Monday, August 31, 2009

Why Read?

Vicki here to say that I read a lot, I always have.

I may have mentioned before that I live in a one-channel universe so I don’t watch TV. I go to a few movies, but considering the dreck that’s out there, not often.

(Aside – loved Julie and Julia. I saw it at a weekday matinee and the theatre was packed. I noticed on the way out that the audience was almost all middle-aged women. Who woulda thunk – make a movie for middle-aged women and they’ll come. On second thought, keep that to yourself. Better middle-aged women sit at home reading mystery novels.)

I have talked to some writers who say that when they are writing they do not read. They don’t want to be influenced by anyone else’s style. Aside from the fact that I am always working on one book or another, unless I am travelling, I believe that reading keeps my creative juices flowing.

I am currently reading a book by a well-known writer, and enjoying it very much (it may be a candidate for the annual Type M for Murder top 5 of the year list). It is written in the many-person POV we talked about a few weeks ago. As it happens I am working on the final draft (final that is, before my editor gets hold of it) of Smith and Winters # 4 right now, which is written, as always, in multi-person POV.

When I read, I confess I always have one ear open asking myself why is this working or why isn’t this working. Reading this book last night, I realized that one of my POV characters (not a re-occurring character) wasn’t giving us enough background so that the reader could judge her actions. If you are going to put someone’s POV front and centre in your book, you had better have a darn good reason to do so.
I jotted a note on the pad I keep beside me and this morning settled in to learn something about that character’s motivation.

Am I copying, stealing someone’s ideas? Of course not. If I revised my MS to include a female one-legged Falkland Island War vet who collects Nazi memorabilia and stumbles upon the REAL story behind the death of Adolph Hitler then maybe. (Okay, there isn’t such a person in the book I'm reading but you get the idea). What I am doing is allowing myself to observe good writing and I can then decide if that technique belongs in my book, and if so am I using it to the best of my ability.

A question for the writers out there – do you read books of the same style you write when you’re working on a book?

And for the readers – do you ever think Writer A has been overly influenced by Writer B? If so, is it a problem?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Guest Blogger: Ray Arsenault

NOTE: This week’s guest blogger is Ray Arsenault, author of Tempestuous Seas. For as long as I've known Ray, he's never been shy of taking risks, following paths others avoid. So when Ray told me that he had no interest in 'playing the games' required in traditional publishing and chose rather to go with an electronic (Kindle) published format only, I was not surprised. The fact that he wrote a rousing historical/adventure/romance also came as no surprise. Ray's a natural storyteller with an eye for detail and an ear for dialog. And today he lends a hand on Type M.


_______________________________________________________


Hello, I’m Ray Arsenault, a brand-new novelist. My old friend Charles Benoit asked me if I would consent to posting this “guest blog” in recognition of my recently completed novel, Tempestuous Seas. (Despite the fact that my novel is not a mystery, Charles thought I might still offer some insight by sharing my writing experiences with you. I don’t know how much “insight” one can glean from me, but here goes…)

First, having read the recent posts on the “Type M” blog site, I seem to be partially at odds with my old friend. (Sorry, Charles.) Read on to see how.

I would think I’m a little out of the mainstream among “my fellow authors” (and gee, doesn’t that phrase seem a stretch to me…) because I never set out to really be an author. In fact, this project came into being when I was trying to think of a good way to pass my time during an upcoming tour in Iraq. My girlfriend suggested that I write a book. When I protested that I had nothing to write about, she proposed the plot for Tempestuous Seas.

“Okay,” she said, “he is a sea captain, and she is a school teacher. It’s the 1830’s. Go with it.”

We collaborated a little on the details and I started writing after I arrived at my camp. Obviously these parameters dictated a historical romance. I just went with it. I never made an outline; all I knew at the outset were the parameters we had agreed upon earlier. I was to make sure he was heroic; she was going to be beautiful and smart, and we agreed upon how it would end. (Note how I’m cleverly leaving the details of that part out of this discussion…) I had only the vaguest idea how the story would fill itself out. (So in my case, I knew the destination but didn’t have much of a clue as to the route I would take reach it. --Sorry, Charles…)

Anyway, this was my “hobby” in Iraq. My mind was on the story when I was off duty. I would ask myself, “What happens next?” Each scene revealed itself to me when it was ready and I just wrote what popped into my head. The words fairly flew onto the page most of the time.

As for the “nuts and bolts” of writing the piece: I decided that I would have to alternate scenes at first, “him-her-him-her”, until they finally met. Then, I tailored scenes to fit the plot line, which I created day by day. I didn’t worry much about anything else; I simply let the story tell itself. I wrote over 95,000 words in all, but the finished manuscript came in at a svelte 91,000 words. My story has no “chapters”, only “scenes” of varying length.

I put my energy into the tale itself, not technical issues. I wanted my characters to be believable and genuine; and I wanted them to have “depth”. I tried to reveal bits of their character as I went along, through their actions, rather than by describing them in detail at the beginning. I wanted the sailing parts depicted as accurately as possible and the adventurous parts to be exciting and plausible. I also tried to describe scenes so that the reader could truly “see” the locations through my words.

Remember, I wasn’t in the game to create a “book”. I don’t consider myself a “writer”; I was just passing time. I found it fun, actually. I looked forward to the challenge of figuring it all out. To tell you the truth, if I had set out from the beginning with the goal of becoming a published author “come hell or high water”, I probably wouldn’t have succeeded. I can see myself in that scenario, frustrated beyond belief in my efforts to make my book “a blockbuster”--and dropping it to play golf (where I would become frustrated beyond belief, etc).

As for having this novel published, well…since I didn’t really have that in mind as a goal in the first place, I opted to simply upload it as a Kindle book on Amazon.com. We’ll see how that goes…I will be surprised and delighted by any sales at all.

I have no idea how much help this experience of mine will be to anyone. My advice, if I may boldly offer it as a newbie, would be to let your story tell itself. Don’t agonize over it. No pressure; just have fun with it.

Regards, Ray Arsenault, Author, Tempestuous Seas, http://www.amazon.com/dp/B002MPQ2DK

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Penny Walk

Donis here. Let me begin by assuring Vicki that I would never come to blows, virtual or otherwise, with Charles and John, lest passers-by wonder why two grown men were beating up on their grandma.  And even if I were still in my hearty prime, I am : 1. an avowed pacifist. 2. Five foot three. 3. a coward of the first water.


That having been said, I shall return to the question of whether it is more helpful to the writing process to outline or not to outline.  There have been some developments with my own writing that fit perfectly in with our recent topic threads.


A couple of weeks ago, I sent my editor the first 100 pages of a manuscript.  The book is called All Men Fear Me, and is set in Oklahoma in 1917, at the onset of World War I.  I had her comments back a week later. 


I mentioned in my previous post that I thought All Men was a big, rambling thing and I expected I was going to have to go at it with an ax and a saw.  Apparently I was right.  My editor suggested that I needed more action at the beginning, which flaw was discussed last month on this very web site.  Also, I had included too much backstory.  Again, we talked about this here at Type M, and again, I expounded on the evils of too much backstory along with the best of them.  So let this be a lesson to you, Dear Reader.  Just because you know what to do doesn’t mean you always do it.


All of these problems are quite fixable, and Darling Editor and I agreed that I could fix them without too much problem.  After all, I’m like a lot of writers in that I have a great deal of confidence in my abilities, whether it’s warranted or not. 


However.


Consider this, she said to me.  Would you entertain the idea of going back a year or so in time and writing another pre-war book?  In her opinion, I’m moving the series ahead in time too quickly .


One would think that considering the fact that I’ve been working on All Men for two @#$% years, her request that I put it aside and start a new book from scratch would make me want to jump off a bridge.  But I was oddly elated by the suggestion.  


