Tuesday, February 09, 2016

A public service announcement!

Aline’s computer debacle last week put me in mind of something anyone with a computer should know about and guard against, and it is this: you must always protect your data! It’s not if any hard drive you use will fail, but when. Do not ever think this won’t happen to you. It will — and usually at the worst time.

Computers are very complex machines, and like any machine, they will eventually fail. As expensive as having the motherboard on your computer going down can be, they can be fixed or replaced, and you’ll soon be up and running again. This is not the case with a hard drive failure. They usually can’t be fixed if the problem involves the discs on which your data is stored. To extract this data using heroic methods professionals have can be horrendously expensive — if it can be done at all.

But since hard drives can last for a long time, we’re often lulled into a false sense of security so we either don’t back up our data as often as we should — or we stop altogether. Trust me. Eventually it will come back to haunt you.

I speak from experience. I use three back-up systems, but a few days ago, I got bitten. The main storage disc (Time Machine on my Mac) got corrupted and could not be fixed. It had to be erased and re-initialized. While I didn’t actually lose any files, I did lose the history of those files, meaning I could no longer access past iterations of a job I was working and find something I’d discarded a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t catastrophic but it was a pain in the butt and involved several hours of needless toil.

For those of us who write, you must always protect your work with back-ups. I’m sure most of us do, but even so things can go wrong. You must always plan for the worst. Maybe you religiously back up on your computer with files kept on two different hard drives. The chances of both of them going down at the same time is minuscule, right? Well, what are you going to do if your house burns down? Both hard drives could likely be lost.

So here’s my suggestion to be as fail-safe as possible. By all means keep two copies of your precious work-in-progress, but also utilize a back-up assuring your work is stored away from your house. The easiest way to do that is to pay for some sort of cloud storage. This option is not necessarily expensive. Some small storage options are even free. (They give you a small amount of free storage space in hopes that you’ll buy a more generous option, usually at a good price.) Many can even be programmed to back-up automatically. Set it and forget it — and it will be there if you ever really need it.

It’s heart-breaking to hear of someone who has lost months of work because they neglected to take adequate precautions. Do yourself a favour and think about how you’re currently doing things. If the worst happened, would you still be able to carry on, or would you have to start all over again?

If that’s the case, then heed my warning. I’d hate to be the one to say, “I told you so.”

Monday, February 08, 2016

Je suis Circonflexe

An apology first. I'm sorry to have missed my post last week, but my PC, the dreaded Beelzebub I posted about a couple of weeks back, had to be sent back to the maker to have its guts ripped out and reinstalled. I'm still trying to come to terms with all the little 'imporvements' that make my life more difficult, but I daresay it will work out in the end.

There has been an outcry in France. A government decision that the circumflex which adorns certain vowels is to be omitted in school textbooks has provoked demos and a storm on Internet sites under the hashtag, 'Je suis Circonflexe'. Further fury was aroused when it transpired that Monet's famous Waterlilies painting Les Nenuphars (sorry, can't find a way of doing the acute accent over the 'e') is now to be rendered Nenufars.

I love the French. A year when I don't visit France is to me a year wasted and it is a proud boast that if you go far enough back in my family tree you find Huguenots, who fled France under religious persecution in the eighteenth century. (The wealthy ones were silversmiths, the poor ones were weavers. Guess which my ancestors were.)

One of the things I most love about the French is their passion for what they care about:; 'To the barricades!' is a slogan never very far from their lips. And I particularly love it that one of the things they care passionately about is their language.

The Academie francaise guards it jealously and mounts quixotic campaigns to stop English – or possibly I should say American – infiltrating it. To be strictly correct, if you wanted to say 'email' in French, you would call it 'courrier electronique.' They don't, of course, any more than they can be persuaded to use 'travail en reseau' instead of 'networking'. It's clumsy.

One of the big problems for accented languages like French appears when it comes to using keyboards; the letter 'e' for instance would have to appear as e acute, e grave and e circumflex, and by the time you did that for all accented letters the keyboard would be enormous, so any accented letter is subject to another process.

So it makes sense to banish the circumflex when it doesn't affect the vowel sound. And you won't hear any difference in pronunciation when the ph in nenuphars is replaced by and f – and it's easier to spell. It's certainly more practical but it's a shame when the history of a language disappears from the printed word.

America, of course, took those decisions years ago, and because of the influence of films English-English has now wholeheartedly embraced Americanisms – they're colourful and fun. But I start getting all French when I see 'program' creeping in instead of 'programme' – and I still think 'honour' looks, well, more honourable than 'honor'. So far, though, 'gotten' hasn't come back into English; it's a pure Shakespearean past participle that left with the Mayflower and is never used on this side of the Atlantic.

