Sunday, January 31, 2010

Expositions by Kelli Stanley



Today we are very happy to welcome Kelli Stanley whose next book, City of Dragons, will be released this week.

First, great thanks to Vicki and everyone on Type M for Murder for having me over today! It’s very cool to get to hang out with you all!

City of Dragons, my second novel—and first in a new series—is about to launch on February 2nd (Groundhog Day), and I’m celebrating, especially since this is the first chance I’ve had to see a book carried in the Canadian market.

I was born in Washington State, but my first memories of Canada aren’t Vancouver but Montreal—and the World’s Fair, Expo ’67.

I was only three at the time, so my memories are hazy … but I remember colors and sounds and activities, palpable excitement … and most of all, riding an elephant.

Somehow the whole World’s Fair experience must have left a big, big impression, because as an adult I became fascinated with Expo history, ephemera and the whole phenomenon … even studied the cultural ramifications while I was in college. In addition to Expo ’67, the ones in Seattle (Century 21, from 1962—it gave us the Space Needle), New York (1964), and most particularly those held in ’39 (New York and San Francisco) have always intrigued me the most … much to the delight of Ebay.

So it’s no coincidence that Miranda Corbie, my PI protagonist, works at the Golden Gate International Exposition during the season. She’s a security hire for Sally Rand and the famous Nude Ranch on the Exposition’s Gayway (midway). Miranda’s been a lot of things—former Spanish Civil War volunteer nurse and ex-escort among them. She’s a natural for the Gayway—she understands the carnie world and is tough enough to handle it.

When I first conceived of the book that became City of Dragons, I assumed the action would be set during the Fair on Treasure Island, the 400 acres of man-made land where the exposition was held.

Then I came across research about the Rice Bowl Parties held in Chinatowns all over the country for China war relief in the fight against Japan—before Pearl Harbor and the US’s role in the World War II. San Francisco’s was the largest, and, like the Fair, it took over city operations … three days and nights of revelry, fireworks, street carnival, dancing, auctions, parades.

In my version of events, a young Japanese-American numbers runner is shot and killed in the middle of it all … and no one wants the murder investigated.

See, the tension between the two communities—Chinese and Japanese—was as explosive as a firecracker. There was a boycott of Japanese businesses, especially after 1937 and the Rape of Nanking.

So the Chamber of Commerce wants the murder hushed up. No one wants to lose money.
What Miranda wants is justice—and she’ll risk everything to get it.

City of Dragons takes place in February, 1940, during the Rice Bowl Party of that year, Chinese New Year and Valentine’s Day. It’s off-season for the Golden Gate International Exposition, which initially ended October 29th, 1939 but was due to return, struggling to recoup financial losses, in May of 1940.

So though my start to the series doesn’t begin at the Fair, the Expo will be back in the sequel.



“Children’s Day”, a short story prequel to City of Dragons, takes place during a 1939Fair day, and is included in the upcoming International Thriller Writers’ anthology, First Thrills: High-Octane Stories from the Hottest Thriller Authors.

So I do get to write about my Exposition, after all.

Thanks for having me on board Type M for Murder today … and thanks for reading! You can find out more about City of Dragons and Miranda at my website, http://www.kellistanley.com.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Clues

I’m beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel with my new book.  I’ve finally determined on a route to an end that pleases me, and I’ve come up with a couple of twists that I like.  Now all I have to do is persevere.  It’s grunt work, now.  Sit and type it out, choose the best way to say this or that, watch the repetition, find the right word, the right sentence.  


One technical detail every mystery writer has to deal with is how to dole out the clues. You want to lead your reader on, like scattering bread crumbs through the forest.  You want to play fair with your reader, and give her all the information she needs in order to be able to solve the mystery along with the sleuth.  Yet, you want to keep her guessing, as well.  It’s a bit of a problem, and it takes some skill to know just how much information is enough without being too much.


It’s easy enough to determine how often you should drop in a clue.  Be sparing with clues early in the story, then as you get near the end, they clues should come faster.  But which piece of information to reveal, and in what order?  Start out with general discoveries, and become more and more specific as the story goes on.  This seems logical.  When do we reveal that the killer had to have entered through the basement window, therefore Suspect A is far too large?  How soon should the reader know that the victim had had a clandestine affair with Suspect B’s wife 25 years earlier?  When have you dropped that final bit of information that makes it not only possible but likely that your reader can solve the mystery?   


How do I lead the reader astray while giving him all the right clues?  He’s learned by reading many mystery novels that the killer is seldom the most likely suspect, nor is the killer often a recurring character in a series.  Should I therefore have my killer be the most likely suspect or a series regular? 


Regular readers of mystery novels are extremely savvy.  They know all the common mystery writer tricks. The good mystery writer knows that they know.  I quite enjoy trying to anticipate what the reader is going to think, and to write in little twists and turns that play with the reader’s mind, Whether I can pull it off or not is another matter.  But if I can, it’s quite a rush.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Plot in the Face

Check out this short video by Johannes Bockwoldt, a Filmmaker and Screenwriter I met at a TedX event here in Rochester.



The first time I watched it I admired it for its quirky humor. The second time I watched it with my ad agency producer eyes on and was impressed with the technical details. The third time I was in author-plotting-next-book mode (gee, I wonder why) and that's when I was really impressed. The set up, the playful hey-I-got-skills joking with his wife, and then the intricately plotted action sequences. Just like the pie man, making it look easy is the hard part. The twists, the in and out with the banister, the railing slide to perfect catch...the pre-planning impressed the hell out of me and made me think about the book I'm working on.

I've said (too many times) that I like to have a clear plan when I write but with this new one the protagonist really is taking me places I didn’t expect to go. It’s a wonderful experience and I’m enjoying the ride. But after seeing Pie in the Face I sortta miss the complex plotting I used to do. Not that I’ll go back to that style—I have to go where my demanding muse drags me – but I do appreciate the planning that goes into the process.

Thanks to Johannes for allowing me to post his film. Years from now, you’ll get to say that you were watching his films before all of his Oscar-winning blockbusters.

The Waiting Game

John here, fighting a terrible cold, so I'll be brief.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, I finished a novel this month. Over the past two weeks, I have edited it myself—a tireless, exhausting process that left me rundown and susceptible to a cold of Olympic proportions. Then I had it proofed by a mystery-lover and friend who copyedits for the school where I work. Sunday night, I sent it off to my agent, Bob Mecoy.

Now I wait.

Bob is a terrific agent. He’s everything you could ask for in an agent. He knows what is going on at the major and independent houses and knows which editors are looking for certain types of books. Most importantly for me right now, he was on the other side of the desk. For 25 years, as an editor, he worked with authors including Sara Paretski, Robert B. Parker, and Patricia Cornwell. In short, I’ve learned more from this guy during his phone critiques of my work than I did in grad school. He knows writing, and he knows the genre.

So, as I cough and sneeze my way through this post, I wait to hear if Bob thinks changes to the new manuscript are needed, and then where he plans to send it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Changing the channel

Blechta at the controls. Please don’t panic...

This blog entry isn’t about writing particularly, but then again, it sort of is.

I don’t know about any of you, but for me, there’s a day that occurs sometime in every January where the weather, the lack of light, the hopelessness of it all smacks you in the kisser with a cold, snowy, icy, damp miserable wallop. You just can’t tolerate winter anymore.

I hit that place yesterday. Oddly, since I live in Canada, it was raining. I wasn’t outside shoveling cubic metres of white stuff, or trudging down the street, trying to keep vital body parts from breaking off as the winds howled from the frozen north and windchill was somewhere south of -55. It was actually near 5 degrees (Celsius). But as my wife and I took our morning walk at 9:30, it seemed to be nearer night than day and a steady miserable rain dogged every footstep as we forced ourselves through the ordeal.