I like All Men Fear Me. I think it is full of wonderful stuff, and  once I clear out the underbrush, it will be a great story.  But the idea that after all this time, I could put it aside and not look at it for a while - I felt like a weight had suddenly been lifted off my shoulders.


In short, I agreed to start anew.  I’ve already begun writing.  As for outlining the new story beforehand, I am not.  As I wrote in an earlier post, when I begin a new novel, I usually know who did the deed and why.  For the new book, I have an idea who the killer is, but that may change.  I have a great motive. I also have a great desire not to overthink it, but let the story unfold as I write it.


When I was a pre-teen, I spent several summers at Girl Scout Camp, way out in the woods outside of Locust Grove, OK.  One of our activities was something called a Penny Walk.  We would hike down a long, maze-like path through the woods, and every time we came to a fork in the trail, the point-girl would toss a penny to decide which way to go.  Every walk was different from the one before, yet we always found our way back.


So I hope to construct this new novel like a penny walk, and every time I come to a fork in the road, I’ll make a decision which way to go, and trust that it will lead me home. 


Postscript : Of course, their are a couple of problems that arise with my decision to start over.  First, I’m going to have to come up with yet another good title.  Second, this is going to put me even further behind on the publishing schedule.  I’ll tell you, though, I’m not taking any two years to do this.  I’m wondering, what is the shortest time any of you authors out there have taken to write a complete novel?  I once heard Simon Wood say that he cranked out a novel from start to finish in ten days.  It not only was published, but I believe it won an award.


Friday, August 28, 2009

Of Flaps and Blurbs

Ham-fisted Charles following John’s elegant blog post. Not an enviable position.

As you may recall, my next release will be a Young Adult novel published by Harper-Collins entitled You. This past week I was working with my editor, Anne Hoppe, on the book flap copy. The book is not coming out until October, 2010, but they work at a different pace over at Harper-Collins and if they need book flap copy more than a year in advance, that’s when they need it. But that’s okay, writing book flap copy means that I have a book coming out soon (soon-ish) and that’s always a fun thing.

For me, book flap copy is what drives my decision to buy a book. Covers are nice and it’s always interesting to read the reviews and the blurbs, but it’s what I read on the flap that will make me haul out my Visa card. Or not.

I don’t like flap copy that starts with a paragraph telling me what a wonderful writer the author is and how he/she set the literary world on it’s ear/on fire/on edge, and how he/she is loved by millions of fans around the globe. You don’t have to be an ad man to recognize fluff filler copy. At the same time, I don’t like book flaps that give too much away. Hint at the story and the tone, maybe pose a question or describe the central problem, but don’t tell me exactly what the protagonist has to do, by when, for who and why. And if the flap ends with warnings that the fate of the world hangs in the balance, I set the book down.

Have I bought many books based on the flap copy and been horribly disappointed? Yes, but fewer than the number of times I’ve been disappointed when I bought books based on the review or the blurbs.

How about you, dear reader? How does the flap fit in your book buying decisions?

NOTE: This week’s guest blogger is Ray Arsenault, author of Tempestuous Seas. Ray is an old army pal who has lived a Bond-esque life in exotic places around the globe. He completed much of his novel while working as a civilian pilot for the military in Iraq and other places far-flung and classified. But if you’re expecting that that kind of life would lead to a Tom Clancy, dick-lit knockoff, you’d be wrong. Ray’s crafted a classic romantic adventure novel set on the eastern seaboard in the age of sail.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Plotting: A Battle between Good (the Subconscious) and Evil (the Editor)

In a correspondence several years ago, I asked Robert B. Parker how much of his plot he knew before beginning his (then) latest novel. He explained that he knew only who would enter Spenser’s office and what that character would say when he walked through the door. That’s all he knew. Similarly, a different Edgar Award-winning author, S.J. Rozan, speaking on a panel at the Left Coast Crime Conference, recalled the adage, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” when asked how much of her plot she knew before starting her novels. And there is Raymond Carver’s famous revelation upon discovering that Flannery O’Connor usually didn’t know where her stories were headed before she began. “When I read this some years ago it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion,” Carver wrote in his essay “A Storyteller’s Notebook” (New York Times, 1981). “I thought this was my uncomfortable secret.”

Before I began writing my first published novel, Cut Shot, around 1997, I created a 17-page outline. Writing the outline was a painstaking process, and in it I included everything—dialogue, plot twists, and character traits. I even wrote the book’s final scene first, ala Agatha Christie, to give me a target to write toward. Then I started writing the book in earnest. Confidently.

Except then something unexpected happened. The unexpected happened, about 50 pages into my story.

I was terrified at first. As a writing instructor, I knew the importance of prewriting and planning. What was going on here? What was this story trying to do to me? I eventually went in that new direction, concluding that this unforeseen plot development actually improved the novel. This realization was a little scary. I feared that deviating from my outline would mean giving up some control over my story, a control I had worked hard to achieve. Creating my outline had meant forcing the subconscious writer in my head—that happy-go-lucky storyteller who always whistles a tune and smiles—to work some long, hard hours with his roommate—the hacksaw-wielding editor who hates whistling and doesn’t much care for his roommate. During the months it took me to write my outline, I had locked the two of them in a room together. Could the storyteller work independently from the editor? And could he—dare I even say it?—work even more effectively on his own?

I worried that if I stepped away from my outline I would not only sacrifice my sense of control, but that I would subsequently lose the confident voice in which my outline allowed me to write. In the end, I wrote 11 drafts of Cut Shot anyway. Many more unforeseen changes occurred, and they made the book much better than it would have been had I forced the novel to conform to the original notion I had for it.

I no longer create formal outlines, and the amount of pre-writing I do depends on the project. For a recent bio-terrorism book, I researched for three months before writing a word. For the novel I’m writing now, I started the way Parker mentioned—I envisioned a character at his desk reading the obituaries when an ex-lover enters his office and makes a statement that immediately poses an external conflict for the sleuth. Now, my “outlines” usually resemble the one-paragraph description that appears on the back of a paperback. And when I finish a novel, there are usually 30 or so unused pages saved in a file named “Extras”—scenes I wrote and later cut as I revised.

Charles, in his Aug. 21 blog “Taking Direction,” wrote something that has stayed with me: “…foresight provides an added sense of confidence to my writing and I believe readers can feel it too.” I believe every professional writer achieves this level of confidence in his or her prose. However, we all get to it differently. For me, it is always finding a balance between the whistling storyteller and that tie-wearing editor who calls all his bluffs.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Breaking the Norms of Genre Fiction


Vicki here, pondering the old outlining question. Charles, John, and Donis almost came to virtual blows over the relative merits of outline vs. non outline vs sorta outline.

I have mentioned in the past that I am a sorta outliner, meaning I have a rough idea of where I am going, a pretty good idea of where I want to start and the rest is seat-of-the-pants stuff. My one great exception to that rule is about to see the inside of a bookstore.

Way back in January 2008, I wrote about the book I was just beginning in which I had a completely realized idea for the opening scene and then not a clue as to what would happen after. http://typem4murder.blogspot.com/2008/01/flying-without-net.html

I followed that posting up in June 2008 with an analysis of the process.
http://typem4murder.blogspot.com/2008/07/net-i-dont-need-net.html

Well, that book is titled Winter of Secrets and will be released by Poisoned Pen Press on November 1, 2009.

Which, come to think of it is a pretty tight time-frame. Less than two years from initial thought process to sitting-on-the-shelves!

One more thing about Winter of Secrets: there is a dead body (two dead bodies, actually) in Chapter One. The police arrive at the scene. And from then on it completely deviates from the supposed norms of the mystery novel as we’ve also been discussing here of late. Unfortunately I can’t say how without giving away the plot and the ending. But I am very interested in how that will be received.

