Monday, January 14, 2013

Word Murder, She Wrote

Longer ago than I like to think about, when I was just getting started with the writing gig, I did interviews for the now defunct White Wolf Magazine. It was a gig that had several benefits, not the least of which was I got paid professional rates, but as an addition, I got to choose who I interviewed. I got to interview some really cool people and many of them were writers. When I interviewed writers, one of my favorite questions to ask them was what they liked most about being a writer. And I always followed up with what they liked least.

An astonishing percentage, well north of fifty percent, listed never having enough time to read among the things they liked least about writing. The very first to put it that bluntly to me was Rick Hautala, a New York Times bestseller. To paraphrase, what he said was simply that the business of writing took away from his leisure reading time. He could never find enough hours in the day to keep up with what had always been a passion of his.

And looking back, he ain’t wrong in my humble opinion. I still read, and I read a good deal, but I don’t read like I used to.

Part of that is simply that I no longer read the same way.

Thomas F. Monteleone, another of the writers gracious enough to let me interview him way back in the distant past, put it very simply (and keep in mind, please, that I am once again paraphrasing because I simply do not have the energy to hunt down that interview). What Tom said was simply, “Well, when you’re a writer it’s kind of like being a mechanic and looking at a car when you want to read something. You can’t just hop in and take it for a spin. You have to pop the hood and look inside and see what makes that baby run, or in some cases what’s slowing it down.”

And looking back, he ain’t wrong, either.

Listen, I used to burn through a 200 page book a day back before I got serious about writing. I was like a junkie, really. I needed a fix and I was going to have it, no matter what the cost. I would walk around my high school hallways with a paperback in my hand, and if I had three minutes a page or two was going down in flames.  I read science fiction, I read fantasy, I read bloody near anything at all as long as it wasn’t required reading. Mind you, if the school assigned it I could procrastinate with the very best of them.
And then, one day, I decided I wanted to be a writer. Some circuit in the back of my skull went haywire and convinced me that putting words on paper was the way for me. And you know what the first thing I did was? I started reading differently.

The thing is, at least for me, when you’re a writer you really do have to pop the damned hood and try to understand what’s making that engine purr, and what, by God, is making the motor hiccup and cough instead of simply doing what it’s supposed to do.

A little anecdote for you. Back when I was in the fifth grade (yes, when dinosaurs roamed the earth) I listened on with horror and a complete lack of comprehension as my teacher went over the fine art of diagramming sentences. I saw her take perfectly coherent sentences and then break them into pieces, and with no clue as to why she put the parts where she did I saw her take those perfectly fine sentences and randomly put different words from them in different spots on a diagram that looked like somebody had knocked over a family tree and then decided it functioned better on its side.

When the class was done, I walked up to her desk and shook my head and said “I have absolutely no idea what you just did or why.” I thought about it for a moment and added “I was at a different school last year, we just moved here.” Maybe it would have helped if I had explained that the different school was, in fact, in a different state a few thousand miles away. I tend to think not, because she was one of those teacher for whom the finest learning tool ever created was the mimeographed sheet of paper.

After several seconds to trying to understand why I wasn’t simply nodding along to the tune she’d been singing, the nice teacher looked at me and said, “You should have learned that last year. It’s in the book.” She meant the book that the school had provided, of course. The very one I had been staring at as she knocked over family trees and rearranged words all over them. I nodded my head and went on my way.
Then I looked at the words inside that book and my eyes went over them without actually reading anything at all, because back in those days if it wasn't written by Tolkien or Robert E. Howard, and it wasn't a comic book, it made no sense to me.
The next day in class and for the next couple of weeks, actually, I spent time doing exactly what I had seen my teacher do: I randomly put words wherever I thought they might look good on a sideways family tree.

Yeah. I sort of failed at diagramming sentences. I failed so badly, in fact, that said teacher decided I just might be mentally handicapped and asked that I be given an IQ test. Imagine her surprise. According to the standardized IQ test I was reading and comprehending on a college level.

I just wasn't reading what she was trying to teach.

I’m not saying she was a bad teacher (though I am of that opinion) but I am saying she maybe wasn't the right teacher for me. To this day I still can’t diagram a sentence. And I have no particular desire to learn how. I feel confident in the notion that I get the basic idea of how a sentence should be structured.

That said, I don’t read the way I did back in the fifth grade. I certainly don’t read the same way I did when I was starting to write, either. These days, for example, I have vastly expanded my horizons. I daresay I read a great deal more history and science then I ever did back in high school. When I decided to write a western, I immediately started reading about the western expansion, the food canning processes used back in that era, about handguns, the history of handguns, the history of the railroads, the plight of the Native Americans, the buffalo soldiers, the Civil War, the gold rush era and at least a dozen other subjects that were all part and parcel for the wild west. Why? Because if you want to write about an era, you need to know what the hell you are talking about, or you are going to look like a complete ass. And believe me, I don’t need any help to look like an ass. I’m perfectly capable of doing that without any assistance or added ignorance, thank you just the same.

