Podcast

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Annotation Project: A Wrinkle in Time

This ones 25 years older than our oldest book so far, but for its devoted fans, its evergreen.  I'll have more to say about it in coming weeks.  I had to include 14 pages here to get to something happening--this beginning is slow-going ...and yet, bewitching.  Here it is in pdf form.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Ten Urges That Stories Can Satisfy

Hi guys! Sorry, I’d meant to do another book before Christmas but time has gotten away from me. Instead, let’s just have one big blow-out December post. I’ve talked about urges in the past, but recently, in giving someone notes, I had to get more specific about what I was talking about, so I came up with a possibly-complete list of the ten urges that stories can satisfy. Most stories should satisfy 3-6 of these (though Rushmore seems to only do two).

  • To Laugh (Comedy, everything else)

Almost every story can benefit from a dose of humor. It’s easier to identify with funny heroes. Funny sidekicks, love interests, and even villains can also increase our enjoyment of a story. On the flip side, laughing at a hero or side kick’s foibles, bad luck, or cluelessness can also bond us to them, since it gives us permission to laugh at our own failings.

  • To Gasp (Thriller, Horror, Action)

We gasp when things are shocking or horrific. This can also be referred to the “edge of your seat” quality.

  • To Swoon (Romance, everything else)

We want to share a hero’s romantic hopes and fears. We want to share their yearning, to have that yearning thwarted painfully, perversely punished, and finally gratified (or tragically thwarted once and for all, which brings us to our next urge…)

  • To Cry (Romance, Tragedy, Drama)

We cry when things are tragic. Things are most tragic when they’re bitterly ironic. When the hero simply fails despite their best efforts, that’s just a bummer, not tragic. When they fail because of their best efforts, or realize they must choose to fail, the tears come.

  • To Dread (Thriller, Drama, Tragedy)

The deepening sinking sensation that something awful is going to happen is perversely pleasurable for an audience, all the better if we’re not exactly sure what form the disaster will take.

  • To Speculate (Science Fiction, Fantasy)

Sci-fi and fantasy are very different, but most fans of one are also fans of the other, albeit less so. They both offer the thrill of escapism: to imagine a world wildly different from our own and to wonder at possibilities we’ve never considered (which gives us the hope that maybe more things are possible here.)

  • To Puzzle (Mystery, everything else)

Almost every story can benefit from adding a big mystery and/or a series of satisfying mini-mysteries to solve along the way. Sometimes we’re solving the mysteries alongside the hero, sometimes they’re only mysteries to the audience.

  • To Burn (Historical Fiction, Drama)

Can one “enjoy” a movie like 12 Years a Slave? On some odd level, yes, because it’s pleasurable to burn with righteous indignation at the sight of injustice. 

  • To Lust (Romance, everything else)

This frequently but not always overlaps with swooning. We like to be turned on. In books, we mostly just lust in sex and seduction scenes, but in movies we can have the visual pleasure of sexiness onscreen in every scene.

  • To Cheer (Action, some Horror)

Once we’ve gasped, we want to release that tension by cheering. In horror, this only comes at the end, but in action stories we get lots of chances to cheer throughout. Any genre can have “stand up and cheer” moments.

And now here are two massive charts. Above, you’ll find one for the books we’ve looked at (It’s good that I have enough data to start some crunching!) and below you’ll find one for the movies we’ve looked at:

What do you guys think? Are there any urges I’ve missed? Do you disagree about the urges these stories fulfill?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

New Podcast Episode: The Jedi in Decline

I told you we’d be back a lot quicker this time! Well, we spiked an earlier episode about The Last Jedi, but James hijacks this one and finally gets the discussion he wanted.  We start out with my belief that most stories are based on problem solving, but then James brings up the hidden back half of the hero’s journey offered by Lord Raglan, and, of course, brings it all around to a certain recent movie.

And then he claims that you caused Trump by not liking Jar-Jar Binks. Depending on your political bent, you can feel happy or guilty about that!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: The Power and Peril of the “Put a Pin in It” Scene

As I said before, Arundhati Roy begins “The God of Small Things” by jumping all around, not landing at the book’s real 1969 timeline for 40 pages or so. As we jump around, the first scene with dialogue we get is Sophie’s funeral, which comes at the end of the 1969 timeline, not the beginning. After the funeral we see Ammu take her twins to the police station to half-heatedly try to save Velutha, but we have no idea what’s going on, and Roy doesn’t tell us (Partially because Rahel, our POV character, doesn’t understand, or wants to pretend that she doesn’t understand). The police send Ammu away, and she gets on a bus where she mysteriously says to her kids, “He’s dead, I’ve killed him.” Then we move forward again two weeks to when Estha is sent away, then we move ahead to adult-Rahel’s return, then back to Estha’s earlier adult life, etc.

The brief police station is a “put a pin in it” scene. “Remember this for later, reader, because it will finally make sense to you 300 pages from now.”

This scene could make us say “Ooh, what’s going on here with the police? Who did Ammu kill? I can’t wait to read the book and find out!” but it doesn’t really have that effect. If we had immediately jumped from Ammu saying “I’ve killed him” back to a week before, then we’d have the sense of “Good, now we’ll find out what she meant!”, but since we keep jumping forward, and then jumping around in the adult timeline for a while, we strain to keep our finger on that pin, occasionally asking ourselves, “Wait, what was going on at that police station? Will any of these events we’re seeing now make that clear?”

