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“The Nine Tailors,” Dorothy L. Sayers

I have now read all eleven of Dorothy L. Sayers’s mystery novels featuring her intrepid aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Despite The Nine Tailors often being called Sayers’s finest mystery novel, and the high recommendations of friends and family alike, I somehow saved Nine Tailors for last. I’ve even tried to read it before, but failed out multiple times, at least once because I had borrowed it from the library and it was due back before I finished. I figured, however, if I made it through The Five Red Herrings, which was nearly unreadable (and I say this as generously as possible; Sayers is one of my favorite novelists ever), than I could certainly manage to finish Nine Tailors.

Sayers is considered one of the four Queens of Crime of golden age British detective fiction, and that reputation is well deserved. Alongside Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh, Sayers crafted intricate plots with unusual methods of murder, lots of red herrings, and clues delivered in unexpected ways from unexpected characters. In Sayers’s capable hands, Lord Peter Wimsey offers wit and humor to boot, creating a series of breezy, intriguing, fast-paced novels.

Despite my previous failed attempts to read Nine Tailors, it is an excellent mystery novel, and I quite understand why people consider it the pinnacle of Sayers’s detective writing. Perfectly conforming to Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments” of mystery fiction, the plot builds methodically, with the reader learning all the clues at the same time as the detective and slowly getting a complete picture of the crime. While there are plenty of twists and turns, the primary suspects are introduced early, and there are no cheap switcheroos or deus ex machina to throw readers off. And even though I’ve read many detective novels and watched all the Northern Gothic BBC crime shows, I still didn’t see coming the final reveal of the murderer (which Sayers saves for the second to last page). The setting is also well developed, taking place (as a good British mystery should) in the English countryside, in a quaint village in the fenlands of East Anglia. The local characters are caricatures, of course, but they are charming in just the tea-and-roaring-fire-while-it’s-raining-outside way that they’re supposed to be.

While Nine Tailors is a supreme example of golden age detective fiction, I have to admit that Sayers’s Harriet Vane quartet are still my favorite novels of hers. The character development, complex romance, and exploration of social issues such as class privilege and women’s rights and education create a more fully rounded story that engages me beyond the mental games of a well-crafted murder mystery. Golden age detective novelists themselves made fun of the increasingly absurd methods of murder they came up with in the pursuit of unexpected plots, and in her essays Sayers described both the challenges and the freedom of using the detective novel to delve into some of the pressing social questions of her time.

Perhaps more than her other novels, Nine Tailors displays Sayers’s mastery of fiction writing and the mystery genre specifically. But having finished Nine Tailors, I’m actually just itchy to reread Gaudy Night, my favorite of her novels. Which I suppose is just a sign of how much I like her work in general.

“Everyday Life,” Coldplay

Somehow I missed the release of Coldplay’s eighth studio album in November. I remember seeing advertisements for the live stream of their concert in Jordan on YouTube, but I assumed they were playing from their backlist; after all, rumors surrounded A Head Full of Dreams that it would be their final album. I was living in Boston when they were touring for Head Full of Dreams, and sidewalk paint stencils with tour dates started popping up on my walk from my apartment to the university where I was working. In retrospect, I kicked myself many times for missing what I thought was my last chance to see them in concert.

So I was very excited when, scrolling through my Amazon Music app, I came across a new Coldplay album, Everyday Life. I started listening to Coldplay late, familiar with hits like “Viva La Vida” and “Yellow” but not actually listening to their albums until Mylo Xyloto (2011). I first heard it in Hawaii when visiting my Army brother; he picked us up at the airport with leis, takeout sushi, and homemade cookies, blasting “Hurts Like Heaven” as we drove away from the airport to pick up the H-2 to the North Shore. Needless to say, Mylo Xyloto makes me smile every time.

I missed early Coldplay and ate up their later albums (including Ghost Stories and Head Full of Dreams), all in for their descendent into synth pop and the increasing spiritual bent to their lyrics, samples, and album structure. So I was surprised when I went back through their earlier music and read the reviews, most of which agreed that Coldplay hit their peak with A Rush of Blood to the Head and Viva La Vida. The critics faulted Coldplay’s later albums for playing it too safe, for not experimenting enough—or as I cynically quipped to a friend, “I guess they’re upset that Coldplay sounds too much like Coldplay.”

