This question popped up on a discussion group recently and it’s one I’ve pondering of late.
Here was the abbreviated question, posted by Shalanna Collins:
“I'm wondering how you feel about the ‘invitation to the game’ that constitutes the mystery opening trope. What I mean is . . . when you pick up a mystery, do you expect the normal trope of (1) the sleuth's normal life, some intriguing thing happening, and then (2) the call to action signaled by her/his finding a body or witnessing a death that is suspicious? … I don't read only for the mystery plot and only for action. I've been dinged for including deeper stuff in my books. What say you?”
What I say is this:
I am starting to like books that set their own rules.
I think, within the first few pages of a novel, we can tell if the writer has one eye on a paint-by-numbers formula.
I think we’re all eager for a strong book that wrecks the formula—and has a good time doing so.
I give you William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. There’s nothing formulaic about it. Murder mystery? Coming of age novel? Literature? Forty years after a series of powerful deaths in a small town in Minnesota, a grown man named Frank Drum remembers the series of events, all intertwined with memories of his religious father and agnostic mother. The book just flows, suspense mounts, and there’s no sign of paint or numbers.
I give you Untouchable by Scott O’Connor, published a few years ago and widely praised. I was shocked—shocked—to discover it had been reviewed as crime fiction in the New York Times. The book is about a man named David Darby who cleans up messes after, well, death takes its toll. It’s also about the man’s mute-by-choice son Whitley, who fears that he’s responsible for his mother’s death. These are two of the strongest character portraits I’ve read in a long time—even though O’Connor uses a ton of adverbs (not my favorite) and relies on the passive tense. I didn’t give a lick. I was completely sucked in by the story and a thin “plot” (and I use that term loosely). Near the end is one of the saddest chapters I’ve read in a long time and it introduces us to a new point of view on page 362.
I didn’t care.
I give you David Corbett’s Mercy of the Night, another character-centric novel that might look a bit like a crime or mystery on the surface but is one of the most deeply felt and human books you’ll ever read. (I reviewed it in depth here). There’s a prostitute, a counselor and a former litigator, Phelan Tiernay. Again, vivid and human portraits against the backdrop of crime. Formulas nowhere in sight.
So I think the recipes are a rough guide.
I think some stories need more air underneath them—more contemplation.
Not every book is skipping-stone compilation of plot points.
More and more I find myself more drawn to character studies. It’s the people I remember, not always the clue-finding and the guns-drawn face-offs.
Some weeks, you want the comfort and ease of that formula.
At other times, you find yourself more open to more variety in voice, tone, style and pace of the plot and action.
To me, the invitation to the game starts with cracking open a new book and being welcomed to a new story, a new point of view.
I want to see the plot points disappear.
I want to get to know new people so well I can imagine what they’re thinking and understand how they act.
A report from South Dakota: Cool Writers, A Controversy and a Rock Star
Deadwood, South Dakota is 385 miles north of Denver. You shoot straight through Cheyenne, parallel the eastern border of Wyoming and watch trains tugging their long snakes of coal. The road climbs east through the Black Hills. In late September, gold aspen trees dot the high country.
Deadwood is clogged with casinos. The conference hotel for the South Dakota Festival of Books is reached only by walking past the slot machines and blackjack tables and finding an elevator in the back corner. All of downtown, in fact, is loaded with hotels and gambling tables. There isn’t one grocery store in town, although there are plenty of places to eat. And drink. The entire town is listed on the National Historic Register. Other than the slots, it has an old-west vibe.
During a jam-packed weekend, however, the festival transforms the town. Some 70 writers offer presentations in such places as the town library, the elementary school gymnasium, Deadwood City Hall and upstairs in the creaky-floor grand ballroom of the Martin & Mason Hotel (built in 1893). The festival also coordinates a series of programs in nearby schools and universities, all part of a busy few days in celebration of books and writing and reading. The words “books” and “festival” belong together, don’t you think?
