Month: August 2011


That’s the word I use most often to describe a piece of writing that has impressed me. If I can apply that word to a novel, I will likely remember it for a long time.

I just finished reading a historical mystery by P.B. Ryan, Still Life With Murder. The central matter of a mystery novel is “Who did it?” In this case, that question was overshadowed by the setting (Boston in the “gilded age”) and the principal characters (Nell Sweeney with her problematic past and Will Hewitt with his addictions and scarred psyche). These people were interesting. I wanted to know how things turned out for them, never mind who did the murder. That revelation, when it came, felt almost like a distraction.

The novel contains two or three fairly lengthy scenes consisting of dialogue between the two principal characters, Nell and Will. Their focus is Will’s self-destructive impulses, his reasons for them, and why he should consider alternatives. These scenes almost verge on the repetitious and possibly tedious, except that one of them takes place in an opium den and includes a detailed description of the rather complicated process of smoking opium. That is interesting and memorable. P.B. Ryan has clearly done her research, on that topic and others featured in this novel, making it more than a run of the mill “whodunit.”

Writers are always told to “plant a hook” in the opening paragraph of a novel — something that will keep the reader reading by raising questions in his or her mind that need to be answered. “Who is this person, where are they, how did they get into this situation and what will happen to them?”

Well, I admit to a somewhat jaundiced view of the ever-popular Rules for Writers. I suspect that many of them are formulated primarily for the convenience of jaded editors and others who perforce have to plough through dozens or hundreds of “submissions” by hopeful writers seeking publication or prizes. The tolerance of these folks is low for writing whose pace is a little slow, in which dramatic action and dire situations aren’t presented on the first page. Some ordinary readers share this attitude, but not all. Many are quite willing to take the long way through a piece of fiction, but only if it’s interesting.

Whether or not the writer plants a hook doesn’t matter. It’s not enough to grab the reader’s attention in the opening scenes of your opus. You have to earn it on every page, and cliff-hangers and chase scenes aren’t always enough. You need to create interesting characters doing interesting things, quite apart from the plot.

Remember Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code?  Some consider it a wonderful read, full of action and gripping situations. Given that it was inspired by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, a mess of crackpot but interesting (there’s that word again) theories about Jesus Christ, the Knights Templar and the Merovingian dynasty, you would expect that it couldn’t fail to be a fascinating read. But I found it a great disappointment, mostly because the main characters were cardboard cutouts. Mr. Brown should have taken up more pages making them into real people with intriguing quirks and bumps, and included more substance about the Knights Templar and the Merovingians instead of dragging us through the streets of Paris pursued by an albino monk wearing a self-torture device.

It’s a tricky business, creating and sustaining interesting stuff. Characters may be brought to life with distinctive characteristics and speech habits and hints of interesting backgrounds. Yes, hints. Giving a curriculum vitae or a mini-biography is not usually recommended, but weaving in details, memories of important incidents in the person’s life, and opinions coloured by their past experiences can build up a multi-coloured and textured individual that a reader will care about. Even more problematic is the business of working in facts about some topic; from intriguing tidbit to the dreaded “information dump” is a small but crucial step. I will note here, however, that “information dump” may just be a term meaning “stuff I’m not interested in.” It depends on the individual reader and his or her tastes. The writer always takes a chance by veering away from the plot to introduce stuff about, say, sheep-shearing or winemaking or undertaking. Think of Victor Hugo’s enormous digressions into history in Les Miserables. Some may have found the history of the Paris sewers utterly fascinating; most, I’ll bet, skipped over that part to find out what happened to Jean Valjean and Marius. And Les Miserables was published in 1862. These days, it’s probably best to keep one’s digressions short or even to make them unrecognizable.

One criterion is how fascinating the writer finds that extra topic. Chances are that if you yourself are passionately interested in something, that passion will find its way into your writing about it and generate interest in your readers. When I was writing my novel The Friendship of Mortals, I was reading about alchemy, especially its symbolic aspects as expounded upon by Carl Jung. Something of that subject found its way into the novel. So it may be with whatever interests a writer has — gardening or bowling or violin making. Use them in your writing to give it heft and texture.