I’d had it. It was ‘wall day’ for me. Winter couldn’t end soon enough. Problem is, February is usually far worse than January. March follows, a cruel month that temps us with a briefly warm day before Arctic air masses send winter right back in our faces.

What’s a writer to do? Well...write.

As you know, I’ve recently been converted into a series character whore at the behest of my sensible agent, so I have a new book on the go. Not the one I’d originally planned on writing, but one about which I’m nonetheless excited. So, as soon as I decently could, I signed off work, switched hats and dove in.

It was heavenly. My two main characters enjoyed a swim in the warm ocean waves as they vacationed in Tahiti, after which they walked hand-in-hand down the beach to a little restaurant serving fish that had been caught outside in the surf. Wine flowed, conversation sparkled and they had a wonderful time as soft evening breezes caressed their faces.

Who cares if the friggin’ book currently has my characters stuck in Toronto in early November? What if they’re never going to be within a thousand miles of Tahiti? The whole scene was total bullshit.

But boy, did I feel better after writing it!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Speechless


I have nothing more to say today. I have been struck speechless. My dear friend and wonderful mystery novelist Anthony Bidulka is running a series of interviews with Canadian crime writers he is calling "Ten Silly Things You Didn't Know about..." Today, it's my turn. An unusual intervew? That's putting it mildly. The picture above illustrates the lengths Tony has gone to to get my silly things on the record. Have a peek, and while you are there, have a look at Tony's web page. I think it's one of the best author pages going. Anthony Bidulka

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Guest Blogger: Steve Steinbock, president of the International Association of Crime Writers

John here.

It’s a pleasure to introduce Steve Steinbock. Steve is a theologian, educator, and authority on the history of detective fiction. His reviews, interviews, and columns have appeared in The Strand Magazine, Audiofile, Crime Time, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and The Armchair Detective. He is currently president of the International Association of Crime Writers. He is the author of several books on Jewish philosophy, history, and Bible. His first published short story will be appearing in the March/April issue of Ellery Queen. You can read his weekly (Friday) column, “Bandersnatches,” at Criminal Brief: the Mystery Short Story Web Log Project (http://criminalbrief.com/).

What’s Your Genre?

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is not one of Mark Twain’s more famous books. But it has a special place for me because of two little story elements. The first is that it contains what I’m fairly sure is the first use of fingerprint analysis to appear in fiction. The second is the wise and witty manner in which the author shook up my conceptions of race. I was taken with the character of Roxy, a woman who – because one of her great-grandparents was black – was considered black, and born into slavery.

To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro.

This really struck me at the time. And it still strikes me today. I was taught in high school anthropology that humankind could be divided into four “races” – Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Australoid. The very concept of race strikes me at best as simplistic, artificial, and pointless. I had a friend back then who considered himself Black (probably because he had always been told that he was Black) even though three of his biological grandparents were pasty-faced northern Europeans. Heck, I could never pass as Hispanic even though Spanish was the native tongue of my mother’s parents. And can my children claim to be African American because their great-grandmother was Moroccan?

Categories of race serve as a means to identify human remains, and as a way to identify geographic origins. But as practical divisions of people they are pretty arbitrary and are probably a lot more destructive than they are helpful. The same can be said of genres. Just as skin tone, skull shape, and DNA markers are used to categorize people, plot elements, settings, style, and character types are used to categorize books.

I’m not ready to toss the whole notion of genre out the window. When I go into a bookstore, I know that if I narrow my search to the section called “Mystery” (or “Crime Fiction” in some stores, especially in Britain) I’ll be more likely to find what I’m looking for. I’m a proud defender of that much-maligned type of literature called “Detective Story.” But when we use terms like Mystery, Thriller, Crime Novel, etc., what are we really saying?

This thing we call a “genre” is really a complex clustering of traits and characteristics. Voice, tone, and atmosphere may be part of one set of traits. Character types – FBI profilers, village spinsters, average-Joe-in-the-wrong-place, women in peril, gentleman thieves, tormented ex-cops – these are part of another cupboard of traits. If you can, think of all crime/mystery fiction as hovering in a three-dimensional field of Venn-diagrams, overlapping non-concentric circles of description. Like Pudd’nhead Wilson’s fingerprint collection, no two are the same.

Genres are the invention of the marketplace. They help booksellers better shelve their products. They help publishers precisely target specific types of readers. They help lazy shoppers like me to identify what books we’ll most likely enjoy. Genres help us. For me, genre is a subject of pride. But it’s important to remember that every book, like every person, is ultimately an individual deserving of an identity free of labels.

While there are some writers – and many readers – who think they’re too big for it, this umbrella we call “Crime fiction” covers a pretty wide area. There is room enough under its shelter for hard-boiled Private Eye novels, traditional cozies, techno-thrillers, espionage, psychological suspense, fair-play puzzlers, crime capers, and police procedurals. Are Dumas, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens “Crime” writers? To the chagrin of most literary elitists, I would think so. Are they in the same category as, say, Sue Grafton or James Patterson? Does a cozy mystery involving antique collectors or crime-solving felines belong in the same class as Paul Auster or Jorge Luis Borges?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Setting

I've been thinking about surroundings lately - witness my blog entry of last week.  I noticed that my own private space says a lot about me, and it's made me consider how important it is, therefore, to describe a character's environment a novel. You can learn a lot about him from the setting in which he is placed.

You know how it is when you buy a red Toyota, thinking you're all unique, and then every other car you see on the drive home is a red Toyota?  It's the same with what you think are original observations.  On Wednesday, I heard Rhys Bowen speak about her writing process.  One of the many things she said that struck me was that when she begins a novel, she often doesn’t know the complete cast of characters, who’s going to get killed or how, or who did the deed, but she knows where the story will unfold. 

The night before I heard Rhys say this, I was reading  P.D. James’ new book, Talking About Detective Fiction, and came across this :  “My own detecive novels, with rare exceptions, have been inspired by the place rather than by a method of murder or a character."    She then describes a moment when she was standing on a deserted beach in East Anglia.  She could imagine standing in the same place hundreds of years ago, until she turned around and saw a nuclear power plant, and “immediately I knew that I had found the setting for my next novel.”


Ms. James also observes that : "When an author describes a room in the victim's house, perhaps the one in which the body is found,, the description can tell the perceptive reader a great deal about the victims character and interests.” 

Vicki Delany said on this very blog that in creating her novels, the setting comes first. 

Setting is important to characterization.  Even if the murder unfolds the same way in two novels you'll have two very different mysteries if the victim is killed in a beach house in Thailand or in a prep school auditorium; if the suspects live on deep in the  moors, or in Manhattan across from Central Park; if the detective lives in a fifth-floor walk-up on the south side of Chicago or in a mansion in Beverly Hills.


If Miss Wonderly had walked into Spade and Archer Detective Agency on the first floor of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, The Maltese Falcon just wouldn't have been the same.



Friday, January 22, 2010

Pulp fictions

Recently a half-dozen reproduction L. Ron Hubbard pulp novellas showed up at my doorstep, part of an exceptionally well-produced (and well-financed) marketing campaign designed to reacquaint the American public—specifically young adults—with the exciting, white-knuckle joys of reading pulp adventure fiction. The marketing piece included a stack of newspapers that “reported” sensationalized (as if they needed it) plot lines of the stories, complete with drawings and relevant side-bar stories. There were also several interesting articles on the history of pulps and on L. Ron. As an ad man and marketer, I’d say this is one of the best prepared and presented campaigns I’ve ever seen for books. The only problem? The books.