Everyday Life definitely sounds like Coldplay, whether you’re listening to up-tempo pop anthems like “Orphans” or moodier ballads like “Daddy.” Chris Martin delivers plenty of woo-hoos and lyrics striking that esoteric balance between profound and nonsensical. Flowing naturally from Head Full of Dreams tracks like “Kaleidoscope,” plenty of interludes featuring voices in foreign languages deliver statements on the nature of God and the human condition.

But Everyday Life does bring new things to Coldplay’s oeuvre. Tracks like “Guns” and “Trouble in Town” feature explicit language for the first time, an offensiveness commensurate with the disturbing social issues like racial profiling that the band faces head-on. Martin delivers some lyrics in French, and tracks bear titles in Yoruba and Persian. The album offers a more clear-eyed look at the world today, yet retains Coldplay’s now trademark hope and optimism.

And if I’m honest, I think that’s what I appreciate most about Everyday Life. Throughout the album, they tell stories of injustice, exploitation, loss of faith, and loneliness, inviting listeners to sit with the discomfort and pain. But in sharing this reality, “Everyday Life,” the concluding track, reminds us that we are not alone—that we are, in fact, united. And therein lies the power of storytelling, and the hope that Coldplay seems unwilling to give up.

COVID-19

As a storyteller, I’m constantly telling myself stories about the things I see and hear around me. I’m always eavesdropping, always wondering what that person across the street is thinking or who lives in that strange house on the corner, always storing up sensations because who knows when I’ll need to describe that later in a novel.

Multiple friends have commented to me how surreal the pandemic responses to the coronavirus have felt these past few days. In Michigan, we’ve canceled all public schools for weeks, we’ve closed all bars and restaurants for dine-in, the CDC has recommended no meetings of ten or more people, and I just heard California is on lockdown for everything but food and medication. A coworker who is probably in her fifties was leaving work at the same time as me this evening, and she told me, “I don’t ever remember anything like this.” We’re all on high alert, all paying a little more attention that we usually do.

I’ve even written an alternate history novel about a pandemic zombie bacteria that breaks out in the last days of World War II, so I’ve tried to put myself in similar shoes before, imagining how it must feel to wonder if everyone around you is carrying a dangerous disease, if basic social spaces like restaurants and hospitals no longer worked the way they have my whole life.

So it’s not surprising that I’ve been hoarding up reactions and feelings and stray remarks during this outbreak. How strangely mundane my workdays have felt even while I’m checking the interactive COVID map from Johns Hopkins multiple times every day to see how many people have recovered and how many have died. How I feel like something as everyday as eating dinner with my family should feel more significant or momentous than it is. How I feel like I’ve stepped into a dystopian movie when I’m at the antique mall and several times in an hour the radio is interrupted by a public service announcement about social distancing and handwashing.

I’ve also been curious about how our cultural narratives about crisis and pandemic have affected our real responses to a health crisis of this proportion. When people first started buying out milk and toilet paper from grocery stores in Michigan, my mind immediately went to fictional scenarios like The Walking Dead or Arrival. My assumption that of course I’m still going to see my significant other and my family even during this time of social distancing reminds me of movies like Perfect Sense. It’s become a psychological commonplace that the films and shows we watch affect our “scripts” about how relationships should work, and I wonder how much our concept of what to do in a pandemic has been informed by what we’ve read and seen.

Who knows if all our fictional imagining about disaster and panic has positively or negatively prepared us to weather out a real pandemic. I suppose time will tell. In the meanwhile, I have all of these plot-seeds for short stories about old friends meeting in evacuated restaurants and bored high schoolers walking through abandoned grocery stores percolating in my brain.

Jumpstart 2020

This weekend I was lucky enough to get to Grand Rapids Ballet’s 2020 Jumpstart program. Formerly known as MoveMedia, Jumpstart is an initiative that gives company dancers the opportunity to choreograph and debut their own work. I attended last year, and it was one of my favorite shows of their 2018-2019 season. 