The trick with such scenes is to keep the reader from wondering, “Wait, was I supposed to understand that?” That’s always my problem with such scenes. Instead of thinking, “Ooh, I can’t wait to find out what was happening there!”, I always find myself thinking, “I’m so dumb for not understanding that scene. It should have been obvious to me how Ammu was killing a man in that last scene.”

How do you write such scenes so they’re clearly unclear? So that the reader will say, “Obviously I wasn’t supposed to understand that yet, and now I’m excited to later find out what was going on,” rather than “I think I was supposed to understand that, but I didn’t.” I would have appreciated a little more hand-holding. Roy could have said something like, “Rahel didn’t know what she meant, and it was only many years later she would put the events together and figure it out.” That would let us know that it wasn’t clear yet but it would be clear later.

Ultimately, Roy doesn’t seem particularly concerned with this question. This is literary fiction, and the reader is supposed to bring some hustle to the game. This is a wildly successful novel, by any measure, but nevertheless, if I’d been giving her notes, I would have begged for just a tiny bit more help, making it clear that it was unclear.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Capture the Logic of Childhood

The major question that hangs over “The God of Small Things”, the question that adult-Rahel seems to be trying to answer for herself, is why Sophie Mol and Velutha had to die, all those years earlier. One of the reasons is that seven year olds don’t make good decisions. The twins’ bad decisions contribute to Sophie’s accidental drowning, and then they are forced to accuse Velutha, who is beaten to death by the police. Now two people are dead, but the twins never really recover either, at least not by age 31.

In order to tell this story, Roy must intimately capture the faulty logic of seven year olds, and I can say, as the father of a seven year old daughter, and a former seven year old myself, that she does a great job.

We jump around a lot at first, but the first real scene we get is Sophie’s funeral (while Velutha is dying in police custody, but we don’t know that, and young Rahel only kind of knows it). Inside Rahel’s head, Roy captures her thoughts and musings:

  • She noticed that Sophie Mol was awake for her funeral. She showed Rahel Two Things.
  • Thing One was the newly painted high dome of the yellow church that Rahel hadn’t ever looked at from the inside. It was painted blue like the sky, with drifting clouds and tiny whizzing jet planes with white trails that crisscrossed in the clouds. It’s true (and must be said) that it would have been easier to notice these things lying in a coffin looking up than standing in the pews, hemmed in by sad hips and hymnbooks.
  • Rahel thought of the someone who had taken the trouble to go up there with cans of paint, white for the clouds, blue for the sky, silver for the jets, and brushes, and thinner. She imagined him up there, someone like Velutha, barebodied and shining, sitting on a plank, swinging from the scaffolding in the high dome of the church, painting silver jets in a blue church sky.
  • She thought of what would happen if the rope snapped. She imagined him dropping like a dark star out of the sky that he had made. Lying broken on the hot church floor, dark blood spilling from his skull like a secret
  • [later:]
  • When they lowered Sophie Mol’s coffin into the ground in the little cemetery behind the church, Rahel knew that she still wasn’t dead.
  • [later:]
  • Inside the earth Sophie Mol screamed, and shredded satin with her teeth. But you can’t hear screams through earth and stone.
  • Sophie Mol died because she couldn’t breathe.
  • Her funeral killed her.

Young Rahel imagines that someone like Velutha might have painting the ceiling, and then imagines him falling to his death, which shows her subconscious struggling with her vague realization of Velutha’s actual mortal peril. We see her convince herself that Sophie is killed by the funeral, not the drowning, which absolves Rahel of her guilt.

But here’s the great thing about this passage: It’s almost funny. The situation could not be more serious, but Roy’s voice (which is only slightly removed from Rahel’s voice, see below*) is so true-to-life that we can’t help but smile. Morbid seven year olds are amusing, in a Wednesday Addams sort of way.

We nervously laugh at this because it’s uncomfortably intimate. We remember what it was like to look at the world through young eyes, to let our imaginations run away with us, not in a “Reading Rainbow” sort of way, but in strange, dark ways. We never thought a book would remind us of those forgotten thoughts, retrace the path of that twisted logic. People cite this as their favorite book not because they love its dark subject matter, but because they feel Roy has been in their heads, and they find that strange intimacy intoxicating.

As with our last book, it’s great to give your hero unique eyes. They should look at the world and see things only they would see. From the first page, even as an adult, Rahel has oddly overimaginative eyes. She looks at nature and sees human emotions where none exist. Nature’s clashes become petulant human squabbles. We then go back to when she was a kid and she cannot look at a corpse without bringing it to life: Sophie’s still alive, so that means she’s looking up at the ceiling, I wonder what she sees… Oh, she sees the newly painted ceiling… I wonder who painted it? Probably someone like Velutha? What if he fell? She can’t deal with the body on the coffin, but she’s happy to create one on the ground. And of course, one corpse will lead to the other in real life, but neither she nor we understand that at this point. This book rewards rereading!

