Sunday, September 30, 2012

How do you know when it's finished?

How Do You Know When It's Finished?

Lots of people ask me this: When you're writing a book, how do you know when it's finished?

I know partly because I plan out the final scenes ahead of time. When I get to them, the book is finished. Less flippantly, you know when you have done the job - when the character has changed in the way you think he or she should. When the plot has resolved. When the mystery has been cleared up. When the book has reached a point of joy or tragedy.

But I understand. Once you've done a first draft, gone back and revised and rewritten it, then done a third draft polishing up and editing and fixing the small stuff, and then gone back over once more just in case....

It gets hard to give the book up. You've lived with it for weeks and months. There's going to be a hole in your life now that it's done.

I heard a glurge* story on the radio once: A tourist is visiting the Vatican and gets separated from his group. He opens a door and discovers a monk leaning over a great bronze door, supported on sawhorses. The bronze shines like gold, and the monk is busy polishing it. He's down in the corner. Finally, he finishes, steps back, looks at his handiwork, smiles and nods.

Then he picks up his cloth and his bottle of polish, goes to the top of the door, and begins all over again. The tourist says, "Father, I'm sorry for interrupting, but this door is already perfect. You've got it gleaming like the sun, but you're polishing it again. How do you know when it's finished?"

And the monk says, "My son, I never finish with one. They just come and take it away."

There is such a thing as a self-defeating pursuit of perfection. You have to be both the monk and the ones who come and take the door away. When you have worked through the manuscript, get someone honest, someone you trust, to read it and give you suggestions. Then get out the cloth and the polish again. When that revision is over, get a second person to read the revised manuscript. You may need to shine up a few spots yet.

Then take the book away from yourself. Get it before the public if you're self-publishing, or to an agent or editor if you are going for traditional publication.

There will be a hole in your life, sure, but you know what?

You can fill it by beginning your next book.

Glurge: I don't know if this is widely used. On the discussion boards, a "glurge" story is one passed off as true, but one that is clearly a way of sneaking a moral lesson in. They can be saccharine. I think this one is useful, though.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Point of View 6

Here's the Hand-Off...

Let's say that you've decided to use close third-person narrative to tell your story. Except you want the freedom of changing viewpoint characters from time to time within the book. How in the world do you manage the transitions? How does one VP character trade off to the next?
There are many ways, some homely and straightforward. Some writers simply label passages with the names of the viewpoint characters, changing where indicated:

The wind blew cold, making him tuck his neck down and pull his head into the turtleneck of his sweater. The knife-edge of the wind nearly cut tears from his eyes.

There he was at last, Stephen, walking fast. Was he going to pass right by her without recognition?

Doesn't work for very short passages, but for scenes* or chapters* it can be quite unobtrusive. Other writers don't give character labels, but they do make some obvious reference early in a new viewpoint section so the reader doesn't feel lost.

What a crummy day. Stephen closed the apartment door behind him, wondering again what was wrong with Mary, anyway. 

Two things:

  1. You always have to be clear about the focus character yourself. With close third person, once you're in, you're in until you reach a natural transfer point to hand off the focus to another character;
  2. Your characters ought to have personal voices so that, even without a label, their habitual way of thinking, of phrasing, of seeing the world, identifies each point of view as distinctive and different from all the others.
*Scene - A scene is an arc of continuous action, narrated with attention to setting, character, action, dialogue, and detail. It may last only a paragraph or two, but more often scenes run about 500-1000 words.
*Chapter - A logical collection of scenes, length flexible. Sometimes a very brief chapter will be one scene long; more often, a chapter is from three to ten scenes long. Like a scene, a chapter should be something of a unit, making its own point and carrying the action forward to what seems like a natural point of rest before the next section picks it up again. It is possible to write an entire book consisting only of scenes, with no chapters. See most of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books as an example.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Point of View 5

Trust Me...or Not

Once a Name Author invited me to a lunch where a group of his friends were meeting. One of the other lunchers was a very successful writer of true-life borderline supernatural books: bigfoot, ufos, things like that. I arrived before he - let's call him Andy - showed up, and the others cautioned me, "We're going to have some fun with Andy. Don't tip him off."