Stay tuned, I will be offering a Winter of Secrets ARC contest in the fall.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guest blogger Cindy Chow, reviewer and librarian

This Sunday, our guest blogger is prolific mystery reader, reviewer, Young Adult Librarian Cindy Chow. Whenever I want an insightful mystery suggestion or advice, I ask Cindy. For those of you who know her, she doesn’t look like the iconic librarian. If you were at Left Coast Crime, you probably remember her “I’m a Librarian. Don’t make me shush your ass” T shirt. She also rides a big purple motorcycle.

I read A LOT of book reviews. As a librarian, I burrow my way through Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, the New York Times Book Review, Entertainment Weekly (I admit it) , VOYA, and, of course, the behemoth of online review sites, Amazon.com. It doesn't take a "professional," though, to soon realize that a lot of reviews go light on criticism and have an agenda, either to sell books or to simply not offend an author/publisher/agent.

In this economy though, no one wants to spend money on a book that she will hate. As a public librarian, I don't have the budget to purchase marginal books, and as a mystery lover it infuriates me to spend my Borders Rewards on a book that I will soon send flying across the room. On Amazon, I pore over reviews, even tracking down reviewers who are five-star sluts to see if they are laudatory over everything from the new Scarpetta novel to the Footspa Footscrubber. Publisher's Weekly, which sells ads to publishers, will deliver a scathing review but conclude, "despite the lack of a coherent plot, likable characters, or pages that don't disintegrate on contact, fans will continue to clamor for more entries in this series." Huh?
So how can one interpret reviews and determine whether or not the book is truly for him?

Now, I have a confession. I write reviews. I don't consider myself a "real" reviewer (ie, one who gets paid), but I have reviewed books for online magazines, review sites, journals, and yes, Amazon. I have been made giddy at the sight of my blurb on a book flap (Mom was proud too).

There is nothing that brings dread to me more than having to review a book I absolutely hate. Now, I would prefer the Harriet Klausner method of not reviewing anything I dislike, but often the editor, website creator, PR representative, publisher, or the author specifically requests the review. Not a problem, normally. But there's nothing that creates traumatic flashbacks to English 101 than reading the first chapter of a book and realizing, "I'm going to hate this book." It may not even be poor writing, unrealistic characters, clunky dialogue. It might simply be the tone that ensures that finishing this book will be the waterboarding of reading.

Despite what some writers might think, I don't believe any reviewer enjoys writing a bad review (except maybe a few restaurant and theatre critics). I have nothing but respect for those who have the discipline and dedication to write an entire book, and I'm fully aware that giving a bad review is akin to telling new parents that their baby looks like Gollum.

However, having some sense of integrity and not wanting to mislead readers who do not want so spend up to $25 on a book that was reviewed as being "A fun, rollicking good read" but turns out to make the dialogue in a James Patterson book look elaborate (snap), I have managed to uncover - and only infrequently utilize, honest - euphemisms that are easily decipherable yet prevent the criticized from feeling as though their baby has been brutally assaulted.

For those wading through reviews wanting to get a better clue to see whether the book is for you, here are a few interpretations I've developed as a reviewer and a librarian who reads an insurmountable number of reviews:
"This is a character-driven novel" = The plot sucks.
"This is a plot-driven novel" = You'll hate the characters.
"The characters are quirky" = The characters are unrealistic and weird.
"The tone is dark" = The detective is an alcoholic and the body count will be high.
"The scientific details are complex" = Only PhD's need apply.
"The dialogue is lively" = The characters swear like they're in a Judd Apatow movie.
"The plot moves swiftly" = Who were the characters again?
"There's a strong romantic element" = The detective has the hots for the person he/she believes is a murderer.
"If you can suspend your disbelief" = The cat solves the murder.
"The mystery takes a backseat" = This was a mystery?
"The mystery isn't the focus" = You'll identify the murderer by the second chapter.
"There's a surprise ending" = The ending is improbable.
"The ending is shocking" = The author kills the love interest.
"The end is left open" = The author is making you buy the next book to learn if the love interest lives.
"Nice font" = I got nothing.

Now, of course, sometimes the reviewers really mean what they say. Honest.
Cindy Chow
Young Adult Librarian
Kaneohe Public Library

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Choices

My current book has become so big and unwieldy that I'm seriously considering putting it in a drawer and coming back to it later, so that I can see it with a fresh eye.  It's no surprise that this has happened, considering the way the book has been written, over at least two years, in fits and starts, making notes in hospital rooms, forgetting all about it for weeks at a time.  Then when I would finally get back to it, I wouldn't remember what I had been thinking when I left off.

One of my writing rules is that there really is no writer's block.  Sometimes you're in the zone, and sometimes you're not, but you can always write.  Just park your behind in a chair and go.  What comes out may or may not have to be altered, but at least you'll have something to work with.

Boy, do I have something to work with.

The only trouble with this rule is that eventually you do have to make choices.  One of my favorite movies of all time is Wonder Boys, which is about Grady Tripp, a University professor in Pittsburgh who had written a Penn Award novel years earlier, but couldn't for the life of him finish his second book.

One of his students found and read his 2000 page, unfinished manuscript.

"Do you remember how you told us that writing is all about choices?" she asked him.  "It seems to me that when you wrote this, you didn't make any choices.  At all."  

When I look at my unfinished manuscript, I feel as though I've become Grady Tripp (without the marijuana, so I don't even have that excuse.)  The time has come to make some choices. 

Friday, August 21, 2009

Taking direction

Charles here, disagreeing with my esteemed colleagues.

Donis explained (below) that she enjoys jumping right in without a clear idea where the story will take her, allowing the characters to develop and influence the direction of the plot as the story unfolds. She notes that she doesn’t know who the killer will be when she starts, confident that the real killer will show himself/herself along the way. John doesn’t appear to go that far, but he does expect that as he is writing the story, his characters will provide answers to questions he himself hadn’t posed. Both methods sound like interesting ways to approach the writing process.

But as I said, I disagree.

Ever been a passenger in a car driven by someone who you knew started off without a clear idea of where they are going? They may be a fine traveling companion and they may keep saying, “Trust me, I know where we’re headed,” but you can feel it in your gut that they are just tooling around until they bump into something interesting. A surprise for the driver and a surprise for the passenger. A serendipitous joyride is fine if that’s what you are looking for, but otherwise it’s maddening.

However when you’re a passenger in a vehicle driven by someone who knows where she’s going and exactly how she’s going to get you there, someone who has it mapped out to ensure that you see all the way cool attractions along the way, someone who knows the shortcuts as well as the scenic overlooks, someone who exudes confidence in her driving skills as well as her knowledge of the greater landscape, then you know that not only will you get there in a timely manner, you won’t miss a thing along the way. Your driver respects you enough not to waste your time or get you lost for no good reason.

Anyone who has traveled with me knows I eschew itineraries and timetables – that’s my time and my vacation and I can live it the way I like. But when it comes to telling a story it’s different. Whether it’s an anecdote about a night in a Brisbane Café or a 85K word novel, I may veer off the core plot now and then and there will most assuredly be tangential thoughts that appear unrelated, but I know where I’m going, what I want to say, what I want to highlight and what the ‘moral of the story’ will be before I type the first word. This foresight provides an added sense of confidence to my writing and I believe readers can feel it too. We’ve all been in situations when we felt the person driving the car was cruising around, looking for an exit. The same can be true for a novel.

Thoughts?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Questioning Fool’s Self-Examination

"There are three rules for writing a novel,” W. Somerset Maugham once said. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Words of wisdom that no doubt still hold true. I found myself thinking of Maugham’s quote as I read Donis’s wonderful Saturday (Aug. 15) blog, “The Hard Part.” I thoroughly enjoyed her essay partly because her approach to writing a novel is so very different from my own.

