Writing books help solve mysteries of fiction

A friend asked me what books I would recommend to get started writing fiction. Two recent reads immediately came to mind, Hallie Ephron’s  Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel and Patricia Highsmith’s Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. 

While I tend to be a “pantser” when it comes to writing fiction, I’m not opposed to at least working up background for characters, and Ephron provides this and more. Her tips and advice prove useful for any genre, not just mystery.

Her section on plotting and the three-act structure is one of the clearest I’ve read to understand that particular approach to structure. And while it might sound like I’m advocating a formulaic approach, all great fiction, all great writing needs some foundation to build on.

Ephron has written several best-selling novels, including the Dr. Peter Zak series. She comes from a family of great storytellers that includes the late director and screenwriter Nora Ephron.

Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but spent most of her life in Europe. She is the creator of conman and killer Tom Ripley.

In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Highsmith, who died in 1995, discusses basics like plotting and generating ideas common in most writing books. But it’s her last section that stands out, as she leads you through the processes she talks about by describing how she applied them to writing her novel The Glass Cell.

She also recommends naps as a way to restore the creative juices. That, in and of itself, is good advice. Who doesn’t like a good nap?
—Todd

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—Todd

The Gunslinger, The Road and Mobile Apps

So, it’s  been a long time since I’ve posted here, and today marks something new—trying out the WordPress app. 

But, let’s move along. This week, I started reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. The decision to read it followed watching the movie with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, an OK movie, despite faltering at the box office. It one of those movies that probably would work better as a TV series, and I understand that’s in the works.

If you’ve followed this blog for some time you might be surprised I haven’t read the novel beforehand.  But, I haven’t read much Stephen King at all. Something I hope to remedy. 

I like it, it’s bleak desert setting with a blend of fantasy, Western and science fiction. The gunslinger himself is the quintessential Western movie hero, like Clint Eastwood’s nameless rider. Then of course you have the fantasy quest trope with the gunslinger in pursuit of an evil wizard and seeking the secrets of the Dark Tower.  King hints at Arthurian legend.

What strikes me, however, is the sort of understated prose and the story arc’s similarity to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There are moments when I think of that bleak novel, and I wonder if McCarthy read King. It certainly feels like it.

Just some random thoughts for now.

Until next time…

—Todd

Love and Euphoria

So, along with the big to-be-read pile of novels I have, I’m also reading on my Kindle app a self-help relationship book (pauses for guffaws to subside) Make Up, Don’t Break Up: Finding and Keeping Love for Singles and Couples (because reasons) and liked the way the writer, Bonnie Eaker Weil, describes the stages of relationships, in particular, the Euphoria stage, that first stage in which love really is bliss.

You feel blissful and everything seems to spontaneously flow and take care of itself. The first stage of a relationship, which I call the Euphoria Stage, isn’t supposed to last. It’s at the beginning for a good reason. You feel this way because your brain is stimulating the release of powerful “feel-good” hormones called vasopressin and oxytocin, which overpower your fears.

It’s the “falling in love stage,” the “love is blind” stage and we all know it so well. The honeymoon phase, where even negative traits are bypassed for the most part. It’s that stage we see in movies and on TV.

It’s also the stage — it lasts about three to six month, according to Weil — that when it ends, it’s usually the point in which couples break up or seek new rides. It’s also the stage we seem to crave the most. The high our brains shove on us. And it makes me think we seek that high in other ways just to get that feeling back over and over, whether it’s drugs or booze or religious fervor.

I catch it, if I’m lucky, as a writer, especially writing fiction, when the story takes over. It’s a temporary state of being. All are, aren’t they? Nothing is permanent, as Buddhists know. And yet, we seek connection. Something that lasts a lifetime. That true love.

It’s what I’ve longed for. Sort of the paradoxically permanent-impermanence. I’m pretty good managing the Euphoria stage, but like most of us, not so good at going beyond that. (Ironic, I suppose, a professional communicator, a writer, has a hard time with communication.) Of consciously choosing to love someone. Still, I believe. And I believe someone is worth the effort.

— Todd

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*Editor’s note: Feel free to show your euphoric love by buying this book or any other I’ve mentioned on this blog as you read all my fabulous blog posts. I am linked to Amazon Associates and can make some money. So buy from me. Now!

The Glue of Truthiness

Doing some self-directed training at work made me think about our current controversy over alternative facts. And that, in turn, made me think about an insight from fictional detective Harry Bosch in the novel The Black Ice by Michael Connelly. As Bosch pieces together the clues to a cop’s murder, he recalls something he was told early in his career: you can have all the facts you want, but facts mean nothing without figuring out the glue holding them together.

That’s a great insight on Bosch/Connelly’s part (Connelly was an L.A. Times crime reporter before turning to fiction). What is the glue that holds the facts together? If you investigate deeper, you piece together the meaning, the truth.

Of course, we all have deep convictions we often hold onto no matter the contrary evidence. We are all also guilty of reacting to contrary evidence by clinging even stronger to our convictions. Or we cherry-pick stuff that supports our convictions.

