Wednesday, February 28, 2018

It's G&T Time!

Yep, It's gin and tonic time! Although my preferences run to a nice glass of white wine or Maker's Mark bourbon, I'm still declaring it G&T time! I'm celebrating the turning in of my latest book to my publisher.

It's not completely done, of course. I have two edit rounds to go and I have to come up with back of the book copy for it. Plus we have to settle on a title. Designed for Haunting has been my working title for a while now, but I'm not completely satisfied with it. Will have to ponder more.

As you might have guessed, the fourth book in the Aurora Anderson Mystery series is set around Halloween. Rather a fun time of year to write about. Originally, I was going to put in a haunted house, but eventually decided, instead, to have an escape room experience. My fictional town of Vista Beach is in Los Angeles County. There are a lot of escape room companies around here so it seemed appropriate. Are escape rooms a popular thing in other parts of the world as well? I’ve heard of one in Scotland and of the Murdoch Mysteries themed one in Toronto.

The other item I put in was a pumpkin race. Yep, we race pumpkins here in the South Bay. Manhattan Beach has had a pumpkin race since 1990. I based the pumpkin race in my fictional town on it.

The travel channel has a video that describes it pretty well: http://www.travelchannel.com/videos/the-great-pumpkin-race-0188510 You'll have to tolerate a 15 second ad first, but the video's pretty fun.

So it's celebration time here. I'm currently on my annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the Creative Painting convention where I'm planning on having fun, but also hope to find some inspiration for things to put in the next book.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

At 8:57 P.M. EST,
Type M for Murder
reached

pageviews!

 

Thanks to all of you who have visited us over the years.


Watching and waiting — and selling

by Rick Blechta

Well, Type M’s stats page tells us our pageview counter is at 999,217. If we have a really good day, it should click over to that magical 1,000,000 either late today or early tomorrow morning.

I’ve been so caught up in talking about Type M to lots of people (mostly on Facebook), that I really don’t have anything cued up other than one topic that’s going to need more research than I have time for today.

To widen our horizons here on this blog, for the first time ever, I’m going to offer something for sale! That’s right, if you live in the Greater Toronto Area you could purchase a fully-equipped Queen-size waterbed from moi for the minuscule price of $50. It even includes 6 under-bed drawers! You can contact me through my Facebook page if you’re interested.

My wife and I have had this waterbed (although we’re on our third mattress) for 37 years, and with our backs getting stiffer, we have to switch to a regular mattress. So with heavy hearts we’re having to let our old bed go.

This is not to say that Type M is about to become a buy-and-sell blog. I just thought that after a million pageviews maybe we should change things up a bit. (My wife and I also really don’t have the space to keep a decommissioned waterbed around for very long and it seems a shame to our old friend to put it out on the sidewalk in front of our house.)

Heck! I’ll even throw in a free copy (signed, of course) of my most recent novel, Roses for a Diva. Such a deal!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Know thyself – and au revoir!


Over a year ago, for reasons that escape me now, I thought it would be a good idea to write two very different novels at the same time, namely a crime fiction and an historic fiction – the crime fiction is the third of The Scottish Lady Detective novels, a series of lighter, less serious reads. The historic fiction is the sequel to The Blue Suitcase, a  serious novel and “not for the bedside table”. In hindsight, I was overly optimistic. I soon struggled moving back and forth between the two very different writing projects. Eventually, overwhelmed by the task I'd set myself, I was unable to focus on either properly and became immobilised. It became clear I was going to have to give up one of the projects (temporarily). I found myself on the horns of a dilemma: which do I give up? An impossible task. I wanted to do both. (Luckily I have a very sympathetic publisher who has been happy to wait while I dithered). Finally, for various reasons, I decided to focus on the historic fiction. What a relief to have made a decision! The most important thing I have learnt over this last year is for me to “know myself”: I now know I am a one book, one genre at a time writer ;)

Focussing on the historic fiction project means that my crime novel project – and writing for the Type M for Murder blog – is very firmly on hold. This means, sadly, that this is my last post for Type M for Murder.

