Thursday, September 30, 2010
I’m usually a complete-sentence guy, perhaps because I harp on them eight hours a day while teaching high school English. In its most basic form, the sentence consists of three parts: subject, verb, and complete idea. A fragment is a clause in which one of those parts is missing.
An example of what I’m doing is this revised prologue.
The CD was Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow, the song “Amphetamine.” In the lab, kids said no one listened to Everclear anymore. That didn’t bother him. The words and melody were merely background noise, clearing way for his relentless focus.
High above Aroostook County, Maine, his flight-deck headphones were askew—one ear covered by the black foam piece allowing communication with Air Traffic Control; a tiny white iPod earpiece in the other ear, its white cord running to his hip pocket.
He’d rented the Cessna 310 for the day. He’d have it for all of an hour, two, if things went badly.
Things wouldn’t go badly.
He left nothing to chance. Didn’t believe in risks, and failure was simply deviation from his norm. The choices he’d made throughout this journey had been specific ones to assure success—this region, this farm.
The CD was Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow, the song “Amphetamine.” In the lab, kids told him no one listened to Everclear anymore. Didn’t bother him. The words and melody were merely white noise, clearing way for his relentless focus.
High above Aroostook County, Maine, his flight-deck headphones were askew. One ear covered by the black foam piece allowing communication with Air Traffic Control. A tiny white earbud in the other ear, its white cord running to his hip pocket.
He’d rented the Cessna 310 for the day. He’d have it for all of an hour, two, if things went badly.
But things wouldn’t go badly.
He’d left nothing to chance. Didn’t believe in risks. And failure was simply deviation from his norm. He’d made specific choices during his long journey, choices that assured success: this region, this farm.
I reworded the passage in places, added paragraph breaks, and (hopefully) improved the pace and therefore the tension. We’ll see how the rewrite turns out.
I’m leery of shortening the syntax because you can easily go overboard. I started James Elroy’s THE COLD SIX THOUSAND and felt like I was going 200 miles per hour for the first 50 pages and never finished the book. Here’s a sample:
“Nobody said it:
Kill that koon. Do it good. Take our hit fee.
The flight ran smooth. A stew served drinks. She saw his gun. She played up. She asked dumb questions.
He worked Vegas PD. He ran the intel squad. He built files and logged information.
She loved it. She swooned.”
Technically only one fragment, but the syntax is so clipped I never come up for air. I know some people love that—and I’m normally a huge Elroy fan—but this one was just too much.
You have to know the voice of the work when considering the syntax. Try this opening paragraph from CUBA LIBRE by Elmore Leonard:
“Tyler arrived with the horses February eighteenth, three days after the battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. He saw buzzards floating in the sky the way they do but couldn’t make out what they were after. This was off Morro Castle, the cattle boat streaming black smoke as it came through the narrows.”
Leonard’s opening reads like syrup: one clause rolls naturally into the next, until the voice sings. I could get lost in this book for hours.
There’s no right or wrong. You just try to find the syntactical form that fits the voice and pace you’re looking for. I have 300 pages to go.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
And other quirks of Newfoundlandese. Barbara Fradkin here, ducking the shells firing overhead between Vicki and Rick. This week I am up to my eyeballs, or perhaps earlobes, in Newfoundland dialect as I try to write the opening chapters of my new project. It’s the creative non-fiction biography of my father, who was born in an outport at the turn of the twentieth century and spent much of his first twenty-five years in various coves and harbours of the rocky island.
My father could turn his accent on and off at will, as can most educated Newfoundlanders, but I want to capture just the right feel of those remote villages more than a hundred years ago. To that end, I listened to endless hours of “The Republic of Doyle” (no hardship!), read books and stories by Newfoundland writers, including The Outport People, by Claire Mowat (wife of Farley), and Memories of an Outport Son by Art Lovelace. I listened to Great Big Sea, and watched the Newfoundland newscasts on my satellite TV to hear the interviews with Newfoundlanders. Some had lost much of their accent, others needed subtitles.
A hundred years ago, the outports on the remote rocky coastline were cut off from the outside world. No roads, telephone or railway to blur the uniqueness of their speech. When they needed a word, say for a bird or part of a boat, they made it up. Bits of Dorset, Devonshire and Ireland, where most had originated, still clung to their speech, especially their vowels. Bye for boy, lard for lord. H’s and th’s disappeared altogether.
But when it came time to put these unique sounds down on paper, I faced a challenge. Too much dialect, as in the title of this blog, stops the reader in his tracks, no longer hearing the musical lilt of the accent in his head, but instead struggling with indecipherable phonics. Some accents, such as German or French, are so familiar to readers that the writer can conjure up the sounds with almost no phonetic cues (You vill give me ze money!). Others, like Newfoundlandese, are more difficult to capture with a mere word or two. I am still working on it, trying for moderation where some of the th’s are t’s and the you’s are ye’s, but it will take many re-readings to smooth out the roughness. And in the end I will have to find an aging outport Newfoundlander willing to read it, to make sure I got it right.
All part of the joy of writing. 'Dat roight, me son?
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
First of all, putting bogus information on a cover, whether it be in the art, copy, or blurbs, is a problem of truth in advertising, not formula. If things implied on the cover are not delivered in the text, a reader has a right to feel cheated. They've been lied to in the packaging.