The books, as physical objects, are fantastic. The covers are bright and engaging, they’re the right size and the paper, while not technically pulp, has an unusually rough feel. The problem is what’s inside the books.

L. Ron Hubbard was one of the best pulp writers to ever crank out a story. He knew his genre (he helped invent it), he knew his public, and he delivered the punch in every book. The six books I received showed the variety of his work, from far-East tales of adventure to spy thrillers to the paranormal to science fiction. It really is an excellent overview of the pulp genre. And that, I’m sad to admit, is the problem.

Last night I read Hubbard’s Spy Killer—it’s a perfect example of the action-adventure pulp sub-genre. It had outstanding action, it had high adventure, it had some of the best-written scenes I’ve ever encountered in the genre, and it was still a lousy read.

People who love pulp—and they are legion—say that the gross stereotypes, the half-dimensional characters, the bizarre dialog attributions (bawled, barked, cried out, almost cried out, snapped, demanded, muttered, chuckled), the ridiculous plot twists and the lust-less passion are all part of the genre’s appeal.

Really?

Pulp is the cotton candy of fiction. You know it’s not good for you but it looks so fun. So you take a bite. It’s sticky and messy and you want it to be as fun as it looks. But one bite tells you there’s nothing to it, and a second bite only confirms the first. If you stay with it to the end, you feel sortta sick for the rest of the day.

I know many wise adults—authors, doctors, business owners—who love pulp, and I know adults—my wife, fro one—who love cotton candy. As for me, I’ve had my fill of both.

That is until I see a great looking pulp cover or have yet another friend hand me a tattered reprint saying, “This one’s different.”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Sad Day

In a twelve-month span that has featured the loss of personal favorites, heroes, and/or friends James Crumley, Donald Westlake, William Tapply, and Michael Crichton, Monday offered a truly devastating blow.

Robert B. Parker died at age 77 in Cambridge, Mass. According to the Boston Globe’s obituary, Mr. Parker apparently had a heart attack while at his writing desk.

“It’s a way to live. The rest is just confusion,” Mr. Parker eloquently wrote in his 1982 novel CEREMONY. I feature those lines in the epigraph of my first novel CUT SHOT. I remember exactly where I was when I read those lines. In El Paso, in 1993, sitting in a dentist’s office, awaiting an appointment. I was a grad student trying, I told my professor, to “bring Philip Marlowe to the world of professional sports.” I was halfway through the first of would be 11 drafts of CUT SHOT.

I remember being 24, reading Mr. Parker’s words, and thinking, That’s it. That’s what I’ve been trying to do with this book. Mr. Parker’s line resonated immediately. There is no better way to describe what we try do in this genre. Turn chaos into calm. Offer readers assurance that no matter how unpredictable the world is, evil will not rule.

It’s a way to live.

The rest is just confusion.

More than eloquent lines in a wonderful novel. More than insights into, Spenser, a timeless American hero. These are the words of a brilliant intellectual, and, for me, guideposts into all that I do and why I choose do it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Freaking out about the future of publishing

This is Debby, apologizing for my late post, especially if you’re on the East Coast. My other job made some demands early in the day, but I finally made it.

What a good idea to have someone else read a manuscript aloud. I’d have to pay that someone, alas. I’m the fiction-reader exception in my family. Okay, my husband will read fiction if it’s had a series of rave reviews. In fact, I was laughing with a group of writer friends just a few days ago about our spouses’ tastes, most of which ran to Clive Cussler, Dan Brown, and John Grisham. Page turners with eighty three-page chapters.

This got me thinking about the future of publishing, however. I don’t have anything figured out. Hah, I wish! But I do think e-books are here to stay. And perhaps, once publishers get accustomed to how to negotiate fees, rights, and available platforms, they can start nurturing authors again. Maybe, just maybe, editors can loosen up and pick from a wider field of writers instead of worrying about whether Stephenie Meyer is going to make her deadline—and their bottom line for the year.

I mourn the loss of print reviews. Heck, I’m worried newspapers are going to disappear altogether. And they may, so what are we going to do? We’ll begin scanning our headlines in other places. Even I, an old coffee-drinking, don’t-bother-me-until-I’ve-read-the-morning-paper type, will have to peruse some online format. (My next blog will be about power failures.) And we’ll get used to it. I don’t have a Kindle yet, but my friends who do, and some are in their eighties, love them.

Might I dream that this will eventually bring down the cost of producing literature? Might it be easier to market? Maybe so. If I could find a variety of respected reviewers like The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Globe and Mail online, we’ll make our wish lists there. We’ll compare the success of an artist’s new release with her past one via electronics. People will learn the respected sites and recognize the vindictive, spite-filled wannabes that muddy the vast waters of the Internet. It’s already happening, isn’t it?

My head may be filled with rosy cotton, but the alternative is to despair the future of books, and that is too depressing to contemplate. People still love books; we love to learn and to be entertained. Some sense of order will come to the publishing industry, some entrepreneurial type will break from this morass of remaindering, returns, warehousing, and distribution issues, and treat publishing like a business. A thriving online business.

What do you think? We’ll have new sets of problems, but the industry can still thrive.

We Interrupt our Regularly Scheduled Blog

We get a lot of Canadian crime fiction fans on this blog, so I'd like to ask for your support. We have just found out that Margaret Cannon's crime fiction review column in the Globe and Mail will from now on be available only online. That is, she has been dropped from the printed newspaper book section. This is a serious blow to Canadian crime writing. As you probably know, few authors have the sort of publishers that can pay for advertising and prime retail space in the big chain bookstore. Writers depend on professional reviewers to get word of their books out there, and readers depend on the same reviews to learn about what is new in the world of books. So if you like Margaret's column and like to read it on paper, please consider writing to the Globe to object.

If you are on facebook you can join the group Don't Let the Globe & Mail Bury Canadian Crime Fiction to find out what is happening.

Thanks. Now back to our regularly scheduled blogs.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A novel approach to editing

In looking over our the current discussion about editing, copyediting and proofreading, it’s obvious one facet or the other is a problem for most of us. I’m no exception.

Vicki brings up a good point about how we cannot rely on ourselves to do an accurate job with proofreading because we know our words too well: “...you see what you think is there, what you expect to see.” Truer words were never spoken. I’m the poster child of this state of cognition.

The obvious solution, and one which all of us use, is to have someone else read our words. But I often wondered, is this the best solution? Could there be something better, something even more useful, an editorial stone left unturned, as it were?

When I do readings, I discover many useful things about my writing, mostly negative. Far too often I’ve stumbled over sentences or phrases that aren’t bad, they’re just verbally clumsy. They’re hard to spit out. When you read someone else’s work, they’re the sentences you probably needed to read a second or even third time to get their meaning. That’s not good. Before my novel is committed to ink on paper, I read them (in my head and out loud), my “editorial readers” read them, my editor read them, my publisher read them, the proofreader read them, and yet, some of those clumsy words remain. What else can be done?

Then it came to me, like a cold fist at the end of a wet kiss. My next novel is going to get an additional editing treatment: I’m going to have someone else read it aloud!

With that in mind, I had my long-suffering wife do this over the weekend with my most recent novel, A Case of You. I could only pin her down for three chapters, but boy, did I get interesting results!

What I discovered was that some sentences that were clear as daylight to me were stumbled over badly by her. It’s easy to pick up what is just careless reading and what is bad or unnecessarily complicated sentence structure that hinders understanding.

I think my small “dry run” proves that this might be a valuable editing tool. I’m sure that I can talk my wife into committing to reading an entire novel out loud. The problem will be that after fixing the troublesome passages I will have a tougher time finding a different person to commit the hours to do it all over again. I don’t think it would be good to use the same person twice.

