Tender Is the Bite is the 11th book in Spencer Quinn’s beloved Chet & Bernie Mystery series. After writing a series with that many books, he knows a thing or two about writing! Read on to hear Spencer’s writing tips for aspiring authors.
My mother, also a writer, taught me most of what I know about writing by the time I was eleven or so. Unlike kids out drilling on the tennis court or golf course – which, like writing, are also skills best learned young – I didn’t know it was happening at the time. The lessons were taught obliquely. And speaking of angles, that was one of the things she taught me: the power of the oblique. The power of the oblique angle comes from its subtlety – not just subtlety in the writing, but subtlety in the writer’s perceptions. Here’s an example from Tender Is The Bite, where Weatherly, a possible new love interest of Bernie’s (the detective in the A Chet and Bernie Mystery series), is talking to him, all described by Chet (a narrating dog but not a talking one!):
“Grammie says the two of them walked together, your great grandfather and my great grandmother.”
“Hiking?” said Bernie.
“Possibly that, too,” said Weatherly. “But Grammie’s an old-fashioned woman, very straitlaced and genteel.”
There was a long silence. A road runner popped up beside a bush and then popped back down.
“Oh,” Bernie said.
Oblique means not spelling things out, being almost anywhere except on the nose. There are only 53 words in the little passage above, but the reader – I hope to god! – gets a feel for all the characters, living and dead, human and not. Nobody spells anything out – well, except for the road runner, popping “up beside a bush.” Read into that what you will! And it’s in the very next line that Bernie gets what must have happened long ago – with the hint of what might happen now, several generations along.
It probably won’t surprise you that the core of my advice is to be as original as you can. Each one of us, in my belief, possesses some rare quality of mind or character. Use it! Get that on the page. That’s the road to some sort of artistic satisfaction. But it’s only fair to point out that it might be more practical – in a getting published sense – to ignore what I’m saying completely and simply try to imitate some bestselling writer, perhaps with a change or two, like setting the stories in Bolivia instead of Hollywood. You may end up with a comfortable career. Or you may end up as the writing equivalent of a cover band, playing jaded Stones hits in some dive.
My mother was a big believer in the power of dialogue. Have you ever noticed that there’s something unique in everyone’s speech? You can tell so much about a person by what they say, how they say it, the volume, rhythm, dynamics of their speech – so much like music, in a way. One thing to avoid in dialogue – although you see it all the time – is overt exposition that never happens in real life. “Well, hi Bob, haven’t seen you in ages, not since our divorce, as I recall. Remember how I had that affair with your cousin Marky, and how upset you got? Jeez! Did you know I actually didn’t end up with him? I’m marrying Maxie instead! Yes, your dad! So how’s things with you?”
Avoid the above! (Although it turned into a rather amusing example of dramatic irony, a la Browning’s My Last Duchess. But forget that part.) Here’s what I’m talking about, again from Tender Is The Bite. Olek, a mysterious Ukrainian operative of some sort, drops in for a visit, bringing vodka.:
“So then we have something in common, you and I,” Olek said. “And not only boxing. I, too, am former military man.”
“You’ve done research on me,” Bernie said.
“Homework and more homework,” said Olek. “’Train hard, fight easy’ – General Suvorov. I was army, like you. Saw fighting, like you – but maybe not so organized.”
“We sleep next to a five-hundred kilo gorilla.”
Olek nodded and took another drink, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “Yes, always the Russians. Sometimes we kill them, sometimes we kill with them.”
A dark look passed over Bernie’s face. “We did some of that, too,” he said.
“But not with the Russians,” said Olek. “And you yourselves are also a gorilla, maybe one thousand kilos. A nicer gorilla, sure thing, even friendly.” He refilled his glass, topped up Bernie’s. “To the friendly gorilla.”
Doesn’t Olek come into focus, just from how he talks? He even makes Bernie see things in a new light. Also the story is advanced, something you as the writer should be thinking of constantly.
And now for my last piece of advice. Find a strict taskmaster who’s interested in your career – if necessary, a taskmaster in your own head. My strict taskmaster is Pearl (pictured here on one of her many beach outings). She lounges on the couch behind me in the office while I write. I can feel her thinking, “Come on, Pete! Concentrate! One more paragraph! Make it sharp! You can do it!”
Order Tender Is the Bite—available on July 6, 2021!