As writers words are our stock-in-trade; we need to be passionate about them, treat them with respect and defend them against misuse.  To the barricades, anyone?

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Guest Author Betty Webb

Type M 4 Murder is happy to host our wonderful weekend guest Betty Webb, author of two popular series of mysteries, one dark and one light and funny. Have you ever wondered how on earth authors manage two series at once, especially two that are polar opposites? Sit down and let Betty tell you all about it.

It Ain’t Easy
    By Betty Webb

Now that my poor grammar has captured your attention…

Any writer who keeps two or more different series going knows how difficult it can be, but it is doubly so when those series are dissimilar in tone. Two of Anne Perry’s series have differing police detectives as protagonists – William Monk and Thomas Pitt. Both series are dark, and both are set in Victorian-era London.

J.A. Jance went a little farther afield with her Seattle-based detective J.P. Beaumont, as well as her Arizona-based sheriff Joanna Brady, but again, both are professional crime-solvers, and the tone of both series fall well into the traditional mystery category.

Then along comes Rhys Bowen, with her early 1900s New York-set mystery series featuring Molly Murphy, who fights against social injustice. But Bowen also writes a much more light-hearted series set in 1930s England, featuring the misadventures of Lady Georgie, a scrappy heir to the British throne who is down on her financial luck. Lady Georgie considers it a life achievement that she has finally learned how to dress herself without a maid.

Of the three writers, my writing challenges most closely echo Bowen’s, but without the travails of historical research.

Like Bowen’s Lady Georgie series, my Gunn Zoo books are often laugh-out-loud funny, such as the rescue scene in the Iceland-set “The Puffin of Death,” where my California zookeeper/amateur sleuth confronts a killer after stumbling through movies sets featuring astronauts, samurais, and Viking berserkers. Also written for laughs was “The Llama of Death,” where poor Teddy has to wear a lion costume while pretending to “escape” from the zoo where she works.

In contrast, my “Desert” series more resembles Bowen’s Molly Murphy books, which see my Scottsdale-based P.I. protagonist Lena Jones struggling against social injustice. These range from the death penalty in “Desert Rage,” polygamy in “Desert Wives,” female genital mutilation in “Desert Cut,” government-caused cancer clusters in “Desert Wind,” and the misuse of eminent domain in “Desert Noir.” As such, this series can be quite dark.

The writing difficulty in each of my series is about the same. Once I’m well into a book – say, around ten chapters in – it’s pretty much smooth sailing. The plot is coming along nicely, the characters are not fussing at me too much, and sometimes I may have even figured out whodunit and why. But those first six chapters…

Here’s the true difficulty with writing two vastly different series: settling into the right tone when you switch protagonists.

Let’s say I’ve just finished writing “The Puffin of Death,” with one hilarious scene after another. Teddy, my uncomplicated zookeeper sleuth, remained optimistic as she rode through Iceland on a shaggy horse, evading erupting volcanoes and murderers. She cracked jokes all the while. The months spent writing “Puffin” were a blast for me, too, and I’d been giggling over my computer keys for months. But now that the book had been sent to my editor, it’s time to start on “Desert Vengeance,” the next “Desert” mystery.

“Vengeance” (which I’m currently working on) is about the problems in Arizona’s foster care system, as illustrated by PI Lena Jones’ own history as a child being shifted from foster home to foster home. Starved. Beaten. Raped. A truly miserable life. But wait. As I read the first few chapters in the rough draft, the now-grown Lena is cracking jokes and having a high old time as she remembers her early travails. What?! What in the world is so funny about starvation, beatings, and rapes?
Nothing, of course.

What has happened is that I’ve let the tone of the Gunn Zoo series – which I’d just spent months writing – leak into the opening chapters of a much darker book. It happened unconsciously because I was still on a giggly high after finishing “Puffin,” and I was still writing in Teddy’s optimistic voice. But Teddy trusts the world; Lena Jones doesn’t.

So what I, as a writer, have to do now is bring my own mind and emotions back into Lena’s dangerous world and edge away from the cheery glow of my California zookeeper. It isn’t easy. In fact, it usually takes me six or eight chapters – sometimes as many as ten – before I hit the right note and begin seeing the world through Lena’s suspicious eyes. I have to keep slogging away until the miracle finally happens. Once it does, and I’m finished with the first draft, I have go back and rewrite those funny – and very wrong – first chapters.