“When I start a mystery,” Donis explained, “I know who the murderer is, and I know how and why s/he did it.” I don’t know whether it is a curse or a blessing, but as I have written previously, I usually enter my stories like a blind man wandering through the forest. As I bump into trees, trip over stone walls, and discover a few cleared pathways, I solve each of my story’s small mysteries, and those seemingly minor answers usually lead to larger and more important revelations.

In fact, what I do not know drives my writing process. Agatha Christie wrote her novels in reverse order (last chapter first and so on) to be able to lay clues in precise places so she could “play fair” with the reader. By contrast, I find that writing novels is about answering my own questions. I ask many as a write, and I attempt to write scenes that force the reader to ask just as many.

Most of my questions stem from the characters I create. My goal is always to create a main character that is realistically flawed and is one that I genuinely care about. If I have done that, the character will come alive (at least for me, the book’s first reader). Therefore, the more complex and real the character, the more complex and real my questions can be. And these questions determine the book’s plot. For instance, Why did he say he found the note in Toronto? When was he there? Why did his lecture include the statement about his twin brother? I must pursue the answers to these questions right along with my sleuth. I will never claim that this is the most linear method of writing. (I once wrote 144 pages, scrapped them, and started over using a different point of view.) But I enjoy this process, and in the end, the better my character development is, the more interesting my plot is. Character equals plot; the events in my book, just as in real life, are limited to and expanded by the people in control of them.

There is an adage that goes like this: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” This is one of my three rules of fiction writing. If I could remember the other two writing would be easy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Breaking Rules

Debby here, posting on Wednesday. Wow, what a delicious stew to dive into. As I read Rick’s blog, my mind went to the book I’m presently reading. I’m about ten pages from finishing Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man, and there hasn’t been a murder yet. Though there still might be—don’t tell me. I’m going to finish it tonight, and I can’t wait.

Since we’re talking about John LeCarre, there isn’t much doubt that his publisher will let him break the rules. Is there? Let’s assume there’s not. This is a political book, no question, and I am enjoying it for that fact among many others, among them LeCarre’s knowledge of the spy world and his insight into competition and antagonism between allegedly cooperating organizations. LeCarre, which is a pseudonym for David John Moore Cornwell, served in the British Army’s Intelligence Corps and MI-5.

Just to see what everyone else thought, I checked out the reviews of A Most Wanted Man on Amazon. Today there are 154 reviews, a whole lot more than I get, alas, but what surprised me was that this book averages only 3 ½ stars. I would have given the book at least 4, possibly 5. Here are some snippets from the reviews:

Quote: “Politics Getting in the Way of Fiction” (title of the review);

Quote: “The book is a love letter to the Muslim community, sickeningly considerate of their views, while cursorily dismissive of "the West" (Britain, Germany, and the big bad wolf, America) and its legitimate security concerns. The writing is fantastic - when isn't it? the man is a literary genius!! - but at the same time, disgustingly contrived. Worst of all, he commits the cardinal sin: the story is a bore.” (I don’t think so)

Quote: “In a word, "A Most Wanted Man" (sic) lacks literary value. And, worse, it is only mildly entertaining. I vastly prefer Alan Furst's work, the very author that the NY Times asked to review this book. He praised it - sort of. I don't quite understand what's so hot about Le Carre. I've read a couple hundred espionage thrillers in my time, and this one ranks in the bottom half of the pile.”

Because of the “sort of” in the above review, I looked up Alan Furst’s review of A Most Wanted Man. Here’s part of it: “And, coincidentally, a few weeks after the cold war sat up in its coffin and smiled, John le Carré publishes one of the best novels he’s ever written. Maybe the best, it’s possible. What the hell got into him? Well, not quite 9/11, more its aftermath.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/books/review/Furst-t.html) That doesn’t sound like “sort of “ praise to me. I’d love a review like that from Furst. (His books are terrific, by the way.)

There are five-star reviews, too, but there are enough negative ones that I wonder if many readers are disappointed because they are seeking the same “spy novel” formulae that many publishers look for.

So what can we, as authors, do about this? I wish I had the answer, believe me. I also wish I had 154 reviews, but I figure I just have to keep working at it. Labanon, Terry, and Charles make good points. We have to write what resonates with us. The publishing business is in upheaval, which makes the big corporate structures more desperately rigid, and that inflexibility is destructive. But hold on, changes are on the horizon. Some of them are electronic, and others are with small, open-minded publishers. There are still millions of readers who love a “good” book, a book that challenges readers’ judgments, reveals new worlds, and exposes the treachery of political hierarchies and ambitions. Bring on crime fiction, in all its forms.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Blechta on genre fiction

After re-reading Vicki’s blog entry of August 10th, I think I’m beginning to see what the conundrum might be here. I do believe one of the main things the literary crowd could be objecting to is the use of formulae that “naturally” seems to occur in genre fiction writing. Some forms have less reliance on a formula (sci-fi, horror/fantasy) and some have a lot more (romance, and of course, crime fiction).

In crime fiction, we are to blame for that situation. By “we”, I mean all of us: writers, agents, editors, publishers and reviewers. There are certain things that have become expected in our novels: the book should get off to a “fast start”, someone should die in the first 40 pages, etc. Actually, it seems to be a hard and fast rule that somebody must die, period.

Here’s a chilling case in point: An author I know, multiple award-winning and all that, very competent at his craft, submitted a novel to his publisher. The editor thought the book was excellent, as always. Problem was, the obligatory death didn’t happen until well after the one hundredth page. “We have to change that,” the editor pointed out.

The author pointed out why he had constructed his novel the way he had, explained the nuances at work and why the death couldn’t be moved. “Start the story with the murder and do the pages leading up to it now as a flashback.”

The author again pointed out why that wouldn’t be a good idea. The whole idea was to build tension in a very distinctive way. As a matter of fact, having the murder occur where it did was one of the main points of the story.

The upshot of all this was, the editor told him the novel would not be published if the murder wasn’t put in “the usual place for these kinds of books”. My friend withdrew the novel and has never again written a word of crime fiction. Believe me, we lost an excellent and unique voice.*

With the “rules” of the crime writing game seemingly set this much in cement, is it any wonder that the literary crowd looks down on us? Yes, the editor was having a very stiff neck, but I have heard crap like this over and over. So have you.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
*I’ve put the “dialogue” here in quotes, but I am working from memory. I may not have remembered the exact words correctly, but I do have the intent.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Art of Revision

Vicki today. Flushed with the success of Burden of Memory, my second book published by Poisoned Pen Press, I wrote a standalone set in Northern Ontario. It is quite dark, with memories of a dead child, forced adoption, suggestions of child abduction and abuse. It is called Child of Mine. The first and only time I had the title of a book before anything else. I sat down and wrote: Child of Mine. Chapter One.

The best thing I’ve ever done.

No one liked it. It languished, unloved, unwanted, in the remote corners of my computer for a couple of years.

My agent and I have been discussing it, and we’ve decided to give the book another go. The child abuse will be toned down, the character motivation will be stronger, and some other changes. In tone, it will probably be even darker as I’ve found that in some places I’m being unsuitably glib.

It’s an interesting process, revising what was a fully complete novel a couple of years later. I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been published, which probably means I have a lot still to learn. Mostly, I can see where I use too many words and sentences that explain what the previous sentence means.

Some examples:
She discovered that she had an enormous hole in the seat of her bathing suit. How about “She discovered an enormous hole in the seat of her bathing suit

When they realized, at last, that I didn’t have all that much to tell them
When they realized, at last, I didn’t have much to tell them

I pulled at the scrap end of the wallpaper. A piece no longer than the nail on my index finger came away. It would be a real chore to get this stuff replaced.

The last sentence is redundant. Everyone (at least everyone who has ever tried to remove wallpaper) knows that little scraps are bad news.

