Stout
I’ve been asked a number of questions about my detective, Lennox Cooper: Why doesn’t she have any girlfriends, why isn’t she closer to her mother, why does she have rotten luck with men? I’m not complaining, I’m delighted people think enough about the book to have questions. And because Lennox is edgy, I can’t expect everyone to like her. But here’s the thing, does anyone wonder why Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Derek Strange or Jack Reacher don’t appear to have guy friends? Or have a close relationship with their mothers? Why is it important to like female characters when we're satisfied with flawed male characters
It seems to me that there is a different yardstick for measuring female and male detectives, especially when you entered hard-boiled territory. Recently I ran across an article that came out in The Atlantic back in May 2013: Do Readers Judge Female Characters More Harshly Than Male Characters? by Maria Konnikova.
Here’s a quote from the article: “Over the last 30 or so years, work by social psychologists like Susan Fiske and Mina Cikara has repeatedly demonstrated that women are perceived and evaluated on different criteria than men: not only are the same traits that are seen as positive in one (say, assertiveness in men) reconstrued as negative in the other (say, pushiness in women), but we put different relative values on different traits depending on gender. Niceness, for instance, is seen as consistently more important in women than it is in men.”
Apparently this bias bleeds over to fictional characters as well. I think this is especially true when you’re writing in a male-dominated genre, such as hard-boiled detective fiction. There are some notable exceptions: Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski. I can’t say whether their readers are happy about their character’s outlier status, I don’t get their fan mail.
How do you weigh in on the female/male bias?
I followed the advice from teachers and craft books that said I must create a separate biography for each of my characters. My biography included the character’s astrological sign, where she went to junior high and what sports she played. I spent literally months spinning details for each of my characters.
When it came time to introduce them in scene, my characters rebelled. One morphed from ditsy to sharp-witted; from plump to anorexic. Even her name changed. Why? I put her in the scene and challenged her and she rose up off the page to become something different. Something better.
For me, constructing character biographies is as two-dimensional as constructing detailed plot outlines before I’ve written a scene. Does that mean I believe in letting my story evolve day by day, not knowing where it will lead me? Absolutely not. I have my murder and my murderer, I know what kind of person my murderer is and most of the challenges my protagonist will face. I have the skeleton in place, I have my cast of characters. That’s when I start writing scenes and discover who I’m dealing with.
The characters reveal themselves as they bump against one another and a shape emerges. Once I have a shape, there’s many ways to get to know my character better. Writing exercises help this process along.
Exercise: Take one of these scenarios and write for 10 minutes using a character
you make up on the spot or an existing character.
1. Character caught shoplifting.
2. Seen with an ex by jealous current.
3. Dragged to a party character knows she'll hate.
4. Late for an important appointment and stuck in traffic.
5. Mate/friend breaks a promise to do something important for the character.
Are you one of those writers who can’t resist the latest book on the writing craft? I am. All someone has to do is mention a craft book and I’m headed to the bookstore.
My current favorites are:
Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maas.
This book addresses the story stakes, meaningful characters and much, much more. All of Maass’ craft books are worthwhile.
Story, by Robert McKee. Analysis of story structure, character and emotional arcs.
How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James Frey. The king of conflict takes us back to the basics of dramatic storytelling. You literary novelists out there would find this useful as well.
Story Engineering and Story Physics, by Larry Brooks. Brooks uses the rules of screenwriting to help novelists shape their stories, that and much more. As with Donald Maas, all of Larry’s books are worth reading.
Scene and Structure, by Jack Bickham. How to orchestrate story between scene and sequel. Alas, I keep hearing about this one from my fellow critiquers.
Honorable mention goes to:
If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland, for inspiration.
Writing Down the Bones, By Natalie Goldberg, for free writes.
Bird by Bird, by Annie Lamott, for shitty first drafts.
What are your favorite writing books?
The antagonist is the character that opposes your protagonist because his agenda opposes your protagonist's agenda. He doesn’t even need to be all that bad, but to make an interesting story he must be as strongly motivated as your hero. He must be an equal match in terms of strength and resources as your protagonist. It’s even more interesting if your antagonist has a bit of an edge.
Think of your antagonist and protagonist as mirror images of one another: each blocking the other’s desire.