Also, when you get a book by an author in a series and it’s completely different than what you thought you’d be getting (and quite possibly disappointing because of that), you have to stop and think for a minute. Maybe the author was trying really hard not to write “the same book yet again”. How many times have you heard that criticism leveled at authors 8 or 10 books into a series?
Now if you’re expecting Miss Marple and you get James Bond instead, I think you have a legitimate gripe. But if things are shaken up or stirred, and you just don’t happen to like what the author has done, then maybe it just wasn't your cup of tea. As far as you’re concerned, you can feel that they’ve written a bum book. But maybe the person next to you on the train felt that this was the best book in the series. It’s all a matter of taste. Clearly, just like every author hopes to one day write a truly great novel, there is also the apprehension that someday they’re surely going to pen a dog. What's one way around this? Give your audience just what they want.
Now let’s get to formula and why I feel it's not a good thing. Ever watch any of the CSI shows, say, when they’re doing a marathon so you get to see 4 or 5 shows in a row? (That happened to me in a NY hotel room last December.) It doesn’t take a genius to soon see that A must happen in chapter 1, B must happen in chapter 2, etc. By the time the fourth episode came on, I could make a pretty good guess as to what would happen during the rest of the show. That’s a formula.
Some readers may prefer that. It’s their right and they can vote with their feet if the author doesn’t deliver to their satisfaction. And there are a lot of crime fiction authors who are willing to write to a formula, book after book. That’s their right, too (and their publishers’).
But don’t turn around and then say that crime writing don’t get no respect from the literary crowd. It’s just that sort of formulaic writing that most gets up the nose of those only interested in serious literary pursuits, and helps keep our craft in the artistic gulag where it’s been relegated since nearly the beginning. In the great scheme of things, too, it won’t be those formulaic books (no matter what the literary aspirations behind their creation) that will be remembered. It will nearly always be those novels that broke the rules, stretched the boundaries and left an indelible mark on those who have read them.
Monday, September 27, 2010
I’ll buy that.
I guess it’s sort of like if you are the marketing department for Kleenex, who I have heard are not pleased when someone walks into a store, asks for Kleenex and walks out with no-name-brand tissues perfectly happily. Branding can be tricky.
People like what they like and if they expect to pick up a book of the sort they like, they want to find that it is what they like.
Isn’t that why we don’t buy a book that is a pile of computer printouts stapled together? A book, paper or electronic, comes with a cover picture, a descriptive title, a blurb or short description, perhaps a quote or two from a reviewer. There might even be a paragraph lifted directly from the book in the front matter.
You wouldn’t want to pick up a book with, say a cover picture of a tiny boat tossed among giant waves in a stormy sea with the authors name and book title in dark grey, a blurb using words like ‘foreboding’ or ‘dread’ or ‘fear’ or ‘terror’, and be blurbed by Stephen King, buy the book and get it home to read a story of a little old lady who owns two cats and a knitting shop and the cats talk and solve crimes.
You expect the book cover and all the other clues to deliver on what they promise. I guess that is a formula in the same way that when I make a cake I put in flour and sugar and butter, not minced beef and chopped tomatoes and spices. If I use beef and tomatoes I call it something else because it is not a cake.
In this I agree with Deryn. When a book is by an author known for their style of writing, and it is part of the ‘x’ series, and there is nothing indicating that this book is something different, then you have a right to feel cheated if it is not what you expect.
Particularly if you feel the bestselling author has just gotten lazy.
In other news, one month to go until the release of Negative Image, the fourth Constable Molly Smith/Trafalgar book. The first chapter of the book is up on my web page , (www.vickidelany.com) and the second will be posted next week. Check it out, because there will be a test later,
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Saturday, September 25, 2010
First of all, I’m going to rush out and get myself one of those voice recognition programs immediately (see Peter’s entry below). I’m badly in need of a cure for all my bills.
The uninitiated may think that writing is an occupation without physical peril, but in truth it’s very hard on the body as well as the mind and spirit. Like Peter, I too am bothered by lots of physical problems when I sit too long in front of the computer. I get eyestrain and backaches and numb-butt. I always write with a brace on my right wrist, since I once was afflicted with such an awful case of carpal tunnel that I was unable to type at all for a couple of days (note photo of author on Nov. 14, 2009, entry on this web site). I was near the end of a manuscript at the time, so it was a very uncomfortable situation. I tried to deal with the problem by dictating into a tape recorder with the idea of transcribing the text onto the computer as soon as my wrist was functional again.
It was surprisingly hard to do at first, full of stops and starts, ungrammatical phrases and long moments of silence. But after fumbling around for a few minutes, something very odd happened. I discovered that if I forgot about narration for the moment and concentrated on dialog, I became possessed by the characters. I “wrote” a thirty minute conversational exchange between two characters, a male and a female, that flowed out of me like water, and when I listened to the tape later, it was like eavesdropping on two people who had nothing to do with me.
My voice, accent, and grammar changed utterly, which I promise I did not do on purpose. In my head, I was writing a story, not acting. In the end, I got quite a serviceable scene out of my dictation, but to this day, every time I listen to that tape it creeps me out.