So, should I patent this idea and hit the road, giving lectures on “the greatest editing secret the pros don’t want you to know”? Should I get on late night TV and do infomercials?

Or should I just have this idea in my back pocket, ready to go, and get on with writing my next novel?

-=-=-=-=-=-=-
By the way, I just noticed that this posting marks Type M’s 800th! Holy Mackinaw!!

Monday, January 18, 2010

You’re words are god: The importance of an editor

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. If you can raed tihs, psot it to yuor wlal. Olny 55% of plepoe can raed this.

That’s actually pretty amazing, isn’t it?

Which serves to emphasize the importance of having someone else edit your work.

I give a workshop titled “Preparing Your Work to be Seen,” and the point I stress is that you have to have another person, preferably several, read over your finished manuscript.

When you read your own work, you don’t see what is there, you see what you think is there, what you expect to see. Particularly after reading the manuscript for maybe 10 times the eye skips lightly over your prose in much the same way as when you drive a particular route every day and one day have to go someplace else, and wake up about five minutes later to find yourself on the same old well trodden road.

This matters whether you are nervously sending your first attempt off to try to find an agent or a publisher or are submitting the newest MS to your tried and true agent/editor.

If you are approaching an agent or publishing house for the first time you absolutely want to make a good first impression. These people make their living from words; they want to become immediately engrossed in your story, not trying to figure out what the heck you are attempting to say because the commas are in the wrong place. (e.g. eats, shoots and leaves has a vastly different meaning than eats shoots and leaves or even eats shoots, and leaves)

I have an editor’s certificate, which means I know something about grammar and punctuation. I can produce a pretty clean manuscript, but when I get it back from my editor, it is always full of minor corrections (sometimes major ones but that is beside the point). She makes her living from words – typos drive her nuts and she is compelled to search them out and fix them, even though the MS will go to a copy editor. She has published six books by me, yet I still aim to please my editor. I want her to read my thrilling prose, not be correcting my spelling mistakes.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t count on your computer’s spelling program.

You’re words are god, but are they rite.

That phrase passes my spell checker without a raising a single red line.

Think you need to pay an arm and a leg to get a professional editor to review your MS? Of course a professional will do a great job, but that costs money. Almost anyone you know, if they love to read books, is perfectly qualified to review your MS for minor spelling, punctuation, grammar errors. Anyone who can read can tell that the line above is wrong, and can correct it properly. Your reviewer isn’t getting the MS ready for print, just helping you make it as good as you can.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Guest Blogger Hannah Dennison

Vicky Hill is back!  Expose', Hannah Dennison's third Vicky Hill mystery is set in the exciting world of snail racing.  I knew the Brits love their sports, but really...?  How does one come up with such an idea?
*********

“Road Closed in Bridge Drama” screams the front-page headline in the Herald Express, “the voice of South Devon.”  A three quarter page color photograph shows a pedestrian footbridge straddling a two-lane minor road with an ambulance and a Panda car pictured in the foreground. The road is taped off. Traffic is at a standstill.


Gripped, I read the accompanying caption. “Man, 24, breaks ankle in fall.” Ah, that kind of drama. A further paragraph explains that the man only suffered a suspected broken ankle after police failed to “talk him down” before he finally plunged 20 feet onto the tarmac. 


What made him jump? Why did he do it? Will we ever know?


When Donis invited me back to guest blog for Type M for Murder, she said, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question. 


The Vicky Hill mysteries are set in the fictional world of Gipping-on-Plym, some two hundred and fifty miles southwest of London. My first job was as an obituary writer for a weekly rural newspaper called the Tiverton Gazette. Coincidentally, my protagonist, Vicky Hill writes the obituaries for the local newspaper, too, and, rather like the old me, dreams of excitement, a murder and a front-page scoop. I escaped by becoming a flight attendant, then moving to Los Angeles. Vicky is still in Gipping-on-Plum but I’m having a lot of fun rewriting my past aspirations and throwing in the odd murder here and there. 


These days I write “cozies” which, by definition, are mysteries containing no explicit sex, excessive gore and gratuitous violence. They feature an amateur detective, a confined setting, and the characters all know one another. Hence reason why the poor man on the footbridge got onto the front page of the Herald Express. It’s also why my Mum sends me all the local newspapers to see what’s going on in the real world back home. 


I’m particularly partial to the The Totnes Times that runs a regular column called “Peep at the Past” chronicling village life 100 years ago. I enjoy The Dartmouth Packet and the Yeovil Clarion, both of which have feisty “Letters to the Editor” sections and list a slew of upcoming events. Where else would I have discovered that the 27th International Festival of Worm Charming was going to be held in Blackawton? There is even a website.  http://.www.wormcharming.co.uk/


Worm charming? Whatever next? My latest book, EXPOSE! introduces snail racing to American readers. Frankly, I’m surprised that no one had heard of it. I thought everyone knew about the annual British Snail Racing Championships. My friend’s ancestors gambled away their entire family fortune on snail racing.   http://www.snailracing.net/ Even The Guinness Book of Records reports that a mollusk called Archie still holds the record for the fastest speed achieved over a 13-inch course of 2 minutes and 20 seconds.


Yes, I rely heavily on my English friends for ideas. Just this morning I received an email from a commodity broker in London telling me of his weekend plan to drive up to Cambridge to take part in an amateur outdoor speed racing competition across the frozen fens. Apparently, the fierce cold weather has meant the marshy lands, drained for agriculture in the 17th century, have not been raced on since 1997. He tells me there is already anger among the locals who resent Londoners competing in tight-fitting lycra on their flashy top of the line speed skates. The regular farmers favor boiler suits, woolen hats and vintage leather skates. What a great premise for a murder!


Eavesdropping can provide a mine of delicious ideas. Hedge jumping, (A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE!) was the result of overhearing a conversation between a frustrated soon-to-be ex-wife, and her wayward husband. Apparently, his desire to jump over hedges—particularly a neatly clipped, box privet—was interfering in their marriage. “No,” he told her, he “did not want to take up topiary.” For him, there was nothing more exhilarating than executing a perfect Fosbury Flop over a pristine six-footer. Oddly enough, the man in question (now living in Australia with his new wife) tracked me down with a great suggestion. Since I held hedge jumping in such high esteem, he wondered if I’d be interested in co-authoring a book with him. Tentatively called, “The Pursuit of Hedge Jumping-An Official Guide for the Country Enthusiast,” I have to admit I’m tempted. 


An informal survey in Los Angeles revealed that no one had heard of the ancient art of Hedge Laying (SCOOP!) On one of my many trips home, John Vickery, secretary of the Blackdown Hills Hedge Association in Devon—  http://bhha.info— very generously spent hours teaching me the intricacies of fraithing, steeping and gapping. Did you know it takes five hours to lay just ten to twelve yards of hedge? When the hedges are divided up prior to a competition, lots are drawn. No patch of hedge is the same. It’s a bit like bull riding—those cowboys never know what kind of animal they’re going to get until they’re riding into the ring. Family rivalries are rekindled. Tempers flare. Billhooks are brandished. Loppers waved about. Heads will roll … hopefully.


My editor thought the English eccentric angle in Vicky Hill’s adventures rather intriguing. This led me to explore other British traditions, customs and foibles. 


There’s plenty to choose from—Morris dancing, tar barrel racing, swamp soccer, bog snorkeling, to name just a few—though I’m still weighing up the pros and cons of introducing the naked Luge.


And sometimes, my ideas just arrive on my doorstep. For those readers who remembered the lovely Helen Mirren starring in the movie, “Calendar Girls,” look no further. There is a male version. My mother always sends me the British Farmers Calendar to start off my year. http://www.thefarmerscalendar.co.uk, created and photographed by a neighbor of hers, Nicola de Pulford in Totnes. If anyone yearns for a glimpse of rural male British flesh, I have three 2010 calendars I’d like to raffle off. Simply contact me with your email address. The draw will be held on January 31, 2010.


