Monday, October 20, 2014

Imaginary Friends

I loved Rick's recent postings with the cartoons, particularly the one that said, 'Writer's Block: when your imaginary friends won't talk to you.' I'd never thought of it that way before, but it's an excellent definition.

Just recently when David Nicholls' latest book, Us, was published he described the agonies he went through after the huge success of One Day. It paralysed him to the point where he wasn't writing anything and subscribed to Write or Die, a programme that starts eating the words you've already typed if you don't write at a certainly rate or stop  for any appreciable length of time. (Terrifying, or what?)

The result, he said, was that he managed with the traditional blood, sweat and tears to produce 35,000 words of the new book which he then showed to his agent and a trusted friend, both of whom went very quiet and then suggested he put it aside for a bit and start something else. It was only later that he realised that what was wrong was the Point of View, and it transformed the whole thing.

I  write in the third person but more often than not I will be looking at the scene through the eyes of one of the characters and if I find myself struggling, writing against the grain and getting nowhere, the problem almost invariably isn't the material but the wrong PoV. Change that, and the whole thing will  suddenly start flowing again. I'm then usually kicking myself over all the time I wasted battling with it before I realized this was what was wrong.

At the time I started writing I heard a lecture from someone with the glorious name of Diane Doubtfire ((her real married name) when she told us that we should never allow ourselves to be inside the head of more than one character in a scene, that if it isn't your viewpoint character you can't know what another person is thinking unless an observable action would make it obvious. She said that otherwise, it was like watching a tennis match where your head keeps turning to watch the ball go back and forwards over the net – thoroughly distracting to the reader..

I was very impressed at the time and it's become an ingrained habit. And the advantage of that is that if one of your imaginary friends isn't talking to you, there's a good chance that another will!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Split personalities by Linda... I mean Erika

Today's guest at Type M is Ottawa's Linda Wiken, who needs no introduction to the Canadian crime writing community as she was the owner for many years of Prime Crime Bookstore. Although, maybe she does need an introduction, as you will see.

And — there's a trick question at the end!

I’ve done it. I've now moved into the writer of multiple mysteries category. With one signature on the dotted line, I’ve doubled my output and now have two cosy mystery series on the go. And, two author names.

The first in the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries written by Erika Chase, A Killer Read, hit the shelves in spring, 2012 and much to my astonishment and delight, was nominated for an Agatha Award from Malice Domestic for Best First Mystery. The fourth one, Book Fair and Foul, was released in Aug. and I’ve just submitted the fifth in the series.

Now for a break, of sorts. The new series, for the same publisher, Berkley Prime Crime (part of the Penguin group), is called the Culinary Capers Mysteries and I’ll be writing as myself. No more split personality until it’s time to return to the land of Ashton Corners, AL.

Now, this blog isn’t really one about BSP, although I appreciate the opportunity to do just that, but I’ve been thinking about just what it means to be coming up with a complete new cast of characters, an entirely different set of premises, in a setting that’s so not Southern U.S. In fact, it’s set near Burlington, Vermont.

I've stuck with the group plan – my book club has now morphed into a supper club, with a monthly dinner hosted by a different member each month. I like the idea of the protagonist having a number of sidekicks who brainstorm the identity of the killer and can also be useful to the sleuth, such as bailing her out of jail if necessary.

As before, my main character is a single feisty female. She has to be both single and feisty to permit me to get her involved to such a large extent in murder investigations. So that’s the problem. How to make them the same but different. One obvious difference is that one of them, Lizzie Turner is Southern, with that certain demeanor that Southern implies. Kat Myers, on the other hand, is not. She’s turning out to be the more assertive and direct of the personalities, a distinction that will get her far in her crime fighting career.

So, how to get this across in the writing. It starts with getting into each head as deeply as possible when writing. Every writer knows what a difference this can make, infusing life into a page of words. This will affect everything she does and everyone she comes into contact with. This will make the two series distinct, one from the other. This is my hope although it is early days. The setting is an obvious difference and although most cosy mysteries are set in smaller cities or towns to help promote that community feeling, each place has its own personality which should come across in the writing.

What’s next? The crime, of course and tied into that, the motive. I think every author would like to think they've come up with the perfect crime, in that the reader won’t be able to guess whodunit until the very end. However, crimes are also based on the cast of characters and settings. What works in New York may be entirely inappropriate for an Ashton Corners small town. But being small town, there’s the problem of killing off the community. There has to be someone left in town to provide for a cast of suspects. This, of course, is providing the series continues to please the publisher’s sales demands for many years running. And in coming up with a crime, it’s always wise to remember that some that happen in real life, when transferred to the pages of a fictional mystery, would immediately be labelled as being too unreal to happen. You know I’m right. You’ve heard about it before.