William Kent Krueger was the star this year (Sept. 24—27). He was the keynote for RMFW Gold in 2014 and, of course, just as affable and easy-going in Deadwood as he was when he came to Denver. His book Ordinary Grace was the pick for the “One Book South Dakota” program. Kent was everywhere and was easily spotted every morning in a hotel alcove, writing away. On Saturday night, he was interviewed in front of a huge audience by South Dakota’s own Sandra Brannan. He stayed with writing his kinds of mysteries, followed his own path, and the work paid off. Ordinary Grace blew up.
I met Harold Johnson. He’s from La Ronge, Saskatchewan. That’s 1,200 miles straight north of Denver. He traps and hunts and lives off the land. He also has a Master of Law degree from Harvard (with no high school diploma). He served in the Canadian Navy and worked in mining and logging. He gave an interesting presentation on the power of story that challenged the notion of what’s real and what’s not. Fascinating. His latest book is Corvus, which “examines the illusions of security we build through technology and presents a scathing satire of a world caught up in climate change denial and the glorification of war.” Thoughtful guy, extremely likable. He smoked a pipe. His father was Swedish. His mother was Cree.
At the book signing area, I sat next to Garth Stein. Garth wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain after watching a Mongolian documentary about dogs and reading a poem by Billy Collins, “The Revenant.” The Art of Racing in the Rain was on the New York Times best-seller list for 156 weeks. That’s about three years. He sold precisely 1.2 bajillion books. Garth said he had no problem writing the follow-up book, based on a new idea. He’s a writer. Writers write. One really kind guy. He said when he started The Art it was different, but good. He had a hunch it would do well. So did his wife.
I met Ann Weisgarber, from Sugar Land, Texas. She’s friendly, easy-going, warm. She couldn’t interest any publisher in this country to put out her first novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. Then a publisher in England picked it up and she was short listed for England's 2009 Orange Prize and for the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. In the United States, she won the Stephen Turner Award for New Fiction and the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction. (Many other awards, too.) New York is now paying attention. So is Hollywood. Viola Davis optioned the book (JuVee Productions, her company). Ann Weisgarber—a picture of class. Take a minute. Go to her page. Check those wonderful reviews.
My panelmates at City Hall were Sandra Brannan (South Dakota’s own favorite crime writer) and Tom Bouman, whose Dry Bones in the Valley won the Edgar Prize for best first novel. It doesn’t get any bigger in mystery writing land for new writers. Tom read a passage he prepared—and transported us all to the early morning woods on a hunt in Pennsylvania. He concluded by pointing out there is no perfect story, no perfect book. And that’s why we love it—we get to keep writing. And trying. Kent Krueger sat in the audience for our panel and asked thoughtful questions. Ann Weisgarber, too. Sheesh.
On the first night of the festival, the organizers held a reception for authors at the nearby Opera House in Lead. (That’s “Lead” like “need” not “Lead” like the tip of your pencil). Fielding questions while sitting on stage, writers and poets talked about what inspired us to write. One long-haul truck driver (Rod Hoffer) said he wrote young adult stories for his grandkids. He said he wrote during the times when his trailer was being filled—or emptied. Writing was a passion. He smiled a lot.
Then Charles Shields pulled the pin on a stink bomb. He’s a biographer. He wrote a biography of Harper Lee some years back.
Here’s what he said—that he starts every project only after a clear evaluation of whether it will make money.
You could feel the room tense up.
William Kent Krueger rose in defense of those who write, you know, without money in mind.
Here’s the tail end of what Kent said:
“And I think that in the end it’s not going to matter whether you become rich and famous because you will have spent your life following your passion. But what I also believe is this—if you do that, eventually, you will discover the writer you were always meant to be and you will write the stories you were meant to write and the doors will open for you.”
Eloquent? Very. Listen:
Yeah, the applause was pretty strong. And music to my ears.
I’m sure Charles Shields is a nice guy too but I’ve never met a fiction writer who thought in those terms.
The minor controversy didn’t impact the terrific weekend. There were more writers to meet—Minnesota’s upbeat Faith Sullivan, Colorado’s own Pam Houston, South Dakota writing mentor Linda Hasselstrom, and California’s quite smart Ron Carlson (Five Skies, The Signal, Return to Oakpine, Ron Carlson Writes A Short Story; one of my favorite writers in the country).