Finally, when I’m stumped, I’ll always find something in the Classifieds. Here is a clipping of one of my favorites.

“Among £50,000 worth of items left at a Travel Lodge in Surrey in 2009: A blow-up sheep, a prosthetic leg, a monk’s habit, a selection of whips, a gas stove, an inflatable sumo wrestler’s outfit and eight posters of Oprah Winfrey.” 


Maybe these curious discoveries had something to do with why that man jumped off the bridge? 


  www.hannahdennison.com


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Love. Suffer. Write

Last Wednesday evening I attended an author event featuring thriller writers Stephen Hunter (Point of Impact; Night of Thunder; I, Sniper), and Stephen Coonts (Flight of the Intruder; The Assassin; The Disciple). I don’t write thrillers (yet, anyway), but I love them.  Besides, my editor, Barbara Peters, considers the last page of Night of Thunder one of the best endings to a novel EVER.  


Aside from the fact that these guys are hilarious, I was really entertained by hearing what they go through to get a book written.  Hunter told us that before he wrote his latest, I, Sniper, he proposed several plot ideas to his publishers which they not only rejected outright, but laughed at to boot.  Coonts said that he started Disciple, his newest book, five times.  I nearly fell out of my chair when he uttered a sentence that I actually wrote on this very site a couple of weeks ago.  “I knew where I was going,” he said, “but I didn’t know how to get there.”


The big guys suffer over their books just as do we lesser mortals.  All of us who put pen to paper understand each other’s love of the art, the pain, the longing.  The very strange thought processes.


Last week, I mentioned the notebook I keep by my bedside.  Many authors do this, for as you know, brilliant thoughts are ephemeral, and if you don’t get them down immediately, they are gone forever, lost, and ever to be mourned.  I only repeated a couple of particularly strange and poetic notes that I found on the pages of this notebook, but as I look over the rest, it occurs to me that anyone who read these scribblings would conclude that I either need a psychiatrist, or that I write mystery novels.


Here are some odd notations taken from a random page, in order.  I swear I am not making this up:


Tobacco and soapsuds to kill aphids

Boning knife - sharp point, long thin blade

Skinned hog keeps better than scalded hog

war hot blood vandals

What is this ennui? I think it must be possible to die of ennui.

[illegible]

now I had never seen a riot, but I expected I was about to

Miz B’s father hanged for murder

severed renal artery

Nothing that I see before my eyes is real

Action. Snakes. Storm. Pecan pie. Stampede.


There’s a hell of a book in there, somewhere.


And speaking of weird ideas ... hedge jumping, snail races, worm charming! Oh, Hannah, how do you come up with them?  Our guest blogger tomorrow, the lovely and delightful Hannah Dennison, will tell us. Her third Vicky Hill mystery, Expose’, set in the exciting world of British snail racing, just came out this month.

Friday, January 15, 2010

More on editing

Thanks yet again John for offering a decent topic to blog about. As always, dear reader, skim down and see what my fellow poster children had to say this week before you read my take on it.

I’m surprised how much John’s writing/editing style sounds like mine. Surprised because he seemed like such an intelligent, rational man. I, too, am a compose/edit/compose/edit kinda guy, but I’m amazed at his (relative to me) lighting speed. I plan on easily taking that long and I’m writing a 45K YA, not a 85K adult-focused novel. Like I’ve said (too many times), I know where I’m going in my books but, again like John, I think just a few scenes ahead of myself, sort of like headlights on a dark road. I know where I’m heading but I’ve got to be ready to react if something unexpected should pop up. And, earlier this month, that’s just what happened.

I was tooling along, trying hard to keep up to my speed limit (500 words+- a night) when this plot point jumped out from the shadows right in front of my story. I couldn’t slam on the brakes—it had taken me too long to work up to this speed and stopping dead now would mean even more problems. Swerving around it was out of the question. It was too big to miss no matter what I did. So, white knuckles and screaming, I ran into smack it. It did some damage to the lines of my story, but it turned out that it fit in the back seat quite nicely. I’m letting it ride along. For now anyway. Trust me, as soon as it starts complaining about the music or asking if we’re there yet, I’ll toss it out.

Now, hard copy or computer editing? I use the computer, a habit I picked up when we were living in Kuwait and a new toner for our printer was a month’s salary. Rose prefers hard copies and as she is my first and toughest reader, she gets hard copies. She says that a red ink makes it look like there’s blood all over the page so that’s why she uses a green pen. It may be Martian, but it’s still blood to me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Finished: Now the real work begins

Last Sunday, I finished a novel I began in May. As I write this blog, I am entrenched in the grind of editing the manuscript—all 308 pages lay before me.

So now the real work begins. As I’ve probably mentioned before, I edit laboriously during the composition process. That’s the Type-A personality in me. Each time I finish a scene, I (irrationally) feel that it is ready to be typeset (only to occasionally find, seventy pages later, the scene isn’t needed at all).

I know many writers who simply bang out a blunt object version of a draft and then fine tune it later. I’m not that way. The result is that it takes me months to a year to produce a finished draft. This lag time means that when I go back to edit, I reread scenes that were written up to nine months earlier, scenes that I haven’t even tinkered with in three or four months.

Right now I’m combing the latest manuscript, looking for inconsistencies. But I’m also adding things. Since I write knowing only what will happen a scene or two ahead, it is only after I’m done that I know the Who and the Why of the book. Thus, during the revision process, I can also lay appropriate clues and make sure I play fair with the reader.

As an aside, I have edited two ways: composing on the computer, printing the manuscript, and going through it with red pen in hand; I have also tried going paperless, composing and editing on the computer. It may not be green, but making final edits on a printout is the way to go.

These are my thoughts on revision. I’d love to hear what my colleagues and our readers say.

Telling a good story

I’m currently working to deadline on two large graphic jobs, so I don’t have a lot of time to blog this week. As a matter of fact, I have no time!

So here’s something I’ve been saving for just such an occasion. It certainly fits in to Type M’s mandate: great storytelling.

Enjoy!

Sunday Guest Blogger: Steve Steinbock, president of the International Association of Crime Writers

John here.

It’s a pleasure to introduce Steve Steinbock. Steve is a theologian, educator, and authority on the history of detective fiction. His reviews, interviews, and columns have appeared in The Strand Magazine, Audiofile, Crime Time, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and The Armchair Detective. He is currently president of the International Association of Crime Writers. He is the author of several books on Jewish philosophy, history, and Bible. His first published short story will be appearing in the March/April issue of Ellery Queen. You can read his weekly (Friday) column, “Bandersnatches,” at Criminal Brief: the Mystery Short Story Web Log Project (http://criminalbrief.com/).

What’s Your Genre?

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is not one of Mark Twain’s more famous books. But it has a special place for me because of two little story elements. The first is that it contains what I’m fairly sure is the first use of fingerprint analysis to appear in fiction. The second is the wise and witty manner in which the author shook up my conceptions of race. I was taken with the character of Roxy, a woman who – because one of her great-grandparents was black – was considered black, and born into slavery.

To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro.

This really struck me at the time. And it still strikes me today. I was taught in high school anthropology that humankind could be divided into four “races” – Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Australoid. The very concept of race strikes me at best as simplistic, artificial, and pointless. I had a friend back then who considered himself Black (probably because he had always been told that he was Black) even though three of his biological grandparents were pasty-faced northern Europeans. Heck, I could never pass as Hispanic even though Spanish was the native tongue of my mother’s parents. And can my children claim to be African American because their great-grandmother was Moroccan?