In a way it’s like cooking. A good novel is like a well-prepared dish, with pleasing combinations of flavours and textures. Spices should enhance, not dominate. A certain amount of crunch is good, but too much makes eating into hard work. Above all, the dish must be one to be savoured, not gulped down as quickly as possible to get to the bottom of the vessel in which it’s contained. Don’t make your novel a smoothie that goes down fast without intriguing aromas and flavours. Make it interesting — create a feast for the mind and imagination.


What to do in August

Every year since I began this garden, my daily weather-and-garden notes have an entry around August 20 that says “Garden looks like Hell.” That includes this summer, which has been quite cool — perfect, actually, with highs consistently in the low 20s (C, not F). But there has been no rain for the last 31 days, and it shows.

Coming home from work and looking at the garden is a disheartening experience these days. Often, my first impulse is to go inside, close the door and ignore the mess outside. Often I give into that impulse, but eventually (on weekends) I get to the point of Something Must Be Done.

So what can be done to improve the garden in August, if escape is impossible?

It comes down to two things: removal and definition. First, get rid of the stuff that offends the eye. Then clean up the edges. After that, it may be worthwhile to do some watering.

Start by deadheading and cutting down withered stems. Especially cut back anything that has zillions of seeds ripening, such as good old toadflax (Linaria purpurea), campion (Lychnis coronaria) and mullein (Verbascum). A bonus of doing this is that these plants sometimes rebloom in early fall, after the first rains. In the meantime, their old, seedy remains are no longer giving that tired, unkempt look to the scene. Get rid of anything that looks dead (or is dead). Colour is a clue — brown, khaki and white are often indications of deadness.

Some raking is also in order. Raking? In summer? Most definitely. I get the rake out regularly, at all times of the gardening season. In this windy climate, there is always stuff to be raked up. In late summer, along with the usual blow-downs and blow-ins there are plenty of tired green leaves and prematurely brown ones, as trees thin their leaf burdens in response to drought. Once on the ground, these leaves are certainly no asset to the garden. Removing them instantly improves the look of the place.

Once the scurf has been removed, clarify the edges of the beds and borders by clipping the verges of the lawns; or even edge them, if that hasn’t been done for a while and it’s hard to distinguish beds from lawn. I guarantee that this will make any garden look 100% better, without doing anything else. The whole process is the garden equivalent of a bath, shave and haircut — it doesn’t change the fundamentals but improves the presentation.

Clipped and raked, not too bad for late August

Finally, embrace the season. Maximum growth and flowering has been achieved by many plants, and they are simply past their best. As a reminder of this, all I need to do is visit a nearby park that preserves a remnant of the natural flora of the place in which I garden. At this time of year, it’s a vista of faded greens, browns and bleached white. In contrast to the springtime display of wildflowers and the lush grass of early summer, there isn’t much going on. The place is waiting for rain, for fall and the turn of the year.

Apple Angst

This year my Yellow Transparent apple tree produced a bumper crop, despite (or maybe because of) a cool, relatively wet spring and cool summer.

A basket of Yellow Transparents

Yellow Transparents at their best are good apples — crisp and juicy with a hint of tartness.  Some say that a sprinkle of salt renders them especially delicious. However, they do not hold their peak for very long, rapidly becoming mushy and mealy.  At that point they are good only for applesauce or pies, or the compost heap. The worst thing about them, however, is that they ripen very early, like right now, when there is an abundance of cherries, peaches, nectarines and other seasonal delights. August is not apple time. Apples, to me, are a fall thing.

This tree has grown in my garden for nearly 20 years. If I had selected it myself (which I probably would not have done, not being interested in growing apples), I would have picked a different variety, one that ripens later and keeps longer. But the tree was a gift, from my Mom no less, so I am pretty much stuck with it. It was supposedly semi-dwarf, but has proved to be otherwise.  It is now close to 20 feet tall and about as wide. I’m not a pruning expert, but understand that a tree that is growing vigorously should be pruned lightly (something I think of as the Pruning Paradox), so at most I do summer pruning (shortening new growth by 1/4 to 1/3) in late August. I have also removed a few of the lowest limbs to make it easier to get close to the tree to pick apples. Until this year, that did not take very long.

