Lazy Writing 101: The Goldfinch

If you read a lot of mass-market fiction, you start to pick up on which writers are really honing their craft and which are phoning it in. Phoning it in comes across in lazy plotting (“Oh no, I forgot to charge my phone!”), or telling rather than showing, or a particular sort of character development I’m going to illustrate here. This specific piece is from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which all told is a pretty solid novel, though she had no idea how to end it.

The passage here deals with two characters, narrator Theo and his object of desire Pippa. Years before, Theo and Pippa were both badly injured in an explosion, and while Theo appears to have recovered, Pippa still suffers from its aftereffects. Earlier in the novel, we are introduced to Pippa’s boyfriend Everett, who Theo dislikes both on principle because Everett is Pippa’s boyfriend, and on merits because Everett is kind of a whiny twit to Theo’s man of action. Much later, Pippa is visiting and she and Theo are discussing her uncle Welty, who was killed in the explosion. Pippa says:

“But Welty—he was one too. An Advanced Being. Like—not joking. Serious. Out of the ballpark. Those stories that Barbara tells—guru What’s-His-Name putting his hand on her head in Burma and in that one minute she was infused with knowledge and became a different person—Well, I mean, Everett—of course he never met Krishnamurti but—”

“Right, right.” Everett—why this annoyed quite me [sic] so much, I didn’t know—had attended some sort of guru-based boarding school in the south of England where the classes had names like Care For the Earth and Thinking of Others.

This is terrible writing. Not the prose, which is intended to reflect how people actually converse, but rather the setup. We’ve had a whole chapter with Everett in it well before. Everett is not a new character in this chapter, and Theo has had ample time to dissect him as not worthy of Pippa for all sorts of reasons that boil down to Everett isn’t Theo. So if Tartt had known that Everett had gone to a guru-based boarding school back when Everett first appeared in the book, surely Theo would have found this out and commented on it as a way of disdaining Everett, especially since Theo is a dedicated rationalist and would roll his eyes at anything guru-based.

Therefore, Tartt didn’t decide to make Everett a graduate of a guru-based boarding school until she wrote this very passage. Which is fine: sometimes we learn new things about the characters we write. But what’s not fine is her failure to anchor this new insight in the text. All she has to do here, once she’s figured out the “guru-based boarding school”, is go back to the earlier chapter where we meet Everett and have Theo find out about it, and then he can trash Everett for it. Guru-based is funny, and it’s a great piece of a character. There’s all sorts of fun things Tartt could have done at this point: for example, she could have Everett do something Theo finds baffling, and then Theo investigates and finds out about the school, and it only confirms his belief that Everett isn’t the right guy for Pippa. Then she could make it even funnier by having Everett’s guru-based knowledge actually be the appropriate response to a particular situation, which leaves Theo both angry and bereft.

This is a common trope in mass-market fiction: in detective novels, it often manifests when a new character is introduced with a throwaway quotation and then a long paragraph of narration telling us who that character is and what they like on their pizza. Since I’ve never heard a name for the trope before, I’ll show another example of it in an upcoming post.

 

Reboot: July 2014

Real life intervened and compelled me to take about nine months off of trying to be a serious writer of popular mystery-thriller fiction. And even before that the exercise had become rote: I was just cherry-picking dumb crime stories and saying smartass things about them.

So now it’s time for a purge and a restart. From now on, this blog is going to concentrate less on lurid crimes and the stories that could potentially be made from them, and more on actually writing stories. I’m going to use the blog for three separate but related purposes:

  • Posting daily writings and thus forcing myself to write.
  • Critiquing my own writing and thereby strengthening it.
  • Critiquing others’ writing as a means of taking my own work more seriously.
  • Updates as to where and when I’m reading or being published.
  • Links to other writers’ work, not solely for networking purposes.

Sure, I’ll post a funny true crime story once in a while—some are hard to resist—but this blog has now become much more serious about the mechanics, process and presentation of my writing, and other forms of professional development.

Desperadoes

Joe Johnson, crime writer for the Athens Banner-Herald and one of my favorite Georgia crime reporters, picks up on a great story:

For the second time in less than a week, masked gunmen robbed a business in west Athens.

Athens-Clarke County police said they don’t have any evidence to suspect the robbery on Monday at D.R. Green Motors on West Broad Street is related to a Jan. 21 hold-up at an Atlanta Highway convenience store.