So Andy showed up and, as writers will, they talked shop. One of them said, "Hey, I just got my first offer of a six-figure contract for a new novel."

Andy said, "I got six figures for my first book. I'm almost up to million-dollar advances now, but my accountant told me not to go any higher for tax purposes, so I'm taking most of the income as royalties."

Another said, "Man, when we flew in, the weather was rough. Our plane bounced around so much that the luggage compartments sprang open and the suitcases fell out."

Andy said, "Yeah, I was taking flying lessons a year ago and I was on my first solo when a tornado blew up and I had to fly through it. It ripped the landing gear off the plane and I had to make a belly landing....."

Everything anyone mentioned - and it grew outrageous - Andy had done better. I quickly decided that Andy was a compulsive liar, something everyone else in the group already knew. Put his books in a whole different light.

Even a first-person narrator is not always to be trusted. We embroider the truth, we bend the facts, and sometimes we lie. Narrators are the same. Christopher Priest's novel The Prestige has two first-person narrators, and both of them are unreliable. Neither tells the truth, and part of the reward of reading the book is trying to discern exactly where the truth may lie.

Pun intended.

Some narrators are unreliable because, like Andy, they lie to the reader. Others, like Huckleberry Finn, are naive and simply don't know the whole truth behind the stories they are narrating. An untrustworthy narrator can add a whole new dimension to a story. The catch, of course, is that at some point the reader has to know that the narrator speaks with a forked tongue.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Point of View 4

Point of View: Getting Really Close

Third-person point of view can be extremely versatile in narration. It can either be objective - a neutral narrative that does not look inside any of the characters to reveal their thoughts or feelings - or at the other extreme it can be close point of view.

Close point of view latches onto one viewpoint character and freely enters that one's mind and feelings. Traditional limited third-person still has a certain amount of distance:

Harold slumped in his chair, feeling despondent. What was the use, he thought. Mildred would never love him. He felt an urge to leave the library. What if Mildred came in right now and saw him? What could he say to her? He got up and quickly walked to the exit.

Move a little closer and give the thoughts and feelings more directly:

Harold slumped in his chair, his throat tight. What's the use? Mildred can never love me. He didn't want to stay in the library. She might come in at any moment and what would I say to her? He made for the exit.

Deftly done, the blend of direct feelings and interior monologue can draw a reader into a character's life.

But remember this in getting close: Don't stand outside the character. Or at least don't do it too much. When a narrator comments on a character, that immediately provides a bit of distance. If you don't want that distance, keep the narrative close. See things from the character's point of view.

Harold slumped down in the chair, his throat aching. What was the use, Mildred could never love him. Might as well get up and leave the library. What if she should come in? What to say to her? Useless....

Move in as close as you can for these kinds of effects. At its best, close third-person narration gets you both the freedom of third-person and also the immediacy of first-person point of view.

Hey, a twofer!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Point of view 3

Point of View: I Am a Camera

Okay, so omniscient third-person point of view lets us know what everyone is thinking and feeling; limited third-person point of view lets us know what one person is thinking and feeling (and we will eventually get into some variants and possibilities with these). First-person point of view is narration by a character within the story. It has its own rewards and penalties.

First-person point of view can give a story a sense of immediacy and verisimilitude. Daniel Defoe discovered that in Robinson Crusoe, when he presented the story as Crusoe's own reminiscences about his forty-year sojourn on a desert island, accompanied only by the native Friday, and that for only part of the stay.

Crusoe is a character you can believe in. He's able to survive, but only just. He is candid, telling us about his foolish mistakes and failures of judgment. He invites us to share in his anxieties, his accomplishments, and his triumphs. We believe him because he says, "I was there, and this is what happened." We trust that narrating voice.

