Saturday, October 31, 2009

Eclectica*

Lots going on in our authorly world, these days.  First of all, please read Charles’ post, below, concerning our participation in the enormously spectacular Hallopalooza Scavenger Hunt, sponsored by the Stiletto Gang, and involving 25 mystery writers’ blogs!  Not only are there plenty of tricks involved, there are lots and lots of treats, as well.

I must say that I was quite impressed by the first PPWebcon.  It was really interesting to interact with mystery fans and authors from all over the world, and to watch, read, and listen to so many authors, from the Very Famous to the up and coming.  It seems that the entire female contingent of this blog participated in several panels, video, audio, and text.  It was very interesting to learn from Debby that one should never take bananas on a boat, and I enjoyed not only hearing Vicki talk about Winter of Secrets, but getting a glimpse of one of the bedrooms in her house.  Many of the events have been archived, so if you want to read/hear/see what we did, go to ppwebcon.com, click the Archive window on the lower right side of the screen, and scroll down to check out all the available programs.

Now to business.  Years ago, I went to see Laurie R. King speak at Poisoned Pen Bookstore.  She was promoting her then-latest stand alone, Touchstone, which particularly interested me because it takes place shortly after WWI.  After her talk, I raised my little hand and asked her how much research she does into her setting and time period before she begins writing, and she replied that she does very little beforehand. Instead, she starts writing, and as she writes she discovers what she doesn’t know, and then looks it up.

I do something similar.  For each book, I keep a notebook and file full of information that I read up on as I need it.  I’m 70 pages into a new book, and just before I sat down to write this entry, I was perusing the file, and was interested to see how much information I’ve already collected.  Some of my research may not be used, for as a book advances, some of the ideas one started out with fall by the wayside.  Even so, when the book is finally done, I will have added quite a bit to the huge amount of arcane knowledge rattling around in my head.  

Here’s what’s currently in my file, in no particular order: How to slaughter hogs and butcher pork; recipes for head cheese, scrapple, blood pudding, pickled pigs’ feet, sausages; information on smokehouses; a calendar for 1915; how to make a ceiling-suspended quilt frame; a 1915 atlas of Muskogee County, OK; an article on the logging industry in Eastern OK; a collection of Creek Indian history and lore.

As I write on, brilliant new ideas for advancing the story will occur to me, and I’ll find myself looking up things I never would have thought of, otherwise,

And by the way - Happy Halloween!

_____

* As you know, Eclectica is a bit of this and a bit of that, or as my brother-in-law describes it, all different kinds of crap.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Get a clue, people

Charles here, forcing you to read about the Type M contest before I give you the clue you really came for.

As part of the Hallopalooza Hunt, everyone who leaves a comment on our blog sometime between October 30 and November 1st will have the chance to win one of SIX prizes. An ARC of Winter of Secrets by Vicki Delany, a copy of A Case of You, by Rick Blechta, an ARC of Pleasing the Dead, by Debby Atkinson, a Jack Austin novel from John Corrigan, an Alafair Tucker novel from Donis Casey and a copy of Out of Order by Charles Benoit. Six prizes for six lucky winners!

Note: if you're uncomfortable leaving your e-mail addresses for us on the comment page, send an email privately to Vicki Delany via her web page letting her know that you made a comment.

Now, the clue…

Type M for Murder – post #6

"Milla!"

The private detective pivoted on her stiletto heels at the sound of her old friend's voice.

"Fletcher, is that the crime scene inventory list in your hand?"

The police detective nodded. "Not sure how helpful it's going to be. A greenhouse isn't the cleanest environment. So far we haven't found any useable prints except for the gardener's, Carla's and Mr. Howard's."

"What about the cigar butt?" She pointed to the third item on the list. "Think we could get DNA off that?"

He shrugged. "Maybe – in about six months. I thought you were on a deadline."

She glanced down the list of items found on or within ten feet of the body.
1. The stiletto knife lodged in her heart.
2. A tiny decorative bell that was caught on one of her large sunflower petals.
3. A cigar butt tossed near her feet.
4. A St. Christopher’s Ride with Me Motorcycle Medal in one of her pockets.
5. A broken champagne glass.

There were also numerous grass clippings, sticks, pebbles, fertilizer pellets, and a garden trowel.

"What's this?" Milla pointed at a rough sketch one of the cops had done of the body position and immediate surroundings. It was similar to traffic accident sketches. "You promote someone recently from patrol to your detective squad?"

Fletcher blushed. "I drew that. Helps me remember when I end up in court years later."

"What's this blob near Carla's right hand?"

"Not a blob – it was two pieces of gravel and a small stick. I think she had them clutched in her fist at some point while she was dying. There was blood on them."

"And here?" Milla tapped a glossy red nail against the paper.

"Part of the broken glass. She had a cut on her hand. Might have been the glass or maybe a defensive wound from the knife."

Milla wondered if all the blood was Carla's.

Next Clue Location - overthehillchick.blogspot.com

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Keep Keeping On: A Matter of Discipline

Last week, in his discussion entitled “Keeping the Momentum Going,” Rick wrote of the challenges of writing—namely finding the energy and time to keep going. He suggested writing in short bursts, a philosophy that flies directly in the face of what I was told as an undergrad at SUNY Fredonia: “You need large chunks of time to write novels,” said writing professor David Lunde.

I told someone recently that most writers I know simply desire publishing success in order to have more time. Fame and fortune yields financial success, and, as it has been famously (or infamously) stated, Money equals freedom. To writers, freedom equals writing time. College funds, lower mortgage payments, even new golf clubs would be nice. But, more than anything, what writers all desire is the opportunity to wake up and spend the day in their bathrobes and write. Just write. To the contrary, though, most of us write as a sideline. And in this economy, you damn well better give your day job more than its due.

So how does a working writer satisfy publishers who are looking for a novel-a-year production pace? As I have said previously, I’m a morning person, writing usually 4 to 5:30 or 6 a.m. I can edit up to 10 pages or write three or four in that span. On the other hand, in last week’s blog, Rick suggested writing in five-to-10-minute spurts. I was stunned when I read it. It doesn’t seem like much, but upon closer examination, Rick also said he can get “a paragraph or two” written during those bursts. That’s a hell of a pace, when you think about it. If a paragraph is 50 or even 100 words, he’s writing up to 300 words in roughly 30 minutes.

Most writers, at least at one point in their careers, have struggled to find time and energy to pursue their craft. For instance, in 1951, Elmore Leonard was writing crime and western novels—whenever he could. “Getting out of bed at five o’clock,” explains Jean Henry Mead in her July 31, 2009, “Mysterious People” blog, “he [Leonard] wrote two pages of fiction before going to work ‘with the rule that I couldn’t put the water on for coffee until I’d started writing. I’ve been a disciplined writer ever since.’ While working for the ad agency, he supplemented his early morning writing by placing a pad of paper in his desk drawer. With the drawer partially open, he wrote fiction on the job.”

Similarly, Richard Russo once explained why he bounced around the academic circuit. He said he never changed jobs for a raise, always for more writing time. Eventually, he landed a teaching post that demanded a mere three courses a year. Clever guy that he is, Russo taught all three in one semester and then flip-flopped semesters the next year, so he’d have 12 consecutive months off during which he could focus on his Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction.

In this seemingly never-ending pursuit of more writing time, there exists the need for perspective. There is nothing any of us can do about the sluggish economy’s impact on the fiction market—fewer readers are buying books (lucky libraries!), thus fewer editors are acquiring new fiction. Therefore, as obsessed as we all are about our writing, one can’t forget that it really is only writing. And it comes second to attending our kids’ soccer games, coaching our kids’ Timbit minor hockey teams, and to our day jobs. The average writer is still not breaking par financially, so in the end, it doesn’t matter whether you drink enough coffee to make the predawn hours work, or whether you write in bursts—you do it because you love it, and one way or another you write your book.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Advertising in Crime Fiction

Rick brought up an excellent topic about getting paid for produce placement in our fiction, and it brings to mind Blink, the book I’m reading right now. Or rather, listening to, as I found an audio copy. Blink (Back Bay Books, Little, Brown, 2005) is a book written by British-born Canadian journalist and pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell. He also wrote two other well-known books, The Tipping Point (2000) and Outliers (Little, Brown and Company, 2008).

