Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Inner and Outer Book

I'm involved in a couple of critique groups, composed of writers whose work I admire and with whom I've been working with for years. We are writing completely disparate books from each other, which I think is good. Sometimes you can become so immersed in a genre that you assume things you shouldn't. And the one thing I always say when I've read something that doesn't feel complete to me or isn't compelling me to inhale the next paragraph is, "More, I want more."

What I mean by that is the play between the inner and outer book. The outer book is, nominally, the plot, the setting, the cast of characters, the general, all-purpose construct of a book. What I mean about the "inner" book is that emotion, plot, drama, sorrow, joy, history, and all around emotional temperature of a book between the dialogue, world-building, and plot points. IMO, books that rely on too much world-building satisfy a certain cadre of readers, but for those of us who are character-driven readers, it starts to fall flat when we are bombarded with visuals and not a whole lot else. Same with plot-driven narratives, where the characters start to become paper dolls to be moved around a series of events.

For me, the most satisfying read is one that uses plot to flesh out character and character to flesh out the plot. It's a marriage of sorts, and with most books this works nicely. But a richer book, a book that you keep and not recycle is a book with an "inner" life.

There are as many different ways to "deepen" a narrative than there are blades of grass. Frankly, it's the difference between a standard romance novel and Jane Austen. Both consider women getting married. And that is about the only comparison you can make between a beach read and one of the greatest word smiths of literature ever born. Or to be more personal about this, the difference between one of my mysteries and, say, Raymond Chandler. Yes, I do consider Chandler to be literature.

None of us are Jane Austen or Raymond Chandler. So where to we go from here? We try to be them, that's what we do. That's when you strive to create an inner life to your book. What distinguishes you from any other writer is how you manage the inner book. This where the "you" in writer comes in. I have heard it said there are no new plots in this world, and I believe that is true. Shakespeare apparently hogged them all to himself. But to say that there are no new writers is complete nonsense.

Let's delve into this with a little example.

Mary said, "Bob, I've got to tell the police what happened."

Bob replied, "If you do that, the serial killer will carve you open with a knife cutter and hang your innards from a meat hook like he did everyone else. Don't say anything, Mary. I'm so worried about you."

Her brother. Such a kind man. He'd been her protector for years, shielding her from her mother's criticism as best he could, acting like an older brother even though he was  four years younger. 

She clamped her legs together tightly to make sure that Bob didn't see the steak knife hidden in her lap.

When he stood up, she wasn't sure what he was going to do, Would he keep trying to convince her? Did he know she knew? She waited.

Wow, there is plenty of drama in this little snippet, possibly enough to stand on its own. But what if we add some "inner-ness" to this scene. And you could certainly say that the above is nothing more than a first draft. Fair enough, but isn't that the point of a second, third, and possibly fourth draft. You have the bones, now search for that "inner" searchlight that illuminates everything around it and beyond. You're looking for words that hint at another story lurking around the first story.

************************

Mary said, "Bob, I've got to tell the police what happened."

She'd been so afraid all her life that this bold statement shocked her a little. Like it wasn't actually coming from her mouth, but from someone braver, from a confident woman who'd own any room she'd walked into without any effort. Someone who'd never had any problem meeting people's gazes or confronting bullies; someone who wasn't deathly afraid of spiders, heights, dentists, flying, bees, and thunder (but not the lightning, odd that). But this was bigger than she was, and maybe that was the point. She stuck out her chin in a defiant gesture willing Bob to contradict her.

Which he did. As she knew he would.

First, he smiled. It wasn't condescending, comforting more than anything else, and he put a warm hand on her shoulder, as if to add to a physical gesture to the smile meant to comfort. He'd been her protector for years, shielding her from the worst of her mother's criticism as best he could, acting like an older brother even though he was four years younger. He'd spent their entire lives trying to protect her, her ever-willing spider killer, holding her hand when they flew on planes, waiting for her at the dentist so that he could drive her home because he knew she'd be too emotionally shattered by the drilling to drive herself home safely. He didn't even kill the spiders she asked him to get rid of. He'd search for a glass and a notepad to slide under the glass and then free the frantic spider outside somewhere, even watching it scurry away to make sure that it was still alive. Such a kind man.

Bob replied, "If you do that, the serial killer will carve you open with a knife cutter and hang your innards from a meat hook like he did everyone else. Don't say anything, Mary. I'm so worried about you."

She winced at that visual reminder of all those other women who'd been tortured and terrified for hours and days on end. True victims.The cool of the metal against her thighs was so foreign to the usual softness of her skin. Still, she clamped her legs together tightly to make sure that Bob didn't see the steak knife hidden in her lap, the folds of her skirt bunched around the blade.

When he stood up, she wasn't sure what he was going to do, Would he keep trying to convince her to stay silent? Did he know she knew? She waited and moved her hand closer to the knife handle.


Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day and Lemon Meringue Pie

Today, I honor my stepfather, Ken Horne, who was a radio operator in the RAF and was captured on Java in 1940. He spent five years in a Japanese prison camp and survived. He was a decent man, who stepped in and provided me and my sister with the father that we didn’t have. He was there for our triumphs and our failures, which is more than I can say for my “real” father.

And lemon meringue pie. This is one of those desserts that I alway associate with my mother, that and angel food cake. I can never make angel food cake without feeling guilty about wasting all those yolks. Of course you can freeze them, but I tried that and I always end up NOT using the frozen yolks and then discover them in the freezer six months later, all shriveled and sad from freezer burn.

