Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Edit. Edit! EDIT! -- On Writing

image from

"Is it blood? She is, after all, a murder mystery writer."

Blood? No. It's red ink. And, yes I am a murder mystery writer. More importantly for this blog post, I'm a murder mystery reader.

I'm not an Episcopalian. I'm not a Pastafarian who believes in the Great Spaghetti God. I'm an Editorian. An Editorian's tenets are simple. 1. Write. 2. Submit to an Editor. 3. Submit to another Editor, and another and another, as many as it takes. 3. Trust your reader. Cut unnecessary words.

Oh, yes. And number 4. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! (Thank you Henry David Thoreau.)

"But that's not what I'm here to tell you about. I'm here to talk about the draft." Well, no. Not the draft. Apologies to Arlo Guthrie.

Editing! That's what I want to talk about.

I'm reading Fatal, the newest John Lescroart novel. If you've read any of my previous reviews of his books, you'll know he's my favorite crime novel writer. Not because of his writing style, but because of his characters -- Defense Attorney Dismas Hardy and Homicide Investigator Abe Glitsky and their various and sundry friends and relatives.

Lescroart's stories are sufficiently salted with twists and turns to keep me reading and clues sprinkled here and there to keep me guessing.

His twelfth Dismas Hardy novel Betrayal was a change up. Much of the first part of the book took place in Iraq with no mention of Hardy or Glitsky. But I kept reading and finally they showed up.

This Lescroart book is ominously touted as a "stand alone" novel. I'm afraid that may mean that the Hardy/Glitsky crowd won't show up.

So I'm on page 74. This is the scene. Two women, Kate a housewife and her cop friend Beth, are having lunch in a downtown San Francisco restaurant. "But suddenly, from outside in the main hallway came the booming sound of an explosion, followed quickly by two others, and then a volley of pops, like strings of firecrackers." This could be improved. It should start off slow and confusing as the situation really would have been --  From somewhere came a booming sound. Then two more and a volley of pops like strings of firecrackers. In the amount of time it takes the reader to read the word 'suddenly' the suddenness is lost. Kate and Beth don't yet know what is happening or where it's coming from. An explosion is not what one would think of in the middle of a meal in a nice restaurant.

The next paragraph reads "Both women turned toward the restaurant's entrance where now they heard another enormous explosion, then more of the popping sounds, accompanied by the completely unexpected, terrifying, and unmistakable noise of people screaming." Both women? Really? I thought we were reading about the Ohio State Marching Band. Turning toward the restaurant's entrance they heard another explosion, then more popping sounds and people screaming.

Of course the screaming is unexpected, terrifying, and unmistakable. All unnecessary words that slow the action. Now they're starting to think explosion.

Next paragraph: "Then Beth was on her feet, reaching behind her back for her service weapon, which she realized too late that she never carried on their walks. Swearing, she turned, looked back at her table. 'Get up! Get up!' she yelled at Kate. 'Let's go!'" Short sentences! Short sentences! The reader should be getting short of breath at this point. Beth leapt to her feet and reached for her service weapon. It wasn't there. It was in its lock box at home. She looked back at Kate. 'Get up! Let's go!' 

There is no need for attribution for the dialog. Who else would she be yelling at. There's no need to even say she's yelling. That's what exclamation points say. 

Then page 75 is more of the same -- too many words, too many prepositional phrases, too much telling. All ending in the phrase "as thick smoke wafted its way into the room."

At this point I slammed my open-palm down on the dining table, making my own explosion. Wafted? Wafted?! What are we talking about here? The scent of jasmine wafting across the veranda? Give me a break! There is a terrorist attack going on and we're being fed thick smoke wafted?

I don't think so. Hemingway, Hemingway. Where for art thy mot juste?

Ah, well. I've still got to read further. Can't stop on page 75. Dismas and Abe may yet show up.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Truth in Fiction -- On Writing

Mark Twain
(photo from

In this day and age of 'truthiness' (used satirically way back in 2005 by Stephen Colbert) and 'fake news' (used by *rump for any statement of fact with which he disagrees,) I write fiction. "What's the difference between truth and fiction?" you might well ask. 

From The American Heritage Dictionary:

     "truth (trooth) n. 1. Conformity to fact or actuality. [Middle English trewth, loyalty, from Old
           English treowth. see deru-  in Appendix I]

           Appendix I  deru- also dreu-. To be firm, solid, steadfast.
                  Derivatives include tree, trust, betroth, endure, and druid."

     "fic·tion (ˈfik-shən) n. 1a. An imaginative creation or a pretense that does not represent
         actuality but has been invented. 3a. A literary work whose content is produced by
         the imagination and is not necessarily based on fact. [Middle English ficcioun, from
         Old French fiction, from Latin fictio. . . ."

Now you know the difference, but what's truth got to do with writing fiction? Mark Twain said it perfectly -- "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."

Which brings us to another word:
     "veri·si·mil·i·tude  (ver-ə-sə-ˈmi-lə-ˌtüd , -ˌtyüd) n. 1. The quality of appearing to be true or real.

And verisimilitude is what fiction must have "The quality of appearing to be true...." even if it's set hundreds of years in the future. Or the past. Whether it's populated by zombies or typical teenagers.

Fictional settings must put the reader into the place. The writer must give the reader the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the place. And sometimes the taste. Whether we consciously think about it or not, our senses tell us where we are in the world and a writer can play to those senses.

