Classic or cliche — the power of details

This piece was originally published in First Draft, the SinC Guppy chapter newsletter. I thought of it last week after watching THE ROAD TO PERDITION, with Paul Newman, Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin, Daniel Craig, and Jude Law. All their performances were excellent, but Newman’s reminded me of the power of the right gesture, no matter how small. He could convey with a creased brow his approval of his foster, a message not lost on his biological son, and so embodied a character that we nearly forgot it was one of the most famous screen actors ever. As writers, we need those reminders, and lessons. 

CLASSIC OR CLICHE — a brief meditation on the death of Paul Newman–and what his roles say to writers

Remembering an actor who got the details right.

When Paul Newman died, I was reading Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about life in small-town Maine. I’d very much enjoyed the HBO series featuring Ed Harris as the protagonist, Miles Roby, and Newman as his father, Max. Newman so embodied the role that as I read, I pictured him every time Max appeared on the page. It’s a classic role – the charming reprobate, a sometime-house painter who abandoned his wife and young sons for months at a time but always seemed to expect them to be waiting – and they were. Now that his wife is long dead and his sons are grown, he treats them no better. Without a car and always short on money, he bums rides then rummages in Miles’ glove box for cash. He pitches in at the café his sons run, cheering up his teenage granddaughter and enjoying wreaking unnecessary havoc. He knows exactly what buttons to push on his hyper-responsible oldest son. You want to smack him. But when he and the town’s senile, retired priest run off to Florida in the parish car, the moment is so unexpectedly perfect that you almost cheer the old guys on.

Then I remembered Newman’s performance as Frank Galvin in “The Verdict,” the washed-up alcoholic lawyer who takes on a loser of a case and then discovers that buried in the boxes of medical records is evidence of appalling hospital malpractice and a cover-up by the Catholic church. Galvin cleans up, dries up, falls down, falls off the wagon, and eventually redeems himself – and wins the case. Along the way, he’s seduced by a beautiful woman, sent to set him up and trick him up – and it almost works. A classic story that goes all the way back to David and Goliath.

Classic – or cliche? What makes the difference? Newman’s performances – and Russo’s writing – demonstrate that it’s the details that make the characters come alive. Russo’s Max Roby is a retired house painter, and he never had much use for the Catholic church that gave his wife comfort. His son Miles is combining penance and community service by painting the church for free – but he hates ladders and that peeling siding of that spire terrifies him. Max pokes and prods Miles about his fear of heights, not very nicely. But he knows that Miles has constrained his own life in part out of fear, and needs to push through it. The author doesn’t spell that out – it’s in the characterization. Eventually Miles does stand up to Max, he does go high up on the ladder, and he gains the courage he needs to pull off a pair of rebellious acts that enable him to save his daughter and change his own life. Small actions, tiny steps that lead inexorably to redemption – not of Max, who isn’t looking for it, but of Miles, who needs it to fully live his own life. The devil may be in the details, but so is the glory.

Newman described himself as a character actor who looked like a leading man. I think he meant that he liked to lose himself in the details and become someone else – he wasn’t always playing himself. As writers, we need to give our characters those same opportunities. What I particularly like about Empire Falls – and Russo’s latest novel, The Bridge of Sighs – is that most of the characters are ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems, but the writer is willing to go beneath the surface and explore each individual character’s particular thoughts, feelings, motivations, and reactions. To go beyond cliche. And that’s what makes a classic.

The Saturday Writing Quote — on reading (#2)

IMGP2894“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.”

Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance” (1882), in Learning to Write 44, 44 (1920).

(photo: a few of my faves from a year ago!)

Law and fiction — blogs with a real-life view of lawyering


Writing a character who is a lawyer, but you’re not one — or closely related to one? A recent post on favorite blogs for lawyers on the Washington State Bar Association blog mentioned these, so I took a quick look. Good inside info.

Corporette: subtitled Fashion, Lifestyle, and Career Advice for Over-Achieving Chicks. If your image of women lawyers is pumps and charcoal gray suits, take a look. Things have changed, thank goodness!

Attorney at Work: No pictures of shoes or ruched-sleeve jackets (love ’em!) here. Lots of practical advice for the working lawyer, including ideas for business development, better meeting strategy, and being a good employer. I like this for writers because it reminds us that lawyers are business people, too — and like all business people, some handle it better than others. The pieces here will give you a better idea of a lawyer’s daily life, and may suggest some conflicts, small and large, that you haven’t thought of.

More than 50% of lawyers work on their own, or with only one or two other lawyers. Solo Practice University gives advice for the solo and small-firm lawyer. Like Attorney at Work, quite a few posts apply concepts from other fields to lawyering, which I like very much.

Remember that the more you understand about your character’s real life and daily struggles, the more conflict you can add to your stories and the more fully you can develop your characters — and understanding what they want and will do to get it is what leads to plot. Blogs are a great way to catch a glimpse of daily concerns and struggles, the very stuff that help us build intiguing characters on the page.

Receiving “The Raven” and Celebrating the Traditional Mystery

Malice 2016 Raven

I’m just back from an amazing trip — two trips in one, to New York and Bethesda, MD, just outside Washington, D.C. Sisters in Crime received the Mystery Writers of America’s Raven Award for “outstanding achievement in the mystery field, outside the realm of creative writing,” and as the current president, I was honored to accept the award at MWA’s Edgars Awards dinner last Thursday in New York. 

MWA 2016 with Catriona and SaraWhen I arrived at Malice at noon Friday, a board member greeted me by saying, “I heard you kicked ass.” Well, maybe, in a sparkling navy gown, black kitten heels, and a purloined necklace. So, since I’ve been asked for the acceptance speech, here it is — and here I am with immediate past president Catriona McPherson and past president/founding mother Sara Paretsky.

UPDATE: There’s video! Watch it at your own risk!

Thank you.

This award is a tribute to the vision that a roomful of women crime writers had nearly 30 years ago, and it’s a most fabulous prelude to our birthday celebration, which we’re beginning this fall. That it comes from our partners in crime makes it especially fitting, and especially wonderful.

This award also acknowledges all the officers, chapter leaders, and members who have made Sisters in Crime a true sisterhood, and who have done the hard work of bringing about change – bettering the lives and careers of all crime writers, because when women prosper we all prosper.

And in that spirit, I would like to ask everyone in the room who is a member of Sisters in Crime, including our brothers in crime, to please stand, and let me thank you.

And to the rest of you, we can take care of that.

I’d like to thank the past presidents and current board members here tonight:
Sara Paretsky, past president and a founding mother,
Margaret Maron, past president,
Catriona McPherson, immediate past president,
and Lori Roy, our treasurer.

I also want to acknowledge our Executive Director, Beth Wasson, who is not here tonight. She will be at Malice Domestic this weekend, so if you’re headed down there, please congratulate her when you see her. Sisters would not be what it is without her.

Of course, there is still work to be done.

When a man says he won’t read a book by a woman, there is work to be done.

When a bestselling male author says from the stage at a major writers convention that women cannot write thrillers, there is work to be done.

And when there are white readers, some of them writers, who can’t tell you when they last read a book by an author of color, there is work to be done.

And so, we will continue doing the work for the next 30 years, and more.

Thank you for giving us the wings.

 (I’ll tell you more about the rest of the trip, including the weekend at the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention later this week.)