I have enjoyed my time on the blog immensely and feel honoured to have been invited to be part of such an illustrious group of writers. Many thanks for inviting me and for all your comments and for all your the wonderful posts and bring on your next million page views! 

 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

No Spam Calls in the Future

Futurists like to give us a rosy view of tomorrow, mostly because they're funded by technologists with something big to sell, never mind the negative consequences. On the flip side, novels about the future tend to be bleak and the setting is often quite dystopian. Three of the landmark works about this grim future are 1984, Brave New World, and We. Most of us are familiar with George Orwell's 1984 and its oppressive totalitarian theme. In fact, "Big Brother is watching" is synonymous for government and corporate surveillance. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World takes a lighter, though ultimately just as constrictive view of a future society managed through biological engineering. Individuals are brought into this world through a decanting process that determines their station in life. What we consider natural birth is regarded as obscene. People are kept docile through officially sanctioned casual sex, group think (social media, anyone?) and the drug soma. "Don't give a damn, take a gram."

Both of these books draw quite a bit from an earlier Russian novel, We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, first published in 1920. In this work, people live in glass houses, literally. They are allowed one hour a day "to lower the shades," meaning time for casual sex. Aside from that, there is no notion of privacy. Although Zamyatin intended this story as a critique of Soviet totalitarianism, read today, it's a fantastic satire of how our online lives have taken mastery of our existence. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon--the Internet sees all, it knows all.


Which brings me to another more modern novel, Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan (Now available on Netflix). It too is a dystopian tale, one that disturbed me when I first read it. The salient premise is that in this future, humans are implanted with an electronic "cordial stack," which downloads your consciousness. As long as the cordial stack remains undamaged, your consciousness can be swapped from body to body, what the book calls "re-sleeving." It's an extraordinary inventive piece of science fiction, and Morgan further delves into the premise by thinking through the consequences of swapping bodies. For example, you can testify at your own murder. In his world, the process is quite expensive--the cost equivalent of a house mortgage--so that "re-sleeving" remains the domain of the government and the wealthy. So the rich have the financial means of switching bodies as casually as the rest of us change clothes and thus the ability to be immortal.

On my second reading of Altered Carbon, years later, I stumbled over a detail that emphasized just how difficult it is now for science fiction to remain ahead of science fact, even for a work as trail blazing as this one. When the protagonist used a fob to summon a flying taxi, I thought, why doesn't he use the app on his mobile phone? Then I realized, his phone was simply that, a phone. But many of us seldom make calls on our phones; we mostly communicate via text, email, and instant messenger, something that's not done in this story. Also, Altered Carbon is a mystery so there's a lot of sleuthing about and looking for people. Again, why would that be necessary? We all know we can be tracked by our phones; why couldn't these future people be easily followed by their cordial stacks?

Smart phones represent a technology whose implications we still have a hard time understanding. Besides compromising privacy, they provide a deeply engaging experience that makes their use addictive. One tragic and unintended consequence is how they've facilitated distracted driving so that in the last two years, traffic fatalities have increased because of cell phones.

And I need to mention, that in those very different futures sans cell phones, people are never bothered by telemarketers.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Distracted Characters

The discussion about endings got me thinking about my series arcs and my subplots that sometimes extend beyond the current book. The romances. The deceptions.  The murder that is solved, but the relationships that aren't resolved. I was going to write about that, but then my life intruded.

I've been juggling balls -- symposium in April, classes to teach, SinC chapter, non-profit board, books to write, short story for an anthology -- and my mail has been piling up on my foyer desk. I noticed but didn't feel any urgency about the pink envelope I received. I knew that if my car insurance payment had been credited on the next day, then I would automatically get a notice. I was sure I had made my customary payment by phone because the bill wasn't there in my in-box. And then I got around to paying bills and realized there was no entry for the insurance. And called to make sure I had actually paid. And was told by the customer service person that no, I hadn't and I had missed the grace period. Luckily, I've been with the company for most of my driving life, and he reinstated me in a few minutes. And I -- horrified by the accident I might have had -- signed up for automatic bank withdrawals of my payments.

