Thursday, February 23, 2017

Getting Out of Your Own Way, or Inspiration on Its Own Terms

I have spent the past two months doing the requisite publicity campaign for The Return of the Raven Mocker, my ninth Alafair Tucker mystery. This entails guest blogging and running hither and yon making personal appearances. Early in my career, I spent a lot of money on out-of-state book tours and conferences, which don’t seem to produce a return commensurate with my outlay. However, it can’t hurt to get yourself out there, right?


For the past few years I’ve been forced by circumstance to curtail my out-of-state travel, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. So I flit about in Arizona, which is the best I can do right now. I had a short respite last week, when I was able to stay home and do nothing but write on my tenth novel for five days in a row. It was great. The rest of this month and the next I’m back on the road.

I wish I had the money, time, and freedom to travel for my own pleasure, like I used to. Europe was my playground when I was younger. Now I’d give anything to be able to travel to India and Vietnam like a certain couple of blogmates of mine, one of whom wrote about her adventures yesterday (see below). Barbara’s experience of having an entire plot line spring forth from her overtired brain is so familiar. Anything that screws with your thinking processes is really good for getting out of your own way. In my experience, if I start trying to figure story lines out as though they are math problems, I end up like B’rer Bear and the tar baby in the briar patch, all stuck and unable to find my way out.

I have had some of my best ideas while dropping off to sleep or coming slowly awake in the morning. Or when water is falling on me or otherwise making me wet—in the rain, in the shower, in the swimming pool. I’ve heard other artists say the same. What is the mystical property of water? Water muses? Ozone? It’s best not to try and analyze it, for success can’t really be duplicated. Even if you do feel like you have to wear your lucky socks every time you sit down to write.

Genius comes when it will. I remember a story that Lawrence Olivier told about a particular performance he did of Lear that was so brilliant that the audience was left gasping. After the play was over, he went to his dressing room and trashed the place, because he had no idea how he had done it and knew he’d never be able to do it again.

I’m still waiting for that to happen to me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Inspiration on the road

I was standing in a roadside restaurant on the side of a chaotic, dusty highway between Delhi and Jaipur yesterday when an alert popped up on my iPhone. Type M blog due tomorrow. I am on a personal holiday and had planned to set aside all thoughts of writing for three weeks. However, in the back of my mind was a nagging wish to write a fourth in my Cedric O'Toole Rapid Reads series, and I had been waiting for inspiration to strike, as it often does, out of a random moment.

Such a moment had occurred the night before, and I decided it might be worth sharing in today's blog.

India is ten and a half hours ahead of Ottawa as well as a fourteen hour plane ride. My body clock had to stand itself on its head along with adjusting to a new setting, food, street noises like horns and barking dogs that went on all night. Thus there I was, when I should have been exhausted and crashing into sleep, lying in bed and staring up at the ceiling, my mind in overdrive. I did the usual – willpower, deep breathing, counting sheep – but to no avail. And I thought I've got loads of time with nothing to do but think. And imagine. And Cedric came to mind. Maybe toying with plot ideas, flat on my back in the dark, unable to make noise or turn on the light because of my roommate, will put me to sleep.

Surprisingly, after months of drawing a blank on interesting possible story lines, one came willingly out of that over-tired mind. I thought I'd get an opening or maybe a couple of scenes before sleep took over, but two hours later, at 4 am, I had sketched out almost an entire plot line, characters and conflicts, and a possible killer twist.

Given the hour and my fried brain, I didn't trust myself to remember it in the morning, so I rummaged as quietly as I could in my back for paper and pen, sneaked into the bathroom, turned on the light, and sat in the corner on a little stool to jot it down.

The result? The first bare bones outline of my new Cedric mystery. Maybe at my leisure on this holiday, the story will grow and deepen. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest for a writer's tired muse. So stay tuned for more news on this front. For now, I'm going to bed and I hope that this time, that muse leaves me alone to sleep.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Shifting sands in the Post-Truth Era

by Rick Blechta

“Oh, look—he must be from one of those fake-news outlets.”
We are now living in the Post-Truth Era.

What is going on all around us, in the “legacy media” (the old “standard” broadcast networks and newspapers), the newer online media (websites with a journalistic mandate), and of course, social media makes it hard to keep track of what is real and what has been made up.

It’s not just a phenomenon in the USA. Fake-news* is all around us. The spread of “alternative facts” is mostly facilitated in social media. I’ll bet if you’re online either with Twitter or Facebook or some other aggregating site, you’ve unwittingly spread false news yourself. I know that I have — much to my embarrassment.

