Sunday, January 31, 2010

Word has it...

Part of the beginning of the comedy bit “Seven Words You Can't Say On Television” by George Carlin has him saying, “...words are all we have, really.” So true.

Words and language. As every author should, I love to read. I started reading as a youngster, fell into horror and mystery and science fiction. I've read Shakespeare (when required in high school) and Voltaire (when required in college), and works from every decade from the 1880's onward. I find it fascinating how words and language have changed in meaning throughout the years. How attitudes and prejudices have shaped the way characters are portrayed in not only books but on the radio and television.

I cite examples which are memorable to me and I invite you to comment on others notable to you.

In books written before, say the sixties, there was a phrase that, when I first ran across it, confused me for a short time because the meaning to me was different than the meaning back then. I've read numerous stories where a woman will be commenting on how the man “made love to her.” I love this phrase and I find it so romantic in the way it meant then. Now, of course, making love is about sex. Then it was wooing, courting, say complimentary things to and about the woman. “Making” or “creating” the love felt and giving it “to” the woman.
I love the language of the old detective stories and the gangster radio shows. “Moll”, “doll”, “gams”.The best one is a bad guy on one radio show repeatedly asking what they should do about the “skirt”, wondering what should happen the girl who happened to get caught in the action.

Speaking of women, Gardner's Perry Mason has used when describing a woman that she has “plenty of this and that and these and those.” Isn't that a marvelous phrase? No other description is needed for you to imagine the woman he's writing about.

Think about the way people thought about race. Ellery Queen and many others used the word “darkie” and “Negress”. Think about how language has changed. From darkie to colored to black to African-American. Would Amos and Andy or any of those movies portraying the wide-eyed, white-teethed black servant boy go over today?

Have Gun Will Travel had a Chinese servant called “HeyBoy”.

Charlie Chan was played by several actors, none of whom were Oriental in the slightest.
There are some erotic and very sexually graphic books out today, but read some of the pulp detective fiction of the sixties. Wow! The sex scenes were short and to the point.

Spillane wrote not about the sweater the girl was wearing, but how her breasts made the wonderful curves in the sweater, how the clothing molded over her features.

And of course the foul or 'bad' language. It's always a pleasant experience to watch a non-kids movie where the language is G or PG rated.. Books are the same. The old Shadow and Doc Savage stories would talk about the “Blankety-blank so-and-so”. Those are the actual words they used.

The story is what counted. Read those old mystery stories. Never would you see a four letter word marring up the plot even though you know the cops in those times spoke a, uh, hec of lot rougher language. Robert Ludlum was quite tame for the plots he was concocting. Lawrence Sanders used strong language but sparingly. When Evanovich's Stephanie Plum swears, it irritates me for some reason, even though the stories are absolutely wonderful.

You have to write the language of your subject. If it's about a gritty metropolitan police force, the language is a lot courser than that of a Kansas farmer. Drug lords in Miami or mob dons in New York are not going to use the language of a Nebraskan school teacher.

When I was writing both Night Shadows and Beta, I debated on how much foul language I wanted to use. I thought of the subject matter and the circumstances and the characters. I also thought of my mother who gets turned off immediately by any movie where in the first ten minutes the F word is used more than about five times.

So, yes, I use harsh language in the books. Harry Reznik, homicide detective, uses strong language as does the honorable taekwondo instructor Mallory Petersen. However, (and this may change once my editor's suggestions come back to me) I only used the F word once in Beta and once in Night Shadows. HOWEVER, I only used it because the scenes deemed it justifiable.
I also, on behalf of Mom and my friend Mary, have tried to temper the graphic descriptions of dead bodies. My writing friends who have heard some of the narrative of Night Shadows may disagree, but they all agree that the heinous acts committed in Beta were handled delicately and-hopefully-without the reader turning away in abject disgust. I've tried to be true to the subject and true to the characters without going overboard. I hope my editor so similarly thinks.

I hope Mom will forgive me and enjoy the stories anyway.

Monday, January 25, 2010

"IT" seems to me...

This may be a personal pet peeve, but have you noticed how often in stories the word 'it' is used? I'm not talking about how the word properly acts as a pronoun but where 'it' is used as a vague noun. Examples: “It was snowing outside.” “It was five in the afternoon.”