After I'd hung up, I started thinking about distractions in my characters' lives. I've been thinking about subplots in my historical thriller. But over the course of the eight-month span required in this book (because of real life events), any number of things might distract or obstruct my characters.
Over the course of eight months, they will need to go on with their lives, attending to the ordinary tasks that we are all required to do to avoid having bad things happen. Even when we are organized, sometimes we are required to work late or deal with a difficult person or go to another store to find something. Sometimes we have a dripping faucet or are spattered by a passing car before an important appointment and have to stop to make repairs. 

Thinking about this over a soothing cup of tea, it occurred to me that I should think about my  characters' ordinary days.  What will fall by the wayside when they find themselves immersed in this extraordinary situation?  How will little things left undone create problems? How will things beyond their control distract them from bigger problems.

This is sending me back to my 1939 timelines and notes with each character in mind.  I don't think I'm wasting time thinking this through. As I've mentioned I cannot write a non-stop thriller -- even if I wanted to do that -- but I do need to make sure my characters struggle to get to the finish line.

Of course, I've done this in my series, particularly the first-person Lizzie Stuart books. But I think that here it might be even more important. I can work in setting and a sense of ordinary life without  paragraphs of description.

What about your characters? Distractions as they are sleuthing or plotting mayhem?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Countdown to a Launch

This year's comfy shoes

I love the discussion about fuzzy endings. I think endings are wildly important—more important that we generally believe—and I have a lot to say about that. But that will have to wait for another day. For this coming Saturday, February 24, is the official launch day for my tenth Alafair Tucker Mystery, Forty Dead Men. The big ol' launch party will be held at 2:00 p.m. at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. The most fabulous bookstore EVER for launching a mystery novel, especially since the launch is taking place southern Arizona in the middle of winter, with a forecast temperature of 68º F. I’ll be joined by authors Dennis Palumbo (Head Wounds) and Priscilla Royal (Wild Justice), and Dana Stabenow will join us for for a tribute to the late, much beloved Frederick Ramsay. So if you live anywhere in striking distance of Phoenix, do please come by.

No matter how much lead time I have before the publication of a new book, the release date always seems to sneak up on me, and I have never yet been as prepared as I intended to be. For this book, I'm as ready as I'm going to be, I suppose. I didn't manage to lose five pounds or get a face lift, as I originally planned.

But I do have a spiffy outfit.

Now that I’ve reached the age of invisibility, I’ve decided to cultivate a more Bohemian style. I can no longer be the cutest young thing in the room, but I can be well-dressed, damn it. I usually spend at least a month thinking about the outfit, and trying on a series of ensembles, accessories, jewelry, shoes, and parading them around in front of my patient if somewhat bemused husband as though I were an eight year old girl playing dress-up.

I go to such trouble only for myself. I’m generally a bad shopper, but I enjoy the ritual of preparing for a book launch: hair and makeup—check; smoking outfit—check; mani-pedi—check. One very important thing to keep in mind is to choose comfortable shoes! When the day comes that I tire of the big build up, I intend to take a lesson from the great and beautiful Georgia O’Keefe and look however I look and to hell with everybody. When I go to other author events, it seems that the bigger the names the less concerned they seem to be about their duds. Especially the men. Don and I attended an event for a Very Big Name not long ago, and afterwards Don said to me, "Is he married?"

"I don't know," says I. "Why do you ask?"