Most of the works are shorter—this year they crammed ten pieces into their show—and with so many choreographers at work, there was a huge range of style, emotion, storytelling, and technique. In two hours, we spanned everything from classical steps set to Saint-Saëns to modern dance overlaying post-rock and industrial neoclassical, from ensemble choreography to duets, from high-production pieces with screens and silhouettes and curtains to stripped-back solos with the whole stage lit. Some of the dances came with extensive notes on the theme and purpose of the piece while others had none. The ballet company also collaborated with DisArt, a local organization committed to raising the participation of disabled people in the arts, so one of the dances included no music at all and explored interview narratives of individuals who have experienced PTSD, limb loss, and ADHD.

While contemporary dance is often an abstract art form and I work in genre fiction, typically with a realist or magical-realist bent, I still walk away from dance performances feeling like I have a better, broader understanding of creative processes and storytelling. I work with words, mental images, actions, dialogue, metaphor, foreshadowing, plot, three-act story structure—but I enjoy watching and studying the mechanics of storytelling that uses movement, music, tempo, equilibrium, balance, bodily interaction, lighting, contrast, facial expressions, surprise, and unison/harmony to convey its meaning. The media and experience are vastly different between a ballet and a book, but I often find that emotion, pacing, narrative arc, characterization, and suspense are achieved through techniques that are parallel in both art forms.

My favorite piece was the duet “Such as You,” choreographed by Matthew Wenckowski and set to a gentle ambient track by Brambles (“Such Owls as You”). The lighting was low, set toward the front of the stage, allowing the two dancers either to melt back into the shadows or move forward toward greater visibility. They mostly danced close together, emphasizing hand and arm movements, sometimes synchronized in unison and other times dancing in harmonized forms. The choreography clearly carried a story, although I couldn’t decide on the relationship between the two dancers. The back-and-forth was intimate but not necessarily romantic, at times tender and at other times violent. I sometimes struggle against abstract pieces, wanting to make a concrete meaning out of them. (Worse, the choreographer teased during the talkbacks that the dance was based on a story, but he wasn’t going to tell us what it was.) But even if I couldn’t “pin down” the piece, the emotion and movement of the dance were simply beautiful. 

I’m already hoping that I’m able to make it to GRB’s 2021 Jumpstart program.

The Publishing Mystique

This weekend I finally followed up with the agencies who have asked to see the full manuscript of my WWII zombie novel.

I had been dragging my feet, unsure of whether I would be breaking protocol to email agents at this stage. I’m not an agent or acquisitions editor, but I sit on the acquisitions committee at the publishing house where I work, and I know exactly what it feels like to have unsolicited manuscripts sitting in my inbox that I haven’t gotten to yet. I may even be excited about the projects, I just have other tasks on my to-do list that take priority.

As I should have guessed, I needn’t have put off writing a few brief follow-up emails. A quick search of reputable publishing blogs confirmed that it’s perfectly normal to send follow-up emails after agents have requested materials (provided, of course, that you’ve waited at least as long as their typical response time listed on their website). One article even suggested following up regularly, say every month or so after the first follow-up email.

Sorting through why I was procrastinating on these potentially very exciting leads, I realized again that I’m afraid of rejection. Reminding them that I’m waiting for a response could (so I told myself) trigger them to review the materials and subsequently reject my manuscript. Still being in the running feels better than not being in the running, and even the possibility of failure can feel defeating sometimes.

The other reason I was procrastinating, though, was the mystique that seems to shroud the whole publishing industry. In few other sectors would I wonder whether it was okay or not okay to send a follow-up email to someone who was considering me as a future business partner. I wouldn’t be asking Google if it was okay to follow up with, say, my real-estate agent or financial adviser. And as one blogger pointed out, I wouldn’t want to work anyway with an agent who wrote back a nastygram to a brief, polite follow-up email.

The thing that struck me is that I work in the publishing industry—I correspond with agents on the other side of the desk as an editor for my day-to-day work—and I feel this uninformed and insecure about the publishing process. I’ve wanted to be a published author since my teen years, I’ve read many books on writing and getting published, and I feel paralyzed by writing a three-sentence email to a person who has already expressed interest in my work.