What is 'it' in the preceding sentences? If the writer is speaking about the weather, can he not just state, “Snow fell...” or if referring to time, “I saw the clock read five in the afternoon.”
Again, maybe 'it's' just me, but I see this a lot and not liking 'it', causes me to catch 'it' every time I read 'it'. Unfortunately, sometimes 'it' can't be avoided. I've discovered this in my Alpha rewrite. Sometimes, there's just no getting around 'it'.

However, I always try to rewrite the sentence so the words can better describe whatever 'it' is. I think the paragraph flows better, adds more context or description or action. When reading, I see 'it' in many instances and I always think how I could rewrite that particular sentence.
There are several grammar glitches I see in popular authors' work. I wonder how they get away with, uh, it. A glaring example might be, “He was the person that committed the murder.” I remember my good friend Mary correcting me many years ago when I committed that murder, er, error. Things are 'that', people are 'who'. “He was the person who committed the murder.”
Another incorrect use of grammar, also caught and noted by Mary, is one that is used extensively by every diet, vitamin, exercise, etc. commercial. They all talk about wanting us to live a more healthy lifestyle. A lifestyle is a thing. Things cannot be healthy. People or living entities can be healthy or unhealthy. You can live a more healthful lifestyle and be healthy by so doing.

Who and Whom are two other biggies not so commonly misused except in speaking.
Another common error I often catch myself making and try very hard to correct myself before committing it is the difference between 'well' and 'good'. “He plays the trumpet good.” is incorrect as is, “You did very good today.” Again, I thank Mary for noting that one when I spoke to taekwondo classes years ago. Good is the adjective, well is the adverb. “He did a good job.” but, “He did the job well.”

One common problem I run into when writing is trying to not end a sentence in a preposition. The difficulty lies in the fact that you must write how people speak. If the character is very formal, he may say, “From where are you coming?” Which is proper and will read well. (or will read good?) However, if you say that on the street, some people may look at you in a strange way. Most people say, “Where are you coming from?” Granted, not technically correct grammar, but it's how most people speak. Stay consistent with your character's speech patterns. I'd like to warn you not to overdo it, but unfortunately I've stumbled across a few short stories where the protagonist, usually a teen or twenty-something very rural girl will narrate or do the most speaking and will speak in a countrified, backwoods type speech. I'm sure the story is a great one and I know my latest role is to push short stories, but again, personal pet peeve, I don't read past paragraph two when I run across them. I'm sorry, they bother me. I know the type of speech pattern adds flavor or spice, but, it irritates my senses to constantly have to interpret.

Just keep a tight hold on your grammar is all I'm suggesting. I'm sure my editor, when reading my stories during the rewrite/edit phase, will probably cringe at some of my grammar (hey, I'm not perfect), but maybe during the process, I'll learn some rules and be better at, uh, it, the next time around.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A bow of respect

I emailed a friend Saturday night/early Sunday morning upon my return from a taekwondo tournament. My friend, a former instructor and fourth degree black belt, had agreed to care for Thomas, my cat, while I was away. I wrote about the people at the tournament and how many of them asked about her, how many familiar faces were in attendance, and the general air of the tournament.

I also explained to her that part of me didn't want to attend the tournament in the first place. Lately, I've been tired. Not actually burnt out, just tired. Tired of creating class planners, tired of the various students' attitudes during and about class. I hadn't stop loving them or enjoying helping them progress through the ranks...just tired. And this tournament seemed so far away and part of me, just a small part, wondered if it was worth the effort. That question was answered.

At the tournament, I was lucky enough to have some one on one time with a high rank, one of two eighth degree black belts in our region. I've known him for almost twenty years and have learned so much from him, from his instructor and the others under him. We were discussing some of the injuries I noticed many of the black belts were recovering from. He talked about how the younger colored belts and black belts were moving up; they were taking the spots we once held. How with our age and experience, injuries were a factor to consider. Sure many of us were going to be kicking again in the future, but...