Blink is about how people make unconscious decisions, and Gladwell calls them the decisions we make behind “closed doors.” These are the mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from little information, sometimes known as the adaptive unconscious. He also calls this process “thin slicing.”

You probably know where I’m going with this, considering the hot potato Rick introduced. ($10,000 for mentioning a product? I wish. Or do I?) Gladwell has a section that discusses how when a group of African American students were required to fill in their race before taking a standardized exam (the GRE, I believe), they did considerably worse on the exam than a comparable group that wasn’t asked to fill in their race. When asked how they felt about the exam, the first group replied that they felt unprepared, and many said they didn’t feel smart enough. If led to the fact that they may have been influenced by the race suggestion, a number of them admitted that they knew academic expectations were sometimes lower for African Americans.

Holy Moly, I thought. That’s terrible for everyone. And it’s huge. How about women being “bad” in math and science? Or what if you had a fight with your husband/girlfriend/etc. as you walked out the door to an important meeting or interview. Slam, take that you stupid shit! Okay, I hyperbolize, but it happens.

So back to product placement. Though I have used specific products that I thought fit a certain character (not always positively), I’m going to think twice about it. To do it because I’m paid? Like many of you said, it’s a very slippery slope. And what if I begin to believe it myself?

Just some thoughts, before I go listen to Blink some more. I want to know why some doctors get sued, while others, who make more mistakes, don’t. Or how people can’t explain how they’re attracted to members of the opposite sex. Or how they’re unconsciously influenced by others’ actions.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This blog entry sponsored by...

There has been a big discussion recently on Crime Writers of Canada’s Yahoo Group for our members. It centers around whether authors should negotiate with corporations for sponsorship mentions in their books, i.e. product placement.

I’d never really considered that. One CWC member claims she has signed a $10,000 deal for something like this. I don’t know if I’m prepared to believe that figure, but the discussion itself has raised a number of questions in my mind:

  • Does this really happen all that much? Based on the insidious nature of advertising these days, it wouldn’t surprised me. It’s just that I haven’t noticed it in the books I read. Maybe that’s the point, and maybe it’s a good thing.
  • Is it a good thing, though, morally speaking? If I could get some cash for having a character walk into a Starbucks, that might be one thing, but would I be required to say something nice about Starbucks at the same time? I don’t think I’d be willing to be party to something like that.
  • Does corporate product placement happen only for big authors’ novels? That’s one thing about the person who claimed the $10,000 figure: I doubt if you’ve ever heard of her. Why would a company pay that kind of money to be in her novel? Is there something going on here that I don’t know about? She claims the practice has been going on for years and no one talks about it. I can see why not! I hate when you’re being advertised to — and you don’t even know it.

Okay, Type M readers and blogmates, what do you think about this subject? Is it a potential gold mine for us struggling writers? How would we go about getting hooked up with potential sponsors? Are we willing to sacrifice our deathless prose on the altar of corporate profits?

Would we want to?

––––––––––––––––––

I just mentioned Yahoo in the above post. How would you feel if you knew they'd paid me to do that?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Guest Blogger Pip Granger


I'm pleased to host best-selling British author Chip Granger, writing as Pip Granger.  Pip has had success with both fiction and non-fiction, and has much to tell us about the differences as well as the similarities in writing techniques.  Her latest book, Up West, was listed as a best-seller by the London Times.
*****

While ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ that fiction writers can normally make a decent fist of writing non-fiction, editors of my acquaintance suggest that the same cannot be said of non-fiction writers who try their hand at writing novels. Although the two types of writing have a lot in common, there are added dimensions to writing fiction that make them differing skills.

My first book, Not All Tarts Are Apple, a novel, won the Harry Bowling prize for fiction. Three more novels followed, and then my publisher asked me to write a memoir of my unusual, 1950s childhood. The result - Alone - went on to become a bestseller. Te book relied more heavily on my memory than the non-fiction writers’ normal toolkit of research, interviews and a passionate interest in the subject. As a result it was completed fairly quickly, largely because I knew the plot.

My latest effort, Up West, was nowhere near as easy. It is a vox populi emotional history of the West End of London from the immediate post-war years, through to the early 1960s. The project allowed me to indulge three of my passions; social history, the historically fascinating post-war years; and that little patch of London that has featured so large in all of my books, my beloved Soho and its West End neighbours, Covent Garden and Mayfair. The project took years, and plenty of angst, but it also became a bestseller.

From my own writing experience, I have noticed that there are several skills that are equally important in fiction and non-fiction. The narrative should flow seamlessly in both kinds of book. If a novel has required a lot of research, the fruits of that research should weave in and out of the pages. The reader should be unaware of the joins. If the movement between researched ‘facts’ and imaginative fiction isn’t smooth, then the book suffers and the whole is unsatisfying. Letting the research show can slide so easily it a lecturing tone and that’s irritating for the reader. It’s easier to get away with it in a text book, where dry facts are so often the norm, and showing erudition can be positively encouraged, but even so, the book is easier to read and understand if the narrative and the research make an absorbing whole.

Setting the scene is also important in both types of work. The backdrop to the action is a vital ingredient to any good read. Setting facts or fiction in a proper context always, always pays off. Peopling the scene with believable characters is, ideally, another shared skill. In fiction, good character development is essential and it doesn’t go amiss in non-fiction either. Reading about a character, real or imagined, is so much more fun if our shared humanity is explored a bit. There’s always a risk of a cardboard cut-out type depiction, which would be flat or, worse, clichéd, and so detract disastrously from the readability of the work. In non-fiction, however, some restraint is important, because it can be a very a fine line between fact and fancy , and in non-fiction one should always land on the side of fact - even if fancy does make the better story.

Pace is equally important in either kind of book. Too slow, and the narrative becomes ponderous; too fast, and the content can look flimsy, and in non-fiction terms, under-researched.

So why do some non-fiction writers normally find fiction too slippery a customer to tackle effectively? I can see why, sort of, but I still find it tricky to pin down in words. Dialogue is one obvious problem. An ear for dialogue is one of those nebulous things that you either have or you don’t, like a sense of rhythm or a gift for maths. That innate ability can be worked on, honed, improved upon, but the nub has to be there in the first place. And if it isn’t, it isn’t, and that’s all there is to it. Some non-fiction writers can’t do dialogue and that immediately cramps their style.

Good storytelling ability isn’t given to all writers, although I do think it is something that can be learned up to a point, by reading a lot. However, as in comedy, timing is very important and is very hard to pin down.

As with so many other things that novelists find essential as tools of their trade, a lot of these attributes are helpful when writing non-fiction and make for a better book, but they are not absolute musts.

If I was asked to choose whether to limit myself to one or the other form of writing, I’d go for fiction. I have enjoyed a good story all my life and have discovered that writing stories is as good as hearing them or reading them. The same is not true of non-fiction. There, I have to keep my wits about me, stick to the hard-learned facts and most importantly, quote people exactly in order to be true to the spirit of their time, their place and their stories.

It’s a big responsibility, but the pay-off has been that, judging by the letters, emails and ‘phone calls I’ve received, it has touched a lot of people and as such, has turned out to really be a work that speaks with the ‘voice of the people’ - or some people anyway.

******

Pip's web address is http://pip-granger.com


Saturday, October 24, 2009

PPWebcon Today


If you are reading this entry on Saturday morning, Dear Readers, please be advised that I, Donis, am not here.  I am presently in lovely Scottsdale, Arizona, participating in a live, on-air panel on Suspense for the first ever PPWebcon.