However . . . with first-person narration throughout a book, the writer is pretty much stuck with that one character. We can only go where our narrator goes, only experience the things he or she experiences, and only be aware of his or her thoughts and feelings. It's an intimate point of view, but it prevents a certain sweep.

True, first-person is all but obligatory in some forms of writing. The hard-boiled detective story is almost always told by the detective character. Randy Wayne White did the first couple of Doc Ford books in different points of view (third-person) but seems to have settled in for first-person now. It fits like a good glove.

Of course Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler paved the way with the Continental Op and Philip Marlowe. Ross MacDonald polished it up with Lew Archer, and John D. MacDonald made the narrator - Travis McGee - at least as interesting as the puzzles he tries to solve.

Here's something: my first stab at Atlanta Bones was third-person limited, because I had some idea of balancing good guy/bad guy scenes, showing each trying to outmaneuver the other. 

I didn't like the result. Going back to the good old first-person point of view solved my problems of construction on that one very nicely.

Though I have written many third-person point of view stories, I think that for thrillers I'll stick with first-person. It just feels natural to me.

Although, as with third-person there are variants and furbelows that can enhance the experience. More about them later.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Point of View 2

Point of View: Limited Omniscience

So omniscient point of view is a third-person narration (He said, she said, he did, she did) that can tell us at any moment what any character thinks or feels.  It was once very popular, but is less so today.

Drawbacks include the fact that it can be confusing; that it can be infuriating (if the reader can know everything but the writer prevents the reader from doing that...); and that it sometimes hamstrings a writer who needs to hold back information for suspense but who can't conscientiously do that if we know what everyone's thinking.

And so someone invented "limited omniscient third-person point of view." Just rolls off the old tongue, doesn't it?

Basically, this means that the writer limits the narrative to what just one person is thinking or feeling at a time. Write a short scene in first person. Then go back and change all the I's to he or she. You now have a third-person limited scene.

Or think of the narrator as an invisible elf who rides around on ONE character's shoulder and who can peer inside that character to learn how the character thinks and feels about the situation. My gut feeling is that third-person limited narration is the most popular today among readers, but I have nothing to back that up.

What you gain: You have some of the immediacy of first-person narrative, but without the egotistical "I, I, I" effect. Readers can more readily identify with the one character whose inner life they share. You avoid the confusion of grasshopper omniscience, leaping from head to head in a confusing way.

There are limitations, of course. If you stick to one viewpoint character for an entire book, you have to limit the reader to what that character experiences. Unless . . . 

Tame that grasshopper. Let your narrator make the leap to another person for stretches of the book. But time the leaps. Change viewpoint character at the end of a chapter, or the end of a scene.

And as you're doing that, go back and read what I wrote about creating characters with individual voices. This limited omniscience can work well to round out a number of characters in your saga.

Provided they don't all sound and think the same.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Point of View 1

Point of View: Sitting in God's Chair

When it comes to writing fiction, point of view means the location of your narrator with respect to the story. If the narrator is a character within the story, he or she will use the first-person pronoun "I" and will interact with the other characters*: Dr. Watson in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories,  the nameless narrator of Rebecca, Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but NOT in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are all examples of first-person narrators. Naturally enough, this is first-person point of view.

However, probably a majority of fiction is told from the third-person point of view. Here the narrator is located outside the story--is not a character, in other words. We assume that the narrating voice is that of the author, and the narrator uses third-person pronouns, he, she, they, and so on, to refer to all the characters. The Harry Potter books are third-person, the 87th Precinct detective novels are third-person, and so on.

We are concerned right now with a variant called the third-person omniscient point of view. As "omniscience" hints, in this one the author knows and can tell everything about everybody. The narrator can reveal what any character thinks or feels at any point, even within the same sentence: "Rocco lied, hoping that O'Banion would believe him, while O'Banion struggled to keep a straight face as he nodded and murmured, 'I see, I see.'"

Well, why the heck not? I mean, the writer creates the characters. Why not tell what everybody is thinking all the time?