In both cases, though, a pair of gunmen wearing full ski masks entered the businesses during the late evening.

Last week’s robbery at Lay’s Food Mart, 4360 Atlanta Highway, occurred at about 10 p.m. and D.R. Green Motors was robbed at about 10:30 p.m. Monday, police said.

In the convenience store robbery, a clerk described the bandits only as black males.

Ignore the cops who of course have every reason to believe the crimes are related, not only for their similarity but also because armed robbery is a terrible way to earn a living. The guys got away with “cash and a cellphone,” so I’m going to guess less than $300 of spendable money. Think of the risk they’re taking, of ending up in jail or shot by cops or store clerks, or other customers, or random motorists—this is, after all, Georgia. And it’s not as if they can do this very often, like there’s $300 waiting for the sufficiently ballsy every single night in Clarke County and environs. They’ve already done it twice, so if they try it again, everyone buying Red Bull and lotto tickets who isn’t already armed will be by the time the two guys get around to target #4.

In other words, these are the kind of people whose forehead tattoo that reads POOR IMPULSE CONTROL is visible to pretty much everyone, even when the rest of their face is covered. I guarantee you that when they’re caught or killed within three weeks, their average birth year will be 1993 or so. They’re young, not bright, and their idea of careful planning is going to turn out to be missing something obvious and critical.

But think of the opportunity cost of armed robbery: what else could they be doing to make 300 bucks? That’s two days’ labor for both of them at minimum wage, after taxes and other deductions. So either they truly are desperados, emphasis on “desperate”, or it’s not the money. It’s the adventure. And that’s what makes them scary.

Though Johnson’s first sentence needed a better thought, because at first read I thought that the article was going to be about the same business being robbed by two different groups of masked gunmen. Which would really make a better story than that of the desperadoes, which will almost certainly turn out to be cruelly banal.

Imagine the perspective of the proprietor of a convenience store: first, he’s relating his experiences to the detectives, then they’re back five days later. Mustapha: “You’ve had a hell of a week, Mr. Ayinde. My partner said you said these were different guys, and I figured the whole thing had kinda traumatized you, you know? Not like I’d blame you. But then I watched those security cams, and yeah, that second pair of guys are taller than the first. Oh, man.”

Now imagine learning how easy it is to buy a gun in Georgia, and putting it solemnly under your counter, managing to ignore the PTSD flashbacks from before you got your wife to the refugee camp. Now imagine two downscale, goofy black guys coming into the store on one of these real cold nights we’ve been having, with their scarves pulled up and their wooly hats down, so you can only see their eyes.

 

Kendrick Johnson’s Autopsy

This story is deep and weird and very wrong. Kendrick Johnson was a star athlete in a Valdosta high school:

State medical examiners concluded that Johnson suffocated in January after getting stuck in a rolled-up gym mat while reaching for a sneaker. That’s a finding his family has never accepted, and one challenged by the findings of a second autopsy they commissioned.

None of this passed the smell test right from the start. Johnson’s family complained, with some pretty clear justification, that the crime scene was contaminated and the investigation botched. They filed all kinds of freedom-of-information requests and got stonewalled at first, with the local sheriff’s office saying the GBI called the death an accidental suffocation in a rolled-up gym mat. Here’s Ebony magazine’s take on it, which of course is going to view it as partly a racial issue, but lest we forget, this is Valdosta, Georgia. The family finally managed to get their son’s body disinterred, and the results of that second autopsy came out recently:

Dr. Bill Anderson determined the teen died from a blow to the neck, but he also made another discovery: some of Johnson’s organs were missing. His lungs, heart and brain were not there, and the body was stuffed with newspaper.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation claims Johnson’s organs were placed back in his body after the first autopsy, but the Valdosta funeral home that enbalmed him said the organs were discarded before the body was sent to them.

So obviously someone’s totally corrupt here. There’s actually security cam footage—this article doesn’t talk about it—but the school has so far refused to release it. Someone murdered this poor kid, and if the security footage can’t tell who, the evidence the sheriff’s department missed probably can.

 

Isolated Afternoon Thundershowers (4)

Parts 1, 2, 3:

Coming up after the news on All Things Considered, the latest developments in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. Adam groaned and switched the damn thing off, then got to inch forward all of half a car length. He punched the phone again. This time, to his surprise, Claire picked right up. “Just got off the plane. How’s Sweetie Pie?”

