bookmark_borderWriting Review: Nine Dragons and Burning Angel

I’ve recently read (some of) two novels: a randomly selected detective novel, Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly, and a cop novel that came recommended, Burning Angel by James Lee Burke.

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First, Nine Dragons. Grammatically fine, but the writing is not much beyond high school. The internal monologue is probably the best part, but the dialogue is flat and colorless. Often there are long stretches of dialogue with no action, no gestures, no change in facial expression or vocal inflection, and little internal monologue or review of the developments. The only way we are aware that the characters might possibly be experiencing any emotion is when someone says something ‘curtly’ or ‘in a sulking voice’.

For example, after pages and pages of dialogue with no emotional clues,

Bosch was growing excited.

“Then, why don’t we do it?”

So at least we know he’s now feeling something.

And you also get writing like this:

“… If you think there is any danger involved in talking to us, then we can protect you.”

“Absolutely,” Chu chimed in.

“Chimed in” is not wrong, but it’s not good either. It’s something you’d expect in a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew novel.

“What is this?” Chang protested. “What I do?”

He had a strong accent.

In case you didn’t notice or thought there was a typo, Chang has a strong accent.

Contrast the writing with this, from Burning Angel:

He had been born to an exclusionary world of wealth and private schools, membership in the town’s one country club, and Christmas vacations in places the rest of us knew of only from books, but no one could accuse him of not having improved upon what he had been given.

I doubt that there is any sentence this length in Nine Dragons, though I can’t say for sure because I didn’t finish it. I was a third of the way through when my wife handed me Burning Angel.

A little further along in our introduction to the character above, we get this paragraph. A nice balance of a short sentence with a longer one, while we see more of the character, his manner, and the location.

We walked under the trees in his backyard. His face was cool and pleasant as he sipped his iced tea and looked at a motorboat and a water-skier hammering down the bayou on pillows of yellow foam.

Whereas Connelly says things like:

As the two women got closer Bosch saw that the younger woman was in her midthirties and attractive in an understated, hair-behind-the-ears sort of way. She was Asian. She was dressed in blue jeans and a white blouse. She walked a half step behind Mrs. Li with her eyes cast down on the floor. The initial impression Bosch got was that she was an employee. A maid pressed into services as a driver. But the deskman downstairs had said they were both named Li.

Here we’re getting what I think of as the faux-Chandler style of short, abrupt, incomplete sentences, used when a writer wants to represent a no-nonsense tough guy. (And note: three sentences in a row that begin with ‘She’). In the last two sentences in particular you can imagine a Bogart caricature; teeth clenched, dressed in a fedora and trench coat, maybe a toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth.

Compare this with:

His race was a mystery, his biscuit-colored body almost hairless, his stomach a water-filled balloon, his pudgy arms and hands those of a boy who never grew out of adolescence. But his comic proportions had always been a deception. When he was seventeen a neighbor’s hog rooted up his mother’s vegetable garden. Sweet Pea picked up the hog, carried it squealing to the highway, and threw it headlong into the grille of a semi-truck.

This one is not even the most elegant of Lee Burke’s descriptions, but it’s from early in the novel and since I didn’t finish Nine Dragons I wanted to be comparing similar sections.

The difficulty I have with Lee Burke is his obtuseness. Often his characters are saying things that don’t make sense because the other character—and you the reader as well—are supposed to be reading between the lines. It’s part of the wise-guy, I’m-just-as-smart-and-tough-as-you attitude and everybody knows it, but it slows the reading down because you have to interpret as you read.

And the emotions of his protagonist are obtuse as well, particularly when he suddenly loses control and beats someone up. I guess the anger was there, veiled, but more than once I didn’t understand why he suddenly started smashing a glass pitcher or his fists into someone’s face. I’m not sure whether this abruptness is obtuseness, or the narrator didn’t want to give away the story by showing the building emotion, or whether the character has anger management issues and didn’t expect the violence himself, or whether the author doesn’t feel that the build up is missing.