In a related aside, Dear Reader, some thirty-five years ago, during a family gathering, I met a woman who my sister-in-law assured me was a psychic. She seemed like a very pleasant and normal person who spoke of everyday matters, but during the course of the evening she put her hand on my arm and told me that someday I’d write books, and I’d do it by dictating them into a tape recorder.
Now, I was already writing books at the time, so that was no revelation, but I had never tried to “talk” them. I was intrigued and amused, but I avoided tape-recorder-writing thereafter. For after all, how could she have “predicted the future” when it was she who gave me the idea in the first place?
I thought of that incident when I did my transcription experiment. Would I have tried it had the psychic not put the thought in my head a lifetime ago?
Tomorrow’s guest blogger is handwriting analyst and mystery novelist Sheila Lowe. Sheila is a court-qualified handwriting expert who testifies in forensic cases and has written two books on the subject. She also writes a mystery series featuring forensic handwriting expert Claudia Rose, who uses her expertise to help solve crimes.
Friday, September 24, 2010
As my sixth week of writing draws to a close, and I approach the 90,000 word mark, I find myself wrestling once again with that age-old writers’ affliction, RSI - or Repetitive Strain Injury.
I have a large, painful ganglion, on the inside of my right wrist. I have a pain in my left hand that travels up my arm from between the first and second fingers.
That’s not to mention the commanding ache in my lower back, or the fact that I have put my neck out again.
And, yes, yes, I know... I should stand up every half hour and stretch legs, back, arms, neck. But when you get sucked into your writing, hours pass without you even noticing. I do try to take a half hour walk every day, just to keep my circulation going, but even that’s not always possible.
So what’s the answer? Well, new technology is punting voice recognition software as the solution to all my ills. All I have to do is talk to my computer and it will turn my voice into text. I can be doing anything I like: peddling hard on the cycle machine, jogging on the treadmill, or even lying back on the settee with my eyes closed.
A current ad on TV for Dragon voice recognition software shows a skydiver jumping out of an aircraft while telling his computer, via voice link, to send an email.
Wow, I thought. It’s the perfect answer. So I figured I would give it a dry run, by reading this blog aloud to my computer to see how well it works. And here’s the result:
My sixth week of writing draws to a close, to my folks for 90,000 word mark, I find myself wrestling once again what's up Bejeweled breakers before too all right side or repetitive strain injuries.
I have a large pimple ganglion went inside my breakfast. I have a pain in my lifetime that travels up my arm from between the first and second fingers.
For us not to mention the commanding geek in my lower back, where the f*ck to talk to my neck I thinking.
I guess, yes, I know... I should sign up for hiring stretch legs, back, arms, neck. When you get sucked into your writing her ass possibilities noticing. I do trust you got a horrible everyday, just to keep my situation going, if you cannot cell phones possible.
So what's the answer? Well, you technology is tempting voice recognition software is the solution to all my bills. All I have to do is talk to my computer and it will turn my voice into text. I can be doing and I think I like Edwin Hakone cycle machine, jumping on the tread mill, or even lying back from the city with my eyes closed.
Current iPhone TV for Dragon voice recognition software for the skydiver jumping in the aircraft while telling his computer, via voice link, to send an e-mail.
While I thought. It's the perfect answer. So I figured I would give it to dry run by reading this blog Aladdins to my computer to see how well it works. And here's the results:
Well, I guess that might make for an interesting novel.
It’s a good job the guy jumping out of the airplane didn’t ask Dragon to pull the ripcord!
Thursday, September 23, 2010
The discussion here is all about expectations—of readers, of editors, and, most importantly, of writers.
Rick is 100% correct when he writes of current industry standards, claiming editors are looking for series rather than stand-alones. Anyone in the business will tell you that. And that expectation makes sense: Few stand-alone novels are breakout books; just as few first series books turn profits. Even Dan Brown’s thrillers feature the same character. So editors are (at least financially) justified in their desire for series novels.
Vicki wrote of certain requisites books deemed “mysteries” must have, specifically taking offense to one blogger’s claim that a body early in the story is a must. This, to me, speaks to readers’ expectations. And I believe readers of contemporary crime fiction demand more from the books we write. I have often proclaimed my allegiance to Robert B. Parker. There are few “mysteries” in the Spenser novels; we read them to see how he will solve the crime, to see Spenser’s intellect at work, to see Spenser’s sense of right and wrong. As a reader, I sure as hell don’t need a body by page 50.
And as a writer, I’m sure not locked into any such formula. That’s painting by numbers, not fiction writing. The best crime novels of all time are about the human condition. This should be the writer’s expectation. The Great Gatsby, perhaps the Great American Novel, does feature a murder. Is it therefore a “genre” book? A crime novel? Parker called it the best crime novel ever written. All I know is that it’s a book that broke the mold, forcing readers to examine the society in which they live closely and, just maybe, to view it differently.
We’re all trying to do that as writers. Call us genre writers, if you like. But a writer’s only expectation need be to attempt to take the genre and put his or her own stamp on it, to stretch it in a different direction, using the elements of fiction as his or her vehicle.