I’ll be reporting for duty at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore at eight-blinking-thirty in the morning in order to be filmed live (as live as I can be at 8:30 a.m.) for Webcon Hour 3, discussing Suspense with Libby Hellmann, Frederick Ramsay, and Betty Webb. I have written out a number of cogent thoughts on the subject and studied them carefully so that I can be spontaneous and brilliant on camera.

The Webcon is the brainchild of Robert Rosenwald, publisher and owner of Poisoned Pen Press.  It features live as well as on-demand discussions and presentations by some really top mystery authors.  Robert’s intention is to offer the benefits of a major mystery convention, from the comfort of your home computer.  Judging from what I have seen thus far, it’s going to be wild and wooly, and a lot of fun. 

I’ve also contributed to two text panels which will be available not only today, but ever after - Ideas, featuring Rebecca Cantrell, J.M. Hayes, Peter May, Rachel Brady, and Yours Truly, and History/Mystery, with Clea Simon, Jane Copsey, Vicki Delany, Roger Hudson, Sarah Wisseman, and Self. 

I shall no doubt glean all kinds of wonderful and enlightening information on how to create and sustain suspense in crime writing, and will not fail to share it with you.

In addition, do not miss our guest blogger tomorrow, the delightful Chip Granger, coming to us from Across the Pond.  Chip is the author of several prize-winning works of both fiction and non-fiction, and has much insight to share on the differing skill sets the two require.  


Friday, October 23, 2009

Vicki Comes to Town

Charles here, playing host to noted author, good pal and fellow blogger, Vicki Delany. She's about to kick off a quick two-week book signing tour and stopped by yesterday for a visit. Here's the proof:




That's Vicki, Rose and me at my home bar, which is never this brightly lit. I think it was Vicki's excited glow.

Here's a shot of Vicki signing her Canadian gold rush novel, Gold Digger



And the very first signed copy of her latest Molly Smith mystery



Much fun was had by all. Now I have to go, I have two new books I'm eager to start reading.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Parallel Plot or What My Novel is About

What is my mystery novel about? This is a question I ask myself each time I begin a new mystery. If that sounds strange, it’s because there are actually two answers.

Of course, I know what my mystery is about. For instance, the book I’m currently writing started with a teacher asking my protagonist to find her missing student. That’s the plot. That’s what my mystery is about. However, every contemporary crime novel has a subplot or a parallel plot. What is my parallel plot about? In my novel, the boy has run off to escape a teacher who has sexually molested him and parents who have likewise failed him. This is what my parallel plot is about, and it’s what holds my interest and keeps me writing.

Often, the parallel plot is the exploration into the human condition. During an interview with Mystery Scene, Sue Grafton said, “Mysteries are about the psychology of crime and the psychology of human nature.” The second half of her statement is what makes contemporary crime genre so powerful, popular, and important.

When I’m asked why I write crime fiction—as opposed to (how many times has this come up recently on our blog?) mainstream fiction—I always say, because there is no difference. Hamlet, after all, is a murder/suspense tale. Any level of exploration of the human condition that can be achieved in a so-called mainstream or literary novel can be equally explored—plus some additional entertainment—in a so-called crime novel or mystery.

It’s why I love what I do, and this is why my second question is so riveting. What is my parallel plot about? What do I want to say about the teenager who has seen all the adults in his life let him down? Can my protagonist help him? And what does it say about society if my protagonist cannot help him? As a boarding-school teacher, these are people I care about and important questions I want answered. They are the questions that make up my parallel plots. Where better to explore them than in my fiction?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Creating Your Villain, tips from Donald Maass

It's Debby this morning, just returned from Bouchercon, where Sisters in Crime sponsored a terrific seminar, titled SinC into Great Writing. The headline speaker was literary agent Donald Maas, who gave so many great tips on improving our WIP's that I couldn’t write fast enough. Here are some of his suggestions about how to create a stronger antagonist.

Think through your novel and ask yourself who it is who most impedes your protagonist. Is it your villain? Maybe, but maybe not. Get to know your villain and/or antagonist. What does he do? What kind of job does she have? What kind of haircut? How does he dress? Fastidiously, or like an aging hippie? Is she married, does she cheat on her husband? How many kids? Any quirks? Beware of cliches, though.

Now put this person in a situation where he or she demonstrates the exact opposite of the portrait you’ve painted. If he cheats on his wife, have him shower her with love and respect in a certain situation. Have a fussy person show up unkempt and disheveled. Show insecurities, have her be hard working, let him examine his own limits.

Examine her world view. Is it correct in some ways? How? What people in your novel agree with him? Who in history has seen things the way your antagonist sees them? Has it been good or bad? Show some good qualities in the antagonist: respect for authority, working for what she believes in. What writing or philosophy justifies his thinking? What are her religious values and how does she demonstrate them? You can even use a bible passage, and Maass named a reference book called the Thompson Chain Reference Bible to help find appropriate ones. (I’d never heard of this. I guess it’s like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for the Bible.)

Have your protagonist recognize a way in which the antagonist is right. What is the antagonist’s perception of the protagonist? What does the antagonist think the protagonist could do better? Did the antagonist give advice, get in her face?

How did the protagonist decide the antagonist might be right about a situation? Did the protagonist seek him out? The antagonist may have a grander truth the protagonist begins to recognize. Have the protagonist stop for a moment and admire the antagonist. Change both the antagonist’s and the protagonist’s view of each other.

Maass said that giving the antagonist more to do is a technique that can really juice the “sagging middle” of a novel. He gave us all an assignment: Write a 2-3 page outline for your antagonist, starting and ending the story at the same points you did for the protagonist, but this story belongs to the antagonist. What is his conflict? What are the steps she takes to get to her goal? How is he conflicted? What is the worst thing that happens to the antagonist? Try to make it the inverse of the protagonist’s story, with the tale told from the antagonist’s point of view.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Keeping the momentum going

Blechta here, being a little more serious this week.

I have to say that it’s tough and discouraging sometimes being a writer but having to rely on a day job to keep body and soul together. Even if you can support yourself with your writing, daily distractions are tough to deal with. Even the smallest of distractions can take you “out of your book”. But if you have to earn your daily bread down other avenues, the problems and distractions multiply exponentially — and eventually begin to wear you down.

I’m in that position. With a novel done and being shopped around the Greater New York area (we’re probably as far away as Poughkeepsie by now), I bravely set forth on crafting the next one. Problem is that I have to support my writing habit by doing (mostly) graphic design. Even executing the simplest order card takes an incredible amount of concentration and uses up a large portion of my daily allotment of creativity, with the result that when I return to the computer in the evening to write, I often find myself staring at a screen containing a bunch of words I wrote that seem as if they’re in some foreign language I don’t quite understand. The frightening thing is that too often I’m throwing up my hands and giving up for that night, which, of course, only compounds the problem.

Now this is a situation most writers face. Very few of us are lucky enough to be on the plus side of the economic equation, either through book sales, the fact that we’re retired and have sufficient income, or that there’s someone in our lives who makes enough to support us. What do we do?

Having been taught early on that a solution will present itself if you only think hard enough, it was simply a matter of time before I came up with something workable. Last week it finally hit me, and it was so obvious that I literally smacked myself in the head for taking so long.

(Now with music teacher’s/musician’s hat firmly on.) I’ve long been an advocate of breaking up one’s work day to get in a little practising. I do this, putting in at least a half hour daily (usually more) in little 5- or 10-minute spurts. It works very well indeed. For my students, I always told them to break up their homework in the evenings by doing warm-ups, scales, studies, whatever, as they do their homework. The results are highly beneficial. You get your music time in almost painlessly easily, and you work/study better, too, since the “changing of tasks”, keeps your brain from getting sluggish.

So why the $@#^&* did it take me so long to think of applying this to my writing? I work at home; I don’t have anyone breathing down my back or looking at my computer screen. Taking a short writing break might just also help my design work.

A week later, I’m one happy camper. I may only write a paragraph or two during my writing breaks, but there’s progress, I have more writing energy in the evenings, and my story is “staying loaded in mental RAM” much better than was the case a week ago.

