SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss one aspect of this very suspenseful book, leaving out as much detail as possible.
Stephen King’s The Outsider starts out as a heck of a murder mystery. He convinces us the murder suspect and the man who arrests him are bitter enemies and makes us care about both. We find ourselves pulling for both sides in a struggle for justice. This is a remarkable accomplishment.
In doing so, it seems to me, King demonstrates the power of focusing on situation rather than plot. This is an approach he describes in On Writing: a memoir of the craft. Rather than outlining, he suggests the writer develop a detailed description of the situation the characters are in at the beginning of the book.
As an example, he shows how a news story about a man getting out of prison can be turned into something more intriguing. What if it’s a woman getting out of prison? What if she escapes? What if her husband doesn’t know she has escaped?
Once the enhanced situation is in hand, King suggests the writer begin with what the main character would do to get out of a painful situation and then imagine what new obstacle the character would face as a result. The writer then repeats the process until the main issue set up at the beginning has been resolved.
Working this way lets the writer discover possibilities that are not obvious when developing a simple cause-and-effect outline. That’s what King has done in The Outsider. It is nothing like a routine police procedural.
This place cracks me up. The words over the door say, "The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute." It is a serious institution in that field. But then there are those oval windows above the entrance.
I've wondered if the institute just happened to buy or lease a building with that eccentric, but strangely appropriate, feature. Or whether they had this one built and went along with a whimsical gesture by the architect.
The history on their website refers generally to raising funds for buildings since its founding in 1959, but makes no mention of this particular building. However, they do use an image of the windows in the background of their header.
Accidental or deliberate, this is another of those instances in which reality is not believable. If any novelist set a scene at an eye research facility and described it as having a pair of oval windows, most readers would say, "Do you expect me to believe that?"
Last weekend we went to our favorite place for breakfast. When I was done eating, I looked across the street and noticed the morning light was beautiful on the buildings and the tree.
I started snapping, noticed people were walking by, and managed to catch the woman in the baseball cap in front of the red doorway.
When I got this picture up on my computer screen, I noticed there was a second woman just stepping out of the shadows on the right. She wears a headscarf and carries a yoga mat.
Baseball Cap is wearing yoga pants, so maybe she is walking to a class at the place Headscarf has just left. But Baseball Cap doesn't have a yoga mat. Maybe she's going to another kind of exercise class.
Of course, Headscarf could be carrying that yoga mat as a distraction. She might have been hiding in that dark doorway, waiting for Baseball Cap to walk by, intent on attacking her.
If so, she has a problem. Again, when I got the photo up on my computer, I noticed Baseball Cap is not alone. Look just behind her front foot and you'll see another foot. Someone is walking next to her.
Did Baseball Cap get word that headscarf was laying for her and bring backup?
As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."
I saw this stairway and liked it so much I had to take its picture.
It's in the Metreon, a building in downtown San Francisco where Ann and I had gone to see a movie. The wall of green outside the windows is the edge of Yerba Buena Gardens, a lovely place to linger if you're ever in town.
It reminds me of the one in the Museum of the African Diaspora, which (come to think of it) is only one block away.
Stairways like this are not hard to like especially for a guy who prefers to take the stairs and counts himself lucky in being able to do so.
But for me, they are more than just pretty. They are somehow theatrical. When walking on them, I see people outside the building and they can see me. I feel exposed, but somehow aloof at the same time.
Such a stairway might serve well for an important scene in a story. A pursuer (sleuth or assassin) might spot the pursued. The pursued might feel safe from the pursuer, but only if he can get to a higher floor and hide.
Hmm . . .
Recently I discovered that reading my book in Kindle Direct Publishing's ebook previewer taught me some lessons I hadn't learned by reading and re-reading my book in a word processor and on paper. Specifically I learned to use paragraph breaks in a new way for e-publishing.
Preparing my book for publication as a paperback has yielded still more lessons. Perhaps because throughout my life I've done most of my reading on single-spaced, facing pages, I never had to think of how the eye and the mind work together to turn those ink-blots into images and thoughts.
I've been over Dark Mural so many times in the past two years, I have parts of it memorized. Yet, when I saw it in the familiar form of a printed book, it looked different and read different. I became aware how parts of a scene fit together and raised questions that would be answered on the following page. In a few instances, I saw how the scene could be better built, and I've made changes.
Of course, most writers say they always want to change things, even after a book is published. So perhaps this was just one more opportunity for me to see such things. But I really don't think I would have seen them without reading it in book form.
As previously reported here, I have seized the opportunity attend a trial in criminal court as research for a book about a guy who reports for jury duty. I figured if I was going to write about it, I needed to make notes on the nuts and bolts of the process of conducting a trial.
So far I have watched as the judge and attorneys question potential jurors regarding their fitness to serve in this particular case. The process is called voir dire, a French term meaning, "speak the truth."
This is an important part of any trial, and I am glad to be reminded of how it works, but I'm learning much more about how it feels to be one of those called for jury duty. For however long it takes, your life is not your own.