That’s a lot of challenges for someone writing a mystery series, and as I've mentioned, double the concerns with two series. But it can be done. We have a lot of fabulous Canadian mystery authors who have managed this with great skill and managed to carry their readers along with them to everything they write. I won’t name them because you know that will get me in trouble, as I know I’ll forget some obvious names.  Vicki Delany and Mary Jane Maffini come to mind immediately, though. Can you name their pseudonyms?

I have great admiration for anyone in this business who puts fingers to keyboard most days. It is a love and at times, a curse. It is fulfilment and anguish. It is a whole lot of fun. As long as that split personality knows its boundaries.

Linda Wiken, writing as Erika Chase, authors the Ashton Corners Book Club Mysteries.  She’s been nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel and an Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story. She’s a member of the Ladies’ Killing Circle and a former mystery bookstore owner in Ottawa.  Currently, she's writing a second series for Berkley Prime Crime, the Culinary Capers Mysteries.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Gentle Reviewer

I don't give nasty reviews. But I don't lie either. This philosophy puts me in some rather delicate situations.

First of all, I'm deeply aware that it's much easier to find what's wrong with a book than what is good about it. In fact, looking for what's right instead of what's wrong is not a bad approach for assessing human beings. When it comes to evaluating a book, I always keep in mind that writing a book is hard. Even if the book stinks, it's hard.

Commenting on a book I love is easy. Descriptive words come easily. It's a joy to urge readers to run down to their local bookstore and add the title to their collection. If I'm really crazy about it, I'll foist it off on all my friends. "You gotta read this. Just gotta."

Next down the list are books that I don't really like but recognize their merit. These are mysteriously painful reads that I simply don't care for. I simply soldier on and do my best to expand on themes and or point out some special strength.

Next are books that are competent, but mediocre. The plotting is predictable, the characters trite, and the writing lazy. I simply come up with a completely objective plot summary, with no praise whatsoever. It goes something like this: "John Doe's historical novel, Blue Against the Grey,  is set during the Civil War. Doe follows the story of two families caught up in the Late Rebellion." I don't recommend these books, but don't make negative comments either.

And then there are the books I simply refuse to read beyond the first five pages. When that happens, I turn them back to the editor with the comment that I don't feel like I could do a good job reviewing this book. Find someone else!

An author I met at Bouchercon last year told me about a situation she was in and asked my advice in handling it. Although it had never happened to me, I knew what I would do. A lady who was very aggressive asked her to review an ebook and post the comments on-line. Blatant Self Promotion was the lady's middle name. She was shameless in pursuing people to offer their opinions.

My new friend finally agreed to give her a review. She herself wrote  hardcore ebooks, but when she reached the lady's second page, she knew it was the most depraved book she had ever read. What should she do? She loathed the book, but the lady was quite influential. She knew a lot a people.

I told her to nevertheless to refuse to have anything to do with the book. Refuse immediately and firmly. Use polite wording if you can in this kind of situation.  Something like "Your writing is completely different than mine. A recommendation from me wouldn't help your book. Find someone who supports your genre."

In fact, not only would I ditch the book, I would ditch the person. There's something blackmailish about someone throbbing with a veiled threat of "Give me a good review or I'll ruin your career."

Keep your distance from mean people.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Random Musings: Dostoyevsky to Audible

I have fallen in love. Again. But this time it's different.

Those are words you don't want to hear from your teenage daughter.

But, here, it's true. It happens every time I read a book I just can't get enough of.

The great thing about teaching English is that it's sort of a job requirement to constantly read things you haven't read before. The great part about teaching high schoolers is that they are open to everything. Therefore, I read Crime and Punishment in July, and I'm rereading it with the students Frankie Bailey visited last month. I could read the novel over and over again for the next five years and not reach saturation. I've set up guest lectures from members of the history department to put the text into cultural and historical contexts, which adds even more enjoyment.

This isn't a book report or a sales pitch, but if you're reading this post, you either love mysteries or writing (hopefully, both). So all I can say is get a copy and check it out. You'll find that most of your contemporary authors (crime and mainstream) are deriving themes from Dostoyevsky.

On another front, I promised to keep you posted regarding my foray into the audiobook realm, and I have two updates, both regarding Audible. First, using my backlist (the Jack Austin PGA Tour mysteries), I'm taking advantage of Audible's Audiobook Creation Exchange program, where an author, who owns rights to his work, can post a novel for auditions, select a narrator, and then share royalty profits with the selected narrator (each taking a 25% slice), roughly $5 a book, I'm told. The process has been slower for me than the writer who recommended the program. (I'm on my second narrator.) But I have nothing to lose, so I'm riding it out and still recommend the program. Second, I'm joining Audible via a more traditional route: my agent recently fielded a three-book offer for Bitter Crossing, the sequel Fallen Sparrow, and the third in the series, which I'm working on currently. It will be interesting to go through these two audiobook experiences with Audible simultaneously and see which I prefer.
I have two events in New England this weekend and would love to meet anyone who reads Type M. The first is Saturday, Oct. 18, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Portsmouth, NH; and the second is Sunday,Oct. 19, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at Barnes and Noble in Augusta, Maine.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Blast from the Past

While sorting through a box of childhood memorabilia recently, I came across a couple stories I wrote in the 5th and 7th grades so I thought I’d embarrass myself and share bits and pieces of some of my first forays into writing fiction.