Anyone else have a different solution to this dilemma?

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Face of Canadian Crime Writing Today


At Bouchercon. Left to Right, Yours Truly (Vicki Delany), Anthony Bidulka, Barbara Fradkin, R.J. Harlick, Mary Jane Maffini. File under promotion.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The art of ignoring it.

Blechta here to introduce our guest blogger this Sunday, Canada's own Susanna Kearsley who also writes as Emma Cole. She wrote her first noval on a dare from her sister and realized that writing was all she wanted to do. Her second novel,The Splendour Falls, won the U.K.'s Catherine Cookson Fiction Prize in 1993. As Emma Cole, Susanna writes crime fiction. Her book in that, ahem, genre is Every Secret Thing published in 2006. Read about her crime writing exploits at www.emmacole.ca and her more "literary" exploits at www.susannakearsley.com. You won't be disappointed!

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Let's rewind a few days.

It's Thursday morning and I'm sitting at my kitchen table trying to compose this post, because I've been following the discussion here about the dishearteningly condescending behaviour of a certain CBC broadcaster and guest on a certain Sunday talk show, and I feel compelled to say something about it...but I'm trying to decide whether I really have the energy to wade into that quagmire of the "literary" vs. "genre" fiction thing, because for starters William Deverell has already said much of what I think (and more succinctly) in his essay on Canada's "National Snobbery Disorder" in the National Post last month, and because Peter Robinson has himself already given a rather neatly prescient reply to the CBC broadcaster's slur, in the wonderful second-last paragraph of this 2006 interview.

So it's Thursday, and being late in the morning on a school day, my seven-year-old son is home for lunch and sitting across the table from me, eating his grilled cheese sandwich, and while I'm sorting through my thoughts and feeling Righteously Indignant on behalf of all genre writers, my son starts telling me about his morning.

He's in second grade this year. In second grade, the kids have started splitting into little tribes. The halcyon days of kindergarten, when they ran and played together like a herd of buffalo around the fenced-in playground, are decidedly behind them. There are bullies. There are cool kids. There are loners. And my son is having Issues.

"Mommy," he asks me, "what do you do when someone doesn't want to play with you?"

I give him half my attention. "Well," I say, "you just ignore them. Play with someone else."

"But I want to play with Cecil and Percival." (Not their real names, you understand, but since nobody calls their children Cecil or Percival these days -- at least not in my neighbourhood -- I feel fairly safe in using them to hide the true identities of the boys in question) "I want to play with them," my son says, "but I asked them if I could and they said no, and they were mean to me." He frowns at the injustice as he takes a bite of sandwich and he asks, "Why don't they like me?"

"Well," I say, with a little more thought this time, "that's just how life is, sometimes. Not everyone you meet is going to like you. And that's OK, because there'll always be enough people who DO like you, that the people who don't like you don't really matter."

"Oh." This is a radical thought for a seven-year-old, that it might be OK if not everyone likes you. Seven-year-olds, much like writers, harbour a deep need to be universally liked. But he trusts that I know what I'm talking about, and when I take him back to school after lunch he's looking happier.

"Mommy," he announces, "I'm not going to try to play with Percival and Cecil anymore. I'll play with Hubert." (Again, not his real...well, you know). "Hubert," my son says, "is fun."

"Good for you," I applaud him. And watching him go, I reflect on the lesson I've just tried to teach him, and how it applies to this great literary divide that I've been thinking about. Because I know that, as a writer of genre fiction in Canada, no matter how many times or how nicely I ask the Cecils and Percivals of CanLit if I can play with them, the answer will most probably be "no".

I'll likely never be considered for a Giller or a G-G, or get a grant from the Canada Council, or be invited into the Order of Canada. But I'll get over it. Not everyone out there is going to like me. That's OK.

I've got a wonderful, supportive bunch of fellow genre writers round me who don't need to be convinced by constant argument that what I write is worthy of respect; who know that when the best of us are at our best, our writing rivals anything the Giller can reward. And that's enough for me. Those people on the CBC can be the mean kids on the playground
if they have a mind to.

I'll stay here and play with Hubert. He's more fun.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Writers on Writing

Donis here, feeling awed.  My blogmates have been firing on all cylinders lately, leaving me with the sad and certain knowledge that I have nothing to say this week that is nearly so witty or to the point.  In truth, I cannot tell you how often I think, “I wish I’d said that.”  I am a sucker for a clever turn of phrase, and will remember a good one forever, whether or not I get it exactly right in the retelling. 

Therefore, since I simply can’t say it better myself, following are some quotes by the masters, in no particular order, which have informed and guided me in the craft of writing, creating mysteries, histories, characters, and worlds.

Mickey Spillane, when asked how much research he does in the interest of authenticity:  “None.  My job is not to tell the truth.  My job is to make you believe.”(Note:  I’ve used that quote for years, but when I looked it up for this entry, I see that it’s actually “I don’t research anything.  When I need something, I make it up.” However, I like my version, so there it is. D.)

Walter Mosely: “Fiction is a collusion between the reader and the novel ... Your readers will go along with you, creating a much larger world as they do.”

Walter Mosely : “Too many writers can’s see the forest of the story through the trees of all their detail.”

William Faulkner: “The past is not dead.  In fact, it’s not even past.”

Mark Twain:  “Don’t say ‘the old lady screamed.’  Bring her on stage and let her scream.”

Graham Green: “The moment comes when a character says or does something that you hadn’t thought of.  At that moment, he’s alive and you leave it to him.”

Toni Morrison: “My father told me that once you know a man’s race, you know nothing about him at all.”

Satchel the Dog of the “Get Fuzzy” comic strip :  “Truth is more important than fact.” (Note: He may have stolen this from Frank Lloyd Wright. D.)

Taoist saying: “The fish is not aware of the water it swims in.”

J.A. Jance, on being told by a fan that she didn’t like Jance’s latest book as well as the earlier ones:  “Babe Ruth had 714 career home runs.  He also had 1330 career strike-outs.  If you want to be a success you’ve got to get up to the plate and keep swinging.” (Note : I was standing right next to her when she said this. D.)

Carolyn Hart: “The point of a mystery is never the murder.”

Eric Mayer: “The trick to writing imaginative historical mysteries is keeping just under the radar of the historians.”

Somerset Maugham, when asked if he had a writing schedule or waited until inspiration struck. “Oh, I wait until inspiration strikes.  Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Erica Jong: “Feminism didn’t change deep-seated priorities about what - or who - matters.  I see deeply diminished expectations in young women writers... I would like to see the talented new breed of American women writers ... protest their ghettoization ... let’s celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it.  And let’s mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking love matters.  It does.” 

(Note: the above  quote, taken from Jong’s article entitled “Ghetto (Not) Fabulous”, which appeared in Publisher’s Weekly, on April 9, 2007, can be changed as follows and make an equally cogent point:

“The popularity of crime fiction didn’t change deep-seated priorities about what type of literature matters.  I see deeply diminished expectations in mystery writers.  I would like to see the talented new breed of American crime fiction writers protest their ghettoization.  Let’s celebrate our genre rather than fear it.  And let’s mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking genre fiction has real meaning.  It does.” D.)

Oh, my.  I could go on for pages, but fear not, Dear Reader.  I shan’t. 

Except for my very favorite --

Steven Pressfield: “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor.  It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.  Don’t cheat us of your contribution.  Give us what you’ve got.”


Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing as a Career

Charles here, ready to step back in time.

Recently I picked up a copy of Starting in Life by Nathaniel C. Fowler, Jr., a career handbook published in 1906 and republished by The Lyons Press in 2003. In it the author offers thoughtful insights into thirty different careers, from physician to department store clerk, stenographer to steam railroad employee. The section on The Advertising Man inspired the purchase, but there’s also another on a career as a Littérateur, and it turns out I am one. As an expert on all things career, N.C. Fowler Jr. refused to settle for such a pedestrian term as writer, choosing to adopt instead word that’s now universally accepted as obsolete. And if he was that wrong on the word, I assumed his career advice would also be amusingly way the hell off.

