Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction

The only non-fiction I’ve gobbled up by Pat so far is this useful book on writing with tips that stretch beyond the “suspense” label. She relies on her decades of successfully publishing books and stories and reveals her process, unbuttoning the kimono.

“I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me. Therefore, I don’t dislike this boredom which encroaches on me every now and then, and I even try to create it by routine.” She also admits to enjoying conversations with people that others find dull: “there are some people, often most unlikely people—dull-witted, lazy, mediocre in every way—who are for some inexplicable reason stimulating to the imagination. I have known many such people. I like to see and talk to them now and then, if I can.”

In her twenties, she worked during the day and would come home, nap at 6pm, then bathe and change clothes, getting up for her second job which was to write her own work. “This gave me an illusion of two days in one and made me as fresh for the evening as I could be.”

To combat fatigue, she advocates for taking a trip, even a short, cheap trip to change the scene. “If you can’t take a trip, take a walk.” Lack of ideas might also be due to the people you’re around.

Technical specifics get into outlining chapters, always with the question in mind about how this chapter advances the story. List the specific points you want to cover in each chapter and have that beside you as you write it.

She sneers at people who imitate current trends that are selling: “A writer can be assured of a good living by imitating current trends and by being logical and pedestrian, because such imitations sell and do not take too much out of a writer in an emotional sense.”

Pat cries foul of those writers who love to let their characters take on a life of their own: “I do not subscribe to the belief that having a vigorous character who acts for himself is always good. After all, you are the boss, and you don’t want your characters running around all over the place or possibly standing still, no matter how strong they may be.”

Dialogue can be summed up where not important to increase the dramatic effect. Instead of tediously listing out the characters’ lines, “Howard refused to budge, though she argued with him for a full half hour.”

As usual, the best writing advice is simply to do it, and to do it often. She is speaking directly to me here:

One need not be a monster, or feel like one, to demand two or three hours absolute privacy here and there. This schedule should become a habit, and the habit, like writing itself, a way of life. It should become a necessity; then one can and will always work. It is possible to think like a writer all one’s life, to want to be a writer, yet to write seldom, out of laziness or lack of habit. Such a person may write passably well when he writes—such people are known as great letter writers—and may even sell a few things, but that is doubtful. Writing is a craft and needs constant practice.

Throughout, she dissects her successful books and her failures. This book is a must-read for any Highsmith fan to get her take on her own work. When discussing Strangers on a Train, she says “It is a wonder this simple idea [strangers exchanging murders] is not used more often in real life, and perhaps it is, since it is said that only eleven percent of the murders committed are ever solved.”

The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It

I had high hopes for Richard Florida’s book but they flapped to the ground quickly. A smug sense of himself oozes through the pages, insisting on his own presence in the book. Because he wrote The Rise of the Creative Class, he’s been fingered as one of the culprits of gentrification, where cities are inundated with these creative types. Specific to Toronto, where he now lives, he’s been accused of promoting a larger airport for his own convenience.

He lets himself off the hook immediately. Young white people heading to the city are not causing gentrification, apparently. And the whining that’s happening about artists getting pushed out? It’s balderdash, according to Florida. “Put bluntly, some of the nosiest controversies regarding our changing cities spring from the competing factions of a new urban elite [which includes artists]. The much bigger problem is the widening gap between this relatively advantaged class and everyone else. It’s the poor and working classes who are truly being displaced and shunted aside in our thriving cities, and the way to help them is not to turn off the spigot of wealth creation but to make their flourishing economies more encompassing and inclusive.”

Ultimately, it’s all about income inequality. There’s a fantastic quote from 1981 where an expert warns about the ill effects of gentrification on San Francisco: “At this rate we would become a place only the elite can afford. Ten years from now, unless we adopt some sort of policy to insure income integration, we will crowd out all the middle-income people. I think San Francisco is going to become a very rich living area, a lot of single and retired people who have money,k executives who work down in the financial district. It’s going to be very difficult for a nonwealthy person to live here.” 1981, people!

Anyway, the main problem isn’t gentrification, says Florida. It’s that we’re not gentrifying the poor areas as well, bringing them up to code, building transportation infrastructure and parks. The suburbs are the ghetto now, so we need to expand our cities to encompass them. His whole section on what to do about the problem is a rehash of the same tired solutions: invest in infrastructure, build more low income housing, pay people a living wage.

