Something In The Way She Writes

Quality.  There was a big kerfuffle on quality here, not so long ago, and being me, (and besides you guys deserve it) I’m going to say that you’re both right.  And both wrong.

Is there such a thing as quality in writing?  Sure there is.

Is that quality something in the turn of a phrase, the careful copyediting, the creation of realistic characters, a resonance on social problems that will enlighten us for the ages?

Well… those are nice to have.

Is it how it sells?  Well, sometimes.  The selling system has been pretty gamed in the last thirty years, and anyway even in Indie I bet you there will be good stuff that doesn’t catch and stuff that is eye-crossingly bad that hits it for no reason anyone can figure out.  Word of mouth.  Rumor.  A detail that catches someone influential’s eye.  Who knows?

So, what is that “quality”?  What is that “special something?”  What should you be striving to put in your books?

We’ve established, (right?) that tastes differ.  It’s no use yelling at me I SHOULD like something, and even less use yelling at me I SHOULD like something because tons of people like it or because it’s studied in school. (I HAVE read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, thank you so much.  Even if he weren’t Castro’s bosom buddy, I would find his writing … let’s put it this way – if I want to read pretentious stuff, I’ll read my own first six (unpublished) novels [before I shook the dust of an MBA in Languages and Literatures off my sandals].)

I’ve lived long enough not to be impressed by credentials, ambiance and accolades.  Look, I can enjoy eating at a diner, and I can enjoy eating at a five star restaurant.  My expectations are different.  On the other hand, I’ve honestly found better food at some diners than at some five star restaurants, and the diners are more fun because I can people-watch.

In the same way, I’ve paid my dues, and I’ve read and still read much that people consider worthy, but there’s a time and a place.  I will bow to no one in my enjoyment of Shakespeare.  (Why I should bow is beyond me, anyway.) Or Austen.  Or Dumas (which – my older son is right – is MUCH better in French.)  On the other hand there are people who are probably good but who rub me the wrong way: of the classics, Dickens comes to mind.  I don’t feel the need to admire someone just because everyone agrees he or she is good.  (Much of the literary culture of the last fifty years is more squeak than wool, anyway.)

On the other hand, I feel quite free to read what others consider schlock or low brow and appreciate its (often more) authentic and thoughtful qualities (than the ones in supposedly great literature.)

Take Agatha Christie, for instance.  It has become fashionable to deride her.  She, herself, seemed to think she was writing puzzle stories, more than anything – but I love re-reading her and many of her characters strike a deep and resonant cord.

So – I wasted a page telling you that while there is quality, I don’t think it’s universal, and I don’t think it affects every one the same way.

What the “quality” of that quality is was clinched for me by two historical mystery series (I’m not going to name them because one doesn’t come off well from my evaluation, and this is probably unfair and the other one hit me probably because of rather PARTICULAR reasons, which are not for public consumption.)  They’re both well written.  Both are bestseller series, one by a writer who was a bestseller when she wrote it, the other by a writer who built that series up to bestseller.
Series A, though, was fun to read once, popcorn-like, and I refuse to pay hardcover prices for it, and in fact will not buy it unless it is the only thing I have to read at the time, or it’s deeply discounted/used.  Nothing wrong with it.  There’s tons of series I “like” but don’t love and that’s where they fall, because well… $12 for a paperback is for the birds and I’m not made of money.

Series B grabbed me and pulled me into the story and made me stay there every step of the way.  I couldn’t do something else – I usually read while embroidering – while reading it, and an attempt to listen to an audio book while walking made me tear off the headphones halfway through, because even though I’d ALREADY READ THE BOOK it was going to make me burst into tears in public, and also the confusion of inputs was near-physically painful.  Even though it was more expensive than the first, I bought all the books within a week for kindle because I couldn’t afford paper costs.  (I have now also found a hardcover of the first book at the thrift store. – Does Victory dance!)  I will re-read these books.  I will give them friends.  I will buttonhole strangers and put the books in their hands.

And then I realized what “quality” means to me right now, at this point in history (this is important – I’ll explain why later) – right now “quality” i.e. the quality that RIGHT NOW seems to ensure success, seems to mean the ability to engage the reader’s emotions.

If the book draws you in and makes you feel what the characters feel, that’s quality.