Here is one of favorite quotes by a writer who I think has stretched the genre tremendously: Asked, during an interview with Mystery Scene, why she continued to write the same series character, Sue Grafton, by way of explanation, said, “Mysteries are about the psychology of crime and the psychology of human nature.” If Grafton is overly concerned with giving readers a body by page 50, that sentiment is lost on me.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
I believe crime writing is becoming more and more formulaic. At least that’s what I’m hearing from people who are trying to sell novels. I know of what I speak, since I was on that merry-go-round until recently.
First of all, editors are looking for series. They want something that will be easy to sell and will drive a back-list. Stand-alones generally sell far poorly in a back list, no matter how good they are.
And it has to be a new series. They won’t pick up anyone mid-series unless they’re from a best-selling author. Don’t even bother attempting to tell them the error of their ways.
If you’re new, they want a series. Period.
Second, yeah, they’re not really murder mysteries. I hate that moniker, too. But to most readers, that’s really what they are.
Sadly, that means most editors, too. “You wait until too late to pull the trigger,” a very experienced colleague was once told by an editor. “Could you move the murder into the first 20 pages and then do the rest of the novel’s start as a flashback? Past page 100 is too late.” My friend demurred and went so far as to withdraw the book, because the build-up of suspense was the whole point in making the reader wait.
Vicki has it right on thrillers, though. The mold is a little less rigid for those. Who knows why?
Someone can break the rules, though. How? You either have to be an established best-selling author whose books will sell on name alone, or you need to be a certifiable genius who’s just written his/her groundbreaking first novel.
Otherwise, don’t bother trying. You’ll just be beating your head against the wall.
Monday, September 20, 2010
I am not a bestselling author, but I had to respond and say “Huh?”
Now I hear what the blogger is saying. She is saying that she likes “murder mysteries” and when she picks one up, she expects there to be a murder right off the bat. Or at least suspense leading to one. But in a couple of bestsellers she has read recently the body isn’t only lacking at the beginning. So is the suspense.
I’ll accept that you need suspense, but I will still argue you don’t need a body.
Crime novels are not formula driven. At least they certainly shouldn’t be. Surely a well-established popular author needs to be able to expand the concept a bit. How else do you keep things fresh and interesting?
I think of one book I absolutely love. It’s by a successful British author. (I will not name the author or the book as what I am about to reveal will spoil the ending.) Not only is there no body, because the plot is about a kidnapped child, but there is no resolution. The criminal is not caught. How true to life is that? The police officers have to deal with their failure. I found the ending startlingly satisfying: sometimes they do fail. The body, in fact, far from appearing before page 50 appears on the last page. The child dies.
For much the same reason, I absolutely loathe the phrase “murder mystery”. I think it does a gigantic disservice to the entire field of crime writing. It assumes two things: one there is a murder, and two there is a mystery about it. A crime novel need not have to have either of those elements. Most crime novels do feature a murder, because murder is the ultimate transgression. But not necessarily. A kidnapping, as pointed out above, can provide an enormous amount of tension and suspense. Ian Rankin’s fabulous book, Open Doors, is about art theft.
And, of course, plenty of crime novels are not mysteries. In suspense and thrillers particularly there is often no mystery about who the bad guy is or what their aim is. The suspense comes from hoping the evil one will be thwarted in their ambitions and/or watching the characters deal with the fallout.
In Winter of Secrets there is a body very early. The book is indeed a 'mystery'. But the police do not know how or why this person died, and the centre of the novel lies the question: is this a murder or not?
Perhaps I am sensitive to this at the moment as the book I am currently working on (Not a Molly Smith) is neither a murder nor a mystery. No one is killed at any point in the book and there is never the slightest doubt about who the bad guy is. It is a chase/adventure story. Yet, I certainly classify it as a crime novel. As does my publisher, with whom I’ve discussed the plot. I wanted do something different, maybe a bit edgy, but remain totally faithful to the fact that I consider myself to be a crime novelist.
I think that when we as writers call our books “murder mysteries” we are cutting ourselves off from the huge number of readers who don’t like traditional mysteries (maybe they once read a cozy and hated it) but like psychological suspense or adventure novels. Perhaps they even like character-based books that have the characters dealing with a crime. They just don’t think they like mysteries.
P.S. Negative Image, the next Constable Molly Smith book, due out on November 2nd has the discovery of a body on page three. You can read it for yourself: the first chapter is posted on my web page. http://www.vickidelany.com/extras/NegativeImage.pdf
Sunday, September 19, 2010
So, here's a funny I've been saving for just such a moment as this...
See you all on Tuesday!
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
Ok, still writing the book. Week five and counting. Not a lot of time to wrack what’s left of my brain for this week’s blog. So here’s a selection of “light bulb” writers jokes that should amuse those in the know...
Q How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A Why does it have to be changed, it makes perfect sense the way it is.
Q How many publishers does it take to change a light bulb?
A Two. One to change the bulb and one to issue a rejection slip to the old bulb.
Q How many editors does it take to change a light bulb?
A Hold on - shouldn't they get the author’s approval first?
Q How many artwork designers does it take to change a light bulb?
A Does it have to be a light bulb?
Q How many copy editors does it take to change a light bulb?