Categories of race serve as a means to identify human remains, and as a way to identify geographic origins. But as practical divisions of people they are pretty arbitrary and are probably a lot more destructive than they are helpful. The same can be said of genres. Just as skin tone, skull shape, and DNA markers are used to categorize people, plot elements, settings, style, and character types are used to categorize books.

I’m not ready to toss the whole notion of genre out the window. When I go into a bookstore, I know that if I narrow my search to the section called “Mystery” (or “Crime Fiction” in some stores, especially in Britain) I’ll be more likely to find what I’m looking for. I’m a proud defender of that much-maligned type of literature called “Detective Story.” But when we use terms like Mystery, Thriller, Crime Novel, etc., what are we really saying?

This thing we call a “genre” is really a complex clustering of traits and characteristics. Voice, tone, and atmosphere may be part of one set of traits. Character types – FBI profilers, village spinsters, average-Joe-in-the-wrong-place, women in peril, gentleman thieves, tormented ex-cops – these are part of another cupboard of traits. If you can, think of all crime/mystery fiction as hovering in a three-dimensional field of Venn-diagrams, overlapping non-concentric circles of description. Like Pudd’nhead Wilson’s fingerprint collection, no two are the same.

Genres are the invention of the marketplace. They help booksellers better shelve their products. They help publishers precisely target specific types of readers. They help lazy shoppers like me to identify what books we’ll most likely enjoy. Genres help us. For me, genre is a subject of pride. But it’s important to remember that every book, like every person, is ultimately an individual deserving of an identity free of labels.

While there are some writers – and many readers – who think they’re too big for it, this umbrella we call “Crime fiction” covers a pretty wide area. There is room enough under its shelter for hard-boiled Private Eye novels, traditional cozies, techno-thrillers, espionage, psychological suspense, fair-play puzzlers, crime capers, and police procedurals. Are Dumas, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens “Crime” writers? To the chagrin of most literary elitists, I would think so. Are they in the same category as, say, Sue Grafton or James Patterson? Does a cozy mystery involving antique collectors or crime-solving felines belong in the same class as Paul Auster or Jorge Luis Borges?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Where do you get your ideas?

Writers are always being asked where we get our ideas.

Sometimes it’s an unanswerable question: the idea just comes out of nowhere.

Sometimes it’s easy – the subplot of In the Shadow of the Glacier is about a spate of bike thefts. I had begun work on that book, and had a rough outline and an idea of where the story was headed when my brand new bike was stolen. I was so angry, I went home (after calling my mom to come and pick me up) and put in a sub plot about a spate of bike thefts in the town. Have a look at the cover and you’ll see a bike in the foreground.

I have an abominable memory, but I seem to be able to remember ideas when I get them, so unlike many, if not most, writers I know (see Donis below) I don’t keep a notebook for ideas. I just store them away in the cobwebby vaults of my mind. I also tend not to worry about remembering or saving ideas that are not immediately useable. I won’t even think of the plot of a forthcoming book until I begin it, not wanting to be distracted from the current.

What brings this to mind is that I had minor day surgery on Thursday. I woke up in the recovery room, looked around and immediately had an idea for my new book.

I am writing a scene where the bad guy attempts to set the protagonist’s house on fire in order to scare her off. They will be unsuccessful. But lying there in the hospital, I realized that it would add to the drama if she is slightly injured, maybe just slips on a patch of ice while running from the fire and ends up concussed and in the hospital.

It will be a good place for the police to question her, because she has been avoiding them, and obviously at that point she will be in a very vulnerable position, flat on her back, barefooted, wearing a hospital gown that has gotten twisted around the IV (as happened to me!).

She will be weak, whereas normally she perceives herself as strong.

Great idea, and I probably never would have thought of it had I not been flat on my back in the recovery room.

(P.S. For people who have read my books – the above scene is not from a Molly Smith book. Molly, of course, does not perceive herself as strong.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bloody Words Convention

It is my pleasure to introduce this Sunday’s guest blogger, Cheryl Freedman, former Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. She’s also spent many years as one of the volunteers (currently as the Publications Chair) for Bloody Words, the only Canadian Crime Writing Convention and well worth attending. Find out why below!

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

When Rick asked me to write a guest blog about Bloody Words www.bloodywords2010.com, I figured no problem. After all, this year being the 10th anniversary of the conference, I’d have lots to write about. Well, I forgot about the problem of embarras de richesses – far too many details to choose from, to say nothing of digging out said information from my mental, paper, and e-files. My brain called me some interesting names (hell, didn’t know that it knew some of those words) and promptly shut down.

So I’m afraid that this is going to turn into some BCP (blatant con promotion), starting right here.

Mark the weekend of May 28 to 30, 2010, on your calendar, and come celebrate 10 years of Bloody Words, Canada’s largest and longest-running (mostly) annual conference for crime/mystery authors and readers. We were founded in 1999 by mystery author and Da Once and Future Bloody Boss Caro Soles (most recent mystery: Drag Queen in the Court of Death). BTW, don’t try to figure out the math as to why, if BW started in 1999, the con is only 10 years old: There was no Bloody Words in 2004 (Toronto Bouchercon) and 2007 (an unfortunate incident with an organizer in another city screwing up).

Since our humble start in 1999 in the sweat bath known as the Arts and Letters Club to our current 2010 home at the downtown Toronto Hilton – with stops in Ottawa (2003 and 2009) and at the Delta and Marriott hotels in Toronto – we’ve seen Bloody Words grow in the number of guests of honour, attendees, participants, and events. We pride ourselves on our intimacy – we cap registration at 300 people so that anyone can walk up to anyone else – another fan or best-selling author – and start to chat.

To celebrate our birthday, we are thrilled to have three award-winning authors as our special guests:
  • Canadian Guest of Honour – Giles Blunt
  • International Guest of Honour – Deon Meyer (South Africa)
  • Master of Ceremonies – Linwood Barclay

If you want to find out more about our guest, check out our first progress report at www.bloodywords2010.com/BWprog-rep-dec.pdf. And while you’re at the site, why not register for the con www.bloodywords2010.com/bw2010-reg.html. The cost is $175, which should nicely take care of the holiday money burning a hole in your pocket.

Here’s what you get for your registration:
  • reception & banquet
  • two tracks of panels on everything from first novels to the latest in forensics and publishing
  • the Mystery Café
  • loot bags (with lots of free books & stuff)
  • lots of authors, fans, and folks in the publishing biz to schmooze with
  • dealers’ room
  • Bony Pete short story contest
  • the Hammett Awards
  • three workshops
  • manuscript evaluation service (small extra fee)
  • an opportunity to pitch your book to an agent
  • the Friday night special event – a party to celebrate our 10th birthday
  • plus, of course, some surprises

If you want more information, you can contact us at chair@bloodywords2010.com.

Hope to see many of you at Bloody Words 2010. And thanks, Rick.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

My Home, My Self

I have guests in my house this week, so I haven’t been sitting at my computer and actually typing on my novel, but that doesn’t mean that my life hasn’t been all about writing.  My relatives have been going over the MS and giving me suggestions about where it should go from here.  When others critique my work, sometimes I listen, and sometimes I don’t, but I am always shown an original way to approach the story/characters//plot.


Before the family arrived on Wednesday, I spent several days housecleaning.  I am a relatively tidy person, but we haven’t had an extended visit from a relative for years, and so I set about the task as though heading into battle. You grow used to your environment, and after a while you don’t see what is right before your face, until you go into it in depth, picking up each item, moving things around, digging into corners. It is amazing what you can learn about yourself if you look with new eyes at the space you inhabit. 