To an extent, it’s always been like that.  I love it when literature professors (rolls eyes) go on and on about how Marlowe is a better playwright than Shakespeare.  It might be true (waggles hand side to side) on a technical level.  Doesn’t matter.  Marlowe, possibly because he died very young AND was exquisitely well educated, didn’t GET the engaging emotions thing (okay, he was very good at horror.)  His plays have a moral flatness, where you don’t really root for everyone because they’re all unpleasant people.  You also don’t want anyone dead, because none of them is more unpleasant than the others.  So, while the scenes and the dialogue might dazzle, you don’t feel the emotions of the characters.  (Again, Marlowe died very young.  Maybe in some other world he grew out of it.)  Shakespeare on the other hand, makes you vibrate along with emotions: bigger than life emotions that you’ll never forget.  [Because I like Kit; because something in his writing DOES appeal to me; and became he was an amazing craftsman, I feel compelled to say he PROBABLY would have grown out of it. There were signs that way.  And my first novels had the same issue as his plays.  You see, I thought I had to write “reality”)

As I said, to an extent it was always true.  HOWEVER the difference is, until recent times, books were also ALMOST the only means for delivery of story.  So, “quality” beyond the emotion stuff could mean a well constructed story.  It could also mean – because of the means of delivery – exquisite prose.

By all means, you should still strive for both of those, but if you don’t achieve it, and still have the big, realistic (realistic-feeling.  They’re usually bigger than life on the paper, so they feel real to you) emotions and leave the person feeling like they lived through it – you’ll still do very well and some number of people will still consider you a superb writer.

On the other hand – trust me on this – you can have beautiful language, perfect plot, an exquisite little puzzle-box of a book, and if you don’t have the emotions, people will either consider you literary (which would be bad, since I have it on the authority of friends laboring in that vineyard that it never sells much) or midlist.

You see, people can watch movies or even play games for the story, but books are the only place they can experience another human being’s emotions.  And THAT is what people crave: the experience of living through the grand emotions without the scars and the regrets.

No book will hit everyone – this is why we disagree so much on quality.  I mean, it would be one thing to analyze sentence and structure and say “this is good” and “this is bad” but – when it’s emotion it’s by nature individual.  What hits my personal buttons might leave you utterly cold or going “uh… it’s okay.”  And stuff that pushes YOUR buttons might hit me with my different experience of life as “Oh, that again?”

So, what should you strive for?  Is it hopeless trying to hit that point that makes readers remember you above all other authors?

Not at all.  Look, if something does it for you, there’s a chance it does it for someone else.  Ric Locke (may eternity rest light upon him) is no longer here to tell us that with ebooks, even if you’d never have reached more than half a dozen people in the old model, there’s potentially millions of readers who share your tastes.  So I’ll say what he would have said.  Write to the emotion.  You know your favorite books and the feeling from them – the feeling like they overwhelm your senses and possess you for a while – that is what you should strive for as a writer.

It’s not as easy as it seems.

First, it is very hard if you were raised in a culture that didn’t hang its emotions on its sleeve (Oh, sure, Latin – but Northern Portugal is HEAVILY influenced by Great Britain, so stiff upper lip and all that.)

Second, there’s a fine line between hitting the emotions and self-indulgent.  You have to remember your characters and situation are more special to you than to ANY reader.  If you get to the point you’re just riding the emotion without end, step back and have someone evaluate it.  Otherwise your reader might be going “Oh, geeze, Louise, your character must get over himself already!)

Third – you can fake that tingle.  You can fake that tingle in a way that fools your readers.  That’s fine.  But sadly, you can fake that tingle in a way that fools you.  This is one of the reasons it’s hard to put sex in books.  If you put sex – particularly sex you, personally, consider transgressive – the emotion will hit you in the face and pull you in…  Thing is, it might not hit anyone else the same way.  If writing explicit sex remember the variety of turn ons and turn offs is mind boggling, and a turn on for you is someone else’s ick-button.  Also, you might be so busy riding (look, stop giggling.  There are no safe words with this topic) the sexual-tingle that you don’t realize there’s nothing else driving your plot.  This is most often done by raw (oh, stop laughing already) beginners, but some old-time professionals do it too.  A particular urban fantasy series seems to have lost the plot and just be piling on the sex to compensate.  So, writing sex – or violence, or architecture if you’re mad about buttresses, or history if that’s your particular bend, or food, if you’re a foodie or anything else that engages you personaly but might not engage anyone else – requires a lot of careful work and seeing through it to the emotions.  (I think I just realized why so many of the crazier paranormal romance writers look like withered up old virgins.  They very well might be.  They don’t feel the tingle, and therefore can keep the plot tension, unaffected by the sex they’re writing.  Um.)