A The last time this question was asked, it involved artwork designers. Is the difference intentional? Should one or the other instance be changed? It seems inconsistent..
Q Okay let's try again… put it this way, how many copy editors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A I can’t tell whether you mean ‘change a light bulb’ or ‘have sex in a light bulb’. Can we reword it to remove the ambiguity?
Q How many proofreaders does it take to change a light bulb?
A Proofreaders aren’t supposed to change light bulbs, just highlight the error.
Q How many indexers does it take to change a light bulb?
A See indexers
Q How many printers does it take to change a light bulb?
A Three. One to wash the old bulb, one to check the colour match and one to call the client and explain the delay.
Q How many cataloguers does it take to change a light bulb?
A Only one, but first they have to wait to see how the Library of Congress has done it.
Q How many literary critics does it take to change a light bulb?
A Literary critics don’t know how to change light bulbs, but rest assured they’ll find something wrong with the way it's done.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
It was from Rick DeMarinis, a one-time Type M guest blogger and my longtime friend and mentor. Rick is approaching 70, the winner of two NEA fellowships, the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a guy who has been in this business much longer than me.
“My new (old and stale to me by now) novel, Mama's Boy,” he wrote, “comes out in December from Seven Stories Press. It was accepted in 2008, and now it's almost 2011. The years click by and you look at your reflection in the window behind your desk and notice suddenly that your hair has gone gray and the skin around your jowls is hanging low. It's called the writer's life. I hope your life is going well. Love to all…”
It had been perhaps a year since I’d heard from Rick. And the tone of his e-mail saddened me a little. The writer’s life: one of joy and self-discovery, but also the existence Rick described.
His e-mail also reminded me a great deal of Cynthia Ozick’s brilliant 1982 essay “A Drugstore in Winter,” in which she takes readers on the journey of her life, from “luckless goosegirl” (who else could turn that phrase?) to O. Henry Award winner and one of the most acclaimed prose stylists of our time.
“A writer,” Ozick writes in “A Drugstore in Winter,” “is buffeted into being by school hurts—Orwell, Forster, Mann!—but after a while other ambushes begin: sorrows, deaths, disappointments, subtle diseases, delays, guilts, the spite of the private haters of the poetry side of life, the snubs of the glamorous, the bitterness of those for whom resentment is a daily gruel, and so on and so on; and then one day you find yourself leaning here, writing at that sameself round glass table salvaged from the Park View Pharmacy—writing this, an impossibility, a summary of how you came to be where you are now, and where, God knows, is that? Your hair is whitening, you are a well of tears, what you meant to do (beauty and justice) you have not done, papa and mama are under the earth, you live in panic and dread, the future shrinks and darkens, stories are only vapor, your inmost craving is for nothing but an old scarred pen, and what, God knows, is that?”
It’s called the writer’s life, indeed. Rick knows that. Ozick sure does. I see it in the students I teach every year—those one or two kids who find something (maybe themselves, maybe an outlet, maybe an escape) in writing. That kid was me. At age 6, I wrote my first “book” one weekend, bound it with colored paper and string, and brought to my school librarian, who (God bless her) put it on the shelf. At 9, I would fail math, and my dyslexic youth would begin. That book, that librarian, kept me going. “Stories are only vapor,” as Ozick says, but they are also so much more.
To many of us.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Hah! This past month my writing schedule has been so hectic that I’ve seriously considered going back to full time work. If you’re looking for a clue, just check out the time when I’m writing this blog. 11:49 p.m. That’s right. Eleven minutes to MIDNIGHT! And in case you think I only got started on my day at 4 p.m., I first sat down to write at 7:48 a.m. With a cup of coffee, I admit, but you have to grant me some breaks.
Much has been written about the busy, multi-tasking life of the modern writer. Blogs, websites, Facebook pages, guest blogs, listserves, book clubs, community talks, readings and signings and panels. But less is said about the fact that we are often working on not one but two, possibly three, creative writing projects at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking. In the past month I have done the final edits on my Inspector Green mystery, Beautiful Lie the Dead, due out this fall. At the same time I’m been working on the first draft of a new Rapid Reads book due out from Orca Books in the Spring 2011, and just today I finished the rough draft of the first few sample chapters of a creative non-fiction project that I will be developing over the next two years.
And now, at midnight, I am trying to write a coherent blog. All these projects have distinct casts of characters who must keep away from each other in my head. They all have different voices and styles, and require mental set changes to keep me firmly in place. I don’t have a trick for that, except to say that I wish there was a better way. A more leisurely way, involving a second cup of coffee and a lazy walk with the dog. Time to think, and preferably not at midnight. If anyone does have a trick or two, this weary writer wants to know.
Too much work of the non-writing kind tends to do that for me. My theory is that something creative like graphic design drains the creative juices to the point where, when you get to the good part of the day and take up your pen (metaphorically speaking), the tank is almost or even completely empty. My solution to that, as revealed here, has been to write first and graphically design later. That works much better, but it still doesn’t really do the job. I’m sure all you "working stiffs" know just how much progress one can make in a week or two of “just writing”. It’s as if an extra head of steam builds up because that’s all you’re doing with your creative juices. Peter’s certainly been clear on that in his recent posts. He’s dead on.