The opposite problem happens when I finish a Lena Jones book and start the next Gunn Zoo mystery. Lena’s fierceness leaks into the beginning chapters of a zoo book, making my bubbly Teddy resemble a stern Valkyrie much more than she does the happy-go-lucky zookeeper I want to create. But that, too, always works itself out. Somewhere between chapters eight and ten, my happy girl comes skipping back, with her beloved anteaters, koalas, llamas, and puffins trotting (or flying) behind her.

Let me reiterate. Writing two vastly different series with two vastly different protagonists ain’t easy. But this is where trust – and patience -- come in. The writer must trust that her characters, although absent for a while, will eventually return in full voice. And then have the patience to give it time to happen.
Because it will.

Betty Webb is the author of 9 Lena Jones mysteries (DESERT RAGE, DESERT WIVES, etc.) and 3 Gunn Zoo mysteries (THE PUFFIN OF DEATH, THE LLAMA OF DEATH, etc.). Betty worked as a journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and polygamy runaways. A nationally-syndicated literary critic for more than 30 years, she currently reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. She is a member of the National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, and the National Association of Zoo Keepers. Her websites are bettywebb-mystery.com and bettywebb-zoomystery.com

Friday, February 05, 2016

Chasing Reviews

There is nothing wrong with asking friends and writers to review your book. Of course you want a decent quote on the back of the cover. These terse complimentary words of praise are called blurbs and it helps when a well known author says something nice about one's work.

However, lately I've received requests for full blown requests from people I don't know who want me to decide on the basis of a line or two. Moreover, when I politely refuse, I don't receive a word of thanks for "taking the time to consider," etc.

These books have not been offered in print, are usually unpublished, and don't contain a whole manuscript. Even if they are an ebook, I don't want to read the whole thing on-line. I expect books to be printed and sent to me.

I hate to ask a friend to do a book or a review. Done well, they are time consuming and most of the writers I know are very, very busy. But it's important to screw up one's courage and simply ask.

When I do review a book, it's usually for a publication I'm familiar with. I take reviews very seriously. Academic reviews are especially important. 

Here are some of my guidelines:

(1) I read every single book I review. I don't merely skim.

(2) I never give scathing negative reviews. Books are hard to write--even bad ones.

(3) I never lie about a book, but I usually look for the things an author does well.

(4) If I don't like the genre and think the book is mediocre, I'll summarize the action and suggest that it might appeal to __________ audience.

(5) If the book is total crap I will not review it. Period. I hand it back to the editor and ask he or she to find someone else. Without much explanation.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Syntax: can't live with it; can't live without it

I'm several chapters into a book that will feature multiple points of view. Within those points of view there exists a commonality – a voice. My voice.

It's a voice I want readers to at once trust and hear and even find authoritative. Yet it's also a voice I never want the reader to be aware of. In fact, my goal is total anonymity. There is no writer. You're not reading. Just turning pages, lost in a story you (hopefully) don't want to put down.

I'm sure I don't bat a thousand. But I spend a lot of time revising, reading aloud, listening to the text, and revising again. I'm listening for flow, pace, characterization, and tension. What I'm not listening for is grammar and syntactical correctness, if such a clunky phrase exists.

I do, though, teach grammar. (My students, God bless them, are taking a test on chapter two of The Elements of Style this week.)

And I'm something of a stickler about it, insisting that you need to know the rules well in order to break them effectively. But I also reward the papers and narratives that can use punctuation and syntax in a sophisticated way.

Here's the start of a chapter from my work-in-progress:

Majd Awaad reached out to touch his sleeping brother's arm. Wanted to wake him. Then pulled back. Halil, even at twenty-four, was still his little brother. Probably needed his sleep. In any case, Majd would see that Halil got rest.

Majd leaned his head against the headrest but didn't close his eyes. He wanted sleep. Probably needed it. But he was restless – torn emotionally about the life he was leaving and the one a Boeing 767 was hurtling him 550 miles an hour toward.

Years ago, when I was writing first-person novels, I might utilize three sentence fragments in an entire book. Here, I have four in two short paragraphs. In fact, as I revised, I pulled the subjects out of the sentences here. Pace and narrative tension over grammatical correctness.

E.B. White is one of my favorite authors (hence The Elements of Style in my classes), and I don't know another writer who wrote clearer, more precise sentences. Mr. White's Rule #6 is Do Not Break Sentences in Two.

Yet, if I may disagree, I think Rule #11 trumps all: Use Active Voice. It's a mantra to live by. Right up there with Stephen King's "The road the Hell is paved with adverbs." If you live by Rule 11, the reader won't notice you.