Turns out N.C. Fowler Jr. could see the future. Not perfectly, but his glimpses are creepy accurate – as long as you can overlook his male-centric prose.

“Unless the author is a well-known writer, whose name is a household word, he cannot expect his book to bring him more than a few hundred dollars, but he may hope for the unexpected, which sometimes occurs.”

$100 in 1906 is roughly equivalent to $2,300 today. A few hundred dollars then is a few thousand dollars now and, sadly, he’s accurate. Here’s a few more pearls, plucked at random:

“Thus the unknown writer may long be a victim of chance, his fate depending at the start upon the judgment or caprice of some first reader, or upon public opinion, which is often fickle, and which at times appears to run amuck.”

“The desire to write often develops into a conceited belief in one’s own literary capacity.”

“Experience, as well as actual capacity, is a necessary requirement. Mo one can write properly about that of which he knows nothing. Any attempt to write without experience invites failure.”

“I would not advise any one to attempt to become an author if he must depend upon his pen for bread and butter.”

“The author cannot be made. Success in authorship is impossible unless there be actual capacity. All the colleges, and all the institutions in the world combined, and all the books read, and all the learning possible for one brain to hold, cannot produce a genuine author or an author capable of writing any work of originality or any work with real soul and color to it.”

“Seldom does an author of reputation produce an entirely worthless book. That which made his reputation refuses to allow him to do anything poorly, although there may be degrees of quality to his writing.”

“The literary market is overstocked. The road to literary fame is double-paved with the dry bones of failures. More people who cannot write think they can write than think they can do anything else that they cannot do.”

“The eagerness, I might say insanity, to write, has made possible the establishment of irresponsible publishing houses, who prey upon authors.

“The author, or would-be author, is seldom a worshiper of money.”

“Whether one writes a part of the time or all of the time, his best work is a production of concentration and application. The real author has a mission, and that mission he will fulfill if he lives.”

Any arguments?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Editing: Methodology, Magic Dust, Superstition, or Voodoo?

I'm 200 pages into the novel I’m currently writing, and I've figured out how--in the next hundred pages or so--it will end. To make sure the conclusion I foresee is appropriate, I'm currently in the process of re-reading the entire manuscript, adding clues, sharpening the plotline, and clarifying motifs. As one would expect, the process has me thinking about editing.

I've heard many different methodologies regarding manuscript editing: Some authors insist on writing a complete draft before going back, adding details, and flushing out scenes and characters. Other writers edit as they go, making each scene as polished as they can before working on the next so that when they have finished, the book is ready for submission or publication. I’ve also heard the longhand-versus-computer debate whereby some novelists compose and edit on a computer, while others (Nelson DeMille comes to mind) write longhand, filling tablet after tablet. And there are scribes who combine these two methods: Richard Russo writes longhand on legal pads in the morning, then types his day’s work in the evenings, "editing" as he does so. Perhaps the most unusual method I’ve heard of is the prose writer who suggested that writers should draft work in single-spaced text but revise after double-spacing the manuscript. (I don’t get that concept.)

Obviously, each writer does what works best for them. In truth, a writer trying to create his best work is no different than a baseball player trying to keep a hitting streak alive. I read somewhere that Michael Crichton ate the same food for 90 consecutive days when working on a novel. I can’t verify that anywhere, but I believe it. After all, I routinely listen to the same mix (right now it’s Airborne Toxic Event, John Mayer, and Greenday) while I work on a book.

Is this superstition or methodology? I tell students to always print out their work and edit hardcopy with a pen/pencil. Yet, admittedly, I don’t always follow this adage. I also suggest that one read his or her work aloud during the editing process. This suggestion I do follow, religiously.

So why do we choose the methods we do? I think most of us write instinctively. And there is something magical that happens when your scene turns out exactly as you hoped it would. So what is the magic dust that somehow, somewhere gets sprinkled over the text in order for this to occur? I’m obviously a fan of many writers, and I often I find myself turning the page, thinking, Damn, she makes it look easy. But the writer in me knows that it probably wasn’t so “easy,” that the author probably worked her tail off to allow me to drift happily into the world she created. After all, that’s the goal of editing.

I’d love to hear my blog-mates’ and readers’ editing secrets and/or philosophies.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

If the literary set held conventions...

This report is coming to you today from Flint, Michigan, home this year to the International Literary Books Convention for the Advancement and Appreciation of Truly Worthy Novels, or ILBCFTAAAOTWNCon as it’s become known to the literary cognoscenti. Please join us and our august company of guest authors, many of whom you’ve never heard.

Attendees can choose from a fantastic list of panel discussions that will certainly shine the beacon of knowledge under the bushel basket of our “genre” (chuckle, chuckle). Here are a just few of the panels that are sure to be talked about for years:
* Must every novel have a depressing setting?
* Sales are NOT a true indicator of readers’ enjoyment.
* The only good author is a dead author.
* Must you be misanthropic to become popular?
* What’s a website?
* Should every E.M. Forster novel be sold with a dictionary?
* Turning literary novels into video games, right or wrong?
* Is reading crime fiction on your days off as reprehensible as it sounds?
* It’s enough that I write. How can you expect anything else from me?
* Being funny and depressing at the same time.
* Confusing prose as a plot device.

And there will be workshops:
* Long obscure words = Big Thoughts!
* Keeping descriptive passages under twenty pages
* Speed Writing: you can complete your novel in under ten years with these easy tips
* If you suffer from depression and have a bloated vocabulary, you could have what it takes to be a successful literary author!

After all the complaints last year, it has been decided to limit panels to a five-hour length. Workshops will be 18 hours in length and held in a broom closet on the fifth floor of the convention hotel. If enough people sign up, they will be moved to the boiler room in the sub basement. Both places are redolent of despair and poverty.

And we will have a book signing this year! One of our authors has actually deigned to give one. It will be held at four a.m. on Friday at the bus terminal, scene of many riveting passages in numerous tales of depression and longing for lost chances over many years of toil and strife.

We still have room in our roster of 56 people of taste and conviction. Let’s see if we can get our registrations above the record-breaking attendance of 83 last year!

Monday, October 12, 2009

A Criminal Romp

Vicki here. If anyone is as yet undecided as to whether or not attend Bouchercon, I hope Jared’s great post of yesterday made up their mind. Jared – you are on my top ten list of people I have to talk to.

Me, I’m going as much for the road trip as the conference itself. Around noon tomorrow, I am going to be picked up in Belleville by Maryjane Maffini, Barbara Fradkin, and R.J. Harlick. We will then bounce down the road, chattering and laughing all the way, for the eleven hour (plus stops) drive to Indianapolis. We are all together on the O Canada panel (AKA PARTY), Thursday at 4:30.

We have taken the liberty of giving our panel a new sub-title: A Criminal Romp through the Wilds of Canada. The fifth member of the panel is Anthony Bidulka and I am aware Tony is very worried that he will have to do the panel all by himself if we are arrested at the border.

If we are arrested it will probably be because of the wonderful Canadian food we are bringing as part of our panel/party. I have made Kootenay Kookies and have bought Smarties. I know there will be Inuit Tea, Nanaimo bars, maple leaf cookies, and all sorts of other delicacies. (Hum – if that is how we define Canadian cuisine, many of our foreign friends will get the impression we don’t bother with things like fruit and vegetables or meat or daily products.)

We will also be arrayed in various degrees of sartorial splendour illustrative of our proud heritage.

And bearing books – that goes without saying. To kick the panel off we have devised a few skill-testing questions for the audience with books as prizes, including the Crime Writers of Canada cookbook, Dishes to Die For, edited by our own Rick Blechta.

