Thursday, January 28, 2010

A good day.

Yesterday was a 3,000+ word day. Some of them I may even keep.

It can be a peculiar sensation when you get into the zone like that, finding yourself pulled almost hypnotically back to the keyboard and monitor, even after you've decided to pause long enough to, oh, fetch the kids from school, supervise the homework, make dinner, run baths, walk the dog, fold the laundry, read bedtime stories . . .

Of course, you end up with only four hours sleep.

And then you realize that if every day were this productive, you'd be within reach of polishing off a book a month. Eight years at that rate and I'll have caught up with Wodehouse. And the only snag is that nobody's actually paying me to do it.

P.S. Solved the problem of which of the two ripostes to use (see "Now I remem--" ) by coming up with a third one. The same method that the Council of Constance used in 1414 to end the Great Schism of Western Christianity.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Just passed the 100,000 word point in the first draft.

This is also my general target for the entire book, after editing. Sobering thought, then, that with four chapters still to go, I plan to subtract as much as I intend to add.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Now I remem--

That worked. Ten minutes into the dog walk -- crossing the Playland parking lot, in fact -- I'd come up with two possible responses to Mallard's epiphany, both of them good. Don't know if either was the answer I'd thought of earlier, but it doesn't matter.

New problem: don't know which to use.

Thanks for the . . . what was it?

Irritating moment just now. As I romp toward the end of This Private Plot (the novel, not the blog), we hit that point on the graph where the mystification curve crests and begins to slope downward -- solutions are offered, puzzles are explained. What magicians call "the reveal," only they don't have to stick around to tell you how it was done. ("There's still one thing I don't understand, Inspector . . .")

Almost from the beginning, I've had a vivid image of how one reveal is accomplished, a moment when my character Superintendent Mallard (Mallard of the Yard) steps forward from the shadows and says something utterly baffling to those around him, but which quickly -- well, after a tantalizing cutaway -- shows that he has unraveled at least one of the strands of the mystery.

It was so real in my head that I didn't bother to add it to my notes. Mallard makes his cryptic utterance -- yes, that's fine, got all that. And, to conclude the scene, the suspect responds with  . . . what? I know I had an equally good riposte for him, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was. Bugger. (Sorry, Mum.)

I'll take the dog for a walk. The exercise combined with the opportunity to think often produces results. If that fails, I'll take a shower -- the ozone and the head massage are also good for ideas. (Actually, I'll take the shower anyway. It's Tuesday, after all.) If I still can't remember, I'll take the dog for a walk in the shower and see if that does the trick.

Monday, January 25, 2010

A high wind in Rye.

Rapping, rapping at my rear deck door. About 10:00 a.m. this morning, during a rainstorm. It's the homeless squirrels I feel sorry for.

(I'm kidding, of course. I hate the bushy-tailed bastards, digging up my lawn just in case they buried an acorn there last year and forgot about it, like an amnesiac pirate. And they used to eat my front steps.)

Now everyone I tell about the tree immediately shakes his or her head sadly and tells me it's going to cost me a packet to have it dismembered and removed. But when I suggest to the mem-sahib that I rent a chain saw and do the job myself, she laughs so heartily that I can barely make out her "Of course not." This is an unfair besmirchment of my reputation -- I've only had to go to the emergency room once in the last few years for a blade-related incident, and it was only a few stitches. Everything else, I managed to treat at home, and my current navy blue thumbnail was the result of slamming the thumb in my underwear drawer, nothing to do with tools.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Daily Insult.

This picture is a portrait of me, drawn on my office whiteboard by six-year-old Tertius. The original had the number "86" on my chest.

Since I don't possess any numbered sports jerseys, I asked him where it came from.

"Aren't you eighty-six?" he asked innocently. "Oh, wait, I know, you're fifty-two," he adds cheerfully.

"Fifty-three," Primus corrects him instantly as he walks by.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

How many idiots does it take NOT to screw in a lightbulb?

Okay, confession time. Guilty pleasure #45. Being on Yahoo! News and clicking the "Dear Abby" link. And once in a while . . . Well, I quote:
DEAR ABBY: I'm having a dispute with my husband. He thinks you screw in a lightbulb clockwise. I disagree. I say counter-clockwise. Which of us is correct?  ERIKA IN PELHAM, ALA.