One big reason is that third-person omniscient point of view makes you job much harder. It defuses tension and removes mystery. And it's hard to keep straight. Errors occur. I noticed in one best-selling novel written in this point of view that one of the characters involved in a group discussion got up and left the room. Three paragraphs later the author gave his reaction to something another character had just said - but the guy in question was out of the room and couldn't have heard the remark. The writer just lost track.

Personally, I think that point-of-view confusion involving omniscience is responsible for Mario Puzo's having accidentally omitted the entire year of 1946 from The Godfather. I'm not kidding. After Don Vito is shot on Christmas Eve, 1945, we go directly to the big gang war of 1947, which starts a few days after the assassination attempt.

In the early days of the novel, first-person point of view dominated, though it was often serial first-person, with different narrators taking turns telling the story; this is mainly because many of the first English novels were epistolary stories, told through such devices as letters written by different characters (as is the case with a much later novel, Dracula). Then the omniscient point of view became popular. Thackeray and Dickens both wrote long novels in third-person omniscient point of view.

Today, well, I'd advise the newer writer to avoid tackling full omniscient point of view. There are other ways to tell a story, and we'll look at a few of them in later installments.

*It occurs to me that an exception is "S.S. Van Dyne," the putative author/narrator of the Philo Vance detective novels, popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Van Dyne is Vance's "Watson," but as far as I can remember he never says a word of dialogue and rarely if ever uses the word "I"--he's just sort of there, and now and then the other characters will refer to him, but he's at best a very ghostly presence as a first-person narrator.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"I did it my way"

I Did It My Way: On Following "Rules"

If Hal Holbrook is to be believed, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday celebration, Mark Twain is supposed to have advised, "I got to seventy by strictly adhering to a style of living that would kill anybody else . . . . If you can't get to seventy in the way most comfortable to you, my advice is don't go."

Something like that applies to advice on writing. Actually, I have only one ironclad rule for new writers:

If any writing rule rubs you the wrong way, ignore it. Including this one.

Because people are individuals, you see. When I advise, "Outline your work," that is because outlining has worked for me and many other writers.

It doesn't work for everyone. Some free spirits just . . . write, without knowing what's going to happen or who the characters are. I could not do that, but if it works for others, fine. Raymond Chandler notoriously never planned anything. When asked about plotting, he said, "When things get slow, I just have a guy with a gun come through the door and see what will happen."

When William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett were adapting Chandler's novel The Big Sleep for the movies, as a Hollywood story has it, the two hit a snag. They read the book cover to cover but could not solve their problem. So Faulkner supposedly called Chandler.

Faulkner asked, "Mr. Chandler we need to know who killed Owen Taylor, the chauffeur."

Chandler gave him a name, but Faulkner said, "No, sir, he was clear across town at the time and couldn't have done it." Chandler said he'd get the book and call back.

When he did, Chandler said, "I don't know who in the hell killed him. I thought I did, but I don't."

So in the movie, as in the novel, Taylor's murder is never cleared up. That does not make the novel or movie bad, but it does indicate that one can simply fly free of any planning or outlining and write a good stick.

So, if any advice I happen to give doesn't resonate with you, ignore it. You won't hurt my feelings.

And you just might write a good story.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dialect Do's, Dialect Don't's

Last time I wrote about voice, an important component of characterization. This time I want to put down a few words on dialect.

Dialect, of course, is a regional way of using a language. It includes pronunciation and vocabulary. Pronunciation is the reason why in Maine they pahk the cah in the yahd and in Florida they park the car in the yard. Vocabulary is the reason why in New England it's a soda, in St. Paul it's a pop, and in Georgia it's a Coke, no matter what the brand.

Dialect is so colorful that it often tempts writers into ghastly error. "Aw, ah dun wen an dun at arredy, Mawmaw," he drawled.

Too much already. When you decide a character will speak in dialect, restrict yourself to a few key words to indicate pronunciation (it's fine to use regional vocabulary, though you may need to finesse a way to explain what the term means to speakers of general English).