 

How to be Bored

I really want to like these School of Life books, but usually end up disappointed. Eva Hoffman’s contribution was no different, tiny essays that stapled themselves together into a slender “book” claiming that we must allow ourselves to reach a state of boredom in order to delve more deeply inside. For those pressed for time, perhaps just reading the conclusion will do: “There are many ways to live; but to live meaninglessly is to miss your life. If we rush through our days and months in ceaseless activity, and without taking stock of what we’re doing, we can soon lose track of what we are doing it for, or why it matters to us… we need to orient ourselves in our lives – and within ourselves: to muse, relish, reflect and occasionally even to be bored.”

Ultimately I leave with a collection of other book recommendations, which isn’t bad in itself if the books turn out to be insightful. Also a reminder to pick up my Montaigne essays again. Otherwise, the best part was really her section on why to read books:

… books (good books, that is; books that matter) are the best aid to extended thought and imaginative reflection we have invented… this is particularly important, as an antidote to the segmentation of thought encouraged by digital technologies… the disparate fragments we look at on our various screens rarely cohere into continuous thought, or a deepening of knowledge…. They literally broaden our mental horizons and our perspective… imaginative literature is the art form most capable of encompassing all dimensions of human experience: the outer and the inner world, specific facts and the elusive textures of consciousness, the stories of individual selves and of the self within culture and society.

She winds up with a lethal dart at online reading:

Our contemporary forms of reading threaten to reduce that amplification. Aside from the fact that overusing digital technologies eventually makes us less mentally agile and more forgetful (as research increasingly shows), the kind of segmented, bite-sized reading we do on the internet fragments and constricts the ‘space to think’, instead of expanding it; in a sense, it reduces or even rubbishes our mental experience.

 

Deep Water

Pat’s 1957 Deep Water is light on suspense compared to her other work. This is part of its beauty, the mundane details building to an unexpected event. In this book, Vic is the “hero,” the psychopath husband who plays it all cool. His wife Melinda ignores their daughter Trixie (so Vic ups his attention to her) and has several open affairs with other men. Vic moves to the garage where he tends to his snails and study of Italian. One of Melinda’s lovers is murdered in NYC and Vic begins to bandy about the story that he killed him to scare off other lovers. This works, until the real murderer is found. But the seed is planted, and off Vic goes. First he drowns the piano player, Charles, in a neighbor’s pool at a party where no one else is around. Then a detective comes sniffing around, disguised as a psychiatrist. Melinda trumpets his killing Charles around town, everyone averts their eyes and most believe Vic didn’t do it. Nothing comes of it except Melinda’s close alliance to Don Wilson, a man who also hates Vic. Along comes another conquest, Cameron, and after much in-your-face flirtation, Melinda decides to take Vic up on his offer of divorce with a generous alimony settlement (he has a private income from his family and runs a publishing business mostly for kicks). Chance allows Vic to lure Cameron to the quarry where he hits him with a rock and weighs him down to drop to the bottom of the water. Eventually he’s caught back at the scene and in the final pages attempts(?) to kill Melinda before he’s nabbed by the police.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

This was a helpful book and I can see why there’s a queue of people at the library who want to read it even though it’s been out since 2014. Great stories of actual patients dealing with trauma and the techniques used by Van Der Kolk to treat them.

The book covers the full spectrum, from brain layout and chemistry to yoga and EMDR. I inadvertently learned more about the brain than in a book that was solely about that organ. The reptilian brain develops in the womb and organizes the functions you require for basic life (breathing, eating, sleeping). It’s always alert for threats, throughout your life. The “limbic” brain evolves in the next 6 years to create a map of relation between you and your surroundings. On top of that, the prefrontal cortex develops. All of these parts are vulnerable to trauma.

One of the coping mechanisms when dealing with trauma is freezing up, numbing oneself, blanking your mind. To treat this, tapping acupressure points, rhythmic interactions like tossing a ball back and forth, drumming, dancing, to change your relationship to bodily sensations.