DEAR ERIKA: He is. You screw in a lightbulb by turning it to the right, the same way you tighten a lid on a jar -- which is clockwise. The mnemonic for this is: "Right is tight; left is loose."
I mean, why don't . . . ? Are you so . . . ? Abby, why are you even . . .? Oh, never mind. You have just witnessed the rare event of words failing me.

Good night, sweet prince.

Whenever I’m asked who I think is (or was) the most beautiful movie star ever, I usually say Jean Simmons.

And then I usually have to explain that I mean the English actress who starred in Great Expectations, Guys and Dolls and Spartacus, not that guy from KISS with the long tongue.

Alas, today’s news brings word of the death of 80-year-old Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier’s choice for the film role of Ophelia when she was only in her teens. A sad end to a week that also unexpectedly took Robert B. Parker. Mind you, he went at his desk.
However, as I’m looking at the brief tribute to Ms. Simmons on the BBC News website, I notice there’s a box showing the current ranking of the most popular stories. The latest from Haiti is number one, Venuzuelan oil number two, Jean Simmons’ passing number three, some fresh horror story from Nigeria, number four . . .  All with today’s dateline.

But at number five, a report headed “Bed Sharing Drains Men’s Brains.” From 2006.

Intrigued, I click and discover that for men, but not for women, the sleep interruptions that come from a partner’s movements in the night is enough to impair their mental ability the next day and increases stress hormones, at least according to an article in New Scientist based on research at the University of Vienna. And a sleep expert from an English University comments: "Historically, we have never been meant to sleep in the same bed as each other. It is a bizarre thing to do.”

Perhaps what’s even more bizarre, though, is the fact that this is currently the number one shared story for BBC News, four years after its first appearance.

Why do I think most of the sharing is between husbands and wives? But which direction?

Friday, January 22, 2010

The f-word. Yup, that f-word.

In the days when I had a website, I had a (pleasingly longish) list of extracts from favorable reviews of my published books. I concluded the first list with a comment from my adoptive mother -- possibly the only comment she made to me about the book: "I see you used some bad language."

Mum, you ain't heard nothing yet.

(Her comment on the second book was "I won't give a copy to your aunt, I don't think she'd approve." This, from the woman who handed me my first Agatha Christie when I was twelve, and so is partly to blame for the fact you're reading this tripe.)

Of course, the supposed bad language was only bad for her generation and her cultural milieu. American readers would expect the English to pepper their conversation with "bloody" -- and I do -- perhaps without realizing that, until fairly recently, it was quite offensive back in England. Well, to my mother's generation, anyway. Much more "goddamn" than "goshdarn." It led to the creation of a slew of "minced oaths" (although I like the word "discursives"): "blooming," "blasted," "bleeding," "ruddy."  Same with "bugger." In the US, I've heard that applied to children -- little things that bug us, like rugrats or anklebiters, not its alternative dictionary meaning of . . . well, look it up. Same as "sod."

However, in deference to my late mother's sensibilities, I had never dropped the f-bomb on my readers.  "What if my mother reads this?" was still a guiding editorial principle for bad language and scenes of sexual activity when I was in my forties and into my second marriage. Truly.

But today -- if I can get all my bills paid first and walk the dog -- I have to write a joking comment that's highly relevant to character development, and it's based on confusing two of the f-word's many functions: its literal meaning and its use as an intensifer. (Actually, it's the present participle form.)

And it has to be that word. Nothing else seems to work. We don't use other synonyms for copulation as intensifiers: "She's bonking amazing," "You are so shagging dead." Or vice versa, there don't seem to be any commonly used intensifiers -- many of them minced oaths -- that also mean to fornicate: "Let's go home and freak our brains out." Besides, why serve sevruga when there's beluga in the fridge?

I could always use the "f***ing" option, but it does severely weaken the impact of the joke. It's like decaf. It's like alcohol-free beer. It's like going skinny-dipping but keeping your underwear on.

Well, I'm a big boy now, so it's on with the blindfold and then type away.

Now I just have to worry about my children reading it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Finsbury revisited.

