A Right Cock Up

The doctor handed me two prescriptions: one for a steroid and the other for a device described as a Cock Up Forearm/Wrist Brace (hereafter referred to, by me, as a medieval torture device). It seems that, whilst lugging two heavy bags of books to a recent author’s showcase where I was selling and signing, I damaged a tendon that hooks into a muscle group (or something of that nature).  Upshot. It hurts to type so keyboard activities are limited. My apologies to my followers who have found nothing new for a couple of weeks.

The entire affair has turned into a bit of a cock up, or at least a Catch 22: the brace may help the wrist, but wearing the brace on tender tissue causes more pain. I can’t help but wonder if whoever named this style brace is familiar with the English slang meaning of cock up?

The British term, a right cock up, led me to think about the genre that falls between British cozy (or American cozy) and police procedural. In the former, the main characters seem to have a lot of accidents, some from carelessness or an icy sidewalk–others through the villain bopping them on the head or shoving them down a staircase. Occasionally, the issue is more mundane and our lead detective simply comes down with influenza or a beastly head cold.

Regardless, somewhere in most of the novels our struggling sleuth has to overcome a physical issue as well as solve a crime. I’m not sure why this has become so prevalent, but I like it. In the hands of a skilled writer, it adds another dimension to the character. We get to see how the detective soldiers on, with cane or box of tissues, apprehends the culprit, recovers, and goes forth to unravel the next case.

That’s not the same as what’s become a convention in the work of a variety of otherwise good writers. For some reason (which, I suspect, is an attempt to reach the high drama of a television production), these writers have afflicted their main characters with an alarming number of fatal, devastating diseases. In fact, the whole novel revolves around a characters terminal prognosis and suffering. Often, those maladies are the “disease of the day.” Only rarely are they necessary to the plot.

I’ve lived long enough to lose both dear family members and good friends, of all ages, to many of these dreadful diseases; thus, I have a problem with choosing what appears to be a good read, then feeling dismay when the author knocks off a lead character (which, presumably, the reader has begun to care about) for no discernibly good reason.

A few years ago, I was totally taken by a novel about a woman in New York who, in the throes of raising a teenage daughter without assistance, had also turned her small craft shop into a gathering place for a diverse group of women. It was interesting and original. That is, until near the end, when this amazing female character is suddenly apprised she has an incurable disease. She dies in the next chapter or two. WHY? It did nothing for the plot (we were at the end of the book anyway). Pointless.

I am not fond of treacle, in any area of life; I don’t always expect a happy ending–quite the opposite when it is appropriate. I understand that sometimes dealing with serious issues, in a fictional manner, is effective and can be comforting or emotionally healing for those involved. That is different. What I’m tired of is the inclusion of gratuitous disease and death simply as a tool to shock the reader.

I recently read all three of Gillian Flynn’s novels. They are dark; they are intended to be; they are excellent and true to their genre. Not everyone is going to like our work: some want action/adventure, fantasy, or much blood and gore. Others want to read of everyday lives and characters who face common trials–in parenting, relationships, or other human endeavors. As writers, we can’t please everyone, and need to guard against thinking that jolting the reader with unjustified violence, misery, or heartbreaking agony will make our book better. Know your genre; stick to it.

What’s your take ?

Divining Dorothy

Dorothy Parker offered the following advice: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

Dorothy’s comment was on my mind last Friday as I presented a workshop on editing. When I was asked to do the workshop, my first thought was, “How can I talk about editing for an hour and a half?”  I certainly wasn’t going to get up in front of a room of writers and go into the finer points of grammar and punctuation. What, then?

As I thought about my own proofreading experience, I realized editing comes down to patience. Not just the patience it takes to read through your manuscript multiple times, but the patience to do it right in the first place.

Disclaimer: I have trouble practicing what I preach. My number one character flaw, but not the only one, is impatience. When I learned to sew, I never basted first. To baste, from the (Old French bastir) means to “sew lightly.”  I always skipped that step, and turned out some real disasters in my high school home economics class.

Likewise, I don’t write light. I never outline; I should, but I don’t. I remember shuffling, cutting and taping scraps of paper together before I had the luxury of using a word processor. If you ever wrote a book on a standard typewriter, you know what I mean.

For the workshop, instead of talking about whether to use lay or lie or the overuse of ellipses, I decided to focus on how to edit a manuscript effectively and, what is more important, how to avoid making rookie errors during the writing process. It’s a lot easier to avoid the mistakes initially than it is to find and correct them later.

For some writers, ideas form slowly–and are given adequate thought– before the writer’s fingers ever touch the keyboard. They have the patience to think through the format, content, story line, and arrangement of data. They may make well-organized notes, lists, or even spreadsheets.

Others, however, begin writing the moment inspiration strikes. The ideas are flowing, the words are piling up, the characters are interacting. Occasionally, however, a few details get overlooked and proofreading and editing becomes a chore. I fall into this category. Knowing this, I’ve devised a simple plan that works for me and might work for other impulsive writers

I create several documents and keep them handy on my computer desktop.

1)     List significant events as they unfold. Only takes a minute and it keeps the  chronology straight. It’s especially necessary for a mystery,  crime, or intricately plotted novel.

2)     Major characters–record their date of birth. Add relevant information as it develops: graduation, wedding, divorce, employment, residence. After each significant event, note how old they were at the time.

3)    Record all characters names even if they only appear once. Indicate who they are and any facts about them that will need to be addressed later in the story. This not only provides a quick reference, but keeps you from making an unwanted spelling change; for example, Mr. Waters becoming Mr.Walters.

This list can also prevent you from having all the characters names begin with same letter or sound similar. Marion, Martha, Mary, Melissa, Merissa, Marvin, Martin, Marlon and Margaret!

4)     Whenever you use numbers to indicate the time between incidents–years, months, days, hours, minutes–make a note. It’s not only a useful reference for you, but eliminates confusion for the reader. Clarity is often the differentiating factor between a clumsy read versus a page turner.

If you are really patient,  you might follow Dorothy’s parting words:

“ It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and then write it sentence by  sentence—no first draft. I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”