He replied, "I was wondering why his wife let him go out looking like that."
_________________

"Forty Dead Men is a tragic, bittersweet story of a returning veteran and PTSD. While there’s a mystery, the story actually revolves around Gee Dub. Even if you haven’t read the previous Alafair Tucker mysteries, you can pick up this book. And, if you’re a fan of the Ian Rutledge mysteries, you might want to meet another veteran of World War I." Lesa Holstine, Lesa’s Book Critiques

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Olympics and crime fiction

After reading Charlotte's and Aline's posts on fuzzy endings and playing fair, I got to thinking about what is so compelling about crime novels. I've asked myself this question many times, of course, and use the answers to guide my writing all the time, but this time, because of the Olympics, I'm coming at it from a different angle. Like much of the world, I've been immersed in the Olympics and caught up not only in the sports I always love like figure skating and hockey, but also in those I've barely heard of, like snowboard slopestyle and skeleton (no, not that kind). Suspense, risk, the unknown, the twist, the battle of heroes - the Olympics has it all.


When I give writing workshops, I start off with what I consider the four key elements of any good story:
1. A character worth caring about
2. A question worth answering
3. Three hundred pages of complications (in a novel)
4. An answer that satisfies.

Every word in this list is carefully chosen, and I think if you hit all these points, you have the core of a great story. Which brings me back to the Olympics. Take the first point - a character worth caring about. Almost all the Olympians (except the dopers) are worthy, just by the nature of their long, passionate struggle to get there. But those I cared about the most were those whose struggle had been personalized in some way so that I understood the meaning of that moment for them. Ice dancers Virtue and Moir striving to end their glorious twenty-year career with one final Olympic medal; snowboarder Mark McMorris striving to come back from a catastrophic crash only months earlier that nearly cost him his life. On the sidelines, as readers and watchers, we identify with these characters and care deeply about whether they succeed or fail.

The second point has two key words - worth and answering. The question has to be important and life-challenging enough for us to want to find out the answer. Not only the asking is important, but the answering - a subtle distinction brought into focus with the Olympics example again. It's worth asking whether Mark McMorris will win a medal (or indeed in his case, even get down the course without crashing), but it's not enough. We need to know the answer. It is that drive to know the answer that keeps us glued to the TV through all the other competitors and the endless commercials.


In crime fiction, the question is usually whodunit or whydunit or howdunit. Because crime fiction deals with the most heinous act one human can do to another– with human nature stripped to the bone– that question is almost always worth asking. But even in that, there are some questions that grab the reader more than others, that make us identify and care more deeply. They have to do with character (hero, villain, and victim) and motive, which is why novels that deal with primal human emotions like jealousy, betrayal, and fear are more powerful than greed alone (unless paired with the above).

If Olympic triumph was just about the medal around one's neck or the prize money or the lucrative endorsements, it would be far less compelling to watch, but for all the athletes, I believe it is the personal achievement that is most important. That sense of triumph at overcoming the odds, doing their best, and coming out on top. It is the ultimate goal they've been striving for, of which the medal is just a symbol. You can tell by the tears and smiles at the finish line, by the respect they have for their fellow athletes, by the gratitude they express for their families and colleagues, that this has been a deeply personal journey and a profound personal affirmation.

The three hundred pages of complications refers to the obstacles and detours along the way - the lost competitions, the injuries, the disappointments - each one serving to heighten the suspense and make the quest more personal, meaningful, and uncertain. Will he make it? Can he recover? And on the day of the competition itself, can he beat the incredible score laid down by the athlete just before him? In crime fiction, the obstacles must be meaningful and not mere page-stuffing, serving to deepen the mystery, make alternative solutions more believable, and leave the resolution in doubt.

The fourth point addresses what both Charlotte and Aline raised. Nothing is worse than watching an entire competition, with suspense at its height and the winner about to be revealed, only to have the cable or Wi-Fi die. If a writer has posed a question and tantalized the reader through three hundred pages of ramped-up expectations, trepidation and hope, it is the height of cruelty not to give them an answer. It would be like writing a story about climbing Mount Everest and ending it a hundred feet from the summit. Every story, whether crime fiction or not, deserves an end.