EMDR is a fascinating technique I’d not heard of: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing; this as a way to access memories more obliquely than head-on, and somewhat related to REM cycle/dreaming. It “loosens” something in the mind that gives people access to memories/images from the past, putting the traumatic experience into context/perspective. It also is a way to deal with trauma without speaking about it, and is a way that can help even if the patient/therapist do not have a trusting relationship.

One of the chapter epitaphs was a tremendous William James quote that stings me as I try to meditate more:

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of the judgment, character, and will.

Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century

Monica Hesse called this book “one of the best narratives of true crime genre” in her American Fire but I hope she’s wrong for the sake of the genre. Hal Higdon does an okay job of describing the weird relationship and lead up to the intellectual crime of two deviant rich smart Jewish boys in Chicago in 1924. But please get this man an editor for the last 100 pages which involved meticulous details of Leopold and Loeb’s prison life (spoiler alert! Clarence Darrow gets them spared the death penalty), with Loeb’s eventual stabbing in prison and Leopold’s eventual parole in 1958.

Viva Mexico!

Charles Flandrau’s 1908 travel book to Mexico is entertaining and lightly written, and comes highly recommended by Sybille Bedford’s Don Otavio where she called it “most enchanting, extremely funny.”

The best parts are the sly rages against tourists, “the inability of people in general to think for themselves—the inevitableness with which they welcome an opinion, a phrase, a catchword, if it be sufficiently indiscriminating and easy to remember, and the fashion in which they then solemnly echo it, are never more displayed than when they are commenting upon a race not their own.” Even the first sentence, “Neither tourists nor persons of fashion seem to have discovered that the trip by water from New York to Vera Cruz is both interesting and agreeable… By tourists I mean persons who prefer to visit a country in bands of from fifteen to five hundred rather than in a manner less expeditionary…” Even 100 years ago, the urge to document was unstoppable: “At a distance of from ten to fifteen feet in front of him they deliberately focused their kodaks on the group and pressed the button.”

Oddly, there are Chinese restaurants along the sparsely populated railway line: “There are no dining cars; the train instead stops at decent intervals at stations provided with clean and adequate Chinese restaurants.”

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays

Samantha Irby is unapologetically hilarious, trashy, vulgar, and disgusting. This collection of her essays is the purest declaration of a personality that I’ve seen in recent years. Usually I groan about books that include cultural touch points like social media, but Irby gets away with it. Someone might read this in 30 years and not understand all the references but it’s as close to an intelligent and realistic description of what modern life is really like. Plus she’s a misanthrope, so we share some of the same preferences, like wanting to meet OUT somewhere instead of at someone’s house, which is infinitely harder to slip away from. “I just want to go down to the bar, listen to three beers’ worth of your problems, then claim that my stomach hurts so I can leave and get in bed before nine.”

On the other hand, she’s a huge TV junkie, so we could not bond over reality television and I’m pretty sure she’s talking about someone like me here: “Picture it: you’re chilling in the corner at a party full of people you’ve never met before and hated on sight, humming the lyrics to a Coldplay song to yourself to drown out the Swedish death metal the hostess put on to prop up her apparition of coolness, then here comes some asshole who makes her own yogurt and just discovered Ta-Nehisi Coates condescending at you about how damaging reality shows are to impressionable youth. ”

She’s also not having kids, so I enjoyed the essay about how all her friends were popping out tots. “Everyone I know is having a goddamned baby and what that means is you can’t just stop by your homegirl’s house unannounced with a bottle of Carménère and a couple of tubes of Pringles to watch hours of makeup tutorial videos on YouTube anymore. Because that baby might be sleeping or eating or doing its taxes, and you are going to mess it all up with your loud, single-person bullshit.”

