Year of Mysteries, Part 8: The Last Place

Woops. I just realized the title of this series changed from “Year of Mystery Novels” to “Year of Mysteries” at Part 5. Sorry. I try to keep this consistent for searching purposes.

The main point of this series was to examine the mystery novel genre. There are people that read a few a week. There’s something about the genre that keeps people coming back.

I feel like my book choices to this point have basically avoided the “typical mystery.” Pretty much every book in this series is considered a “classic” or has been award winning. In other words, there’s nothing typical about them. Hundreds of new mystery novels come out every month, satisfying readers of the genre without the fancy prose of award-winners.

I went to my local used book store and went to the mystery section. I wanted to pick something at random to get a better feel for what a generic, contemporary mystery novel felt like.

This was a bit hard. The first few I picked up were classified as “suspense thrillers.” I wasn’t opposed to this, but I also couldn’t tell if there was an actual mystery from the back cover. I finally grabbed The Last Place by Laura Lippman.

It was by a bestselling and award-winning author, but this particular novel hadn’t won awards. This made it the perfect candidate.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the seventh book in the Tess Monaghan series, even though nowhere on or in the book told me this.

I read it anyway.

The novel definitely references some stuff from previous books, but it is perfectly readable as a standalone. I assume this is one of those slow character growth things that happens over multiple books.

Tess is the main character, and she is a private investigator. She has anger management issues and basically messes up a child molester. So she gets assigned a community service project by the courts and has to investigate a police department. She checks up on five unrelated murders to make sure they followed procedure, etc.

As it goes on, she finds out that all five have major issues and are unresolved and are possibly related.

The first thing I noticed was the solid prose style. I often read literary stuff, which tends to be fancy. I also read fantasy, which tends to be wordy. This book had that pristine, clean style that I tend to call “bestseller” style.

I can’t go into all the details here, but it just means few adverbs, active voice, just enough description, pared down sentences, etc. It really makes the book come alive fast in your mind without any excess thinking or confusing sentences.

This brings up the next point. This was a page-turner through and through. I also can’t remember the last time I read something like that. I’d say it’s almost too polished. If you’ve studied plotting and structure, you can see how each scene is crafted to raise the stakes and complicate the plot just enough to push you along.

One thing I think this book did better than any of the other mysteries was to provide a lot of red herrings. At one point, the investigators discuss the possibility that the male killer could actually be a female. They go into depth on how this could be pulled off, despite being married, by referencing Boys Don’t Cry.

I found myself thinking: what? No way! Wait, but maybe. 

It was never meant to be taken all that seriously, but little things like this added up to keeping me unsettled. Whenever I thought maybe I was getting a handle on things, something would come up to remind me that I just didn’t have enough information yet.

I was thinking about characterization, since I recently wrote a post on it. One character has a quirky “thing” they do. This is often one of those cheap techniques that give readers a false sense of depth.

He’s really into movie quotes and says them all the time. Each time it happens, you think, oh yeah, that’s the guy that does the quote thing. This made the character more into a caricature than a fully fleshed out character.

Overall, this was a fast and enjoyable read. I definitely understand why people tear through these at the rate of a couple a week.

If you’re following along, I really only have one book left on my list: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I’ve been avoiding it, because I’ve heard it has a beastly beginning that’s almost impossible to suffer through. We’ll see…

 

Advertisements

Less is Awesome

I’m abandoning the embarrassment of having a “…is awesome” set of posts. If I find awesome stuff, I want to share it.

Less is a novel by Andrew Sean Greer, and it won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I’ve been steering clear of prizewinners over the past few years, because the politics of who wins what prize is a bit nauseating.

Eventually, I saw enough good comments by enough people I trust to give it a try. Wow, I’m glad I did. It’s funny, has a unique and strong voice, clever and insightful descriptions, and somehow manages to be tragic and heartwarming at the same time.

It’s awesome!

I want to address the elephant in the room first. Most of the negative reviews (and they have a lot of upvotes) demonstrate a clear failing of the modern education system. Here are some actual verbatim quotes:

I also found Less such a privileged, oblivious character. He is tall, attractive, white, able-bodied, and can afford to travel. His privilege is not examined in any interesting or meaningful way.

It’s heavy and dull with this self absorbed white man mourning his youth…There’s nothing wrong with his life at all except for the fact that he’s way too self-absorbed and does next to nothing for anyone besides himself.