Caribbean? Maybe a few "mon's" will help. But "Dat's fo' troo mon" is too much. "That's for true, mon," would work just as well. Work on the cadences and the lilt and not so much on distorted words.

Southern? First of all, there are all sorts of Southern: Piedmont, as spoken by the late Andy Griffith; Tidewater, in which "out" sounds like "oot"; Plantation, which is the one always faked by non-Southern actors. Be sure of your region. And there's no reason to spell "I" "Ah." Everybody knows already.

"That jes' ain't right, now," he drawled. "I mean, yeah, a man can git tangled up with the law sometimes, but to shoot a feller down f' nothin', now, that ain't right."

Be sure you know your dialect. Then think of it as a condiment, not a main dish. A little sprinkle helps to individualize characters and give them flavor; too much, and the reader tosses the whole dish into the garbage pail. Or trash can. Or waste bin.

Depends on where you're coming from, mon. Yaknowwaddimean?

Sunday, September 16, 2012



No names, but not long ago I read a novel by a heavy-tech science-fiction sort of author that bugged me. The writer elected to tell the story all in first person, but with multiple narrators, about eight in all. Each one took turns in telling his/her parts of the story.

But - here's the rub - they all sounded exactly alike.

That is, nothing in the style of Mr. A's narrative in the least distinguished it from Ms B's, and so on. The only way of knowing who was telling the story at any given point was to go back and see whose name was in italics at the beginning of the current section.

And these were not clones.

Everyone has a distinctive voice. Think of your phone ringing, and you answer without even checking the caller ID. If it's a friend of yours, chances are you don't need the speaker to introduce himself or herself. Three words and you know who it is, just from the voice.

That should be applicable to first-person narrative, too. The speaker should be immediately identifiable by diction and syntax and attitude - by voice. This isn't rocket surgery, folks.

Look at some first-person narrators who do have a distinctive voice: Huckleberry Finn. Jim Hawkins and Dr. Livesey in Treasure Island. Bertie Wooster in any Jeeves novel (but one; Bertie was left out of Ring for Jeeves, and it is not the usual sparkling nonsense). Philip Marlowe. Kinsey Millhone. Jane Eyre.

To pull off a convincing voice, you must imagine yourself into the skin of your character. On the most superficial level, you can use tricks of style: "I reckon I'd better start in to tell y'all about..." or "I was nurtured to be a gentlewoman, and, alas, that is what I have become."

But to create a really convincing speaker, you have to put on those shoes and walk around in them and see the world as that character does. You have to be an actor as well as a writer.

It all starts by being aware. Remember that your narrators must have their own identities; they cannot be carbon copies of each other; they must not be dull or be made so by a lack of differentiation.

A writer friend of mine once complained that I had a fairly colorful minor character in and out of only one scene in a novel. "What's his name?" my friend asked.

"I didn't give him a name," I said. I mean, he was in for maybe five hundred words of a ninety-thousand-word novel.

"Dammit," my friend thundered at me, "Everybody gets a name!"

He was right. If you want to engage readers at all, each and every one of your characters deserves a name.

And a voice.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Double Vision

Double Vision

One thing that (in my opinion anyway) a good writer must have is the ability to see the writing two ways simultaneously: as writer and as reader. You have to craft words and at the same time see them as though someone else crafted them.

Too much emphasis on crafting means the writer becomes precious, arrogant, overly assertive. This kind of writer is an editor's nightmare. Everything this writer produces is, in his or her not so humble opinion, Holy Writ. Not a word, not a comma may be changed. It's all perfect.

But too much emphasis on seeing the words fresh, as though written by someone else, means the writer will become frustrated, never achieving that perfect vision of the story a-dance in his or her head. This writer is over-critical, insecure, and discourages himself or herself in the long run.