And then Robert Plant showed up. I didn’t see him. He was there to see Kent Nerburn (13 books on spirituality and Native American themes). Robert Plant, yes, came to Kent’s panel.
(The Led Zeppelin cover band “In the Led” are due to play the same conference hotel on Oct. 16; wonder if Robert Plant spotted the poster in that hotel elevator! What would he think??)
I drove home not thinking about money. I drove home thinking about writers and all their many varied passions.
The South Dakota Festival of Books is one ultra-friendly conference that pulls in lots of talented writers.
Is there anything Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers doesn't do for its members (and all writers for that matter)? Not too much. One of the newest offerings is a series of podcasts that features a variety of professionals to entertain and enlighten all those who tune in. Hosted by Mark Stevens, the podcasts are another great way to meet RMFW members and Colorado Gold guests.
The link to the most recent podcast was posted just this week. Featuring two of the three finalists for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers of the Year, Susan Spann and Cindi Myers, the panel took place at the downtown Denver Tattered Cover in August. Tune in to hear these two authors discuss their writing lives and offer advice based on their own experiences. The third finalist, Joan Johnston, was unable to attend.
The podcast posted at the end of August featured long-time RMFW member and volunteer, Mario Acevedo. His focus was on the Sept. 5 workshop held in Grand Junction: "Everything You Need to Know About the Next RMFW Anthology."
Mario, who has agreed to step in as editor for the anthology, talks about the submission schedule and selection process and reveals the selected theme. In addition, Mario talks about writing short stories and about his ongoing series featuring vampire Felix Gomez. If you think you'll want to submit a story for consideration in the anthology, you might want to check out Mario's podcast.
The previous interview was with one of the Colorado Gold keynote speakers, erotic romance writer Desiree Holt. In this podcast, Desiree chatted about her six series of books, her daily writing schedule and a preview of the three classes she will be teaching at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference this weekend.
The podcast before that featured Aaron Michael Ritchey, a highly productive writer and frequent workshop presenter. He'll participate in three writing workshops at Colorado Gold Conference. He talks about his daily dedication to writing and the series he's producing for WordFire Press called The Juniper Wars. As he puts it, the series is "cowgirls with machine guns on a post-apocalyptic cattle drive." Aaron is the author of three books--The Never Prayer, Long Live the Suicide King and Elizabeth's Midnight. He is also the author of numerous collaborations and short stories, including a story in the upcoming Nightmares Unhinged, an anthology from Hex Publishers.
Do you hope the next book you write is everyone’s guilty pleasure?
Or do you want readers to stop and admire your prose stylings like a rare orchid?
Do you want your readers to enjoy the experience as if they were going to an amusement park?
Or a museum?
Do you want to give Lee Child a run for his money?
Or Karl Ove Knausgaard?
Or can you do both?
I’m fascinated by the line between “genre” and “literary.”
It’s an old fight. The Maginot Line has shifted over time, but not the arguments. There have always been literary snobs who look down their snouts at drivel from the “genre” hacks (who make millions).
And there have always been “genre” hacks who spurn dense tomes of navel-gazing as ponderous pieces of self-indulgence.
Can’t we all get along?
Is it possible to “upgrade” your techniques so you can reach audiences who yearn for some literary flair? Is it worth it? Necessary? A good idea?
Who says you need to upgrade and by the way, who decided it was an “upgrade”?
Should you just write your damn story and not care or worry about symbols, metaphors, alliteration or other literary devices?
Jack Kerouac said: “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.
”Elmore Leonard said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
Vladimir Nabokov said: “It seems to me that a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science. In order to bask in that magic a wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle even though we must keep a little aloof, a little detached when reading. Then with a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual we shall watch the artist build his castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”
Tom Clancy said: “I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”
Donald Barthelme said: “The combinatory agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”
P.D. James said: “The modern detective story has moved away from the earlier crudities and simplicities. Crime writers are as concerned as are other novelists with psychological truth and the moral ambiguities of human action.”