On the whole, the judge is considerate of jurors' comfort, never remaining in session more than an hour and fifteen minutes. Beyond that, anything can happen: a fifteen-minute break can last twenty-five minutes; the session no sooner begins than the judge and attorneys withdraw for five minutes (stand and stretch, but don't leave the room); an attorney can spend twenty minutes questioning one juror, five minutes questioning another, and excuse both. Or neither.
Having no choice but to comply with orders that are unpredictable and seemingly arbitrary is stressful. The only thing keeping me in the room was curiosity, and I still felt trapped.
Perhaps the title of this blog post should be, "Writer Gets More Than He Bargained For."
Several years ago, I was called for jury duty, selected, and served on a jury in a case of sexual assault. We deliberated and returned a verdict of guilty.
For the first few days, I tapped out a description of each day's courtroom proceedings, so I would have the research done if ever wanted to write a story about a juror. But I stopped because I didn't think I ever would.
Big mistake. Let all us writers resolve never to repeat it.
Recently I returned to my notes and I saw how I could turn it into a story, but I would need the nuts and bolts of the trial process for my hero to work with.
So I emailed a writer friend with some background in law, and asked how I could find out when a criminal case was going trial so I could be there at the beginning and take notes. My generous friend wrote me a long email about how that is public information, but difficult to track down . . . databases, incompatible systems, etc.
Then, just last Thursday, a neighbor said she had to report for jury duty today for a murder case.
And here I am, taking notes.
Yesterday, I attended a meeting sponsored by the Northern California Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Jim Guigli was on hand to educate us crime-fiction writers regarding firearms. Though there is very little gun play in my books, I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation.
Clearly Jim can geek out about guns with the best of them. Click on the "Guns" link on his website to read his "Firearms Bio." While you're on that page, download the pdf of his article, "Firearms and Writers." It's an entertaining description things we've all seen in books and movies that don't make sense if you know about guns.
But instead of wowing us all with his knowledge, Jim geared his presentation to what might be most useful to mystery and suspense writers. He suggested we ask two questions. Why does the character carry a gun? Therefore, how does she carry it?
His demonstration was mostly about holsters. As he showed ankle holsters, leg holsters, belt holsters, and many kinds of shoulder holsters, he explained the trade-offs between concealing the weapon and drawing it quickly.
He used plastic models of common revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. The assembled writers asked many questions about different weapons and ammunition, which Jim was happy to answer. But mostly he focused on who? why? and how?
Not only is Jim a firearms expert, he's a good teacher.
Last Friday, we had lunch with some friends we hadn't seen in almost a year. We talked about what each of us had been up to, and I admitted I was ready to start publishing the mysteries I've written. One friend asked what the books are about. Another asked to be informed when they are available.
Another said Stephen King's On Writing is really a good book. Some others agreed. I think this was the only time I've heard a book on the craft of writing mentioned and discussed by people who aren't writers.
On Writing might be widely read because King's fiction is so popular and because the first 90 pages is about how he grew up and became a writer. But I think people are also reading the 140 pages that make up the middle of the book in which he lays out how to write fiction.
These pages are practical and inspirational for the writer, but also, I would imagine, entertaining for anyone to read. For instance, King says the room in which you write needs only one thing, "a door which you are willing to shut." That's bound to raise a smile.
A writer I know found it perplexing that King devotes about 100 pages of the book to autobiography, although the subtitle of On Writing is A Memoir of the Craft. But another of my favorite books on craft, Lawrence Block's Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, illustrates many of its practical points with anecdotes from the author's career.
I also like the way King says, "I have written because it fulfills me." This reminds me of how Patricia Highsmith in her how-to book says, "Writing is a way of organizing experience and life itself . . ." Ultimately, it's as much personal as practical.
Having uploaded my manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon), I used the preview feature to see how it will look as an ebook. I found a few spacing and formatting problems, and I learned there's more to it than that.
For instance, these two paragraphs look like normal bits of narration in my manuscript, but, on an ebook reader, they look like brick walls. The monotony of the page might make a reader think my story was tedious. These two paragraphs will become four.
This is not the way writers are trained to think. According to my ever-handy copy of The Elements of Style, "The beginning of each paragraph is a signal that a new step in the development of the subject has been reached."
However, in the world of independent publishing, the writer becomes a book designer and learns visual composition has a logic all its own. While consciously reading the words, the reader subconsciously follows the shape of the text.
Book designers have done this for centuries, making decisions about margins, line-spacing, indentation, typeface, and other things, all to make the appearance of the page support the intent of the prose.
New printing press . . . new rules.
Of all the topics I've heard discussed at writers' conferences, in writers' workshops, and in writers' groups, none calls forth more adamant opinions than how a book should begin. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what should be on the first page, or the first five pages of a book.
Many say the writer must provide a hook, something that makes the reader need to keep reading. Opinions vary on what will do the job.
For mystery, suspense, and thrillers, some say the writer must open with a scene of violence. Others say there must be a body on page one or by page ten. Still others say the main character must encounter a question to be answered or a puzzle to be solved.
