Monday, January 21, 2019

Double Time

John's recent post, In Medias Res, and Frankie's comment, caught my attention this week. It reminded me of the comment my agent made when I was struggling with my second book.  'Write a few chapters,' she said, 'and then tear up the first one.'

As John highlighted, plunging into the middle of the action is very good advice.  But then, as Frankie said, you have the problem of flashbacks.

The book then has to have two parts - the one that explains the background to the subsequent action, and the action itself.  Of course it's generally accepted that what has happened in the past is often an excuse, or perhaps even a reason, for what happens in the present: read any plea in mitigation after a guilty verdict in a criminal trial, when the defending lawyer produces details of the defendant's hard childhood with a sadistic father and a mother who's a lush in the hope that pity will influence the sentence.

 I'm comfortable with that.  But there seems to be a fashion at the moment for books actually to have two separate time scales, with two distinct sets of characters and two main protagonists instead of one. Often they feel like two entirely different stories, though the link will emerge in due course.

I could cope with that as well - in a logical order, not if the two are interleaved, apparently almost at random. I have no sooner got immersed in one than, whee!  Off we go into the other for a chapter or two.  Usually, too, there is one plot that's more interesting than second one that you have to wade through to reach the next installment.

Being told a story is one of the oldest, and earliest, of human addictions. I love to be caught up in the actions, in the developing characters, and when my story is broken off I feel like a child would feel,waiting to see what happens to Goldilocks when Mummy says, 'I'll just stop there.'  For the same reason I'm not a great fan of short stories; I've invested my interest in these guys and then the door is shut in my face.

Sometimes I've felt so irritated that I've considered cheating and reading the first time section all the way through,ignoring the second and then going back, but I guess all that would do is sabotage the story completely. 

Perhaps it's just envy.  I find continuity difficult at the best of times and the thought of creating two parallel stories that are totally consistent would be beyond me.  I've never thought I could manage to be a trick rider, with a foot of the back of each of a pair of galloping horses either.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Dreaded First Pages

Image result for cartoons about writers

John has a wonderful post about the very topic on my mind this week--how to start a book. Nothing strikes terror in the heart of a budding or experienced novelist more than writing the first pages.

Years ago, writers were not expected to snag readers on the very first page. That has changed. Now to even get past an editor--let alone the reader--it's instant captivation or risk losing gentle reader to another author.

My contribution on this will be short because John Corrigan's post, In Medias Res, says it all. I had to look this up by the way. It means beginning in the middle of things. It doesn't necessarily answer the question of how to begin a novel. At a certain point in learning the craft of writing, the guidebooks no long work. You have to figure everything out for yourself.

To budding novelists: you simply must begin. Start the best way you know how and then fix these pages after you finish your book.

After everything is finished, I go to the library and read the first pages of best sellers and award winners. Something gels. I have a moment of inspiration. I'll begin my book that way, by George. That way might be dialogue or perhaps, something to set the tone as in the James Burke clip John used. Action scenes are popular. Statements about the theme of the book can be very effective.

Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere gives the whole plot on the first page. Foreshadowing to the max. I loved this book even though I knew how it would end.

Another unusual beginning I came across recently that set the tone of the book immediately began with court testimony. It was perfect characterization.

Rest assured that you will figure out something.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

In Medias Res

Some recent excellent posts, including “Plotting, Plotting,” by Vicki, have me thinking about that timeless phrase in medias res.

I’ve been considering launch points –– of scenes, of novels –– simply where to begin. I like dialogue –– like to read it, love to write it. In many ways, I think we often know people best by what they say. In terms of plotting and moving a narrative forward, I buy into Elmore Leonard’s great line, Skip the stuff no one reads, entirely, and so dialogue is my bread and butter.

I’ve been reading TV scripts of late and have been observing where the scenes begin, the launch points. The audience enters most scenes mid-stride, mid-conversation, which, for me, is both fun and useful because I’m consistently launching in the middle, starting a scene with someone speaking. No preamble necessary. The stage (setting) has literally been set visually.