We get a lot of wind here all year round, but from late July onward, after every windy episode, I would find numbers of apples lying on the ground around the tree. While they were small and too green to eat, I tossed them into the compost heap. Once better, riper specimens started to fall (consequently acquiring disfiguring bruises), I had one of those Something Must be Done moments familiar to gardeners. Last weekend I got out a couple of buckets and a ladder and picked all the apples I could reach.

Now I have to admit, I hate picking things. Tiny wild blueberries that grow on foot-tall bushes are the worst, but I’m not keen on picking strawberries, raspberries, blackberries or any other berries, especially those that grow on thorny bushes. You would think apples would be a snap, but there’s the business of positioning the ladder (and repositioning it multiple times as you move around the tree), and wending your way among the branches to reach the elusive apple dangling almost out of reach. Except in the case of really ripe (i.e., mushy) apples you have to use both hands to detach them, in order to avoid snapping off the fruiting spurs. A number get snapped off anyway, which is maybe a good thing — fewer apples next year?

Once picked, there’s the matter of what to do with several buckets (big ones) full of apples. This is a situation familiar to most gardeners at some point. Whether the produce in question is apples, green beans, lettuces, tomatoes or the ever-popular zucchinis, overabundance results in a number of activities on the gardener’s part: cooking massive batches of sauce or pies or zucchini loaf, or racing around the neighbourhood with bags of stuff to give away. Taking the offerings to one’s workplace is another option, something I did last week with the apples.

This brings up another issue about fruit trees on the city lot. They are almost always mentioned as a desirable feature in real estate listings, and people exult over their presence on their newly-acquired lot. “We have two apple trees and a plum tree! Oh boy!” But it’s remarkable how much fallen fruit one observes in season. I suspect that much of it ends up in the compost heap, or even worse, in the garbage, while the owners of the fruit trees trot out to the grocery store or (100 mile diet in mind) farmers’ market to buy fruit. Picking, you see, takes too long, requires ladders, and you get stuff in your hair. And there might be wasps!

I think I have the apple situation under control for now. I gave away several bags last week. Apples suitable for eating fresh are stashed in the fridge. The rest are going to be turned into applesauce tomorrow.

Trouble is, there’s another apple tree on my property — an old, neglected one right on the border with a neighbour’s lot. Most years it produces half a dozen apples at most, in the fall. This year, however, it’s full of apples, lovely red ones that look quite promising. They’ll be ripe in a month or so. This tree is more like 30 feet tall and many of the apples are right up there. Some may be reachable from the roof of the garage, others by using the 8 foot ladder.

Expect another apple-inspired rant in late September.

Revision is Endless

Once you’ve written something, especially something long, like a 150,000+ word novel, you have a preoccupation that can last the rest of your life, if you let it. Now that books have become ebooks, there is no reason to stop revising, tinkering, polishing and embellishing, even after the thing is published. In the past, once a book was printed, that pretty well put an end to revision, unless there was a good reason at some point to produce a second edition. That makes sense for certain kinds of non-fiction, but rarely in the case of fiction. Now the whole concept of “edition” is becoming obsolete.

I can upload a new version of my novel to Smashwords any time I want. Should I discover an irritating typo in the text, or have a brilliant idea that improves the plot, I can make corrections, insert a new scene or even do a major rewrite. Out with the old text, in with the new. Yes, in effect there is a new edition, but if only the new text exists (outside of my own computer) it’s not exactly the same as in the world of print.

Just because something is possible, however, doesn’t mean that it’s the thing to do. There comes a time when further tinkering with a piece of work no longer improves it. If you get a great new idea, write a great new work, rather than trying to make the old work into a new one.

A rational approach to revision might be as follows:  ask several people to read your opus in manuscript. If you belong to a writers’ group, you may find readers there. In any case, it’s best to ask people whom you know to be readers. Non-readers probably won’t give you the kind of feedback you need. Family members and friends? Only if they will give you objective opinions, and only if that won’t compromise your relationship afterward.

The comments most worthy of your attention are those made by more than one of your readers. If all or most of them agree that a character needs more development, that a scene does not contribute to the plot, or that your dialogue is weak, those are probably valid criticisms that you should address by rewriting. Then take the rewritten sections back to your readers.

A group of readers also delivers a diversity of comments. Some pick up on lurking typos or grammatical problems, others pounce on continuity problems, still others focus on character motivations. This is another helpful aspect of asking a group to read your work, since it’s unlikely that any individual will note all those details.

Then there’s the question of “professional” editing. Some writers declare that no one should dare to send works to publishers or agents, or self-publish them, without first having them “professionally edited.” I don’t necessarily agree with this opinion. I think it depends. Some writers are perfectly capable of editing their own works, especially in conjunction with thoughtful critiques by a group of capable readers. More particularly, before rushing out to find an editor, consider that anyone can call themselves an editor. There is no testing and approving body for editors analogous to a college of physicians and surgeons. Presumably, editors make their reputations through the results of their work, which suggests that a certain amount of research and investigation is in order before you fork over your cash (which can be considerable for editing a novel — hundreds or even thousands of dollars). Second, know what you expect from the editor — an overhaul of the entire work from concept to plot to characters and scenes, or merely a thorough read-through to pick up typographic and spelling mistakes and other minor flaws. Finally, bear in mind that paying an editor to review and revise your work is no guarantee of success (i.e. acceptance). Decide in advance what you are going to do after the editor is finished — revise their revisions?

This posting is prompted by the fact that I am right now in the midst of a revision of my second novel, Islands of the Gulf, which is the sequel to The Friendship of Mortals. Once I have worked through it with input from my novelists’ critique group, my intention is to make it available on Smashwords, by the end of 2011, I hope.

However you undertake revision of a piece of writing, do it with an end in mind. When that end is reached, declare the work finished and move on.

First Person Narrator

I love fiction narrated in the first person.  Love writing it, certainly. When I began to write The Friendship of Mortals, the first novel in my Herbert West Series, there was no question but that it would be in first person. Charles Milburn, the narrator, has a story to tell. He has carried the burden of memories of his involvements with Herbert West for a decade and a half, and finally, on a night when he can’t sleep he’s ready to relive those experiences, incidentally sharing them with the reader. Nothing is better for this “confessional” mode of storytelling than first person. Think of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne.

First person narration was right for the sequels to The Friendship of Mortals as well.  The second novel in the series, Islands of the Gulf, has three narrators (or four, possibly). Their accounts overlap somewhat, so the reader sees certain events from two different points of view. I found this to be an irresistible aspect of this mode of storytelling; it’s like walking around a sculpture and viewing it from different dimensions. I told Herbert’s story using the voices of Charles, his librarian friend, Andre Boudreau, his Acadian servant, the widow Margaret Bellgarde, and Alma Halsey, a disillusioned journalist who was once Charles Milburn’s lover. Only once does Herbert himself assume the narrator’s role, in the second half of Islands of the Gulf.

When you start to think about it, the whole business of narrative voice and point of view is an intricate one, full of subtleties.  On the face of it, it seems simple. First person is when the character telling the story calls him- or herself “I,” as in: I opened the door to a man pointing a gun at me. Second person is uncommon but not unheard of, most often encountered in short stories of the literary type: You open the door and there’s a man pointing a gun at you. Third person is the most common voice in fiction: Jack opened the door and saw a man pointing a gun at him. Even with these tiny examples, it’s possible to detect differences in tone and to imagine how the narratives may diverge into a variety of scenarios.

Third person is the most versatile. The trickiest issue in a story told this way is that of point of view. Is the narrator omniscient, that is, equally aware of the motivations and secrets of each character, or is he/she more informed about the protagonist? Is the narrative voice “close,” almost like first person, or somewhat removed? Does the point of view shift from one character to another between scenes, or even (gasp) within a scene? The latter, sometimes called “head-hopping” is frowned upon by some and must be done well if it is to be done at all.

The greatest limitation of the first person narrator, of course, is that you, the writer, are stuck inside that character. If you want to impart information that person cannot possibly have, or convey the emotions of another character in a direct way, you have to resort to devices such as letters or diaries, or to engineer scenes in which your voice-character overhears things, dreams them or mind-merges with someone else — all the time reminding yourself not to snap the thread upon which depends the reader’s crucial suspension of disbelief.

Islands of the Gulf, Part One will be available to readers by the end of 2011.