I'm okay with a lot of grey. I don't need all the loose ends tied up, or perfect justice dispensed, or even the bad guys necessarily caught, as long as I know the answer to the question and the writer gives me a compelling reason for letting the bad guy go (as in they're about to meet their nemesis in some other way, or their actions were righteous, etc.) The reader needs to feel satisfied that the solution fits the story. In the case of the Olympics, where winning can hinge on flukes and hundredths of a second, an athlete who gives their all and beats their personal best, even if they don't medal, can leave us deeply happy for and proud of them. As they are of themselves. Mark McMorris got a bronze medal. Gold would have been nice, but what he achieved, coming back from near death, was just a great. Deeply satisfying. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Holy Moley!

by Rick Blechta

I’m sitting here somewhat in shock. Quite possibly by the end of this month our “little blog that could” will welcome its 1,000,000 guest! That is just remarkable and not many blogs reach this kind of pinnacle.

Way back in June 2006 at the (late, great) Bloody Words Convention in Toronto, Vicki Delany, Charles Benoit, Michael Blair, Alex Brett and I sat around in the hotel bar, talking about getting on the blog bandwagon which was gathering steam at that time.

It seemed like a good idea to help us promote ourselves — promotion being as difficult then as it is now. Vicki did the initial spadework, finding the blogger website, choosing a design and look for our creative and writing the first post.

To say the least, readers were scarce for us for the first few years. In a good month we’d get only 1000 or so pageviews which was pretty darned disheartening. More than once we discussed just abandoning the whole thing, but fortunately that never quite happened. Of those original five, only Vicki (who took a brief holiday from Type M at one point) and I remain. Charles still drops by for a guest spot when I can talk him into it.

Our current roster:
  • Barbara arrived in January 2007 (for a brief time before settling in for good in August of 2010).
  • Donis arrived 6 months after Barbara. So she’s an 11-year vet.
  • John first posted in May 2009
  • Frankie Bailey arrived in February of 2011
  • Aline first appeared as Peter’s guest in December 2010 before coming onboard in
  • Charlotte arrived at the end of April in 2011
  • Mario first graced these pages in March 2012
  • Sybil joined us in August 2014
  • And finally our “newbie”, Marianne first darkened our door in September 2017
Some other long-time members of note:
  • Deborah Atkinson — featured in this spot just last week — who came on board with Donis and was with us from July 2007 until August 2010.
  • Hannah Dennison, September 2010 to June 2014
  • Tom Curran, November 2011 to February 2014
  • Peter May, March 2010 to January 2011
This post also has to mention the many guests we’ve hosted over the years (some even became permanent members). Quite often those posts are really interesting and add a lot to the “overall flavor” of Type M. Many thanks to all those who’ve shared their thoughts in our weekend spots over the past 12 years. We all appreciate it a lot!

So here we are. I can scarcely believe our blog has been looked at nearly 1,000,000 times (we’re at 989,352 right now). That is really “some special” as they say in Eastern Canada!

Mostly, though, we all need to say thank you to everyone who has dropped by for a look — and many of you have been watching and reading here for quite a long time. Thanks to all you who’ve commented and joined into what have often developed into some really excellent conversations. (And please feel to weigh in if haven’t yet. We heartily encourage dialogue. It makes the blog that much better — even if we disagree.)

Here’s to the next million!

Monday, February 19, 2018

Playing Fair

I did enjoy Charlotte's post about her dislike of 'fuzzy endings' – where the author hasn't really told you what happened and you have to make up your own mind – as well as the comments about it afterwards.

They seemed to echo something I'd been thinking of writing today – the question of what a detective story ought to be. Perhaps Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism summed it up in her defense of the three-volume novel: 'The good ended happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.'

It was Monsignor Ronald Knox who made the first attempt in his tongue-in-cheek '10 Commandments for Detective Fiction.' They included prohibitions like, 'Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable,' 'No undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end,' and 'No Chinaman must figure in the story,' – possibly a dig at the Chinese opium dens that featured in Sherlock Holmes' cases and then became a feature much imitated in the 'penny-dreadful.'