My pal Barry Wightman (Pepperland, a 1970’s rock n’ roll novel written with a savvy artfulness) will join me in wading into the chasm of this dispute during a workshop at Colorado Gold.
The workshop is called “From Pulp to Meta” (3:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11).
We put ourselves in this situation—“forced” to think about stories and characters and plots and craft.
The burden of it all; the agony!
The tortured artist at work--just look. Over there in the corner, writhing in pain. He's squirming in the corner in sheer horror, drowning in his own drool, recoiling at the thought of having to pound out one more precious sentence.
Did you listen to the recent RMFW podcast with Aaron Michael Ritchey? If you need a lift, check it out. You’ll hear a guy who a) produces at an impressive rate (he’s currently working on a six-book series, under contract) and b) embraces the work.
On the podcast, Ritchey recalls a key moment when he was complaining to fellow writer (and RMFW Colorado Gold Writing Contest chair) Chris Devlin about writing. And Devlin apparently told Ritchey how much she enjoyed it all, getting lost in her worlds and her characters.
That changed everything.
Ritchey decided then and there he didn’t want Devlin’s pity. “I forced myself to love writing,” he recalled.
Ritchey’s enthusiasm is infectious. I’m not saying you can wrap yourself in a cloak of enthusiasm and the books will come flying out, but starting with an upbeat thought or two about the writing day certainly couldn’t hurt.
A few days ago, I listened to Meg Wolitzer deliver a stand-up, no-notes story on “The Moth." (Yes, another podcast.) Wolitzer's storytelling style was so natural, unforced, easy-going (and funny) that I’ve got to dive into her novels. (Like my pile of books isn't tall enough.)
And this particular story, “Summer Camp,” concluded with a message similar to Ritchey’s: “The world is always trying to tell you what you’re not,” concludes Wolitzer. “And it’s up to you to say what you are,”
Funny, isn't it? How some times you run into the same message twice within the same couple of days.
You might have Ursula Le Guin or Patricia Highsmith or Ernest Hemingway in mind when you write something, but somehow it comes out on the page as, well, you.
Somewhere in all those choices of words, sentences, characters, images, plots, moods, dialogue, action sequences, big finishes, prologues and epilogues—no matter how much you might try to emulate another writer—you show up.
I was thinking about this recently when The New Yorker featured a podcast reading of “The Trouble With Mrs. Blynn, The Trouble With the World.” That’s a story by Patricia Highsmith (who happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers) and it was read by Yiyun Li.
The story is so simple—in a way. It’s about “Mrs. Palmer,” who is dying of leukemia in a seaside cottage in England. She is being tended to by a few people including a “Mrs. Blynn,” a nurse, who has a grating presence and inflicts various petty cruelties on her patient.
Not much happens. It’s true.
But yet—so much happens. Listen to the discussion between Yiyun Li and The New Yorker's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, and you realize how much subtext was going on around this cottage, where all the so-called “action” takes place. Instructive? To say the least.
It’s typical Highsmith. This was stuff she cared about, the needling insults and jagged edges between somewhat ordinary people. Her protagonists (Thomas Ripley, hello) are extremely flawed human beings. She crafted 20-plus novels and many dozens of short stories out of her fascination with warped humanity.
Earlier last week, I read a terrific story in The Guardian by Sam Jordison—“Creative Writing Lessons from Patricia Highsmith”—in which he looked at her guide, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. One of Jordison’s many keen insights is this: that the guide itself proves it’s “impossible to walk in Highsmith’s shoes.”
Yes, I dig Patricia Highsmith—but I couldn’t write like her even if the Valyrian greatsword Ice was making its way toward my tender little neck.
I ask: what’s up with that?
Put a hundred writers in a room, give them 40 specific plot points for a novel, the setting, eight major characters and ask them all to write in the style of a noir thriller.
What will you get?
You will get precisely 100 different novels in return.