So, on to my fog. Last night was a beautiful one here in Southern Ontario. This summer we bought a telescope, something we’ve talked about for years. We’ve spent the warm months learning how to use it. Trouble is, you have to drive about an hour to find a sky that isn’t completely washed out by the lights of the big city. So yesterday we decided to do just that, packed up everything around sunset and drove north and west.
The heavens were truly beautiful, the telescope worked (almost) perfectly. (That “almost” part was yours truly punching in the coordinates incorrectly.) However, something unexpected happened during the two hours we were out looking at Jupiter, Uranus, various stars and a few deep space objects.
My mind cleared out. I drove home full of ideas for my current writing project, and even though I was dead-tired and it was after 1 a.m., I sat down at the computer and spent nearly an hour jotting down everything in my head along with some notes on how to deal with them. This morning, they still look pretty darn good.
Even though I’m more than a bit tired, I can’t wait to get to work on the results of yesterday evening’s unexpected bonus.
“Change task” can really be beneficial. I should have remembered that.
Monday, September 13, 2010
Quite a lot it would seem.
I am cursed with both a first and last name that is moderately common but not spelled in the usual way. Thus no one ever asks how do you spell that, and they don't check to see if they have it correct.
That was never a problem for me: I didn’t really care and it didn’t much matter if it was spelled incorrectly now and again. That all changed when I became a writer. Particularly in the world of computers where the correct spelling is essential. My name is my web page and my e-mail address. It is how you find my books in online computer stores, which seem to be quite unforgiving to any slip of the keys.
This came home to me this weekend. Following a link from another web page, I happened upon my forthcoming book, Negative Image, in the Amazon Kindle Store. By that bestselling author Vicki DelanEy. It was all by itself, as of course it had no relation to that other author Vicki Delany. Any search for me, by name, wouldn’t find it, and a search for Negative Image brought up the hardcover, with no link to the Kindle version.
I dug a bit further around the Internet and found that all the audio versions of my books at B&N.com are by that other wonderful author VickY Delany. Same story: Looking for me, you ain’t gonna find her.
Hopefully this will all get sorted out in the next couple of days.
Speaking of Kindle. I also discovered that Amazon has released Negative Image on the Kindle two months prior to release date. That will be shut down in the next couple of days, so if you want to buy the Kindle version, and you act really fast, you can get it waaay ahead of anyone else. Click here.
One thought about Kindle and other e-readers. I have been debating whether or not to buy one and have decided at last not to. I spend an enormous part of my day on the computer, sitting in my little office all by myself. I find visiting bookstores relaxing and enjoyable and usually come home with some treasures. So, as long as book buying is something I do as recreation and for pleasure, it’s paper for me.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Peter here. For reasons I won't even begin to go into, I am unable to provide you with a guest blogger this Sunday. So you're stuck with me, I'm afraid.
And I am minded to touch on a phenomenon that affects screen writing more than novel writing. That's the trend - encouraged by a plethora of how-to books - towards what I call writing by numbers. These books are written by self-proclaimed experts who claim to have studied all the most successful screenplays in movie history, and have discerned a pattern in their construction suggesting that there is a successful formula, which if you follow faithfully, will also bring you success.
I have no doubt that there are similar "experts" who have found a pattern in the most successful books, and would recommend that you follow that, too.
The fundamental flaw, of course, with all these peddlers of formulae, is that if they really do have the secret of successful writing, why are they not writing hit movies and best-selling books themselves? The answer is that they are nothing more than snake-oil salesmen selling vacuous dreams to the vulnerable.
As a teenager in the sixties I used to listen to a European radio station called Radio Luxembourg. There was an ad that played repeatedly on that station trying to sell you on Horace Bachelor's secret formula for winning the Football Pools - a betting game that paid out millions to those correctly predicting the weekly soccer results. Even then I used to think, if he really has this formula, why is he not simply winning the pools himself every week?
The truth is, there is no formula for predicting chance, any more than there is for the writing of a great story.
Here is a link to an article on the subject written by my spouse and fellow writer, Janice Hally, for the online magazine, Suite 101, where she is the feature writer for the Writing for Stage and Screen section. As someone who has written and storylined hundreds of hours of top-rated television drama herself, she is pretty well-placed to comment, and also offer her own advice on what makes a good story...
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Friday, September 10, 2010
I have no idea what drives me to write. But driven I am. And it seems that everyone who takes up a pen to write a story is driven in just the same way.
It’s nice to know that others go through the same things - compulsion to write, persistent optimism (regardless of how many rejections we receive), belief that the editors who turn us down are idiots...
Because I am still writing my new book, I haven’t had much time to work on my blog this week. So I thought I would share with you this short video of Ray Bradbury talking about persistence in writing. It affirms all the above, and re-affirms that feeling of awe that creeps over you when you know you have written something special... did I write that??
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
This school year, I have decided to require my juniors to read (and know) what I believe is a staple, perhaps even the Bible of all writing handbooks. Each week, for the first six weeks of school, we will discuss a different chapter of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, who, although not a native, must be considered among my home state of Maine’s greatest writers.