The snail-watcher, and other stories

Pat’s first collection of short stories came out in 1970 and her obsession with snails is clear from the eponymous story. A man grows interested in snails when he sees them mating before they’re about to be cooked for dinner, rescues them, turns his study into a snail habitat, lets them run wild, they take over and eventually crush him to death. Snails pop up again in The Quest for “Blank Claveringi,” a story about a man bent on discovering a new snail species who sets out to investigate the man-eating 25-foot snails he’s read about. (He dies, eaten by snails). The Terrapin follows the anguish of a son realizing that his mother has brought a turtle home to eat, not as his pet. That night he cuts her up like he witnessed her attack on the terrapin. A woman attempts to kill her husband with chloroform in When the Fleet was in at Mobile. The Cries of Love has two old ladies who wreak havoc on each others’ lives, Hattie snipping Alice’s nice new cardigan into shreds, Alice chopping off one of Hattie’s braids while she slept. They continue to live together, plotting slow revenge. In The Heroine, an insane woman comes to be the nurse of two rich kids, ripping her pay into bits, setting the house on fire so she can be of use. This collection was published as Eleven in the UK.

A Drinking Life: A Memoir

Another tepid memoir recommended by Zinsser. At least this one had enough tiny morsels of interest to keep me flipping the pages. His late teenage years were the most interesting, dropping out of the elite Catholic school, working in the Navy Yard, having his own apartment and going to illustration school at night. Hamill comes from an Irish background and makes the case that it was inevitable that he start to drink, his life incorporating booze at an early age. He joins the Navy but avoids combat in the Korean War, stays long enough to qualify for the GI Bill and get college paid for. This leads him to Mexico to study art and writing, but he gets in trouble with the police for busting down a whorehouse door and later pummeling someone. A group of gringos heads for the beach for a vacation and rents hammocks for cheap each night, mooching off the friendly locals who provide them with food and beer. Back in NYC, Hamill becomes a journalist, enters an ill-advised marriage, has a few kids, gets divorced, dates Shirley Maclaine, and gives up drinking. No AA, just cold turkey. Yawn.

The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New

I felt a little duped by this, since it’s mostly a rehashing of essays I’ve previously read by Dillard with a foreword by the wretched Geoff Dyer whom I’ve vowed never to read again (“The chimera of Dyer’s talent I first peeped in Zona turned out to be nothing but a blotchy oil spill farting and leering at women’s breasts.” – from my review of Another Great Day at Sea). Skipping the foreword, I was still delighted by Annie Dillard’s poetic trance and relished her dance through the pages.

She starts with a piece about the 1979 total eclipse, especially timely to read a few weeks after our 2017 eclipse; wild, ragged, and beautiful sentences capturing the eeriness, the oddity of ending up at a diner with other eclipse viewers eating eggs and hearing a boy say that the ring looked like a Life Saver in the sky.

The rest of the essays are taken from Holy the Firm, An American Childhood, The Writing Life, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Teaching a Stone to Talk. I’m reminded to try again to read Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a book Dillard credits with making her want to write when she was 16, a book that I gave up on after a few pages. Maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, will try again.

Martin Chuzzlewit

Probably the only reason to read this is for the crumbs that reveal Dickens’s rage against America. Those are the only savory bits I enjoyed, at least.

As the younger Martin arrives by boat, he’s astonished by the newsboys crying their wares, “Here’s this morning’s New York Sewer! Here’s this morning’s New York Stabber! Here’s the New York Family Spy! Here’s the New York Private Listener! Here’s the New York Peeper! Here’s the New York Plunderer! Here’s the New York Keyhole Reporter! Here’s the New York Rowdy Journal!… with all the shipping news, and four whole columns of country correspondence, and a full account of the Ball at Mrs. White’s last night, where the beauty and fashion of New York was assembled; with the Sewer’s own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies that was there! Here’s the Sewer!… Here’s the Sewer’s exposure of the Washington Gang, and the Sewer’s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse. Here’s the Sewer!” A great commentary of the state of the U.S. press that slips all too closely into what today’s media is like.

Dickens let loose with all his impressions, how we’re a country obsessed by money: “It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them?”

The unending pursuit of knowledge was also pilloried as a lady is asked what course of lectures she’s attending. Wednesday is the Philosophy of the Soul, Monday is Philosophy of Crime, Friday is the Philosophy of Vegetables.

All the men Martin is introduced to are “one of the most remarkable men in the country,” so this becomes a jokey refrain. He is barraged with requests to lecture about any topic he chooses, and has to endure hoards of people coming to get a look at him. “If they spoke to him, which was not often, they invariably asked the same questions, in the same tone: with no more remorse or delicacy or consideration than if he had been a figure of stone, purchased and paid for, and set up there for their delight.”