Fourth – no matter how great the “tingle” of emotion you can make your reader feel, you still need good basic grammar, proofreading and fact checking.  I could be reading the most interesting, emotional story set in Shakespeare’s time, but the minute someone pulls out plastic toothpicks, I’m solidly in the present day and not in your story.  See the problem?  So, “I write for the emotion” is not an excuse to write sloppy or not to proof read.

HOWEVER once you have your plot in a row and it makes sense, and your English is good enough to pass muster, you must strive to put in not just emotion – please, remember the Kris Rusch admonition “If your character cries, your reader doesn’t have to” – but things that stimulate emotion in the reader.

You won’t hit everyone – but if you hit a significant number of people, your work will be read and reread, hand-sold by readers to other readers AND (if you care about that) remembered.  And you’ll rise head and shoulders over other, similar writers.

So, learn to be a manipulative author.  Your readers will thank you.

112 responses to “Something In The Way She Writes

  1. Holy Cats! A writer who “gets” it! Quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    I love Shakespeare too. I am far from a scholar of Shakespeare, but his comedies make my laugh out loud, and his tragedies, mostly make me shake my head at how people really haven’t changed in centuries when it comes to the seven deadly sins. (And I still think the villain in Romeo and Juliet is the Friar, Dr. Youknowwho.) Sorry, digression on my part, long story. The first play I saw was A Comedy of Errors, when I was about 13. I was so hooked that I didn’t even notice most of the kids in my class either fell asleep or started whispering. I think I was the only one who actually laughed. Ok, so I was a nerd in junior high – sue me.

    Quality isn’t always the prettiest story, all wrapped up with a happy ending. Although, most human beings tend to like a happy ending, or the ending they perceive as the logical end to a story. Quality isn’t the fact that the story will become a classic, or a cult favorite, nor is it the fact that it is a best seller. Gone With the Wind is one book of Quality from the 20th century. The characters grab the imagination, the history is beautifully written, oh I could go on and on. (I first read this book when I was 11.) Compare that with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Whew, night and day, but both are Quality in that they hit all the right buttons about humanity for most folks. They take on different topics about humanity, and neither one leaves me, nor most of my students, feeling as if the story really ends. There is still that, “So, what happens next” feeling about each one for different reasons.

    My preference in literary style is soundly based between Piers the Plowman and the early 20th century. Each epoch has certain kinds of literature, certain stories, that resonate within either my heart or my mind as Quality writing, stories, or history of humanity. Shelly’s Frankenstein, peaked my interest in the Gothic, which led to an interest in both science fiction and horror – via Bram Stroker’s Dracula. Then on to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Then I got hooked on Orwell – which indicates true horror for humanity with both Animal Farm and 1984. Shudder. I didn’t read late modern Science Fiction/Fantasy until a friend handed me Anne McCaffery’s Dragons of Pern series. (I still want my own fire dragon . . . cute little things.) Then my husband gave me a series of books about space travel and aliens, followed by the M.Y.T.H. series. I was hooked.

    To me, a story can’t be Quality if it doesn’t reach the humanity within me, or depict humanity in a way that makes me want to know more about the character. I may not cry like others do if a character cries, but it resonates, echoes, speaks to something in me that clicks over and says, “Oh, I recognize that feeling, though, emotion, act in myself or others.” Recognizing “self” in a character makes the story Quality to me, whether it does to anyone else or not. Like I said, it is in the eye of the beholder.

    • I neglected to say you can have a happy ending and still live the story. And laugh and still live the story. But a GOOD story puts you in someone else’s mind for a while. All the rest is decor.

      As for not ending — some of my characters remain friends and we look over each other’s shoulders through the years. They’ve become that real to me.

      • I agree about the happy endings, Sarah. Sometimes a story is simply complete, but like you, I tend to become part of that character, and imagine his or her life goes on. . .

      • Which is likely why Miss Elizabeth Bennett is one of my particular favorites. While her sister Jane is most of what was considered to be desirable at the time, Eliza was the one I could know. The not caring about a bit of mud and propriety for sake of her sister, not wishing to marry a man she could never respect, being a bit to cleaver for her own good at times … these struck a cord. It was also why Marianne Dashwood had me tied in knots and mentally screaming twit.

