Writing links: How to Write Good; Grammar “Rules” It’s Okay to Break

Here are a couple of entertaining and educational articles about the art and craft of writing. Enjoy.

First, from the late Michael O’Donohue, writer for Saturday Night Live and editor at the National Lampoon:

How to Write Good

Lesson 4: Exposition

Perhaps the most difficult technique for the fledgling writer to master is proper treatment of exposition. Yet watch the sly, subtle way I “set the scene” of my smash play, The Last to Know, with a minimum of words and effort.

(The curtain opens on a tastefully appointed dining room, the table ringed by men in tuxedos and women in costly gowns. There is a knock at the door.)

LORD OVERBROOKE: Oh, come in, Lydia. Allow me to introduce my dinner guests to you. This is Cheryl Heatherton, the madcap soybean heiress whose zany antics actually mask a heart broken by her inability to meaningfully communicate with her father, E. J. Heatherton, seated to her left, who is too caught up in the heady world of high finance to sit down and have a quiet chat with his own daughter, unwanted to begin with, disposing of his paternal obligations by giving her everything, everything but love, that is.

Next to them sits Geoffrey Drake, a seemingly successful merchant banker trapped in an unfortunate marriage with a woman half his age, who wistfully looks back upon his days as the raffish Group Captain of an R.A.F. bomber squadron that flew eighty-one missions over Berlin, his tortured psyche refusing to admit, despite frequent nightmares in which, dripping with sweat, he wakes screaming, “Pull it up! Pull it up, I say! I can’t hold her any longer! We’re losing altitude! We’re going down! Jerry at three o’clock Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagggh!”, that his cowardice and his cowardice alone was responsible for the loss of his crew and “Digger,” the little Manchester terrier who was their mascot.

Second, for all members of the Grammar Geeks Unit, here’s one of the best essays on writing with good grammar — instead of cramped pedantic adherence to wrongheaded grammar dogma — that I’ve read. It’s by Steven Pinker. Here he is on the “rule” about never ending a sentence with a preposition:

The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check. There is nothing, repeat nothing, wrong with “Who are you looking at?” or “The better to see you with” or “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” or “It’s you she’s thinking of”. The pseudo-rule was invented by John Dryden based on a silly analogy with Latin (where the equivalent to a preposition is attached to the noun and cannot be separated from it) in an effort to show that Ben Jonson was an inferior poet. As the linguist Mark Liberman remarked, “It’s a shame that Jonson had been dead for 35 years at the time, since he would otherwise have challenged Dryden to a duel, and saved subsequent generations a lot of grief.”

Steven Pinker: 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes)

The mail I get: Endings

Readers email me.

I just finished your new book “Phantom Instinct” which I thought was good. But…. It seems there must be something in the new journalistic style where authors are leaving the reader with lots of unanswered questions at the end of the book. I do not understand this new style and don’t like it. There is so much minutia in the beginning, middle and in the end left hanging. It is frustrating. And while I understand that you may be tired towards the end and just want it to be done, you leave the reader hanging. Please consider the reader and understand that when we get towards the end of the book, with just a few pages left, you know you are going to be unsatisfied because it just kind of ends. What ever happened to beginning, middle and end? I believe there should be as much emphasis on the end as in the beginning. Please consider my comments on your next book. Thank you.

I really do enjoy your books!

I appreciate this reader’s courtesy. It was thoughtful of her to tell me that she enjoys my novels even though she was writing with a complaint.

I replied:

Thanks for your message. I’m glad you enjoyed Phantom Instinct. It’s true that modern novels often don’t tie up all loose ends in a story. Honestly, it’s not because of fatigue — I spend a year writing a novel, and would never just end a story because I was tired of working on it. But I will remember that some readers do wish to know how all threads in a story wrap up.

Of course, there are also sequels.

I don’t write epilogues that lay out how all the characters resolve every issue in the story. I don’t have an Animal House-style “Where are they now?” postscript. Though, if any of my books become movies, that would be awesome.

Does anybody else have an opinion on this?

My Penguin podcast about Phantom Instinct

A few weeks ago in New York, I did an interview with “Beaks and Geeks,” the Penguin podcast, about Phantom Instinct. If you’d like to listen to me gabbing about Harper Flynn, Aiden Garrison, thrillers, writing, shootouts, and why I don’t like to “cast” characters for imaginary movies, here you go.

Talking about writing

This week I’ve been talking to writers about writing.

First, I talked to Amie Flanagan from Keys to the Page.

An Interview with Meg Gardiner

AF: I love how “Phantom Instinct” is broken up in separate scenes. It makes for a quick read. It’s almost cinematic. Did you choose to do this for pacing purposes? Why or why not?

MG: A thriller has to thrill. That means the story has to move forward at all times. Tightly paced scenes help propel the narrative ahead. More than that, though, scenes bring the story most vividly to life—they show instead of tell. They make readers feel they’re in the midst of immediate action. That’s why scenes can seem cinematic—because readers can see and hear them happening as they read.

AF: You do an amazing job in blurring the line between a plot driven story verses a character driven story. How do you make a person care about a character when you’re writing a plot driven book?