It’s an interesting process, for sure. I’ll keep you posted as I go along.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An editor and agent on the craft of writing

Vicki on hand to introduce today's guest blogger today: the delightful Verna Relkoff, editor and partner in a literary agency. The things that annoy Verna are pretty simple - and pretty common.
Verna Relkoff here. Creative Writing teacher, editor, and an accidental agent. Agenting was never an aspiration but I was approached by Morty Mint (former president of Penguin Canada and USA) to work with him as an agent—it seemed an interesting and fun move. This led to an internship at Writer’s House in NY… fabulous experience, and a partnership in Mint Agency.

Because I neither write mysteries nor blog, I went on your typeM4murder blogspot.com and was delighted by the conversation. When I taught writing I argued often that many of the best writers today were writing mysteries. Unlike literary fiction which allows a great deal of indulgence, mysteries and other “genre” fiction must draw characters quickly and precisely; state the problem immediately; and keep the action rolling. Incidentally, one of the best write-ups on how academics seized the novel form is in a latter chapter of John Ralston Saul’s, Voltaire’s Bastards.

I was asked what I look for as an agent/editor when I get a manuscript. Actually, I look for the same qualities that so-called genre fiction offers: immediate action, strong characters, and a clear problem. I love openings so absorbing I wake up about page five and realize I’ve been reading.

You are, however, successful writers and I assume you know a great deal about structure and style so I think you would best be served in a discussion about irritants. The following are more subtle things that drive me crazy.

1. Orientation: It is such a matter of courtesy to keep your reader apprised of where they are. If you want people to notice the scenery, you must let them know the road they are on. Go back to the old ‘topic’ sentence idea and lead with an orientation sentence. New writers in particular, trying to be subtle or non-repetitious, often leave the reader wandering around in the dark.

2. Psychic Distance: This follows on the heels of orientation. If you are seeing through the eyes of the protagonist—show the reader how she/he sees the landscape. Use the eyes as a camera. How does a person see a landscape or a room for example: overview first; middle distance second; close-up third; and inside the character last. A camera/eye that jerks back and forth is really difficult for the reader to track. Best resource: Chapter 5 (Common Errors) in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It is difficult reading, invaluable, and in places screamingly funny.

3. Tags: After you have introduced a character, the next time you use the name, remind your reader who this person is. You don’t need to hit the reader over the head—but insure that you give some cue as to who they are. Again, every time you force your reader to leave the story, you take them out of the narrative dream--two or three times and they are out of the book.

4. Sentences: The most important or heaviest part of a sentence is the end. The second most important part is the beginning. Don’t bury a salient point in the middle—it is often lost. In keeping with the topic of sentence structure: writers will often add a prepositional phrase at the end of a sentence—a little explanation. This dilutes the language. If you lop the phrases off, the prose immediately becomes shaper and clearer.

As with most agents/editors, what I love most is good craft. Writers who know how to submit a manuscript, where a semi-colon goes, how to draw original characters, have the writing dexterity to re-create the character’s world with words, and know what a good plot looks like are delightful. And yes, James Lee Burke is just about as good as it gets!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Hard Part

When I start a mystery, I know who the murderer is, and I know how and why s/he did it.  I also have an idea how the killer went about trying to cover up the crime.  I’m pretty good about doling out clues at appropriate intervals throughout the story.  But here’s the hard part: Alafair, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.  


What’s the problem, you ask?  Just have your sleuth sort through the clues, make the right connections, and Bob’s your uncle.  


As anyone who has ever written a mystery can attest, it’s not that easy, my friend, because you have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.


Alafair is very much an amateur sleuth. She is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator.  She doesn’t do this for a living, nor does she have any official authority to compel people to answer her questions. She also lives in an era when people are constrained by fairly rigid gender roles. So, question number one is: what is she doing trying to solve a murder, anyway?  The first thing I have to do is give her a really compelling reason to get involved.


Then I have to give her the means and the opportunities to uncover information and make connections, and I can’t force the action to fit the outcome I want.  In other words, I can’t have Alafair doing things that a woman with the resources she has couldn’t do.  I can’t have her act against her own nature, either, just to advance the plot or create tension in an artificial way.  


This is the reason I’ve been known to stare at the screen for an hour when I’m at a critical juncture, thinking “how can I get Alafair off the farm and into that office in town to search for the gun, before sundown, when she has ten kids who want dinner?”


I could just have her up and leave, or I could contrive to have all the kids and the husband go out to eat at whatever the 1915 equivalent of McDonald’s was.  But that wouldn’t be realistic.  Sometimes I just can’t come up with a plausible way to do it, and I have to go at it from a totally different angle or rework the scene altogether.


Forcing the action is a common mistake for a beginning writer.  I often see it done in one of two ways. One is the “Idiot College Student Syndrome”. This is when the character has been brilliant throughout the book, but suddenly does something stupid just so you can put her in danger and increase the tension.  One by one, five college students went into that dark room alone and were massacred by an ax murderer.  In the name of all that’s holy, Number Six, don’t go in there! Call the police, you idiot! 


Second is the “Wildly Unbelievable Coincidence”, in which the author hands the sleuth the vital clue in the most implausible fashion.  The detective didn’t detect.  He just happened to be in the right place.  He just happened to stumble across an object.  The killer suddenly leaped up out of his chair and confessed.  I have to be sure that my sleuth honestly found the answer using the information provided in the story.  


This is one of the things I like about an amateur sleuth - she has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers.   In fact, there have been occasions where Alafair came upon a clue that I was not aware of myself until it appeared on the page.  Toward the end of my last book, The Sky Took Him, Alafair was sitting in a hospital corridor, having a nice, normal, conversation with the family, when she noticed something at exactly the same time I did, an observation which provided both of us with a vital piece of information.  It surprised the heck out of me, but it was plausible, very much in character for Alafair, and worked like a charm. Moments like this are why writing a mystery can be such fun.


Friday, August 14, 2009

What I read on my summer vacation

Charles here, back from Australia, slightly tanned and totally rested.

A few weeks back I posted a frantic request for suggestions for books to bring along with me to Australia. (Thanks to the folks who sent email suggestions – I didn’t get those until I got back but will keep your suggestions in mind now that I’m back.)

Rarely do I get so much time to do nothing but read – the flight from LA to Sydney was 13 hours and that was only part of the trip – and I feel I made great use of the time I had. So what did I read?

I started with The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It’s a steampunk science fiction novel set in 1855 and I was enjoying it a lot – and somebody at the airport bar in LA must have liked it too, since it wandered off between rounds. I was only a third of the way through so I’ve picked up another copy. I like the Victorian setting and the saucy and adventurous heroine. Quite imaginative and fun.

With book one out of action, I jumped into Smonk: A Novel, by Tom Franklin. It was a tough, no-holds-barred western that reminded me of a mix of the best Larry McMurty and the most graphic Richard Stark. The ending was a bit too H.P. Lovecraft-esque, but the outstanding character development and dialog made up for any possible shortcomings. The phrase “It’ll cost you a dollar” has taken on a whole new meaning.

In Sydney, Rose and I toured the outstanding Barracks Museum near Hyde Park. I must have had that place fresh in my mind when I spotted Death and the Running Patterer by Robin Adair. I really liked this book. It’s a mystery set in Sydney in 1828 and it has one of the most unique protagonists I’ve seen in a while. A former Bow Street Runner and transported convict who’s done his time, Nicodemus Dunne now makes his living as a running patterer, sort of a talking newspaper for the semi-literate community. The period details were outstanding and I enjoyed learning so much about the realities of the penal system in Australia. This would make a great Merchant Ivory film if they were willing to get a little blood on their hands. Track this one down.

I spent three amazing days on a dive boat out on the Great Barrier Reef and Flint & Silver by John Drake, a prequel to Treasure Island, was the perfect reading companion. It was a swashbuckling romantic adventure, packed with action with a just the right amount of history and pirate reality blended in to make it believable. And it really was. The writing was crisp and while some of the scenes with Flint bordered on the over-the-top, it was well-crafted book. I look forward to the sequel and to re-reading Treasure Island.