        • Oh yea – One of the reasons I go back to reading Pride and Prejudice is because of Miss Elizabeth Bennett. And in many ways it reminds me of my more modern courtship with my own hubby. Our courtship lasted over four years, and our marriage has lasted 19 years.

    • I was the one kid in high school English who really liked (and still likes) Greek tragedies. Something about growing up with Greek mythology as bedtime stories and having the Odyssey and Illiad pushed into my hands at a young age by parents who stated, “here, read this. I need to do chores.”

      I discovered Pern and the Witch World the same summer. I’m not sure I’ve ever recovered. :)

      • We’re sisters? Greek Mythology as bed time stories. And Iliad and Odyssey as soon as you can read. Add in dad’s bad habit of Latin poetry and that’s what corrupted my mind forever.

      • Greek plays are interesting, and I often used them as a foundation to discuss the entire subject of Greek literature. Try interesting some bonehead football player freshman in any thing like that and they start making all sorts of stupid comments. (always sexual in nature too.)

        I was the only kid in 8th grade who really threw everyone admitting I loved the Pre-Raphaelite poets, especially Samuel Coleridge. Then I threw the English teacher even more when I sat down and read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer in the original English. (A lot of my friends are/were RenFaire folks.) Everyone else in the class was agog about reading S.E. Hinton’s, The Outsiders. (A good book for YA, and I like her writing, but it isn’t Spencer or Coleridge!)

        My rambling point is that I think it is great to read the classics to your children. Our boys loved Homer, and when my eldest was a teenager, he really got into reading Plato. (Yes, the brick layer, Harley Riding, boots and jeans guy with the long hair!) One never knows what will happen when young mush minds hear a good story.

        • I believe I have addressed this on the board before. Freshman jock English…I was one of two non-jocks in the class and we were reading Madame Bovary. The poor young men didn’t really have a clue, even after the teacher was reduced to explaining what was going on in four letter word terms. Sigh.

          • Don’t you oppress me. I played twelve years of football including college.

            • Ah, sorry. If it helps I should have mentioned that one of the jocks had gotten it from the beginning. He was a basketball player. A very good basketball player, who later successfully went pro.

              And I know that Football players are not always block heads, I knew one who went to NC School of Science and Math. It is just that the Quaker college I attended did not attract such players to their football team.

        • Before entering middle school The Daughter had a scheduled interview and tour at the school. As we sat waiting for her appointment I was reading her The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner at The Daughter’s request. She was entranced, actually sitting still to listen. We certainly got some strange looks from passersby.

          (Middle school was a short lived proposition, as she only did one semester before we switched to Home Education.)

  2. It took me a while but eventually I recognized that the intersection between the categories “Things I Like” and “Things That Are Good” is not 100%, nor is the first a complete subset of the latter. While this realization causes me great trauma I have learned to live with it.

    Because Quality involves many variables it will vary, try what we may. Think of it as an outfit of clothes: the fabric may be superb, the styling excellent, the fitting perfect, the colours true. But what looks mahvellous on that willowy blonde will not necessarily work on the hot Latina.

    • NEXT life, if there are such, I want to be a willowy blond. Then I won’t spend my middle years ruining myself on hair-removal wax! (Sorry. You brought up willowy blondes! It’s like a reflex in me.)

      BUT yes, how many times have you enjoyed the heck out of a book while going “OMG, this is schlock.” (And it wasn’t Schlock Mercenary) And how many times — many for me in college — did you trudge through a book saying “I should like this, this is great?” And your buddy who is your best friend and close as a brother might feel the opposite. (I do have a few buddies who agree with me on almost every book. These are, needless to say, people of unusual discernment, but it’s possible it doesn’t prove they’re smarter than everyone else.)

      • After observing in college such blondes using bleach to alleviate the imperative of shaving legs, I realized why “Blondes have more fun.”

        Revisiting my prior example I think I can strip it down to essentials thorough greater specificity: Ursula Andress & Sophia Loren were each a lovely woman, but I doubt the same bikini, no matter how great its quality, would suit them equally. (Ordinarily I would here insert matched youtube clips, of Andress walking out of Dr. No’s surf and Loren, but I’ve no idea where to begin to look for a clip of Loren in bikini.) Smart people learn to distinguish between what looks good in the catalog and what will look good on them.