Basically, we discussed the people. For many years I've attended tournaments not because I want to win a trophy or a medallion for one of three places in the competition. Sure it's nice to bring home some hardware, but that's not the main reason I drive five hours or more, risking weather problems, motel problems, restaurant problems, car problems. I go to have fun and to help others' have fun. I love to be a tournament judge. I always have. After many tournaments I've come home tired and sore and with barely a voice left from all the yelling and enthusiasm. But if I can help one student smile and enjoy the experience, even if that person doesn't win, then I've accomplished my purpose and there was a reason for going. I remember one tournament one of the hosts mentioned if we weren't there, there wouldn't be a tournament. How true. If I didn't go, the quality of the tournament wouldn't have been as good. I'm not blowing my own trumpet or on an ego trip. The statement is true for every black belt, tournament judge, high rank and competitor who packs up their overnight bags and makes the trip. Why else would I go up to northwest Iowa in the middle of January, maybe snow, maybe white out conditions, maybe freezing temps? (Sheesh, those are almost a given.)

The people. I love seeing these people. I wouldn't have continued advancing and being a part of the American Taekwondo Association if it weren't for the people. Sure, ATA is a business and you're going to find good and not so good schools/instructors, but for the most part, if you find a fellow ATA student, you've got an instant smile and instant familiarity and an almost instant friend. I honor these people and am honored to be associated with them.

The people. Laughing and joking with the people, the black belts, the high ranks. To watch the kids practicing forms and weapons. To cheer for them during sparring matches. To see the respect and the camaraderie. To see the enjoyment and the pride of individual personal victory. There's nothing quite like it I any other sport.

Mallory Petersen, private detective/Fourth Degree black belt and star of Beta, knows this also. She feels the closeness to her students, to her instructor, to her juniors and seniors. She exemplifies the leadership I see in so many black belts at these tournaments. She has within her all of the desire and the enthusiasm and ability and talent and involvement I see exuded in all my ATA friends. I made her a fourth degree because at the time I was writing the majority of the book, I was also a fourth degree. One day, she'll be a fifth degree and she'll get to stand up in front of the collection of colored and black belts along with her peers at tournaments. And like I was this last Saturday, she'll be as proud of and as in awe of those who are standing in line with her and of the group standing at attention in front of her.

I have been tired in the last few months. Mallory Petersen gets tired of the goofy clients; she gets tired trying to balance her time between the detective job and her duty and responsibilities to the instructors under her and her students. In Beta, she has just returned from a Chicago tournament where was proud of her accomplishments and of gathering with friends and comrades and even after long drive, feeling sore, stiff, and facing Monday morning business, felt refreshed.

So, too, I after Sheldon.

Thank you, ATA.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Search and Research

As I keyed in more of the Alpha rewrite I felt I had to stop and write this week’s entry. The scene I’m writing deals with Mallory meeting with her informant, Willy Washington, in a downtown Des Moines coffee house. This scene reminded me of some of the research I’ve had to do for my stories. The people I’ve spoken with, the places I’ve visited.

I love doing research. I envy those authors who can create whole cities from scratch, place the avenues and landmarks in such a way that the reader can envision them. I site the late Ed McBain and the gotham-like city of Isola. Sure, it’s based on New York, but he had the city laid out in his mind and could show it to us through details, humor, and, of course, violence.

I cannot do that. In any of my novels or short stories, even if the city’s name is fictional, the streets and landmarks are laid out based on an actuality. Mallory Petersen lives in a suburb of Des Moines and her adventures take her all over the city. Living in Oskaloosa for many years, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to explore the streets and alleys of the capital city. I need to see the real streets, buildings, parks and such, scribble some descriptions, then fictionalize them later. The locals will know what places I’m writing about and hopefully it will be fun for them to recognize a certain business or building. Mallory’s Beta story takes her to the Quad Cities, where I lived until the fifth grade. I spent an entire day driving around the Iowa/Illinois metro, seeking out businesses, talking with people and making sure my map was accurate.

One of the reasons I love research is because I get to speak with a lot of different people and see more things than I would have thought. When taking notes I’ll write down a lot of details; whether those get included doesn’t matter. Sometimes, to write the scene I’ll have to create an alley or a building or move entrances and sometimes change the landscape, but not so much that it’s unrealistic. I’ve been to a trucking company where I added a warehouse; a publishing company where I’ve had to create the interior (because I wasn’t allowed past the front desk); a meat processing plant whose secretary was so flustered she didn’t know what to do next; a wholesaler where I had to create an entire basement level. For Night Shadows, I loved visiting a particular insurance company to view their art exhibits and I also thank the lighting company representatives who took time out of their day to show me their wares.

