On Writing: Style and Cadence

Ken Coffman, my guest blogger today, is the author of eight books, including a popular technical book called Real World FPGA Design with Verilog. He could easily make money writing additional technical books, but has more fun writing absurd novels like Steel Waters and Glen Wilson’s Bad Medicine, available from fine online bookstores everywhere. Ken writes:

Recently, my friend Lisa said this to me: “You tend to like more baroque-type authors, gravitate towards writers with that style, and write in that style.  Ironically, I really do like Hemingway, in that when I read him way back when, I immediately liked and related to the prose style . . . “

It’s true. We’re diverse, and different things float our metaphorical schooners. See, there I go. I could have simply said boat and your eye would have slid smoothly over the cliché. But, I didn’t want to.

Anyway, back to the point I’m laboring to make.

          Nick looked on at the moon, coming up over the hills.
          “It isn’t fun any more.”
          He was afraid to look at Marjorie. Then he looked at her. She sat there with her back toward him. He looked at her back. “It isn’t fun any more. Not any of it.”
          She didn’t say anything. He went on. “I feel as though everything was gone to hell inside of me. I don’t know, Marge. I don’t know what to say.”
          He looked on at her back.
          “Isn’t love any fun?” Marjorie said.
          “No,” Nick said. Marjorie stood up. Nick sat there, his head in his hands.
                – 
Ernest Hemingway, The End of Something

Of course, I can appreciate Hemingway’s sparse mastery. In feeble imitation, sometimes I report things in a flat tone to emphasize a point or work against the reader’s mental picture. But, generally, my ambitions lie elsewhere. I like prose that is more playful and convoluted.

Tom Robbins, who I like to call my neighbor, writes like this:

          A few months later, everyone of the bride’s relatives, including even distant cousins, decided that life was meaningless without that most talented, most delightful girl, not to mention her pious and generous family, and so the relatives, as well, set off for the hills and Fan Nan Nan. Their departure tore a hole in the fabric of the community; there was an abiding emptiness there.
               -
- Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito

The difference in style could hardly be more obvious. Tom’s zany prose dances.

          Then I looked at Dale, my sergeant, wringing out his shirt in a metal water drum. His back was brown, ridged with vertebrae, his ribs like sticks against his skin, the points of his black hair shiny with sweat. Then his lean Czechoslovakian face smiled at me, with more tenderness and affection in his eyes than I had yet seen in a woman’s.
          He was killed eight days later when a Huey tipped the treetops in an LZ and suddenly dipped sideways into the clearing.
                –  James Lee Burke, Heaven’s Prisoners

Burke has a huge vocabulary and is unafraid to take a risk. He sits on a limb and with careful, deliberate, thoughtful strokes, works his saw.

To my taste, the master of mixing the eloquent with the absurd is Nabokov.

          I thought I had crossed the frontier when a bare-headed Red Army soldier with a Mongol face who was picking whortleberries near the trail challenged me: “And whither,” he asked picking up his cap from a stump, “may you be rolling (kotishsya), little apple (yablochko)? Pokazyvay-ka dokumentiki (Let me see your papers).”
          I groped in my pockets, fished out what I needed, and shot him dead, as he lunged at me; then he fell on his face, as if sunstruck on the parade ground, at the feet of his king. None of the serried tree trunks looked his way, and I fled, still clutching Dagmara’s lovely little revolver. Only half an hour later, when I reached at last another part of the forest in a more or less conventional republic, only then did my calves cease to quake.
              — Vladimir Nabokov, Look at the Harlequins!

So, how am I doing? You judge.

          “I’m bored,” Nort said.
          “That’s because you’re not doing anything.”
          “And you can’t make me.”
          “Right,” Jake said. “Exactly.”
          “I’m not staying here. I’ll beg on the street.”
          Jake looked up.
          “It used to be that a man would rather die than be a beggar or take charity,” he said.
          “Things are different now.”
          “I can see that. Good luck out there.”
          “What’s wrong with you? You don’t care about me at all.”
          Jake licked the tip of his pencil.
          “When I was in Da Nang, I was stabbed in the gut with a sharp stick by a starving 11-year-old who wanted the three dollars in my wallet.” He lifted his shirt to show a twisted scar. “After I killed him with a brick, I realized either God either didn’t exist or was the biggest asshole of us all. I care about you, but out in the world you’ll die of AIDS or get stabbed in an alley by a cracked-out whore. It doesn’t pay to get emotionally attached to the doomed.”
               — Ken Coffman, Fairhaven 

You plant your butt in your chair and you face the demons that live in that blank screen. You spend hours and hours wringing words, situations, and plots from too-thin air.

Who are your influences? And, what are your ambitions?

Getting a Word in Edgewise

DeLauné Michel, author of Aftermath of Dreaming and The Safety of Secrets, is hosting my blog again today. She let me choose which of her articles to post, and I couldn’t bear to pass up either “How Do You Choose? Or Why I Wrote This Novel,” which I posted yesterday, or this article, so she graciously agreed to let me use both. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I do.

In the French Catholic world where I grew up in South Louisiana, there was only one ritual more important than Sunday Mass, and that was the dinner hour. True to our heritage and locale, in the house that I grew up in, dinner was the most important time of day, partly for the food – my Momma’s incredible Creole cuisine – but mostly for the conversation. Or should I say storytelling. Because that’s what it was: long, detailed, funny, and illuminating stories. And God forbid you didn’t have one.

