Sean Doolittle

Books about writing? I’ve got a shelf full. I keep picking up new ones. What else is there to say, to think? To inspire? I should know the answer is “nothing, really.” Then I went to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference last September and writer Jeanne Stein mentioned this book I’d never heard about. She swore by it.  Douglas McSwain: Techniques of the Selling Writer.  Of course, I went out and ordered a used copy on Amazon. Immediately. Of course, I figured, the answer would be in there. The answer. Some clue, some juicy morsel.

Wrong. Not one. It’s full of them. It’s the best writing book I’ve read. So there. This is my bible. Until I find the next. “Techniques of the Selling Writer” is corny in spots, old fashioned in others. It doesn’t exactly aim for Richard Ford country, say, or Philip Roth or Charles Dickens. But it’s full of clear-headed ideas about structure and tension and plot.  And in one spot he writes:

“Desire, you’ll recall, is the ground-swell from which all danger springs. It precedes peril. For what trouble can you give a focal character who doesn’t care what happens to him? Implicitly, desire to live must exist before there can be a fear of death.”

I thought of that passage as I was reading Sean Doolittle’s “Safer.”

Why? Because the structure is familiar – ordinary guy in ordinary situation faced with extraordinary problem. It’s very Hitchcockian, right down to the neighborhood spying (like “Rear Window.”)  But desire is the bedrock of “Safer.” It’s everywhere. I won’t give too much away.

The main character his share of faults but you grow to sympathize with him as he works to untangle a web of lies and covered-up crimes. If you have a sour relationship with a neighbor, I highly recommend this book, which comes out officially in about a month (I had an advance copy).  Anyway, watch for it.

You may never consider buying property on a cul-de-sac after reading “Safer.” Cul-de-sacs might have been developed to slow traffic and generate residential peace and quiet, but the tension in “Safer” suggests they are an incubator for suspicion and crime.

The strength of “Safer” lies in the sure-handed voice of the narrator, Paul Callaway. The writing crackles. It’s not over-the-top, it’s grounded. The narrator is a college English professor in a bristling, difficult relationship with one particularly strange neighbor. The English professor is no prince. He digs his own holes. But, as a reader, I trusted what was being relayed because of his solid voice. I loved this passage deep into the book, when the first-person narrator essentially turns to the camera:

“Class, do you see what I’m doing here?

Observe these techniques:

I begin with a brief anecdote about my father. As far as anyone knows, the anecdote might not even be true. But I’ve salted it with believable, blue-collar detail, and there’s probably no way to judge its authenticity for sure.

It doesn’t really matter what my father actually said or didn’t say. My intent is to establish tone and perspective. My own reliability as narrator. The tone is meant to be down-to-earth; the perspective is meant to be that of regular Joe. The kind of Joe with thinks of his father’s advice. Did you notice that I named my father Joe?”

“Safer” has a memorable style.

Sprinkled here and there with references to William Faulkner and Raymond Carver, the writing is smart, witty and fresh. I felt completely drawn into the story-again, based on the strength of the main character.

But the tension builds and the ending stirs up a rich brew of trouble and well-motivated bad guys. It comes back to desire.

McSwain would be proud.


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