Probably won't even realize she's holding a book.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Author Newsletters, Yea or Nay?

Confession time. I have an author newsletter, but it’s pretty much at the bottom of my priority list behind writing my next book, writing blog posts for this and other blogs, and other writerly activies like updating my website. Not that I ignore it completely. I do try to send one out now and then, especially at book launch time or when I have a lot of events planned.

For me, I prefer short newsletters. I don’t have any problem reading long books that are printed, but when I read online I prefer everything to be short: short emails that get to the point, short newsletters, short blog posts. If something’s too long, I’ll either not read it or set it aside to read later (which often means I’ll never get to it). So, whatever I do with my newsletter, I don’t want it to be too long.

I subscribe to a number of my fellow authors’ newsletters, partly as a fan to see what they’re up to and partly as a writer to get ideas of what to put in my own. Recipes seem to abound in most of the newsletters I subscribe to, but the authors who produce them also have series that involve food and include recipes at the back of their books. That doesn’t seem like it goes with my series, which is set in the world of decorative/tole painting. I did recently add a Painting Tip section to my newsletter as well as an Ask Sybil section where I answer questions about myself and my writing. But, beyond that, I’m not really sure what else to do with it.

My publisher believes that newsletters are important, also, and encourages us to send them out. But what to put in one? This article on authormedia.com talks about the eight elements in an effective newsletter. I’m not sure how much applies to me, but I found it an interesting read. Jane Friedman also has a Get Started Guide for authors. I’ve only skimmed this one, but it’s on my list to read when I start thinking about my newsletter again. Hah, you noticed, didn't you? The article was a little long so I set it aside. Told you that's what I do. I will get back to this one, though, after I've made more progress on my book.

And there’s the recent post by author Tonya Kappes on romanceuniversity.org titled “Newsletter = Marketing Gold”. She puts out a weekly newsletter and has found it a rewarding and effective way to connect with her readers. She’s a big believer in content that’s only available to newsletter subscribers. When someone subscribes to her newsletter, she gives them a free download of a short story that introduces the reader to her Divorced Diva mystery series. That’s an interesting idea I may put in practice someday.

Type M Readers, what do you want to see in an author newsletter? What don’t you want to see? Do you think they’re worthwhile?

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The value of humility and kindness

I’m certain that nearly everyone reading this had the two concepts in today’s headline drummed into their childhood heads by parents and other “significant” relatives. Problem is, as we grow older, we tend to forget many of the teachings of our younger years — especially those that are not always convenient to follow.

I’m equally certain that nearly everyone has heard stories of arrogant celebrities and other well-known people who display neither of the above traits. I have been around a number of them over the years, both as a musician or author or just as a member of the general public. My first urge is to shake them hard, perhaps smack the worst offenders upside the head and point out that they’re no better than anyone else. Self-importance is a really despicable “illness” to have.

My motto in life has always been The Golden Rule (please look it up if you don’t already know what it is) and I honestly do try to live by it. Now, I’m also a little fish in the great big sea of Canadian book publishing, which in itself is a pretty small thing, so you know where I’m at in the great pecking order. I once got asked in an interview, “What would be the first thing you’d change if you suddenly found yourself with a bestseller?” I answered back with an non-change: “The way I treat people.”

Now I’m not making myself out to be some kind of saint here. In actuality being nice and humble are not big things. For the humbleness part, I’m not very important anyway, am I? I do know that I’m very good at quite an array of things, but not earth-shatteringly so. No one will remember me for my incredible virtuosity on any instrument, nor for the quality of my prose. What they will remember me for (I sincerely hope) is that I was “a nice guy”. Sure, I fail at this from time to time (who doesn’t), but that doesn’t mean I’m anything except inconsistent in my successes.

It’s doesn’t take any work to be nice/friendly and the rewards can be great. That payoff can be something as small as a smile from someone or by knowing you improved someone’s day even a tiny bit.

And then there’s karma. I’m a firm believer that bad deeds result in bad karma and that someday, the bad thing you did to someone will be revisited on you — and probably in a worse way. Why tempt fate, eh?

How do I know that bad karma will result in a negative reckoning of some kind? Well, it’s happened to me. But I know it from observing first hand celebrities who have been on the top of the heap and perhaps let arrogance get the better of them. What happens  in the long run? Their celebrity runs its course and guess what they’re left with? A whole lotta nothing except for the memory people have of their bad behavior.

By the time that happens, there’s not a heck of a lot you can do about it. And in and of itself, that’s really a sad thing.