It’s easy to have it happen. You read an article, sometimes from what you would consider a reliable source. You’re shocked and decide that you should help spread the story further. You actually think you’re performing a public service. I don’t care what you’re political persuasion is, either. The “alternative fact-sters” can make their work pretty darn convincing a lot of the times.

Now we get to crime fiction. Whether you’re a producer of it or a consumer, there exists an unspoken covenant between us all. Unless you want to risk the ire of readers, writers have to “play fair”. In a nutshell, this means a writer can’t magically reveal a bad guy from a closet at the end of a story: “Yes, I did it, but you didn’t know a thing about me until my existence was revealed in the last chapter!” Frankly, I doubt a manuscript with this sort of “dodge” in it would get by any reader — professional or otherwise — long before it would ever see print. And if it did, I can foresee rioting in the crime writing community streets. Writers have to be trusted by readers. If readers have no chance of solving the mystery as the story winds through to its conclusion, the whole construct collapses. We all know this.

“Post-Truth” media, politicians, anybody who produces or spreads falsehoods are no longer playing by the rules. If you can’t trust what you read, you can always do research, but now you have to suspect even those sources. We are getting perilously close to the point where a thinking person will not be able to trust anything unless they experience it personally. That is a really terrible thing.

Why can’t the real world play like we denizens of the crime writing world do in our made-up one?
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*As for what “fake-news” actually means, I offer this article based on the work of the journalist who actually coined the term (not what the term has morphed into): https://www.thestar.com/opinion/public_editor/2017/02/17/the-facts-about-fake-news-public-editor.html

Monday, February 20, 2017

Jekyll and Hyde

This April Edinburgh is hosting the Crime Writers Association annual conference and as one of the organising committee I've had to be very hard at work making arrangements for this to be positively the best conference ever.

The city itself is a great advantage, of course, and having Ian Rankin and Alexander MacCall Smith to welcome the delegates certainly helps. But we thought long and hard over our USP. It was our chair, Aly Monroe – a recent visitor to Type M – who came up with the theme: The Jekyll and Hyde City.

Like most cities, Edinburgh has two faces: the City of Culture, respectable and even prim, the place where little fingers are crooked above the tea-cup handle and the inhabitants of the poshest district are said to believe that when someone mentions 'sex' they're talking about what the coalman brings the coal in, and then the rough and violent housing schemes that were the background for Irvine Welsh's hugely successful novel Trainspotting. (The film was ranked one of the best British films of all time and its sequel is coming out just now).

So talks from the creator of Rebus, the cynical, hard-boiled detective, and the chronicler of 44 Scotland Street and other demurely middle-class tales, will provide a perfect introduction to our double-natured city.

There is, of course, another reason why it is a particularly apposite theme for Edinburgh. The tale of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has never been out of print since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote it and numerous films and plays have been based on it, but the background to the novel is perhaps not quite so well known.

One of Edinburgh's most notorious citizens in the eighteenth century was William Brodie. A respectable cabinet-maker and the deacon of a trade guild by day, he was a gambler (allegedly with loaded dice), a libertine and the leader of a gang of burglars by night. He was eventually caught and hanged, it is said, on a gibbet of his own devising.

It was a story well-known to Robert Louis Stevenson as he grew up in the Georgian New Town and it is believed that what he described to his wife as 'a fine bogey tale' was based on the life of Deacon Brodie. And, in a sinister little twist, in his childhood home there was a wardrobe that had been made by the dead man himself.

When Edwin, Lucy and Susan stepped through the wardrobe they found Narnia. But what, I wonder, did the young Louis find when he stepped through his?

There's a lot more work to do before the conference but we're having a fun time doing it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Year of the Rooster




2017 is the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese zodiac. There is something about this that appeals to me. My sign is the Dragon and this year the prediction is very optimistic. So much so that I ran right out and bought this glorious gaudy ceramic rooster to set on the windowsill in my kitchen.

2016 was a very tumultuous year. Good and bad and good and bad and all of it wildly unpredictable.

I worried about my editor's reception of Fractured Families. As it turned out she liked it more than any book I've written. To her (and my) relief, it received excellent reviews from Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, and Library Journal. It's way my darkest mystery so I'm still surprised. It will be released March 17th.

The horoscope warned me that my success would depend on hard work. When does it not? Luck counts, but not for much.

Here's what's true (at least for me)

There is no substitute for writing everyday. Even if it's only one page. That practice starts a mental process like setting yeast a-working. Plots, people, bubble away in the background even when you're tending to other matters.