* As I say above, this is all a great example of subjective 3rd person narration, which is one of the hardest ways to write. In the above paragraphs, despite the 3rd-person pronouns, we’re obviously entirely inside Rahel’s head, seeing only what she’s seeing, thinking what she’s thinking, feeling what she’s feeling. Roy will later take advantage of being in 3rd to show us scenes that Rahel doesn’t see …but crucially, they’re all scenes (like Estha’s molestation) that Rahel hears about or intuits later. They still fit under the umbrella of things grown-up-Rahel might put together to try to make sense of in modern day.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Help Us Get Our Feet on the Ground (Or Don’t, If That’s What You’d Prefer)

Last time we looked at the way Arundhati Roy accumulates reality from small, odd, vivid details, but once we piece it together “The God of Small Things” is actually a fairly plot-packed story: We get a riot, a molestation, an accidental drowning, and a police murder all happening in a weeklong-period.

So let’s talk about how authors get us to commit to a book in the first chapter, especially one where the narrator (1st or 3rd person) has some perspective on events. The traditional way to is to promise that a lot of juicy stuff is going to happen later on if you keep reading. And indeed, this book is well set-up to do that. We begin with an adult Rahel coming back to town in modern-day to reunite with her long-lost brother and deal with how the event that separated them and traumatized their lives. We will then spend most of the book reliving that eventful week.

I know how I would have written that first chapter: We meet our mysterious heroine as she gets off the train, we find out just a little bit about her, we see that she’s on a mission. She meets with someone from her past while looking for her silent brother, and obliquely references the riot, the molestation, the drowning, and the murder (Now our appetite is whetted for the shocking events to come). Then she finds her brother and tries to speak but the memories flood over her. Then we cut back to the day of the riot and we quickly get dialogue of 7-year-old Rahel in that time period. Now our two heroines (adult Rahel in 1993 and young Rahel in 1969) are established. From that point, Roy would be free to jump around to other points in time, such as the birth of the twins, the mother’s later death, Rahel’s own failed marriage, etc.

But Roy doesn’t do that. She’s all over the place and it’s hard to put your feet down anywhere for the first thirty pages or so. When I read the book, I read those thirty pages, realized I was totally lost, and decided I’d better go back and read them over again if I was going to continue. I did so, was glad I did, and then kept going until I was able to put my feet down around page 40 or so.  While this whole process was going on, I was loving the book, because of the sentences, but I was struggling with committing to the plot.

Roy does foreshadow the book’s momentous events in these opening chapters, but because I didn’t have a sense of whether they were going to happen in a timeline I was going to stick to, they didn’t whet my appetite very much. What I really wanted was dialogue. Dialogue tells me to put my feet down, but the first dialogue we get is at Sophie’s funeral, which actually comes at the end of the 1969 timeline, not the beginning, so that just discombobulated me further.

Here are four consecutive paragraphs that show how Roy is jumping around

  • In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
  • Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
  • She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
  • She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.

Now, obviously, this book was a huge award-winner and best seller, and Roy knows exactly what she’s doing.  She isn’t trying to do what I want her to do and failing, she’s doing what she intends to do and succeeding. To a certain degree, her style is emblematic of what is referred to (somewhat problematically) as post-colonial literature (Roy would probably dispute the “post” part). One of the most famous first sentences in literature is from what is perhaps the ultimate post-colonial book, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

  • Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Right there in the opening sentence, we have three time periods mixed up, and the reader will have a hard time getting his or her feet on the ground after that …and yet it’s very easy to fall in love with the book.

Such writing has its pleasures. Readers do enjoy being challenged. We can admire how such writing captures the feeling of being lost and overwhelmed by the modern world, and, as we make sense of it, we can gain tools to sift through and make sense of our own jumbled lives.

Post-colonial writers have literally had the ground yanked out from underneath their feet by invaders, and now that they have reclaimed their countries, they’re trying to find their footing again. But the ground isn’t letting them. It keeps shifting. When they describe their work in interviews, many of them say that their sense of identity, both personal and national, remains fractured. The style of post-colonial literature captures and grapples with that problem.

So the question is, should non-post-colonial writers emulate this style? These are, after all, best-selling and beloved books. But it’s a lot to ask of your reader, especially if it’s not a style that you are personally deeply committed to. Unless you feel that such a style is an essential expression of your theme, you might want to put the reader’s feet on the ground a little more firmly than Roy does, just with a few uses of grounding dialogue.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Abundance of Adjectives and Adverbs in “The God of Small Things”

You may have noticed that in each of my annotations I’ve praised opening sentences for having no adjectives or adverbs, and in our last post I was especially critical of two adjectives together that require a comma. Well let’s look at the opening sentence of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”:

  • May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month

The dreaded stumbling-block comma! Indeed this first chapter is an avalanche of adjectives, with sentences like this one to be found later:

  • She heard (on Sophie Mol’s behalf) the soft sounds of the red mud and the hard sounds of the orange laterite that spoiled the shining coffin polish.

Five adjectives in one sentence! But let’s go back and look at the rest of that opening paragraphs to figure out how Roy gets away with using so many adjectives without trying the reader’s patience:

  • The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

Ten more adjectives and, what’s worse, two adverbs! Yet it’s a glorious opening paragraph, is it not? So what is she doing?

