Sunday, July 22, 2007

Skipping Stones

Have you ever tried skipping stones across a pond or lake?

For a few seconds the stone seems to come alive, suspended above the water in a series of invisible arcs, leaving only the memory of flight in the viewer's eye.

It takes practice to skip stones across the water in such a way that the stone barely touches the surface instead of plunking like a lead ball on the first throw.

First, you have to search the shoreline for just the right rock or pebble--not too large, not too small. What works best, I've found, is a relatively flat stone with rounded rather than sharp edges so it won't slice into the water.

Then, you have to throw the rock hard at just the right angle, using a side-arm motion combined with a delicate flick of the wrist, so the stone sustains enough momentum to skim the surface and skip across the water in a series of gravity-defying steps ... one, two, three ... sometimes four, five or ... six... depending on the thrower's skill.

Writing requires the same kind of practice and artistry. If you set the words down at just the right angle, they will pull a reader's eye across the surface of the page much like a well-tossed stone draws the eye skipping from one splash to the next in its flight across the water.

Very few writers can skip stones better than Robert B. Parker, the author of the Spenser mystery novels, who has just written his first novel for children, Edenville Owls.

If you've read any of the Spenser novels, you've already met Bobby Murphy, the main character and narrator of the Edenville Owls, because he resembles a younger version of Parker's successful adult protagonist, Spenser, a valiant sleuth who lives by a chivalrous code of ethics as he pursues criminals in the fight of good versus evil.

Bobby is already grappling with this code of ethics as he tries to figure out a way to protect his eighth grade teacher, Miss Delaney, from a man who appears one day outside his school and begins physically abusing her.

Bright and brave, Bobby enlists the help of his basketball teammates, the Edenville Owls of the title, as well as a girl--Joanie--who gives Bobby the courage and confidence (much as Guinivere inspired Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table) to do what he thinks is right to help Miss Delaney.

Parker is a master of plotting even if, at times, the characters appear to find their way through the thicket of tangled plot-lines with the not-so-hidden hand of the author. (Some reviewers complain that Parker's writing has the feel of a first draft, and while that may be true, he succeeds in getting most of the words right the first time.)

Much like Raymond Chandler, one of Parker's own literary heroes, and Hemingway, whose style is reflected in Parker's own spare prose, Parker crafts sentences that can take your breath away with their elegant conciseness. Again and again, he manages to weave an invisible hook within his sentences, deftly pulling the reader deeper into the story.

Here, for example, is how Parker writes about Bobby after the young boy discovers that staking out a house isn't the easiest thing in the world to do:
Standing alone in the dark on the empty street, I felt like a fool. My eyes teared a little. What a jerk, I thought. You thought it would be like the movies. Stake out the house and in two minutes the bad guys show up and the action starts. The movies didn't show you the hero standing around in the cold hour after hour, needing to take a leak, wishing he had something to eat. Getting nowhere. Seeing nothing. Doing no good. And what about friendship? All those war movies where guys were heroically dying for each other. A little boredom. A little cold weather and the Owls flew away in the night. The hell with them. But I couldn't say the hell with them. We had a game tomorrow. I looked at the blank ungrateful front of the two-family house where Miss Delaney lived. There were things you can't do anything about. The thought scared me. It made me feel kind of helpless. But there it was. I turned and headed home.
Parker's especially gifted at revealing the feelings of an adolescent boy first encountering the stirrings of love, as in this scene:
Nick was the first one of us to have a regular date, and the first one of us to ever be invited to the Boat Club. The rest of us sort of followed Nick and Joanie at a distance, and hung around outside. I don't know quite why. Wanted to see what was up, I guess.

The thing was, I felt funny about it. I felt funny about her asking Nick and funny about feeling funny about it. I didn't exactly wish she hadn't asked him. And I didn't exactly wish she had asked me. I guess I wished she hadn't asked anyone and had, instead, come down and sat on the deserted bandstand with me.
He's also amazingly adept at crafting scenes with dialogue to move the plot forward:
I was with Joanie in the bowling alley, sitting in the back row of benches, having a Coke, watching them bowl.
"I went to see Miss Delaney," she said.
"You did?"
"After school," Joanie said. "The day after we found out about that guy Richard Kraus."
"You didn't say anything did you?"
"Nothing bad," she said. "I told her I was starting to think about college."
"College?" I said. "We're in the eighth grade."
Joanie ignored me.
"And she said that was wise, it was never too early."
"Okay," I said.
"So I told her I was wondering where she went," Joanie said.
"Miss Delaney?"
"Yes, and she told me Colby College."
"Where's that?" I said.
"In Maine someplace," Joanie said.
"Who wants to go to college in Maine?" I said.
"And I said did she have a yearbook or something I could look at, and she gave me hers. She brought it in the next day."
"Her college yearbook?" I said.
Joanie reached into her book bag and pulled the yearbook out...
As a result of obtaining the yearbook, Bobby and Joanie can examine not only Miss Delaney's college picture but the pictures of other members of the class in the hope of identifying the man who is abusing her. It's with this kind of sleight of hand that Parker advances the plot.

And then there is the seemingly effortless way that Parker skips details across the page. With just a flick of his wrist, he paints a scene. The words have a kind of zing, an energy that pulls the reader along, as here:
He had been behind the wharf office shed, and now he was in full view in the moonlight walking up toward the bandstand. Tupper was holding his big knife low in front of him, moving it back and forth toward us. When he heard Nick, he pivoted in that direction and waved the knife at him.
Or here:
I wasn't as scared anymore. My heart was still beating very hard. But I didn't feel so sick to my stomach now. In the moonlight everything looked pale. But I thought that Tupper looked paler than the rest of us. And even though it was kind of chilly, there was sweat on his face. He backed up onto the bandstand again.
So, if you want to study how a writer constructs a sentence, take a look at Parker's newest effort.

He's the kind of writer who is always luring readers deeper into the story with words that skim across the page like well-thrown stones skipping across the water.

For more information about Robert B. Parker and his work, visit his blog at:

Or his website, which contains this interview:

Or this interview in Booklist Online:

Plus, here's what other bloggers are saying about Edenville Owls:


Jack said...

A good selection of story hooks and discussion; you've moved this one onto my reading list.

Anonymous said...

The skipping stones analogy in your piece this week is perfect for how to know when a piece is finished. I had never thought of it in quite that way before, but what I look for in a finished, polished piece is exactly that: it should read as lightly and easily as a stone skipping across the water...if there are places where the stone suddenly "sinks" -- those are the places I focus on in revision.