So the balance is becoming bifocal. Part of your writing mind is the writer, planning and creating a balance of description, characterization, dialogue, action, and, oh yes, plot. The other part is the critical reader, constantly musing, "Is this the only way of getting this idea across? Would it work better as dialogue? Hmm. Is there a better, more precise word for what I mean? Hmm...."

It is a delicate act, to teeter between being too writerly and too readerly. Some people can't manage it and fall to one side or the other, which means they never can attain the success they wish for. Those writers who do are successful, for a given definition of "success." They publish and they are read.

Those who can hit and maintain the balance become great. And the secret to that  is - well, between you and me, I just wish I knew.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Reader Response

Sometimes I get reader responses to my books. Here's one of the latest:

"I'm in love with Jim Dallas!"

Sometimes I'm not sure how to take reader responses to my books....

Sunday, September 9, 2012

E-books for Sale

Lest we forget....Two of the Jim Dallas series of Florida thrillers are out and available now, Atlanta Bones and Cuban Dagger. If you're a mystery fan, give them a try. You can read a free sample of each either at or at And if you like them, I'm currently writing the third, Eden Feint

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Stick to the Schedule

Stick to the Schedule

Back from when I first started writing, I have the manuscripts of five novels that I'll never publish. First, they aren't very good. Second, while long, none of them is complete.

I ran out of steam two-thirds or more of the way through. Let them drift. Lost them.

So one thing I've learned is to establish a writing schedule. If you have trouble getting through a novel, don't fall into either of two bad traps:

  1. Decide you're going to go back and do revisions before writing any more;
  2. Decide to put the book away for a little while and then get back to it.
Problem with the first is that you're apt to get caught in an endless loop, seeking perfection with what you have before bringing the novel to a close. You can't be perfect, and neither can the book. It's vital to have a whole block of marble before you begin to chip away to release the statue inside.

And you have to have a whole book before you can meaningfully revise it.

Problem with the second is that we all procrastinate. Well, I don't, but I'm planning to do it tomorrow, maybe.

Seriously, it's so easy to let it slide, until it's slipped beyond your grasp. The novel becomes a stillbirth, dead before it lived.

Avoid this by creating your own schedule for writing. It does not have to be onerous, but you do have to be dedicated to it. Most writers I've talked to have a writing time - Every day at five a.m. or nine p.m. or whatever, they sit down and write for an hour, or two, or four, or eight. Adjust to your life. 

If you give writing one hour a day, every day, for a year, you'll have a novel.

I prefer, however, to have a target. On an absolutely perfect day, I've written as many as 10,000 words. That's very rare. 

My target is 1,000 words. Every day. Seven thousand words a week, minimum. I almost always do more, 1,500 or 2,000, but I have to stay at the keyboard until I've hit at least a thousand.

A thousand words a day. In twelve weeks, you'll have a draft of a nearly 100,000-word novel.

It may not be perfect, it may need cutting and fixing and trimming and editing, but it's there. It's your block of marble.

And now you can chip away until you've uncovered your Galatea.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Why E-Books?

Why e-Books?

I just got an e-mail from a reader who says, "both books are so good that I wonder why they didn't come out as paper books first."

Looks like Ken has some 'splainin' to do.

Okay, first point: when I finished Atlanta Bones, which I wrote on spec (i.e., with no publishing contract), I sent it in to my agent, who regretfully turned it down. "There's just not a market for this kind of suspense-adventure right now," he told me, and he does know the field.

But why isn't there a market?

The economy has a great deal to do with it. You might have noticed bookstores disappearing. Some wholesale, like the Borders and Waldenbooks chains. In hard times, people just don't buy as many books - especially when they have to fork out eight or ten bucks for a paperback.

Then, too, reading habits change. People are getting accustomed to reading on Kindles, Nooks, and iPads. E-books are beginning to outsell paper books.

I read recently some dismal news: the average nonfiction book by a new writer, published in paper, today sells fewer than 2,000 copies. E-book sales, on the other hand, are increasing.