  3. Literature Professors also seem to like James Joyce, who, to me, and seemingly to most non-professors of literature, rose to glory on an phenomenon explained perfectly by ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ Monkeys throwing dung at a canvas may be art in some circles, but ask your kids what they’re looking at, and you get a true answer.

  4. Wayne Blackburn

    … (realistic-feeling. They’re usually bigger than life on the paper, so they feel real to you) …

    This actually has a strong parallel to the methodology in the book, “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way”. It outlines how Marvel comic characters were drawn in an extreme fashion – outsized heads (typically the characters were 5 heads high instead of 7, which is normal), stances set wider, backs arched more, bodies broader and more muscled… you get the picture. The events look larger than life, because of the way the characters are drawn, and that engages people.

  5. stuff that is eye-crossingly bad that hits it for no reason anyone can figure out.

    (cough)Fifty Shades of Gray(cough)

    • No. There’s a reason for that one. The main stream has starved people as much of “submissive female erotica” as of Human Wave SF. The novel found its niche, is all. MOST women prefer to be dominated. (I don’t, but I’m weird and have authority issues, anyway.) I don’t know how many of them also want to be beaten because none would own up to it, but apparently more than I thought, which frankly makes me a little sick. Anyway, it was unmet need meets supply. BOOM.

      • Okay, but I’m standing by “eye-crossingly bad”.

        • No idea. Haven’t read it. BUT consider what I HAVE read in fanfic that gratifies women’s unmet interests — some of it is barely written in English and yet immensely popular. (And part of what gratifies women’s tastes seems to be a certain gothic mad-wife-in-the-attic type of romantic intrigue that makes me want to scream.)

          • Oh, is that why that book is so popular? …I never understood it. (But then, I seem to have dom-dar. Perfectly nice fellows with a dominant streak, meet ‘em in person, and my hackles go up. …I think this means that I am, in real life, kind of… orn’ry.

            Alternatively… Send me your effete bishonen, your wimpy metrosexuals, yearning to breathe “eee!” I can build a stable for ‘em. *evil grin* )

            • I like strong, masculine men — even many of my gay friends fall in that category — BUT I don’t GET wanting to be dominated. I don’t want to dominate either. Dan and I are about evenly matched, which is probably the rare times we DO fight it’s like a clash of titans, the mountains tremble and the cats hide. BUT I like that I can’t walk all over him, which I could 90% of the men. (Seriously.) And then some of that 10% left would want to walk over me, and I’d murder them in their sleep. So, I’m glad I found my husband.

              • My problem too – I can manipulate any man in my immediate vicinity except my hubby. He has broken me of the habit. The mean ones I want to hurt badly– I don’t think aggressive is really dominant actually. I like a man who is a man… I have a problem with metrosexuals. Unfortunately my nephew is one of them… I love him anyway. It bothers me though–

          • Jane Eyre? Once was enough.

      • I’m going to go with MOST women like to think that they, as an individual, make a man crazy enough that he’s going to push the the fringes of forcing the issue instead of shrugging if off because anyone will do. Passivity in the male understood as disinterest.

        In any case, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

        It’s also the balance spot I’m shooting for when I write.

      • Umm – there is supposed to be the erotic butt slap. Not my thing, but I am more likely to hit back if slapped on the butt (and take the person down).

      • Fantasizing about something and actually wanting to do it are entirely different activities. Lots of people dress up as Imperial Stormtroopers, but I doubt many want to be one. I never wanted to infiltrate the vaults of Opar at Tarzan’s side, I never fancied landing under fire with Jonny Rico or riding a sandworm on Dune.

        As far as D&S goes, it seems an awful lot of work for the Dom to do for the pleasure of the Sub, especially when he (or she – it works both ways, right?) could be reading a good book and enjoying a sip of Port.

        Sheesh – I am sooooo disappointed to realize 50 Shades of Grey isn’t a ghost tale.

        • well. If tons of people weren’t jumping on the title on Amazon, I’d write Fifty Shades of Pale just for you — a ghost story. “Turns a whiter shade of pale.”

          • Would Fifty Shades of Pale be victims of the killer, or past selves of the killer (positing a reality in which, when you kill yourself, you don’t die but instead create a ghost of yourself, to haunt you thereafter. Imagine being accompanied through the world by fifty ghosts of yourself at your most depressive.)

