book reviews, writing technique

Dirty Dangling

I was introduced to suspense by our headmaster at primary school. Every afternoon, he read us a chapter from a book, and the one that’s stuck in my mind is Wingless Victory, the story of RAF pilot Sir Basil Embry’s two-month trek through occupied France after being shot down in May 1940. In my memory, every chapter ended with the promise of some dramatic, perilous event to come. A cliff-hanger. The whole class was hooked.

When I wrote my first crime novel, I naturally wanted suspense to be an ingredient. I’m not big on breathless pace for the sake of it, but there was a gradual build-up of tension till two-thirds through, the main character is upstairs in her house investigating the cause of a strange sound when the lights go out. The following chapter moved to a different character’s point of view, and what happened next in the house wasn’t described till sixty pages later.

Much hesitation preceded that choice. Do I do this or not? Will readers be annoyed? In the end I went for it. Sixty pages, I thought, is fair enough; they won’t be dangling for too long. It’s not as if they have to wait till the next book in the series.

The upshot? It earned me a stern rebuke from a certain Elderberry, who in a very well-written review on Amazon downgraded what was to be five stars to three. Crudely manipulative, she said, and I took her point to heart so much that I revised the book, removing both POV switch and cliff-hanger. But the damage was done, and there her review has sat ever since, at the top of the product page, putting people off.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve cooled on cliff-hangers since then. Which doesn’t mean they’re a bad thing entirely, but only, I think, if the resolution comes in the following chapter, or at most the next but one. Not sixty pages later, and never ever in the next book in the series – that’s like the dirty trick in The Walking Dead where fans had to wait a whole year to see who was clubbed to death.

But I do put a lot of thought into chapter endings. An unexpected development, a bit of tension or surprise – surely that can only be good? A few of the more climactic ones from Perfume Island, book number three in the series:

She read the sentence several times, leant back in her chair, clasped her hands together on top of her head. What the hell does that mean? She was raped?

‘And if that’s so,’ said Magali, ‘it means he came over with a specific purpose in mind. To kill Yann.’

‘I just got news from the Border Police. They fished Hafiz Chanfi out of the water an hour ago. What was left of him, anyway.’

He’d been in the lay-by or somewhere close, had sex with Youma and beaten her. But what if his propensity to rape was not the half of it? What if he was also guilty of incest?

Not exactly cliff-hangers, perhaps, but hopefully with enough drama to have the reader wanting to know more. Manipulation, sure, but don’t we manipulate with every word we write?

If you’re bent on cliff-hangers yourself, below are some tips I found on the MasterClass website (the full article is here).

  1. Withhold key information from a reader. Try narrating from the point of view of a character who doesn’t know all the information.
  2. Stay grounded in a protagonist’s sensory experience. Let the audience experience the cliffhanger the same way the character does. The character’s point of view will invariably provide a heightened sense of urgency..
  3. Keep each chapter ending concise and cut out superfluous descriptions. A great cliffhanger can be watered down by detail that would fit better somewhere else in the chapter. The end of the chapter should be taut.
  4. Make your cliffhanger scenes focus on your main character. A reader is more likely to push past the end of a chapter if a plot twist or suspenseful shift in the storyline focuses on the protagonist rather than an antagonist or ancillary character.
  5. Keep your plotlines distinct. End chapters with a cliffhanger for one particular plotline, and address other plot lines elsewhere.
  6. Remember that a cliffhanger is not a spoiler. As you develop your writing craft, take care to write chapter endings that offer foreshadowing and build suspense, but do not spoil any information that would be better saved for the very end—whether that’s a final scene, final confrontation, or, in the case of television, a season finale.
  7. Use a flashback as a cliffhanger. Flashbacks can make good cliffhangers if they reveal new information that affects the present-day action of the story. As such, a properly constructed chapter-ending flashback can fit the definition of cliffhanger.
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humor, scams, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Get Big Money Now! Click or Call!