You wait years to write Finsbury the Ferret's next appearance in the Swithin chronicles, and it's done in a day's work. (That's about the same anticipation-to-experience ratio as a ride at Disney World.) Of course, it'll be tweaked and refined many times, but the guts of the scene is substantially in place. The ferret was rude about Oliver's driving, too.

Unduly noted.

In the long run-up to actually writing the novel, I was making random notes of the thoughts and ideas that occurred to me. The single Word file containing these notes grew over the years to the length of a novella. Now, as I begin each chapter, I scour this file for facts or reminders or snippets of pre-written dialog that are going to be needed, and as I find them, I move them into the file for that new chapter. As you can imagine, for the first few chapters, that was quite a task. It's just about the one aspect that gets easier as you go on, because each time there are fewer notes remaining to be accommodated.

Of course, when I'm finished, there'll be stuff left over that will never be used: scenes I decided to drop, avenues I didn't explore, points that didn't fit in anywhere. And inevitably, there's some material that seems to have no relevance at all -- at least,  over the years, I've completely forgotten why I made the notes in the first place.

Pride of place at the moment goes to a list of U.S. states in which oral sex is still illegal. (I say "still," but that implies that some politician may yet find the nerve to modernize these archaic laws that are still on the books, when we all know such a move would clash with the necessary piety he or she needs to fake to win re-election. Keep your head down, as they say.)

I have no idea why I thought I'd need this information, but for those who want to avoid arrest, they're Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia and Washington D.C. (Odd that it didn't come up in Clinton's impeachment.)

However, according to my notes, even this pales beside some other state laws. Yes, state -- these aren't the peculiarities of some rural community, such as Connorsville, Wisconsin, where it's illegal for a man to shoot off a gun when his female partner is having an orgasm.

In Virginia. for example, it's against the law to have sex with the lights on. And if you want to make love in neighboring Washington, D.C. -- and who wouldn't? -- you can only do so legally if you adopt the so-called missionary position*. Lends a whole new meaning to "inside the Beltway." Capital.

*That's when two people sleep with a missionary between them. Joke.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Strangers in the night.

Okay, into Chapter 16 and I've come to the part that I love and dread -- the ritual appearance of Finsbury the Ferret.

My amateur detective, Oliver Swithin, is a children's book writer and, like Conan Doyle before him, he's created a fictional character that he's come to detest. Finsbury crept into Oliver's "Railway Mice" books by mistake, crapped, and refuse to creep out again or indeed clean up after himself. He's the embodiment of all that's vile, which is why he became so popular, among Oliver's adult readers as well. (He's also popular among my readers. Truly.)

Now I prefer to leave most of his evil ways to the readers' imagination. That's largely because anything I come up with is sure to leave them wanting -- I don't do despicable well, despite what my wife will tell you. But even this tip of the iceberg, this glimpse of the dark soul of the beast, is a challenge.

In previous books, Finsbury has appeared in brief extracts from Oliver's stories. This time, I have him popping up in a dream, telling his own creator a few home truths about his physique, his abilities as a lover . . . and conducting a Socratic dialogue about one key aspect of the mystery that Oliver's trying to solve.

I did this once before, and my editor at the time threw her hands up in horror, so it was cut. But I emphasize, this isn't supposed to be "woo-woo"; there's no supernatural delivery of new information. It's just an entertaining way to present Oliver's thought processes, as he belatedly makes connections between the clues that are already plainly on the table. And in this case, he has his reasons for being in denial while conscious.

They say as soon as you know you're dreaming, you wake up. My problem is, how long can you have a conversation with a pot-smoking, Blackberry-using, foul-mouthed talking ferret and not suspect that it's all a dream? (Go ask Alice.)

The (rather old) picture shows me at a book signing, with Diane Plumley's Houdini standing in for Finsbury.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A word from the Master.

Looking online to check Wodehouse's final score for the last entry, I found this superb quote, not from his fiction, but from the introduction to Summer Lightning:
A certain critic -- for such men, I regret to say, do exist -- made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained "all the old Wodehouse characters under different names." He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha; but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have outgeneralled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
(Incidentally, the picture is the cover of the audiobook -- as an interpreter of Wodehouse, Martin Jarvis is the ne plus ultra.)

