how to write good

1) I used to read quite a few blogs by aspiring writers* (back before that blog world was swallowed up by social media), and there were always “helpful” bits of “wisdom” being thrown around, like “adverbs = bad” and “kill your darlings” (in other words, whatever you most love in your story, take it out**) and “never have a preface — always start in medias res” and “if there’s a gun, it has to go off at some point” and so on.

All of these are interesting, more or less, and all of them are easily refuted by great novels by great writers.

Another one was that the key to any story is conflict (the more the better), so I was glad to read this:

Without quite knowing why, I’ve always disliked the truism that conflict is drama’s fundamental ingredient. Yes, we fight and cajole and coax and settle scores: that’s our species, and it’s frequently how we show ourselves onstage. But this bit of craft wisdom—conflict is king—is the handmaiden of a paranoid anthropology, and a limited way of thinking about action and speech. We humans do much more than struggle, will against will. And our talk isn’t strictly coefficient with our need to act upon or influence others for our own ends. Often, to the contrary, it springs from a mysterious overflow of unbidden feeling, more a free gift of sound and syntax—of humor, of love—than a blunt instrument of acquisition. [From this review]

* I frequently had to clarify that I myself am not an “aspiring” writer. I am exactly the type of writer I want to be, and my only aspiration is to get a bit better at it.
** “Be willing to kill your darlings, if necessary,” is actually tolerable advice.

2) Legends of Tomorrow was canceled — there will be no Season 8. Some people are really upset about this (particular because, with Batwoman being canceled at the same time, that’s a whole lot of diversity gone from the world of TV superheroes in one day), but I’m okay with it. With long-running TV shows, some people apparently want a final episode to wrap everything up, but I don’t. I prefer to think they whole story is still going on. Do you want Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to have a retirement party?

Besides, there was a “the Legends all retire” episode, it just wasn’t the last episode of the last season, which was a cliffhanger. It was the episode right before that. So, you can pick whichever ending you want.

3) Moon Knight is done, and I was really glad I subscribed to Disney+ to see it. Pleasantly, it did not depend on my having seen all the other Marvel movies and TV shows. I saw an article that said people are tweeting jokes about how much homework and research you have to do to really understand the new Dr. Strange movie.

The best part of the series was the fifth episode (of six) where the plot stopped completely to delve really deeply into the main character’s DID (dissociative identity disorder) and what caused it. Oscar Isaac (who plays Moon Knight) did an amazing job at showing the different alters and their history. I’ve seen videos by DID systems saying that this was, overall, a good representation of DID (compared to the usual, where there’s often one alter who’s a serial killer or something like that). Since I write (very obliquely) about DID, I’ve learned a lot from this myself.

Moon Knight may or may not get a second season or a movie, but the season we have ended well, and now I can cancel my Disney+ subscription and go back to focusing on The Witcher.

(And I’m thinking it may be time to watch the third season of Twin Peaks…)

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when is a script not a script?

This is sort of a continuation of my last post.

Another thing I liked was this interview with David Lynch.

Specifically this part:

The A.V. Club: With Inland Empire, I understand there wasn’t a full script before production. Were you writing scenes as you went along?

David Lynch: Let’s clear this up. When you write a script, at least what my experience has been, you don’t suddenly see the whole script and spit it out and type it out with no typos, just perfect, in one sitting. That never happens, never will happen. You get an idea, and you write that one out, then you’re going along, you don’t have any script, you had an idea and you wrote it out. Then you go along, you get another idea and you write it out. Now you have two ideas, but you don’t have a script. You go along a little bit more and you get a third idea, you write it out. And you look and you say, “Wait a minute, I have three ideas, and none of them relate to one another.” Fine! No problem. There’s no script, just three ideas that don’t relate. You go along and you get a fourth idea, and this fourth idea relates to the first three, and you say, “Oh, something’s happening.” And then, when something starts happening, more ideas flood in, quicker! Quicker they come, like schools of fish, schools of fish! And the thing starts to emerge, and a script appears. That’s exactly the way it happens. And that’s exactly the way it happened on Inland Empire.

I don’t make movies, obviously, but that’s pretty much how I work. Pieces and ideas and scenes, and then eventually they start to fit together. It’s like what happened on The Jan Sleet Mysteries — a series of detective stories that started to turn into a novel (a “stealth novel,” as I called it at the time).

What I’m doing right now is a bit of a technical experiment (I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done), and it combines a couple of different ideas, as did the story before (which is why it was longer than the first two, which were basically one-idea stories).

I wouldn’t mind writing more one-idea stories, but it’s the connections that are often the most interesting parts.

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the deacon mystery (part seven)

This story started here.

The sheriff, having discharged her responsibilities, departed (after thanking my employer, of course). The attorney left a moment later, nodding to each of us in turn, apparently in lieu of a spoken farewell.

As we heard our departing guests walk down the stairs, one and then the other, my employer regarded me with a frown.

She was not, I thought, expressing disapproval of my appearance or my actions. When that was the case, she usually pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose and gave me a piercing look over the rims. But it was obvious that something about the sight of me was not filling her heart with joy, and I thought I knew what it was.

Before either of us could speak, however, if we were going to, there was a tap at the door.

The stairs in the inn were carpeted, but a couple of the boards usually creaked enough to alert us to any new arrivals, now that we were the only tenants.

There were exceptions, however — people who were not heavy, or who walked carefully.

My employer and I glanced at each other. Neither of us had forgotten the events of the night before.

I was moving to get my gun when we heard a familiar voice.

“Good morning! It’s Kate Lane, from the Crier!”

My employer’s shoulders slumped about a quarter of an inch. She gestured at the door with her eyes. I went over and pulled it open.

Miss Lane, a reporter from the local newspaper, looked up at me eagerly. “I saw the sheriff leaving, and I thought–”

“Miss Lane,” my employer said, getting to her feet, “I do not conduct business in my bedroom. We can talk on the deck.”

I saw the reporter’s eyes flick around our modest room, perhaps accumulating clues that it was in fact a shared room. We never made any attempt to disguise the fact that we lived together. People quite often appeared to be curious, but almost nobody ever asked directly.

In the downstairs hall, my employer poured two mugs of coffee. She made a face that the reporter couldn’t see — she knew that the impact of not offering anything to our guest was vitiated by the fact that Miss Lane had a container of takeout coffee in her hand.

The sky was clear but the air was cold on the rear deck, which was in the shade at that time of the morning.

Our regular table was pretty much as we’d left it after breakfast the day before. Mrs. Jessup never sat out here now that the air was colder.

I brought over a third chair for our guest.

Since we’d met her, I’d had the impression that Kate Lane, in her mind, regarded herself as our friendly rival — the scrappy local reporter who spars with the gifted amateur sleuth who had moved into her town.

However, I do have to report that, in reality, we seldom gave her any thought at all.

“Jan–” Miss Lane started, but my employer gave her such a glare that she stopped immediately.

I wasn’t surprised that the reporter had blanched. My employer had looked as if she was about to call down a lightning bolt directly on the rear deck of the inn.

“So,” my employer said as I lit her cigarette, “Miss Lane, what can I do for you?”

The reporter recovered her composure and she smiled, apparently not entirely able to conceal how pleased she was with the situation, even after her initial faux pas.

“Miss Sleet,” she said slowly, “I’ve heard that Fred Deacon approached you yesterday to help find his missing daughter. Have you decided to take the case? Is that why the sheriff was just here?”

My employer shrugged. “Sheriff White was here to ask me about that conversation, yes. Under the circumstances, that’s part of her routine. I had no huge revelations to give her — I can tell you that much. I can also tell you that I declined Mr. Deacon’s offer yesterday — I refused, in no uncertain terms, to investigate his missing daughter, and that decision has not changed.”

Miss Lang shrugged. “I guess that answers my question. Does–”

“The answer to your next question, which you should have asked first, is that this is on the record. Please feel free to quote me.” She stubbed out her cigarette and used her cane to get to her feet as I pulled her chair out. “If you do decide to quote me directly, please quote me accurately and completely. Have a pleasant day.”

As we walked down the path to the front of the inn, my employer regarded me again, still displeased.

We were obviously going to investigate — or at least begin to investigate — the Deacon case, whatever that might turn out to be, and she had no possible justification for this action on our part.

She couldn’t claim that it was for the money, especially since the person who had offered her the money was the one who was apparently now missing.

If she had claimed that it was to help the poor, suffering members of the Deacon family, I would have reminded her that she was not — according to her — a public convenience.

She shrugged. “Well, come on,” she said, turning away and leading me down the sidewalk toward the corner.

I made a mental note that there were still four dirty mugs in our room, which I would have to remember to wash at some point.

To be continued…

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i was writing a blog post…

Actually, I wrote an entire blog post, but something was wrong. I had accumulated a list of URLs of articles (well, three) which I was going to use to illustrate my points (about why the articles were, in terms of their main points, wrong), but something wasn’t right, so I didn’t press the big, blue “Publish” button.

I always go by my gut when writing. As I’ve recounted before, I had a friend, a very long time ago, who was reading a book about the workings of the human brain, and he called me up and asked, “Do you write with the front of your brain?”

“No,” I replied, “I write by the seat of my pants.”

I finally figured out why the blog post should stay, permanently, in Draft mode. I really don’t want this to be the kind of blog that’s devoted to pointing out things that are wrong. Every time I go to YouTube, for example, I see all kinds of videos about what’s wrong with the final season(s) of Game of Thrones, why The Witcher sucks because it’s not like the video games (or the novels), why this or that Fast & Furious movie sucks, why The Walking Dead isn’t as good as it used to be, all the things Licorice Pizza stole from other movies, and why the ending of Killing Eve pissed everybody off and/or broke their hearts.

I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with any of those positions (okay, the ending of GoT did suck, and The Witcher totally rocks) — the point is that I realize (I’m pretty sure I’ve realized this before, maybe more than once) that I’d much rather write about things I like. I really don’t want to be one of those people who can’t shut down the computer at night because, to quote the classic cartoon, somebody is wrong about something on the internet(!).

So, some things I like:

1) There was nice weather yesterday and today. Both days I took some paper and a pen (okay, several pens) to the park and wrote a bunch. Very pleasant. Paper and pen: still the best way to write. (Also, everybody should watch David Lynch’s daily weather reports.)

2) Legends of Tomorrow has not yet been renewed for an eighth season. If this is the end, it would be too bad, but back when it started who could ever have predicted it would last this long and end up being so good? Sara and Ava are married, Sara is pregnant (with Ava’s baby — don’t ask) and all is well with the world. (Other than the fact that all the Legends are now in time jail, but they’ll think of something. They always do.)

3) Season 2 of The Witcher is over, so I was kind of looking for something else. I tried Peacemaker, since it was based on The Suicide Squad, which I really liked, but the first episode didn’t grab me (although the opening featured an amazing dance number behind the credits).

So, I settled on Moon Knight. I haven’t watched any of the other Marvel shows, and I’ve stopped watching the movies, but it’s supposed to be fairly free-standing — not completely tied into the overall mythology (well, the Marvel mythology — it’s very much tied into Egyptian mythology).

So far, it’s really good. The “heroes” and “villains” are all pretty complex, compromised, and damaged. It’s not as wild as Doom Patrol — although that statement applies to pretty much everything except possibly the new David Cronenberg movie (his first feature based on his own script since eXistenZ).

Also, it deals with DID (dissociative identity disorder), which I’ve been known to write about as well, so that’s interesting (of course, the term, the current replacement for Multiple Personality Disorder, is contentious, since not everybody agrees that it is a disorder in the first place).

4)I appreciated this article: “How to recognize gaslighting and respond to it.” When I used the term “gaslighting” twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, I almost always had to footnote it. Now, similar to “triggering,” it is used constantly, to refer to a wide variety of unrelated things.

I always remember watching a TV drama with my father back in — I think — the late 1960s. The episode was about an actress (or maybe she was a singer — I forget her exact profession), who was starting to think she was losing her marbles. Halfway through, my father announced, “It’s Gaslight!” As indeed it was. I’m sure that was the first time I learned what it meant to “gaslight” someone, and where the term came from.

5) Good music from Tangerine Dream recently, both composed and improvised.

6) Also, Billie Eilish may be winning me over.

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the deacon mystery (part six)

This story started here.

My employer, who was sitting on her bed, smiled at the sheriff. “I assume that this possible crime is the ‘circumstances’ you referred to downstairs?”

Rhonda sat in our one easy chair (without an invitation, but of course this was not a social visit). I stood by the door.

“There appears to have been a kidnapping last night.”

My employer waited. Miss Nelson sipped her tea, her expression blank.

Rhonda continued. “I’ve had a few reports about your conversation with Mr. Deacon at the book sale yesterday, and they were inconsistent, in terms of how they–”

Miss Nelson’s voice seemed to float across the room. “Did any of these witnesses actually hear the conversation, Sheriff White? Was anybody close enough?”

Rhonda turned to the attorney. “Not that we’ve been able to discover so far.”

“Well, in that case, my client–”

“Rhonda, would you like to hear what was said?” My employer took a sip of her coffee and placed her mug on her bedside table, carefully centering it on a coaster. “I can recite the entire conversation for you verbatim, if you want, and then Marshall can type it up and bring it to your office this afternoon, including carbon copies.”

I got the idea that Rhonda was here because she had to be. She had a case that didn’t interest her very much, but she had to do her job (and she wasn’t about to have anybody from her staff interview my employer).

I kept my face impassive, but I was amused to think that this was not going to be one of those cases which would interfere with whatever personal plans she and Phyllis might have made for that evening.

Rhonda sighed. “That’s not necessary. A simple summary will be enough.”

“For now,” Miss Nelson murmured, smiling. She sipped some more of her tea.

“At the book sale,” my employer began, “I had a very pleasant conversation with Dr. Aubrey Deacon.” I expected her to light a cigarette, but she didn’t. “It went on for a while, and then his brother Frederick came up to us and Dr. Deacon introduced him to me.”

She sighed.

“There was, I must add, a clumsy and painfully obvious attempt by the brothers to make this all seem casual, but they had planned it in advance. So, that put me off from the start.” She looked like she was about to launch into a rant, but she held it back.

“Are you familiar with Mr. Deacon’s daughter?” she asked the sheriff.

“Which daughter? Julie or Jennifer?”

My employer frowned, apparently surprised. “I confess that I don’t know. Nothing in what Mr. Deacon said told me that he had more than one daughter.” She paused thoughtfully, and the sheriff waited.

“His daughter, whichever one it was, has apparently, from what he said, been kidnapped. Or, possibly, she has run away from home — he didn’t seem to be entirely sure.

“I… as Marshall can tell you, this was a stupid approach for Mr. Deacon to take. As I explained to him, quite clearly, I am not a private investigator, nor do I have any desire to be one. I am a professional journalist and I support myself by writing, not by investigating. If I do decide to turn my attention to solving a mystery, it’s because I find it interesting, and sometimes because it seems that it might make a good subject for an article — or maybe even a book — after the fact. I…” She stopped herself and made a face.

“To put it briefly, he told me his daughter was missing, he offered me money to find her, and he tried to get me to come to his house, immediately, to get started on ‘the case,’ as he called it.”

Rhonda nodded. “Did Mr. Deacon give any indication–”

“Of why he was coming to me rather than going to the police? No, and I didn’t ask. I’m afraid that, when he sensed my lack of interest and started to mention how much he was planning to pay me, I turned and walked away from him while he was in the middle of a sentence.

“I located Marshall, we paid for my books, and we left.

“Allow me to guess. Evidence has now come to light that Miss Deacon — a Miss Deacon — has been kidnapped.”

“No, Fred Deacon has been kidnapped. Apparently.”

I was finding that I had to focus on the conversation between my employer and the sheriff, because it was becoming increasingly obvious, at least to me, that the well-dressed attorney sitting by the window was studying me. It looked like she was only somewhat engaged by the conversation which was going on around her. I wondered if my employer was noticing this (well, of course she was), and whether I was going to get teased about this later (definitely, in private, at the most opportune time).

The sheriff asked a few more questions, and she got answers — truthful answers, of course — which did not happen to include any reference to possibly menacing cars, mysterious dark-clad women, or throwing knives with Portuguese words carved into their handles.

To be continued…

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the deacon mystery (part five)

This story started here.

The following morning, as my employer took a shower, I went outside, ostensibly looking for footprints or other clues.

The large laundromat across the street had just opened for the day, and a few energetic souls were already tending to their washing. The sound of the machines, and the smell of detergent, filtered out through the plywood walls as I scrutinized the gravel in the driveway beside the building.

Had somebody stood there the night before, hidden from us by the building, and thrown a knife across the street at the woman on our front porch?

I had no idea.

Several cars passed by as I pretended to investigate, but I didn’t pay much attention to them, except to try to listen to each one to make sure it wasn’t the softly purring vehicle of the night before.

Then, having failed, as I’d anticipated, to discover anything useful or interesting next to the laundromat, I crossed the street again and went to the driveway to the right of the inn.

The mystery woman who had been on the front porch of the inn the night before had been dressed in dark colors, and she’d only been clearly visible to me when her pale face had been turned in my direction. I’d been looking at her face when the knife had landed in the door jamb next to her, and then I’d lost sight of her, probably because she’d turned her head away from me. But how had she got off the porch?

With the street light on, she couldn’t have walked down the three steps to the sidewalk (and, in any case, that would have meant walking directly toward whoever had just thrown a knife at her). It seemed most likely that she’d gone off the far end of the porch, over the railing and down to the driveway where Mrs. Jessup parked her car.

Possible? Yes, easy to visualize. Had it happened that way? I saw no direct evidence, but it seemed likely.

Having come to that conclusion, for whatever it was worth, I was unsure how long I needed to maintain the fiction that I was doing vital investigative work, so I was almost relieved when a police cruiser pulled up in front of the inn and Sheriff Rhonda got out. She saw me, and she waited for me to come over to her.

“O’Connor,” she said.

“Sheriff White. Good morning. What a pleasant surprise.”

“Is your employer at home?”

“As far as I know.” I nearly went into a bit of additional banter, but her expression dissuaded me. I opened the front door and held it for her, and as she entered I heard my employer’s voice.

“Sheriff,” she said cheerfully. “Good morning.”

I stepped into the front hall behind the sheriff and I saw that my employer had three mugs on a tray.

This got Rhonda’s attention. “I do indeed want coffee, but how did you know I was coming? Frankly, under the circumstances, that looks suspicious.”

My employer laughed as she handed me the tray. “This is not for you, Rhonda, although you are welcome to pour yourself a mug of the nice, fresh coffee which our wonderful landlady, Mrs. Jessup, provides for us every morning, which we very much appreciate, of course.” She gestured at the urn and then started to ascend the stairs.

I was tempted to put the tray back down and pour coffee for Rhonda, but she moved to the urn to serve herself.

I looked at the three mugs on the tray. Two of them had coffee with milk, and the third apparently contained tea with lemon. My employer and I usually drank coffee, so who was the tea for? And where had my employer obtained a slice of lemon?

And, if a visitor had arrived while I’d been outside investigating, how had I failed to notice?

Of course, someone could have entered the inn via the rear deck and the kitchen and the parlor, but how would he, or she, have got past Mrs. Jessup, who always had her breakfast in the kitchen?

And, at least as important, I didn’t think I had ever seen my employer get coffee, or tea, for anybody.

I held out the tray so Rhonda could add her mug to the others. She preceded me up the stairs, and as I followed her, making sure the mugs didn’t slip around on the tray, my eyes seemed to be drawn to the pearl-handled revolver on her hip.

Our visitor — my employer’s visitor — was wearing a striking yellow three-piece suit, and she sat in my employer’s desk chair, with the morning sun streaming in through the window behind her. It seemed to make her clothing, and her long, strawberry blonde hair, glow. The details of her face were difficult to see clearly, but already I knew what she looked like. I remembered the experience of being cross-examined by Miss Tamara Nelson, Esq., in court.

Rhonda paused, but she was far enough into the room that I was able to squeeze around her and bring in the tray.

It took a moment, but Rhonda came up with a line. “Miss Sleet, I do want to question you in connection with a possible crime, but is there a reason you have an attorney with you?”

To be continued…

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