The writer need not use graphic sensory descriptions. The scent of impending rain. The air need not be laden with the smell of roses or the feedlot (unless, of course, roses or manure play a role in the story.) The sound of summer insects welcoming the night. The writer doesn't have to specify which insects. Light dappling the still waters. Specific colors are not necessary. The hot wind driving him across the prairie. It could be burning his skin or drying his sweat. The salt water filling my mouth. From whatever water source.

Unless specifics are necessary to the story, the writer can and should leave them to the readers' imagination. Give the reader room to bring their own experiences to the story. Let them participate.

If the setting is a real place, use specific, real descriptions. The reader will be reminded of the place if he's been there or he will recognize it, should he ever find himself there.

Keep in mind, describing reality can be a trap that the writer unwittingly sets for himself. Descriptions of reality must be absolutely accurate.

I was listening to music from the Disney film Pocahontas. The phrase "blue corn moon" threw me out of the song's narrative. The story is set in what is now Virginia. Blue corn grows in Mexico and the American Southwest. Blue corn in Virginia is wrong.

My husband pointed out "It's Disney! Deer don't make friends with rabbits, either." Well, there is that. We can all point to exceptions, Disney being a successful one when it comes to unreality.

Characters should be treated with the same lack of specificity. Unless a physical characteristic is necessary to the plot, writers shouldn't get too specific. Characters' thought processes, speech patterns, and behaviors are more important than whether or not she has blonde hair or he has a six-pack.

The use of our senses comes into describing our characters, too. Smelling of tobacco and alcohol, Geoff loomed over her. Her teeth chattering, she cringed away from him. We all know these characters. Readers will fill in whatever they need to be satisfied about what these characters look like.

And, as with real places, real people who might show up in our fiction, must be treated scrupulously. If Thomas Jefferson or Henry VIII appear, their hair must not be described as black or blond. Too many readers know they had red hair. Teddy Roosevelt wore glasses. Shirley Temple had a dimple.

We don't have to mention these things, but it's important to get the things we do mention about real people, right.

We, as writers, don't want to remind our readers that these stories are fiction. We want them to believe in the story and the characters enough to stick around and see how it comes out. Maybe they'll even seek out other things we've written.

So, unlike politicians, we fiction writers gotta keep it real. Or at least real enough.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Playboy -- A Remembrance

I first heard about Playboy when I was in high school, which was well after Hugh Hefner started publishing it in 1953. I probably wasn't aware of Hugh Hefner until much later. Editors of magazines weren't exactly celebrities among my circle of friends.

He was almost a year younger than my father. Both served in World War II -- Daddy with the Sea Bees in the Pacific. Hefner, an infantry clerk in the Army, wrote for a military newspaper. (Wikipedia) They were both raised in conservative Methodist households. 

And that, friends, is where their similarities ended. 

Daddy didn't curse or drink, and by the time I was in high school, he had quit smoking. I doubt that he ever saw a Playboy and certainly never bought one or brought one into our home. 

We lived in a college town just north of Oklahoma City and I never saw Playboy magazines on the shelves for sale. I learned later that it was against a city ordinance to display it. It was kept 'under the counter.' People could buy it, but they had to ask a clerk to get it for them. 

As I said, I first heard about Playboy in high school. I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. The editor of the local newspaper came and talked to us about getting short stories published. I don't remember his name, but he smoked a pipe, rode a motor cycle, and fought Oklahoma's then new and now repealed helmet law. And he had just had a short story accepted for publication by Playboy. He said they published the best short fiction because they paid the best money.

That's the way it still works. Publications that pay the best get the best submitted there first. 

That local newspaper editor was in excellent company. Over the years, Playboy published writers like Jack Kerouac, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Truman Capote, Haruki Murakami and three of my favorites Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, and Jean Shepherd. In fact, that was my first exposure to Jean Shepherd's work -- the same Jean Shepherd who wrote A Christmas Story of "You'll shoot your eye out, Ralphie" fame.

I'd been warned by some of my male classmates about the questionable nature of Playboy -- nude women and racy cartoons, oh my. So of course I had to see for myself. but I couldn't go into a local convenience store and ask for one. They'd recognize me. 

A trip to a book store in the mall in Oklahoma City was necessary. I am glad to report that -- barring the naked women -- the fiction, cartoons, interviews, articles (I didn't read the ones on economics) and the Playboy Advisor were well worth the effort to get the magazine. 

I remember one letter to the Advisor from a soldier in Vietnam. He explained that he had availed himself of female company which he seemed to think was normal since he was so far away. He was concerned that his girlfriend back home, might be cheating on him. What should he do? The advice? That he should remember she was as far away from him as he was from her.

Later, I came to appreciate the reasonably good taste with which they displayed the naked ladies. When my son found some truly disgusting magazines in the Dempsey Dumpster at the car wash across the street from our house, I loaded him up and took him to the mall in Oklahoma City. He was too embarrassed to go into the book store while I bought a copy of Playboy for him, so he waited in the mall pretending to window shop at any of the other shops.

The Vargas drawings of nudes were always beautiful. Gahan Wilson's cartoons were surprising and funny. And there really was written material worth reading.

When I was a caseworker for the Welfare Department I ran across the most unusual Playboy Magazine. One of my clients had been injured in an industrial accident and was deaf and blind. We communicated through his wife. She would sign my questions in his hand and he would answer them. He had a subscription for Playboy in braille. It was covered top to bottom and front to back with the bumpledy language I could not read. And no pictures. 

His wife translated into his hand my feigned surprise "You've rubbed all the pictures off!" He had a wonderful laugh. And he was proof-positive, that some men did get Playboy just for the articles.

Hugh Hefner
April 9, 1926 - September 27, 2017
Rest in Peace