  • First of all, it’s intriguingly odd how she imputes human emotions to nature: “Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously.” She’s not really describing what we would see, she’s generating a strange world we would never see if we didn’t see it through her eyes. Simply saying “bluebottles hum” wouldn’t do that job.
  • She’s using fresh adjectives of her own invention: We get the first of many portmanteaus with “dustgreen”. Later we’ll get “wetgreen” and “thunderdarkness”. When the mom passes away, Roy will point out that 31 is “a viable die-able age” (Roy knows she’s got a great, pithy phrase there, and so she reuses it four times in the book!)
  • Her adjectives create conflict: Black crows (death) gorge (a violent verb) on bright mangos (life).  “Dustgreen” is death and life in one word.  She’s not just painting a pretty tableau, she’s imbuing nature with life so that it can fight itself. Her adjectives clash.  

Ultimately, she will justify her non-leanness, her abundance of detail, with the book’s title. Who is the God of Small Things? It’s Roy herself. The whole idea is that tragedies can only be remembered as, and are perhaps best understood as, an accumulation of small things. Why does Sophie (and the book’s actual victim of injustice, Velutha) die? What is the one cause? There isn’t one, because there are hundreds of small things that added up to it.

This is a memory book (though the book is third-person and not entirely limited to Rahel’s firsthand memories). Rahel is trying to piece it all back together and sifting through portentous images and impressions that she accumulated that week, which she and Roy are now re-examining in great detail. Fine-grained descriptions are the whole point. Somewhere in these small things, there is a god who will tell us why these people had to die.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Cut Most of Your Adjectives and Adverbs

So I’ve got a problem: I was going to talk about how Arundhati Roy uses a lot of adjectives and adverbs, which goes against my advice, but then I realized I never actually gave that advice, because I couldn’t post the piece I wrote.

Last year, I was doing a lot of Storyteller’s Rulebook pieces based on examples from notes I’d given, but that was annoying, because I had to run them by the person I gave the notes to, to see if I could share their sentences. Well the author of these sentences asked me to hold off until the story was published. But now the story has been published (though the author has still asked not to be identified) so I’m free to post it, before I offer Roy as a counterpoint next time:

The original piece:

One of the biggest problems I see is the use of too many adjectives and adverbs. I’m certainly not the first editor to carp about this, but I’ll add my voice to the multitudes

Let’s look at a sentence from one of the authors I read: “The sky was a gray iron wall locked down thick and tight, the snow was swarming and swimming crazily around like it wanted in.” Now let’s cut “gray”, “thick and”, and “crazily.” “The sky was an iron wall locked down tight, the snow was swarming and swimming around like it wanted in.”

Never use two adjectives when one will do, and one will almost always do. One adjective usually implies the other, so the other is not needed. Iron implies gray, so you don’t need gray. Iron and tight, working together, imply thick, so cut thick. As for the adverb, “swarming and swimming” implies crazily, so cut crazily. Don’t bore us within a sentence by giving us the same information twice, first in verb form and then in adverb form.

Readers don’t want to luxuriate in your mellifluous sentences. They want to know what’s going on. They want to see it and feel it, then they want to move on to the next image as soon as possible. This is a good sentence, once the fat is trimmed out.

It doesn’t apply to this sentence, but one rule is that you should never use two adjectives that need a comma between them: Big blue ball doesn’t feel like it needs a comma between big and blue, so it’s fine. Cold, breezy day needs a comma, so you should probably cut one of the adjectives. Commas are speed-bumps, causing the reader to stumble and slowing down the reading process.

Here’s another sentence from that manuscript: “I stared at the blocks stupidly.” Adverbs almost always feel like apologies for failing to find an interesting verb, as if you’re saying, “I was staring, and I know that’s not very interesting, but what if I told you it was doing so stupidly?” Don’t apologize. Trust your verbs. Force us to be content with staring. It’s not possible to stare at blocks intelligently (unless the next line is, “and I spotted an important clue!”) Just cut the adverb, 90% of the time.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Annotation Project: The God of Small Things

Another bestselling novel from 1997!  I know what you’re thinking: “Um, isn’t this a big jump from Lee Child?” But is it? Both Jack Reacher and Rahel Ipa have amazing eyes that note many small things that others miss, which we’ll discuss more soon...  (Here’s the doc.)










Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Self Editing Advice from Novelist Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy is an award-winning YA novelist who wrote the excellent novels pictured above. His “Divided We Fall” trilogy was painfully prescient about our current moment. How did he get to be such a good writer? He has a skill that every writer needs: rigorous self-editing. I’m Facebook friends with Trent and he uses that forum to humorously beat himself up for things he finds as he self-edits his work, and I asked him if I could reprint some of those here. Here’s a few things we could all learn from Trent:

Avoid needless plot digressions:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! Nobody wants to read about the oh-so-brave explorers who go on a 3 page venture deep into a hole and back up for no reason. 

Avoid using the same word, even in different forms, in the same sentence:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! “These murderers had murdered members of his crew” Eh. Golly. No. Pound Sign: Worst Writer Ever

Don’t reuse descriptions:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! You can't keep describing every single fast action as happening “in seconds.” Pound Sign: WWE

Don’t describe things the hero wouldn’t notice, even in third person:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! Nobody swinging from a cable and crashing through a window into the Burj Khalifa to collide with a sofa is going to take the time to recognize that said sofa is “expensive-looking.” Pound Sign. Worst Writer Ever

Avoid unnecessary adverbs and similes:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot. It's just a hallway, even if it’s on a space ship. Nobody cares how they walk down it. Pound Sign: Worst Writer Ever.