“Still at school. I’m on the Downtown Connector, stopped dead. It’s pouring. Again. All the skyscrapers are lost in clouds. At this rate, I’m gonna be most of an hour late. I shoulda taken Piedmont. How pissed off do they get if you’re late?”

She laughed. “They don’t. Because you have to pay the teacher. Three bucks a minute.”

“What?!”

She laughed again. “Keeps you on time.”

“This is going to cost me a hundred bucks. There’s no exception for stuck in traffic?”

“This is Atlanta: when are you not stuck in traffic? Call ahead, though, so Simon doesn’t worry.”

“Um, I don’t think I even have the number. Oh, no; I do, but the card is in my briefcase.”

“I’ll do it. Kiss him for me!” and she rang off, to leave him staring at the back of a white pickup covered in Ron Paul stickers, all beaded with the endless rain, each drop reflecting an ocean of brake lights in the premature dusk brought on by the storm.

 

Simon looked up as Mr. Darius came back in the room. “Audrey’s mom came and got her,” he said as he added another brick to his Lego tower.

“I just saw them. And your mom called: she said your dad was coming to get you?”

“Yeah, Mom’s on a trip. Dad’s going to take me for pizza.”

“That is awesome. But he’s going to be late: he’s stuck in traffic. So it’s just you and me for a while here, big guy. You want a book, or you want some more Lego time?”

“Um, Legos is good. Can you show me how to make the bricks over…?”

“Hunh? Oh, overlap. Of course. But in a few minutes you’re going to have to hang out in the lobby while I make sure the rest of the place is locked up tight.”

But Mr. Darius took forever back there. Simon could hear him, on the phone, but not loud enough to know what he was saying. Outside the front door, it was pouring rain, which was why they missed playground time again this afternoon. Lots of cars were on the street outside. A bus pulled up to the shelter across the street and a lady got in. After the bus drove away, there were no cars. And he saw it: a kitty, a black one, standing under the seat of the bus shelter. He was hunched over, with his fur sticking out, so he was all wet. Simon really wanted a kitty. But Mom has allergies.

“Mr. D?” He called. No answer. Simon went back to find him, but the halls were dark and now he couldn’t hear Mr. Darius’s voice. He looked back, forth, back, then went to the front door. This time he got to press the button to open it because Mom wasn’t there to tell him no.

Once outside, the rain hit him like the shower at the outdoor pool, only it didn’t smell like the pool. He walked to the curb and stood there, watching the kitty from between all the cars that were zooming by. But the cars never stopped. He could only see the kitty if all the cars lined up just right. He sighed. He’d get in so much trouble if he crossed the street. It was jaywalking, the police lady told his class.

He went to go back inside, but now the door was locked. And pressing the button didn’t work because you need to slide a card first. He, knocked again, called for Mr. D, but nobody came. And he could see on the bench inside the lobby his Spiderman backpack, with the emergency phone in it. He started to cry, but made himself stop: either Mr. D would–

“Dad!” he shouted as the car came to a stop. But it was the right car and the wrong dad: this man wasn’t bald. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought you were my dad. He drives the same kind of car.”

“Well, you’re soaked to the bone,” said the man. “Hop on in, and I’ll give you a ride.”

“Okay,” said Simon. Then he paused and remembered the police lady. “I’m not supposed to get in a car with strangers.”

“I’m not a stranger,” said the man. “I’m your dad’s friend from work.” Simon slumped back against the door, not knowing what to think. The man looked back and forth. Somebody else honked their horn. “Okay,” the guy said, and drove away.

Isolated Afternoon Thundershowers (3)

Parts 1 and 2 linked here.

Sergeant Jasmine Franklin was going to make it through this shift with her dignity intact. Why was her rain gear in her locker instead of her saddlebags? Because she’d let discipline slip. Well, as sure as Jazz was going to end up—however reluctantly—next to her mother at church on Sunday, she was going to get this intersection moving. And if getting soaked was what it took to remind her to double-check next time, so be it. She had the two disabled cars off to where they’d cause the fewest problems, and she had something of a sequence going: Krog, then DeKalb westbound and middle lane, Krog, DeKalb westbound and right lane, alternating so eastbound traffic could get around the disabled cars. She was almost beginning to enjoy herself; she even let the chick on the bike through instead of chewing her out for riding between the lanes. Like a biker was going to listen.

