Complete Series Binge Bundles Under $10

The Bridge Daughter Cycle: Books One to Three by Jim Nelson

If you’re looking for some post-holiday reading, my three-part family saga Bridge Daughter Cycle has been included in the Complete Series Binge Bundles Under $10 special. Over forty complete book series from various authors are available at reduced boxed set prices, including all three books of the Bridge Daughter Cycle for $4.99. The series includes science-fiction, mystery, suspense, and fantasy.

If you’re interested, check out the full listing here. This special ends January 11th, 2021, so check it out while you can.

Why I wrote a novel about COVID-19

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

At Washington Independent Review of Books, author Tara Laskowski asks, “We’re living through a pandemic. Must we read about one, too?” Her suggestion to fellow writers:

Perhaps the solution is to just skip ahead and set everything in 2025, safely away from the horror that is this year …

In 20 years or so, this point will probably be moot. By then, we’ll be ready to curl up with an escapist historical novel set in 2020; we’ll have gotten enough social distance from masks and lockdowns and toilet paper shortages.

My perspective on all this is colored by the fact that I wrote a novel set during 2020, and it centers around the pandemic and quarantines that have affected us all.

To clarify the chronology, I started writing the book in June (or so) and published it last month. Man in the Middle is set in the first week of California’s shelter-in-place, and although March was not so long ago, paging through my diary entries of those early weeks while preparing the novel reminded me just how otherworldly the world became overnight.

That’s a key point about the book’s development: I started keeping a diary when the pandemic surged in America. For the first few months, I wrote daily, almost religiously, dumping my despair and puzzlement onto the page. When the world opened up and grew less tense, I thumbed back through my notebook and discovered a voice I did not quite know. It was me, but it was not a me I easily recognized.

Certainly I harbored many reservations before I set out to write the first draft. Was the world to be swamped with a flood of coronavirus thrillers? What if a cure is discovered tomorrow? One writer friend warned me off the project entirely. From other people, there’s been a split-brain response: On one hand, writing a book now about the pandemic is “obviously” a commercial money-grab on my part, right? On the other hand, the market for such a book has a tight, closing window, once the vaccines arrive, eh? It’s one of those social situations where they think I’m not seeing the obvious, when in fact I’d gone down those thought-paths several dozen times.

I don’t write fiction to make money. Fiction is freeing for me. No one tells me what to write or how to write it. I set my deadlines. I make my own challenges. I also happen to believe there are readers in this world who, once they’re exposed to my writing, will enjoy it as well. That, more than anything, motivates me to keep writing.

Laskowski relates a comment from her agent:

“If something is set this year and is about the quarantine experience, sort of like a locked-room crime, maybe,” she says. “But a medical thriller about covid? Nope.”

A medical thriller is exactly the kind of novel I told myself I would not write: The beautiful epidemiologist racing the clock to develop a cure; a cold-hearted technocracy blocking her progress at every turn; and her child starting to develop worrisome symptoms. But the reason not to write a medical thriller about coronavirus is not because we’re living through it—it’s because that thriller has been written many times over, only with different strains of disease of different origin, with different symptoms and different cures.

While I didn’t write a locked-room crime book, I knew early on I wanted it to be a novel of isolation and suspense. The year that is 2020 has been a year of unthinkables. It is also a year hosting a major, tumultuous presidential election set against a backdrop of accusations of foreign and domestic intrigue. Swirled together, these ingredients sent me back to the great political and conspiracy films of my youth (Three Days of the Condor, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 12 Monkeys). In January, when COVID-19 was a curiosity mentioned occasionally in the news, I was reading Orwell’s war diaries, which also left a strong impression upon me. In March, when the shelter-in-place orders came down, I reread Camus’ The Plague with fresh eyes and a fresh appreciation.

Out of all this arable soil grew a claustrophobic, paranoid book about an isolated security guard who can’t tell if he’s detaching ever-so-gradually from reality. Podcasts, experts, and so-called experts fill his ears with contradictory takes on the world’s sudden course correction. That voice from my diary was now his.

Why wouldn’t I write that book? Whether or not Man in the Middle succeeds on its merits, I’ll let the readers decide. But how could I just set this inspiration aside and write about any year except 2020?

To return to the original question, no, I don’t believe people should have to read about the pandemic right now. I understand why anyone who reaches for a book today would want to read about any subject other than pandemics. Subconsciously, though, the question naturally bleeds into the territory of, Should writers be writing about the pandemic now?