In Brisbane I found a copy of A Way With Words: A Frolic Through The Landscape of Language by Ruth Wajnryb. It’s a collection of short essays – none more than four pages – that explore specific words and phrases. A scholar and applied linguist, Dr. Wajnryb takes a witty look at the ways language works (or doesn’t work), and while you know she’s got the chops to toss all these academic terms around, she keeps it light. It’s potato chip reading – you can not stop once you get started – and there were many times on the flight to Ayres Rock that I startled fellow passengers with my sudden bursts of laughter. Apparently the good doctor has a weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Saturday ‘Spectrum’. I’ll be looking for it and you should too.

I’ll admit that I started The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramgo, but I never got past page 30. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with the book – the writing is brilliant and it did win the Nobel Prize for Literature – but the copy I have is about nine-point font and the writing is rather dense (in a good, meaty and rewarding way). It’s just not a good airplane read. It’s on my shelf for winter reading.

We were in the Sydney airport, getting ready to head back to the states when we realized that we still had $40 in Australian currency in our pockets. There was an $8 service charge to exchange it to US currency, so we opted to spend it. Rose picked up The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey while I hefted the impossibly massive Drood by Dan Simmons. How massive? Try 770 pages. The story is told in first person by Wilkie Collins, an actual Victorian writer who you will remember reading a quarter of the way through Drood. The plot focuses – sometimes tangentially – on Charles Dickens’ obsession on the mysterious figure known only as Drood. I read nearly non-stop all the way home but I’ve still got 390 pages to go. I don’t know if it’s the plot or the characters or the writing, but I can’t seem to put this book down. I actually wished the plane would go slower so I could read more. I have no idea where this one is leading, but I’m hooked and, with no big blocks of reading time on the horizon, I’ll be nibbling away at this one for a while.

If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Water Parks and Plots

I took my 11- and 8-year-old daughters, Delaney and Audrey (pictured in the photo on the right), to the Aquaboggin Water Park in Saco, Maine, yesterday. Five-dollar hamburgers, stale pool water, sunburns, and screaming kids everywhere. Overwhelming. But also, as my mother, now known as Nana, (“Nana, look! Nana, watch this!”) said so accurately, it was “a day spent making memories.”

Each time the girls would finish a wild joyride, one of them would spot the next potential conquest, yell, “Hey, look,” and point. The sisters would look at each other for a moment, somehow telepathically determining if they could survive the next experience—they’re sweaty-palmed dad giving a thumbs-up, nixing the decision, or getting dragged into the mix to accompany those in the group who failed the 54-inch height test (Audrey’s fist pump and exuberant shout of “Finally!” when her scalp peaked over the 48-inch mark on the wall, and thus earning her a green bracelet meaning she could go on all the same rides that her sister could, was worth the price of admission)—and then we would all dash off again, unsure of what would occur next but smiling ear to ear nonetheless.

The experience, when you think about it, is not unlike fiction writing. Each day, I sit down to write for one reason: To get the high of finding out what will happen next.

A writer friend once told me she wrote 30-page outlines, complete with dialogue, for each of her novels. I couldn’t imagine doing that. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, discusses the thrill of “being the first reader” of his works. He describes writing fiction in terms of archeology, saying the story is always intact, and that it is the writer’s job to get it out of the earth that is the author’s subconscious without breaking it.

I would never compare myself to Stephen King. But I do write for the same reason—for that rush that accompanies discovering what will happen next in the first draft of my story. (You’ll notice I do not say what should happen next. Should is the internal editor’s job. He comes in during the second drafts and often ruins all the fun.) I have other passions—golf, weightlifting, and fishing among them—but none compare with the thrill of writing fiction.

Hell, it’s almost as fun as being at the water park.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Literary? Only if it's good!

A couple of interesting things in Saturday’s Globe and Mail that fit right into our discussion of genre.

First, from a review Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice by Randy Boyagoda: “It’s the very nature of a genre novel that it keeps its promises, fulfilling certain pleasures of expectation and discovering, including standard types of characters and standard kinds of premises and challenging but satisfying denouements.”

At first this looks like a sensible argument. But then start thinking about the books you’ve read lately. Standard types of characters, yes, if you’re talking about the cop with a drinking problem or the nice lady who makes quilts between solving mysteries. But today’s crime fiction goes far beyond the standard characters. The cop with a drinking problem might be a music lover wrapped in sadness who greatly respects his younger female colleague (John Rebus). John Rain, Barry Eisler’s assassin hero is hardly a standard type of character. For an unsatisfying denouement try the first two Simon Serallier novels by Susan Hill (The Various Haunts of Men, and Pure in Heart).

In his review the writer of the above quote seems to be saying that Inherent Vice is a crime novel, but it doesn’t fit the definition of a crime novel as he supplies it. I suspect that plenty of people get themselves tied into knots when they try to explain why a great book isn’t eligible for a snooty award because it’s only a crime novel.

Second quote is from Dimitri Nasrallah’s review of a re-release of The Postman Always Rings Twice, the 1934 novel by James Cain. “It’s a shame that in the 75 years since his debut, Cain has been largely relegated to readers of detective fiction. Contemporary literary writers could do worse than to learn a thing or two from reading his novels. [snip] He wrote compulsively readable works that defied easy categorization, blending rigorous literary craftsmanship with material more serious writers and academics dismiss as pulp.”

Type M for Murder readers and bloggers couldn’t have said it better!

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Sunday Guest Blogger: Rick DeMarinis


John here. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to this week’s guest blogger, Rick DeMarinis, a dear friend and my former professor and MFA thesis advisor. Rick has published eight novels (both crime and mainstream), six story collections, and a book on the art and craft of the short story. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Antioch Review, Esquire, GQ, Harper’s, Grand Street, Paris Review, Iowa Review, Tin House, Epoch, and others. He taught fiction writing at several universities, including San Diego State, Arizona State, the University of Montana, and the University of Texas at El Paso, where I had the good fortune of studying under him. Rick has received two NEA fellowships, and a literature award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I think you will enjoy his blog, which is below, and, given the discussion of the past several days, extremely timely.

***
I’ve published fifteen books over the last thirty- five years and still don’t know what I’m doing. Where stories come from remains a mystery to me. What I start out to do seldom has anything to do with the finished work. How does that happen? I’ve written four crime novels. One (Scimitar) was published by E.P Dutton in 1977. But it was a crime novel only in that crimes were committed within its pages. It had a plot of sorts--a kind of science- fiction plot. (Who are these people trying to take over the world with money and laser cannons?) There were surrealistic moments and it also had laugh-out-loud moments. The result was a comic science-fiction crime novel. No major publisher would take a chance on a hybrid like that today. The literary sea is more treacherous now than the one we sank-or-swam in thirty years ago.

My books were published but few broke the 5,000-sales benchmark. I had a day job over those decades. I taught fiction writing at three universities. The other crime novels (Sky Full of Sand, Virgins in the Woodwork, A Clod of Wayward Marl) were not published by major American publishers. Dennis McMillan of Tucson (a limited edition publisher) published a couple. A German publisher (Pulp Master, Berlin) took two of them. One, Kaputt in El Paso, was a best seller over there. The other (Jungfrau in Dachfirst) (Virgins in the Woodwork) comes out next spring.

The question I was asked: “What is the difference between genre fiction and mainstream fiction?” I don’t make such distinctions. There is good writing and there is bad writing. These occur in every genre. Just because it’s a mainstream novel doesn’t mean it qualifies as literature. And genre novels shouldn’t be disqualified because they are genre novels (although critics and reviewers--most of them anyway--would have you believe so.) In Europe the critics aren’t so hidebound by categorical distinctions. George Simenon, writer of the Maigret police procedurals, is considered a national treasure in France. A legitimate man of letters. Who would argue that?