But it's an unknown world for the big publishers . . . yes, still. Look at how many of them price an e-book at fifteen or twenty dollars or more. And then they will tell you that e-books don't sell.

To quote the gorilla who walked into the bar, "At these prices, I'm not surprised."

So I decided to take a chance. I'd self-publish the books, keep the prices reasonable, and see how they did. So far they're doing . . . okay. Enough to encourage me to continue writing them, at any rate.

After all, overhead costs are minimal for self-publishing. Each of the Jim Dallas novels, including the copyright registration, the ISBN numbers, and the cover art, cost less than seventy dollars to produce. Both have "earned out" and a little better.

And now, I hope, the readership will gradually grow as more novels appear. I don't have any sales stock in a warehouse. There's no overhead. So, faced with the prospect of no publication at all because there's no market for that kind of book or e-publication, I opted for the latter.

What writer wouldn't?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Two things not to do...

Two Things Not to Do

First, you should do your research. This is remarkably easy with the interwebz. In a twinkling I can find the name of a good restaurant in Aruba, or the best place to stab someone you wish to silence quickly. Gold, man.

But there are two things you should be extra-special careful about, especially if you are writing mysteries or thrillers. Cars and guns.

People flat-out love cars. They are protective of auto images in fiction, and if you make a mistake, they will WRITE IN AND LET YOU KNOW. If you can, run car details past a car nut, if you know one that won't get you involved in a long disquisition about the differences in Positraction and Equa-Lock.

I don't. I miss Tom Deitz, who passed away a few years ago and who would tell you in detail why such and such a car could not take off with a squeal of tires. But double-check your cars.

And double-double check your weaponry. I'm not much of a shooter myself, but I've got a relative who is retired from law-enforcement. When I was looking for a good sidearm for Jim Dallas, he said, "A cool one would be the old Colt .38 Official Police revolver. It's about the only series of revolver that has a safety."

He also explained that it's outmoded today because of the relatively wimpy caliber - but former cops love these things, and in the hands of a good marksman, they're as good as a 9-mm in stopping bad guys.

Okay, so I chose that one. But what he didn't tell me was that the Colt positive safety is not something you set. It merely has a block that prevents the hammer from striking the primer unless one pulls the trigger. 

So in Cuban Dagger I had some throwaway line about the safety being "on," when it's not something you turn on or off. A reader pointed out the mistake, and I have since corrected it. That's a case of knowing almost enough but not quite.

Moral: Quadruple-check your gun research. Because, like car fanciers, gun fanciers are knowledgeable and protective of their favorites.

But...they are armed.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A matter of style

A Matter of Style

Once someone asked me a question about writing that flummoxed me: "When do you put in the style?"

Short answer: I dunno. Longer one: Style isn't a spice that you sprinkle in somewhere in the course of a recipe. It's a normal outgrowth of your writing and your personality.

Oh, it can be conscious. As you write more, you become more aware of the words you use and how you put them together in sentences. If you have a reasonably good ear, you hear their rhythms. And then you begin to work on your style.

Because style is essentially word choice (diction) and syntax (sentence structure). You can choose plain, fancy, or esoteric words; you can put them together to create long or short sentences, simple or complex sentences, crystal-clear or subtly misleading sentences. Your call.

Style gives your writing voice and life. It's what makes your writing sound like you, or like your first-person character if you've created a narrator like Jim Dallas. And it's the words that light the fireworks in your reader's head, illuminating and sparkling the meaning you're putting on the page.

Read some varied writers and notice style. P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster is a blithering-idiot-savant of style, making diction choices from Edwardian public-school slang ("everything is oojah-cum-spiff"); he mangled half-remembered quotations ("Jeeves, many a morning rumpty-tumpty-tum te tum, only to so on and so forth, if you see what I mean.); and he created sentences that are glorious in their surprise and humor ("He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.").

Contrast that with a schoolfellow of Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler, who began The Big Sleep like this: "It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark-blue shirt, tie, and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, and sober, and I didn't care who knew it."