How does this translate to fiction? And therein lies the rub. After all, how much in media res is too much in medias res? Tom Wolff begins The Bonfire of the Vanities with straight dialogue. We have no idea where the scene is set until half a page into the scene, but the tension is captivating and Wolff, like Ed McBain, accomplishes so much with how people speak that we almost know the setting by the way people talk. But consider this opening by James Lee Burke of Last Car to Elysian Fields:

The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot winds and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once again danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned a hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl. In the evenings I sat on the back steps of a rented shotgun house on Bayou Teche and watched boats passing in the twilight and listened to the Sunset Limited blowing down the line. Just as the light went out of the sky, the moon would rise like an orange planet above the oaks that covered my rented backyard, then I would go inside and fix supper for myself and eat alone at the kitchen table.

Stunning imagery. Burke’s lyrical voice shines through. And more importantly, Robicheaux’s latest internal crisis is hinted at. He is, after all, eating alone. The tone is ominous. We sense that we are starting after the fact. I want to keep reading to see what I’ve missed.

Where and how to begin? In medias res can have many different looks and take many different forms. And the beginning of a story is different than the beginning of a scene. Billy Collins says stepping from a poem’s title to the first line is like stepping from the dock into the canoe, which lets us know how tenuous launch points can be.

In Medias Res. So many choices.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Year in Books, 2018

It’s time for my annual reading wrap-up.

In 2018 I read 70 books, 11 fewer than last year. About half of those were nonfiction, heavily weighted in the true crime category. Most of the crimes, though, took place before the 20th century. The only one that didn’t was a book about the Green River Killer, “Green River, Running Red” by Ann Rule. I have a particular interest in it because the first bodies were found fairly close to the house where I grew up, though I didn’t live in the area at the time.

I also got into the history of food last year with books on ice cream, cakes and cookies. My favorite of those was “American Cake” by Ann Byrn.

As you might guess, I read a lot of cozy mysteries. Last year I read all of Eva Gates’ (aka our own Vicki Delany) Lighthouse Library series and enjoyed them immensely. I also had a fun time with Ellen Byron’s Cajun Country mystery series.

I also got into middle grade books. I discovered the Eddie Red Undercover mystery series by Marcia Wells and Marcus Calo and the Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. This quote from Stroud’s website describes the latter books best: “There is an epidemic of ghosts in Britain. Their touch brings death, and only children have the power to fight them.”

My absolute favorite book of the year was “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton. It’s a very unusual mystery that kept me captivated throughout. I enjoyed every minute I spent with it and was very sorry when it came to an end. From Amazon’s description: “Evelyn Hardcastle will die. She will die every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. Some of his hosts are helpful, and others only operate on a need to know basis.”

2018 was also the year I sampled Kindle in Motion titles. I talked about my experience in a previous Type M post. You can read about it here.

That’s my book wrap-up for the year. As usual, I have stacks and stacks of books around the house and a slew of them on my Kindle, waiting to be read. I probably won’t get to most of them for a while since I have a book due to my publisher in a month. Happy Reading!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

When you're feeling poorly…

by Rick Blechta

For the past two days I have been in the grip of grip (as flu used to be known) and feeling pretty poor.

I'm going to have to cop out of writing a blog this week because, frankly, I don't have the energy or will.

So here's a little something special I've been saving up for an occasion just like this one!

Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Writing from a Woman's POV...What Was I Thinking?

I loved the discussions by authors who visualize which actors and actresses would portray their characters if their books are turned into movies.  I have some thoughts on that which I will share a little later in this blog.

The reason why writers have strong opinions on this is our characters are very real to us.  What sometimes slides by us is that our characters are also very real (or should be) to our readers as well.
Both Random Road and Darkness Lane are written from the first-person viewpoint of Geneva Chase…a woman.  I’m male, I have both an X and a Y chromosome.

“Really, you write as a woman?” I’m often asked. “What the hell were you thinking?”

First, a little about Ms. Chase.  She’s blonde, tall (five-ten), athletic, blue eyes, attractive, forty years old, and a snarky smart ass.  Geneva is a reporter for her hometown newspaper in Sheffield, Connecticut, a bedroom community outside of New York City. As the first book opens, she’s seeing a married man, has been recently arrested for hitting a cop, has been married three times, and she drinks too much.

Geneva Chase is a hot mess.  Likable and smart as hell, but still a hot mess.