The best writers, in my mind, have their own fingerprints on the page, a dab of their own soul—sometimes a whole lot more. But unless you are outright stealing a style or lifting ideas wholesale, you will leave your mark on the page. It's part of the process. It's why we write.
What’s my point?
As a writer, I like to remind myself—nobody can tell the story the way I’m going to tell the story.
It’s not even possible.
And to do a decent job telling it, I better have a good idea of what’s driving me to tell it.
Patricia Highsmith (from Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction): “There is no secret of success in writing except individuality, or call it personality. And since every person is different, it is only for the individual to express his difference from the next fellow. This is what I call the opening of the spirit. But it isn’t mystic. It is merely a kind of freedom—freedom organized. Plotting and Writing will not make anybody work harder. But it will, I hope, make people who want to write realize what is already within them.”
I’m turning this month’s blog over to Murph, The Asphalt Warrior.
Denver cab-driver and wanna-be-a-famous-writer Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. "Murph," has collected some of his favorite commentary on being an unpublished novelist. (What is below is just the tip of the iceberg of insights.)
I thought you could—relate. And maybe grab a laugh.
These quotes are from the first six novels by the late Gary Reilly that have been published to date – The Asphalt Warrior, Ticket to Hollywood, The Heart of Darkness Club, Home for the Holidays, Doctor Lovebeads and Dark Night of the Soul.
Murph #7, Pick Up At Union Station, launches Friday, June 19 at The Tattered Cover (2526 E. Colfax Ave.) at 7 PM.
(You are all invited.)
“I’m an unpublished novelist, but it’s been a long time since I haven’t published anything. I keep promising myself that I’ll sit down and start another unpublished novel one of these days, but if you know anything about unpublished writers then you probably know that the worst thing that can happen to one is to run headlong into a wall of free time. That’s when his bluff is called. That’s when he knows he has to get creative—and he does. You’ve never seen a writer get more creative than when he starts thinking up alibis for not writing. I’m as prolific as James Michener when it comes to excuses.”
“My brain is like the print-spooler on my word processor, which holds a failed novel long enough to print it out before it is deleted from the RAM and replaced by a rejection slip.”
"A writer can become obsessed with the peripheral rituals of writing—such as sharpening pencils or visiting the Grand Canyon—when he should be focused on the most important part of writing, which is leafing through Writers Market and making lists of agents who don’t charge reading fees.”
“I started thinking about writing a book called Face the Music, Chump. It would be a gut-wrenching tale of rejection slips. I wondered if there was a place where a guy like me could get rid of the craving to scribble. Some kind of Writers Anonymous, although most writers are anonymous. A place where human wreckage with Smith-Coronas could gather to cure themselves of hanging around office supply stores while their kids starved. I needed a 12-step program and I needed it bad. Step #1: admit you have a plotting problem.”
“With a novel, you have to do an outline first and then write the book, but with a screenplay you just knock out the outline and sell it. I don’t know why the publishers in New York don’t take a tip from Hollywood and just publish the outlines of novels rather than the completed books. Let the audience use their imaginations, as my Maw always says about radio. I would much prefer to read an outline of War and Peace than slog through eight hundred thousand words. Why do I need Tolstoy to describe snow? I can imagine snow, whether Russian snow or just regular snow. But book publishers seem to think that the authors should do all the work, and the readers should be waited on hand-and-foot like a buncha goddamn prima donnas.”
“I have some bookshelves in my apartment that are built out of old novel manuscripts. The rest are brick and plank, the way hippies and broke people do it. I’ve written a lot of novels since I was in college, but I use only manuscripts that have absolutely no hope of ever being published to build the bookshelves. I use them in place of the bricks. Admittedly bookshelves made out of paper are not the most structurally sound things on earth, but neither are my novels.”
“The desire to write is one of the few desires I possess that doesn’t overwhelm me in the way that the desire to drink beer or smoke cigars does. Or watch TV. Or date. Or sleep till noon. I’m not that good at resisting desires, but for some reason I’m able to fend off my desire to write. Sounds inconsistent if not completely illogical I know, but there you have it.”