Police yourself for phrases borrowed from other writers:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot, you can’t put “speed born of desperation” into a book. That “I've heard that phrase before” tingling in the back of your mind is right. Just Google it. Pound Sign. Worst Writer.

And, of course, like anyone trying to improve their behavior, sometimes Trent has to tell himself something twice, as these two separate posts attest:
  • No, Reedy, you idiot. People can say things. They can shout, yell, and maybe even exclaim, but unless it’s the king, nobody in this book is going to proclaim anything. Pound Sign: dialogue tags on steroids Pound Sign: WWE
  • No, Reedy, you idiot! It is almost never necessary to use “proclaimed” as a dialogue tag. If the words themselves don't convey a proclamation, the tag is never going to make up the difference!

Trent’s brand-new book is “Gamer Army” and it looks fantastic! Check it out right now…

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Podcast Episode 7: Expectations

Can it be? A seventh episode of the podcast? More than a year late? It is! And we have an eighth ready to go in three weeks! Enjoy!

(Fun fact: Soundcloud just removed the first two episodes and informed me that I have to pay twice as much now ($16 dollars a month unto eternity instead the current $8 a month) if I want them back.  This is insane, in a world in which YouTube hosts all the video you want for free forever.  Is there no better way to do this?)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

So Why Do David Remnick and Malcolm Gladwell Like Jack Reacher So Much?

A lot of you have been holding your nose as I’ve stunk up the place these last two weeks with an examination of Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel, “Killing Floor”. And I myself have had quite of few criticisms of it. Of course, I could counter that by focusing on how wildly financially successful the books are, but these books don’t just appeal to the teeming masses.

David Remnick is one of America’s most elite literary minds. He’s been the editor of “The New Yorker” for 20 years, and he currently hosts “The New Yorker Radio Hour”. Their August 10th episode was about summer reads. This being the “New Yorker”, one of them of course recommends “Moby Dick”, but Remnick differs:

  • “When summer rolls around I tend to reach for something, well, sometimes, a little shorter, a little lighter, and with more fistfights. For years I’ve been devouring a series of books about an ex-military-cop named Jack Reacher. Huge, hard-nosed, a quiet stranger who wanders into town and finds trouble inevitably… This all-American tough guy is the creation of one Lee Child…Lee Child, it’s an absolute delight to have you here, you’ve made so many summers come alive for me.”

Later, Remnick calls Child “a great writer of thrillers.” And Remnick is not alone, his “New Yorker” colleague, and acclaimed author in his own rite, Malcolm Gladwell has written about “The Lawless Pleasures of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher Novels”.

How can they like these pulpy messes, hastily written without research, outlining or revision, filled with unintentionally comedic machismo? Well, mostly for the same reasons I do: Even these high-intellectuals appreciate Reacher’s inimitable voice. For his part Gladwell says:

  • “Action, in a Reacher book, is nearly always a secondary matter. We know going in that Reacher will kill the bad guy through some combination of tactical brilliance and brute force. The pleasure is in Reacher’s moment of introspection in the millisecond before the action occurs: his silent consideration of the variables of physics, geometry, and psychology that comprise a violent encounter…”

He later concludes: “I’ve read all twenty of Lee Child’s novels. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. But I can’t wait for the twenty-first.”

But there’s another thing going on here, too. These books offer the pleasures of macho reading without a lot of the drawbacks.

Reacher’s most obvious literary antecedent is Mickey Spillaine’s Mike Hammer, who was both the last of the great hard-boiled dicks and the first of a new generation of bullet-spitting, commie-hating, over-the-top manly men who sold to a much broader paperback-reading audience. Spillaine was a better writer than Child, and he has his literary defenders, but he began a trend of alienating liberal readers that most macho writers have kept with. Child, however, breaks with it.

Don’t get me wrong, Reacher is explicitly anti-Democrat. In the first book’s third paragraph, Reacher tells us, “I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a president I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time.” He’s not naming any names, but given that the book was written in 1996, it’s not hard to figure out who he’s talking about. He goes on to complain about said president cutting the military budget, and those cuts turn out to have emboldened the bad guys and triggered their plan (Remember when Democrats would actually cut military budgets? That was a long time ago!)

But even old-school liberal Democrats like Remnick and Gladwell like and identify with Reacher, in a way they could never identify with a bundle of hate like Hammer.

One of Reacher’s most salient qualities is that, unlike most macho paperback heroes, he’s humane. He has interest in and empathy for the downtrodden. He is, after all, first and foremost, a homeless man (albeit by choice). Here he is riding to the police station after being falsely arrested:

  • I was alone in the back of the car. A thick glass partition divided the space. The front doors were still open. Baker and Stevenson got in. Baker drove. Stevenson was twisted around keeping me under observation. Nobody talked. The backup car followed. The cars were new. Quiet and smooth riding. Clean and cool inside. No ingrained traces of desperate and pathetic people riding where I was riding.  
  • I looked out of the window. Georgia. I saw rich land. Heavy, damp red earth. Very long and straight rows of low-bushes in the fields. Peanuts, maybe. Belly crops, but valuable to the grower. Or to the owner. Did people own their land here? Or did giant corporations? I didn’t know.

When Remnick and Gladwell read these books at their beach houses, they’re not going to wince with embarrassment at Reacher’s politics or worldview. Reacher tucks payment and tip under his plate as he’s being arrested at a diner and he’s a gentleman with his love interest, whom he described in non-salacious ways.

Child, who is himself an anti-Thatcher guy, has created a hero that will appeal to everyone. He knows that his most hardcore audience will be truckers and other mostly-conservative men, but his work has reached millions more by combining Spillaine’s two-fisted red-meat appeal with his own BBC-bred humanism. He’s hit the sweet spot.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

How To Plot a Mystery: How to Get Your Hero Into and Out of Trouble

The hardest part of thriller writing is getting your hero into and out of trouble in compelling and believable ways. The easiest way to get your hero into trouble is to have him do something stupid. Blunder into danger. You see this in genre fiction all the time and readers hate it. We want to admire your hero. We want to feel that we’ve picked the right hero to handle this situation. Your hero can make mistakes, of course, but it’s always better if they’re not dumb mistakes.

We love to see our heroes fall into traps, but only if they’re clever traps.

“Killing Floor” accomplishes this just fine. Our heroes have a series of unexpected reversals throughout, but not because they do anything dumb. The biggest reversal happens on schedule around the ¾ point: Our heroes know that the local cops can’t be trusted, so they bring an FBI agent into the loop, but then, by bad luck, it turns out that the FBI guy is in league with the bad guys (as we discussed before, coincidences are more acceptable is they hurt the hero.) They show up to meet the fed in a motel room, only to discover all the bad guys waiting for them with guns.

But then we get to problem #2: How do the heroes get out of trouble?

At this point, in the book, Child has me where he wants me: I’m thinking, “Uh oh, how are my heroes ever going to get out of this one?? The good guys did everything right, but they made one mistake and now they’ve lost everything! The bad guys have all the cards!”

So now Child has several questions to answer. The most obvious is, “So why don’t the villains just kill the heroes straightaway?” Thankfully, he has a good answer for this: The bad guys falsely (but logically) assume that the good guys know where one of their missing confederates is. They intend to hold the good cop hostage while Child leads them to the missing man.

(Now we get to the first odd thing: It’s important that your hero get out of things cleverly, so Reacher should instantly say, “Yup, we’ve got him stashed away and I’ll take you to him.” Instead, Reacher says, somewhat idiotically, “I thought he was dead. I don’t have him.” But thankfully they don’t believe him and Reacher catches on that he should pretend he can lead them to the man.)

They send their man Picard and two gunmen off with Reacher. Now the odd decisions multiply. The two gunmen take their own car and Picard has Reacher drive his own car. Should they all get in one car so Picard can drive and the others can hold Reacher at gunpoint in the back? But fine, let’s go with it.

Then they stop for breakfast, which again, seems odd, as the bad guys are under a big deadline, and it gives Reacher a chance to pocket a knife, but fine I’ll go with it.

Reacher leads them far out of town until they run out of gas, refills it himself, punctures the tire with the knife and gets back in the car, and drives off: So far, so clever.

When the tire eventually flattens on the highway, Reacher does another thing clever: It’s been well established before that Reacher has a box full of counterfeit hundreds in the trunk, so Reacher causes a distraction by cutting it open and letting the hundreds spray over the highway. That’s great.

Then something crazy happens: Reacher suddenly has his big-ass gun in his hand and shoots Picard dead!

What?? Reacher had his gun on him this whole time?? They never searched him?? It’s the most jaw-dropping moment in a jaw-dropping book, and not in a good way.

I went back and reread it for this blog post to see if I could figure it out.  On second readthrough it still made no sense.  But on a third reread  I scanned back through the book to find the last previous mention of the gun. Sure enough, I found a mention 50 pages before of putting the gun in his coat, and then I found a mention 10 pages after that of putting the coat in the trunk. So I guess it makes sense, but there’s two big problems here:

  • The first is that they never searched Reacher for a gun, which would have reminded us to wonder, “Oh yeah, what did happen to Reacher’s gun?”
  • Second, when Reacher finds himself at the trunk, Child never tells us that he finds the gun in the trunk! He just says that Reacher shoots Picard without mentioning where this gun came from!

Child needed to say that they searched Reacher in the motel room and found no gun and then he needed to do one of two things:

  • Either make it clear right then that the gun was waiting for him in the trunk, and then have everything from that point be a conscious series of events to get that gun back (but then that would have called attention to the fact that it made no sense to take Reacher’s car. Maybe have Reacher cleverly trick him into taking his car.)
  • Or Child could let us forget about the gun, but then reveal when he opens the trunk: “But there was one thing Picard didn’t know: That morning I’d put my gun in my coat, then I put my coat in the trunk, and it’d been waiting for me there the whole time. I picked it up, but to be safe, I needed a distraction, so I cut open the box…”

Instead, Child just gives the impression that Reacher could have whipped out a gun at any point, and it’s a laugh-out-loud moment. He’s really starting to convince me that he’s telling the truth when he says he didn’t revise the book!