As writers we learn from everything we read, don’t we? The good, the bad, and the ugly. This includes certain laugh-out-loud-funny, grammatically challenged examples of criminal hucksterism that flood our desktop computer and cell phone inboxes daily. These suspect come-ons are designed to tempt us into sharing personal financial info that will lead to immediate disaster and the draining of hacked bank accounts.

I take delight (yes, I’m weird that way: amused rather than irritated) in poorly written spam-scam e-mails that routinely hit my inbox. Even when the suspect communication is grammatically and syntactically correct, there is oftentimes an over-the-top, maniacal energy quality to the socially engineered “call now!” or “click here!” pitch that both alarms and repels. (Leastwise the literate, discerning receiver of such junk e-mail spams.) Here is a baker’s dozen of the best that have entertained me this year, with my considered (though not communicated) replies. 

Would you like to secure your level and be all monies? 

Carl: “Umm . . .” 

Stimulus is available to you now! Mistake if delay. We can give you advance on government checks. 

Carl: “Thank god! East European scammers to the rescue. Uncle Sam is such a slacker!” 

Would you like more money? If such dreams contact ______ at _____ and get approved while only ten minutes pass. 

Carl: “I’ll give you five . . .” 

Respond to Check Adventure today! 

Carl: “Yes! No.” 

Many are the peoples whose accounts fall off due to errors that are not their faults yet bills keep coming. How to resolve? It starts by saying “I want gold.” 

Carl: “I want gold! I want gold! I want gold!” (A beat.) “F#@k! Nothing’s happening . . .” 

We have been trying to complete your application for $10,000 – $100,000. Many pay only $50 a month or less. Approval come quick as you e-sign, so why stop? 

Carl: “I Googled your company.” 

Three times now you no respond to so much money. 

Carl: “And I shall ignore you three times more . . .” 

In just two minutes your life can change. 

Carl: “I’ll bet!” 

Carl, your $10,000 is here! Please contact us so that we can complete the bank transfer. 

Carl: “I don’t wish to own a bank; please send money in the mail.” 

Are you short of cash? That is not your fault. Get what you need today. 

Carl: “I am gratified and reassured! I knew being poor wasn’t my fault. 20k in small bills, please.” 

So many people have happy bills now that they modify with extra dollars. Call our operators to learn how fast you can change the bills. 

Carl: “Joy tremors! I call so fast we go back in time to modify sad-face debts.”  

We tried to reach you by phone and failed. So now we reach out with money that starts by clicking this link to see what amount. Almost everybody get big money! Bad credit is no problem to us.  

Carl: “Well sure; that makes sense–who needs good credit to get ‘big money’ ?” 

And my personal favorite for enthusiastic succinctness, the pitch that began: 

Money everywhere! 

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Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Poem Composed After Reading Gertrude Stein

As Monty Python used to say: “And now, for something completely different . . .”

Gristle Zippers

Hell is a horror is a belt is a house.   

Mommy white-faced, clench-jawed, smoking dollar bills   

green green angry   

our rabbit-eared television    

blares vacuum tube pophisses &   

fingersnap jingle-jangles upon the raptured children   

twixt game glows & sporting ejects   

better soaps & tires, softer sheets, sparkling dishes  

a fork is a fork is a fork   

chow down to father. Chow down. To father. Chow  

down to. father. Chow. Down. To. Father.  

How now cows aflutter  

vulcanized rubber sighs to do, to go, to be

gathered imbecility docility virility   

conditioned by Madison Avenue to consume, to obey   

gun-metal blue the guns, knives, grenades, berets   

foundling war: writhing rhythms   

’mongst blinkered-tinkered-sphincter’d toys    

beribboned chests & broken-backed books.    

O joy! O joke! O death! Deaths.   

Fall silent in the nave   

the grave of mind.    

–Carl E. Reed

——————–

Author’s note: Gertrude Stein would not approve of this poem. It is contemptibly bourgeois and thoroughly unconvincing in the trite, commonplace sentiments it proffers as subversive and borderline anarchist; also, it is cretinously conventional in grammar and structure. Moreover, it makes too much sense; hence violates the core principle of Dada: purest pointlessness. 