The Birds.

One of the best books I ever read on writing -- and I know many people would agree -- is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It gets its title from this anecdote, which I'm quoting in full from the jacket:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."
Quite apart from the eerie relevance of this situation to Primus (project due tomorrow, barely touched), it does capture the plodding, slow-motion experience of getting the next book done. Getting any book done, I imagine. For too long, I had barely started, living with my copious notes and plans, but having less than a chapter of finished text, ducking that "when's the next book due out?" question -- even ducking the "are you writing?" question. Feeling like a fraud for even describing myself as a mystery writer, in fact. But you knuckle down. You have to. No short cuts. No quick fixes. No instant gratification or overnight success.

Words, paragraphs, pages are easy, but you still pat yourself on the back for those 3,000 word days (more for time management than creativity) even if you cut half of them during the next day's edit. Chapters, each one a new Word file in the folder, are more of a cause for celebration. Then you look up and realize that, bird by bird, you've finally got something to show for your ambitions -- I'm now about 80% into This Private Plot -- and like a great fractal, you're within reach of opening up not just a new file, but a new folder for the next book.

P.G.Wodehouse wrote 96 books. Ruth Rendell's nearly up to 70. This is my fourth. Sigh. Mind you, there was a time when even one seemed a bird as fabulous as a roc or a phoenix. As the saying goes, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Hmm, maybe I'll give that advice to Primus -- he took the "bird by bird" story too personally.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Fifteen down.

Just finished Chapter 15. At about four o'clock in the morning. Past 95,000 words and rounding the curve before the 100,000 milestone. Salvaged a couple of good lines from the deleted encounter with the village policeman and used them for a different scene.

(I didn't start writing till late. The boys were up well past their bedtime, because my watch had stopped. Oddly, I didn't notice for several hours that time seemed to have paused at 6:45 p.m.)

Before eight o'clock this morning, Tertius wakes me to complain that there's no milk for his breakfast cereal. I suggest he ask his one of his brothers to fetch a new carton from the basement fridge and bury my head under the pillow. Thirty seconds later, he's back, wailing about their noncooperation. I guess I forgot to remind him to ask "nicely."

And so the day begins. . .

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Black and white and read.

Talking of metaphors for black and white, for last year's "author's tea" at Midland Elementary, ten-year-old Primus wrote a description of the night. It contained a line that described the stars blazing like diamonds in a sky that was as black as coal.

And it occurred to him that both substances, diamond and coal, which he had selected because of their extreme contrasts of brightness and darkness, are actually variant forms of the same element, our prime constituent carbon.

Now I could probably reflect for hours on the deeper implications of that observation and its Manichean relevance to human nature and the cosmos and whatever lies beyond, but I have to go food shopping with all three boys in tow, because the mem-sahib has skipped town for the weekend. And anyway, it makes my head hurt. So feel free to take it and run with it.

Perfection. You can't beat it.

Back in Chapter 1 of the novel, I was scrabbling around for a metaphor for conspicuousness. I came across a great line (attribution lost in the mists of fame): "She stood out like a green tube top in Church."

And there was no point trying to invent anything better than that, because there is nothing better. There couldn't be.

Sometimes you meet perfect phrases like that. There was, and probably is, a punk rocker who took the name "Elvis Hitler." Best punk name ever. Best punk name possible.

And there was, and still is, a Mexican cafe (and "speakeasy") on Columbus Avenue called "Senor Swanky's." An unbeatable ironic nod to the lost night life of 40s and 50s Manhattan, when Ricky Ricardo might have been leading the band while Walter Winchell took notes at a nearby table.

So I eventually came up with something that stands out "like a polar bear in a nunnery." By no means the best paradigm for black and white, but I think there's some compensating humor, first in the sheer surrealism of the situation and then in the isolation of the color contrast, which in real life would be rather down the list of the priorities competing for the attention of the participants. (Boy, there's nothing so unfunny as trying to figure out what makes something funny.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Qualm Strikes Back.

That inner voice just told me the episode with the village policeman wasn't necessary. So that's 1,200 words out. He won't mind -- it gives him less to do.

