Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Perils of Pauline

My guest today is Robert W. Walker, the author of over forty novels with a record eight series heroes and heroines.

“Write to your opposite” is Walker’s watchword as “this forces you into a worthwhile writing challenge. So set your stories in exotic places you’ve never been with exotic characters you’ve never known. You’ll surprise yourself.”

Whether you're a reader or a writer or both, you'll find this post most interesting!

Here's Robert:

Visit his website www.robertwalkerbooks.com!

or Making the Perils of Pauline Routine

The Voice of one’s female-lead detective or PI in crime fiction--above all elements-- must be consistent, just as your choice of words, control of weak qualifiers, control of adverbs and adjectives, down to your grammatical skill all impact on VOICE, the final product, your lead character’s VOICE controls the novel and reassures the reader even as it lulls him or her into “becoming” the leading lady.

The sound of the bell your narration and dialogue rings in the reader’s head must be unique, believable, likeable, even loveable, and if you cannot make it ‘sing’ then at least make it ‘clear’. The difference between confusing readers, and\or sounding wishy-washy, or sounding like ‘unto one who is awash in political mish-mash’ (like someone who cannot commit) as opposed to an assured, authentic, absolute voice (like someone who is committed) is in one’s authorial voice. And this compelling voice relies on absolutes over qualifiers in the narrative. This is even truer of the feminine lead written by a male author!

To pull off the so-called “impossible” –getting into the head of the opposite sex and understanding from this point of view, surprisingly enough, surrounds elemental, fundamental reliance on a “woman of substance” in the VOICE. If you are a female author struggling with how to get into the psyche and ‘mindset’ of a male lead, just reverse what I say here.

VOICE in dramatic, commercial fiction in particular relies heavily on strong Active Voice over weak passive voice. These basic grammatical decisions (word choice, exorcising qualifiers for absolutes, using active verbs over passives and cripplingly slow helping verbs, and exorcising the verb to be) are the crucibles about which E.B. White wrote in The Elements of Style and supported by the fine book Writing Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. Style comes out of extremely small elements you choose to make work for you--or items you fail to utilize.

As small as the choice difference between say the word before and ago, maybe and perhaps, this is “shaping” voice. This “becomes you”--BECOMES your style. If you choose a folksy or shoddy or simplistic or complex or formal or informal voice, your reader will know it from the outset and is normally willing to follow it so long as this voice remains consistent and consistently believable. So is VOICE the single most important element of your story? Absolutely, and yet it is created of all the other elements and choices you choose to make from setting to dialect to no dialect to the difference between between and betwixt, leaped and leapt.

All good writing relies on the reader ‘falling for’ your narrative voice, the point of view speaker, the mind you set your reader down into comfortably or awkwardly. If it is an ill fit, little wonder as an author is a trick cyclist on the unicycle juggling twenty four plates in the air, spinning each ‘choice and decision and element’ at the end of long sticks. Each plate, each stick, each prop is an important element, but they all culminate in the overall effect your story has on the reader’s ear and mind’s eye. If I had said the writer is LIKE a trick cyclist rather than stating it as a fact, it rings a different bell, sends a different and less powerful impact. The use of LIKE and AS is terribly overdone in some “voices” in female-lead crime fiction.

The use of passives, especially the WAS verb—a major killer of action and visualization—also riddles most fiction and especially in the first person narrative along with the personal pronoun references to the narrator: I, me, my, mine, myself, often using the personal pronoun three and four times in a given sentence. What a reader hears and pictures comes about as result of our giving him a believable SOUND in his head—the author’s voice, or the narrative voice (not always the same) or the character’s voice, along with providing Kodak moments in the reader’s head that look, feel, taste, smell, and sound like images.

The human brain sorts its mail via images, so it behooves us to use verbs that carry the weight of an image. We call this simile and metaphor and extended metaphor, but the absolute is even more powerful than these. Absolute detail, as in a Name is a photo in the mind, as a Number is an instamatic shot in the mind. Metaphorical language then and Verb Choice then create style and voice; and if we choose verbs that fire off shots of photographic moments as in SLAM, divorced, cuddled, crammed, leapt, jarred, frightened over the weak helping verbs as in the door WAS slamming, they were thinking about maybe getting a divorce, had been cuddled, was cramming, was about to leap, was feeling a bit frightened, we REDUCE the photo or blur it considerably. We clip ourselves at the knees when we overuse ly words and qualifiers in which sentence the strong verb is relegated to a murmur somewhere along the line of thought.

Most assuredly helping and passive voice verbs such as was SLOW the action and the firing of the photo in the brain of the reader if it gets there at all. Strong female VOICE carries the day in crime fiction with female leads. The ‘secret’ to creating strong voice, male or female is the same!

