Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: February 2007

Review: The Hunt Ball

The Hunt Ball, by Rita Mae Brown
4/10, a confusing soap opera of a mystery interrupted by social pontification

Any time you open a book with a seven-page cast of characters, all of whom are unfamiliar, it’s a bad sign, or at least a sign that perhaps you shouldn’t be starting with this book. The Hunt Ball is the fourth or perhaps the fifth in a series of “foxhunting mysteries” by Brown, clearly relying on the reader to remember characters from the previous books. The “Cast of Characters” is thrown in more as a warning than a guide. Still, I’ve managed to start other series midway through and even enjoy them (Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective, for one), so I forged on ahead.

The problem with this book isn’t necessarily with the cast of characters, or perhaps I should say the only problem isn’t with the cast of characters. I got the characters as a list of names, only occasionally with personalities assigned to them. Here is how some of the characters are built up:

“Pamela Rene has been a pain in the ass since her sophomore year. […] She’s furious because she wasn’t elected class president. You will recall she accused Valentina of voter fraud. A bad apple,” Knute said.

Got that, everyone? Pamela = bad apple. A character said it, so it doesn’t count as exposition, right? And with a cast of characters this big, you can’t afford to show the important character traits, right? So it’s okay.

“She has a mother who was once the highest-paid model in New York and still wants the limelight, and a father who has built one of the largest trucking companies in America. there’s not much time for Pamela.” Amy knew the Rene family well.

That sounds like the perfectly natural conversation of a couple people at a small school who have been teaching this girl for three years, doesn’t it? Eesh.

The murder, when it happens, is effective enough, but we don’t have a strong central character to follow through the unraveling of it. Sister Jane Arnold, ostensibly the heroine of the book, appears in less than half of it, much of which is taken up with explanations of the details of American foxhunting (they don’t kill the fox, just chase it around, and it’s okay because the foxes like it, as evidenced by the few otherwise pointless scenes in which the foxes talk to each other) or descriptions of people she once knew. The murder in a mystery should be the catalyst for action: every scene following it should yank the reader forward. What does this clue mean? Why did this person say/do what they did? And each revelation should bring more questions, until the denouement. Ideally, too, there should be some suspense. There’s a killer on the loose! Who knows who might be next?! In The Hunt Ball, the murder makes people vaguely worried. There are no clues to follow up on, so life more or less just meanders on as it did before, until the second murder. Which is kept quiet so it won’t affect the hunt ball.

The hunt ball, of course, is where everything unravels, but even there, Brown is unable to build any suspense or tension. An incident occurs that sets tensions boiling over into a fight, which would be great if we’d been allowed to follow a character long enough to feel that tension. The next incident, which leads to another killing and the resolution of the case, starts happening out of sight of the point of view characters and is only caught near the end. It has all the tension of one of the far too many foxhunts presented in the book, described apparently for the pleasure of describing them rather than to advance the story. And let’s not forget the little commentaries Brown intersperses her story with:

Young women should not wear diamonds, rubies, or sapphires. They are not yet ready to carry such responsibility, for jewelry, in its way, determines a woman’s place.

Lastly, she seems very confused about what the difference is between red, gray, and black foxes–unforgivable for someone writing about people who are supposedly experts. It’d be like writing a book about astronomers who think moons turn into stars.

I try to select good books, so the ratings I’ve given in my reviews to date generally fall above the 7-line. I seriously considered not finishing this book several times. Maybe it’s just not for me, but heck, these are my ratings, and given the complete lack of character development, plot movement, narrative flow, or suspense–in a murder mystery!!–I think a 4 is generous. At least I didn’t throw it across the room.

Review: The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
9/10, a gothic thriller set in post-Civil War Barcelona

I had no idea what to expect from this book, which was a Christmas present. The cover promises a “scary, erotic, touching, tragic and thrilling” tale, which I abbreviated above to “gothic,” seeing as how I’m not being paid by the word. Descriptions aside, I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Shadow of the Wind” lived up to all of the above billing.

It begins with a bookseller taking his son to pick a book from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and already I’m hooked. The son, Daniel, chooses a book called “The Shadow of the Wind,” by an author named Julián Carax, and falls in love with it. Naturally, he tries to find other works by Carax, only to be told that they have been all but eradicated. A visit from a shadowy figure who calls himself by the name Lain Coubert tries to get the book from young Daniel, who recognizes the name as the character of the devil from “Shadow of the Wind,” and refuses.

Zafón’s “Shadow of the Wind” (as opposed to Carax’s) is Daniel’s coming of age story. He falls in love several times over the course of the book, and his story meshes with and parallels the story of young Carax, which we discover as well. Along the way, Daniel enlists several allies, including a charming rogue named Fermín with a chequered past of his own.

Mid-century Barcelona’s streets, secret places, apartments, and rooftops are painted with loving detail, and highlighting that is the walking tour of modern-day Barcelona included at the end of the book. At one point, when one of Daniel’s romantic entanglements tells him she’s considering leaving Barcelona to marry a soldier, he promises to show her a part of Barcelona she’s never seen, to convince her to stay. Only secondarily does he promise to show her something in himself that is better than her fiancé. Barcelona, the city, is essential to the soul of the characters, and Zafón parcels out her character as thoroughly as any of the people in the book.

The adventure slows down in parts, as it must with so many stories to tell, but Zafón never lets it drag for long. By the time the pace does slow, I was used to his style and invested enough in the characters to want to learn more about them. And the backstory is, at times, as compelling as the main story, with its own secrets to be revealed.

