Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Good Lesson Reaffirmed

John Grisham recently proved that, when it comes to writing a novel, good characters and a good story can redeem a ton of sins. The book in question is Playing for Pizza, a novel about a third-string NFL quarterback, Rick Dockery, who literally throws away the big game, killing all hopes for his team’s shot at the national title. When the Cleveland Browns turn him loose a day later, his agent’s phone starts ringing, only it’s other teams telling the agent not to waste their time—they don’t want him either. Fate turns Rick’s life around, though, when his agent contacts a coach in desperate need of an NFL quarterback. One problem: the team is located in Parma, Italy. Throughout the course of the story, Rick has to rediscover who he is. He also has to answer questions about what he really wants out of life.

From a writer’s perspective, this book held many broken arrows in its quiver, and at times I questioned whether to finish it or to put it down and move on. First, Grisham relied too much upon the conjugated forms of the verb to be. Then, with long narratives describing how certain foods are prepared and how the Italians eat their meals, the book often felt like either a thesis for a master’s program or a travel guide. While regurgitating research is acceptable in some formats, in a novel it can create a disturbing sense of authorial intrusion, jarring the reader from his fictional dream.

Still, I never threw the book away. Instead, I turned page after page until I reached the end, where a satisfied smile pulled at the corner my lips. And why? Grisham accomplished what many writers strive for—he wrote a good story with relatable characters. As we’ve all heard or read before, there are no stories without characters, and while readers may forgive a ton of errors, bad grammar among them, they won’t forgive a boring story with un-relatable characters. In Playing for Pizza, the person of Rick Dockery captivated me. With each new challenge, I wondered how he would resolve the problem, and I found myself cheering him on.

So, my hat’s off to John Grisham. By writing a good story and diving into the lives of the characters, he kept this reader engaged. A good lesson reaffirmed. I only hope I can do the same for my readers.

On to other news:

This last week, my good friend, Paige, bestowed a nice gift upon me: The Super Peeps Club. I consider myself truly blessed. For those of you who don’t know Paige, she has two wonderful blogs. First, you can see life as she sees it, literally, at her 365 Views By Me blog. You can also read about her life, her experiences and observations, at Paradise Valley 2...Hell's Mountain.

According to Paige, this award goes to other bloggers who have made an impact on your life. To pay it forward, then, I would like to grant the award to the following:

To Greta Igl, who has been a great friend and writing buddy. Because of her, I have learned much about writing, like digging for the deeper issues behind the stories.

To Carol Benedict, whose informative blog constantly touches upon things writers need to know when crafting stories.

I only regret that my good buddy John Towler doesn’t have a blog yet. John has been a great friend and sounding board along the way.

And while the next couple of writers are still new friends to me, I think they have noteworthy blogs for you to visit.

First, you might want to check out Paul Brazill, a new friend on the internet. He’s an amazing writer from the other side of the world. His site is informative as well as a nice portal to his work.

Then, you might also consider Cynthia Newberry Martin. Her blog Catching Days is also a nice mixture of life experiences, literary observations, as well as a portal to her writing.

Finally, April is now just a few days away, and my novel is calling out to me. Next month, I plan to sit down to work through my first revision.

Until next time…

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Moon Goddess and Other issues

First, an update: “Don’t Mess With The Moon Goddess” is now up at Long Story Short. Though written in December 2009, this story was accepted by LSS back in December 2010, a testament that sometimes it takes a while to take a story from the initial drafting to a publishable finished product. Take the time to read it, and feel free to give me your thoughts. I hope you enjoy it.

Secondly, I received an interesting, and thankfully a personal, rejection letter on “A Leap of Faith.” Even though it was a rejection, I was excited to see what the editors thought. Most of the comments were positive. One note that struck me, however, was the following::

“…sentences such as 'Personally, scumbags like Moselle deserved to die.' which is missing a 'she thought' or something like that in there.”

So what was the editor looking for? By his own words, the editor believed I failed to include a tag which would have linked the sentence to the lead character’s thought and not the narrator’s. My argument, though, is that this story is written in the close third person, not the distant third person, and that the above should have been seen as the character’s thoughts.

For those who might be scratching their heads, Nancy Kress, author of Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, describes it as so close to first person that the reader knows everything a character thinks and experiences as soon as it happens. This occurs because the reader suddenly sees the world as the character sees it, not how the narrator describes it. How does a writer accomplish this? Let me give you an example::

Jack squinted through the scope. He slowed his breathing and drew in on himself, waiting to feel his own pulse. There. One and two and three and four. Catch the rhythm, wait for the half-beat.

He placed the cross-hairs on the target, a woman in a white dress suit, at a café table sipping a cup of something. Probably some multi-combination drink, like a decaf skinny mocha latte with a dash of vanilla. These days, it seemed like everyone was into junk like that. Why couldn’t they just order a good ol’ cup of Joe and be done with it, drink it like they used to out on the lonesome prairie?

In the first two sentences, it’s clear we’re in the third person POV. First, there is Jack’s name. Then, if that isn’t enough, the reader sees the pronoun starting off the second sentence, which is most certainly a cue of the POV selected. But notice what happens with the next three sentences. See how fragmented they are? A third person narrator shouldn’t use sentences like that. The second paragraph tells us even more. After the first sentence, setting up the action, the reader is suddenly thrown several thoughts. Again, with words and phrases like “junk” and “cup of Joe”, the reader is given cues that he is now in Jack’s thoughts. He sees the world as Jack sees it. Finally, notice how I never used “he thought” in the two paragraphs. To me, with the cues mentioned, it’s easy to see the transition.

The thing is to know is that many writers do this. Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Elmore Leonard are just a few of the bigger names in the business who write this way. Sometimes, the move is so subtle the reader may not even realize it. It’s there just the same, though.

The danger in using a close third person, however, is that some readers can get confused. Nancy Kress calls it giving the reader the sensation of vertigo. This, I think, is what the editor tried to express in his criticism of my story.

So, here’s the question: Should I re-write the story, putting in the extra pronouns and tags so the reader isn’t confused, or should I leave it alone, accepting that some readers can’t see that using slang like “scumbags” should indicate the character’s thoughts instead of the narrator. Personally, I’m leaning toward the latter. I think it’s a matter of style, or the writer’s voice, and while it won’t resonate with some readers, it will with others.

What do you think?

Finally, I’m getting fired up over Justified the new series on FX, which starts March 16th. This is based on one of Elmore Leonard’s characters, a U.S. marshal named Raylan Givens. I first ran across this character in Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole.” All I can tell you is that you must find it and read it if you haven’t already. It’s fantastic. Raylan Givens also appears in two separate novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, both of which are currently sitting on my shelf and waiting for me to read. Mark your calendars, my friends. Set your DVRs. Raylan is coming to a TV set near you, and it promises to be a great show.

Until next time...