Writing Tics: Finding the Whys / Danny Gardner


My debut novel, A Negro and an Ofay, has, by my last count, been finished seven times. First was when it was accepted by a publisher that unfortunately closed shop. Luckily I found a wonderful agent in Liz Kracht, of Kimberly Cameron and Associates, who took it on with verve. Her notes helped me shape it into a work worthy of submission. Query feedback was very positive. We were getting close to a deal, which lent the perception I was done. Then I believed I was done again. And again. Eventually, it found a new home with Down & Out Books, where publisher Eric Campbell and associate editor Lance Wright put my manuscript through the paces.

My work in this book encapsulates themes of race and class as it relates to crime. I address police corruption, brutality and criminal justice from the perspective of a bi-racial protagonist in 1952 Chicago. I often play upon the unacknowledged fascination our society has with race to make strong points. In many instances, I gleefully court controversy. Although more than a few editors appreciated my tone, their constructive criticism advised me to expect reasonable compromises down the line. I crossed my fingers and said a little prayer for the darlings I feared I’d have to take out back and shoot. Once I received my manuscript back from Eric, I had my work cut out for me. Happily, I got the all-clear on the story. No compromises would be necessary.

What it needed was another edit, because my writing was riddled with more tics than if it spent a summer camping in Yosemite.

I had come to long-form writing from entertainment, mainly as a stand-up comedian, occasionally as an actor, screenwriter and filmmaker. The tendencies I developed over my career added some nuance and even a bit of polish to my book. Feedback indicated strong pacing, characterization, and dialogue. More than a few readers remarked how each chapter felt like an episode of a television series. Unfortunately, even I could tell my novel was rife with imperfection borne of years of hearing myself talk. It wasn’t enough to know the what. To make it the best it could be, I had to understand the whys.

Screenwriting Tics: The very fortunate — or powerful — can direct their own screenplays. All others must take a story written by someone else from the page to the stage. You may be shocked to learn that Hollywood doesn’t regard screenwriters as indispensable. Once the script is approved, no one wants us around to gum up the works. In kind, screenwriters don’t trust executives and producers not to whittle away at what we’ve worked hard to create. We expect film directors to misunderstand everything. Editors abuse us. When we write screenplays, we try to think like the person who is most likely to go against us. That’s no point of view from which to proceed writing a novel, where the reader is on the writer’s side. They don’t need everything spelled out the way a line producer does. Brevity and simplicity help them attenuate to the author’s intentions. Novels require focus. Too many details take the reader out of the story. I needed to trim some unnecessary fat.

Comedy Tics: The attention span of the average comedy audience varies. A theatergoer enjoying a revival of Oscar Wilde has a different attention span than the teenager who loves shows on Adult Swim. There are some hard and fast rules about presentation in comedy, from the threes on up to Ars Et Celare Artem, but while these all work in an audio-visual medium, they don’t necessarily translate to narrative fiction, where bits can be confusing, or even distracting. If something is supposed to be funny in a novel, it will happen in the imagination of the reader. This is entirely different than, say, sketch comedy, where things can go off the rails to horrible effect. There’s no bombing on the e-reader like there is on stage at the Laugh Factory. I could relax and just write my story.

Performance Tics: Dialogue should sound like actual conversations. Narration, however, should provide contrast that gives dialogue depth. Often, and in key moments in the work, my narration came off as conversational. Sometimes it was an enhancement, especially those instances where I wanted the reader to feel what it was like to be black. In other moments, it obscured what I wanted to convey. To fix this, it helped me to think of my narrator as the straight man. In improv, we call it Advancing. Sometimes the narration needed to keep things moving right along, no matter the opportunity for elaboration. Where my narration was Commenting, which is another improv term, meaning it was self-referential, I used dialogue to make things unfold, although it went beyond “show, don’t tell.” It was more, “Don’t tell or show. Let them get it on their own.”

Cultural Tics: I speak a few different languages: American English, current black American vernacular, and Chicagoese, that beautifully rich dialect that most people outside of the Midwest can’t easily understand. Eric pointed out my repetitive use of the words who, then, since, with, and & was. A lot of folks have read this book and no one mentioned a thing. Then I realized most of my beta readers were from backgrounds like my own. Eric is from Florida. He hadn’t been conditioned to hear the same semiotics. He took my word usage as repetitive, and sometimes it had been. Other times, they’re more like fuggedaboutit; same sound, myriad meanings. Like my ticks of performance, I was writing what sounded right in my head. The tone was right in my mind, but not on the page. I approached the edit as if I was writing for the reader most unlike me. I found it didn’t change much in the way of my plot and structure, but it made room for me to expand my work. Eliminating shortcuts saved me word count.

After two more edits, I managed to deliver to Down & Out a manuscript finally ready for print. In doing so, I’ve prepared myself for the writing journey ahead. It’s up to others to decide if the book is good. At least I can feel I’m not limiting myself with habits that are incompatible with the work I’m doing. Once I took the time to discover why I had them, I found my tendencies are attributes. That gives me a lot more confidence I can pull off another book after this one.

Danny Gardner’s work has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Out of the Gutter, and Literary Orphans Journal. His first novel, A Negro And An Ofay, will be published May 2017 by Down & Out Books. His short fiction will be featured in Just to Watch Him Die, a Johnny Cash-inspired anthology, published by Gutter Books. He is a member of the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, as well as the International Thriller Writers. He lives in Los Angeles by way of Chicago.

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Thanks to Tom Wood, Arthur Jackson, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog.

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