We will also be giving away copies of the Crime Writers of Canada catalogue, but you don’t have to be at Bouchercon to get one of those. Just go to Crimewriterscanada.com and sign up for Cool Canadian Crime.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Guest Blogger Jared Case: Top 10 Reasons to attend Bouchercon

Today's guest blogger is writer, film restoration expert and mystery fanatic, Jared Case. Next week Jared's off to Bouchercon and I've asked him to give his Top 10 Reasons you should attend - Charles


A few years ago, I took a class on Mystery Writing at Writers & Books, a local Rochester organization that acts as a literary sluice, channeling reading and writing programs through the city. My instructor was a tall, good-looking [sic], follically-defiant man who has been supportive of my writing ever since. That man's name was Charles Benoit. His mission: to provide us with the cartographic skills necessary to build our own narrative maps. But that's not all. He also opened the door to the grand community awaiting us with open arms. He told us about Bouchercon.

My first Bouchercon was in Madison, Wisconsin. It just happened to be the old stomping grounds of a colleague (Dan Wagner, who calls himself The Hungry Detective) who also just happened to be a big mystery reader. It was exciting and overwhelming, but by the end, I knew I wanted more. I got more when I went to Baltimore last year. Armed with foreknowledge of what to expect, I got much more out of it, and I am fortunate to be returning this year. I hope to be just as productive this year as I was last.

So what keeps bringing me back? There are 10 things. At least. Here are my Top 10:

10) The Gift Bag/The Author Bazaar – The first thing that happens to you when you check in is this: someone hands you a big bag of free books. Now, free is not one of those four-letter words your mother taught you to avoid. This is FREE! And they're not slouches, either. Here are some of the authors I've gotten free at Bouchercon: Laura Lippman, John Harvey, Lawrence Block, Sean Chercove, Theresa Schwegel. And new to this Bouchercon is a concept called The Author Bazaar. Sunday morning several authors are going to gather in a large room and give away books. Just give them away, with the belief that if you can put books in people's hands, they are more likely to read them and more likely to pick up the next one. Each attendee is limited to 5 books based on their registration, but you can buy 5 more books for just $5. (US).

9) Authors Sign Books – This is not as important to me. I'd rather have a handshake, a conversation, even a picture, any day, but it does provide an opportunity for anyone to interact with a favorite author and have a keepsake of the experience.

8) Explore the Area – You may not have time, but if you can, you should explore the area you've been brought to. There are usually numerous interesting things to do and see wherever you go. For instance, if you were in Baltimore last year, you might have visited Poe's gravesite. And if you were to go to Indianapolis this year, you might visit a John Dillinger exhibit, the King Tut touring exhibition, or tour the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And I wouldn't know what great Mexican food was if I hadn't visited Madison. Honest.

7) The Anthony Awards – These awards are voted on at the conference. You are eligible to nominate and vote based on being registered at the conference. The winners will likely be at the conference. It's synergy.

6) Meet the Fans – You have a chance to meet other people who are interested in the same books, the same authors, that you are. They are probably even more knowledgeable than you are, and you can finally have an enlightening conversation, in person, about your interests.

5) The Panels – Mystery novels get talked about from every angle in these 45- to 50-minute sessions. Some are not so good. Some are out-of-this-world fantastic. A particular one that comes to mind is Laura Lippman, Thomas H. Cook and Reed Farrell Coleman talking about setting as a character. Just magic.

4) The Interviews – Also last year were two fantastic interviews, Michael Koryta interviewing Laura Lippman, and Charles Ardai interviewing Lawrence Block. I hope to expect much of the same when Koryta interviews Michael Connelly, and Terence Faherty interviews SJ Rozan.

3) Meet the Authors – I have a little secret. I have a list of 10 people I HAVE to talk to in Indianapolis. Some know me, some are acquainted with me, and some have no idea I'm coming. But this is why they're at this conference: to meet the readers, connect with them. It is an opportunity that you should be taking advantage of.

2) The Parties/the Bar – This is where the concept of authors and readers really comes together. Yes, there are formalized panels and interviews and events during the day, but at night-time you might find yourself sitting in on a conversation with Bill Cameron, Brett Battles and Robert Gregory Browne, or talking to Thomas H. Cook, or just watching people come in and out the door. Without the artifice, everyone is just someone, and you can communicate on a different level.

1) Learn About New Authors You May Never Have Heard of – This is by far the most significant benefit I've gotten from these conferences. There are so many authors that I read on a regular basis now that I didn't before I went to a conference: Megan Abbott, Trey Barker, Lorraine Bartlett, Lawrence Block, Sean Chercover, Marcus Sakey. Do yourself a favor and check out one or more of these authors. I've done the footwork for you. Or treat yourself and attend a mystery convention. You'll be glad you did.

1A) Although Charles, Donis, John and Rick aren't coming (we always have the same conversation about Tom Cheek, but it's a wonderful conversation), I will get to meet Debby and Vicki (again), so maybe I have 12 people I have to talk to.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Creating Characters and Reviewing Reviewers

Charles has hit upon the truth when he notes that you have to know everything about your characters, whether or not you put it all into your novel. This is because a real person’s background informs every action he takes.  If your character hates women, it may not be relevant to the action that he was raised by an abusive mother, but knowing that fact will certainly help the author write him in a realistic way. Many of my characters are inspired by real people, but they are not based on them.  When I create a character, his life, personality, background and physical attributes are whatever I need them to be for the book. I made a point of not physically describing my main character, Alafair, except in generalities, even though I have a clear picture of her in my head. Many authors actually write lengthy biographies of their characters, most of which never sees the light of day.  I don’t go that far, but I do keep a notebook containing the particulars of all my characters: looks, birth dates, likes and dislikes, life events.  Of course, after several books, my recurring characters have developed lives of their own, and they drive the action rather than the action driving them, just like real life.  The great mystery novelist Graham Green once said, “There comes a time when your character does something you would never have thought of.  When that happens, he’s alive, and you leave him to it.” (I may have used that quote in this blog before, but what good is it to know a pithy quote unless you can use it fifteen or twenty times?)


A thought or two about reviewers: Like everyone else who has ever had a book published, I Google myself regularly to see if any new reviews have come up. I am fascinated by my reviews. They teach me a lot, often stroke my ego, sometimes make me want to stop writing and take up ditch digging. But they always tell me quite a bit about the reviewer. In fact, they usually tell me more about the reviewer than they do the book itself.

A couple of years ago I found a review of my first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, which appeared in the Norman Transcript. Don and I lived in Norman, OK, home of the University of Oklahoma, for several years in our youth, so I feel rather like Norman is “back home”.  The reviewer says many nice things about the book, all of which I appreciated very much However, s/he didn’t like the dialog — or more precisely, the dialect — at all.  I’m afraid I don’t know the name of the person who reviewed the book for the paper. The byline is just “staff writer”  I didn’t know if the writer is a man or a woman, old or young, or anything about him/her at all. But because of the review, I understood the person instantly.  I, too, was once a graduate English student at OU who was self-conscious about her accent.

A well-respected reviewer for a California newspaper loved my first book, hated the second.  That stung.  I think she felt betrayed, because she grudgingly admitted that the third book might indicate that I was “back on track”.  Fortunately for my ego, the very day after the bad review,  I received a wonderful e-letter from a woman in Illinois who loved the book, so I was saved from having to throw myself under a train.  Because, as anyone who has ever written anything knows, you’re always wondering if you’re losing your touch.

There is one well-known reviewer who never met a book she didn’t like.  We all know of whom I speak.  Whether her always glowing reviews are taken seriously or not, she is a lovely and kind-hearted person, and if you’ve just had a novel raked over the coals, you can use her review of your work to soothe your wounded soul.  It’s amazing how credible she becomes when it’s your book she’s praising.  

I’ve found a couple of online reviews that left me gratified and amused at once.  I liked this one:  “The writing style is humorous, and odd.”  I’d like to meet that reviewer.


Friday, October 09, 2009

Casting your novel

Charles here, ready to pontificate.

Last week I tried to start a firestorm with a blog post that explained why literary novels, in general, are better written than mystery novels. However my argument (see below) proved to be either too brilliant or too futile so it sparked few responses. Today I’m too busy putting out fires at the ad agency to be argumentative. I’m casting 5 speaking parts for a TV spot we’re shooting Monday.