I vaguely recall writing “Sleepy Toes and Fido” in 5th grade. I’m pretty sure there were illustrations that went with it, but I can’t seem to find them. (I would have shared them if I had them. I have no shame.) The first thing I noticed about this story was my 5th-grade self was paragraph-challenged.

Sleepy Toes was a donkey and Fido a dog, a hippie dog if phrases like “peace is my game,” “neat pad,” and “love beads” are any indication. (It’s pretty obvious from that I grew up in the 60s and 70s.)

Here are the first couple lines: “One day in late June, Sleepy Toes was walking sleepily in the meadow. He was small because when he was born he accidentally fell into the washer and shrank.” Go ahead, laugh. I did.

The story goes on to describe Sleepy Toes meeting Fido and inviting him back to his “pad” where Fido proceeds to steal some jewelry. The first thing that comes to mind—what was Sleepy Toes doing inviting a complete stranger back to his home? I obviously grew up in a more innocent time. By the end of the (very) short story, Fido returns the jewelry and all is well.

I may remember writing the Sleepy Toes tale, but I’d completely forgotten about one I wrote in 7th grade, “Murder in Catville.” Hmm, another crime story. I sense a trend here.

By the time this one came around, I was now dividing stories into actual paragraphs. “Murder in Catville” involves cats, a murder, a ghost, a séance, and a secret panel in a wall. There seems to be some cross-genre stuff going on here, something I haven’t yet tried as an adult.

Here are the first couple lines: “One shadowy, moonless night, fifty years ago, a cat was walking down Catnip Lane. Suddenly a scream was heard.”

This story was written about the time the supernatural soap opera, Dark Shadows, was finishing its run. That was one of my favorite shows. I remember watching it every day after school. I definitely see its influence here in the description of the séance and the discovery of the secret panel in the wall. At the end of the story, the murderer is caught and peace has been restored to Catville.

Both of the stories end happily so I can see at a young age I was more inclined toward cozies than noir. That’s still true today. Most of my mystery reading is on the cozy end of the spectrum, though I do read historical mysteries, private eye novels, and even some noir on occasion.

One final observation—with last lines like “So they all lived happily.” and “Crime doesn’t pay!” I can see I wasn’t good at coming up with ending lines. That’s still true today. Endings and last lines are some of the hardest things for me to write. I struggle over them far more than any other part of a story.

I’d like to think I’ve come a long way since I wrote these two stories. I’m curious. Have you ever gone back to read stories you wrote when you were young? What was your impression of them? Could you see indications of the writer or reader you’ve now become?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I just did something I said I would never do

The title above says it all. So what did I do? I asked a reviewer to correct a rather large error in their review of Roses for a Diva on It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, however, since I’m from the school of “let the review chips fall where they may”. This is not the first time someone has made an error in a review, but it is the first time I felt compelled to ask them to correct it.

It’s not as if this person didn’t like the book. That didn’t really matter to me. But from the bulk of it, they did seem to enjoy a large part of the book. I got 3 stars, a fair to middling rating, and I believe based on the review it was a fair and accurate rating for this person’s reading of the plot, characters and voice.

A friend pointed out the problem to me. It was contained in the spoiler. Since I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone interested enough to want to read it, I won’t say what it was, but it was a misreading of something to do with the time frame of the story. I looked back at the uncorrected proof to be certain, but it was not something that needed to be fixed after ARCs were sent out. I got it right from the beginning.

To be fair, English might not be this reviewer’s native tongue (although the review was quite well written), so I don’t know if that was an issue. You would think, though that if you’re going to write a review and find fault with something, you would make sure that you’ve got your facts correct.

For some reason, it irked me enough this time that I had to make a comment. It was a very polite (and I went out of my way to make it so) request that this person change their review to correct their error. I don’t know what this person will do. I’m not even sure if you can edit reviews.

Now I’m worried that what I did was in bad form. Is it just me or should it be expected that reviews have correct information in them? I mean, I would certainly take it seriously if someone were to point out an error I made in writing any of my novels. It’s part of the covenant writers have with readers. Should we expect the same — even if it’s a review on a site such as Goodreads?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

By Vicki Delany

Today is Thanksgiving Day, and I am celebrating at my daughter’s house in Ottawa. Many of our American readers will be checking the date of this posting to make sure they haven’t stumbled on a blog from 11 months ago.

