Month: November 2014

The Convenient Corpse

Chalk outlineI recently read two books that seemingly have little to do with each other: Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow and Atticus by Ron Hansen. What struck me about these two books is that they both have what I am choosing to call a “convenient corpse.”

A convenient corpse is a body everybody can care about enough to drive the plot of the book, but not care about so much that the person’s death causes the protagonist and real moral concern. The person’s death drives some aspect of the story; but once that purpose is served, the body can go away and just leave everyone else alone. I find this concept really disturbing.

In Presumed Innocent, the body is Carolyn Polehemus, the protagonist’s mistress and obsession who turns up dead. She’s blond, sexy, gorgeous, and a great attorney to boot. It also turns out that she was manipulative, conniving, and apparently trying to sleep her way to the top. By the end of the story, we learn that even Carolyn’s college-age son doesn’t really care who killed her. And that allows our hero, Rusty Sabich, to think it’s okay not to turn in his wife for murdering Carolyn. You see, he couldn’t bear to separate his wife from their son. And it’s okay to let Carolyn’s murderer go unpunished because no one cares about Carolyn anyway. She was a slut. Or as Sabich’s pal Lipranzer says, she was bad news.

In Atticus, a father travels to Mexico to reclaim his son’s body. Everyone tells the father, Atticus, that his semi-estranged son committed suicide. Atticus soon comes to believe he was murdered. As he investigates, he discovers that his son is not dead at all; someone murdered another person who looked like Atticus’ son, and the son arranged to use the body to make everyone believe he was dead. In the end, the son gets a hand slap for interfering with a police investigation. Dad and son reconcile. As it turns out, we are told who killed the stranger: it was the finance of a young woman whom the son accidentally killed while driving drunk on the highway. After killing the wrong man, the killer commits suicide by provocation, so that end is neatly tied up. The son never has to account for killing the woman. He gets to go on with his life. No one bothers to find the next of kin for the other man killed because he is a drifter of sorts from Europe.

In both cases, I found myself wondering what would happen if someone cared about the corpses. What if Carolyn’s son pushed to find out who murdered his mom after Rusty Sabich walked away free? What if a family member from Germany turned up to find out what happened to their long-lost son or brother? What if someone cared?

Obviously, such complications don’t fit well into a novel’s tightly constructed universe. Loose ends can only dangle so long. If they aren’t tied up, the novel gets unwieldy. I get that. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with a universe where protagonists get to make easy choices just to wrap up the story.  It feels unsatisfying. Convenient. Too unreal even for fiction.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh

The Promise of the Book

book giftThe more I read first passages in books, the more I see this first part as “The Promise of the Book.” It’s really where the author needs to say, “Here’s is what you will get if you read the book,” rather than, “Here’s where the story starts.” I think the  honesty of the opening is only realized after you’ve finished the book. But you need to want to read the book first to see if the author follows through on the promise.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I cannot seem to get the start of my novel right. And it’s pissing me off. Over the three-plus years I’ve been working on this book, the beginning has gone through three basic iterations with dozens of minor variations on each.

The first iteration was a scene I pictured clearly in my head when I first started the book. I loved that scene. I hung onto it until just a few months ago. People who have been kind enough to critique my book have had lots of good things to say about everything except for the beginning. So I tweaked it to hell. Nothing really worked, but I refused to believe that. Finally, once I started getting feedback from professional readers and editors, I realized it was all wrong. So I ditched it. Which was kind of liberating, but that’s another story.

The second iteration followed the prevailing dictum: Start the story at the beginning. So, I thought, that was the problem! I reworked the novel to start the story at the beginning and thought I had it nailed. Then I started querying agents. I received form rejections, which meant my writing wasn’t even good enough to warrant a comment. More than anything, that told me my novel lacked “voice,” that indefinable something that makes an agent, and any reader, want more. The novel has plenty of voice further on. I just couldn’t figure out how to work it into the start of the story.

To make matters worse, I recently read this passage in “The Short Fuse Guide to Plotting Your Novel” by Connor Goldsmith, literary agent at Fuse Literary:

There is a particular opening sentence format that I personally detest, and that I would like to never, ever see again. It goes like this: [PROFESSION] [CHARACTER NAME] [VERB] [PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE]. Here are three examples:

1. Fashion designer Cordelia Perkins walked toward the stage where her models were preparing.

2. Detective Hank Molloy crushed a cigarette under his boot as he peered into the dark alley.

3. Starship captain Marisol Ruiz frowned at the strange readings on her radiation scanner.”

My first reaction was, “Fuck you, Connor Goldsmith,” because my then-current latest greatest freshest first line was “John Laughlin rode his bike through the early morning fog, a stream of water whispering off his tires.” That is exactly where the fucking story begins. John is the main character; the story revolves around cycling (no pun); the fog is integral to the inciting incident. It’s a perfect fucking first sentence because it is exactly where the story begins.

After I calmed down, I thought more seriously about Mr. Goldsmith’s rant. I realize that he and probably every agent sees that identical opening sentence structure multiple times a day, every day, by every author who is trying to start the story at the beginning. I am certain the quotidian structure of my first sentence wasn’t the sole reason for my form rejections. But it was obvious I wasn’t doing myself any favors.

I decided to canvas the books here in our house. I spent hours reading first sentences, first paragraphs, first passages, trying to find a common thread, the thing these authors got right. What I realized is that openings to books I like have a quintessential element, in the sense of a fifth element that exists separate from the basic elements.

After reading all of those passages, it struck me that the real problem with the sentence structure cited above, despite being technically perfect, is that it lacks soul. Anyone can tell a story. It is a lot more work to tell one well. A hell of a lot more work. So, while my opening sentence starts the story, it does not start it well. It is functional, declarative, straightforward. But it doesn’t promise anything. It just states, “I’m going to tell you a story.” That’s not enough.

It strikes me further that this is one reason so many agents tell writers not to use a prologue. Agents state different reasons, but underlying all the reasoning, I think, is that a prologue is an easy way out of the hard work of actually crafting the start of the novel. A way out of putting in the work in to tell the story really well. It’s a shortcut.

So what I am doing these days is figuring out how to combine these two critical elements, voice and the start of the story, in less than a hundred or so words. I am trying to figure out how to tell my readers that this is what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and how it will happen, all without saying so directly, and in such a way that they feel they are being promised a gift they want and that they will feel they’ve received by the end of the book.

 

 

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Novel Writing, 0 comments