My main problem with the book was the translation. It’s lauded elsewhere, but I found it a trifle awkward in parts, especially around the dialogue. It didn’t seem to match with the style of the book, or the time period, one or the other. As they first meet Fermín, bringing him in off the street, Daniel says, “Come on, boss, put these clothes on, if you don’t mind; your erudition is beyond any doubt.” It feels like the words and cadences of a slightly different time, or a non-native English speaker, and it takes me out of the book. Just a bit, but enough to be jarring.

That aside, “Shadow of the Wind” is a terrific ride, filled with wonderful characters and tragic stories, a beautiful city and a bibliocentric plot that is well worth the time to lose yourself in.

Review: Get Shorty

Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard
9/10, a fast-moving thriller with great characters and language

In one of my writing workshops last year, our teacher handed out a style guideline by Elmore Leonard called something like “Easy on the Hooptedoodle,” which could be summed up as “don’t overwrite.” I’d seen “Get Shorty” and enjoyed it, but had never read anything of his, so I was looking forward to the book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Leonard’s prose is clean and crisp, his characters drawn quickly and precisely, his plot fast and engaging. Chances are you know the story from the movie; Leonard said of this screenplay (by Scott Frank): “All the adaptations of my books all sucked. This one got it right for once.” It’s a testament to Leonard’s skill that I was able to read most of the book without calling the image of John Travolta to mind.

The story involves a movie producer, an aging actress, a dishonest dry cleaner, a thug who runs a limo service, a stuntman, a mob boss, and a movie star. At the center of all this madness is Chili Palmer, who got his nickname initially because he was so hot-tempered, but has kept it because he’s so cool under pressure. It’s the perfect name for him, and he maintains his cool throughout the increasingly crazy events of his trip to L.A. He has a very clear idea of what image he projects, and he keeps himself together no matter what happens. In fact, most of this book is about image vs. substance: the movie star whose image is at odds with the reality; the stuntman who made a living pretending to endanger his life; the actress trying to escape the type-casting of her looks; the movie business that cherishes image over all else. Chili is good at the movie business precisely because he is so aware of the image he projects, what other people see and what he wants them to see.

In the end, of course, substance wins out. Leonard the writer could hardly craft any other ending. But he, like Chili, is very aware of the impact of his words and how we react upon reading them. If you want a primer for action scenes, character building in a few quick strokes, or realistic dialogue–good, clean writing, in other words–you could do worse than pick up this book.

One book… book for sale

My novel “Common and Precious” is now for sale on Sofawolf Press’s site. It debuted last month at a local convention where we sold out of the box we brought. Initial reaction to the book has been positive enough to make me happy. Here’s hoping people continue to enjoy it! Link will remain over in the right sidebar for now.

Questions of Character

There’s a lot of thinking around how to get into a character’s head while writing. In a screenwriting class, we got a list of many questions to answer about your character before you get into a story. Some of them seemed relevant, some a little silly (favorite color? I guess it doesn’t hurt to have that info all in one place…). Anyway, in light of the recent course I took on tension and conflict, I came up with a couple more questions that I might want to answer about a character before going ahead and writing a story about him or her. “He” used as the generic pronoun to save space.

* Who does the character instinctively turn to in times of stress?
* How does the character react when he does something wrong?
* How does he react when someone points out that he’s done something wrong?
* How does he view someone trying to help him? As helpful or as condescending?
* How does he try to solve problems? Step back and assess the situation or jump in and charge?
* How does he react to a friend of his doing something wrong (i.e. kid who catches his friend shoplifting)?
* What does he do to relax?
* How does he view friendships? More casually or more intensely? This also affects how he views actions he sees as counter to his friendships–with a shrug, or with a sense of betrayal.

I’m sure there are a lot more, but those are some good ones to figure out how your character will handle stressful situations. Got any more of your own?

Be aware of your surroundings

I’m taking a two-weekend class on “Tension, Conflict, and the Unknown,” and one of the writing exercises we did during Saturday’s 10-4 session (which was more like five hours ’til you count getting-started time, 45 minutes for lunch, and a twenty-minute break) was to write a scene between two people who wanted different things, in a specific environment that would intrude on their scene.

It was a very helpful exercise, and it clicked with a piece of advice I got from our last screenwriters workshop, which was that you never write a full page of screenplay with only dialogue. There’s always something going on, some direction, some way the actors interact with the set. It gives the scene texture and depth. The same applies in prose writing: you don’t just want a pair of talking heads. They should be in a setting that complements their scene.

The scene I chose was a library, where two college students were doing research for a history report. One wanted to talk about something they’d done (presumably a date), while the other didn’t want to talk about it at all. The setting of the library worked in favor of the one who didn’t want to talk about it, of course, as it’s a quiet venue. Imagine how much harder it would be to resist talking to someone at an outdoor fair, where everything is loud and noisy.

Now as I’m going back through the works I’m editing now, I’m hyper-conscious of the setting for each one of my scenes. How does the main character (and others) interact with his/her surroundings? Could the scene be set in a better place? What aspects of the setting intrude on the scene? If they’re in a restaurant, use the waiter, the food, the nearby couples–bring them all in as they pertain to the discussion the characters are having.

Yet another thing to remember and think about while writing. This feels more like something you would highlight for a second or third draft–not something you necessarily worry about when getting your first draft down on paper. Still, it’s important, and you really improve your scenes by thinking about it. Go on. Try it.