No one really understands the writing process. Don't try. Just do it. Writing is best learned by writing and by going to other writer's books for instruction. Study how they get people in and out of a room. Why have you remembered a book for years? Why are these characters memorable? What makes you stop reading half-way through?

Write a manuscript twice before you show it to anyone. You know darn good and well what's wrong with your book when you've finished. Go through it again and fix it. Fix the plot, the characters, the grammar, and then, and only then, throw it to the wolves. Then pay attention to what they say.

This is short list. I'll save more for another blog. But it all boils down to the same thing. There is no substitute for self-discipline and putting your shoulder to the wheel.

I'm going to stop admiring my rooster and head for my not-so-lovely computer.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Story Arcs and Trump

Last week, I was asked to create a list of talking points for a television producer to use while pitching a would-be Peyton Cote TV show. The gist was to offer a season-long story arc.

Not an easy task for me. For a few different reasons. First off, I don’t watch a lot of TV. (I’ve read a few scripts then watched the shows to study the craft of scriptwriting.) Second, I’m not big on outlines. When I write a novel, I write a page or two of character sketches before I begin, mostly coming up with motivations and backstories. Sometimes, I write what amounts to the description you’d read on the dust jacket. Then I go –– and follow the story where it leads.

One thing I do have going for me is that I write series fiction. Always. (Even my one stand-alone, This One Day, has a protagonist I’d like to return to.) This speaks to my love of the dynamics between characters and the relationships in the books and also to how and why the crime is always secondary for me.

So thinking in terms of a multi-episode arc and how a larger mystery looms in the background of each episode was a fun and interesting challenge.

It makes me wonder, though, would that work in book-length fiction? Could you have an ongoing unanswered mystery in the background of each book, while characters solve another crime? Ed McBain’s Deaf Man never gets caught in the 87th Precinct series. He never outright succeeds, but he never gets caught. So maybe it’s possible that readers would buy in.

I’d love to hear my Type M colleagues’ and our readers’ thoughts on this.

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Food for Thought: Trump

One thing on my mind often of late is this question: What does a Trump presidency mean to publishing? Lots of articles are being written about it. Here’s one. While many are calling this a time of anti-intellectualism and thus a threat to publishing, most believe this is a time when literature is needed more than ever, particularly works celebrating diverse voices. Perhaps this will be a time when inde presses are celebrated more than ever. Houses like Akashic, which has a rich and diverse list.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Creating Interesting Characters

I’m in the beginning stages of the next book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series so I’ve been thinking a lot lately about creating characters. As a writer, I want to create characters that are memorable enough that readers will keep coming back to my books. But what makes a character interesting or memorable?

I’ve read a lot of writing books that talk about creating well-rounded and interesting characters. In one of them (don’t ask me which one, I’ve read a bazillion of them), the author talked about giving a character an “obsession” like loving chocolate ice cream. They also noted that whatever interest you give them, it should be there for some reason. e.g. she loves ice cream because she has fond memories of eating it with her mother when she was growing up.

The shredder
Most people have some sort of obsession. It might be as small as loving ice cream or it might creep into the realm of stalkerville. I’ve talked before on Type M about my love for the Great British Bake Off and may also have alluded to a slight obsession with Celtic Thunder. Even our cats had their own little quirks. The oldest loved shredding paper with her claws. Any piece of paper that landed on the floor was fair game. Leave paper too long and she’d methodically rip it to shreds. The other cat loved tearing down towels from the bathroom towel racks. He would systematically move around the house, from bathroom to bathroom, reach up and bring down every single towel with his claws. He wasn’t satisfied until they were all on the floor. Then he’d just walk away. He didn’t do anything with them. For some reason, he wanted them all on the floor. After awhile, I just left them there and he eventually grew out of that obsession. I adored my cats. Their quirks made them more interesting to me.

The towel puller
The same goes with characters in stories, I think. As an added bonus, you can use those obsessions for and against them. In an episode of the TV show “Rosewood”, the detective knew someone was lying because of her love of a particular brand of pretzel. Because of it, she knew exactly where in the local mall the store was located, which told her the person she was talking to was lying. On the “Big Bang Theory”, Sheldon loves trains. Besides showing a different side of him, it’s also been fun for the writers to work with. I can also see a character using another character’s obsession against them, perhaps to lure them into a trap.

So, Type M readers, what makes a character stand out to you? Do you find it interesting when a writer gives them an obsession?