The Curse of the Pushy Qualm.

I'm hearing voices in my head. It's my inner editor, who didn't like my idea for a funny scene.

I've discovered that if I have a qualm, it's fatal to ignore it or it comes back and bites me on the bottom. Appeasement doesn't work -- if part of my brain manages to shout louder than my smugness and tell me the idea sucks, I ignore it at my peril. So I had to dump my carefully prepared whimsy and come up with something better. Quite right, too.

Here's what we lost. I had Oliver doing some outdoor surveillance in the middle of the night. To protect his eyeglasses in case of attack, he's wearing a diver's face mask, and he's disguising his conspicuous blond hair with a dark wetsuit hood found with the mask. After a brief skirmish with another character, which he loses, he ends up sitting in a drainage ditch in two inches of water, clutching a snapped-off walking stick that could resemble a snorkel. Opportunity for the other character to make some finely-honed, hilarious, sarcastic comment, which I couldn't think of, about his choosing an odd time and place to practice skin-diving.

Yeah, too contrived. Thanks, qualm. I owe you.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Closing credits.

That instance I gave a couple of entries back about the married man in the elevator -- the idea for the scene has been attributed to the great director Frank Capra, replacing rather more than half a page of dialogue supplied for him by a famous writer.

(Part of my password to edit this stuff is my middle name, Kenneth. For some reason, my fingers keep wanting to type "Henry" instead. Why?)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Buttle it.

And as a follow-on from the previous post, I have a pet peeve when people refer to Jeeves -- surely now an iconic figure from fiction -- as a butler. Jeeves was a valet, a gentleman's gentleman, which is quite different.

Does it matter? Well, would you call Mary Poppins a cook? Or Hagrid a chauffeur?

There's a reason why they call him "The Master."

The world, it is said, is divided into two types of people: those who love P.G. Wodehouse and those who've never read him.

Doing some comfort re-reading of The Code of the Woosters, I'm in awe again of Wodehouse's overwhelming genius, as a wordsmith, as a plot architect, as a creator of unforgettable characters.

Wodehouse writes the Jeeves and Wooster stories in the person of Bertie Wooster, who has an unwavering faith in his intellect and sophistication, and is utterly convinced that he is a good deal smarter than most of the other characters in the novels he narrates. (His valet, Jeeves, excepted, mostly.) Furthermore, as the channel for Wodehouse's style, his first-person voice is fluid, hilarious, and studded with an average of three metaphors of dazzling originality per page of text. And yet, through the medium of his own self-deluded words, we are still left with the indelible impression that Bertie is a complete chump.

How does Wodehouse do this? Through passages like this, where Bertie discusses his friend, newt-fancier Gussie Fink-Nottle, with Gussie's fiancee, the dreaded Madeline Bassett.
"Have you not sometimes felt in the past, Bertie, that, if Augustus had a fault, it was a tendency to be a little timid?"

I saw what she meant.

"Oh, ah, yes, of course, definitely." I remembered something Jeeves had once called Gussie. "A sensitive plant, what?"

"Exactly. You know your Shelley, Bertie."

"Oh, am I?"

Monday, January 11, 2010

Before he was Obi-Wan . . .

I think movies offer us the worst examples of formulaic writing, but we can still learn from some cinematic techniques. I recall a famous example about a screenwriter who was having trouble depicting a marriage that had grown stale -- no amount of rewriting could get it to less than a page of explanatory dialogue. He passed the idea to a more experienced colleague, who came up with a brilliant wordless visual for this complex situation: The married couple step into an elevator. The man keeps his hat on. The elevator stops, and another woman steps on. Only then does the man respectfully remove his hat. A classic example of the "show me" principle.

My favorite movie is the 1949 Ealing Studios comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, perhaps best known for Alec Guinness's bravura performance as all eight members of the doomed D'Ascoyne family, although it does tend to overshadow the coherent neatness of the plot and Dennis Price's outstanding portrayal of the suave murderer, Louis Mazzini. A constant criticism of the film is that it is too verbal, with a witty, Wildean, deliciously cynical narration delivered by Price. But the narration supplements brilliant visual storytelling; it never substitutes for it.