As an answer, consider re-framing the original question as “We’re living through the Great Depression. Must we read about it, too?”

Imagine if the writers of The Grapes of Wrath, The Day of the Locust, The Road to Wigan Pier, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, John Dos Passos with his U.S.A. trilogy—and more—decided not to write about the worldwide economic collapse because people were living through it, so why would they want to read about it? For many of those authors ninety years ago, they viewed writing about the Great Depression as a responsibility.

Man in the Middle isn’t an act of personal responsibility, but I did write it for good reasons, even if they’re only my reasons.

(Probably unnecessary disclosure: Tara Laskowski is an editor for Smokelong Quarterly, which published one of my stories years ago. I don’t know if she was an editor there at that time.)

“Man in the Middle” now available

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

A quick note to announce that my latest novel, Man in the Middle, is now available!

This novel of suspense follows a security guard who, during the first week of the pandemic lock-down, begins to see things he suspect he’s not meant to see: Men working underground on Internet data lines in the dead of night. Neighborhood patrols enforcing the shelter-in-place order. And a conspiracy to steal millions of dollars in BitCoin.

Meanwhile, he is left to wonder if he’s contracted COVID-19, and whether he will have to submit himself to hospital quarantine.

Man in the Middle is now available in Kindle and paperback editions. Kindle Unlimited subscribers can read it free. The Kindle edition is still on sale for 99¢, but not for long, so get it now.

Will there be a fourth book in the Bridge Daughter Cycle?

The Bridge Daughter Cycle

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: As mentioned briefly in my interview with GSMC Reading podcast, I do have plans for a fourth book in the Bridge Daughter series.

The question has been posed a few times to me, and so I thought I would answer it here.

I hate pre-announcing books, especially a book I’ve not started, but I do have a tentative outline for a fourth novel that looks, to my eye, a solid addition to the series.

What I don’t have is a solid time frame when it will be available, or for that matter, when I’ll start working on it. It’s not that I don’t have interest in writing it—quite the opposite—but I’ve been eager to develop other projects that I’ve grown excited about (Man in the Middle, my next book), and I wanted to strike while the iron was hot.

If you’ve not caught up on the Bridge Daughter series, there’s no time like the present to start. The third book in the series, Stranger Son, was released earlier this year. And if you’re looking for the full series up to now, the first three books of the Bridge Daughter Cycle are now available in a Kindle box set edition.

“Man in the Middle” now available for pre-order

Man in the Middle, by Jim Nelson

I’m pleased to announce the upcoming release of my next novel, Man in the Middle.

The story takes place during the first week of the pandemic lockdown. Suffering from insomnia, a furloughed security guard starts seeing things he’s not supposed to see.

Men working underground on Internet data lines in the dead of night—neighborhood patrols enforcing the shelter-in-place order—the upcoming Presidential election looking bought and paid for—and a conspiracy to steal millions of dollars in BitCoin.

All the while, he shows worrying symptoms he’s infected with COVID-19. It’s only a matter of days—even hours—before he’s taken into emergency care and quarantined in an isolation unit.

All signs point to something amiss in his affluent suburban town, and the further he digs into it, the more he discovers nothing is as it seems.

Man in the Middle will be released November 16, 2020 on Amazon. You can pre-order a Kindle edition today for only 99¢. A paperback edition will be available on or shortly after the release date.

And, as always, thanks for your time and support.

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive”

Gustave Flaubert
Gustave Flaubert

One bit of writing lore I’ve heard many times, and always attributed to Gustave Flaubert:

“Use three senses to make a scene come alive.”

I’ve written before on my skepticism of writing lore. It often follows a pattern: Some nugget of keen insight for writers to follow closely, attributed to a big-name writer to burnish the saying with a little authority. Certainly this pattern is being followed with the “three senses” quote.

In this case, though, my skepticism is firmly tucked away. This is one bit of writing advice that’s well worth following (and not because Flaubert supposedly said it).

“She had learned from Flaubert”

Let’s start with that “supposedly” qualifier. I’ve been unable to locate a direct quote of Flaubert making the three-senses pronouncement in any variation. All roads in my search lead to an essay by Flannery O’Connor titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

A lady who writes, and whom I admire very much, wrote me that she had learned from Flaubert that it takes at least three activated sensuous strokes to make an object real; and she believes that this is connected with our five senses. If you’re deprived of any of them, you’re in a bad way, but if you’re deprived of more than two at once, you almost aren’t present.

