Prompt – What does it take to impress you when you are reading someone else’s book?
Good Writing – Unfortunately there’s not a… No. Here’s a little parable. Remember back before GPS was everywhere, were you ever in a cab where you had to tell the driver how to get wherever the hell you needed to go? Like they knew two words – airport and Galleria. Lots of people write like that set up. They either have no idea where they’re going or how to get there, or they spend the entire ride giving directions.
What keeps me in a book is if I get something out of the first several pages. And to find those two pages, I’ll pick up things from everywhere. I throw a lot of them back. Fishing that way brought me to Barbara Park and Laura Levine, Edgar Box, John Trench.
Never heard of John Trench? Me, either. But there were four or five quotable lines in the first two pages, plus the answer to an issue I had with a critical scene in a WIP hauled up right off the page and bitch slapped me. So much so I was in a state of euphoric Eureka! for at least half an hour. Also, I find these older books have an acerbic sense of social stereotype satire we’re missing in the modern formula factory output. Or, with the L’Amour, the old adage of don’t start with the weather takes a hike because the opening is an exceptionally well-drawn, compact weather/location scene. If I could put a couple of out of work broke cowboys under a train trestle in shitty weather that well, I’d be rich and famous, too. But – seeing how he does it helps me put an over partied kidnapped grad student in a squat without wasting your day getting there.
These days I read, sometimes inadvertently, to learn something about craft. If I don’t notice it, then I tell myself, go back, figure out why you’re halfway through this book, effortlessly. Laura Levine–I’m forty pages in what would be a less professionally handled tosser farce. I skip the 70s moralizing in MacDonald’s I haven’t read because been there, done that, but I drink deep from his well of three-word descriptions that put whatever it is in my face. The way Robert B. Parker ends a chapter. Quit when you’re there, not just when you’re ahead. The way Hammett and Faulkner crush modern writers of ensemble scenes. In books I’d never heard of. How writers snake through the characters and the setting of a scene. How action needs very little set up (The Switch). Characters that might be cliché but rock it. Characters you wonder do people really do that shit for a living?
There are myriads of good writing templates available to put over our work, and we should, just to see if we’re close. If you’ve never done that, go ahead and nail your other foot to the floor now. For instance, I’m always harping on all the descriptive folderol that should be left up to reader to get them to invest. How can you do that if you don’t know that in 12 novels and numerous short stories we are never told an exact age or given a detailed description of one of cozy’s archetypes for the current plethora of every-woman detectives. If Ms. Marple can do it, why do we need to know about Danger Barbie’s auburn curls and Ancestry.com lineage of CIA assassins, white heels, short blue skirt and designer handbag? Are the readers reading or playing Barbie with an imagination coach?
Entertain me, make me suspend disbelief with well-written work. I’ll give anything a chance because I believe any book just might just be the next I Ching or Runes, or Don Shimoda’s Messiah’s Handbook.
“Open it,” he said, “and whatever you need to know is there.”
Or might be.
To see what keeps others reading, click the link below –