To be fair to myself, I’ve never been in this exact spot before. I’ve tried to sell novel manuscripts before, but I’ve never had a full manuscript out with multiple agencies before. And as an editor, I’ve never had reason to ask an agent what their process is when they’re reviewing a manuscript under consideration with other agencies.

And yet the feeling remains that I should know exactly what to do at this stage—that if I were inside the magic publishing circle, I would know the right things to say and do to get my work published in a quick, successful manner. For better or worse, though, it seems like there aren’t any magic formulas in publishing. I wish I would remember that more often than I do. 

The Hedgehog

I was visiting my brother in West New York over the weekend, and before I left Michigan he called to make sure I brought some of our favorite movies that we’ve watched together many times before. Among the stack I brought were Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things and the 1982 made-for-TV Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour. But what we actually ended up watching was Clueless and Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog.

The Hedgehog is one of those rare Netflix finds I stumbled on one night when I just wanted something to watch. In stereotypically French fashion, eleven-year-old Paloma Josse has decided to commit suicide on her twelfth birthday, but only after she has completed a scathing documentary film about how meaningless life is. There are an unnecessary number of cats in the film, an intriguing Japanese man who cooks ramen and watches old black-and-white movies, and philosophical tangents about death as the goal of the game of chess. In other words, it’s totally my sort of movie.

I hadn’t watched The Hedgehog for several years; in the interim I have studied some French, come more to terms with my own existential pessimism, and gained some retrospective distance on my childhood. What immediately struck me on rewatching The Hedgehog was that the questions it asks about privilege, despair, growing up, creativity, and love are questions I have also asked for many, many years, so I better understand now why I resonated so strongly with the film when I first encountered it.

What also struck me was the meticulous construction and economy of the film. Important scenes or images are carefully foreshadowed in ways I had never noticed before. Early in the film, in an apparently throw-away shot, one of the characters cuts a piece of her hair—but later when she gets a haircut, it’s a significant turning point for the character’s growth. Another example is that there is a secret room in one character’s apartment, and shots of the door and references to the contents of the room (a library) are slowly introduced to the viewers before we finally are allowed to enter the room. My brother (who is a musician) pointed out that the development of the main theme changes over the course of the film and responds directly to the blossoming of the characters’ friendships.

The Hedgehog isn’t only existential and intellectual, however, and that too is part of what I love about it. The side characters are often funny (if in a darkly humorous way), and while the film’s outlook engages gently and empathetically with Paloma’s adolescent fears and ambition, the film’s construction is also self-conscious of the melodrama of Paloma’s actions. Somehow the movie walks that fine line between taking itself seriously but not taking itself too seriously, all supported by technical, careful writing and production. That it is a film about living well in connected, loving relationships only makes me like it more. 

There’s a lot of good story-craft for me to still pick up from The Hedgehog, and I hope I keep rewatching it for years to come.

Characters Vis-a-Vis Characters

Lately I’ve been working on scenes that introduce a new character in my manuscript. Other characters have talked about her since the beginning of the book—she’s the mom of one of the main three characters—but she doesn’t actually show up until about page 250 of a 450-page manuscript.

By some happy accident, the first three scenes she appears in are one-on-one conversations with other major characters. She talks with her son on his return home from a long trip, then with her employer (who is one of the major antagonists), and finally with the book’s heroine. They are all very different conversations: they vary in her familiarity with each character, her comfort level, her intentionality, her role. What she wants from each conversation is also very different, and how she goes about achieving that objective depends on how in control she feels in the situation. She is much more direct with her son, much more submissive and manipulative with her employer. She is also manipulative with the heroine, but in a more active, pressuring way.

I didn’t mean to use her relationships with the other characters in the story to help readers get a sense for who she is, but in retrospect, editing through the conversations, it’s effective. This is, of course, unsurprising: in real life, how we interact with our friends, family, coworkers, significant others, or children says a whole lot about who we are. And typically we treat different people in our lives differently—at least, hopefully we treat our friends differently than, say, our children—and how we decide to treat people differently says something about us too. Even (or maybe especially) the way we treat strangers like restaurant servers or the people in line ahead of us at the grocery store is telling information for the other people in our lives.