Unfortunately, the landscape changed during my years of writing. The building containing the art studio and Mallory’s office doesn’t exist any longer, as well as the building in Oskaloosa where the kidnapped girl was taken. But that’s okay; my city still has them.

Looking back upon my research, I was frustrated with some of the people I encountered. Along with the flustered secretary I ran into a very resistant secretary who wouldn’t give me the time of day; another border guard receptionist who along with the PR man barely and reluctantly assisted me; and a very nice office worker who was more than happy to talk with me about her business. I thank each and every one of those people because they all helped write my stories. They all are included, in one fashion or another in the various scenes.

I’m constantly meeting interesting people and writing notes because somewhere those people will show up in my stories either as prominent or passing characters. Working for a couple of motels I’ve met scores of…different…people and I remember all of them and someday, they’ll get fictionalized. I’ve used real life experiences and anecdotes told to me by friends.

Writing is fun, but research is essential. To be able to insert that research into the story is very satisfying, because I have created something ‘real’, people and places others can recognize or associate with.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Could you spare some change...

With the beginning of the new year, a lot of people talk about changes. New Year’s resolutions. Changing behaviors, styles, habits. I mentioned last time I don’t make resolutions simply because if you want to do or not to do something then start immediately.

Change is good. I’ve learned that in the past couple of days with…drum roll please…the new website. Please stop by-often-to It only recently went live and for a couple of days I’ve been changing things left and right. I didn’t like the original background so I changed it, then changed it again, took a break and changed it again. I changed the order of pages. I removed some guide bars…and will probably put some back in later. I know, where are the pictures? Those are coming later. Yes, I have another book cover to put up, but I’m waiting on permissions to use some pictures.

The point is, I’m having fun changing things. I think that works well not only in your own lifestyle or when working on a website but when you’re writing your stories. Change is good. One of the questions I am asked a lot and love to discuss with other writers is the question of outlines. There are many opinions about outlines and whatever works for you is great. If it doesn’t work for you…well, change it.

For me, I do like to outline. In a general sense. I like to envision the story from beginning to end, write down an order of scenes and come to a logical conclusion. Once I complete my outline I may almost immediately start changing it. I may add scenes or change the order of scenes.
I remember while writing Beta I discovered a problem with time. When doing research in the Quad Cities I found that the itinerary I had set up for Mallory and her detective partner would be completed by noon, leaving the rest of the day with nothing to do. So I had to change some of the scenes, add a scene or two to make sure that she spent most of the day hopping from place to place thereby getting her to the evening when the next scene in the outline had to take place.
When I worked for a radio station’s sales team I owned a daybook for all of my appointments with customers. If the book ever was misplaced, I was almost frantic because I couldn’t function without it. After I left that job I vowed never again would I be in that kind of position where I was controlled in that way. The same principle holds for outlines. I create one, but I’m not bound by it. I don’t always control the story. When I’m writing part of my mind thinks ahead and throws some scene or action to the forefront so I can remember it for later. I’ll find a character doing something outside the outline because it works. Many authors have told me their characters will move in a different direction than originally intended. Sometimes I wonder about those authors who say their characters talk to them…but that’s another matter altogether.

There are those authors who don’t outline at all, just pick up a pen and start. I have no problem with that as long as it works and you know where you are going, what you want to accomplish and you have a sense of when you want to stop. How much of the life story of the protagonist to you want to tell. If that person dies, sure that’s pretty much the end unless you’re telling a ghost story, but when do you want to end the story. In the no outline scenario, change will inevitably be a factor, especially on the editing.

Right now I’m stalled in Chapter 5 of the Alpha rewrite because of the timeline and what I want out of the next scene. I have to be faithful to the character and her profession and her martial artist nature to get her to the next scene without complications. I think by imagining different actions I’ve come up with something that will work. I’ll try it and if it doesn’t…

My suggestion is to try an outline (for your story your day, your week) have a goal in mind and begin. Then if something comes up that you need to change…don’t be discouraged. There are some days I don’t what I’m going to do but I just go ahead and do it. I’ve dreamt of several scenarios for different meetings with people or situations in my life and the reality never matches any imaginings. Whoo-don’t get me started there.