Thursday, February 17, 2011

Playing By the Rules

I remember when I took my first creative writing course at San Jose State sooooo many years ago, the professor, Robert Burdette Sweet, said to us, “If your character is going to kill himself on the last page, the gun better be hanging over the mantelpiece on the first page.” Good advice for any kind of writing. It’s really important, and only fair, for the writer to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow. This is especially important in whodunits. I’ve got a whodunit knocking around in my head I expect to start working on soon, so this blog is a way of reminding myself to follow that important rule.

In my last post, I raved about John Hart’s spectacular novel The Last Child. As I read that wonderful book, I spent a lot of time muttering to myself and even shouting “Holy Cow” and other such phrases at the ends of chapters, but not once did I find myself saying, “Whoa! Where did that come from?” There were a few chuckles followed by “I should’ve seen that coming.” It was all there. Not that there weren’t red herrings enough to keep readers guessing, but the bread crumbs were there. And when you finished the book, it was with the same satisfaction one has finishing a big, tough jigsaw puzzle. All the pieces are there. You just have to put it all together.

Now, I have read some books that didn’t follow the rules. A couple of years ago I picked up a James Patterson book. It’s the only one I’ve ever read with his name on it. I’m reluctant to say “by him” because I’ve read Patterson comes up with story ideas and outlines them, then farms the project out to a whole stable of writers who do the heavy lifting. But if he has his name on the books, you’d think he’d read them and make sure everything that should be there is there. This book was called Beach Road and when I finished it, I remember saying, “You have got to be kidding me. Where the heck did that come from?” The only good thing about the book was that I bought it at a garage sale and only paid a quarter for it. After reading that one, I’ve never been able to use any of my hard-to-come-by reading time for another Patterson book. So I have to admit, maybe Beach Road was an anomaly, but I’ll never know for sure.

The Given Day: A NovelMystic RiverI remember feeling the much the same way about Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. It wasn’t as bad as Patterson’s book by a long shot, but when I finished I still felt Lehane had cheated. Maybe it was particularly disappointing because two of my favorite books are Mystic River and The Given Day. Both are spectacular books, brilliantly written. Time permitting, I would read them both again. Unfortunately, time isn’t permitting these days. Mystic River is perhaps the best whodunit I've ever read, although thanks to John Hart, there is another contender for first place. Maybe it's a tie.  If you haven’t read these two by Lehane yet, find some time and give yourselves a treat, but don’t bother with Shutter Island. I’ve read a few of his other books and liked them pretty well. His detective novels are quite smart. So I will say here, anything by Dennis Lehane, with the exception of Shutter Island, is probably worth your while.

One of my critique partners, Robert Gordon, has decided to add an element of mystery to the book he’s working on at present. He has introduced a spy into his WWII historical novel.  I watch with interest the journey he’s taking with this book, going back to dot his Is and cross his Ts, dropping a few more crumbs, rewriting and rewriting. It’s coming along nicely and I admire his perseverance. I think mysteries must be the most difficult form of writing. There are so many balls to keep in the air, so many clues to be planted, so many facts to be checked. I’m looking forward to the idea of writing a mystery, but realize it will probably be the toughest task I could set for myself. I’m still in the thinking-about-it stage and have a way to go before I start writing. I sure don’t want people slapping their foreheads at the end of my whodunit and muttering, “Whoa. Now where the heck did that come from?”

Friday, February 11, 2011

It Doesn't Get Much Better Than This: a Review of John Hart's The Last Child

I’m doing more reading than writing now, but after the marathon of finishing my second novel, I don’t feel too guilty. Besides, it’s part of the training. I was at a workshop put on by Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada of the Larsen/Pomada Literary Agency last week, and they gave us Ernest Gaines Six Golden Rules for Writing: Read, Read, Read, Write, Write, Write. Now Ernest Gaines is a writer for whom I have great respect. He’s written some wonderful novels – The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying – to name just two. This is a man who knows something about writing, so if he says I should read, read I will.