And though the writing is lovely, sometimes it’s too descriptive and too much. Every new character has unusual physical traits, and every setting is described poetically.

Somehow because of this, though the mystery is large and has big implications, it has that slice of life feel that literary works sometimes have, though it’s a particularly large slice for a character that is not himself larger than life, like say a James Bond or a Jack Reacher. The story ends by petering out without explosions or violence that match the rest of the novel. Two principle characters are found dead after a non-violent murder/suicide. A mystery character reveals herself and is quickly dispatched by someone who received a phone tip. All the loose ends are tied up, but it feels as if the character and the author (and maybe the reader too) are worn out.

But it is nice to read a genre writer who likes words, who views writing as more than a plot, who writes about characters who are more than just an amalgamation of traits, and settings that are more than just city and street names with temperatures and the occasional leafy tree.


There is a contest running on EveryDayFiction. The site gives ten words, you must use at least four, plus there is a saying which is optional as a theme. The maximum word count is 250 words. The contest is open for submissions for eight days, and I’ve decided to write a new piece each day. At the end I’ll select one as my entry.

What I’ve learned so far:

  1. There is a tendency to write all dialogue, skipping and implying the action and description, or, no dialogue and all description or inner monologue. This is the result of the pressure to cut words.

  2. It’s not hard to force the key words in, but it becomes like the theatersports game where you have random items or words and you must justify them in the scene that you are improvising. Then it becomes silly, or at least the logical connection becomes thin and forced. Getting the words to integrate seamlessly is not so easy, especially when I’m trying to write something entirely different each day while restricted by the same ten words. In other words, if I find a nice thread connecting a few of the words, I can’t use that thread again next day because I would write almost the same story again.

  3. Integrating seamlessly and balancing dialogue with description and telling a story with a beginning, middle and end, and, trying to get it to say something meaningful too, is not easy. I can end up with slice of life miniatures, which is okay, but I don’t want them all to be like that.

And it’s hard, and getting harder. My expectations are rising as I learn from this experience. I’m aware of the weaknesses and imbalance of my writing as I’m doing it. Plus, the further along I go, the more I run out of ways of combining four of the ten words within the realm of my personal experience and knowledge. Just putting those first few words down gets harder each day.

bookmark_borderNarrative of the Seahawks

I’m a pretty big fan of the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t bleed blue and green or have a room full of swag, but I do have an official NFL football autographed by Mack Strong. My fandom goes back to the days of Zorn to Largent and Krieg to Largent, followed by years and years of enduring the mediocrity. I remember spending the Christmas holidays of 1999 at my brother’s place in Phoenix when Mike Holmgren was announced as the coach, and hoping that his arrival was the light at the end of the tunnel.

I regularly read Seahawks web coverage and listen to Seattle sports podcasts. One sportscaster, Danny O’Neil, is fond of referring to the ‘narrative’ of a situation. As I write this in early February of 2015, the Seahawks have just lost Super Bowl XLIX, and I’m wondering to what degree the narrative of the past three seasons necessitated or predicted this loss.

Here’s how the narrative runs: in the last part of the 2012 season, the team’s offence exploded with some big scores; 58-0, 50-17, and 42-13. You knew this was an anomaly. No NFL team consistently blows out opponents by that wide a margin, but it bode well because the young team had been improving all year. In the second game of the playoffs they were behind by 20 points late in the game but scored three touchdowns and took the lead, before the defense inexplicably failed and with only 31 seconds left to play, Atlanta completed two long passes and kicked the game winning field goal.

This was the beginning of the narrative. One of the youngest teams in the NFL, with a rookie quarterback, was only a few pieces away from being one of the best teams.

The hopes that sprouted at the end of that season became the expectations of 2013. San Francisco and Denver, along with Seattle, were picked as the best teams going into the season and they remained on top all year long. Seattle’s defense grew stronger, more consistent, and they beat rival San Francisco in the conference final before demolishing Denver and Denver’s record setting offence 42–8 in the Super Bowl.