For better or worse, the ways we interact differently with the different people in our lives are often subconscious and subtle, which can make it hard to observe and even harder to translate into the actions and speech of fictional characters. Despite my best attempts at psychological realism, too often I find my characters acting the same way in all scenes and in all circumstances, which doesn’t come across as character “consistency” but instead as wooden characterization. Or worse, all my characters talk and act the same as each other, complete with the same motivations and dialogue patterns. When my idealism gets the better of me, all my characters start behaving how I think people ought to behave, instead of how people actually respond in real-life situations.

When I’m trying to outline a satisfying three-act plot, it also isn’t necessarily possible to string together scenes that best highlight the characters’ different personalities by playing them off of each other. But having edited these few scenes with this one character, I would like to be more conscious of when and how I can use the dynamics between characters to really bring out the details of each character’s desires, motivations, and values.

Stitching

I think I’m starting to better understand why editing a novel can feel so amorphous and overwhelming to me.

When I’m drafting, I write straight through the narrative. I start at page one and simply add on my word count, building scene by scene consecutively. It’s not all perfect, and I know I’ll have to rearrange the scenes later, change the characters, or cut or add entire conversations. But as long as I stick to it and keep writing in one direction, eventually I have a full manuscript.

Editing, I’m realizing, is actually a bunch of distinct writing processes housed under the same label. In one “editing” session, I may breeze through whole paragraphs that are already pretty much how I want them, lightly touching up the sentences to help them read better. But I may also have to stop and pull apart a few paragraphs, deleting plot points or foreshadowing that no longer make sense with the revised manuscript. Or maybe I need to add a whole new scene, or delete repetition between multiple scenes, or thread in a character who appeared late in the first draft but needs to be integrated throughout the whole manuscript. Somehow these are all “editing,” but they can demand very different questions and decisions: How do I make this prose stronger and clearer? Or, what can I delete from this scene without compromising the characterization or necessary plot beats? Or, where and when and how strongly should I foreshadow this new late-stage plot twist in the first act of the book?

Where I’m editing in my current manuscript, I find myself stitching together a number of descriptions, facts, and snippets of dialogue that are all essential for the book, but they didn’t land in the right order the first time around. They’re all jumbled, and I’m trying to put them together in a way that’s both cohesive and satisfying. Basically I’m building connective tissue, figuring out how to get from one bit of dialogue to the next bit of characterization in a way that makes narrative sense but doesn’t slow down readers too much. I find myself juggling the need for realism—or at least a novelistic illusion of “realism” in the characters’ motivations, actions, and words—with a desire to communicate the plot and character beats in a fast-moving, engaging way.

This “stitching” together takes a different part of my brain than adding or deleting scenes, or copyediting sentences, or differentiating characters’ desires and values and voices from one another. The main questions I’m asking when I’m stitching together material are different: How would a conversation naturally move from topic X to topic Y, both of which need to be covered in this scene? How much description do I have to give of the place or happenings surrounding plot point Z to not make the scene feel rushed or thin for readers? Do I want this line of internal dialogue first or that one?

Editing seems messier than my usual drafting process. But I guess the good news is that even when I’m switching between a number of different kinds of editing experiences, when I put in the time on my manuscript, I still slowly but consistently make forward progress.

Hamilton

I was lucky enough to see Broadway Grand Rapids’s production of Hamilton last week. Since 2015, it’s been hard not to hear about Hamilton, from friends who loved it, in books that quote it, online in articles, even from the pulpit in sermon illustrations.

I intentionally went in as blind as I could, not listening to the music beforehand or looking up reviews, but of course I still couldn’t completely check at the door the expectations that I was walking into something amazing. Especially during the first few numbers, I could feel myself self-consciously setting expectations: This is just a show. A show tons of people love, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be five million times better than Wicked or Book of Mormon.

That said, Hamilton *is* amazing. The costumes, staging, and choreography are beautiful, and as a retelling of America’s founding myth with a focus on immigration, racial justice, and who gets to write history, I quickly understood why American audiences lose their minds over Hamilton. Paired with the heavy influences of hip-hop and R&B and the intentional anachronisms in the lyrics (see: congressional debates as rap battles. If only we lived in a world where Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer worked out their disputes through spoken word), the show helps make the story of America’s founding feel relatable and relevant, and it asks pointed questions about what America was supposed to be, and what we should try to make out of America in the twenty-first century.