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book sales, self-publishing, Writers Co-op

SELF-PUBLISH BOOK SALES

Who makes money self-publishing? Probably, E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey sold the most copies. LJ Ross’ series about Detective Chief Inspector Ryan has a total of around 4.5 million copies. Rachel Abbott has sold over four million copies. Every one of her 11 crime novels hit six figure sales in its first year.

What genres dominate? Half of the e-book bestsellers in the romance, science fiction, and fantasy genres on Amazon are self-published!

Famous authors who self-published? E.L. James, of course. Margaret Atwood self-published her poems. Beatrix Potter first self-published 250 copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. And, of course, successful authors from Mark Twain to Stephen King cut out the middle man.

Do many authors make money self-publishing? According to Amazon’s 2019 review of its Kindle sales, thousands of self-published authors earn over $50,000, while more than a thousand hit six-figure salaries from their book sales.
‘course, In 2020, there were over 44.2 thousand writers and authors working in the United States,
https://www.statista.com/statistics/572476/number-writers-authors-usa/
Best estimates suggest the “average” self-published, digital-only book sells about 250 copies in its lifetime. By comparison, the average traditionally published book sells 3,000 copies, but only about 250-300 of those sales happen in the first year.

So should we self-publish? Obviously, we don’t need a publisher to publish a book. To earn their cut, a publisher must promote your book or they ain’t worth feeling good about. And once you’re famous, you just don’t need them. Feel free to treat publishers the way they treat authors: make me money or go away.

DISCLAIMER: Just my opinion here, but obsessing about money misses the point that life’s memories are made from other stuff. For example: Unlike money, an author’s book is never spent.

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Uncategorized, world-building

Some Notes On the Art of Description

Primary Sources 

The world is not   

a clever sequence of words 

or transfixing series

of images. 

__________

It is not a poem  

or painting, 

music 

film, literature

sculpture made of bone 

bronze, iron 

or clay. 

__________

Then what is the world  

I asked. 

__________

Taste, sound, odors  

sights, textures

she said.

__________

That is not the world 

I said 

those are perceptions of the world. 

__________

Exactly

she said.

__________

Ah! 

I have my poem. 

—Carl E. Reed

………………………………………………….

One of the most difficult skills to master in the craft of fiction writing is the manufacturing of presence: the ability of the writer to put their readers thereright there, in the middle of the action—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—what the viewpoint character is experiencing. The evocation of sensory stimuli via text is one of the most effective, yet spooky tools (to use Norman Mailer’s term for this knock-on effect of vivid prose) that the fictioneer has in his or her bag of tricks. When done well, the reader is all but unaware that these sensory details are being fed to them in the course of the narrative’s unfolding. They enter fully into the fictional dream without being consciously aware that tiny black tick marks on a page are the software code stimulating the machinery of the brain into producing transfixing hypnagogic visions.  

Ah, but the writer must be consciously aware! He or she, in the role of spell-binding enchanter, selects and highlights the telling details that bring a story to life. And it is exactly here that many novice writers fail—with descriptions that are muddled, confusing or imprecise; primarily visual; or otherwise lacking in vividness and color. Art conceals art, and it is not until a writer deconstructs a particularly vivid or arresting passage in a favorite work of fiction that they begin to work out the mechanics of how the trick is done.  

Stephen King notes: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” He advises that writers describe things “in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” 

In On Writing, his primer of the craft, Mr. King further elaborates: “Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to . . . Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story. . . . ” 

Master prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov wonderingly reminds us:

“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing . . . I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.” (Pale Fire)


V. N. ends his short story The Fight this way: 

Or perhaps what matters is not the human pain or joy at all but, rather, the play of shadow and light on a live body, the harmony of trifles assembled on this particular day, at this particular moment, in a unique and inimitable way. 

True, the above example is all visualbut what a visual! A painterly evocation of the fall of light and shadow whilst the author dismisses transient human emotions as the raison d’être of meaning in favor of foregrounding the quotidian specificity of “a harmony of trifles” that sum to epiphany via the appreciation of beauty: that body; right here, right now.