Then the BMW nearly killed her, and wrecked her rhythm. Motherfucker. And Tag Applied For? Jazz looked longingly at her motorcycle, then imagined the lieutenant busting her chops for leaving her post to chase the guy down.

Two more cycles, and there was a suburban grandma type leaning out the window of her SUV. “I’ve got a rain paaaancho,” she said in that Fargo accent. “You look real wet.”

Jazz made herself smile. “Ma’am, I ain’t getting any wetter. Thanks; but move on.”

And then another cycle, and some Arab kid was leaning out his window. “You have to help,” he said with no accent. “That Beemer? There’s a little boy in there. He wrote HELP ME on the window. I think he’s been kidnapped.”

Jesus Shitbird. Three-quarters of an inch of rain and every driver in Atlanta turns into a crazy bitch. “Sir, you’re blocking traffic. Please move on.”

“No, you have to listen. That boy: you could tell. The driver? Saw me looking. That’s why he went through and splashed you. You have to help.”

Jazz gritted her teeth, made every muscle in her mouth make the smile. “Sir, you need to move on.”

“But–”

“Do you really want to antagonize me? Here and now? Move on.”

The guy shook with rage or frustration, but drove away, leaving his window open in the pouring rain.

And then when she’d finally got things moving again, her lapel mike crackled to life. And she heard Amber Alert. And the description of a little white boy. And then she was spinning in a slow circle, each arm outstretched with the palm held up so all the drivers could see the orange triangles stitched to her palms, and then she was gunning the bike, lights and sirens, up the hill and eastbound toward Moreland.

Ransoms Never Go Well (2)

Yesterday the news was all about Ayvani Hope Perez, who thank goodness was found safe and sound late in the day. But I wrote then that the whole thing seemed less random than it might appear, and I was right, but I had the wrong person:

Police said two armed men broke into Ayvani’s home early Tuesday and kidnapped her after asking her mother for money and jewelry.

Police said Rodriguez and Jackson are not the same men that were pictured in the sketches investigators released on Tuesday.

They said the men in the sketches are the ones that carried out the abduction, and they remain on the loose.

Um, okay. So they kidnapped the girl and turned her over to Rodriguez and Jackson? In exchange for what? And why? The story is very light on details, probably because the cops are going to track down the two abductors before they release anything further. It’s all speculation: were these guys just somehow stuck with Ayvani and decided that R and J were the two guys best suited to keep hold of her? And as I wrote yesterday, why abduct her in the first place? It’s a lot risk for a very mediocre reward.

The article begins to hint at an answer to the second question:

After digging into both men’s criminal background, Channel 2 Action News learned there was a connection between one of the men arrested and Ayvani’s mother, Maria Corral.

ICE agents confirmed to Channel 2 Action News that Rodriguez was arrested in December 2012 in Henry County under the name of Juan Aberto Contreras-Ramirez, and was charged with trafficking marijuana.

Channel 2’s Erica Byfield confirmed that Ayvani’s mother was also arrested in that same incident.

So Rodriguez and Corral knew each other well enough to get caught in the same house with 500 pounds of weed. And then these two as-yet-anonymous guys kidnap Corral’s daughter and turn her over to Rodriguez? So again, the question is why? Does Rodriguez want Ayvani as a sex toy? She was apparently unmolested. Does he want her as a bargaining chip in his and Corral’s weed business? The charges against both Rodriguez and Corral were dropped after the arrest but before the kidnapping.

So again, what the heck? Imagine Corral being in on it from the start; why does she want her own daughter kidnapped? Even as a professional fabulist, it’s hard to conceive of the level of depravity that would take.

Ransoms Never Go Well

Story of the week here in Atlanta is that of Ayvani Hope Perez, a suburban middle schooler who was kidnapped from her home by two gunmen doing a home invasion. Ayvani remains missing; today, the family says they received a ransom demand:

Suky Guerrero, an aunt of the victim, said Tuesday that family members were trying to get the money together to secure the release of Ayvani Hope Perez. Guerrero said she did not know where the family would get the money but she understood they were still waiting for it to be delivered late Tuesday…

Sources told Channel 2’s Tom Jones authorities were in contact with the suspects, but were limited on what details they wouldrelease.

“At this time, the investigation is fluid and I am not at liberty to discuss all the pertinent information about the investigation,” Richards said.