One brief, wordless scene from near the beginning of the film packs so much information into a single image: a woman dressed in black pushes a perambulator along a street of modest houses and mails a letter. What do we get from that? A young woman, recently widowed, her late husband no doubt the father of the newly born child in the pram, already living in modest circumstances and now by his death deprived of all income . . . Clearly the letter she is mailing is of crucial importance to her situation, perhaps her only hope. Turn the sound off and you've still got the entire backstory conveyed in ten seconds of screen time.

Later, our first glimpse of young Henry D'Ascoyne is through the inverted viewfinder of an old camera, caught emerging guiltily from a village pub. Yet he can't resist coming over to inspect the camera. Again, it shows us all we need to know about Henry -- secret drinker, photography enthusiast, a man whose life is about to be upended (terminated, in fact) by a lethal combination of these very interests. Louis substitutes gasoline for kerosene in the lamp in Henry's darkroom, frying the young man when he adjourns there for a furtive drink away from the censorious view of his abstemious wife.

Now, if we could find a written corollary for these celluloid moments...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A gottle of geer.

I had one of those great writing experiences the other day. Having reluctantly moved on from Effie's disrobing, I let Oliver leave the house and have a brief encounter with a minor character. I'd only decided the day before to write this short scene, so the character was a new invention and I had little idea what he was like. I needn't have worried -- he took over and told me.

Like ventriloquists and puppeteers, writers often have that dissociative experience, when their characters seem to speak to them from the page or the computer screen in their own independent voices, dictating their lines, deciding on their movements, and very often having their own ideas about the way a scene should go -- or not go. It can be eerie, but it's also deeply satisfying. And fast. You have to type fast to keep up.

I belong to a writers' group, and one of the principles that often comes up in reviewing each other's work is "don't tell me, show me." In other words, don't simply assert something in the narration -- for example, a personality trait of a character -- when you can discover that trait by seeing it in the character's words and behavior. It generally produces a more satisfying effect, with richer characterization and a stronger sense of the integrity of the story. (It's not a rule of course, just a tip.)

The way a character speaks, the words he or she chooses, are all indicative of personality, and so dialogue is often a key "show me" technique. (After all, it was all Shakespeare ever wrote.) So when I find Vic Flimsy, village peeping Tom and church-goer, explaining to Oliver -- and, vicariously, to me -- how he practices his voyeurism while maintaining an unassailable code of ethics, I get out of the way and simply transcribe the speech as it flows. (It surprised me when he revealed that he had a pet name for his trusty step-ladder -- I can't recall coming up with that idea.) Later I can go back and shove in the "he saids" and the actions that punctuate and round out the scene.

The same thing happened the next day, when the village policeman whom I'd assumed was a stereotypical buffoon, stepped onto the stage for the first time and assured me that you can't avoid work with his consummate slacker skill without having some degree of cunning.

So one day these people don't exist -- the next day they've each hijacked my novel, for their brief moments in the sun (Well, the moon -- they're nighttime scenes). Hmmm. Maybe I can get all the characters to do the book, and I can just be a typist.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Rule 1: There is no rule 1.

I don't like rules. I certainly don't like formulas. For me, there's nothing worse than a movie or a novel so clearly following some "key-to-success" pattern that you might as well put up subtitles announcing "Act III twist" or "symbolic payoff" or "Epilogue." (Actually, didn't "The Man from UNCLE" used to do that?) There's only what works.

Now of course, there's certainly good advice. There are certainly good principles of plot construction or character development, especially in a mystery or a thriller, when you want to keep the story moving -- such as start each scene as late as possible and let the exposition take care of itself. I just object when I read books that tell me I should always, say, start a chapter with dialogue or always minimize narration. I repeat, there's only what works.

Take the famous rule that says readers want a murder to take place as early as possible in the book. A body certainly makes for a good start, and I've tended to stick to that. But there are plenty of great mysteries that let us see the victim alive, gauge his character, observe his interactions with all those people who'll be suspects once he's bumped off in chapter three. Or seven. Or nineteen. Sometimes it pays to see at first hand what kind of person caused someone to break the world's greatest taboo. I get to witness the altercations and arguments and threats first hand, not hear about them later.

