The Naked Truth about Literature and Life
A cop, a Brit, a deb, a B-school grad, a guy with good hair, and a wisecracking lawyer wrestle with the naked truth about literature and life.
Saturday, April 19, 2014
Thursday, April 17, 2014
My thanks to Kat Carlson for pinch-hitting for me last week. In the coming weeks I have an impressive array of authors who will be contributing their viewpoints to the blog.
Today I want to start a multi-day discussion on dialogue. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of a modern novel. Of course I wanted to say modern "crime novel," but that's just my personal preference. I've published science fiction as well as crime novels, but I read everything. And I mean all different genres; from literary novels about feuding farming families in the Midwest to historical fiction about Rome. And I am here to tell you there is almost nothing harder than writing good dialogue and nothing that will sink a novel faster than bad dialogue. It doesn't matter if the novel is set in the 1920s or around the birth of Christ, in the South or in South Boston. The choices you make when writing dialogue will affect all aspects of the reader’s experience. I'm not trying to freak you out, but this is the nuclear arms race of writing. There is very little that's more important. Except college football.
Dialogue is one of the clearest and most direct ways to express your character. Even internal dialogue can let the reader know how smart, how funny or how sincere any particular character may be. It's fun to read funny dialogue spoken by characters who remain cool under pressure and can come up with great one-liners, but it is just as important to read dialogue that expresses sorrow or concern in a way that lets readers know the gravity of the situation and the depth of the character’s compassion. The word choices that a character makes in the story should have no reflection on you, as the writer. If you limit yourself to having everyone speak the same way you do, I can almost guarantee you've written a boring novel. The dialogue comes from the character’s background, not yours!
If you're writing a novel about the Ku Klux Klan and other modern racist organizations you should use words that are not generally accepted and I hope you don't use in real life. I had several long discussions with the late Elmore Leonard about the use of various slang for African Americans. He used them as a pointer to the hardest of the hard-edged characters. No one could ever call Dutch Leonard a racist. Eventually, I did use the worst of those words as a way to delineate just how bad the bad guys in my stories really were. I only met one person who ever considered it racist to put it in the novel. No matter how I tried to explain that it clearly had nothing to do with my beliefs, he said the use of such words in any form was racist. He may have a point, but I disagree. I don't think a writer should be censured for trying to make a story realistic and characters true to their background. It's a touchy subject and one you should address on an individual basis, but you can't be scared of it. My first agent once told me, "You can't write a book that you picture your grandmother reading." That is an excellent bit of advice.
Another man, who, after reading Walking Money, suggested that conversations around my house must be spicy with all the salty language. He seemed truly disillusioned when I told him that I rarely used foul language in real life and that that was just one particular character who would string together the most inappropriate and dirty words. In truth, even during the height of my law enforcement career, I ran across real-life people who said disgusting things. And I made it a point not to speak like that, certainly not around my wife and children. But sometimes people can't separate the character from the author. Break out of your comfort zone. Have your characters say things you would never dream of saying. We have a whole lot more to cover on this subject, but since the Miami Heat's final game starts in a few minutes and I do, at some point, have to continue writing novels in order to keep my house and my wife, I'm going to bring this discussion to an end.
But we will continue the discussion over at least the next week and perhaps two. There are so many aspects to writing dialogue that some of them just happen without thinking about it. How do you feel about reading uncomfortable language in a book? Does it sweep you up in the realism of the story? Or does it turn you off? I have very successful author friends who do not use certain words even in their hard-boiled detective novels. This comes back to the first major point of this series of blogs. When writing a novel, it’s up to you how you write it.
Today's quotes are:
“Be daring, take on anything. Don’t labor over little cameo works in which every word is to be perfect. Technique holds a reader from sentence to sentence, but only content will stay in his mind.” ―Joyce Carol Oates
"I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation." —Tom Stoppard
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The Washington Post cleaned up when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday. The newspaper won both the "public service" award and the "explanatory journalism" medal. The latter was for a series detailing the challenges faced by people on food stamps. The former was far more controversial. Shared with the Guardian, the Post won the Pulitzer for its revelation, examination, and explanation of National Security Agency documents STOLEN by Edward Snowden. (I prefer the word "stolen" to "leaked" or "disclosed.")
The Post says it had a team of 28 journalists working the story; I was happy to learn there's still a newsroom in America that has more than two dozen reporters and editors. But I'm not happy with the Pulitzer and the reflected glory it shines on Edward Snowden, that fleeing felon now protected by that great defender of liberty, Vladimir Putin.
I express my views in detail on this subject on MY OTHER BLOG, today entitled: "Pulitzer Prizes 2014: Snowden Gets the Last Laugh."
As for the Washington Post, I find some irony in a story it published a few days ago, essentially pointing out the flaws in the Pulitzer Prizes. The story was entitled "Five Myths About the Pulitzer Prize" and asserted:
1. The Pulitzers don't honor the best in American journalism. Magazines, for example, are excluded.
2. Small news outlets don't have much of a chance.
3. Some newspapers chase prizes at a "disservice to readers." Frankly, I don't agree with that. "Chasing" Pulitzer Prizes generally means spending significant resources on major projects that serve readers.