            I think the only things anyone ever offered to write just for me ere now are invoices and bills of sale. Maybe a letter of recommendation or two, my senior year of High School.

            Always nice to read a Procol Harum reference.

            • Just for that, I will eventually write this short story for you — not JUST for you. I intend to SELL it. DUH.

              • yeah, yeah: talk talk talk when you should write write write. I warn you: I accept neither commissions nor tips, so if you do eventually produce something salable all receipts are between you and the taxman.

    • Since I don’t read porn, I guess that is one book I will never read. I can’t for the life of me find any reason to want to read it since from what I have seen it is simply one sex scene after another. booooooriiiiing!

      • I actually read a review from a sane reviewer who said it’s more emotion than sex, but… NOT MY THING.

        • I hear you on that Sarah. I have to say that I agree with you and others that men are often portrayed as metrosexual wimps in today’s ‘modern’ novels, and I HATE that!

          • This derives from multiple sources, but chief among them is that women editors (and readers) don’t really have any idea what a “real” man actually is. (Some do but are in denial.)

            The Virginian offers a perfect example of a woman’s (the schoolmarm’s) inability to process what a man is in her new environment. It is also a recurring theme in L’Amour’s novels: the inability of “civilized” women (aka, Easterners) to grasp the violent realities of the culture into which they’ve entered. (For that matter, it is a recurring theme of the John Ford/John Wayne oeuvre, the inability of the men who civilize The West to enter into the Promised Land they have made possible.)

        • Emotionless sex between two people is indeed one of the most vacuous experience a person can have. Emotionless sex between five people is outstanding.

  6. I think there’s society’s version of quality, and then there’s the personal sense of it. I’ve found that a lot of what is touted as quality is usually someone trying to establish their bona fides as opposed to finding what most people will read.

    It reminds me of the Friends episode where Chandler and Joey were playing a trivia game against Monica and Rachel about who knew the most about the other two. Ross asked the guys what Rachel claimed her favorite movie was, to which the guys answered “Dangerous Liaisons.” Then when asked what her actual favorite movie was, they sneered, “Weekend at Bernies.”

    Not saying I particularly cared for either movie, but it’s always interesting to me what people will claim they like for social credibility reasons versus their true tastes.

  7. A friend read a few of my stories and said, “I hate sci-fi but how many more of these do you have and can I read them? I really like the main characters.” Apparently I hit her Quality button. I also had a fellow grad student tell me, “you know, I don’t really care for your specialty field, but I really want to read the book when you get this finished.” So you never know what in your characters, style, setting, plot, will catch someone’s fancy.

  8. Today we were out and about visiting a friend so I didn’t get to leave a post yet. It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t know how to write emotion. I could describe emotion, but I needed to actually learn to emote using the character’s thoughts and words. Because I was taught forcefully to keep my emotions in check, it has been hard to change. It was more revealing than a strip tease.

    Maybe? some of these writers write sex instead of real emotion… maybe? it is like that dream all of us have had… naked in the middle of a public place?

  9. It seems to me, you’re talking about the difference between crat and art. Art requires craft, but craft without transmittal of emotion isn’t art. To me, that transmittal of emotion from the page, statue, painting, etc, to the reader/observer is the defination of art. Agree/disagree?

    • Agree to an extent. The caveat is that in writing at least, you’re not getting even “the great majority of people” to experience the emotion, because the cues are myriad and it hits really deep, so that we’ll all react differently. Look, while the Virgin of The Rocks will hit everyone differently there isn’t thousands of words to cue right and visual processing is more immediate, so it’s more likely to get a response than… oh, Dark They Were And Golden Eyed, which depends on vocabulary and the emotional load of each word hitting right. The reader has more input than the viewer, I should say. And all art is collaboration between transmitter and receiver.

      • You’re right the reader has more input than a viewer of a painting, but everyone reacts individually to any art. I can feel the emotion Picasso puts into his paintings, but I don’t like them. Doesn’t mean it’s not art, just that it’s not to my taste. A reader has more input becase the imagination is more involved and therefore more of their own selves are put into the experience.

        • yes, on Picasso. And Ditto, btw. BUT what I was thinking actually that it’s harder for people to sneer at good art they don’t like, than at good books they don’t like — because they can withhold their imput from books they don’t like. And now you got me thinking of the line between art and craft. You have no idea how dangerous that is.