MG: Plot is what the characters do. In a thriller, plot is about the choices the characters make when facing deadly threats, under increasing pressure, often with time running out. To get readers to care, I follow the advice given to me years ago by mystery writer Leonard Tourney: Create sympathetic characters and put them in jeopardy.

Second, I answered questions for the fabulous thriller author J.T. Ellison.

7 Minutes With… Meg Gardiner

Set your music to shuffle and hit play. What’s the first song that comes up?

“The Heart of the Matter,” Don Henley. Oh, man, is this a great song to come up. It’s world-wise, heartbroken, and hopeful. “Baby, I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter… and I think it’s about forgiveness… forgiveness…” When I was writing the ending of China Lake, I would put this on repeat, unleash an emotional typhoon, and let it all pour onto the page.

Now that we’ve set the mood, what are you working on today?

I’m trying to come up with a nickname for a villain. Something sharp, memorable, and portentous. So, probably not Fluffy the Slayer.

As always, there’s more at the links. Because there are few things I enjoy more than talking about creative writing.

Me, talking. About movies, books, and who I’d trade places with for 24 hours

I’ve been shooting my mouth off.

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First, to Suspense Magazine, which asked me about the thrillers I’m reading. International Thriller Writers Reader’s Corner: Book recommendations by Meg Gardiner.

The Fever, Megan Abbott. Abbott could scribble a grocery list and it would be lyrical and frightening. In The Fever, a mysterious contagion sweeps through a suburban high school, sending girls into seizures. What’s causing it? What secrets will it force into the daylight, with awful consequences?

I have more recommendations at the link.

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Second, for its annual Pop Culture Issue, the American Bar Association Journal asked some law types to talk about movies: 12 Pivotal Movie Scenes with Lessons for Lawyers. Here’s how my contribution opens:

True Grit (2010)

Hailee Steinfeld stars as Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old Arkansas farm girl who sets out to “avenge her father’s blood” after he’s murdered. To track and capture the killer, Mattie needs to hire U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). But all her cash has gone to pay the undertaker. Unless she can raise money, the murderer will escape. So Mattie goes to an auctioneer who did business with her father shortly before his death, and she conducts a negotiation that reduces the man to pudding.

Finally, at Jen’s Book Thoughts, I answer five questions for her Five on Friday feature.

1. The most bizarre question I was ever asked in an interview was: At a bookstore event, an audience member approached me. “I want to write a bestseller,” he said. “But I hear that to be an author, you need to be mentally unstable. Are you?” While I was gaping at that, my husband walked up. The man turned to him and asked, “Is your wife crazy?” I think I said something like, “Only on the full moon.” The man didn’t buy any books.

Read the rest if you want to know my favorite movies, whose life I’d like to live for 24 hours, the most beautiful place I’ve visited, and what’s on my bucket list.

Things I love: readers and Sharknado

My family loves bad disaster movies. I grew up watching them. My kids grew up being made to watch them. That’s why they can recite the entire script from the blockbuster we call “The Towering Inflamo.”

So last week’s premiere of Sharknado 2: The Second One on SyFy was a major event in my household. And among my entire extended family. Late in the afternoon, I started getting messages from relatives.

“So… ready for Sharknado 2?”

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We threw a Sharknado bash with likeminded friends. Courtesy of Leslie Fox Abbott, here is the centerpiece of the evening:

Shark Melon

We watched, and laughed, and snarked at the sharks and the ‘nadoes and the New Yorkers getting mangled left, right, and center. It was a fulfilling cinematic experience.

Of course, during the movie I took to Twitter, along with hundreds of thousands of likeminded weirdos, to share my joy at experiencing this cultural moment.

Yesterday, reader Susan Manning posted this on Twitter.

Yeah, I guess folks know that I’m a cheesy movie nut.

And I love it.

My Q&A with Mystery People about thriller writing and Phantom Instinct

Recently I did a Q & A with the Mystery People blog. (Mystery People is the bookstore within a bookstore at Book People in Austin. Don’t try to figure it out. It’s like Inception. Just trust me that it’s awesome.) The interview talks both about Phantom Instinct and about writing thrillers. Here’s a teaser.

Mystery People Q & A with Meg Gardiner

Molly O.: Your two main characters, Harper and Aiden, are hobbled in their pursuit of justice by Harper’s past as a juvenile delinquent and Aiden’s traumatic brain injury, which leads him to see enemies everywhere. Their flaws drew me in to their characters much more so than any of their more heroic attributes, especially in the case of Aiden. What was your inspiration for creating such flawed characters?

Meg Gardiner: I want to write about characters who have their backs up against the wall. For a novel to be suspenseful, the characters must be vulnerable to real danger. If they have no flaws, no limitations, then they face no real challenge. That story’s boring.

Even Superman has Kryptonite.

The only real way to find out what characters are made of is to crack their world in half. Then you learn whether they can fight their way clear of the debris, rescue people who need help, and rebuild from the wreckage.

Plenty more at the link.

Also: Phantom Instinct is on the Mystery People interviewer’s Best Of list. Molly’s Top 10 of the Year So Far.

Which is mighty nice.