It’s all in the writing. An old friend of mine, James Lee Burke, handles the language as well as anyone writing in English today. Anyone. Burke has the touch and sharp eye of a poet and the savvy of someone who’s been around the block a few times. Another old pal, the late James Crumley, also had that gift. And who has written a better study of the psychopathic personality than Charles Willeford in his wonderfully dark novel, Miami Blues? Such writers win awards in the mystery and crime categories but are never considered for the major literature prizes, such as the National Book Award or the Pulitzer. Why not?

Plot, of course, distinguishes the crime novel from the mainstream novel. I suppose the critics’ disdain for genre fiction lies in their repudiation of plot as an artificial construct that has no connection to Real Everyday Life. Really? In Real Everyday Life things happen that surprise and confound. Isn’t that plot? I had a brain tumor a dozen years ago but was in denial even though my symptoms were severe (double vision, headache, violent nausea, hallucinations). I had a two week lecture gig at the University of Idaho that paid well and I didn’t want to pass it up. I flew from Texas wearing an eyepatch so I could find my way around airplanes and airports. After my first lecture at the University a young woman approached me. “What’s wrong with your eye?” she said. “Nothing, just a sinus infection,” I said. “Let me have a look,” she said. “I’m a neurologist.” A week later I was in surgery having a golfball-size tumor taken out of my brain. Isn’t that a wonderfully corny plot-line? A coincidence worthy of Dickens? Such things happen to people every day of the week. The real world is full of “artificial” plot-lines.

I got a letter in the spring of 1974 from Jim Crumley. He was writing his first crime novel, The Wrong Case. He’d made a discovery and wanted to tell me about it: “I’m working on a fucking detective novel that’s set in a town much like Missoula and peopled with every creep and wino and freak and dope dealer I ever knew and some I didn’t. I’ve done 130 pages in the last month and it’s more fun than drinking. I always meant to do a detective novel but I always thought you had to know what was going to happen ahead of time but you don’t. It’s just like regular novels, you only know what the next word is when you write it down. Plot is structure that grows out of story not a form to fit, and I knew that, but didn’t know it, but now I do.”

So why do people think mainstream writers are the only ones writing about real life? I guess life in the burbs is considered more real than life in the mean streets. Perhaps the greatest story of crime- and-detection ever written is Oedipus Rex, a twenty-five hundred year old thriller in which the victim and the perp are one and the same. Oedipus, by relentless interrogation discovers the horrible truth about himself. Great genre fiction, right? Also great literature. How can that be? Go figure. Maybe Sophocles would take home the Edgar, but would he be passed over for the Pulitzer?

--Rick DeMarinis, Missoula, Montana 7-9-09

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Genre Wars

What does one say to people who imply that the mystery form isn’t as elevated as literary fiction?


“Come over here so I can give you a dope-slap, you insufferable snob.”


Are you like me? I was an English major extraordinaire.  I was into serious literature.  I thought that if it wasn’t “literary”, it couldn’t impart depth of meaning.  That it didn’t have gravitas.


Shame on me.


I blame big chain bookstores for really furthering the concept of genre. If they can label an author as a mystery writer, or a romance writer, or a book as Science Fiction or Horror, it makes it easier for them to categorize, even though one mystery novel may resemble another like a fish resembles a hat.


I discovered the mystery form only about five years before I decided to write one.  I always loved historical fiction, and quite by accident I got hold of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael historical mystery series set in 12th Century England.  These books are so charming and philosophical, the language so poetic, that I read all twenty, then went on to read every historical mystery I could get my hands on, then every mystery, and thriller, and I was off to the genre races.  What I discovered, oh, so late, was that good is good, no matter what the genre.  It’s like music.  You may not particularly like most pop music, but adore Gwen Stefani, or Greenday, or somebody else at the top of their game.  A master artist defies category.


Genre is a false construct, in my humble opinion.  As John pointed out, most fiction books don’t fit totally into one category or another.  Most literary novels have elements of mystery or thriller, sci fi or romance, and sometimes all of them at once.


Look at Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  What the heck is that?  Gabaldon has said that before the first book came out, she was told that the publisher wanted to put the book in the Romance category.  She objected.  She pointed out quite correctly that the book is a historical, with elements of thriller, and a big dollop of science fiction, as well as a romance.


The publisher then pointed out that a best selling Science Fiction novel sells about 50,000 copies, whereas a best selling Romance does around 800,000, to which she replied, “Well, make it a Romance, by all means.”  Faced with such a conundrum, I wonder if Bronte would have chosen to market Wuthering Heights as literary fiction or a romance?


The big question for any book is, is it good?  Well written is well written, and there are as many badly written literary novels as there are spectacularly crafted crime novels.  No matter how cleverly your mystery is constructed, it ought to be as thoughtful and well written as any other kind of novel.


I’ll say one thing for a crime novel, whether it’s traditional, noir, procedural, or thriller - it’s usually chock-full of psychology.  A mystery is a fabulous way for an author to explore the human psyche while giving the reader an exciting and intriguing experience. I rather like Tony Hillerman’s take on the idea that literary is superior to genre. He said, “literary fiction is where nothing much happens to people you don’t much care about.”


Thursday, August 06, 2009

Why the Mystery Genre Isn’t a Genre at All

I’m re-reading THE KITE RUNNER this week to prepare to teach it this fall, and in Khaled Hosseini’s novel I’ve realized what I seem to discover every time I read a canonized work—it, too, offers a mystery.

In fact, I cannot recall a recognized work of literary merit that does not possess a mystery of some kind at its core. The College Board used the following excerpt several years ago as part of a question on its annual Composition and Literature Exam: “Many works of literature not readily identified with the mystery or detective story genre nonetheless involve the investigation of a mystery. In these works, the solution to the mystery may be less important than the knowledge gained in the process of its investigation.” My students answered this prompt by citing THE GREAT GATSBY, HAMLET, BELOVED, and other canonized classics.

So why is the mystery novel often (if not always) considered lesser works of art by the literary establishment? It sure isn’t because they’re easier to write. Florida International University literature professor James W. Hall has authored three collections of poetry, a collection of short fiction, and 15 novels including the best-selling Thorn series. In the March 2005 issue of January Magazine, Hall addressed the issue: "Writing a novel of suspense,” he said, “I've discovered, is a far greater challenge than writing a mainstream, 'respectable' novel, in which nothing much needs to happen for a lot of pages. I think this [the mystery] genre has attracted some of the best novelists of our era, mainly because it's a form that demands great discipline and forces good writers to stretch themselves in all sorts of ways." And, oh, by the way, Hall ought to know. He won an Edgar Award for MAGIC CITY.

So why aren’t novels like THE BIG SLEEP or more contemporary works by top mystery authors canonized? Why aren’t they thought to possess the same literary merit as the so-called classics? A colleague once told me “a book with raised lettering gives me hives.” A tongue-in-cheek statement, no doubt. But to say it—regardless of the level of humor—is to think it. For, as my grandmother used to say, There’s a little bit of truth in everything we say.

On the publishing end of the genre-or-no-genre discussion, one must consider that books are classified as “mystery” novels by marketing people who give them that designation with only the best of intentions—marketers want to help sales. As a guy whose first novel was forever doomed when it was designated a “sports” book and thus placed in the sports section of stores nationwide, I greatly appreciate the efforts of the marketers who call my novels “mysteries.” However, I have no such appreciation for members of the Academy who fail to realize today’s novels by top novelists like Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Sarah Paretski, and others have nothing in common with the traditional locked-room puzzle that Poe created.