Already the lore around the three-senses maxim is being chipped away. It’s not make a scene come alive, it’s make an object real. The three senses are described here as “three activated sensuous strokes,” an odd phrasing. It could be construed as indicating the object’s three sensory details do not have to originate from different senses. (For example, an old beat-up table might be described with three different sights: the paint color, the length of its legs, and the shape of its surface.) And notice how the unnamed writer “believes” the three sensuous strokes are connected to the five senses—in other words, she is reading into Flaubert’s maxim rather than paraphrasing it.

If he uttered the maxim, of course. A Google search for Flaubert and the original “three sensuous strokes” phrase always leads back to this passage by O’Connor. As mentioned, searching for Flaubert and other variations of the quote, including the most famous version above, don’t pan out either.

What’s more, O’Connor’s unnamed writer friend “learned from Flaubert” this bit of wisdom. There’s some ambiguity here. It could be read as saying the writer had discovered this technique by studying Flaubert’s work, rather than receiving it directly from him via an interview or essay.

And that’s probably what happened here. The unnamed writer is most likely Caroline Gordon, a Southern novelist and critic who tutored Flannery O’Connor. Gordon’s How to Read a Novel returns repeatedly to Flaubert and his techniques for making a novel come alive, which she calls “Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”:

Flaubert never told you what a flower, for instance, was like. Instead, he tried to give you the illusion, by the use of sensory details, that you could not only look at the flower he was presenting for your admiration but could smell it and feel the texture of its petals.

Caroline Gordon

She continues with effusive admiration for Flaubert’s techniques, particularly his use of narrative distancing: One passage away from his characters to observe their situation, then moving in close for intimate details, and then moving into their interior to plumb feelings and thoughts. Gordon plainly admired Flaubert’s writing. It makes sense she would have passed on the “three sensuous strokes” observation to O’Connor.

In other words, the advice “Use three senses to make a scene come alive” may not have sprung from Flaubert or O’Connor, but Caroline Gordon. What’s more, she was discussing objects and not scenes, although I think the generalization is forgivable.

As much as I believe in the three-senses maxim, this is why writing lore—and lore in general—deserves questioning.

Why it works

Provenance aside, I’ve taken the accepted maxim to heart in my own writing. Unlike other writing lore I’ve come to question, the three-senses maxim has served me well, both in making scenes come alive, and in making objects seem real.

I first heard it over twenty years ago—attributed to Flaubert, naturally—during a writers conference at Foothill College. Those years have given me time to take advantage of this advice and ponder why it works so well. Why three? Why not two, or four, or all five senses?

If a story limits itself to two senses, it will likely focus on sight (the most dominant of the human senses) and sound (because sound—dialogue—is our primary means of communication).

A novel of nothing but sight and sound may be compelling in subject matter, but readers will feel locked out of the book’s world. (“You almost aren’t present.”) Scenes will play out as heads talking to each other. Objects will be nothing but photographs displayed from afar for the reader to observe. A very short story may be able to sustain this, but it takes a special kind of novel to keep this up.

By employing three senses, the dream-vision of the story becomes less boxed-in and more nonlinear (“Flaubertian three-dimensionalism”). The other senses—taste, smell, and touch—have less communicative power, but are evocative to the reader. They’re not as cerebral and more bodily.

Naming a paper bag of popcorn identifies the object. Allowing the reader to smell the yeasty aroma, or taste the melted butter, or feel the heat of the kernels through the paper like small coals: These details inflate a flat object into a tangible thing. Imagine the possibilities of foiling expectations with sensory details: The popcorn smells of cigarettes, for example, or tastes soapy for some reason.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

This is why I think the three-senses rule works: It almost always forces the writer to break away from sight and sound, which dominate the story’s telling, and activate the other senses. The story evokes an experience rather than catalogs a series of events.

While I don’t think four or five senses in a scene is necessarily too much, doing so consistently will over-inflate the story with picayune details. I’ve tried it on occasion, only to cut much of it later as excess fat weighing down the scene. Three senses seems to be the sweet spot.

Flannery O’Connor saw all these problems when she wrote “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”. After mentioning Gordon’s lesson on Flaubert, she cautions,

Now of course this is something that some people learn only to abuse. This is one reason that strict naturalism is a dead end in fiction. In a strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work. In a work of art we can be extremely literal, without being in the least naturalistic. Art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement. [Emphasis mine]

Keeping the number to three helps limit the writer to selecting only the most essential details, rather than flooding the reader with a surplus to create a sensory shotgun effect. It’s “the essential that creates movement.”