Okay, this seems like there’s something really wrong with it—something beyond desperadoes kidnapping a teenage girl, which is horrible enough. These guys do a home invasion, which is hugely risky but less so if done very quickly. They stick around long enough to decide to kidnap the daughter. Why? Other than sheer stupidity, I mean. Note that they didn’t wear masks, which supports the “stupidity” theory.

Now, not only have they kidnapped her, but they’re demanding a ransom; and a really, really cheap ransom at that. $10k? This is not real money. And ransom demands, as anyone who’s ever watched television knows, are inherently risky, because somebody has to show up to take the money. Surveillance technology is too good these days for these guys to get away with the money. So again, besides stupidity, what’s going on here?

Disclaimer: this is not in any way to slam Ayvani, who is after all fourteen. But this is a blog about crime *fiction*. I’m writing this story, she has to be involved in some way in what happened to her. These guys are young, as you can see from the sketch. Imagine now if she, wanting to impress older guys, somehow gives up that there’s jewelry in the house. These guys are just dumb enough to do a home invasion on someone they’re even tangentially connected to, and just smart enough to figure out that the girl can finger them. And just sentimental enough not to shoot her, which is the only way to keep her quiet.

So imagine the scene in the shitty apartment where they’re all hiding out. Ayvani is terrified because she’s the smartest (and most naïve) one in the room: she knows what they haven’t figured out yet, which is that her dead is the only path for these two to stay out of jail. The dumber of the two criminals is counting his share of ten whole thousand dollars. The smarter one is in touch with investigators, trying to figure out how to dance away from what happened when he thought he was going to go party with his friend and steal her mom’s jewelry.

In reality, of course, these are just two dumb, dumb young men who are going to end up dead or in a cage at the taxpayers’ expense.

 

Conspiracy is the Proof of Stupidity

Every story I read like this just confirms it:

Lee County[AL] investigators say the young wife of a Waverly man, her stepbrother and friend plotted to kill her husband then successfully carried out the crime this weekend.

Sunday afternoon inside home on Lee Road 649 in Waverly, 59-year-old Carl Dickinson was shot several times in the face, head and neck.

Investigators say well before the fatal shots were fired, Dickinson’s wife, Angela, had plotted with her step brother, Jake Barlett and a family friend Paul Phillips to kill her husband.

Never, ever conspire. There’s always a weak link: the cops are going to get your dumbest partner in a room and he’ll sing like a canary. You’re the wife, so you’re an obvious suspect, so the cops are going to troll your phone records, because if you’re dumb enough to conspire with your much younger ne’er-do-well stepbrother and the 45yo dumb enough to hang out with you both, you’re dumb enough to use your regular phone. And somebody sings.

I want to start writing fiction about the rules of murder, but don’t want to be perceived as actually writing a how-to book. As the obvious suspect, Angela has to not only destroy evidence, but also provide a persuasive alibi—and she made an epic fail at both.

But the article has one of the best kickers ever:

Investigators confirm she had very recently had a child with another man, but declined to say if her child’s father was somehow involved in the plot to kill her husband. They did say more arrests are possible.

Isolated Afternoon Thundershowers (2)

Second section. First one is here:

Reza’s finger shot out and hit preset number two: like he was going to want to hear NPR’s opinion on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. But 88 had rap music; preset number three gave him some kind of cornpone hipster bluegrass on WREK. Whatever; they’d play metal next, or maybe dubstep. Now the line was starting to move a little bit; the cop out there had a rhythm going.

He looked over at the sweet Beemer next to him, smiled at the sickly-looking kid in the front seat, inched up half a car length, switched it back over to 88. Still that fucking rap. Then Bam! A bolt of lightning blew the whole sky to shit. And it started coming down so hard the wipers were useless. He looked up to see a white chick on one of those fancy bikes that weighed about a pound slide down between the two rows of cars, all the way to the front, which would normally make him want to set the bitch on fire, but she was so soaked he almost felt sorry for her.

His eyes got drawn back to the Beemer, where the kid was waving at him. Reza smiled, nodded, then just as his head started to drift back, he did a doubletake, refocused. In the fog on the window the kid had written HELP. Well, it was backwards, and now that Reza looked closer, it was HLEP. But the look in the kid’s eyes was no joke.

As Reza’s mouth dropped open, the Beemer’s driver turned toward him; then the car double-clutched, popped into the opposite lane, blazed around and through, sheeting the cop with water as she blew her whistle at him, then gunned it up the hill, almost nailing the chick on the bike.

 

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