But, what if we dig deeper? Will we find the facts and their truths are as flimsily held together by edible Elmer’s paste as a kindergartener’s art project? Or will we discover a solid bond held together with Krazy Glue?

I love questions like this. It’s one of the reasons I love fiction and believe fiction is truthier than nonfiction. Of course, it’s usually also much more entertaining. And that’s a fact!

— Todd

Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

Entering the Dark Republic: a review of D.L. Young’s Soledad

So, when I received my copy of D.L. Young’s debut novel, Soledad, it was right around the time the U.K. took leave of the European Union.

After that vote, there were some half-serious memes on social media calling for Texas’ exit from the U.S. As ridiculous as that sounds, as yahoo-ish as that sounds, there are not a few here in the state who wouldn’t relish the chance to revive in their minds the glory days of the Republic of Texas. There is/was, for instance, the notorious Republic of Texas movement in the 1990s, led by the now imprisoned Richard Lance McLaren, which claimed, among other grievances, the U.S. illegally annexed Texas in 1845.

Historically, Texas, as early as September 1836, just a few months after becoming a republic, sought annexation, but the Van Buren Administration wasn’t keen on it, fearing, in part, war with Mexico.  The U.S.’s westward expansion, and fears of British expansion and economic growth, prompted President John Tyler to promote Texas annexation in 1844, although that push, with much U.S. prompting, didn’t pass until 1845.

In the 90s, Secession appealed to a certain element rife with conspiracy and government hatred, in particular after the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.

“The idea of nationhood appealed to many Texans,” Joe Nick Patoski wrote for Texas Monthly, while covering the McLaren standoff,  “and a movement was born.”

Most in the area of McLaren’s property at Davis Mountain Resort, Patoski reports, didn’t like McLaren much. Some offered to shoot him themselves if the DPS didn’t, others planned margarita parties if and when he was pronounced dead.

McLaren’s supporters, however, echoed his rhetoric, including a street preacher, W.N. Otwell, as Patoski reports, who said, “‘He’s the one who’s done the research,’ [Otwell] said. ‘We’re here because we’re interested in this, because we believe the New World Order has trampled our constitutional rights. It’s the Antichrist and the mark of the beast.’”

McLaren was and is still imprisoned in Amarillo, after a 1997 standoff with the Texas Department of Public Safety. In that standoff, two hostages were taken on McLaren’s property at the Davis Mountains Resort.

This strand of apocalyptic thinking is all too common among the ahistorical Secessionist types — with its nascent Tea-Party rhetoric too chillingly trumpeted in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers, and its a strand of thinking Young carries forward in speculative excellence with his Soledad.

Young’s is a dystopian vision, a hellish republic divided against itself; it’s a what if of what Texas could be if these Secessionists succeeded, and an extended metaphor of what I fear the U.S. could become should the trumpeters take the stage this November.

Ostensibly, the novel tells the story of a “reader” Soledad Paz, a slave, whose drug-enhanced psychic abilities allow her to inform the brigand-businessman Flaco Guzman whether those who would do business with him are lying to him. Liars, of course, get shot in the head and their bodies dumped in the West Texas desert, a “meal for coyotes and vultures, like all the others who try to pull one over on the great and powerful Guzman.”

But the novel takes us beyond the already balkanizing republic, beyond a Mad-Max-esque adventure — spoiler alert: Soledad escapes into a wilderness of hate — and like Soledad herself, stares at our collective souls, sees things we can’t even see ourselves because we’re too blind or too wrapped up in rhetoric to see.

For me, the most chilling section of the novel is the set piece in Waco, when Soledad and those who have helped her escape Guzman, get captured by Christian fundamentalists who make current Islamic terrorists look like black-pajamaed Boy Scouts, “the thousands of well-armed zealots who don’t like strangers” and “have a special hate for outsiders, anyone who’s not a baptized, Bible-carrying, true believing Fundie.”

These are the kind of people who weave the divine into every detail of history, much like the McLaren bunch, much like the conservative evangelicals blowing their shofars for Trump or Cruz and lamenting the loss of God in their fantasy Christian nation. The uber-patriots wrapped in flags, an AR-15 in one hand and a Bible in the other. They spew the wrath of God, rather than the Sermon on the Mount. They shout down opposition and claim persecution at the slightest slight.

In the novel, this group commits one of the most chilling atrocities, one we’ve seen or heard about, the kind of thing we associate with Islamic terrorists: a woman buried up to her neck and stoned to death for being a heathen (a Catholic in this case). Young depicts this stoning with ferocious detail, as if it’s something he actually witnessed.

One fortunate thing about Young’s dystopic vision, is that as Margaret Atwood has noted, “[W]ithin each dystopia [is] a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.”

Of course, as Atwood says, in each utopia there is a concealed dystopia, and perhaps Soledad will, instead, reach for some sensible middle ground, and not try to make things perfect, only better.

— Todd