The moments where your hero gets into and out of trouble are very tricky. Your reader is watching you like a hawk to see if they believe it, each way. You have to make it clear how the villain cleverly gets the jump on the hero and how the hero even more cleverly gets the jump on the villain. You have to play fair. After carefully rereading, I see that Child did have the elements he needed, but he just needed to revise so we could keep track of the gun, so that it didn’t seem to magically appear.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Rulebook Casefile: News You Can Use in "Killing Floor"

We mentioned last time that readers of Lee Child’s books admire Jack Reacher’s eyes, wishing we could see the world the way he sees it (although one commenter with more “threatening someone with a shotgun” experience than I pointed out it wasn’t the best advice), but let’s look at more examples of this.

I’ve talked before about the three kinds of jargon we like to find in a story:

  • Colorful but incomprehensible jargon that’s never explained: Reacher unleashes a blizzard of gun calibers, but we just take his word on it.
  • Nitty-gritty details about this world that they do explain: In this book, we learn a lot about counterfeiting.
  • The best of all, inside tips about this world that are also applicable to the life of the viewer: This book is full of this stuff. For example…

First and foremost the first chapter is a manual on “how to get arrested”. The most important advice here, of course, is don’t say a word, even when asked innocuous questions, even when asked to confirm you understand your rights. We also get very workaday details, such as that it’s hard to get your thumbprint to fit into the space on the form.

But the rest of the book has a torrent of advice about all sorts of things, often ludicrously macho advice. Here’s my favorite:

  • Then I cheated. Instead of counting three I headbutted him full in the face. Came off the back foot with a thrust up the legs and whipped my head forward and smashed it into his nose. It was beautifully done. The forehead is a perfect arch in all planes and very strong. The skull at the front is very thick. I have a ridge up there like concrete. The human head is very heavy. All kinds of neck muscles and back muscles balance it. It’s like getting hit in the face with a bowling ball. It’s always a surprise. People expect punching or kicking. A headbutt is always unexpected. It comes out of the blue.

I hope you’re writing this down. Absurdly, I read that and said, “Hell yeah, that’s what I’d do! It’s a perfect arch!” (Note: I am only tall enough to headbutt Bruno Mars).

Readers eat this shit up. I know I do.

And the crazy thing, as evidenced by my commenter, is that this might all be bullshit. The author is a tweedy English guy who’s never been in the police or the military or prison, never lived in America, and probably never been in a fight! But most readers (millions of them, anyway) don’t care. As with everything else in life, do it with confidence and people will believe you.

Next time: The thing I said I would get to next time last time.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Straying from the Party Line: The Big Motivation Hole (And Big Coincidence) in “Killing Floor”

Lee Child insists that he doesn’t research, doesn’t outline, and doesn’t revise. He just sits down and writes, and the most he ever deletes is seven words, which he finds painful to do because “it’s inefficient.” He is, almost certainly, lying. Writers are strongly encouraged to lie about such things by their publishers. It creates the impression that the voice of the muses flows through the author’s pen directly onto the page, perfect and immutable. The reader is communing with the heavens. This is not a product that someone has clumsily constructed at great effort, tweaked and calibrated to manipulate our emotions.

But at times, Child’s claim is somewhat convincing, because “Killing Floor” sure could have used more revision than it got. This was Child’s first novel, and he seems to have fallen into a classic beginner’s trap: The motivation hole. We begin with a neat set-up. Jack Reacher is a former MP who decided to drop off the grid and become a hobo. His only living relative is a brother he hasn’t seen in years, but the last time her heard from him, his brother mentioned that he’d passed through a town in Georgia and heard some rumors about a Depression-era blues guitarist they both like. One day Reacher is on a greyhound bus that passes a few miles away from the town and impulsive gets off and walks into town. But an unidentified corpse is found nearby and the cops decide that the drifter must be the killer. And then we’re off to the races.

This is a neat set up for a book: A falsely-accused drifter in a small town has to clear his name. We haven’t seen that a lot before. It’s more compelling than just a cop on the job. And it’s fun to root for a homeless guy for once.

But then we run into the motivation hole, because after about 100 pages, Reacher has convinced the local detective Finlay he couldn’t have done it (the bus driver alibied him). Normally, at this point, our hero could have decided to keep helping with the murder because he’s intrigued, or out of civic duty, and maybe that was the original plan, but Child, to his credit, seems to have listened to his hero, who told him that he didn’t really care. Reacher was free to go, and he was inclined to do so, so the book was over without the crime being solved.

To keep him there, Child pulls out the world’s biggest coincidence: before Reacher can leave town, the corpse is identified as his brother. True, his brother had told him about the town, but it’s sheer coincidence that Reacher showed up an hour after his brother was killed, especially because, as far as Reacher knew, his brother had just passed through once, months ago.

Obviously, this gives Reacher the secondary motivation he needs to get through the rest of the book: revenge, resulting in a far more clich├ęd book.