It’s just a 30 second spot, but each “character” has his or her own personality that we have to try to capture with spot-on casting, Edith Head-quality wardrobe and Oscar-worthy directing. So we brought in 20+ local actors and models to do a quick read of various lines, not so much a casting call as it was a creative audition. All were good, some were really good and the best of the best made the final selection process.

So what does my oh-so-exciting life as a commercial producer have to do with writing mysteries? Besides the constant gunplay and the husky voiced femme fatales, quite a bit actually.

As an author, you have to cast your story as well, finding the right personification to the voices you hear in your head. Even if you never mention it, never allude to it, you know it makes a big difference whether your heroine is a blond, brunette or a redhead. You know that you need to see every character, get a good long look at ‘em, before you can bring them into a scene. Even if it’s tall man in scene 2, you have to know whether said tall man’s belt matches his shoes. Now will your reader ever see this? Unless there’s a good reason, I sure hope not, but you as the director of your story need to see every detail nailed before you yell action.

Now just to be clear, I’m not talking that little what-if game we all play where we cast well known celebs in the movie versions of our books. I’m talking about a real technique you can/should apply when you’re writing your mystery. It’s not a all-done-now-who-fits approach, it’s a collaboration that allows for unexpected twists and enables the actors to bring something of themselves to the role. At the ad agency, too often we’re under a tight time schedule or exacting client specs, but when we can we like to let the actors read the role the way they think it should sound, changing words if they feel something else would sound better. It doesn’t happen that way often enough, but, just like casting your novel, it’s worth considering.

I’d explain this better, but I have a location to scout. Hmmm…might make a good blog post.

This Sunday be sure to tune in for an exclusive B’con preview from my good friend, author and noted mystery aficionado, Jared Case.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

More on Happy Words

First, a formal congrats to Vicki for her starred review in PW for Winter of Secrets. Now everyone go order the book!

To the business at hand: Rick’s “Putting Words Together” piece (Sept. 22) has stayed with me. He covered many topics including editing as well as what some writers (a lot more knowledgeable and successful than me) have called the “magic” of fiction—using words that “sound happy together.” One question Rick raised was, How do we locate those happy words?

I think most of us write by ear, even the most expert grammarian among us. Athletes often speak of entering “the zone.” Runners speak of “runner’s high.” And I believe writers have this sacred space as well, that place where the book seemingly writes itself. Allow me to digress to a previous discussion of voice for a moment: For me, finding the voice of the piece equates to locating those elusive “happy words.”
James Lee Burke, in an interview in January Magazine (Oct. 2004), said, “The creative process is more one of discovery than creation. The character is already in the author, I think. The challenge is not to allow the ego of the character to dominate the story.” Burke speaks of allowing the character to come forward, undamaged by the writer’s inhibition. To me, this is voice—finding the proper persona for the piece. That done, the author may write confidently.

Of course, this is not easily accomplished. I’ve written some really unhappy words—outright angry words, really—over the years. Some real clunkers. Most have been caught, pre-publication. Some, admittedly, have not. But I know when my prose is fluid and crisp, my story is going well. When I’m writing words that fight amongst themselves, the story has stalled, and I’ve lost that much-sought-after confident, authoritative voice. So I go back and reread my story to see where I went wrong. Then I revise and work until the words are smiling once more because, like momma, when the words are unhappy, everyone else is too.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Literary Reviews and Literary Revenge

Debby here, posting on the later side Eastern time, merely lunch hour in Hawaii.

Rick and Vicki have got my wheels turning on the topic of reviews. I think anyone who’s written more than one book gets a bad Kirkus review. If anyone reading this has had ALL WONDERFUL Kirkus reviews, let me know. Not sure if I’ll celebrate or cry, but I’ll figure that out later.

Vicki and I share the same publisher, part of the time anyway, and this gentlemen reminds us, “Any review is a good review.” His point is that even bad reviews get the name of the book in front of potential readers, which is what writers and publishers need to do. This is getting harder all the time.

I’m packing today for a trip to Indianapolis and Bouchercon, the big mystery writers’ conference. Packing brings out my ADHD traits. Hey, I need an umbrella! Oops, no, what I was thinking about was how much good going to conferences does a writer in terms of getting the book in front of new readers. Conferences are wonderful for other things writers need to do, such as network with other (often more famous) writers, meet with agents and people in publishing, touch bases with organizations like Sisters in Crime or MWA, commiserate over life at a computer monitor, or in my case lately, deal with hard disk crashes. Don’t even get me started—I know, I know, it’s not a matter of if. Sorry, my pretrip ADHD again.

What conferences probably don’t accomplish is introducing an author’s books to new readers. A handful, sure, but not enough to support the cost of the trip. There’s no concrete way of measuring this, as far as I can tell. Some writers look at their Amazon numbers, but I question the effectiveness of that technique. You can talk to the bookseller(s) at the conference, but they’re probably being hounded by 250 other writers, and don’t have the time or inclination to discuss your personal sales. Also, fewer booksellers are going to conferences. Fewer reviews, fewer independent booksellers, fewer new book sales to publishing houses. The economics and publishing numbers are daunting.

What’s a midlist author to do? If anyone has any ideas, post a comment. Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy visiting with old friends, meeting other avid readers, and picking up a bag full of new books to read. Not too bad, is it?

I loved Rick’s list of bad reviews, so I’ll add a few more to the list. Just a reminder that there is a universe of diverse opinions.

On Marcel Proust: 'Reading Proust is like bathing in someone else's dirty water.' — Alexander Woollcott

On A Tale of Two Cities: 'It would perhaps be hard to imagine a clumsier or more disjointed frame-work for the display of the tawdry wares which form Mr. Dickens's stock-in-trade.' — The Saturday Review

On a new novel: 'This novel is not to be tossed lightly aside, but to be hurled with great force.' — Dorothy Parker

Last, to any and all nasty reviewers: Having a sharp tongue does not mean you have a keen mind.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Reviews...who needs ’em?

Sadly, we writers do, and they’re hard to get, especially ones that will give you a lot of exposure. But what if you’re lucky enough to get a high-profile review and then the verdict comes back negative? As Vicki wrote, it happened to her. What do you do?

Well, since I’m particularly brain dead this week, I’ve got a round-up of some truly bad reviews for your delectation. Some are truly cringe-worthy...

For Verdi’s Rigoletto, one of the most popular operas ever (it contains “La donna e mobile”, the most famous and familiar opera aria): The Times of London accused Verdi of “imitations and plagiarisms” and concluded by calling Rigoletto “the most uninspired, the barest, and the most destitute of ingenious contrivance. To enter into an analysis would be a loss of time and space.”

Robert Benchley (the American journalist) once attended the Broadway premiere of an unfortunate play. At one point a telephone began to ring on the unpopulated stage... “I think that’s for me,” Benchley declared. He then rose from his seat and left the theater.

Tennyson’s poem “Maud” — which dealt with love, murder, suicide, madness, and hysteria — was met by critics with considerable hostility. Indeed, one reviewer declared that the poem’s title contained an extraneous vowel — and that it made little difference which was deleted.

Heywood Broun once composed a review describing the performance of Geoffrey Steyne as “the worst to be seen in the contemporary theater” — and was promptly sued by the stricken actor. With the case still pending, Broun was called upon to review yet another play in which Steyne was starring. “Mr. Steyne's performance,” Broun wryly observed, “was not up to his usual standard.”

And finally for pop music fans...Prince was no great fan of Michael Jackson’s later work. “Michael Jackson’s album was only called ‘Bad,’” he once remarked, “because there wasn’t enough room on the sleeve for ‘Pathetic.’”

Monday, October 05, 2009

Reviews – what are they good for?

Vicki here on Monday with a question. What is the value of book reviews?