My mother was of the “looks like shit” but “tastes like heaven” sort of baker. My little pastry chef heart could not bear to watch her slice into a pie or a cake without wincing because she’d shove the knife in and cut large pieces, which were all different sizes. But they all tasted great. So I’m thinking today of Ken and my mother, and hope they are together on that beach in heaven, reading good books and drinking their treasured tais.



Saturday, April 11, 2020

April in Qurantine

I am a homebody. This enforced quarantine isn't making me itch with boredom. My neighbor across the street is going berserko-frantic dealing with this isolation. To tell the truth, this appeals to the latent or not-so-latent sloth in me, plus I'm working from home and dealing with enormous projects that have identical deadlines. Boredom would be a blessing.

But what has happened is that I'm suddenly aware of how much stuff I have. Every single room in my house has a bookcase (or five) with the exception of the bathrooms. I'm a book lover as my friends well know, and although I purge now and then, I apparently don't purge enough because books are shoved into odd corners with a randomness that suggests a scattered mind or a woman who has run out of space in her bookshelves.

Also, lots of clothes. Yes, I purge my clothes closets with more diligence than my bookcases, but there is at least thirty years of fashion ephemera, and some dresses, blouses, etc., that I can't bear to get rid of because I still love them. A blouse that I picked up in the U.K. when I was twenty. A ton of sweaters knit by my mother that I will never wear because even at the present weight of, shall we say, too much, she assumed I have the dimensions of a polar bear and these sweaters hang off me, even now.

The point is (I always get there) thus: this reevaluation of my stuff isn't to embrace Marie Kondo, but to just stop buying things. I have enough for one lifetime going forward. More than enough. I'm not at the point of cutting up my credit cards, but I'm getting there. Shoes seem to be something I will always need as my feet keep on growing. Weird. I used to wear a respectable size 8 shoe. Had the kids and my feet grew an entire size. Got rid of a bunch of Italian-made shoes that I adored (and could afford at the time, sigh). Now I'm at least a 9-1/2 and a 10 in some brands. WTF!

When God closes a door, he opens a window. The payoff is that my boobs seem to be growing as well. Having been a woman with an, ahem, what I would call a modest-size rack for my entire life, I am now, well, much bigger. Enter another WTF! Will my breasts follow suit? When I go to that great beyond at some point, will I enter heaven with size 20 feet and 38F tits?

The musings on a gloomy Saturday.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Ode to Walter Satterthwait

Another good writer has received his angel wings: Walter Satterthwait. He was one of those writers who, IMO, never really got his due. His book, Lizzie, is one of the best character studies ever written. Brilliant book. It goes in and out of print as the market dictates, but if you can find a copy (bookfinder.com is your friend if you can't find it other places), I highly recommend it. Those who love historical mysteries will appreciate his writing. He was a master at capturing a historical period and has written several mysteries with historical characters as protagonists: Houdini and Oscar Wilde come to mind.

I met him at Bouchercon when I was a new writer. My first book had been accepted but wasn't published yet, and I was trying to establish some sort of presence before publication. I was nervous and a little awed, sitting in some outdoor cafe trying not to sound too desperate. Those of you who attended that particular Bouchercon (I had a Sharp's container in my hotel room, and I don't think it's because there was a diabetes convention in town. WHAT a shit show!) will remember that there was no place really to sit and have a drink. The hotel wanted you at the tables. But mystery writers will ALWAYS find a bar or make something into a bar.

Anyway, I was sitting next to Lee Child (here's a gigantic shout out to Lee--what a nice guy, didn't know me from Adam--and bought me several rounds of drinks while we trashed George Bush; what innocent days those were) and Walter Satterthwait and his partner (who I want to say is named Caroline). I had just read Lizzie and was awed by the writing, just bowled over. I gushed to him over what a marvelous read that book was and did he have anything else coming out? He told me that he did, but he was back to tending bar in the mean time to make ends meet. That was roughly twenty years ago, and the publishing market was robust enough that a no-name like me could get a publishing contract. Of course, I was working full-time, but I wasn't an established writer. The publishing climate is a million times worse now, and I see that Satterthwait's last book was published by Mysterious Press, another mystery publisher who's gone under.

But my point is not to whine, but to honor someone I think was a great writer, whose way with words lives on in his books. Isn't that part of the lure of writing? You never really die. Your voice always has a place on the page.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

February is here

I know that we Californians live in a strange land. Many of you are shoveling snow and packing in the supplies for the big freeze that's about to hit. I am watching my magnolia tree begin to blossom, and literally hearing the roses growing. I drove up to my sister's house in Sacramento this weekend for some bonding time and the drive up was a visual extravaganza. The cherry trees were in full flower and the almost trees were beginning to strut their stuff. Although housing has been the driving financial engine up there for many years, I am now seeing vineyard after vineyard hugging both sides of Highway 80. I surmise from this that it's much more profitable to grow grapes or almond trees that it is to build housing. The economic smash hit Sacramento very hard,  there were parts of Sacramento where a huge percentage of the housing stock was underwater. It's obviously much more profitable to grow grapes or almond trees than it is to build housing.

I am working like a fiend on my new Y.A. novel. It's very much coming together, the narrative no longer filled with those annoying holes that you know you have to solve before you can create a satisfying ending. I always have a beginning, a middle, and an end that is set in stone. This helps me not wander too far off from what I'm trying to say. The middle can be squishy, moving earlier or later, and the beginning? Sigh. I always write that at least ten times. I don't change that much, but I am constantly fishing for that beginning that will keep the reader reading. And I never change the ending. Never. Because that is the heart of what I want to say.