But how do we deal with that massive coincidence? Child simply has Reacher marvel over it for a minute:

  • I leaned up against his warm metal flank and thought.
  • The United States is a giant country. Millions of square miles. Best part of three hundred million people. I hadn’t seen Joe for seven years, and he hadn’t seen me, but we’d ended up in exactly the same tiny spot, eight hours apart. I’d walked within fifty yards of where his body had been lying. That was one hell of a big coincidence. It was almost unbelievable. So Finlay was doing me a big favor by treating it like a coincidence. He should be trying to tear my alibi apart. Maybe he already was. Maybe he was already on the phone to Tampa, checking again.
  • But he wouldn’t find anything, because it was a coincidence. No point going over and over it. I was only in Margrave because of a crazy last-minute whim. If I’d taken a minute longer looking at the guy’s map, the bus would have been past the cloverleaf and I’d have forgotten all about Margrave. I’d have gone on up to Atlanta and never known anything about Joe. It might have taken another seven years before the news caught up with me. So there was no point getting all stirred up about the coincidence. The only thing I had to do was to decide what the hell I was going to do about it.

Got that, reader? “No point going over and over it.” “No point getting all stirred up about the coincidence.” We’re moving on.

Now John August has a rule of coincidences which states that you can get away with one big coincidence in each story as long as it hurts the hero instead of helping him. And this seems to fit at first: The victim being Reacher’s brother makes no sense in the current narrative, but it makes perfect sense if Reacher came to town to kill his estranged brother. So he should be back in the detective’s crosshairs.

But he’s not. The detective just accepts the coincidence. Moving on. It’s absurd.

This fits what I said last time: Novel readers love voice, and its close cousin, character. At this point, we love Reacher, and we’ll go anywhere with him, even into absurdity. We’re glad he didn’t stick around out of civic duty, because this is a fully-realized character who wouldn’t do that, so we accept the coincidence so that the book can keep going.

Don’t get me wrong: We’re annoyed, and we wish Child had revised to avoid creating a motivation hole that could only be patched by a big coincidence. We’re a little alienated by that, but ultimately, we go with it, because we like this guy and we like this case and we want to see how he kicks everybody’s ass (and shoots a lot of them in the head.)

Next time: Another thing that should have been revised!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Why Do They Only Want Fifteen Pages?


When I work with authors, one of their greatest frustrations is that potential agents and publishers, and even some contests, only want to read the first 5-15 pages. Authors ask, “How am I supposed to establish my big plot in 15 pages? How are I supposed to introduce all my appealing characters? Maybe I can cram the first 100 pages down into those 15 pages to maximize their value…”

But of course that’s the last thing the gatekeepers want. If they care about your plot, they’ll additionally ask you for a one-page summary of the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, theyd prefer the plot kick off strongly in those first 15 pages, and maybe get to plot point #2 as a cliffhanger on page 15, but the last thing they want to do is have to digest 6 plot points crammed in to those 15 pages. And they’ll be glad to discover later that you’ve got lots of appealing characters, but they don’t want to meet a lot of them in those 15 pages.

No, the real thing they’re looking for is the hardest part of writing: voice. If you’re writing in third person, they’ll give you a few pages to establish this, because voice is more subtle in third person, but if it’s first person, forget it: they might just read your first page before they give up.

Tweedy English BBC director James Grant (soon to adopt the pen name Lee Child) got fired at age 39 and sat down at a computer to see if he could write a book. He claims that he didn’t outline or revise. Supposedly, he just started typing and composed a first paragraph:

  • I WAS ARRESTED IN ENO’S DINER. AT TWELVE O’CLOCK. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

That’s exactly what they’re looking for before they request your full manuscript. A distinctive, intriguing voice. Distinctive syntax. A rhythm and pace. Of course, it helps that (as with Beloved’s first page) we get more right away: a situation, threat, and setting. We know where we are and what we’re reading about. All in three lines.

Further down the page, we get something even better:

  • The guy with the revolver stayed at the door. He went into a crouch and pointed the weapon two-handed. At my head. The guy with the shotgun approached close. These were fit lean boys. Neat and tidy. Textbook moves. The revolver at the door could cover the room with a degree of accuracy. The shotgun up close could splatter me all over the window. The other way around would be a mistake.

The hero not only has a unique voice, he’s got unique eyes. He’s got a distinctive way of looking at the world. He sees things we wouldn’t see, and we feel privileged to have an opportunity to look through his eyes. He’s also got idiosyncratic opinions: He wants the guys arresting him to do a good job. That’s manly and appealing.

We don’t know anything about his backstory yet, and we won’t find out more in the first 15 pages, but, more importantly, we can tell that he does have a backstory, and we’re intrigued by it. We want to know more about this guy, but we don’t want him to spill it all right away. We’re content to be intrigued. It’s fun to be intrigued.

I suspect that it only took Child one paragraph to sell this book, or one page at the most.

This is one reason why writers should be writing all the time, even if they’re working on a crappy plot that’s crashing and burning. Novelists are not really in the plot-writing business, they’re in the sentence writing business. Readers want good sentences, so agents and publishers want good sentences. Readers would rather read a lame plot made up of good sentences than a great plot made up of lame sentences.  No matter what you’re writing (even blog posts), you’re writing sentences. You’re choosing words. You’re playing around with rhythm and voice.

 Your voice is your brand. That’s all they’re judging in those 15 pages.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Annotation Project: Killing Floor

Let’s do our first Annotation Project in a while. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books are comically macho, but they’re big fun and massive bestsellers. He’s living every aspiring author’s dream: Start at 40, get a big hit with your first book, crank out one a year every year starring that same beloved hero until you’re ready to retire. Let’s figure out how to do that.  You can download a Word version of these notes here.  (I promise our next book will be more literary!)