In a May 2005 interview posted on his Website, Ed McBain made this statement: “If you want to win either the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, stay far away from corpses among the petunias.” And why did McBain believe his brilliant 87th Precinct novels would never achieve such lofty literary status? You tell me. McBain’s novels will certainly stand the test of time because they are about real people in real conflicts with self and society (can you say HAMLET?). And McBain was a stylistic virtuoso. Who else creates settings so significant that the place is actually a major character in the novel? I can name two: Charles Dickens and Richard Russo, who just so happens to have won the Pulitzer Prize for EMPIRE FALLS.

I’d argue that McBain—and a handful of other contemporary mystery writers—aren’t so far behind him.

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Afterthoughts
Well, it’s official: I’ve crossed over to the Dark Side. I joined Facebook last week. Linked my page to Type M for Murder, to my Website, and even posted pics. Why? Because as a high school teacher, I hear my students talking about it, and I figured it would not only help me reach lost friends but might even be good for book sales. Anyone agree or disagree with this?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

I hear voices...

Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve always equated voice more with characters than with what I do manipulating things from behind the screen. I could be wrong about this, and heaven knows I am wrong about things constantly, but...well...here goes.

It’s very easy to populate a story with people who all speak far too much alike, so that when there are several of them involved in a dialogue portion, it winds up sounding like some schizophrenic patient having a conversation with all his/her invisible friends. I’ve seen this happen even in otherwise excellent authors’ novels. To make characters really stand out, there have to be subtle differences in the way they talk and interact with the world.

Quirks are easy to give to characters. One may be a real hypochondriac, or have a drinking problem, or always in people’s faces, whatever, but to make a character really stand out on the page, the author has to give each one differences in the ways they express themselves. It may be in the way they speak, but if you’re using multiple POVs in the construction of you plot, then characters also have to think and view the world differently. To my mind, these often subtle shadings can make characters really seem alive.

In my third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark, I set the plot up with one main character (a female), but then also gave her 4 close (also female) friends. These are people who spent a lot of their formative years close together. I started them out by having commonalities in the way they spoke, figuring that this would give them the illusion of a shared past.

It didn’t work. Everyone who read the manuscript got confused as to who was who. Back to the drawing board. Next draft, I got feedback that I’d pushed too far in the opposite direction: the characters seemed false, as if I’d given them characteristics for the sake of characteristics. It wasn’t until two drafts farther down the road, that I began to feel my way out of the thicket in which I’d dumped myself. I tried to give every single one of these fine women personalities that would make them stand out from each other. It went far beyond the way they spoke, although that probably was the most important step. It also had to do with their attitudes, the way each one of them would respond to specific situations in the plot structure. It wound up being very hard work, but I think I’m a better writer for it.

So this is, to me, what voice is. If by “voice”, someone means the way an author writes, I think I’d have to disagree with the term. Seems to me that should be called “style”.

And I’ll leave discussion of that up to the experts.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Voice? WIll I know it when I see it?

Vicki here on Monday. What a great discussion on writing character. I’ve got plenty of ideas for my workshop at the Wolfe Island Scene of the Crime Festival on August 15th.

Now for a word from our sponsor: there are still a few tickets available: www.sceneofthecrime.ca AND I have just found out that it is possible to take a ferry directly to Wolfe Island from Cape Vincent in the U.S. which must cut the travel time down a lot if you are coming from Western New York.

I love riding on a ferry. I believe that a vacation isn’t a vacation unless there is at least one trip on a ferry, no matter how short. To go east from Prince Edward County, where I live, you can take a ferry (to the west and centre there are bridges). It’s only about 5 minutes long, but makes for such a nice trip. Even in winter it’s fun to see the boat breaking a path through the ice.

One of the guest authors at Wolfe Island this year is David Rotenberg, author of the Zhong Fong detective series set in Shanghai. David is an acting teacher and has worked on Broadway and in TV and movies. I am very interested in talking to him about how his approach to coaching actors ties into writing character.

I’m struggling a bit with the idea of ‘voice’. I can’t get my mind around what it actually is. Different writers have a different way of writing, just as different people have different ways of speaking, (Yeah, babe as opposed to Yes, Madame) but I suspect that voice is something beyond that. Character voice I understand – that would be the example above of two different people speaking.

What good is an individual voice, if one writes completely different books? I hope that the tone of the Klondike mystery series is completely different from the Molly Smith books and from my standalones. Does an author’s voice remain constant, or does it change depending on the book and the type of book?

I started off this post deciding that I was going to discuss voice as I understand it. Then I realized that I really don’t understand it.

Can anyone enlighten me?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Guest Blogger Charlotte Hinger






I am very pleased to host Charlotte Hinger today. Charlotte is a real live historian who applies her skills to writing both academic works and historical mysteries.  Her latest mystery novel, Deadly Descent, will be published by Poisoned Pen Press this month.

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Why I Fight


I’m asking for it, of course. Anyone who combines mystery writing with history writing is already a half a bubble off  plumb. Historians are a notoriously savage lot, and only the brave enter the academic arena.


 I’m quarrelsome and disagreeable by nature. My Daddy told me so. Although he sweetly pointed out that it wasn’t necessarily an unpleasant trait, it was simply a fact: I was born arguing. 

While defending an idea not only makes sense, and is expected with academic writing, why duke it out with fans over details in novels?


Because they are so often right, that’s why. Because I learn when they challenge information. Because it’s fun when a wicked bad fan bent on ruining my daily writing production sends me off on a trivial pursuit of a petty truth that will be of interest only to me. Because it’s good for me. Their questions remind me that someone, somewhere, is reading every single word and I’d better take care. Because I think it’s wonderful that someone is paying attention. God bless them, every one. And because I simply can’t help myself. 


So. Like, this has what to do with mysteries?  Elementary, my dear Watson. Historical investigation and the diabolical curiosity that drives us to write mysteries spring from the same region of the brain. Those of us who write mysteries simply can’t let unsolved thingys go. Historians can’t either. Whether it’s discovering a document that doesn’t make sense, or a object out of place, or a look in someone’s eye that seems “off,” the “who, what, when, where and why” soon drives us crazy.


Our readers have the same genetic deviation. The mysterious, a passion for puzzles, a love of intrigue, drives our beloved fans to buy our books. We wouldn’t have it any other way. However, then mystery novelists are disproportionately enticed into polite mini-brawls. On-line usually, attracting comments from fans who have their own opinions about accuracy.


Historians, on the other hand, are more likely to murder, attract murderers, or incite others to murder. There’s a lot at stake (besides tenure) in historical interpretation. Did the Holocaust happen? Was the destruction of the Antebellum South a tragedy? Did Canada just love all Vietnam draft evaders? Although we are cousins to investigative journalists, a historian’s ability to tell the truth is limited because we have to document every blessed thing under the sun.


 History is about people and novelists can best capture the glory and despair of human beings. I knew far more about the Taliban after reading A Thousand Splendid Suns than I learned from news articles. Greg Iles Black Cross taught about the terror of the Death Camps. Gone With The Wind, captures the agony of white Southerners forced to abandon their way of life, just as Beloved is a searing condemnation of the same experience. Who knew that Canadian’s were so divided over Vietnam? Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier wades right into this controversy.


Mysteries make history go down with a teaspoon of sugar. When I read a non-fiction article, I understand. When I read a great mystery based on facts, I know, with all my heart. 


The first book in my new mystery series, Deadly Descent, published by Poisoned Pen Press, will be released in September. It’s based on a historian who edits the county history books. I was in charge of just such a project in real life.


When my book comes out, I plan to fight with great authority. I think. 

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childhood listening to natural born liars inspired Charlotte Hinger to write Deadly Descent. Simon and Schuster published her historical novel, Come Spring.  Convinced that mystery writing and historical investigation go hand in hand, she applies her MA in history to academic articles and her depraved imagination to wicked short stories.    

 Charlotte's web address is http://www.charlottehinger.com