There is/was/has been no more insidious word in the English language to insinuate itself on sentences like a parasitic leech than the verb to be, and in particular the word WAS. Take a moment and picture for me a was in your head; next, define the word was in the manner you might define any action/active verb and you cannot. Picture was now in your mind and tell me what you ARE\WAS seeing? Do same for throw/threw/thrown or torch/torched. Jessica bolted from her seat RATHER THAN Jessica was about to maybe stand up as she was sipping her coffee. Meredyth torqued up her language whenever Lucas Stonecoat entered her office. The man enraged her.

These examples “fire off” mental imagery and are far more photographic and Strong in Voice than is this: Meredyth was (in the process of) thinking about perhaps torching up her language whenever she was confronted by Lucas’s presence in her office Lucas, by the same token, was nervously thinking about maybe entering the room. If you wish to write Passively go write speeches for politicians and supreme court justices.

One style or Voice is the point: pointed, photogenic and active, while the second lacks control, hard to determine point, less than pointed or photogenic and entirely passive and riddled with WASes that often beget more Qualifying. A storyteller who peppers his tales with qualifiers and passives cuts his own throat and is easily the example to point to in an exercise for what not to do in fiction and dramatic writing. However, proof always (always being an absolute) in the proverbial pudding, does Robert W. Walker practice what he preaches? Take a look at these examples taken all from works in progress:

• From Flesh War:

In the Bay of Bengal, India modern day…

The side-wheeler Bristol Star of India chugged into thick fog that hinted at rich sea air, with just a suggestion of the stench of the disease in the mist over the bay. The disease island must be near, must be in the vicinity. Small, sad death boats, their bottoms filled with corpses had begun to emerge from the fog to drift by the Star’s bow. Angelica Hunter gasped at the sight and grabbed Eric’s arm for support.

• From City for Ransom:

Chicago, Illinois, June 1, 1893...3AM

The newly formed and lettered sign tore at its chain moorings where it dangled over the modest brownstone house, the shingle reading Dr. James Phineas Tewes, Phrenological and Magnetic Examiner until a lightning strike hit it, turning it into an unrecognizable charred mess.

Across town to the sound of thunder, lightning, wind, rain, and the clock tolling 5AM, Alastair Ransom climbed from bed, unable to sleep, his skin afire with malarial fever. He dosed himself with a hefty tumbler of quinine and Kentucky whiskey. He imagined strangling Dr. Caine McKinnette for having run out of his supply of quinine and antimony. He breathed in deeply, imagining the pleasure of his hands around the good doctor’s throat. Then once more what really troubled him began invading his night: the awful, bloody murder case that had fallen into his lap the day before.

THESE ARE ALL examples of opening with the verve of strong verbs, the conscious choice of few to no qualifiers, no WASes please! And active voice. Any elementary or high school grammar text is worth revisiting to rekindle these notions into fire in a writer’s gut. It’s the little things that make a female lead compelling. Revisit Passive vs. Active Voice, the handful of pages devoted to Qualifiers vs. Absolutes (voice), and while at it, look up sentence combining for the 4 types of sentences— Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound Complex Imagine it, what Shakespeare utilized we all have to work with—shapes already formed, voice choice, to qualify or not to qualify, to BE or not to BE, and whether tis nobler in the mind to use a hammer blow of a two word sentence like Jesus wept, OR rather to compound it, complex it or compound complex it. And so full-blown characters and scenes come into being thanks to the author’s ability to triangulate all five senses on the page—heat and imagery on every page.

Robert’s website is chock full with advice and examples. Visit for the fun of it or for the lessons to be had. He’s also on facebook, twitter, myspace, and www.acmeauthorslink.blogsppot.com


Camille Minichino said...

Everyone should know that Rob had much more material, and I cruelly had him cut it! We'll have to have part 2 soon, Rob!

Thanks for visiting.

Feeding the Grey Cells said...

I will soon be reading Robert's newest...a first for me by him..can't wait.


Betty Hechtman said...

The two beginnings both grabbed my attention and made me want to read more.

Thanks for the lesson!

Rob Walker said...

Hey maybe I could come visit some time at Feeding the Grey Cells, cause I can sure use some nourishment there. Thanks for the comments from everyone today...and if you want to start in on my last trilogy the first is City for Ransom, followed by Shadows in White City, then City of the Absent....they straddle the Chicago World's Fair -- and I changed the opening again!!
My next is Dead On coming in July
but you can sample it at my website.
Along with the wicked cover designed by my son, Stephen Robert Walker.
Thanks for having me, Camille, and I will check back during the week to see if I need address anyone else's comments!