No, you’re in the right place at the right time.

In Canada Thanksgiving is the second Monday of October. Which makes total sense to us because Thanksgiving is a harvest celebration, having nothing to do with pilgrims and First Nations. It also seems to me to make a lot more sense to have a big holiday on a Monday, so people with jobs have time to get there and to do all the cooking, rather than a Thursday which is the middle of the week.  But I digress. In my family we always have the big dinner on Sunday, which is very common. This year we had it on Saturday, because one of my daughters is a paramedic and had to work Sunday and Monday.

Christmas is a much bigger holiday in Canada than Thanksgiving. In most families, people will gather for Thanksgiving but they aren’t likely to go vast distances and travel across the country (or around the world) as they are for Christmas. Traditionally the meal at both Thanksgiving and Christmas is turkey. We do not eat green beans with cheese sauce (ug) or anything with marshmallows on it. Marshmallows are for putting on hot chocolate or roasting over a campfire. Nothing else except maybe Rice Krispy treats. We do like those.

On Thanksgiving in Canada, many people make pumpkin pie, but not usually at Christmas. Of course pumpkin is plentiful in October but not in late December, although these days we are quite likely to use canned pumpkin. For Christmas dinner I will make two desserts: a fruit pie and a cake or pudding. This is because one of my daughters is the only person in the western hemisphere who does not like fruit pie.

The latest Constable Molly Smith book, Under Cold Stone is set over Thanksgiving, and Molly Smith is making her first-ever Thanksgiving dinner.

I am (if I do say so myself) quite a good cook.  Molly is not. I had fun trying to remember what it was like NOT to be able to cook.

Here’s a sample:
Molly Smith eyed the turkey. It did not eye her back.

It was frozen solid and had no head.

Now, what was she supposed to do with it? The Internet said the safest way to defrost a turkey was to leave it in the fridge. Unfortunately it also said that this twenty-pound beast would take five to six days to fully defrost. She didn’t have five to six days. She had forty-eight hours.

Her mom had left her with instructions for cooking the turkey as well as recipes for her favorite side dishes and desserts. She’d said to go to the butcher to order a fresh, organic, free-range turkey. Her mom hadn’t told her to put the order in a month ahead of time, and when Smith showed up this morning – Friday – to buy one, expecting to pick it up on Saturday, she was told she was too late. All those birds who had only days ago been happily pecking in the weeds of their spacious enclosures surrounded by green fields overflowing with organic produce ripening in the sun were accounted for.

She wasn’t too disappointed. A free-range turkey was always nice, but plenty of people bought a factory-farm raised bird from the supermarket, and they seemed good enough. Unfortunately, the supermarket in Trafalgar didn’t stock fresh turkeys, only frozen ones.

Back to the Internet to search for plan B. Okay, apparently you could defrost the turkey in cold water. That method seemed to suit a cook who had nothing at all to do for an entire day as the water should be kept cold and constantly refreshed. Smith was scheduled to begin a twelve-hour shift in two hours. It might have been doable if she still had her apartment above Alphonse’s bakery on Trafalgar’s main street, to which she could slip every few hours to replace the water. But now that she was living a good half-hour outside of town, it was unlikely her shift supervisor would approve of her driving back and forth all night.

Ah, what the heck. They were young and healthy. A bit of improperly defrosted turkey wouldn’t kill them. She wiped out the sink, dropped the heavy bird into it, and ran cold water.

Lucky had given her the family’s favorite recipes – stuffing (not dressing!), butternut squash casserole sweet with a hint of maple syrup, mashed potatoes, gravy, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pecan pie. She eyed the pile of grocery bags spread out across the counter. Even if she did have time to defrost the turkey in the fridge, she’d have trouble finding room.

She checked the recipes one more time to make sure she hadn’t forgotten to buy something important. She was on afternoons this week, would get home at three on Sunday morning, nap for a few hours, and then get up and start cooking. Fortunately, Sunday was the start of four days off, so she didn’t have to squeeze the preparation and then the meal into between-shift time.

She headed upstairs to get ready for work. She showered, washed her hair and tied it into a ponytail, put on her uniform, struggled into her equipment-laden belt, went to the gun safe and retrieved her Glock. Last of all she slipped off her engagement ring and tucked it into its box in the table on her side of the bed. She never wore the diamond to work.

Back downstairs, she drained the sink and added fresh cold water. She studied her efforts – the bald white turkey looked mighty unappealing. Then, feeling like a proper fifties-era housewife, she shifted her gun belt, settled the weight of the Glock into a better pace on her hip, and left for work.

Molly's mom has left her with recipes for all the family favourites. What's the can't-do-it-without dish for your family? For us, it's my mom's stuffing. I make it exactly as I was taught all those years ago.