Tag Archives: Michael Connelly

A Little Less Talk, and a Lot More Action

You know the greatest thing about being a writer? I mean other than the unbelievable fame and fortune. The greatest thing about being a writer is the fact that you get to look back at the stories of your past and say, “You know, I wish I could go back and fix that.” And then you can actually go back and fix it.

So over the last couple of days, I’ve been going back over my very first book, Ella Eris and the Pirates of Redemption, trying to see how much of it is salvageable. I started by making an outline of the story as it is currently written, a step recommended by Chuck Wendig in his recent post about editing, and…well, let’s just say breaking down  the story into its component pieces reveals more about my past writer self than I really wanted to know.

Because you know what I’ve realized? The characters in my story won’t shut up. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with dialogue, I’m all for that, but it really hit me when I was outlining upwards of three scenes in a row of “Ella goes and talks to Character X” that maybe it would be good if I had something actually happen in my book.

Not that there isn’t any action, but the outline made me realize that it wasn’t evenly spaced, and that there were large chunks of the text that served no purpose in the actual story. But back in the day I didn’t understand the proper ebb and flow of action in the story. I was so focused on getting the words right, but I failed to make the story right.

It’s an important distinction to make. If you’re a beginning writer, then chances are you’re in love with words, with the sounds they make in your head and the way they fit together. And you’ve probably picked up some bestseller or another, leafed through the first few pages and said to yourself, “I can write better than this.” And you may not believe this but, you’re probably right.

But fancy writing does not make for a bestselling book. Not that there’s anything wrong with fancy writing, but if there is anything that reading Michael Connelly has taught me it is that knowing how to tell a story well, is far more important than knowing how to construct a sentence that will make the angels weep with envy.

In my case the structure of my story is all wonky, and the pacing is terrible. Whole chapters turned out to be completely unimportant, and whole new chapters need to be written (hopefully with the characters doing more than just talking).

It took me five years to figure this out. I’m writing this blog post so maybe it won’t take five years for you to figure out what’s wrong with your story.

You’re good with words? Great. But don’t forget that words are just icing. You have to have a cake to spread them on.

This is my appeal to you: learn at least a little about structure, about the way scenes of action follow scenes of contemplation and vice versa. Learn about building tension. Learn about story.

Because that’s the stuff that really matters.

Bizzaro Book Review: A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

There is something wrong with me, apart from all the other things wrong with me, which is this: I’m kind of a voice snob.

When I pick up a book I ask myself these questions: Does the author’s voice grab me? Do the words do something more than simply convey information? Do they have a touch of poetry? That little something that reaches past the mind and touches the soul?

The problem with this approach is that great stories can be written in an unexceptional voice. Michael Connelly is a great example of this, an author with a voice so plodding and methodical that I never would have read him if not for the fact that I listened to an audio version of The Closers with my wife on our honeymoon.

But even though I know it’s foolish, when I’m looking for a book to read prose trumps plot most of the time.

And if there was ever a more shining example of prose trumping plot than A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines then I will cheerfully eat my hat.

It isn’t so much that the plot of this book is bad, as it is nonexistent. I’m not even sure how to describe this book to you. At some level it’s a biographical sketch encompassing the lives of Kurt Godel and Alan Turing, but it seems more interested in relating their souls than it does their stories.

Of course the high points are there. Turing creates the Turing Machine, Godel develops his incompleteness theorem, etc. But the facts you’ll find in this book are essentially the same as the ones you could find on the Wikipedia entries for these men’s lives.

But the true aim of this book is not to give us facts. Janna Levin’s goal is far more ambitious. With A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines she intends to poeticize science, to romanticize logic.

She spends long paragraphs pondering the consequences of determinism, working through her own doubts about the nature of fate through the minds of two of the twentieth centuries greatest thinkers.

And if you read between the lines you’ll see that this isn’t really a book about Kurt Godel and Alan Turing. Instead it is a book about Janna Levin, a woman of science trying to weave meaning into a cold and logical universe.

This is the true conflict of the book. Truth against beauty. Logic against love. Fate against choice.

The author is a scientist bound to the material and yet it is her spirit that speaks through these pages, bitterly trying to reconcile itself to the fact that it does not exist. And the conflict is made all the deeper, all the more tragic by the facts of the two men’s lives, with the realization that through all of their accomplishments, all of their staggering contributions to science, they were made no happier, that they ended their lives bitter and alone.

As always with my reviews, I’m certain that this book won’t appeal to everyone. But it spoke to me in ways I did not expect. Levin’s use of words is powerful, and though her paragraphs often stretch on and on, meandering into new heights of introspection with each passing sentence, somehow she never quite sounds overly verbose.

If that sounds like your cup of Earl Grey, then you should do yourself a favour and check this book out.