So, next part of the narrative; how does a young team that won the championship handle success and the target on their back that comes from being the champions?

They opened the season with a win against a good Green Bay team, but followed that up with a surprising loss in San Diego. Eventually their record was a mediocre 3-3. They traded away a major talent that had not fit in with the team and their record went to 6-4; a far less dominant record than the previous year, and the media was worried they were falling too far behind teams with better records. The leaders of the team held a meeting, with the claim that the key coming from the meeting was about ‘playing for each other, trusting each other and loving our brothers.’

After that meeting, the team won the rest of their regular season games and was the first team since 1990 to retain the top seed in the playoffs the year after winning a Super Bowl. They won the playoff game against Carolina and were the first Super Bowl winners to win a playoff game in the following year since 2005.

In the conference final, facing Green Bay again, they were down 19-7 with just over two minutes remaining. Post-game computer analysis says that they had less than a 3 percent chance of winning, but they came back to win in overtime, leading many players (and hometown media and fans) to tears. In doing so, they were the first team since 2004 to repeat as conference champions, and the first team to go to consecutive Super Bowls as the top seed since 1991.

At this point the narrative, to me, starts to become strained. If I were writing this story, I think they had taken it as far as they could go. From the end of 2012 to the championship in 2013 they moved up the hill to the pinnacle. In the middle of the 2014 their season seemed ready to fall off the rails with the 3-3 and 6-4 records, and missing the playoffs, like many other past Super Bowl winners, seemed almost likely. But they got their mojo back and started putting up some strong defensive games by, 1) ditching a talented player on offence who hadn’t contributed much? Or by 2) having a meeting and deciding to play for each other?

We’ll never know exactly what was said in that meeting, but for me the narrative of a young, talented, confident-to-the-edge-of-arrogant team that has climbed to the top of the game cannot extend into the next season and beyond without domination, like the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, or the Edmonton Oilers with Wayne Gretzky, or the Yankees with their unlimited salary. Or consider the Montreal Canadiens, who won the Stanley Cup in 1974-75, then 1975-76 they set a record for most wins and points in a season and won their second Stanley Cup in a row, then in 1976-77 broke their own record with even more wins and won another cup, followed by another the year after that. Climbing the mountain, then domination at the top, leading to dynasty.

The narrative of the 2014 Seattle Seahawks was not strong enough for a Super Bowl win. They were young enough and talented enough and played well enough to get farther than the last ten or so Super Bowl winners. They had enough doubters after their mediocre start to make the conference final win highly emotional, but the narrative was not strong enough for a Super Bowl win. If this was their first, if they had not won the previous year, then it might work, but a difficult, emotional, come from behind conference win was as far as this narrative could extend.

Does this make sense? I’m saying that they needed to rebuild the momentum of their narrative by losing Super Bowl XLIX. Going forward they don’t need to dominate, to set records like the Montreal Canadiens. They only need a record like 2014; a very good season, and combined with the Super Bowl loss this year they will have the narrative to win the next one, or maybe even two.

I’m not saying they lost the game intentionally, I’m saying they were destined to lose, that the narrative says they hadn’t undergone the right kind of challenge or overcome the right way, or conversely hadn’t dominated enough to win again. If they had lost one of their most important players or their coach in the off-season, or dominated the entire season, or had someone develop as a superstar at one of their weaker positions thereby changing the narrative, they could have won. As it was, they were only a marginally different team from 2013 and in spite of their talent and youth they did not dominate the league, and so the narrative was not in place for them to go all the way.

At least, that’s how I would have written it.

And that was what I sensed even in the two weeks before the game; that the narrative had been completed for this year with the conference finals, and that’s why I wasn’t as upset as some others by the loss.

bookmark_borderWeak Characters from Plot Writers? The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

I read a lot of fiction; largely novels, titles pulled from readers’ choice or bestseller lists regardless of genre or authors, downloaded from the library in ebook format. Every book is a surprise, a challenge. Some less so because of the title or the cover, but still, in almost every case I haven’t read any previous works by the author.