KindredDonald Maass of Donald Maass Literary Agency and author of the seminal book on contemporary writing, Writing the Breakout Novel, talks about a novel needing to have tension on each and every page. That is a tall order. In my novels, I feel like I get good tension on most pages, but all? Not quite. When I first read that, I thought about books I’d read and could honestly only think of a precious few books I would describe in that way – The Day of the Jackal, Jaws, and one of my all time favorites, Kindred by Octavia Butler. Oh, there are probably others, but that’s what came to my mind.

The Last ChildThis week I read a book that certainly fills Maass’s “tension on every page” maxim. I don’t remember where I heard about this book – read a review or heard something on the radio about it, I think. I scribbled it on a scrap of paper with a note to pick it up. That note rattled around my purse and car for a while, then last week I picked up The Last Child by John Hart. Holy Smoke, what a book! Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have a good chunk of time this week to just sit down and read it. I had three sub teaching jobs this week, a couple of appointments, a day of a thousand errands, etc. You know how it is. Anyway, I grabbed a little time here and there, but once I started the book, I put off what I could and read. I found myself praying for long stop lights on the way to and from school so I could read a page or at least finish a paragraph. I carried the book into stores in hopes I would have to stand on line. I stayed up too late reading. I got up early and read a few pages over breakfast. Every time I thought I’d have an hour or two, something came up.

Today was to be my day. The phone rang at 6:15 a.m. “Do you want to sub today.” “Oh, gosh, sorry. Can’t. The dentist.”  Okay. Not the dentist. Just an absolutely delicious book. I saw clear reading time. Just some obligations in the morning, but by ten, the time would be mine, all mine. At 11:30, Dave said, “How about I take you out to lunch?” Not even one of my favorite mini-dates – lunch out with my hubby – was going to get me away from that book until I finished. I hope Dave had a nice time.

This is a book that is more convoluted and well-written than almost anything I’ve ever read. It has mysteries inside of conundrums wrapped in enigmas. And the writing is simply wonderful. Hart takes you to North Carolina and you don’t want to be any place else until the last word. You feel the suffocating heat and the mosquitoes nibbling you. The smell of death fills your mouth and gags you. You hear the voice of God speaking to Freemantle. It’s all there. His characters are perfect – damaged, vulnerable, sympathetic people pursued by black-hearted, malevolent evil-doers of the first order. Holy Guacamole! How does he come up with this stuff? John Grisham pales in comparison, and trust me, I love John Grisham.

So, if you don’t have a bad ticker, and you do have an open day or so on your schedule, pick up a copy of The Last Child by John Hart and enjoy. It does not disappoint.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Rachel Dillon Making a Point

I am working on writing an article on spec for a children’s magazine about a friend who is a phenomenal artist and writer. Her name is Rachel Dillon. She has a spectacular book of her paintings and poetry already published and another will be published next year. Her subject is endangered species and her passion shows in every bit of her work. Her book, Through Endangered Eyes: A Poetic Journey into the Wild,  has been out for about two years. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s quite wonderful.

Rachel has a style of painting unlike any I’ve ever seen. She calls it “dot painting.”  I thought for a long time it was pointillism, and that I would be researching Seurat  for background and influence. Imagine my surprise when Rachel said she had been launched on her artistic journey when she visited Australia and saw the dot painting done by the Aboriginal artists. She explained to me that pointillism is really about color – the juxtapositioning of primary colors to fool the eye into seeing another color entirely. Dot painting is just what it says – one uses dots of paint to make a picture.

The Aboriginal dot paintings are rather simple, flat, and straightforward. Rachel’s paintings are extremely elegant and have tremendous texture. You can get a sense of it on her web page, but when you see them close up and hold them in your hand, as I did, they are stunningly alive and three dimensional. I will post here when Rachel has a showing so you can experience what I have.

When Rachel was in middle school, an uncle gave her a book about endangered species. A later trip to a zoo where she noticed the signs indicating which animals were endangered (lots of them!), had a profound effect on her. When she had her first child, she wasn’t able to find any books on endangered species she would want to read to her own children. There you go. The old adage: Find a need and fill it. Rachel created a book of amazing pictures and charming poems that tell a story of the tremendous losses we all face if we don’t pay attention to the needs of the planet. Unfortunately, the number of endangered species cannot be covered in one slender, beautiful book. Fortunately, there is a second book on its way, equally beautiful and important.