My father started first. Every night, my four older sisters (yes, four, and no brothers!) and I would sit quietly, eating our dinner while Daddy told Momma about his day. We were expected to pay attention. We were expected to learn and understand what Daddy did running the insurance company, which I never did until a few years ago. But we were not expected to be part of that conversation.

Then Momma talked about her day. My mother had her own life of running the Arts Council and working on her Ph. D. and writing, but at this point, we were more than just a silent audience because we were actually players in some of the stories of her day.

Then finally it was our turn. All five of us. And let’s just say that with four extremely verbal, intelligent and expressive older sisters, getting a word in edgewise was not an easy feat. So I didn’t. At all.

Finally when I was about six, Momma and Daddy realized that I rarely-to-never spoke at the dinner table, so in an effort at equality and to stave off me being a future dinner-party-mute, they enforced a new rule: Every night, I was to get my own time to talk with no interruptions, no cutting off, no shouting over. Ready? Go!

There I was: the youngest at the table, the one with the least schooling, the least experience, and the least stories as it were, but with the time to talk. I cannot think of this memory without a visceral sense of four bodies literally sitting on their hands with their mouths clamped shut. And possibly bored. Or indulging. But regardless, I got to talk, to tell the story of my day. And boy, did I. From the beginning. Because to me it was very clear that each event flowed to the next and the next wasn’t possible without what proceeded it so how could I tell them about the red-headed woodpecker at the park with Gracie Mae if I didn’t tell them how hard it was to decide which shorts to wear that day, purple or pink?

It never really got much easier to talk at that dinner table, and when I got older, the enforcing of that nightly rule fell away, and I either fought my way in to the conversation or I didn’t, but something amazing had happened. I was able to feel what it was like to have the time and the space to be heard.

As far back as my memory goes, I always knew that I would be writer. I come from a family of writers: my mother, my first cousin Andre Dubus (House of Sand and Fog), and another cousin is James Lee Burke, so that world has always been around me. But that experience at the dinner table is what made me need to write, and made me keep writing. I need to be heard, and doesn’t everyone? Even if it is only on a piece of paper or a computer screen. And if I’m not interrupted, if someone reads my stories, that is a glorious bonus. But what’s most important is that I give that time and space to myself in the dinner party of my life.

It’s no surprise that Spoken Interludes, the reading series that I produce in NY and LA, is basically a reconstruction of the dinner table. People come together, have a meal, and writers tell a story by reading their work.

So, if you pick up The Safety of Secrets, I’d love to hear what you think. And it’s okay to interrupt me. Promise.

A Classic Catch 18

Agents, editors, and fellow authors keep telling us unpublished writers we need to be better than published writers to get noticed, so any debut novel that is published should be spectacular. Not so.

I just finished reading Alafair Burke’s first novel, and I was unimpressed. The words were strung together in a readable manner, but it was filled with clichés and generic characters, something you and I could never get away with. But then you and I are not the offspring of well-known authors. (She is the daughter of James Lee Burke.)

Perhaps she and her editor have not read enough fiction to realize that her characters were typical of those in the lawyer mystery genre, but there is no excuse for her use of cliches. Within a couple of chapters I found: “keep your nose clean,” “nip it in the bud,” “a hundred and ten percent,” “hot and steamy sex,” “keep the eye on the ball,” “going down in flames,” “get her ducks in a row,” and “cut and dried.” Uninspiring, to say the least.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe there really are no editors any more. Maybe all that counts is who we are and who we know, not how we write. I wonder if, in today’s market, a book like Catch 22 would ever get published. I don’t know what the editor saw in it, but it must have had some spark that inflamed her into cutting apart the manuscript sentence by sentence and reassembling it into its present form. The title certainly didn’t capture her attention. Originally called Catch 18, she changed it to Catch 22 because Leon Uris had come out with his book Mila 18, and she wanted Joseph Heller’s book to be different.

I know I keep attacking the system’s lack of editorship, but I lose out twice — once as a reader and once as a potential published writer. I always thought one of the benefits of finally getting accepted by a publisher was being able to work with an editor, but it seems as if that is a rare occurrence. And the consensus regarding my works is that they need a good line-editing.

So the problem is that I need to be a good enough self-editor to get the attention of an editor, but the only way I can do that is to have an editor help me.

Sounds like a classic catch 18 to me.

The Blue Jeans Philosophy of Life and Writing

Last summer at Art in the Park, the realization struck me that everyone in my field of vision was wearing blue jeans. Men in basic, straight-legged jeans. Boys in baggy jeans that hung to their knees. Girls in cut-offs or low riders. Sophisticates in designer jeans. Heavy women in pleated jeans with elastic waistbands. Arty women in skirts fashioned from jeans. I’m sure they all thought they were dressed uniquely, but I saw the sameness: blue denim.

That’s when I came up with my blue jeans philosophy of life: be an individual — like everyone else.

Last night I extended this philosophy to include the publishing industry. I was reading a debut novel written by James Lee Burke’s daughter, and it was no different from thousands of others I have read. It was written well enough, but there was nothing unique about it. And, if by chance, it had been unique, I’m sure the publishing industry would have pulled her into line and edited out anything that was different. It seems as if what they are looking for is a high level of mediocrity: books that are original — like all the rest.

If you can understand this philosophy and put it into practice, there is a good chance that you will succeed in life and in your quest for publication, but there is no hope for me. I have never owned a pair of jeans, never even worn a scrap of denim.

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