Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Making a Decision

A friend on Facebook is struggling with identity. Is this writer “a gay author” or “an author who happens to be gay?” There’s a world of difference in terms of context, audience, marketing, and on and on.

For this writer, there’s no right or wrong answer. But a decision needs to be made.

Similarly, when someone in my critique group has a scene that just doesn’t work, often it’s because the author is reluctant to make a decision or doesn’t see the need to do so.

You’re reading about the feds interrogating a suspect at the downtown FBI office. They’re in a private room and there’s mention of a desk and chairs. There’s a telephone somewhere. That’s it. It could be the same cubbyhole of an interrogation room we’ve seen in a thousand Law and Order episodes, or the ultra-modern, high tech rooms shown in CSI. Or it could be something else entirely. Maybe all the other interview rooms are occupied, and the Captain ‘s office is the only available space. Maybe the agent wants to put the suspect at ease, and uses the employee lounge (I think Richard Price did this). We’ll never know, because the author doesn’t think it’s important to establish a sense of place. A decision was not made.

In the room with the agent in charge is a young guy, an unnamed junior agent. He asks a couple questions but doesn’t contribute much. So much could be done with this minor character. One of his buddies might have been wounded or killed in the crime being investigated, and he’s seething with anger. Maybe he thinks the senior agent is an old fashioned fuddy-duddy who’s about to screw up the investigation with his obsolete methods. Maybe he was awakened after a late night at a bar, and he’s hungover. Maybe he was arguing furiously with his girlfriend (or boyfriend) when the phone rang. Maybe he’d been smoking dope, and can’t quite focus on who did what to whom. His character could change the dynamics in the interrogation room in myriad ways, but it didn’t happen. Because a decision was not made.

Sometimes you have colorful, edgy characters in a scene but it never really takes off. Chances are, the author didn’t scratch his head before writing the scene to decide what each character’s goals would be, and to make sure they conflict with one another. Mary wants a loan so she can help her secret lover, John, who she’s determined to be faithful to. She swallows her disgust to ask Peter, her repellent landlord. Peter can afford to make the loan but wants to get Mary into bed with him as a willing partner. If one wins, the other loses.

It can be an exciting scene – if a decision is made.


  1. And, then again, perhaps a decision was made to ignore this 'odd man out' to maintain some POV. I don't know...just thinking.

    As far as the first question--I'd say keep writing, the answer may resolve itself. I hate labels anyway. They're confining and keep you in a box. Sometimes even with a lid. I hate lids.

    (OK...my 4 cents...and I wanted to offer a comment, since there wasn't one.) :)

  2. Your friend should never struggle with the question of Gay writer or writer who happens to be Gay. Writers write. If writing is chosen as a profession, the artist should never seek out a label for him/herself. Labeling automatically narrows your audience and potentially effects your bottom line. Whatever is in the heart in and mind of the writer shall be written. If one choses to write about crime and punishment, why would you muddy the waters by adding another issue?
    John, knowing that he couldn't ask the detective about the contents of the briefcase without implicating himself in a crime, watched from a distance as the contents of the briefcase were placed onto the counter. Let there be no pictures, he thought, as the detective put on latex gloves and sifted through each item.
    A lot can be inferred by the what is being described. Would this passage need to be prologued with,
    John, a closeted homosexual couldn't ask about the contents of the briefcase? I don't think so. As for your example, the POV takes an odd stance, perhaps on purpose. However, it is tricky telling a story from all POVs. Only a well-crafted author would attempt such a feat. I love you blog!