Obviously Dashiell Hammett did not attend these writerly events. He opens The Maltese Falcon with a detailed description of Sam Spade's face. By the way, Spade does not look like Humphrey Bogart.
When I recently graduated from learning how to write a book to learning how to market a book, I discovered a handy way to see how a book should begin. For each of its categories, Amazon provides a list of the 100 best-sellers. The writer has only to choose one and use the "Look Inside" feature to read the opening pages.
I did this recently and discovered the top ten best-selling examples of the kind of book I am writing begin in all sorts of interesting ways. One of them even starts with a physical description of her sleuth.
I've written four books, and have not published any of them.
That's about to change.
First, I wrote a suspense novel about a businessman who will do anything---anything!---to protect his business, his reputation and his family. I consciously set out to imitate the novels of Patricia Highsmith and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. After rewriting it several times with the help of fellow writers, I concluded I had a lot to learn and set it aside.
Next, I wrote a murder mystery about an art history professor whose research on a mural at the college where she teaches turns out to be like picking up a snake by the tail. It's like Dick Francis's novels, except it's about art history rather than horse racing. While rewriting it several times, I wrote . . .
. . . the next novel about that same art history professor. This time she curates an exhibition of paintings by a contemporary artist without fully understanding their symbolism. Someone does understand the symbolism and is not amused. People die. While rewriting it several times, I wrote . . .
. . . a third novel about that same art history professor. This time she sets out to advise a wealthy donor who has purchased a rather peculiar painting by Picasso. There's a lot of money on the table. People die.
While writing this third novel, I wrote to some agents about the first art-history-professor novel. A couple liked the idea, but passed. One asked to see the manuscript and passed.
I also researched independent publishing (putting it on Amazon). This used to be considered a poor substitute for "real" publishing. That's no longer true. When you break it down, there are only minor differences between the two paths.
So my series about an art-history professor will be coming soon to a Brazilian rainforest near you.
Two weeks ago I re-read that suspense novel after not looking at it for two years. I'm surprised at how well it reads. I'll keep you posted about it.
Reading that brief online biography of Jim Thompson by Patrick Deese prompted me to seek out the book-length biography by Robert Polito, Savage Art, published in 1995. It is 500 pages of detailed research, served up in easy-to-read prose.
Among its revelations is the idea that Thompson never set out to be a writer of crime fiction. In 1931, he majored in Agricultural Journalism at the University of Nebraska. While there he wrote and published nonfiction except for one detective story in Nebraska Farmer.
During the 1940s, he published Now and on Earth and Heed the Thunder, novels based on his years working on the farms of Nebraska and Oklahoma and in the oil fields of West Texas. He seemed on the way to a career comparable to that of his contemporary, John Steinbeck.
Thompson turned to crime---crime-writing that is---out of necessity. His mainstream novels would not pay the bills. In 1949, at the age of 42, he published his first crime novel, Nothing More than Murder.
Thanks to the introduction of paperback originals in the 1950s, a lucrative market for genre fiction opened up, and publishers called out for writers to supply it. Thompson went on to produce what some call the greatest American crime novels.
In the biography by Patrick Deese I quoted in my last post, I found not only a good illustration of how Jim Thompson learned to write crime stories but also an indication of how different things are today for writers starting out.
Deese says, "Thompson made ends meet for a few years by writing pieces for true crime magazines . . . ." Today, I doubt anyone is making ends meet by writing for any kind of magazine. I haven't tried it, but from what I hear the best one can do is pick up a little side money.
To prove his point, Deese says, "At the height of their popularity, in the 1930's, these magazines (with titles like True Detective, Master Detective, and Intimate Detective) paid very, very well, $250 for a 6000 word article, the exact rate they now offer in the 1990's."
Without doing the arithmetic, I think it's obvious that $250 was a good week's income in the 1930's, and was still worth something in the 1990s. Yet I doubt there are many magazines paying $250 for any kind of short story in 2018.
It seems as if this entry-level income is no longer available to writers getting their start. These days, the writer's apprenticeship, like so many others, is unpaid.
Reading through the references on Jim Thompson's Wikipedia page, I enjoyed this biography by Patrick Deese. In particular, Deese offers this insight into how Thompson learned to write crime stories:
"Thompson made ends meet for a few years [in the early 1930s] by writing pieces for true crime magazines . . . His wife and sister would comb the newspaper archives, looking for murders, which Thompson would then rewrite into a popular set of first-person view point articles. It was here that Thompson cut his teeth and honed his sinister style. "
When Deese says "first person view point" he refers to the way these magazines presented crimes stories "as told to" a writer by the detective who solved them. If Thompson and other writers worked from news stories, the detective may have done no more than endorse the story as written.
Re-writing news stories from the point of view of someone involved sounds like a great writing exercise. Thompson would have developed an ability to make a story sound like it was being told by a big-city homicide detective, a small-town chief of police, or other law officer.
This facility for writing in the first person served Thompson well. Many critics think his best novels are those written in the first person---The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, Savage Night, and others. Arguably no one has done first person better than Thompson.