After a failed attempt to set up a business in the wilderness and beating an illness, Martin hightails it back to England. His companion says he’d like to paint a picture of the American Eagle: “I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like a Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud and thinking nobody sees it…”

Charming, Charles!

The Cry of the Owl

This 1962 gem from Pat looks like a practice run for her more perfectly formed A Suspension of Mercy (1965) wherein one of the characters disappears so as to bring suspicion of murder onto another character. The Cry of the Owl centers around Robert, a recently divorced draftsman who works at an aeronautics company and who likes to go peeping at night. He prowls up to Jenny’s isolated home and enjoys watching her in the kitchen, happy for her when he sees her making dinner for her and her boyfriend, Greg. A few errant noises makes Jenny spooked about his sneaking around outside, and eventually she catches him. Surprise: she’s not freaked out, but befriends him and finds their meet cute to be fate. Soon she’s abandoned Greg, who turns savage and stalks Jenny, tries to run Robert off the road, engages in a fight that leaves Greg knocked out by the river’s edge and Robert pulls Greg out so he doesn’t drown. But Greg disappears, heads to NYC and gets support from Robert’s psychotic ex-wife Nickie. Robert tries to track him down in a NYC hotel but fails. The local police suspect him of murder and eventually find a body in the river, unfortunately missing the part of teeth that the dentist could have matched with his records for Greg. Fast forward, Greg comes out of hiding to shoot at Robert, improbably, and eventually kills the doctor who was tending Robert’s gunshot wounds. Greg’s out on bail and Nickie comes to visit him, then they head over to Robert’s to terrorize him a bit more (Jenny has killed herself by now). In a final knife fight, Greg swipes at Robert but kills Nickie, Robert looks at the knife and realizes he has to call the police.

American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land

Another book about bored white hillbillies screwing up America, only this time the couple targeted their tiny town in Accomack County, Virginia, with a series of fires (70+). I knew the book was going to be good by the second paragraph where Monica Hesse says she spent two years trying to figure out why they did it, and that the answer involved “hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms, intrigue, and America.”

She does an excellent job laying out all the facts, from the first fire’s 911 calls all the way through the months of other fires and finally the bust, interrogation, and trials. Charlie is made out to be the impotent half-wit who went along with the first dozen fires because they made Tonya happy, and because they were somewhat of a substitute to his not being able to get it up.

Really well done; I read it straight through, abandoning all other commitments for the afternoon.

Odd tidbit: an Alford plea is based on the case of a man named Henry Alford who wanted to plead not guilty of murder but feared that a jury trial would convict and punish him with death, so he plead to get life in prison.

Optimism over Despair: On Capitalism, Empire, and Social Change

I’m pretty sick of reading the opinions of old white men, but I’ll make an exception for Chomsky. I could use a dose of optimism and thought it would be unusual to come from such a source. The book is the result of a series of interviews with C.J. Polychroniou between 2013-2017 and all previously published in Truthout. Yes, there are brief touches on the Toxic T administration, but life in January 2017 looks much different in August 2017 when I read this.

Spoiler alert: there’s not a ton of optimism, although at the end of section 1 (and repeated at the end of section 3), he makes the best case for optimism:

If we succumb to despair we will help ensure that the worst will happen. And if we grasp the hopes that exist and work to make the best use of them, there might be a better world. Not much of a choice.

Chomsky consistently argues that the two most pressing issues we face are climate change and the possibility of nuclear war, saying that we don’t talk enough about the latter and are way too complacent about the former. One of the problems in raising concern about global warming is the absurdity that “40 percent of the US population doesn’t see why it is a problem, since Christ is returning in a few decades.”

The other point he hammers is that the US is unusual to the extent that we’re a “business-run society, where short-term concerns of profit and market share displace rational planning.” We also have a disproportionate part of the population that are religious fundamentalists. Basically, we’re screwed. Only don’t give up! Keep trying even though there is no hope.

Another note: I did not know about the “eloquent and poignant manifesto” left by the Austin pilot who suicided by flying his plane into an IRS office in Feb 2010. Worth a read and a helluva way to send a message about taxes.