  10. One of the TV political pundits of the eighties, I can’t remember his name, did a book on writing in which his most useful recommendation, I think, was have things happen that will tear your reader’s heart out and write it dry and matter of fact. I think Heinlein had a gut understanding of this no-purple decades earlier. Read the last page of “The Long Watch.” And one of Sarah’s eldest’s favorite movies ends with this: Still camera closeup of a broadsword stuck in the ground and quivering while a calm, dry, unemotional offscreen voice says, “In the year of Our Lord 1312 patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the field at Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom.” I’m losing it just thinking about it.

    • Effective movie, but for one friend, a historical clothes hobbyist and re-enactor, the costuming on the film was the equivalent of a plastic toothpick at Mr. S’s Globe Theater.

  11. So, for series B, I am dying of curiosity as to what it could be. Given your willingness to buttonhole strangers and recommend the series, please share? I’m guessing from your description it’s Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series.

    • No. Actually I’ll buttonhole strangers who don’t know I’m a writer. There are sometimes reasons I don’t want the world to know what I’ve been reading — mostly because people are weird at seeing influences, even in stuff that was written long before. I shall now check the series you mentioned, though. Never heard of it.

  12. I think you have to agree that SOMETHING inheres within a written work. And some people respond to it with ecstasy and others with agony. I think the meat and poison observation lacks an important distinction: learned tastes.

    I well recall picking up my mother’s coffee cup and taking a sip of a horrid, bitter chalk-like potion. Swearing never to touch the stuff ever again. Years went by and in my Junior year of college I discovered the execrable brew served in the cafeteria managed to augment alertness. It was horrid, but I soldiered on. After grad school I got a Mr. Coffee, and the improved quality over percolated coffee was dramatic. A decade later I began drinking something better than Maxwell House. Now, I’m sort of a coffee snob preferring a French Roast over Sumatran. I also recall as a child happening upon black pepper and recoiling. Now, I order Thai food extra hot. How about your first taste of something alcoholic?

    The ancients knew this and they took pains to teach the proper affections. One bears a responsibility to cultivate one’s palate–to acquire good taste and discernment. Though one man’s meat is another man’s poison, we should consider the possibility that one man’s tastes are vicious while another man’s tastes are virtuous.

    What is virtue? Why, it’s whatever agrees with me.

    • There is a coffee either on Amazon or in small specialty places — Sical — give it a try. It’s not the best of Portuguese coffee, but it’s the best available readily here. I’m spoiled because my family sends it to me… well, truth be told to my son, who is a coffee snob and was in coffee snob heaven in Portugal where coffee is SERIOUS business indeed. He made us stop at every corner cafe for a taca of espresso.

    • I beg to differ, coffee perked on the stove is WAY better than drip coffee. AND Colombian is WAY better than the burnt coffee they call French Roast.

      If you get vile coffee try making it chain-gang coffee by adding a pinch of salt, it does improve the taste.

  13. I’ve lived long enough not to be impressed by credentials, ambiance and accolades. Look, I can enjoy eating at a diner, and I can enjoy eating at a five star restaurant. My expectations are different. On the other hand, I’ve honestly found better food at some diners than at some five star restaurants, and the diners are more fun because I can people-watch.

    Don’t let Fritz hear you say that Archie.

    • did you ever buy the book by Fritz Brenner and Nero Wolfe. I have a copy and have got a copy for Monkey-san which will go in the mail as soon as I find my head.

      • That one is news to me!!! And I’ve gotten both the Inspector Cramer novel and one (or more) of the Dol Bonner stories. Which mainly serve to impress me with how marvelous a narrative voice Stout found in Archie.

        If ever you find a reasonably priced* Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street by William Baring-Gould, I recommend it. While mostly known for his annotation of the complete Holmes and his biography of the character, his compendium of the Wolfe canon is comprehensive and useful.

        • While I can’t cook most of the stuff because where would I get the ingredients, it is a delighful mini-course in gourmet cuisine.

          • oh dear… Here you have found me out yet again. I know that The Nero Wolfe Cookbook exists, although I have not come across it in some time. I have collected cookbooks (and a few select books about food) since my senior year of high school. I have become much pickier over the years. I have purchased books with food we cannot eat, if they have a few recipes we might try, fill a niche in my world food knowledge or are delightfully written and informative. (Yes, I know. What I might consider delightful and informative others might consider tedious or trite — we are not discussing quality here.)