Or this bit of exquisite, pitch-perfect verbiage (visuals + sound + metaphor) from Nabokov’s short story The Aurelian:

. . . out of the black generous night, a whitish moth had dashed in and, in an audible bob dance, was kissing its shadow all over the ceiling.

To draw upon my own writing for an illustrative sample of this technique (“Sure, sure hide behind Stephen King and Nabokov all day; let’s see some of your own stuff, bucko!” I can hear the critics snarling, knives a-sharpening) here is the opening scene in full of Samhain Eve: A Celtic Tale:

……………………………………………………………….

Owen Kerrigan awaited the return of a dead man. He stood outside his stone-slabbed hut, gazing across the meadow at the edge of the boggy woods, breath a chill mist in the air. A peaty tang carried to his nostrils, mixed with the fragrant wood smoke of the bon fires that had burned in the village since dawn. One hand shaded his eyes against the westering light.

Dusk of October 31st. Samhain Eve: the end the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. A time of bon fires and celebratory feasting, sacred observance and human sacrifice, daylight revels followed by night-haunted terrors and warding rituals. A portentous, carnivalesque, liminal time when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead thinned to nothing. It was this latter fact that was the source of Owen Kerrigan’s growing unease, as he waited for the return of the young man he’d murdered three years ago in a raid on a rival clan.

 A wooden door creaked open behind him. Owen dropped his hand from his eyes and turned to behold the perspiring face of his wife.

“Come inside, Owen. Our meal grows cold.” Tara glanced down at the candlelit, hollowed-out turnips flanking the doorway, transformed by artful carving into monstrous faces: an ancient custom meant to ward off the haints, nightgaunts and other supernatural beasties that prowled about on New Year’s Eve. “The candles will burn most of the night; let the flame guardians greet our friend.” She stepped back and closed the door.

 Mayhap Tara was satisfied that the candlelit grotesqueries would prove sufficient barrier to ward off the things of the netherworld that came a-knockin’ after dark on October 31st, but Owen was not. After all, it’d never stopped him from returning before.

 Bran. The young man’s name was Bran. A fact he’d found out only later, after a delegation of tribal elders from his village met with the murdered victim’s family and his betrothed, Deirdre, to offer iron and gold and silver-tongued apologies to avert an all-out retaliatory war.

A faint tinkling of childish laughter sounded from a hut a stone’s throw away behind him, near the edge of a stand of alder and birch bordering the southern side of the village. This was followed by the yowl of a cat and the basso-profundo cursing of his neighbor Kendrick, a roar almost immediately counter-pointed by the scolding alto of his wife.

Owen smiled a small, sad smile. He and Tara had not, as yet, produced any children.

Glancing once more at the edge of the boggy wood to the west―the direction the dead man had approached in years past―Owen said, “Come then, Bran. Return to this world if you must. But Cernunnos hear me, there’s nothing more I can do for you; no way to undo what’s been done. If I could grant you life again . . .” He trailed off, fists balled at his sides. His mouth was dry; a bitter taste of bile on the tongue.

No answer from the mire. Tendrils of fog twined amongst an acidic fenestration of scraggly shrub, withered black spruce and waxy leatherleaf.

Owen unclenched his fists. The sting in his hands abated; blood rushed back into the crescent moons dug into the flesh of his palms. He turned and went inside.

……………………………………………………………….

In this opening scene all of our human senses are evoked: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.

Now look at your own writing. How many senses are evoked during the course of your narrative? I will state it bluntly and brace for blow-back: If all or most of your scenes contain only visual (or primarily visual) evocations, you are failing at the art of fiction. Your writing is sputtering along at 1/5th the power and intensity it could have. (Which is not to say that every scene must evoke all five senses; so regimented and crude an application of technique would be ham-fisted and ultimately self-defeating: the reader would tumble to what you are doing almost at once and grow annoyed.)

What is your approach to writing descriptive passages in your fiction? (Please cite some pertinent passages for example.) Are there writers you think handle descriptive passages particularly well? Particularly poorly? Would you care to cite some of those examples here? Is there anything else you’d like to say on the subject?  

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