Here is what close examination of my domicile taught me about myself:


I live in an atelier.  Every room in my house has to do with writing. Shelves, tables, surfaces, closets, desks, all contain notes and files, reference books and manuscripts, computers, printers, supplies.  I keep a notebook on my bedside table, so that when I wake in the middle of the night bursting with a fabulous idea or the perfect image or combination of words, I can scribble them down before they are lost. It was fascinating to read some of the gems I wrote.  A few of them even made sense, and even the ones that didn’t often had a certain poetic je ne sais quoi.  To wit: “I didn’t remember the word, but I knew there was an ‘N’ in it, because I could feel the spirit of “‘N’-ness .The ‘N’-ness of it.”   And, “ I want to protect her, which makes me want to hurt her.”


I live in a library.  We had books piled on and in every available space in the house.  We were tripping over books.  So we decided to do a major go-through and box up any book that could not be lived without and donate them to the library. We boxed close to 500 books, and yet we still do not have one inch of space on any bookshelf. At least I can see a few of the table tops. I would be embarrassed to admit how many books we have, but I feel sure that most of you reading this post are just as bad as I am, if not worse.


I live in a museum. Our house is filled with artifacts of our lives.  I painted the landscape over the sofa in 1975.  I picked up those grave rubbings in England in the ‘60s.  My parents bought the end table in the living room for their house in the early 1950s.  My sister hand-embroidered that wall-hanging. Most everything my eye falls upon - furniture, decoration, art, even clothing - has a backstory.  In fact, as I look up from this computer, I see four watercolors Don and I did of the views outside our apartment in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, in 1977.


I live in a shrine.  Don loves Asian religious art, so the house is blessed with dozens of statues of the Buddha, Krishna, Ho Toi, Ganesh, Rama, Kwan Yin.  I also have a peculiar little shrine to myself.  When my mother died a few years ago, we four sibs divided up the hundreds of photographs, mostly claiming pictures of ourselves.  Consequently the entertainment center in the family room contains  Donis' Life Story in Pictures, from the ages of two to forty, when I ceased to be quite so adorable and lost interest in having my portrait made.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Assignment from Above

I doubt if John’s students know how lucky they are to have him for a teacher. The stuff he helps them grasp early on are the kind of things writers struggle years before they finally figure it out for themselves. So if you are one of John’s students, sit down and write a thank you note to your parental units who are funding your education, an education you’ll probably end up wasting when you drop out during grad school to move to Alaska to work in a fish cannery because the girl/guy of your dreams went and dumped you for a drummer in a ska band. At least you’ll be able to write entertaining “send money” letters

Back to assignments. Some of you may know that in an ancient former life, I was a high school history teacher. During that time I gave many writing assignments, some of which were actually completed, but my favorite assignments were the ones in which I added a fun and/or cruel caveat. Say, for example, I was asking students to pontificate on the long-term social and political implications of the invention of the zipper. It’s a daunting assignment on it’s own, yes, but I would toss in a little something something to make it more fun. Well, fun for me.

“Children,” I would say, their bright, apple-cheeked faces tuned towards me in rapt attention, “in writing tonight’s 300-word assignment, you are forbidden to use any word that has two or more syllables.”

There would be a few moments of confusion, the more clever of the lot catching on before the others, then the truth would dawn on all of them and they would realize the difficulty of the task. Some would sob quietly in their hankies, some would babble like biblical tongue-talkers, but most would just sit in stunned silence, wondering, in the vernacular of their peers, WTF.

As I said, much fun.

Other devious additions to otherwise meaningless assignments included writing short answers without the benefit of using words that contain the letter e, or ensuring that every answer have exactly 31 words, or—may favorite—answer all questions in limerick form.

What’s that? Sounds simple? Even enjoyable? A clever challenge you wish you were offered?

Consider yourself assigned.

All responses to this post must be 5-line limericks. And it’s 10% of your grade this quarter.

(And no Men from Nantucket, Rick)

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Back-Story: A Plotting Activity

An oft-held fiction-writing truism is as follows: start as close to the end of your story as you can. It is a valid philosophy but one that can be problematic for the writer. The scribe must determine how to effectively and efficiently deal with the back-story, all the events that came before the story begins. How much back-story does your narrative require? How much previous information does your reader need to effectively process the existing material? And does the narrative need to be linear--can the back-story be conveyed via flashback? (The great Elmore Leonard, after all, insisted in his "Ten Rules" that all prologues were nothing but flash-back material that should be dropped into the narrative at appropriate spots in the text.)

Below is an activity I have used with fiction-writing students for quite a while. Many routinely tell me it is the single most helpful activity we do all semester. Perhaps you’d like to try it. If you do, I’d love to see what you come up with. Feel free to e-mail me at jcorrigan@pomfretschool.org or author@johnrcorrigan.com.

What’s My Back-Story? A Plotting Activity

Must every story be told in a linear narrative style? No way. Readers want a scene that allows them to figure out the story on their own. So how do we tell stories in a cinematic manner? By using scenes to convey the storyline. This allows the writer to use flashback sequences while starting in the middle of the action and continuously pushing the story forward.

Read the following plot line and determine which numbers (there are several, after all) at which the story could begin. How will you include the information that came before your starting point? Must you include all of it?

Write a first- or third-person opening scene (one to three pages using narration and dialogue) beginning at one point on the line and dropping in the necessary previous material as the scene moves forward.

1) Mary Howard grew up in Readfield, Maine, the daughter of a doctor.

2) She went to UMaine at Orono, where she studied history, graduating with a 3.5 GPA, and met Steven Smith, a political science major, whom she married following graduation.

3) After graduation and one year of marriage, Mary dutifully helps Steven launch his political career.

4) Mary, now in her mid-30s, helps Steven becomes a Maine State Legislator and raises their three kids.

5) Unbeknownst to Mary, Steven begins an affair with a fellow Maine State Legislator.

6) Mary gets a phone call from an intern in Steven’s office, who tells her of the affair.

7) Mary confronts Steven. This takes every ounce of courage she has. In 15 years of marriage, she has morphed from the confident, bubbly Mary Howard, to the housewife of powerful Maine State Legislator Steven Smith. As his career has taken off, her identity somehow got lost.

8) Mary listens as Steven tells her the affair is just “a sideline” that “this is how some political marriages are.”

9) Mary packs her bags, grabs her kids (now ages 11, 9, and 7), and walks outside, determined to start a new life.

10) She drives to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place she’s only seen on TV.

11) In Santa Fe, she enrolls the kids in school, gets a job in a bookstore, and hires attorney Phil Rogers, who is 35 and single.

12) Mary doesn’t know what to do when Rogers asks her to dinner six months after she’s been in Santa Fe and following what was a surprisingly easy out-of-court settlement with Steven. She wonders what message a date would send to her kids. Would her acceptance tell them that they are all starting over? That it’s okay to move on? Or would they think she’s callus?
# # #

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Books for 2010

Debby here, and good morning. Or afternoon, depending on where you are. Some of you are having lunch. Sometimes I feel out of step with the rest of the world. Just when Rick reinforces that publishers want a series, I’m writing a stand-alone. In addition, I’m still ruminating on New Year’s goals.

So here I go again, off course. I’m going to ponder an article/list I read recently in the NYT Book Review, which interviewed a group of well-known authors about the books they’re planning to read in 2010. There are a lot of lists about the “best” of 2009, and I liked the idea of looking ahead, making plans.

Here are five books I’m going to add to my TBR pile, with a resolution to get through them. I’m going to adhere to the rule Vicki established for our Christmas list and not add any books by authors I personally know. (Though maybe we should make a list of those, too, just for fun)

Last year, I read Malcom Gladwell’s Blink and found his ideas fascinating (along with millions of other folks). It made me think about work, talent, and human nature—good things to ponder as a writer of fiction. So his new book, What the Dog Saw, is going in my 2010 library.