Master the language. Know that you don't always have to pile up adjectives to describe a scene. Write with strong nouns and verbs, the more precise the better. Vary the placement of modifiers just to see the effect - instead of "a pretty, tall blonde smiled at me," try "a blonde tall and pretty smiled at me." Decide what you like and keep it. Junk the rest.

Do a lot of reading. When you hit a sentence that fizzes and buzzes in your head, stop a minute and ask yourself how the writer did that. When you start noticing the word choices, the way sentences are built, and the music of the language, you've begun to discover just how to put in the style.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Getting it done...

Just Getting It Done

What's the hardest part of writing? You'll get different answers because no two writers approach the craft the same way.

Getting ideas? People think that's the hard part. They'll even come up to a writer and offer an idea of their own..."You write it and we'll split the money."

No, most writers get ideas all the time and from everywhere. Most of us can never write all the stories that flood into our minds.

Outlining? Some writers swear they can't outline. That deadens the story, they say. Others, like me, do outline and maintain a timeline of the story, too. If you can't finish a story just by winging it...outline the next time and see if that helps. If your outlined story seems time, wing it.

First draft? Yes, that's a pain. Going from nothing to a page full of words is grinding work, and sometimes you'll want to quit. Don't. Just plug away and don't mind if the story isn't yet the ideal you saw glimmering in the distance when you first thought of it.

Don't stop and look back in first draft. Get it down on paper.

Revision? Oh, God, some people hate revision. "If I get it right the first time, why bother?"

Because none of us do get it right the first time. Every story can be improved. In fact, I like revision much more than the first draft, because in this process I can bring the work closer to my unreachable ideal. Work at it. Read critically and attentively, have back-up or beta readers look at it, and listen to them. Revise. See it get better.

And you're still not finished. Editing and proofing are still ahead.

However, there is a secret to getting through all these hard parts of writing:

Just do it.

Apply your butt to the chair and your fingers to the keyboard. Keep going. Set yourself a goal - write for two hours a day, or four, or whatever. Or decide you will keep writing until you have done at least a thousand words per day (this is what I do).

Keep yourself going. It isn't play. It's work.

The rewards for your work are not immediate, but they do help. One day we'll talk about them.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


On Imitation

Let's face it: When we start out, nobody knows how to write. Each of us has to find a way. Each writer has to be self-educated.

So at the outset there's a strong copy. Writers who like Stephen King want to write like Stephen King. Writers who admire J.K. Rowling would love to write like her. Those who enjoy Neil Gaiman's work want to impress the girls the way he writing like him, of course.

But isn't there some rule, "Thou shalt not steal," or something?

Yes, there is. But writers learn to write by writing, and they learn their first elements of style from imitation. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that when he was an aspiring writer, he became a "sedulous ape," industriously trying to copy the styles and characters of writers he admired, including Sir Walter Scott.

However, Stevenson says, what he wrote "was for no ulterior use, it was written consciously for practice. It was not so much that I wished to be an author (though I wished that too) as I had vowed that I would learn to write."

Stevenson succeeded in becoming one of the most successful novelists of the late nineteenth century. And people still read and enjoy his books.

Now, some of us like the work of an author so much that we just can't keep our sticky little hands off their characters. So we write fan fiction, and possibly even publish it on the Internet.

The trouble begins here. To protect their copyright, writers have to draw a line, and that line does not permit direct stealing of characters, situations, and settings.

Not that there's anything wrong with writing fan fiction. It's the publishing that gets copycats in trouble, and especially if the publication is commercial, i.e., for money.

Unless you change things pretty drastically so there's no longer a clear connection between the original material and your own work. That can be done. Ethics are not always black and white, and there are shades of gray.

However: I do recommend that you steer clear of writing continuations of works you enjoy and publishing them, even if it's not for profit.

It is perfectly okay to mimic a technique, style, an effect, an atmosphere, or a mood, though. That's how you learn to write. Eventually you develop your own individual style.

Ah, style...but that's a topic for another time.