And let's not forget the works that notoriously broke the rules. Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, in which the murderer gets away with it and becomes the "hero" of later novels. Or Hitchcock's Psycho, which killed off its star (rather memorably) less than halfway through the movie. They're the ones we still talk about. A book that's consistently placed in the top ten mysteries of all time, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, bears no resemblance to the formulaic mystery novel.

Learn the rules. Then ignore them, if it works better that way. (In that order.)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Out of the mouths of . . . etc.

Secundus enters the office. "Do you use Microsoft Word?" he asks.

"Yes. Why, do you want to write something?" I reply.

"Yes, I want to write a book. But not like yours. Mine is supposed to be funny."

Modern parenting tips #5,738.

A brief instructional moment from before Christmas. For months, my favorite calculator, a twenty-year-old HP12C, had been missing from my office. On previous occasions, its absence, along with that of many other essential stationery items, could be traced to my six-year-old kleptomaniac, Tertius. (Similarly one of the babysitter’s credit cards and, memorably, a raw egg.) But this time, despite both dire threats and promises of amnesty, all three boys denied knowing its whereabouts.

Resigned to adding a replacement to my Christmas list, thus displacing the Marx Brothers DVD collection I wanted (the early Paramount movies, with Zeppo), I had one more attempt. “A new calculator will cost fifty dollars,” I sighed, within the hearing of prime suspect Tertius and eight-year-old Secundus. “At this point, I’d gladly give ten dollars to the person who finds the old one, so I could avoid spending the rest of the money.”

The calculator was back in my hand in two minutes. Tertius suddenly remembered seeing it underneath his chest of drawers. But Secundus rushed slightly ahead of his little brother to inform me that the missing object had been found and demanded the reward himself for being first with the news.

I split the ten between them. It may be the wrong message, but the important thing here, I think, is that I saved an unnecessary $40 and I got the DVDs for Christmas. Duck Soup first, I feel, if I can ever wrestle the television back from its Wii duties.

Trivia: Did you know there was an earlier movie called Duck Soup, a 1927 silent short that was one of the first to pair Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy? Oh, you did.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Undress rehearsal (continued).

I did a lot of serious contemplation about the initial direction of Effie's dress on its journey from her body to the floor, but I just couldn't decide. So I arranged for the interruption to come before they get to that point.

But here's today's mini-lesson in writing: if you have two good ideas -- in this case visual images -- that seem to be mutually exclusive, why not see if there's a valid way to include both? And so, in eager anticipation of a night of passion, I have Oliver vividly wondering which approach Effie will use.

Will she do the haul over the head bit, he wonders, a la Glenda Jackson's nightdress in Women in Love? Or the plunge to the floor effect employed by Teri Hatcher in the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies?

(Oliver's pants can clearly only go in one direction, although it was Lewis Carroll who purportedly invented the joke about the man whose feet were so big, he had to take his trousers off over his head.)

And sometimes, this kind of thinking gives you a narrative gift: by showing Oliver's anticipatory imaginings, the gulf between the expectation and the actual outcome is greater, thus intensifying the poignancy. But mainly, it's a sneaky way of not wasting an idea.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Undress rehearsal.

A running gag for the new book is that every night, the protagonist, Oliver, tries to make love to his girlfriend, Effie, but there's always something that either interrupts them or prevents their getting to it in the first place. To add to the piquancy, Oliver's frustrated yearnings are deepened by incidents and appearances that only intensify Effie's attractiveness -- catching her unexpectedly half-dressed, for example.

I've just reached another one of these moments -- to be interrupted again, alas. It begins promisingly with Effie disrobing in the moonlight in Oliver's bedroom, slipping out of a blue summer dress, which turns out to be the only garment she was wearing. But I can't decide which method of undressing is sexier -- the unzipped-back-and-cascading-to-the-floor option or the pull-up-over-the-head-in-one-swift-movement-hair-floating option. I've been picturing both, trying to come to some conclusion, but . . .

Ah, it looks like I'll have to keep on imagining. Down to the floor? Up and over the head? Down? Up? Which is more erotic? "I'm working," I explain crossly to my wife, as she catches me gazing into space with a faint smile.