“A lot of artists start out as failed poets, then move on to being failed short-story writers before they finally break through to the big time and become failed novelists. If they’re like me, they branch out to become failed screenwriters. A few take the high road and become failed playwrights, but most just stick with being failed novelists because the potential to not make lots of money is greater.”
“I was afraid that if I went ahead and wrote a Western, I would be dipping into the realm of what my creative writing teachers called ‘formula fiction.’ I hated the idea of becoming a formula fiction writer. What if I got the formula wrong? Think of how embarrassing it would be if I tried to become a formula fiction writer and found out I didn’t have the talent to sink that low?”
We interrupt this blog's regular programming, writing advice, inspirations and musings to bring you this commercial announcement:
RMFW has a new podcast.
As this post goes up, ‘The Rocky Mountain Writer’ should be finding its way to your favorite podcast provider, including iTunes. It's also posted from the home page at rmfw.org.
The first episode features an interview with Shannon Baker (current Writer of the Year) about her fabulous new book contract. It also includes an interview with Charles Senseman about his tips regarding how to claw your way through the painful process of writing the dreaded synopsis (he will help you back away from the ledge). And, finally, conference “goddess” Suzie Brooks give us a rundown of what’s coming up at the Colorado Gold Conference in September.
The second episode will be available within two weeks and includes an interview with Chris Devlin about the Colorado Gold contest (entries are due June 1!) and a chat with Susan Spann about writing across-gender.
So—subscribe today and spread the word.
Please note—this is a work in progress. I’ve already learned a few things about sound recording and editing that will help in the overall sound quality come Episode #3.
How can you help?
For starters, feel free to contact me with suggestions. This is designed to showcase RMFW members, events, activities, you name it. The podcast world is rich and active, particularly among writers and readers. There are more than 100,000 podcasts being produced today, but only a handful that are truly knock-out when it comes to learning the craft of writing and learning more about the business. (Here’s one list, however, if you’re looking for some ideas.)
The success of the podcast will depend on the quality of the ideas and voices involved. My preference is to use the podcast to promote and highlight upcoming RMFW events and to interview authors with genuine advice and ideas for others—at any level of experience. It’s a fast-changing world out there (I don’t need to tell any of you about that) and the podcast can help listeners keep up.
One feature I’d like to start is a conversation between a beginning writer and someone with more experience—an “ask a pro” segment. If you have a question you’d like to discuss (whether it’s writing style, something technical, a plot problem, any situation you might be in with your career) drop me a line and I’ll find someone to jump on the telephone for a conference call. Then, we’ll record a conversation about the issue—and hear some suggested ideas for how to fix it.
Just a thought.
Perhaps you have your own ideas for the effort; I’d love to hear them.
This is “our” podcast. Over time, I think it will shine like everything else RMFW takes on—the conference, the newsletter, the critique groups, the monthly meetings. On and on.
Is it possible to write a 100,000-word novel that is devoid of clichés?
Completely scrubbed free of all tired descriptions, predictable scenes, over-used descriptions, seen-them-all-before characters?
A panel* on clichés at Left Coast Crime last month in Portland sparked my thinking.
First, check this out:
The word cliché is drawn from the French. (My source is Wikipedia; there are several versions of this.)
In printing, "cliché" was the sound made by a printing plate—one cast from movable type—when it was used. This printing plate is called a … wait for it …
When letters were set one at a time, it made sense to cast a phrase used repeatedly, as a single slug of metal. Thus, “cliché” came to mean such a ready-made phrase.
Cliché—ready-made. Too easy. Banal, commonplace, shop-worn, old-hat, hackneyed.
Sound like a novel you want to read?
A side note, also from Wikipedia: Most phrases now considered cliché originally were regarded as striking, but have lost their force and impact through overuse. The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said "The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”
OK, imbeciles, join me over here in the land of predictability and tell me: how do you avoid them? How do you avoid the ready-made crap?
These were a few cited by the Left Coast Crime panel:
The sassy Latina detective, say. Or staging a high-speed chase in the city (and no cops follow or give chase as well). The “slight” gunshot wound in the shoulder, yet our hero carries on. Isn’t a ticking clock, the device itself, a cliché?