Consider Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche DuBois is our fragile protagonist and Stanley the brawling antagonist. They compete for Stella’s affections, loyalty, home and respect. It becomes a battle where only one can possibly succeed. Even though Stanley is rough and crude, we can’t help but see his view of Blanche and his right to be the head of his family.
Even if your antagonist is unsympathetic, so long as he has a powerful desire, the reader can’t help but sympathize. This desire becomes the reason behind why the antagonist commits his deeds. Understanding him gives him a spark of humanity.
And what if your antagonist truly is a villain? Well, that’s okay, too. Did you know that a recent study by Dr. David Buss revealed that 91% of men and 84% of women have fantasized about committing murder? How that informs fiction is that many of us readers are lured by the forbidden. Some of us daydream as we read books about “bad guys” and what it would be like not to be burdened by a moral code.
Go ahead, create a villain, just don’t make him a mustache-twirling-shifty-eyed sonofabitch. Your readers have seen that character ad nauseam. The villain must be psychologically complex. By having both a good and bad side, this antagonist can more fully test our hero.
What makes a good villain? The same qualities that make a good hero: larger-than-life strengths, highly motivated and operating at maximum capacity.
My favorite villains are Mr. Blond, Mr. Dark, Nurse Ratched, Evil Stepmother (Snow White), Hannibal Lecter and the Snow Queen. What do they have in common? Every one of them was stronger than the protagonist which upped the tension for me as I worried for the protagonist.
Who are your favorite villains?
The New York Times film reviewer A.O. Scott once said, “Bad literary adaptations are all alike, but every successful literary adaptation succeeds in its own way. The bad ones are undone by humility, by anxious obeisance to the cultural prestige of literature. The good ones succeed through hubris, through the arrogant assumption that a great novel is not a sacred artifact but rather a lump of interesting material to be shaped according to the filmmaker’s will.”
You want hubris? Who better than Baz Luhrman to retell The Great Gatsby? Since Romeo + Juliet, I’ve been waiting for Baz to hit another homerun. And he absolutely does with The Great Gatsby for the same reason that Romeo +Juliet was so successful. He has a fabulous story as his launch.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age has many parallels to our current time: unmitigated greed, income inequity, the sense of entitlement the wealthy assume, the hysteria of excess. These are the mileposts of the American Dream, and everyone feels that the dream is within reach. But at the heart of The Great Gatsby is the tragic love affair of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is almost in reach, just as the green light at the end of her dock beckons to Gatsby from across the bay. And I feel Gatsby’s heartbreak more deeply than I ever did reading the novel, marvelous as it is.
The movie was brilliantly acted with Leo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire. The score by Jay-Z adds to the excitement, and then there’s Luhrman’s fabulous spectacle. Just be prepared to have your heart broken.
One more thing: The Wall Street Journal HATES this picture. Now, don’t you want to go see it?
You sit down for a day of novel writing. A paragraph later your character rolls up his sleeve and his forearm is tattooed in Chinese script. You halt your writing and look up Chinese writing on Wikipedia, and following the source material at the end of the article, you order two books on Chinese calligraphy. The next thing you know it’s time for lunch. Is this a good use of your time? Only you know the answer.
The question is: do you need to research before you write the scene in order to inform the writing, or can you write the scene and add the researched layer in the same way a painter would add another dimension to her painting. It’s a question I still struggle with after writing for more than ten years.
When I decided that I wanted to write a mystery, the only thing I knew about criminal investigation was from novels or television, so I took a series of criminal justice classes at my community college. I learned the difference between interrogation and interview, grid searches, accelerants and blood spatter. To add a sense of place I’ve scoped out dive bars and cart culture, and used my friends’ and families’ houses to shelter my characters. I’ve interviewed two detectives and asked a ton of questions of a friend who worked for years as a prosecuting attorney.
That said, I try to keep writing before I stop and research. My story and many of my characters remain fluid through much of a draft. In A Bitch Called Hope, I had a completely different murderer until six months before my agent sold the story. Which is why a lot of my research ends up in a file cabinet for some future novel. One of my writer friends researches everything before she puts fingertips to keyboard. Her characters spring from her head fully formed. Another writer friend has her character loading a dishwasher in her 19th century novel. “I’ll do the research later,” she says. It makes for a painful critique session.
What is your take on research?
Portland writer of noir mysteries.