4. The Pulitzer Prizes are stuck in the 20th Century. That may have been true, but last year, the tiny on-line publication InsideClimate News won the award for national reporting for its "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil."
InsideClimate News beat the other finalists, heavyweights Boston Globe and Washington Post, to win the award. (I suppose the medallion could be updated. It still shows a man hard at work on a 19th Century printing press, but isn't that part of the charm?)
The complete list of the 2014 Pulitzers, from the History award for Alan Taylor's “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832," to Poetry, Vijay Seshadri's "3 Sections," can be found here.
Monday, April 14, 2014
I have been in one writers critique group or another for the better part of twenty years, long before a publisher bought my first novel. Some writers feel comfortable sending a first draft to their editors. In fact, some editors prefer that. My editor always got the best, most polished book I was capable of writing because I would have been embarrassed to do otherwise.
Critique groups are not for everybody, but I can’t imagine writing without one. Some groups had strict rules about the number of pages you could read, the time allotted and the way others were allowed to critique. In one group, critiquers could only say what they wanted more of or less of in the pages read. No one was allowed to “pile on” to another member’s negative comments. In some groups the comments were given in an orderly manner, traveling from one person to the next in the circle. Some were free for alls. In some groups, the writer read their pages. In others, each group member read the pages silently so the voice of the reader did not influence the written words. The lessons I learned from each group are essential to my life as a writer.
Group 1: This band of merry wannabes formed in 1992 after taking a class at UCLA Extension called “How to Write a Credible Sex Scene.” None of us had been in a group before. None of us were published. In fact, none of us had ever written much of anything. Our meetings were madcap free for alls. When the group dissolved, I realized:
Group 2: Before I joined, the group had hired a published horror author for the month to teach us the craft of writing. I left when he told me I shouldn’t be writing mysteries because so many others had done it better than I ever would. I learned:
Group 3: A well-known writer and teacher led the group. The members were talented writers (far better than I was) as well as students of literature. Every time I got feedback I felt as if I’d just had a masters class in writing. In the next nine years, I wrote two novels and part of a third and learned volumes about the craft of writing and the writer’s life. By the time the group disbanded, I had forged lifelong friendships and learned:
Group 4: A published writer and teacher led this group by a strict code of conduct. All of the members were talented writers who had been in the group for many years. I dropped out when, for the third time, I arrived at the meeting place only to discover they had changed the venue without telling me. The lesson:
Group 5: For a while I feared I’d never find another critique group. Then, by some stroke of dumb luck, I found this group, or maybe it found me. Most members are successful screen and TV writers, which gives me a whole new prospective on structure. Some have also written newspaper and magazine articles, short stories, novels and non-fiction books. They are talented, wise, supportive and funny people. Lesson learned:
Friday, April 11, 2014
But he also took these photographs:
Last year I went to another exhibition – the work of famed photographer (and costume designer), Cecil Beaton. He was known for photographs like this - oh, and he also designed the costume:
That's doing things the other way around - giving color and texture to a character from the page. Here's another of his photographs:
He also took this photograph. How would you describe the men in that bomber? Can you see tension? Can you tell their ages?
This one is a favorite:
Thursday, April 10, 2014
See, my plans to hit the Times list writing Sassy, Sexy Fiction with No Literary Pretensions have backfired so far. I intended to laugh all the way to the bank (which is now laughing at me) with the added benefit of pissing off my aforementioned dead mother, who was a very lofty literary critic and scholar. (Mummy, I do hope there’s good Scotch up there. I know you’ve had to pour yourself some stiff ones ‘cuz of me.)
I mention my own terror not because it in any way trumps yours . . . I say it because it is so very normal to be afraid. As I mentioned, you should be afraid. The question is how you perceive that fear and what you do with it.
Tuesday, April 08, 2014
Last night, you might have watched the University of Connecticut's basketball team defeat Kentucky for the NCAA championship. Men's championship, that is.
Tonight the Connecticut women take on Notre Dame in the women's finals. Two undefeated powerhouses, well-coached teams of immense talent, meeting at last.
So far, so good.
Collegiate women's basketball has been getting far more news coverage than in the past. It's a quality product played by dedicated athletes. Yesterday's New York Times had a major profile of Connecticut's charismatic center, Stefanie Dolson, pictured here.
The story described how the determined young woman lost weight to get in better shape. Here's the piece: "UConn's Center Adds Fitness to Her Ebullience."
The article reported that Dolson, as many sports fans know, is six feet, five inches tall. So, I wondered, reading the article: Just what did Dolson weigh previously and what does she weigh now? The story, by veteran sportswriter Jere Longman didn't say! (Longman merely reported that Dolson "lost 15 pounds and gained stamina and lean muscle."
Is that sexism, reverse sexism, political correctness, or just bad journalism?
Any time Shaquille O'Neal or Charles Barkley gained or lost a few pounds, it was big news, with all the stats included. (O'Neal hovered around 325 pounds, the much shorter Barkley played at about 250 pounds, then gained and lost enormous amounts of weight after retiring).
If I were really interested in Ms. Dolson's weight -- which, I'm not, it's the damn principle -- I could go onto UConn's official website. After all, the championship men's team is listed by height AND WEIGHT.
What do you make of this?