As regular readers of this blog will know I was very excited to receive a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly for my forthcoming book, WINTER OF SECRETS. The reviewer, obviously a person of taste and sophistication, loved the book.

Another reviewer, at another publication which shall remain nameless, hated it. He or she complained of having to suffer through it. (The review was, IMHO, actually mean. Not just critical but unnecessarily mean. I wonder if I pushed this person off the slide in Grade 2 or something). Interestingly enough one of the things that caused the PW reviewer to gush, was the same thing that caused the nameless reviewer to gush in another way.

I then ask: what is the value of book reviews? Same question applies to movies and music etc. It is so subjective, is there any point? Should a review perhaps confine itself to a description of the plot, mood, setting so the reader can then decide if it’s the sort of book that appeals?

I’ve read plenty of books that got great reviews and thought they were absolute dreck. The one reviewer I always check is Margaret Cannon in the Globe and Mail, but now that I’m thinking of it, I realize that I never choose a book by whether or not Cannon likes it, I just decide if it sounds like my kind of book.

Do you have a reviewer you particuarly trust? Or not? There are a lot of review sites on the Internet right now, some of them very good. I wonder if they're more reliable because they're just one person who loves books talking about them without being paid to do so.

Book reviews certainly don’t seem to have much effect on how a book sells. The Globe and Mail review of The Lost Symbol said “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” when giving examples of particularly tortured dialogue. I can’t imagine Dan Brown is weeping into his cereal because he got a poor review. I popped over to Amazon to check out reviews of The Lost Symbol.

Dan currently has an average of 2 ½ stars (out of five). My earlier book, Valley of the Lost, has 4 ½ stars. Ha, Ha Dan Brown. By that reckoning more people should be reading my book than his.

Poisoned Pen Press has an early-reader method of going through their new author submissions. When I sent in Scare the Light Away, the MS was given to two people to read, as is the custom. I still remember the e-mail I got. One reader liked it a lot, the other was wishy-washy, and the acquisitions editor said that he preferred to take the positive and the MS would go to the next stage. Poisoned Pen, wisely, realizes that opinions are subjective.

Want to judge for yourself which reviewer was right? Let’s have a contest. I am giving away two ARCs of Winter of Secrets. The first chapter has been posted on my web page (www.vickidelany.com). Send me an e-mail telling me what Constable Molly Smith’s radio call number is, and you will be eligible! Contest closes on Friday Oct. 9th. My e-mail address is Vicki at vickidelany dot com. (you know the drill)

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Art of the Literary and the Intellect of Mystery

I’ve had a bad year.  I’ve been so terrified, exhausted, bored, overwhelmed, depressed, relieved, and emotionally bruised over the past months that the old brain pan has been left full of mush.  I tell you this, Dear Reader, not because anybody is interested, especially me.  I tell you this because in its odd way, it relates to the conversation about mystery vs. literary novels we have been having on this blog of late.

All this emotional buffeting has had a deleterious effect on my ability to concentrate for any length of time, or even, on occasion, to think clearly.  Since my family is out of the rapids and back into calmer water again, I’m hoping that I’ll notice a marked improvement in my thinking ability in short order.

This intellectual impairment has given me an interesting epiphany.  Even during the worst of times, I am still able to write, and write well.  I can still create compelling prose, engage in wordplay, paint a beautiful verbal scene.  When I look back over the writing I did during that period, I’m surprised and gratified by how lovely some of it is.

However, it was extraordinarily difficult for me to effectively plot out a mystery. 

Here is what I learned.  The creation of beautiful prose is an art which takes practice, skill, and intuition.  The creation of a good mystery novel takes intellect.   You combine those two things, the art and the intellect, and you’ve got something extraordinary, my friend, no matter what ‘genre’ it is.

It’s annoying when the of novel you write is judged out of hand as unworthy of serious consideration simply because some publisher or bookstore has decided to classify it as a mystery.  But you know what?  Screw ‘em to the wall with a Phillips, pal.  Don’t worry about critics.  Read what you love, write what you love.  Life is short.  Trust me on this.

Apropos of nothing, as I read back over this I realize that I still never use a two-syllable word when a multi-syllabic mouthful is available.  I come by this honestly.  In my youth, I spent countless hours with my siblings, making a game of trying to come up with the most pretentious possible way to say things.  We’d crack each other up.  We all thought it was hilarious to ”propel the pulverized tubers” or “perambulate the circumference of the estate.”  We were easily amused. 


Friday, October 02, 2009

Mysteries V. Literature, continued

Charles here, ready to stir the pot.

Just for the sake of argument – and because its fun to listen to teeth grinding across North America – I want to take a different look at the ongoing discussion about why mysteries (and genre fiction in general) are often considered the poorly written, thinly plotted, painfully shallow, cliché riddled, mental junk food cousins to literature.

Maybe because it’s true.

That got your attention. But before you fire off your response, let me add some explanation to this hypothetical case. First, I am assuming the following as given – yes, there will be exceptions, but in general these will hold:
-Just because something is written doesn’t mean that it is well written
-Publishing is a business and therefore publishers will make business decisions
-People read what they like to read
-Authors write what they like to write and like to read
-There are unscrupulous people out there who will do what they need to do to separate fools from their money
-We can all be fools

Taking the above as given, here’s how my argument goes.

When you consider all the types of fiction published, novels that are considered literary (and you can quote-unquote any of these terms) as opposed to genre are just one of the options and, considering ALL the genres, a small option at that. This is because they do not sell in the numbers that genre fiction collectively sells. Since there are fewer ‘slots’ for literary fiction on the publisher’s schedule, the publisher can be far more selective. Not only does this weed out the poorly written junk, it also trims out the well-written-but-just-not-quite-good-enough. What gets published in the end is therefore the best of what was submitted – with hundreds of excellent reads sadly passed by. Now I will agree that many times what gets published as literary fiction is a bit strange or convoluted or esoteric or experimental or depressing or pointless or plot-less, but I argue that it is still well-written. It may be crap, but it’s well-written crap. The word choices are often exquisite and the rhythm of the writing can be intoxicating and, yes, it may not be going anywhere (or anywhere I want to go) but I can seldom fault the quality of the basic writing.

The same can’t be said for mystery writing, and that brings me back to my givens.

People read mysteries because people like mysteries. And people write mysteries because that’s what they like to read. Fewer people choose to write literary fiction because it is not as widely read and, for many people, not as widely enjoyed. Since fewer people are writing literary fiction in their spare time and many people are writing genre fiction in their spare time, logically there will be many more mysteries written each year (written, not published) than works of literary fiction. And since mysteries sell more – and publishing is an industry that is filling a demand to turn a profit – there is a greater chance of seeing a poorly written mystery than there is seeing a poorly written work of literary fiction.

Think about series novels. In literary fiction you have a few – Updike’s Rabbit series comes to mind – and in mysteries you have a lot. I’m not a big fan of Updike’s work, but it is well written. Even now, when he’s stretched the series out way past its prime, the writing still stands up. The same can not be said in mystery fiction. We all know of more than one strange-occupation-with-cat series books that are so poorly written that we cringe when we read a page, the clichés dropping as fast as the bad puns and witty bon mots.

As for unscrupulous people, fools and money, I have met far more self-published mystery authors than I have met self-published literary authors, and it’s not because mystery authors are fools, its because these authors have every reason to believe that their editor-free manuscript will be embraced by mystery readers since they themselves have read so many mysteries that were no better written then theirs. And a poorly written, thinly plotted, painfully shallow, cliché riddled, mental junk food mystery is still a mystery – and the vanity press does not care whether it sells or not.

There are well written books and there are poorly written books. Mysteries out number works of literary fiction. Given the numbers, you are more likely to find a poorly written mystery than you are to find a poorly written work of literary fiction. The vast numbers of poorly written mysteries water down the reputation of all mysteries. Therefore, if good writing is the criteria, when considered as a whole, literary fiction is superior to mysteries.

Gross generalizations? Guilty. Exceptions? Absolutely. Inaccurate? I don’t think so. But what do you think?