In terms of storytelling, what stood out most to me was the deft juggling of different story lines and the snappy pacing between each plotline. The musical weaves together the political concerns of Revolutionary America with the horrors of war as well as Hamilton’s personal life, which included a mass of career ambition, complicated family relations and scandal, and traumatic grief. Most of the songs focused sharply on one particular moment, emotion, or concern (say the Seige of Yorktown, or Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler’s courtship, or the loss of their son), but the show moves briskly enough from song to song (and plotline to plotline) to keep the whole thing moving forward, and the interconnections between all the different aspects of Hamilton’s life are drawn out enough to make it cohesive.

In terms of writing, I was also struck by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s use of rhyme and repetition. He “rhymes” a lot of words with the exact same word—sometimes three or four times in a row. This was historically considered a no-no in British poetry (the poetry I studied most closely in school), and I typically discourage fiction writers I edit from repeating words too often in their prose. But Miranda uses repetition to create patterns, contrasts between characters, and emotional themes that resonate throughout the show. I’m not sure how one would “translate” the effects Miranda creates with repetition in prose fiction, but there’s clearly a lot about pacing and rhythm that I can learn from his work.

Of course Hamilton isn’t without flaws. Perhaps most frustrating to me was that, despite Angelica’s early declaration of equality between women and men in the number “The Schuyler Sisters,” the female characters in the show are repeatedly relegated to the domestic sphere, their lives subsumed to the men they love, their greatest accomplishments limited to the advancement of their husbands’ careers and legacies. Hamilton doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, unfortunately. However, that doesn’t mean that the storytelling, staging, and music aren’t fantastic. I will be listening to the soundtrack and mulling over the characters and questions Hamilton asks about politics, privilege, and responsibility for a long time to come.

 

 

Drafting and Editing

I’m writing a new scene in the middle of the manuscript I’m editing.

The scene was in the original outline, and when I was working on the first draft, I knew the scene would need to be written. But in the thick of the first draft, I wasn’t sure how significant to make the scene, how much detail to go into, or whether I would be repeating character beats or plot that readers would get from the surrounding scenes.

So I helpfully left a note in yellow highlighter in the draft marking where the scene should appear: “3) Dom: dinner, watches Mads watching Marin and Anaithe.”

I have a hard time switching between editing and drafting, however. They are very different mental processes for me, and getting my head out of one space and into the other takes time. When I’m editing, I’m working with an existing scene. I’m trying to improve it. I’m taking out unnecessary words, streamlining the dialogue to make it more natural sounding, adding content to show more clearly character emotions or motivations. Editing is a critical activity, but I have some distance from the text because the scene I’m working on is typically something I originally wrote months ago.

Drafting is a different practice altogether. I’m sitting there with a blank page trying to pull something into existence. I probably have an outline and specific goals for the scene—I need a character to make a discovery, or decide on something important, or communicate something to another character—but I don’t know exactly what actions or dialogue will get my character to the plot point I need. I have to allow myself the mental space to be messy and to figure things out by trying. Maybe the scene will go somewhere I wasn’t expecting, and that’s fine too so long as I keep writing, the characters are acting within their personalities, and the main point of the scene is accomplished.

Switching to drafting when I’m in an editing state of mind is especially hard because that probably means I’m drafting a new scene in the middle of a preexisting manuscript. I’ve just been polishing the previous scenes, pruning out what wasn’t working and sharpening what remains. So I’m expecting the writing to be good, or at least better than it was. Getting myself to then loosen up and write messy for drafting, just to get words on the page, feels wrong. I’m also able to work through more words when I’m editing than when I’m drafting, so drafting also feels painfully slow. I feel like I’m falling behind where I “could have been” in my editing if I hadn’t stopped to add a new scene.

But at the end of the day, there’s important character work to do in this scene I’m adding, and with the rest of the manuscript in place, I do have a much better idea of how long and detailed to make the scene. And no, I don’t love every sentence of the new scene, and I feel like it sticks out from the surrounding scenes because I know it’s not “original.” But slowly it’s coming together, and that’s what editing’s for anyway.

I’ll just have to come back later and smooth it all out.