Having often mentioned the book, and having based worksheets on its simple-yet-constructive lessons, this will be partly an experiment. I have never before required students to read it. And coupled with OEDIPUS REX and HAMLET to open the school year, it might be too much.
But the potential upside outweighs the risk of boring students. After all, most professional writers I know have the book on their desks and call upon its wisdom often. In an age where most students would rather spend an afternoon playing video games than reading, forcing them to read and study this book can’t hurt them.
I have a copy with me at all times—a paperback third edition in my bag, along with my laptop, in case I get a spare moment to write and need Mr. Strunk to explain the difference between “lay” and “lie” to me for the 13,000th time; and a hardcover at home on the shelf next to my writing chair for those times, late at night, when my paragraphs turn to strings of islands with few causeways connecting them. It is Rule 13, after all, “Make the paragraph the unit of composition,” in which Strunk and White declare, “The paragraph is a convenient unit; it serves all forms of literary work.”
Part of the book’s appeal has long been its brevity; it tops out at 85 pages. Last spring, searching for something students would embrace, I contacted publisher after publisher, asking for a grammar book that was under $20, short, and readable. I found nothing. Then it occurred to me that the answer had been there all along. In my backpack. After all, my sister, a math teacher, has a copy on her desk.
The experiment begins Monday. I hope a new generation of appreciation for the book does, too.
Tuesday, September 07, 2010
This is a completely different skill set to acquire. I don’t know if there are any courses for aspiring authors to learn the arcane art of promotion, but seriously, it might not be a bad idea for authors who want to get ahead to think of taking one of those two-year diploma courses in publicity that community colleges run. It would be money well-spent, to my mind.
Just off the top of my head, here are a few things you need to know: website design; the ins and outs of blogging, tweeting and facebooking; how to write effective advertising/promotional copy; how to contact the people you need to contact; how to acquire up-to-date media lists; how to pitch your book to producers and the like; what to wear for a TV appearance (trust me, that’s important!); how to design your own promotional materials (bios, press releases, bookmarks, posters, articles, etc.); how to handle an interview, a reading, a book signing; how to book an effective promotional itinerary... Believe me, I could go on.
The alternative is to pay for any or all of these things and those bills really mount up fast. The average author can’t hope to pay that much.
The real alternative (and what is still done for the big-name authors) is that the publisher does it. That’s no longer the case (if it ever was) for mid-list authors and the poor sods below them. A savvy publisher will do what they can for their lower sales authors and will also patiently help the poor wordsmith through this baffling system as best they can, but the bottom line is: be prepared to spend the time to learn how to do as much for yourself as you can. There are some authors out there who have spent the time, learned the ropes and are really able to help themselves out. The satisfying thing is when those books jump off the shelf just a little bit faster. Then you’re well on your way.
If you aren’t prepared to do this, be prepared for the ax to fall when no one knows how good your books are and subsequently don’t buy them.
*Although there are occasional lucky sods whom publishers fall all over and do everything in their power to make them successful.
Sunday, September 05, 2010
I am absolutely delighted that this week's guest blogger is the lovely and talented Charles Benoit who needs no introduction to readers of Type M. (Although I have provided one at the bottom)
It’s great to be back at Type M, even if it is just for a day. For many happy years I was the regular Friday blogger on this site, and since I’ve stopped blogging, Type M has gone on to win several impressive awards. Coincidence? I sure hope so.
Not so coincidently, my guest appearance comes a week after my first Young Adult novel, YOU, was released by Harper Collins Teen. It’s the darling of fans and critics alike (at least for this week) and if the emails are any indication, it’s making waves with teachers, librarians and young adult readers. So how does a quasi-successful mystery writer become a we’ll-see-if-he’s-successful YA writer?
I haven’t got a clue.
Seriously, that’s how I did it.
If there’s one thing that all of my books have in common is that they focus on people who don’t have a clue—no clue as to what they are doing, how much trouble they are in, who to trust or what to believe.
In my first book, Relative Danger, the unemployed bottle washer/exceptionally naïve hero finds himself in Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain and Singapore, tracking down a missing diamond and trying to avoid the pros who are also on the diamond’s trail. The hero in Out of Order, a tightly wound guy who likes things neat and organized, found himself trying to make sense of the senseless order that is India, all while trying to find a woman who may not exist so he can deliver a gift that attracts the wrong sort of attention. And while the hero in Noble Lies appeared to have his act together, I showed him that he could be just as lost as the novice adventurer.
Being clueless has worked well for me.
The protagonist in my new YA is not all that different from the ones in my other books. He’s smart, but it doesn’t always show, he has goals and dreams, he just isn’t sure what they are, and he’s in way over his head in a world that, to outsiders, seems exotic and frightening. In this case it’s a modern suburban high school. While the tendency is to call any YA book targeted at male readers some sort of coming of age story, that’s not what this is, nor is it an adventure mystery novel like my other books. What it is is up for debate. One reviewer called it Young Adult Noir and that’s my favorite so far. It hints at the book’s nihilistic sensibilities and the consequences of our choices, but at the same time sets it in the context of a YA world.