Here’s one I can’t stand: the bad guy manages to bring a knife a few millimeters from our hero’s eyeballs, yet the hero’s resistance is j-u-s-t enough to hold it off. Ack!
There are cliché scenes, cliché gestures, cliché sayings, cliché lines of dialogue, too. "Cover me, I'm going in!" "Is this some kind of sick joke?"
How do you keep the writing fresh, original?
Fill in the blank. As tough as _____. As cool as a _____.
I mean, 100,000 words—all those characters, all those scenes and all that prose: how do you make sure it’s all original? Fresh?
And, should it be?
Wouldn’t that be exhausting? Can an entire cast of characters in a well-populated novel, every bit of description and every line of dialogue … be original?
Martin Amis thinks so: “All writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.”
So there’s a standard for you.
Worth shooting for?
* The LCC panel was The Taste of Copper and the Smell of Cordite: Clichés in Crime Fiction. Panelists included David Corbett, Lisa Alber, Blake Crouch, Bill Fitzhugh and James Ziskin.
The first was from a story in The New Yorker about new research into the positive effects of psychedelic drugs—psilocybin in particular.
The second was a line uttered by Alexandra Fuller during a podcast of her Tattered Cover presentation for her new memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come.
Combined, the two comments got me stewing over inertia, anesthesia, deadness, stasis, status quo, acceptance, monotony, stability, order, constancy and all those other awful traits which are the bane of good fiction and the certainly mean the beginning of a long slow death for a good character.
Okay, let me back up a tad.
In the New Yorker story called “The Trip Treatment,” author Michael Pollan (author of many fine books about food, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma) dropped the following little bomb:
Most psychologists believe that your personality is “fixed” by age thirty “and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change.”
One of the cool side effects that scientists are studying is the ability of hallucinogens to alter thought patterns—and personality—not only during the “trip” but after as well. Addictions are being eliminated, for instance, and attitudes permanently altered through “psychedelic therapy.”
My mind was blown—these are researchers at top-flight institutions like N.Y.U. and John Hopkins looking into treating patients and improving the quality of life through a properly dosed trip. In the instruction manual for those taking psychedelic trips as part of the research, they are encouraged to face their monsters. Isn’t that the basis of most great fiction? (It’s a great article.)
Okay, hold that thought for a second but, if you’re over 30 years old, do you think your character is “fixed?” Do you think the personality of your characters, if they are over 30 years old, is locked in place? Are they really facing their monsters?
Next, Alexandra Fuller’s speech at The Tattered Cover attacked—and I do mean attacked—how men have generally screwed up the world and it’s time for the male of the species to step aside and give women a shot. Can’t be much worse, can it?
This was one of many themes in a powerful talk about identity and self and women finding true, unadorned freedom.
Fuller is a force. She’s feisty, forward and, from what I gather, fearless. (Must now read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)
Anyway, Fuller talked a lot about society growing comfortable and complacent and encouraged everyone listening to get down to their “absolute bedrock of self” and understand what voices are running their lives. Her message was aimed particularly at women, almost kind of a “rise up out of your chairs” speech from the movie “Network.” She invoked Franz Kafka’s rejoinder that it’s a writer’s duty to take an axe to the “frozen sea” inside us.
Here’s one nugget from Fuller: “If someone else is in possession of your mind, then you’re not in possession of your voice.”
And, back to the magazine story about psychedelic study, another researcher noted how we all pay a “steep price” for the order and ego in the adult mind. Adults, he said, give up their “ability to be open to surprises, our ability to think flexibly, and our ability to value nature.”
Writes Pollan: “The sovereign ego can be a despot.”
I’m not here with answers.
I’m not here with “ta da.”
I’m just here to wonder about my characters and how to give them a good jolt.
If they aren’t challenging the voices in their heads, the voices running their lives, then they are slouching and slipping toward anesthesia.
And that’s not a recipe for powerful stories.
So I’ve got to figure out a way to have them face their monsters, grab the axe and whack the frozen sea.