I’m also adding the Iliad, which I may or may not have actually read many decades ago, I can’t even remember. I do think my education in the “classics” is lacking. Literature often refers to the Iliad, particularly in terms of the “quest.” I feel as if I know scenes, but the reality is I don’t. It’s like thinking I know a good word, and finding that I’m mixing it up with another, for example, lugubrious and salubrious, which any wordsmith shouldn’t confuse.

Another book for my list is John Farmer’s Ground Truth, which got an excellent review in the NYT for providing a fresh view of what the U.S. government did after 9/11. Maybe I should be moving on from that event, but there was so much political and administrative obfuscation, I wonder if more knowledge could help prevent future fiascos. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

I missed the first Freakonomics, so I’m going to add SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner to my list. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

I’d better add some good crime fiction to this list, and this is going to push me over my list of five. I could add another five in this category alone. I mentioned in another blog how I’d just discovered Charlie Huston (See? Out of step again), but now that I’ve discovered his work, I’m a fan. Consequently, I’m adding The Mystic Arts of Erasing all Signs of Death to my list. Can’t wait!

Here’s a sixth: Iain Pear’s Stone’s Fall. I really enjoyed An Instance of the Fingerpost. It’s time to read another of Pear’s novels.

I'd better quit and get this posted. What’s on your list for 2010? I can’t wait to share ideas.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Hitting Reset

Just before Christmas, my agent, wise woman that she is, pulled me aside, arm metaphorically draped over my shoulder, and tried to get me to see reason. “Publishers are really looking for a series, Rick. You have to seriously think about doing this.”

Let me explain. I really have never wanted to do a series. I have several strong reasons. They range from “Everyone else is doing series, so is it a good idea to do it because everyone else is?” to “I think having a music theme to every novel that I write gives a ‘series feel’ to my books. Even though readers don’t know who they’re going to get, they do know what.” I also feel that working with a series character makes it much harder to cast my net widely to encompass any sort of music. I mean, an opera singer isn’t going to necessarily hang out with a punk band one week and a jazz trio the next, is she?

Yes, I could develop a cop/PI character whose beat takes in the music scene. He/she could also have an abiding interest in music or even be a part-time musician, and that could help fuel plot lines. But I really wouldn’t have any abiding interest in that. Things like that have been done far too often.

But the overriding reason I haven’t been interested in writing a series is that I know I would get bored with my characters in pretty short order. Hell, I get bored with most authors’ series characters after around five books. That’s usually the point where they have to start throwing everything but the kitchen sink of life’s vicissitudes at the poor sod in order to keep the series “interesting”. That sort of thing get strained pretty quickly to my mind and I don’t want to go there. And what if a fair number of readers don’t find that series character all that compelling? Well, they’ll just move on, even if they liked the novel.

But agent and writer did have a good conversation. People who know me are aware that, while I may have strong opinions, I also am an empathetic listener and can be swayed by a good argument. Patty gave me one: “I’ll be able to sell your new novel a lot more easily if you give them a series. Really. One-offs are harder to sell in crime fiction.” That’s a pretty potent argument.

So we kicked the subject around for awhile, mostly a matter of her letting me talk myself into it.

But I didn’t give in completely. And I may have come up with something clever that will allow me to do what I feel I need to in order to write interesting and somewhat unique novels, while giving the publishers and my readers what they probably want: recurring characters.

Stay tuned...

Oh, and a Happy New Year to you all. May you prosper in 2010!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Optimism

Vicki at the start of a new decade.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I am starting the new year wildly optimistic. I got up this morning, feeling great and raring to get to work.

Whereupon I made coffee, started the fire, read the paper, wrote this blog entry. Procrastination is always another story.

It’s been a hard year for a lot of people, a hard decade. One of the worst pieces of news in the Canadian publishing industry hit us on Boxing Day. McNally Robinson Bookstores are in bankruptcy and closing their two newest stores. This company is a very small bookstore chain, family owned and operated. They opened two new stores only this year, one in Toronto where I went to do a reading from Gold Digger in May. It was a beautiful store with a great restaurant. Gone. They tried to do events, but unlike Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale which has been hugely successful with their author events (just ask regular patron Donis) they just couldn’t get the people in. When I spoke there I had about 6 people attend. I thought that was disappointing until I read in the paper that no one could attract more than 12 or 15. Lawrence Hill (author of the hugely popular Book of Negros) had less than 10. The store location was poor – waaaaay up in the Northern suburbs; they might have attracted more people downtown.

Nevertheless, it has been (so I have read) a very good year for Canadian publishing. Readers are UP and books sold are UP.

Certainly when I was doing book signings in December at the major chain, the stores were just packed and the line ups long and customers were staggering under the weight of books to be purchased. And there was I happy to add another book to their pile.

On a personal note, my backlist from Poisoned Pen Press (and thus, I would assume the books from my fellow Typists who are also published by PPP) have just been released on Kindle. Now some people spit on the floor when you say the word “Kindle” but I am of the opinion that if you can’t join them, get out of the bathtub. (I’ve just invented a new saying). Electronic is the way it’s going to be so we need to get on board.

People are still reading: many people, including me, for now, are sticking firmly to books on paper; some are eagerly embracing the new technology. We need to be there, as writers, for both types of readers.

I am starting the New Year with a new agent and new ideas, but fear not, Dear Reader, Molly Smith and Fiona and the gang will continue.

If you got a Kindle for Christmas and have been wondering what to fill it with, here you go: Valley of the Lost on Kindle

Be sure and look up Donis, Charles and Debby also.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Wandering in the Wilderness

I am about to be visited by one of my sisters and my niece.  They are flying in from Missouri next week.  I am very much looking forward to seeing them, and entertaining relatives does have the benefit of making me clean the house from top to bottom.  But I can pretty much predict that while they're here, I will fall even further behind with my writing.  I started my latest manuscript with a great idea, a burst of energy, and  a lot of inspiration.  But I'm slogging through the quagmire of the middle right now, and the fact that I can't seem to carve out any extended length of time to work on it doesn't help any.  Any author knows that skill and inspiration are only part of what you need to successfully write a book.  What separates the men from the boys is sheer will and the discipline to carry through to the end.


When you're working in the middle of a novel, there may come a moment when you wonder if you're ever going to be able to get it done.  You know where you want to end up, but you're not entirely sure how you're going to get there.  Sometimes I feel frightened, and wonder if I still have it in me.  Will I find my way out of this maze, and do it in such a way that I bring the reader along with me?


I try to comfort myself with the thought that I get this feeling in the middle of every book I write.  And I'm not the only one.  On May 11 of last year, Vicki wrote a spot-on post on this site about the 'soggy middle' of a novel.


On another topic, I've been following with interest the thread on short story vs. novel writing. For most of my youth, I only wrote short stories.  Then for many years, I alternated between long novels and short stories and poems of various lengths.  For the past decade, I've done only novels, and think that I would find it difficult to write an effective short story, now.  The forms all require different skill sets, different writing muscles.  As noted in previous entries, some writers have an easier time with one than with the other.  I think, though, that practicing any form of writing improves your skill in all the others.  There is nothing like poetry (or ad copy?) to teach you how to create an image with a few well chosen words. And to create a good short story, an author has to learn to write a complete tale  beginning, middle, and end, in one scene.


Speaking of Vicki Delany, I'm happy to not that she is joining me as one of the regular bloggers on the Fatal Foodies website.  We Fatal Foodies are mystery authors whose work features food in all its glorious configurations. So if you like food and mysteries, come check out the site and Vicki's very first post tomorrow.