comments on A Sane Woman

My friend Don just finished A Sane Woman, and he sent me some comments:

(The parts in italics are my responses to his points.)

First of all, congratulations on going back to finish something you started so many years ago. I couldn’t really tell where you picked it up again unless it was the part where it changed from 3rd to 1st person.

That was it, partly because I didn’t think I could really write in quite the same way again, and partly because it jumped into the whole Holmes & Watson dynamic, where the sidekick tells the story of the detective’s investigations. I find it very easy to write first person with Marshall, and I’ve done it again in U-town and the current novel when it was appropriate.

I should note that during my last sitting I was interupted somewhere in chapter 15, after finding out xxxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxx, and I’ve not yet reached the Epilogue.

The Epilogue, as you may know by now, is very short.

The strongest aspects of this were the mechanics (if that’s the right word) of your writing; sentence structure, choice of words and keeping a consistently straighforward tone in the narrative. This is the fundamental stuff that makes something readable or not, right? In this area, it’s strong.

Glad to hear it. That’s one good thing about going back to it again after so many years, I was able to be sort of detached about that, not all possessive about what I’d written, since it was so long ago. I did try to respect my style back then, which has changed since, but to even out the rough spots.

A friend of mine is writing some stories and I’m critiquing them for her, and one thing I point out is where I think specific words are just wrong and interrupt the flow (like being out for a nice walk and suddenly stubbing your toe on a rock). She doesn’t have a lot of those, but it makes it even more distracting when you do hit one.

It was also strong in attention to detail. I mentioned something about this a while ago when I started reading it. There are descriptive moments having to do with coffee mugs or newspapers or what have you that make the scenes come to life.

I don’t always describe a lot of things in detail, I like to pick specific details rather than tell everything. For example, I describe what Jan Sleet wears because it’s unusual, and because it’s indicative of her character and how she sees herself, but I mostly don’t describe what everybody else wears. One or two details can tell a lot more than ten, in a lot of cases (and it keeps things moving better, too).

I found a couple things to be problematic/challenging to an easily distracted reader like myself (I’ve started several interesting books over the last year and abandoned them somewhere near the middle when something else caught my attention). The trouble spots have to do with overall choices.

1) Character Names. From the first few paragraphs, there were a lot of names introduced with no clue as to who these people were. Though I was pretty sure that I would soon enough find out who they were, my first impression was “uh oh.”

This was intended to bring in the reader right away, as Robert Altman’s movies do sometimes. I hope that, from the immediate point of view of “who the heck are these people?” it starts to answer that pretty quickly.

Also, when the first chapters were originally written, they were being published in little chapbooks, each with a character list in it. I do that in U-town (there are a series of character lists, growing as more characters get introduced). Would this be a good idea in A Sane Woman, too?

Also, a few of the names are gender-neutral (Alex, Terry, Sam, Nicky) which made it harder to keep track of who’s who. Some middle gound between this and the Springsteen approach (Bobby, Mary, Janey, Johnny….duuuuhhh!) might have made it easier for me.

This is an excellent point, and one which I’ve never thought about (and which nobody else has ever commented on). Because I’m so familiar with some of these characters, it never occurred to me (in this context) that Terry and Sam, for example, were gender-neutral names. I’ll definitely keep this in mind from now on.

The problem is that I find it impossible to change the names of characters I’ve been writing for a long time (35 years in a few cases). When I returned to A Sane Woman, I wanted to change Nicky & Sarah’s names, since there are other characters coming later with similar names, but I couldn’t do it. At a certain point they are people to me, and I would have as much trouble thinking of Sarah as Celia as I would suddenly thinking of you as Fred (and I’ve known Sarah a lot longer than I’ve known you).

Also, specifically, I realized I couldn’t change Sarah to Celia because the three siblings (Sam, David and Sarah) all have to have Biblical names because of how religious their parents were.

By the way, someday someone who know the Bible will probably point out to me how appropriate or inappropriate those names are for those characters, because I have no idea. 🙂

2) Progressive Flashbacks. I don’t know if that’s what you call it, but while it’s not unusual for a mystery novel to begin in the present and then flashback, I think it is unusual to flashback, then flashback further, then further, etc. I question this approach, but I assume there are reasons why you did it this way. Maybe a more focused reader wouldn’t be thrown off.

I think of it not so much as progressive flashbacks but as showing something, then pulling the camera back and showing it again, with the audience seeing more of what’s surrounding the central action.

For example, you see Nicky & Sarah as a couple, then go back and you see how they met and you realize that there’s a mystery there, too.

I also do this in Utown, as you’ll see.

I think I mostly learned this from The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. The first book, “Justine,” is about an affair the narrator has with a married woman. In the second book, another character tells the narrator that he was wrong, that the woman (Justine) wasn’t in love with him at all, he was the “beard,” for her real lover, because her husband was so jealous. Then the third book pulls the camera back so far that it’s in 3rd person and the narrator of the first two books is barely in it. Then the fourth book shows what happened after the first three.

The one flashback in A Sane Woman which may be a bit of a leap is the one into the farther past, to the small town (which is really in the style of a couple of the Sherlock Holmes novels, the one thing about Doyle’s writing which almost nobody imitates). That’s there because, as you know, the mystery Jan Sleet is trying to solve is not exactly the mystery you think she’s trying to solve.

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