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I do this because I want to be unprepared, tested on my critiquing and editing skills, and educated on why, in a variety of genres, a book might be considered good. There have been novels of all types, and I probably finish over 90% of what I start. Romances make up much of the failed portion; the clichéd writing or clichéd characters or clichéd situations—sometimes all three within the first few pages—are more than I can handle, but there are others.
The Goldfinch: A Novel for example, disappointed me with its inconsistent writing and because it didn’t seem to be going anywhere of interest to me, and I couldn’t sustain enough interest in The Paris Wife to finish it.

The Prophet, by Michael Koryta, is the first one that I’ve started, put aside because of marginal interest, then later picked it up and finished.

The writing is mostly okay. There are a few clunker sentences that stand out but generally it’s not bad, and there is good use of sentence length and style for variety and for different types of situations. Dialogue is okay and there are some strong elements in how the plot works its way through. Contrasted with that, though, are some predictable elements (damaged character finds release through vengeance killing/death), and some strains on belief (bad guy turns out to be manipulated by the true bad guy, who was a spiritual guide to a main character and a peripheral figure, but in reality is a psychopath?), but my biggest issue is with the characters.

The reason that I put the novel aside some months ago was because I couldn’t get into the characters. My distaste started with the names; Kent Austin, plus older brother (and first born of three children, obviously, given his name) Adam Austin. Then a high school girl named Rachel Bond whose father turns out to be Jason Bond (some combination of Jason Bourne and James Bond? No, just a normal guy in prison). These, and others, felt like names you give to characters in your first draft, then multiple drafts and three name changes later you’ve come up with better ones.

The characters have, well, characteristics. Drinking or religion, football player sized bodies, jobs, relationships to each other, histories, roles in the story, emotion-like reactions to situations. But they’re flat figures and feel like a compendium of traits rather than a personality with facets. This is a little different from Dan Brown and his cardboard cutouts that he uses to execute the plot. Kortya has spent time adding elements to his characters and has tried to be consistent in terms of how that character might react to a given situation, but he fails to make them breathe on their own. Like Dr. Frankestein he has collected the parts but, unlike the good doctor, he can’t find the spark of life. There are moments that are close; thinking about the property that they might buy to start a new life together, and other internal, intimate moments that don’t feel so force fed by the plot and that make the characters almost human, but there aren’t enough. Instead, the characters are mostly puppets, doing and purporting to feel what the script requires them to do, not quite feeling or thinking or seeing or experiencing as if they were real people.

This brings me to my reason for this post: is this a weakness of a stereotypical plot oriented writer, this problem of building characters from a collection of traits but not quite creating real people? Is the Prophet is a good example because it’s almost, but not quite, there? Is it like an unskilled casting agent who brings in bodies to fit the roles: celebrities, or athletes, or cute kids for Disney shows, but not actors who can act? Should they instead have used actors who can bring the characters to life? Who will study the character, understand how they work, know how to integrate and develop and use those traits and how to present a believable, interesting, relatable character?

But that’s the author’s job; to pull the character’s skin over his own, to experience the role and to report to the reader what is happening (or to stand outside the characters and report, but still you need to understand your characters well enough so they act like humans, or at least like interesting sentient beings if you’re writing fantasy). The POV for The Prophet is close third person and we spend time inside the head of many characters, but rarely does it feel like the head of a living, three-dimensional human.

The villains are the worst examples. They’re bad, just because, they’re bad. The term psychopath is brought up by the investigator, and Koryta uses that as carte blanche to not have to explain why the mastermind does anything he does, thereby limiting the fear or care that he produces. He’s simply the bad guy, the one who has to die to end the story. The other villain has a little more backstory supplied by his brother, but when confronted he’s pretty easily duped and disposed of.

Again, it’s not awful. It can be done, using antagonists that have limited dimensions when the primary story is how they force the protagonists to work out their issues, but if the protagonists are not fully flesh and blood, having thin foils makes it worse.