He is literally mid-life, 30 years down and roughly 30 to go. Somehow this is a burden to him, living his privileged, tall, handsome white guy life surrounded by men who really like kissing him. Oh, poor thing.

There seems to be a modern trend to think that one cannot have sympathy or empathy for a main character that is white, male, and “able-bodied.” I feel sorry for these readers, because this lack of empathy on their part shows way more about them than the novel itself.

The whole point of a novel is to learn to see through the main character’s eyes, and understand why they think their problems are real. Someone that has actually read the book should understand that Less has struggles and problems.

Why is Less so preoccupied with being fifty? This seems to be a mystery to a large number of reviewers. It seems trivial to them (I mean, he still has 30 great years left, don’t you know!). Let’s see if the text of the novel gives us a clue:

Arthur Less is the first homosexual ever to grow old…He has never seen another gay man age past fifty, none except Robert. He met them all at forty or so but never saw them make it much beyond; they died of AIDS, that generation. Less’ generation often feels like the first to explore the land beyond fifty.

So, dear reader of this blog: can you come up with any reason, any reason at all, why Less might see turning fifty as a monumental point of his life? Take some time. It’s hard to understand why any privileged white man would see any aspect of his life as difficult or challenging.

I think Millennials and iGen have no conception of history. They think that whatever is happening right now is exactly how it’s always been.

As a gay man, I’ll admit that right now is pretty great. But to think Less has had no struggle in his life is to forget a tragic part of history. Less spent most of his youth thinking he’d never grow old, losing all his friends to a horrific epidemic, and then feeling guilty for surviving it.

The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.

(Note how different this is than “can afford to travel.” He’s not taking a leisure trip. These are work trips paid for by the events, not the main character).

If you read this book and think: why’s he even upset? At least he’s not being shot by cops. At least his boss didn’t sexually harass him. He’s a white man with no problems. 

Well, then you’re pretty hopeless, and maybe reading books isn’t the best idea until you work some of that out with a therapist. No one is saying his problems are worse than someone else’s. Just because it’s not a talking point of the day, doesn’t mean it’s not important to the character.

The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history. Hopefully we don’t lose these themes merely because a generation of critics view the only worthwhile topics to be what they saw on Vox that day.

Sorry to spend so long on this, but as someone who writes books, I find this growing movement very concerning.

So, what’s so awesome about Less?

A lot came up in that rant already, but one of the greatest parts is how brilliant the descriptions are.

His slim shadow is, in fact, still that of his younger self, but at nearly fifty he is like those bronze statues in public parks that, despite one lucky knee rubbed raw by schoolchildren, discolor beautifully until they match the trees.

If such a sentence occurred in a vacuum of otherwise banal prose, I’d say cut it; it would be too much.

But this voice and style abound throughout the novel and stays quite consistent. The result is a flurry of original images and similes and metaphors that always bring the right emotional resonance to the scene.

Greer has a talent for “breaking the rules” in impeccable ways for a powerful reading experience. I think all writers should read this for examples on how to do description and prose style well.

The Character/Caricature Balance

Image result for caricature

One of the most important things we can do as writers is to acknowledge our weaknesses and then work on them. I think too often we get comfortable with “our thing” and then try to hide our weaknesses by going all in on our strength.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time over the past five years or so really studying and working on prose style and story structure. I write a book according to something like the Story Grid method. Then I see what works and what doesn’t for me, and then move on to another technique like John Truby‘s method. Iterating this process a dozen times has brought me a rich understanding of structure.

I think there’s no doubt that characterization is my weakest point. I’ve had a philosophy for a long time that characters should be “real.” This means my characters often act in contradictory or paradoxical ways. They have subtle and complicated reasons for doing things that only come out in subtext.

You might be thinking: wow, that sounds great! But then you actually read it and every character sounds the same and has no interesting characteristics. I tend to write an “everyman,” and they all sound boring and similar.

This is especially problematic in fantasy writing. There is a general trend in fantasy to create caricatures instead of characters. This means one feature is exaggerated to the point of becoming a one-dimensional defining feature. These flat characters can be boring and predictable.

For example, a book might have one character’s defining trait as loyalty, the bad guy as greed, the sidekick as humor, etc. I don’t have to tell you why this is a bad thing, but I will make an argument for how it can be good if done properly.

When writing caricatures, it is very clear how the character changes over the course of a novel. The one subplot has the cowardly character, and they have to learn to be braver. Their arc will culminate in a test of bravery, and yay, they succeed! It’s exhilarating and emotional to read these things.

