Mining Transatlantic Gold - by Reb MacRath
The trouble with most academics is that they're all subtext in bed: they'd rather read between the lines than ride between the sheets. But we in EbookLandia are lucky to have nobler woes on our minds:
1) The word as art is dying fast. All books will be written by experts one day, published by experts at making them read as if they'd been expertly written.
2) Nothing brings out the ax murderer in an agent's heart more quickly than an original talent.
We come here for the freedom to practice our art without having to bow to the Combine. But survival here too can be bloody as hell. And those most likely to succeed are those who somehow learn to mine Transatlantic Gold. The gold is so rich that a handful of nuggets can help gild our odds on both sides of The Pond. Three wildly different writers show the way to the Yellow Brick Road:
John A. A. Logan. The Survival of Thomas Ford. Scottish. Literary thriller.
Roz Morris. My Memories of a Future Life. British. Literary mind and genre-bender.
Claude Bouchard. Vigilante. French Canadian. Commercial thriller.
TRANSATLANTIC NUGGET #1: Put us there...but not too there.
I'd never been to Scotland until I read Thomas Ford. But the book transported me. The Highlands setting is as vivid as the Welsh countryside in Straw Dogs or Millbrook, Indiana in A History of Violence. John Logan's details are sparse but impeccably chosen, setting his tale of revenge and redemption against a mythic backdrop. The story's his real business, though—and this Scot doesn't squander a narrative cent on meandering, long guided tours.
Roz Morris does an exquisite job of bringing London and its environs to life—from Whitechapel to the tonier parts...and on to a little town that brought to mind The Prisoner. In her carefully orchestrated score of story, theme and character, the details of place are sweet grace notes: flames stirring in agitated vibration as a train streaks through Clapham Junction...two facing rows of 1930s Tudor-looking houses...the Friday night hordes advancing into London Bridge Station...
Claude Bouchard knocks the jinx of Canadian settings out cold. His Montreal emerges as prime thriller real estate for the first time since Trevanian's The Main. But Bouchard keeps his focus on story as well, grounding us expertly and moving on: CSS headquarters on Viau, overlooking Mainsonneuve Park...a view of the St.-Lawrence River to the south and the Olympic installations across the way...
TRANSATLANTIC NUGGET #2: Choose to talk the talk...or not.
Logan faced another hurdle to his commercial prospects: rendering Scottish dialect in an easily readable way. For rrrrrude, rrrrrrowdy, rrrrrrugged Scots are often—please forgive me—a wee bit hard to follow. His strategy is at once clever and cool: he blends an occasional “Aye” with a short Scottish construction—e.g., “You're no going”—then lets our ears fill in the rest.
Morris uses British slang judiciously but with obvious delight. When context doesn't clue us in, the pop-up dictionary does. I'm willing to work for such treasures as 'Plod'. Not 'The Plod' or 'Plodders' –no, simply 'Plod' for cops. No less delightful were: 'piffersnickety' and 'gandergaff'. (Just kidding on those last two. But Roz has plenty more—which help put us there without slowing us down.)
Bouchard flips the bird at the tradition of peppering English with 'Oui' and 'Merci' to remind us we're in a French setting—or, in this case, bilingual. Though Vigilante is Frenchless, we never forget where we are. (In later books smidgens of French do appear. Just enough, though, to give us the flavor: “I’m sorry, I don’t speak French,” he replied coolly, rising cautiously to his feet. “Crisse d’anglais,” his separatist captor swore. “You’re at the wrong place,” he continued in French...)
TRANSLATLANTIC NUGGET #3: Remember dear old Rudolph Flesch!
Flesch wrote a once-popular book called The Art of Readable Writing. If you Google him you'll find a summary of his work, plus some frightening formulas for measuring simplicity. But here is the gist in a nutshell:
The clearest simple sentence length is thirty syllables or less. And: the more one or two syllable words, the simpler to read.
Logan: “When Lorna woke, the room was in full black darkness. She remembered that Jimmy was there before she heard his breathing or felt his skin against her side. She blinked, then somehow knew beyond doubt that Jimmy was awake. It was as though his mind was sending out some faint, buzzing, restless signal. And the next thing she knew was that Jimmy was sensing her wakefulness too. It frightened her, the speed of these unspoken transmissions that could pass between them, especially after sex.” Six sentences with syllable lengths of 12, 23, 15, 18, 18, 27. 84 words with only 5 words of more than 2 syllables.
Morris: “If I'd had a hectic day before I sat down to practise, I didn't start with scales or arpeggios. I played my current piece, slow as treacle. The enemy of good playing is hurrying. If you take your time, you feel how one note wants to move into the next. You understand the function and organisation of the rhythm. Then you bring it up to speed and every note is perfectly placed. If I started my practice like that, I was relaxed immediately. Sit down, slow down, and you're in the zone.” Eight sentences with syllable lengths of 26, 6, 12, 17, 17, 16, 18, 9. 92 words with 9 words of more than 2 syllables.
Bouchard: “He pulled on some black Levi's and a dark t-shirt, slipped into his black Reeboks and laced them securely. Leaving the bedroom, he descended to the main floor, headed for the foyer closet and retrieved his black leather jacket. No studs or chains, just black leather. He slipped into the coat and donned a black baseball cap. Dark, reflective aviator glasses completed the ensemble. Examining his image in the mirrored doors of the closet, he flashed himself a grin and murmured, 'Perfect, as usual.'” 6 sentences with syllable lengths of 20, 30, 8, 13, 17, 31. 84 words with 7 words of more than 2 syllables.
I'll sign off now. I apologize for opening with three epigrams that had nothing to do with the subject. But I can't resist an eppie. Never could and never will. Besides, none of us wants to be blameless. We'd all rather be praised for repenting of the sins we've already enjoyed. And I had a hell of a time here, with hopes that you did also.
About Reb MacRath. I began as a freelance reviewer and journalist in Canada, where I lived for nearly a decade. Then, back home, I spent two years writing a nonfiction book about my years in exile as a man without a country. No agent would touch it. No problem. I declared war formally and transformed The Green Card into a tale called The Suiting. Same theme, same Canadian setting, but with a horror angle and a pen name: Kelley Wilde. Sold. Two-book contract. Film option. International award. Another two-book contract. After the fourth book, however, my career—Oh God, no! EEEEEEEK!--went right down the tubes. For the next twenty years I kept writing...and sending out queries to agents disgusted by my refusal to die. But then...One day like any other day, two wondrous things happened in tandem. I stopped thinking about ebooks as admissions of defeat—and saw them as positive choices. And I saw the books I'd written through the years as inventory. Long live the indie spirit. And thank you for letting me join you.
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