That doesn’t answer the question, “What the hell were you thinking?”

I started writing Random Road as an experiment.  One chapter I’d write from the male protagonist’s POV and the next chapter I’d write as Geneva Chase.  About ten chapters into the book, I discovered I was having much more fun writing as Genie.  Through her eyes, I could view the world as a cynical journalist.  Through her voice, I could make snarky, sarcastic observations.  I could say things I would never say out loud in real life. Simply put…she was fun!

A writer needs to be a keen observer of the world around him or her.  Writing as a woman, I needed to study how someone like Genie would dress, what kind of jewelry she’d wear, how she would speak and move.  I know more about women’s shoes, cosmetics, and fragrances than I ever wanted to.

A word to the wise, it’s a fine line between being extremely observant and being really creepy.

Now, back to your characters being real.  My editor, publisher, and agent are all female (as is my wife, of course) and none of them are afraid to call me out when Geneva isn’t ringing true.

But I’ve gotten some interesting comments from readers about Geneva.  I’ve had some women tell me how much they identify with her.  I take that as a genuine compliment.

I’ve had some men tell me how much they like the character and I actually had one guy tell me that he’s fallen in love with her.  That made me a little uncomfortable.

Then there was the time in Phoenix, at a mystery conference, I was on a panel called “Unconventional Women”.  Yes, I was the only dude on the stage.

When I write the character Geneva Chase, I'm not thinking about any actresses.  I have a good friend of mine in my head.  She's tall, athletic, beautiful and she's a genuine smart ass.  I worked with her for years at the last newspaper I was at.  She knows who she is.

So back to whom I’d like to see portray Geneva Chase.  I’m partial to Reese Witherspoon.  Maybe  Naomi Watts.   Two completely different actresses, but I think they’d do Genie proud.  Let me know if you have any suggestions.  I'd love to hear who you think could be Geneva Chase.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Plotting, Plotting

By Vicki Delany

I hate plotting. But I do it.

I used to be a ‘pantser’: a writer who doesn’t know where the story is going. Writes by the seat of her pants.

This is different from a plotter: a writer who prepares a detailed outline ahead of time and thus knows where the book is going.

I’m not a total plotter. I usually write a good section of the book before I start plotting. I like to get the characters in my head, and an idea of what the story is going to be about. The only way I do that is by writing it. But then, when I’m maybe 10,000 words in, it’s time to start figuring the rest of it out.

Image result for plotting a novel cartoon
Today was plotting day for Sherlock #6. I’ve started the story. I wrote the inciting incident. I’ve introduced (to myself as much as to anyone else) the guest characters. The murder in this book comes quite close to the beginning, so I know who died and how and what led up to it. I also know who dunit and why they dunit. Now, it’s time to get an outline for the remaining 70,000 or so words down on paper.

And I hate it.

So, why then do I do it you ask? I changed from a pantser to a plotter when I was signed by publishing houses that required an outline before giving a contract. I wrote the outline reluctantly and then found that it helped me write the book an enormous amount. Get the hard part out of the way, I found, and the rest is easy(er).

For a case in point, see Barbara’s recent post on shitty first drafts and the mushy middle (

One of my publishers doesn’t strictly require an outline, but I send it to them anyway. If there is anything they don’t like, I’d rather know about it now than when I’ve fished the book and incorporated that sticky point into the final product. As an example the outline for Body on Baker Street had Gemma and Jayne breaking into the police station in search of clues. UH, no, said my editor, that’s going too far.

So instead Gemma is thinking about breaking into the police station, when Detective Ryan guesses what she’s up to and puts a stop to it.  She manages to find out what she needs to know another (less illegal) way.

Today I plotted.  That involved a lot of pacing around the house. It helps that it’s -13 degrees today, without wind-chill, so I wasn’t temped to venture outside except to get more firewood from the garage. I paced, I thought, I cursed. I made notes. I tried to turn those notes into sentences.

By 2:00 I had a fairly good idea of what I want to do.  I still have a lot of ???? in the outline, but I’ll ponder those for the rest of the day and then try to finish the outline tomorrow.

It won’t be perfect, and things can change. But I’ll have a good solid road map that I can follow, and hopefully, not get bogged down in the soggy middle.