Another reason caricatures can be good is that they create very clear differences in stories with many characters. It’s easy to keep track: that one’s the trickster, that one’s the nerdy one, etc.

Unfortunately, I see a bunch of positive reviews of books that take this too far with claims like “I loved the variety of characters.” Or worse, that the characterization is great. Caricatures can create an illusion of depth by keeping the motivations clear and consistent.

As I’ve started exaggerating certain traits of my characters toward the caricature breaking point, I’ve seen reviews get more and more positive. So people obviously like this.

I’m still struggling with this balance. It’s bad to have no defining traits, because then the character will be boring and spastic. It’s bad to be all caricature, even if you trick some of your audience. So it’s a balance, and one that’s far trickier than I initially thought.

So far, the best method I’ve come across is to have a fleshed out backstory that is the cause of a character flaw. The flaw gives the character a clear sense of growth as they learn to overcome the flaw.

Then, if you use the backstory to inform character actions, the character will have a consistent demeanor without being focused on a single trait. This will allow the character to still have some unpredictable behavior, and since the backstory isn’t explicitly spelled out, it allows you to keep some of the motivation as subtext.

This balance brings out some of the positives of the caricature while maintaining the depth and richness of a true character.

Of course, the main thing I’ve learned over the years is that everyone seems to have a different method for everything. What one person thinks is the only method could not work at all for another person. That’s why I’ll keep reading and exploring to find my own way.

 

Why It Works: You’ve Got Mail

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

When I came up with the idea to do a romance for this series, I was tempted to pick a modern romance novel, but thousands come out each year. Even looking at some “best of” lists, I couldn’t find anything I thought most people would have read. I was then tempted to do the classic Pride and Prejudice. But there’s already a lot of writing on that book. So unfortunately, I’m back to a movie.

There’s obviously a lot of pieces that make a romance work. Chemistry between the love interests keeps the story moving. There’s usual a conflict to keep them apart. And so on.

But really, there’s only one thing that has to be done properly in a romance: the proof of love. One character, traditionally the man (though this has obviously changed in the last few decades with m/m or f/f or role reversal setups, etc), must demonstrate convincingly how much they love the other character through a true sacrifice.

The more the character sacrifices to show this, the more emotional charge the scene will have. It’s why people cry when watching or reading romances. The main way romances fail is that all the other pieces are disconnected from the proof of love. The chemistry and characterization and conflict should all develop toward this ending payoff.

This is why writing a good romance is harder than most people think. If you just plug into the formula, it will feel formulaic, and the characters will feel like one-dimensional tropes fixated on the one defining feature that makes the end work.

If you somehow haven’t seen it, here’s a brief summary of You’ve Got Mail (obviously including the ending). Kathleen owns a small bookshop focused on customers and reading to children and things like that. Joe owns a mega bookstore, portrayed as a profit-focused heartless entity. The mega bookstore is going to put the small one out of business.

The movie is a sequence of bad interactions between these characters in real life. This puts the movie in the romance subgenre of “enemies to lovers.” The chemistry comes from the friction and conflict. The two characters accidentally hit it off online under anonymous screen names.

From the premise alone, we already know how the movie must end. Kathleen will have to demonstrate a proof of love by overcoming the real life prejudice she has against Joe for the person he is inside that she’s come to love through the online correspondence. I know, it’s very Pride and Prejudice, and the movie even makes this Kathleen’s favorite book to spell out the connection.

So why does the movie work? Every scene contributes something to the proof of love payoff. The real life conflict ratchets up each time they meet. Writers who don’t keep their eye on the ending can accidentally let the characters start to fall in love outside of the email exchanges. This would totally spoil the ending.

Some might say this is the difference between a “love story” and a “romance.” A great romance doesn’t let up on whatever has to be sacrificed until the proof of love. Many lesser romances would just have the characters run into each others arms as if nothing was going on under the surface for the ending.

Meg Ryan understands the character, and she actually cries in the final scene. There’s a ton going on internally that she has to show for the proof of love. This is the man she hates, but she also loves him. She has to overcome that, and just running into each other’s arms would trivialize the built up tension of the movie. For the briefest moment, we, as the audience, should believe there’s a chance she’ll just slap him for lying and walk away.

Once you come to understand this technique, it can be quite fun to read well-done romances. They are almost like little puzzles. You can look for all the ways the writer drops hints about the proof of love scene. It’s also an effective technique to use, even if the romance subplot of your fantasy novel is minimal.

Why It Works: Primer

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Time travel sucks as a genre. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the whole genre.

Everyone knows about the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he conceives with your grandmother, there would be no you to go back in time and kill him.

But many people misinterpret the paradox as being about specific inconsistencies you can trace, when in fact it’s more of a chaos theory issue: the tiniest change of the past could radically change the “present” in unforeseeable ways.

This could happen if the person goes to the past and doesn’t even physically interact with anyone. Merely being seen by a person could alter their day, which leads to change after change after change…

Pretty much every book or movie I’ve seen with time travel has been terrible. It either ignores this problem, has the problem but tries to explain it in an unsatisfactory way, or it succeeds in explaining it but destroys the story in the process.

I honestly believe no one should ever write a time travel story, because it’s going to be a disaster no matter how hard you try. It’s not worth the effort. If I ran an SF magazine, my first rule of submissions would be: no time travel stories (rule 2 would be: no first-contact stories).

But then we wouldn’t have Primer, which actually kind of works. Let’s look at why.

The first thing is that when the main characters go back in time, it’s accidental. This is very important in not creating a causal loop. If your character has to go back in time to change something to save the world, then when they succeed, there will be no reason for them to go back. Hence, the paradoxical loop. Making the initial travel accidental is an interesting way to solve that problem.

The second thing is the physicality. There’s something strange about old-school time travel (think The Time Machine), where a person and/or machine materializes out of nowhere in the past. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you think about it a lot. If the machine wasn’t there in the past, what does it mean that it suddenly is? This is a much deeper philosophical issue than people give it credit for.

Primer brilliantly fixes this problem by making the machine a box that you have to turn on at the time you want to travel back to. So if you turn on the box right now, you can’t use it to travel back before that time. You get in the box at the future time and travel back without running into the physicality problem. You are physically in the box the whole time you’re traveling back.

Primer also solves the problem of interacting with the world by isolating themselves so that they only interact with the world once. This means they aren’t changing the past. They’re living it out for the first time the time they travel back.

But here’s the most important reason Primer succeeds. It is way too confusing to ever know if they’ve run into a paradox. It succeeds because there’s always more to figure out on subsequent viewings.

This sounds like cheating: make your story so confusing that no one knows if there’s a problem. It sounds like bad writing.

But let’s put it in comparison to every other time travel story where it’s immediately obvious that it all falls apart for philosophical and paradoxical reasons. I’d rather be left with the fun journey of trying to piece it together than a pile of unsatisfying nonsense.

If you’ve read a book that handles time travel well, I’d like to hear about it. Despite being a pet peeve of mine, I still masochistically seek them out in hopes of being proved wrong someday.

Free Book on Style

If you’ve been coming here awhile, then you’re probably somewhat interested in prose style. I’ve turned some of my blog posts and personal notes from the past ten years of doing this into a short (Kindle) e-book. They’ve been edited and expanded with examples, so nothing should be an exact replica of what you’ve read here.

It’s not meant to be anything grand. The final result came out to be twenty-one rules. The unique twist from some of the other books that do this is that I’ve focused on what I see to be the most common self-publishing mistakes.

I’m giving it away for free for five days. It will only be $0.99 after that. The goal is to help people!

Sound Like - High Resolution

Do you write self-published novels?

Can you hear the difference between a self-published novel and a traditional bestseller?

No? Then this book is for you, because your readers will feel the difference.

This short book will give you a set of easy to apply rules to improve the sound of your writing.

Get it here.

The Prose of J.K. Rowling

I hate to be one of those people. But I can’t help it. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always said that J.K. Rowling isn’t that great of a writer. I hope she’s humble enough to admit that her fame is mostly luck.

She wrote a story that resonated with the zeitgeist at exactly the right time, and that has very little to do with writing quality or marketing skills or anything under one’s control (if you disagree, consider Fifty Shades of Gray, then ask yourself how much your disagreement stems from me saying this about a beloved story from your childhood).

I’ve often pointed to the first Harry Potter book as an example of her low-quality writing. It reads like an early career first novel. And that’s fine, because it is.

People reply, “It’s YA! She’s a genius that gradually made her writing more sophisticated as the books went on, so that as readers aged, the reading level and maturity of the books grew with the audience.”

Okay. But let’s be honest. It’s much more likely that she just got better as a writer as she wrote more. I never read the final Harry Potter book to know if the prose style grew into something reasonable. In any case, it doesn’t matter. We have lots of books, published after that series, aimed at adults to examine.

I’m not a big mystery reader, and so I was considering doing a “Year of Mysteries” next year for the blog. I picked up The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) to read as the first book.

It’s kind of shocking to me that a major publisher would let this get through without serious edits. I was so distracted by the prose errors I couldn’t even focus on the content. I know this isn’t something most people notice, but it serves as a good reminder that J.K. Rowling is not a good writer. She’s famous. Those are different.

I was going to break down some of the prologue, but I thought people might consider that unfair. Prologues are often bad, even when handled by the greatest writers. So let’s start with the beginning of Chapter 1.

Though Robin Ellacott’s twenty-five years of life had seen their moments of drama and incident, she had never before woken up in the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.

This is the opening sentence, and opening sentences tend to be more polished than the paragraphs that follow. This sentence reads like a first-year creative writing student attempting to impress a teacher by making things needlessly complicated. It reads like a student who hasn’t learned this is exactly how agents and publishers can tell you’re still an amateur. The real way to show maturity as a writer is to be precise and concise and readable and still get all the same information across.

Let’s break this down.

The first thing is the lack of precision in language.

She words it so the “years” are the one “seeing.” This is nitpicky but also confusing and imprecise (if you don’t understand why, it’s because only a conscious thing can “see” something).

Also, we begin with a subordinate clause. This is, by definition, beginning with inessential and/or unimportant information. The clause tries to cram in way too much information. There’s no need to force in her age to this mess of a sentence, because this will naturally become clear later.

I’ll concede there is wiggle room for personal style, but in this case, there’s too many “glue” words doing no work. For one, “that” can be eliminated without loss of information.

Then there’s the tense: “had seen,” “had never before,” “would remember the coming day.” Are we in past tense? Is the narrator omniscient or close third? I’ve read this sentence a dozen times, and I’m still not sure how she is certain about remembering something that hasn’t happened. Though the gist is obvious, it’s extraordinarily confusing if you take it as it is written. The sentence lacks clarity, precision, and readability.

Here’s my edited version:

Robin Ellacott woke with the certain knowledge that she would remember the coming day for as long as she lived.

Justification: One should draw the reader in as fast as possible. This straightforward edit does this by directly raising the question in the reader’s mind: why? Rowling’s version obscures this question by confusing the reader with tense switching, needless information, and excessive words. (I kept the awkward past/future thing, because I wanted the edit to be an actual edit and not a rewrite).

She has the whole rest of the book to let her prose get fancy (and confusing).

Moving on:

Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, had proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. In the giddy relief following her acceptance, he confessed that he had been planning to pop the question in the Thai restaurant where they just had eaten dinner, but that he had reckoned without the silent couple beside them, who had eavesdropped on their entire conversation.

At this point, I was a little concerned the entire book would be in past perfect (sometimes continuous) tense. She wrote the prologue this way and then several pages of the first chapter in this tense. She needs to switch to simple past already. It’s beyond tiring.

Because of the confusing nature of the first sentence and now awkward tense usage, it’s unclear to me if this proposal is the day she’ll remember forever or if it referred to the next day.

Everything is so wordy and passive: “that he had been,” “just had eaten dinner,” etc. For example, remove “just had eaten dinner” completely. This is doubled information. They were at a Thai restaurant shortly before midnight. It’s obvious they went there for dinner.

This might be a British idiom, but there seems to be a clause missing in the second sentence (despite it being more than double the length it should be). Again, the gist is there. He would have proposed if it weren’t for the silent couple eavesdropping on them. Honestly, the words, as written, don’t say that. Read the sentence carefully several times. I can’t make sense of it. I think it’s actually a sentence fragment.

Here’s my rewrite:

Shortly after midnight, her long-term boyfriend, Matthew, proposed to her under the statue of Eros in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. He confessed he would have popped the question in the Thai restaurant—if only the silent couple beside them weren’t eavesdropping on their entire conversation.

Obviously this new version isn’t perfect, but these simple readability changes show how far Rowling has to go to get from her “final draft” to solid prose style. Later, the narrator calls the proposal “the most perfect.” What does that mean? There aren’t levels of perfection. I think it’s supposed to be in Robin’s voice, but then the early narrative omniscience makes no sense.

If this is how Rowling writes for adults, no one can say she is a good writer. These first two chapters are confusing on a sentence-by-sentence level, all over the place in terms of tense and viewpoint, and messy in terms of prose style. She lacks the precision, clarity, and readability of any reasonably mature writer. Unless chapter two is vastly better, I don’t think I can read this book.