And, yes, there are exceptions to all of the above I’ve discussed. Fiction writers who seek hard rules to follow militarily will soon discover surprises and disappointments. Familiarity with proven techniques, and knowing when to deviate from them, is what separates art from assembly-line manufacturing.

O’Connor’s caution also reminds that the purpose of sensory detail is to invite the reader into the story rather than have them observe it. Sensory details are not the story itself. They are subordinate to the characters, their motivations, and their decisions. Use three senses to make the characters’ world come alive, but only alive enough.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

Previously: What Makes Sammy Run?

Here’s where I cheat a little on my rules for determining the greatest Hollywood novel of all time. Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is marginally a Hollywood novel, in that almost every central character came to Los Angeles to enter the film industry. All are unsuccessful at it—or, more accurately, they’re still waiting for success to saunter their way. Desperate and in the throes of the Great Depression, they turn to dance marathons as a way to make money until the next studio cattle call.

The novel’s narrator is Robert Syverten, a young man who has come to Hollywood to become a director. Down and out, he meets Gloria Beatty after both have failed to pick up work as film extras. Gloria tells him, “If I’m not a better actress than most of those dames I’ll eat your hat—Let’s go sit and hate a bunch of people…” Robert remarks:

Unless you are registered by Central Castings Bureau you didn’t have much of a chance. The big studios call up Central and say they want four Swedes or six Greeks or two Bohemian peasant types or six Grand Duchesses and Central takes care of it. I could see why Gloria didn’t get registered by Central. She was too blonde and too small and looked too old.

Robert and Gloria are from the middle of the country, and the reader immediately senses they have no chance of making it in Hollywood. They are more in line with Nathanael West’s people who came to California to die than the in-crowd Sammy Glick and Al Manheim run around with in What Makes Sammy Run?

The pair (it’s not really true they are a “couple”) agree to enter a dance marathon. “Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars if you win,” Gloria explains. “A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture.”

Dance marathon contestants, April 20, 1923.

The dance marathon organizers run the contestants ragged twenty-four hours for weeks—weeks—on end. The contestants must keep moving day and night and are only allowed ten-minute breaks every two hours. They learn to eat while shaving, eat while using the toilet, and reading the newspaper while slow-dancing. Good dancers get local sponsors who supply them with free clothes, extra food, even new dance shoes. Entrants fall out of the contest due to sheer exhaustion, collapsing on the dance floor and carried off like an anonymous corpse. Some contestants are professionals who travel the country to enter dance marathons. Most are unemployed, down-on-their-luck young people who enter for the food, the cot, the music, and the company.

The novel’s grueling depiction of the entrants’ taxing tortures while fox-trotting and jitterbugging throughout an upbeat dance marathon is a model of Hollywood-in-miniature: The artifice of the organizer’s demanding smiles, coiffed hair, and freshened make-up for the audience while the entrants suffer from exhaustion and dehydration, underpaid and underfed. Even the gabby, overly-familiar emcee who attempts to bring sparkle to the competition’s grueling realities is familiar to any viewer of game shows. To drive up interest, the organizers stage a dance wedding for the audience, although the competing couple have no matrimonial intentions—echoes of today’s reality TV, which is not as real as we’re led to believe.

The novel is spare and earthy, and the language is sparse and brisk. McCoy was often compared to James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), a comparison McCoy detested. The book is interrupted throughout by the disembodied voice of a judge rendering sentencing, an effective way to open a novel (if somewhat Hollywoodish), but a device that grows into a gimmick as the novel proceeds. Fortunately these flashes are only brief reminders, like a voice from the sky, rather than dwelled upon.

The novel’s conclusion comes crashing down in a matter of a few pages. I’m not sure I buy the narrator’s final decision, but Robert’s and Gloria’s bleak despair is palpable. Gloria’s nihilism is so pure and unyielding, it’s a miracle McCoy can maintain our interest in her for the length of the book. Robert’s naivete is almost as strong, sometimes veering into hayseed territory. Economics, greed, and detachment have left these young people clinging to a life raft leaking air, and they barely realize they’re sinking.

As mentioned, Hollywood’s presence in They Shoot Horses is slim, more like a faint church bell chime in the distance reminding the reader of the glamour and wealth not far from the seaside dance hall the marathon takes place in. McCoy’s classic is a Hollywood novel because of Tinseltown’s absence, not presence, in the story—a character everyone is talking about but is never seen by the reader.

Next: The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler