Monday, May 30, 2016

Criticism

WHAT THE EDITOR SAID

good idea well followed through we enjoyed
a great deal we read with pleasure and interest
there was much to take note of the bustle and
jar the excursion and homeward turn some
belters of poems got hold of my ears all well-
crafted precise rhyming we particularly liked
numbers three four and seven but

I heard this poem at a reading given by Hamish White and it made me laugh out loud.  Hamish is a well-known and very accomplished Scottish poet (who also reviews crime fiction) and he has  kindly given me permission to share it with you.

Do you recognise this too - the 'but...'?  I think it's what's known as the enthusiastic rejection: when you know that if they meant what they said in the first paragraph there's no way they wouldn't be publishing the book.  I think it's intended to be kind, but in the days when all I seemed to get were rejection letters ( wish I'd kept them to paper the downstairs loo) I used to skip the first paragraph and look for the one beginning with that 'but..'   It spared me the pain of hopes raised only to be dashed.

I wasn't very good at interpretation, though.  Just about the first story I sent to a magazine, while I was still at university, came back with a letter that pointed out what was wrong with it, and I was crushed.  I went wailing to my friends, 'They didn't want it!'  and it took me a long time to get up the courage to write another one.  If only one of my kindly and sympathetic friends had told me I was lucky because not being sent a form letter was real encouragement, and that I'd better learn, mark and inwardly digest every precious comment, I'd have started my professional career a lot sooner.

The difficulty when you're starting out is getting criticism from a reliable source.  With the best will in the world, your friends probably can't provide it; their responses are inevitably tailored by the relationship with you.  If they are too impressed, it doesn't help you, if they are too brutal it doesn't help the friendship.  After a very bitter experience, I decided to make it a rule not to critique other writers' work.

It was a steep learning curve, but I came round to understanding the value of brutal criticism.  It still smarts, particularly when it's justified, but I'm good about taking it now - as long as it's from my agent or my editor.  Between them, agents and editors have improved my writing beyond recognition and I'm grateful.

To this day, though, when my agent calls with comments and begins by telling me tactfully how much she loves what I'm doing, I don't listen.  I'm on the edge of my seat, waiting for the 'but...'  I'm always quite disconcerted if it doesn't come.

The other sort of criticism is the kind that comes in the form of reviews in newspapers or on Amazon and the like.  Of course the fun ones come from the highly intelligent, sensitive and discriminating readers who give you five stars and say, 'Even better than the last one.' You purr, but you don't learn from those.

At the other end of the spectrum are the ones who give you one star, and say they hated it from page one - clearly total dimwits.  Authors should be able to ban these people from ever reading another of their books.  Have you thought about that, Amazon, huh?

But there are the ones who come in the middle, who generally liked the book but thought there were one or two things that were wrong with it, and those reviews are invaluable.  There was the one, for instance, who pointed out a mannerism my lead character had that she found annoying; she was right, and I dropped it next time.  Someone else pointed out a theme that wasn't fully developed, and I took that one on board too.

The cruellest critic of all, though, is me.  I can always see something that wasn't quite what it should be, something that next time will have to be better.  It's uncomfortable, but I think if I ever wrote a book that was in my eyes perfect, I'd retire.

Hamish White's book 'Hannah, Are You Listening' is published by Happenstance.




Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Second Hat to Wear

This past year I've had the opportunity to serve as editor on two short-fiction anthologies. In Blood Business, a noir crime/paranormal anthology from Hex Publishers, I am the assistant editor alongside the editor/publisher Josh Viola. For the 2016 RMFW Anthology, Found, to be published by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, I am the head cheese--the vato in charge of everything.

In both cases, serving as editor has been an instructive experience. For one, I'm on the other side of the editorial desk and it's enlightening to review manuscripts as they come to me. Hex invited writers with a track record in the genre and for the RMFW anthology, it was an open submission for members only. I got to see manuscripts arrive in various stages of preparation. Some read like first drafts and others were already quite polished, both in story-telling and craft.

Since the manuscripts that arrived for Blood Business came from established writers, I had my eyes opened a little more as to how challenging it is to write a good story. Mostly because we writers are always too close to our work. In our mind, we've tied together loose ends and the narrative flows in one logical current. Tightening the story shows the value of a good editor, and I hope I've been so. In my content editing, I had to be careful that I helped the writer hone the story and that I not rewrite it. Plus, many of the submitting writers have significant authorial credentials and now I'm in the lofty position of judging their work and suggesting changes, a humbling role. That concern is weighed against the publisher's desire to release a great book so Josh and I had to call them as we saw them.

My experience with the RMFW anthology has been more encompassing because I honcho the anthology from submissions through selection, editing, copyediting, cover and interior design, formatting for publication, publication as an ebook and a trade paperback, and marketing. Since we accepted open submissions, the editorial process heavily involved the R-word: rejection. We received 89 entries and I had to whittle that number down to fifteen. What helped--or hurt if you were on the submitting end--was that RMFW published strict formatting rules that I followed to the letter. That knocked 35 submissions out of the running, which was disappointing because that included stories from friends that I was looking forward to reading. The remaining 54 stories were doled out in a blind process to eleven volunteer readers, and we assigned a score to each: 0-pass; 1-maybe; 2-accept. Nine stories received a double 2 score. That meant we had to review the remaining to decide on enough stories to fill the anthology. Although I knew how subjective the process was going to be, I was still surprised how our opinions broke on many of the entries. In sending out the rejection notices, even then I had second doubts about which were the best and wished I could have included more, but I had to draw the line somewhere.

Found will be available this September, and Blood Business will hit the streets in 2017. Buy lots of copies of each and make this editor happy.




Friday, May 27, 2016

Maine Chance

My grandson graduated from Colby College last Sunday. It has an excellent reputation for academics and was easily the most peaceful campus I've visited.

All the visiting relations stayed in Belfast the night before. My daughter, Michele, and son-in-law, Harry and his mother, June Crockett were treated to a great tour of the town by Murray and Margot Carpenter.

Belfast was fascinating and the town was one little hilly street after another. That surprised me and in a very short time all the muscles in my legs rebelled. By the bay the terrain was relatively flat and I was intrigued with the commercial aspects of shipping and ship-building. Besides, standing still and asking questions is a sly way to distract attention from a pained expression. These were serious hills. In town, yet!

I didn't know a thing about Maine. I've never been a huge supporter of the "write what you know" idea, but when it comes to setting, I think it's essential. No amount of Googling would have substituted for the couple of days in Belfast.

Streets in Kansas are wide and broad and in Maine they were narrow and winding. One could not zip right along.

From Maine we went to Manteo, NC where my granddaughter will be married Sunday. The family has gone to NC a number of times and I'm a little more familiar with that state.

But still! The chances of getting nearly everything wrong are sky high when writing about an unfamiliar setting. You'll have the flamingos going "eek" instead of "awk" and the wrong kind of flowers blooming at the wrong time and the wrong kind of grocery store chains.

However, there is a way of working around some of this if the protagonist is not writing from the viewpoint of a native. Write as an outsider. I did this with a couple of short stories that had a trucking background.

The outsider viewpoint is very useful for inserting background information. For instance, in my mystery series, Lottie Albright has moved to Western Kansas from Eastern Kansas and she often compares the two halves of the state

There is nothing wrong with using any setting you choose if you are willing to do the work. Visits, historical societies, and leg work can take you a long ways. As for me, I still enjoy writing about my native state.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

WHO NEEDS RULES?

“There are three rules for writing a novel," W. Somerset Maugham once quipped. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Anyone who's set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) knows this to be true. However, that's never stopped members of the literati from offering advice in the form of "rules" to writers of crime fiction.

In 1841, with the publication of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allan Poe launched the detective fiction genre and established what is known as "Poe's Five Rules of Detective Fiction":
1. There must be a crime, preferably murder, because it fascinates readers more than any other crime and there appears to be an unlimited number of ways in which people can die.
2. There must be a detective, someone with superior inductive and deductive reasoning, who is capable of solving the crime that baffles the official police system.
3. The police must be seen as either incompetent or as incapable of solving a certain type of complex crime.
4. The reader must be given all the information or "clues" to be able to solve the crime if the "clues" are properly interpreted.
5. The detective must explain who the criminal is and the motive, means, and opportunity by the conclusion of the story.

It's interesting to consider works of crime-fiction, past and present -- both literary and cinematic presentations -- and discover most honor Poe's list, give or take a rule or two. When we think of literary adages that have withstood the test of time, the final lines of Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" stands out: "...down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man." You know the passage. You've read it before. You've probably even recited it to someone. I would argue, though, that, given the state of the contemporary crime-fiction novel where sleuths are more diverse and complex than ever, Poe's rules are more relevant than Chandler's musings.
Following Poe, in 1928, S.S. Van Dine offered his "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" in the American Magazine. His advice includes, "There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better" (rule 7) and compared the genre to "a sporting event." I can't imagine what Poe would have thought of Van Dine's flippant portrayal of the genre. Several decades later, as part of the New York Times "Writers on Writing" series in 2001, Elmore Leonard wrote "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle," his own list of ten rules that any writer is smart to follow. Where Van Dine is didactic and antiquated, Leonard is helpful and offers gems for contemplation.
However, for the contemporary writer of crime fiction (and our modern-day readers), Raymond Chandler's "Ten Commandments For the Detective Novel" remain helpful, interesting, and like all of Chandler's work, sparse enough to offer writers room to maneuver within his list and readers leeway to argue for or against the merits of any contemporary favorite.
  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law....If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.

Like everything Chandler wrote, this list is direct, thoughtful, and provides excellent fodder, most of it pertaining to plot and authorial credibility. Which rules still hold up? Take the last novel you read and see. I'd argue most rules will apply. It's an interesting list to view as an author. Admittedly, I have sinned against some of Chandler's commandments in my own works, but I like to think of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, which, novel after novel, seems to uphold these "commandments" with the dedication of Mother Teresa.

In the end, what are we to make of lists and rules? Some argue rules only hold a genre back, imposing unnecessary (and/or antiquated) limitations to what the genre can achieve. Parker, after all, insisted he didn't write genre fiction and listed The Great Gatsby as the greatest crime novel. I say that where excellent literary criticism has the power to make a text more accessible for a larger reader base, our genre's lists and rules challenge us (as readers and writers) to examine works more closely while asking our best authors to at once write within these boundaries -- and to also stretch them to new limits.

*Originally appeared in The Strand, May 5, 2016









Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Brain On Vacation

Apparently, my brain has gone on vacation. It’s pretty much been that way since I turned in my book to my editor. I can think of nothing to talk about today. Nada. Zilch. Zippo.

I’m sure my brain will return to its usual state once I receive the comments from my editor, but for now it’s happy watching TV and catching up on reading.

Here are a couple books I found particularly interesting, both historical mysteries.

From the Charred Remains by Susanna Calkins. This is the second book in the Lucy Campion series, set right after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The main character is a former maid in a magistrate’s household who has now become an apprentice to a printer.








Silent Remains by Christine Trent. This the second book in the Lady of Ashes series. I admit that what attracted them to me are the covers. The main character, Violet, is a female undertaker in Victorian England. Queen Victoria asks Violet to perform undertaking services for a peer who died after returning from Egypt. She also asks Violet to look into the death and to make sure the body stays unburied until the queen wishes services to be performed. Of course, no one refuses the queen!



 See you in a couple weeks after my brain has recovered.

Monday, May 23, 2016

How NOT to Approach an Author for Advice

By Vicki Delany

It happened to me again recently.  Ask any professional author who does public appearances, and they’ll tell you it happens to them all the time.

I was at a public event, in a spot reserved for me to give me the opportunity to introduce my books to readers and possibly persuade a few to actually buy and read them.  I had travelled some distance from my home to be there.

A person arrived: “I’ve written a mystery book.”

That can only mean one thing.  They are here to ask me to spend fifteen or twenty minutes of my valuable time, potentially fifteen or twenty minutes when that one eager reader passes by not wanting to interrupt me, telling them how to get this book of theirs published. They will, of course, not compensate me in any way for this advice.

Here’s a tip to every single person who has ever approached an author at an event when they are WORKING. (Yes, talking to the public is work) PAY THEM FOR THEIR TIME.

All you have to do is buy a book.  And not only should that not be a sacrifice but if you want my advice, wouldn’t you want to see what my product is?

In addition s/he is carrying a cheaply produced trade paperback book.  That can also only mean one thing. They want me to read it. They probably want me to buy it, but they might offer to give it to me for free, as long as I promise to pass it on to my publishers.

In this case, s/he said they would buy one of my books as long as I bought the one they were carrying (cost of $30 as opposed to my mass markets which are ten).  We could then exchange reviews on Amazon.   

I was pretty blunt about that: I would never promise to review a book I hadn’t read.

This person then wanted to know all about my publisher.  H/she paid $3000 for 100 copies of this book.  Who was my publisher? Penguin Random House. How much did I pay them to publish my book?  Uh, I paid nothing .Things have changed, h/she told me. Publishers these days expect authors to self-publish one book before they’ll consider them.

Now, I’ve heard that one before. I suspect some vanity publishers or self-publishing ventures are spreading this rumor. If anything, it’s the opposite. Unless your self-published book has been a huge hit (think Fifty Shades of Gray)  all you’ve done is destroy your marketability as a first novel author, and give yourself such low sales numbers that no one will look at you.

Sorry, that’s the way it is.

This poor schmuck had self-published the first in a series and was looking for a traditional publisher to pick up the next.  Never, never gonna happen.

Finally h/she left, book still under arm, and probably very unhappy with me.

Tough, I’m sorta losing patience, here. Not only with people who think my time and my professional advice, after 23 published books, isn’t worth forking out $10 to read what I produce, but who think they can make a success as a mystery writer with no research into the industry, no classes to learn the craft and the business, and no need to seek advice from the people you supposedly want to emulate (before taking that first, fatal step). 

I don't think there's anything wrong with self-publishing. But DON'T think it’s a natural step to a traditional publisher and DO go into it knowing exactly what you can expect. 

Oh, and buddy. If you want to sell books, ask yourself who’s going to buy them. Because obviously you are not.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The Mysteries of the Human Mind

Yesterday morning – at 7:30 am – I woke up humming. As my feet touched the floor, I burst into song. This was weird for several reasons: (a) I am not a morning person. Even after a good night's sleep, I am not inclined to greet the sun with song – especially when I'm rising because the alarm clock has gone off and I need to move along or be late; (b) the song I was humming, then singing, was a cheerful little ditty that I remembered from the 70s or 80s, but couldn't remember the name of the group that had sung it; (c) I could only remember the first line and a half of the song and I kept singing that over and over. That song was on an endless loop through my head as I fed the cat and took a shower and dashed out the door to attend an academic workshop.

In an Alfred Hitchcock movie, Shadow of a Doubt, a character is humming a waltz and observes how funny it is that sometimes you can have a tune in your head and then you hear someone else humming the same tune. She wondered if songs might leap from head to head. I wondered if I walked into the workshop I was about to attend, still humming, if the other attendees would one by one become infected until we were all singing a catchy pop song instead of discussing the serious business of course design. Maybe someone else would know all the lyrics, and begin to conduct our chorus. Or, maybe the lyrics would appear on the screen, replacing the speaker's slides.

The question was how I had been infected. I hadn't been dreaming anything that I could remember when I woke. But I had put the television on its timer as I was going to bed to provide myself with background noise as I fell asleep (yes, I know electronics do not belong in the bedroom). The show I had fallen asleep to was "The King of Queens" and Doug was singing at a karaoke club. Maybe he had been singing that song. Or, maybe the fact that he was performing had reminded me of songs from that era and the name "Rosemary" had bubbled up from my subconscious because as I was closing the refrigerator door I had noticed that I still had a package of dried rosemary and wondered if there was a chicken recipe that I could try. And then I had gone off to bed and fallen asleep as someone was singing an old song. . .

The phenomenon of having a song stuck in your head has been the subject of scientific study. After reading the explanation, I am relieved that I am not a chronic sufferer.
Music in head

But I am prone to the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon. We all know that one. The name or the title or the word that is right there, but out of reach. I put it down to my brain being on overload with a jumble of important information and useless facts. Here's some research on TOT
TOT

Or have you ever experienced deja vu when you walked into a place that you know you've never been, or in the middle of a conversation that you know you've never had?
Deja vu all over again

When it comes to mysteries, the human mind still challenges investigators. Speaking of which, it's too bad many readers are irritated when writers use a dream sequence to show what is going on in a character's head or to allow him or her to make a vital connection that helps to solve the crime. It happens in real life. How many times have you solved a problem that you fell asleep chasing around in your head? I have to say I like problem solving while I sleep a lot better than waking up with "earworm".