Just recently I’ve learned more about metallurgy than I ever expected to learn. Why? Because one of the characters in my novel THE SEVEN FORGES is a blacksmith and he needs to have a few notions of how the heck to forge a sword. So now I need to have a few basic ideas, too.

And the list goes on and on. I research bloody near everything in an effort to not look like a complete moron. See above for my reasoning.

But it’s more than that. I also need to, as Tom Monteleone said, look under the hood. If a writer’s words move me, I want to know WHY they move me. It’s no longer enough to be moved. I must try to understand the mechanics. Listen, Tom Piccirilli is a damned genius of a writer. He’s won four Bram Stoker Awards and two International Thriller Awards and been nominated for twice as many and for a few Edgar Awards as well. He is, simply pout, a wordsmith. Every word that goes into his final manuscripts is carefully chosen, as if he were carving away any possible flaws in the rough draft until he has a masterpiece when he is done. Me? I’m a storyteller, I write it and I’m done. But that doesn’t mean I don’t look at what Tom has put on paper with a certain level of jealousy and awe. He and I are entirely different writers. I once told him how fast I was as a writer and he called me a machine with a certain level of envy in his voice. (Yeah, but you know what? I bet the mantle full of awards holds the envy at bay. Do I say that with a certain level of envy all my own? Damn skippy I do.) I told him about finishing my very first even first person novel and lamented that it was just a little over 85,000 words, making it one of the shortest novels I have ever written and there was a long pause on the phone before he responded (once again, not without a certain level of professional ire) “Jim, that’s almost 15,000 words longer than my longest novel.” Okay, so maybe I write in bulk. I just know that he and I are very different writers and that every time I read him, and I read damned near everything he writes, I study every sentence with a certain level of awe and admiration because, damn it, I cannot for the life of me write the way he does.   Haven’t read a Tom Piccirilli novel? Do yourself a favor, go read one. His prose is art, pure and simple.

He’s just one example of a writer I read with a mechanic’s eye. I want, no, I NEED, to understand how he does what he does. Stephen King can make me love or hate a character inside of one paragraph, often with one sentence. Damn it, I need to know how he does it. Clive Barker can make my skin crawl with some of the most eloquent imagery ever. I must understand how or I cannot sleep. Jeff Strand can make me laugh out loud when I’m reading. I need to see the wires behind his sentences or I’m going to be annoyed. I read a novella by Lee Thomas in the first person and was so taken by it that I felt an immediate need to write a first person novel. I had to understand why. F. Paul Wilson created Repairman Jack, the world’s coolest antihero, and I needed to understand why I was so drawn to the character and what made him work and live and breathe when so many characters of the same sort feel like lifeless lumps of clay. Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard and two of the coolest badasses on the planet and I have absolutely nothing in common with them, but reading about them makes my world a better place. Harper Lee wrote the amazing TO KILL A MOCKINGNBIRD, and brought me to tears and I must understand what about her words made me so touched with sorrow and outrage.

There is a vast collection of stories out there. So many writers, so little time and instead of simply enjoying the adventures of Elric of Melnibone, the wielder of the evil black sword called Stormbringer, I have to know how and why Michael Moorcock made that character, as flawed and as tragic as he is, haunt me when I was done reading about him. Anyone can write, people. Only a handful can write so well that I am compelled to go back and read their stories again and again, and even more so, I am compelled to buy every damned book they write. When I encounter those writers, I am driven to understand the mechanics of what they do and how they do it. I must look at the man behind the curtain and face the truth of the Wizard of Oz, or surely I will go mad.

And then there are the lemons. Oh yes, you know the ones I mean. I bet if you look back through the myriad books you’ve absorbed you can think of a few where, when you were reading, you were completely knocked out of the world you were trying to get lost in by a sentence so appallingly bad that you had to stop and go back and read it again to make sure you really just read those words in that order.

Lewis Black once went off about a spoken sentence that bounced around inside of his skull like a rubber bullet, stroking again and again because those words made such a complete lack of sense to him that they became, however briefly, an obsession. I won’t write that sentence here, because it’s his sentence to share, but I bet you’ve run across a few of those. If you have not, than you, dear reader, are blessed.

Boy howdy I have. Plenty of them. And when they are that bad, when they reach a level of suckage that actually knocks me out of the story, I must read them again and again until I understand WHY they suck that badly and then I must do everything in my power to never, ever allow myself to write anything that preposterously inappropriate in my lifetime.

Sometimes you study art. Sometimes you examine the murder of the English Language. Either way, as a writer you really do look at the words differently. At least I do. For me that’s part of being a writer. How else are you ever going to learn. You know, unless you’re actually writing something.


  1. Love this analogy of being absolutely unable to resist popping the hood of the car. I truly miss those long leisurely drives - but I can't do it. I'm forever pulling over and popping that damn hood!

  2. I, too, find myself picking apart books to find their inner mechanisms. I just wish I could put what I learn to good use. Instead, I write poetry and flash and long for the day I am finally ready to write the stories gathered 'round the campfire in my head. Until that day, I'll just be a mechanic, and let others do the driving.

  3. Fun post! Also, I never could diagram a sentence either. I found it maddening!!

  4. Thanks, folks and Carolyn, I'm glad I'm not alone!