About that YA world. It’s easy to dismiss the fears and concerns of teens. As adults, it seems impossible that we would have had ever stared at the ceiling all night, worrying about what others thought of our clothes or the way we talked or how we looked, or that thinking about our future put us in a near catatonic panic. But we did. It’s not the same terror of having to track down a serial killer or matching wits with a clever villain, but in that world, in that reality, with that limited set of life experiences under your belt, it’s no less terrifying.
There were a couple things I did find rather challenging about writing for a YA audience. While most YA authors don’t shy away from swearing, I’ve made it a personal writing challenge not to. In my YA writing anyway. Finding a way to keep it authentic without peppering in the f-bombs that teens rattle off like ums is a lot harder than it sounds. I’ve also chosen to avoid any overt sex scenes, not because teens don’t have sex (they do, but not nearly as much as adults fear or teens wish), but because I don’t like writing sex scenes in my adult books. They always have a creepy, voyeuristic quality to them and if writers like Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard can choose to write around them (most of the time), I can too. Not as well, of course, but that’s true for any writer.
Now that the book is out and getting good reviews, interviewers ask me what I’d like this book to be called. Is it YA Noir, teen crime writing, fatalistic fiction for high school students, contemporary realism? I’m not sure what to call it either, but I’d be very happy if the papers started referring to it as a best seller.
When he’s not staring at a blank screen, waiting for the muse to speak, Charles Benoit spends his days as a copywriter for a Rochester-based ad agency. As part of an elaborate Ponzi scheme, Charles will be serving as the Master of Ceremonies at NoirCon this November in Philadelphia. Get all the Paparazzi-quality details at CharlesBenoit.com
Saturday, September 04, 2010
Friday, September 03, 2010
Still in the throes of writing my new book, I share with you today a few thoughts on the mechanics of writing, and in particular of the differences in writing for British and American publishers.
We’ve all heard the phrase: Two nations divided by a common language.
It’s never truer than when trying to meet the different grammatical standards of two versions of the same language. Most Americans will be unaware of these differences, since they are unlikely ever to be writing specifically for a British audience.
But most British writers who are published in the States bang up against those grammatical inconsistencies all the time (I’ll leave spelling for another occasion).
For example, my American publisher is always berating me for the use of non-active verbs. This despite the fact that non-active verbs have been used in English literature dating back to the time of Shakespeare - who was not averse to using them himself - and before.
But it seems that sometime in the not too distant past, some American grammarian decided that it was bad writing, and that you should always use active verbs. Even the “grammar” component of Microsoft Word highlights non-active verbs as incorrect.
Everything, it seems, has to be “doing” something. Houses have to “stand” at the end of the road, books have to “sit” on the table. Writers, conscious of the requirement to use active verbs, search frantically for doing words to describe inanimate objects, coming up with sometimes absurd descriptions in the process. Which seems to me to be nonsense. Since not everything is doing something. Sometimes things just are.
Another example is the use of the singular “they”. This is perfectly acceptable usage in British English. EG: “The person responsible was told that they would have to report to the group leader”. In American usage, I would be forced to abandon the “they” for the sexist “he” or “she” (without knowing the sex of the “person”), or the clumsy “he or she”. Which seems a terrible shame. So let me here and now fly a flag for the introduction of the singular they to American literature.
My last thought applies equally on both sides of the Atlantic, to the growing clamour of linguistic “purists” who love to denigrate the use of adverbs. I am mystified. The adverb is a perfectly good and useful weapon in the writer's armory. It is, after all, just an adjective for verbs, and used well will enhance any narrative. Any kind of adjective which is overused would be considered bad writing, but let’s not throw away a perfectly good literary tool for the sake of some evanescent grammatical fashion.
Of course, it seems to me that Americans have always had a problem with adverbs, constantly dropping the “ly” in daily use. A recent example made me smile. Readers’ Digest not long ago published an article on 24 THINGS YOU MIGHT BE SAYING WRONG.
Spot the mistake. Deliberate? I don’t think so.
Wednesday, September 01, 2010
It’s a lovely late-August morning, a great time to live at a boarding school—the kids are just starting to arrive, and we don’t tee things up for another few days. I’m sitting on my third-floor deck, watching the sunrise over three deer in a distant field, sipping coffee, and reviewing the summer’s achievements.
The thing about being a writer is that so much of what happens with our work seems beyond our control.
I live in Connecticut. My agent is in New York. I write a novel, e-mail it to him, get his feedback (he was an editor for 25 years and worked with some all-time crime-fiction greats), make changes, email it back to him, and then cross my fingers. Unfortunately, I’m not a patient individual. My wife would probably call this a character flaw. However, dyslexia often produces driven (Lisa might argue for a different adjective, perhaps “manic”) individuals. Regardless, as the song goes, for me, the waiting is the hardest part.
My impatience makes me a goal-oriented person/writer. I set many short-term goals throughout the course of a year. My plans for this summer were 1) to learn about the eBook industry, 2) gain control of the electronic rights to my five novels, 3) make them available in that format, and 4) write another short story—all while awaiting news of the submission process for a novel I finished in March.
As the summer draws to a close, I have controlled what I could: My Jack Austin books are available electronically, and I now own all e-rights to them. I’m letting the first draft a short story “rest” for a week before revision and submission.
I have heard little from my agent over the past two months, so I am doing the only thing an impatient writer can do: write, revise, and write some more.