The great thing about having rules is the effect when someone breaks them. When Agatha Christie, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, transgressed by breaking the first commandment, 'The criminal must be someone mentioned in the first part of the story but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to share,' the shock propelled the book to the top of the best-seller list.

Now, of course, rules have been long superseded. As Butch Cassidy was told, 'There are no rules in a knife fight' and in crime fiction today anything goes. In some of the very best crime novels we know right at the start 'whodunit,' and the suspense is about the why or how.

But I still have an affection for the classic type, and I was wondering how other writers and readers today feel about Knox's commandment no 8: 'The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.'

I've always felt when I was writing a book that I have the intelligent reader at my shoulder. I want to conceal the villain from them so that they don't guess who it is too early and I will do my very best to mislead them, but I like to think that the clues to the answer are there if they want to follow them. I try to play fair but I can go to elaborate lengths with red herrings - I remember rewriting one scene half-a-dozen times so that the clue I ought to give them remained unnoticed. But I couldn't get any satisfaction from the reader who says, 'I didn't guess' if I had actually cheated.

Is this an idea whose time has passed? What do you think?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Recreating Sherlock and Having Fun With It.

By Vicki Delany

Now that I’ve switched my focus from darker, grittier crime novels (standalones like More than Sorrow, the eight novels in the Constable Molly Smith series) to cozies, my only aim as a writer is to have fun with it.

And I’m having a lot of fun with the Sherlock Holmes Bookshops series, in which the third, The Cat of the Baskervilles, came out this week.



There isn’t much hotter in the world of popular culture today than Sherlock Holmes.  The continuing popularity of the original books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; the massive number of modern short story collections and pastiche novels; two TV series, several movies.

I’m a writer and I’m also a keen mystery reader. So when I was looking for inspiration for a new series, I thought a bookstore would be fun.  And then the idea popped into my head: A bookstore dedicated to Sherlock Holmes.

When I started to do some research on that, I quickly discovered it’s not such an unfeasible idea.  You could easily stock a store with nothing but Sherlock.  Not only things I mentioned above but all the stuff that goes with it: mugs, tea towels, games, puzzles, action figures, colouring books, cardboard cut-out figures. The list is just about endless. Throw in nonfiction works on Sir Arthur and his contemporaries, maybe a few books set in the “gaslight” era. And, presto, a fully stocked bookstore.


And thus was born the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium.   Because cozy lovers (and me) love food to go with their reading, I put Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room next door, run by her best friend Jayne Wilson.

Every book and every piece of merchandise sold in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium exists in the real world (with one exception as readers of Body on Baker Street will understand).  I haven’t read all the books I mention, and I’m not necessarily recommending them, but I enjoy dropping the names of books into the story as customers browse and shop and ask Gemma for suggestions: something suitable for a middle aged man laid up after falling off the roof; a book for a friend who loves historical mysteries; a YA with a female protagonist; even a hostess present for a hated mother-in-law!

My original intent when I began the series, was that the main character would be a normal cozy character. A nice young woman who owns an interesting bookshop, lives in a pleasant community (in this case, on Cape Cod), and has a circle of friends.

But, by the time I got to page 2, Gemma Doyle had become “sherlockian”.

And that’s been enormous fun to write. Gemma has the amazing memory (for things she wants to remember), and incredible observational skills, and a lightning fast mind.  She is also, shall we say, somewhat lacking on occasion in the finger points of social skills.  Jayne is ever-confused, but loyal.
Sometimes Gemma’s observations don’t go down well with a skeptical police officer:

“It was perfectly obvious,” I said. “I smelled flour, tea, and sugar the moment we came in. Those are normal scents in anyone’s house, but tonight they’re of a strength that indicates they’ve been recently dumped from their containers. Overlaid with the odor of rotting vegetables, by which I assume the fridge door has been left open. I keep meaning to eat that kale because it’s supposed to be healthy, but I really don’t care for it.
“We can also assume that our intruder is a nonsmoker and doesn’t apply perfume or aftershave regularly. Unfortunately, it hasn’t rained for several days, although the forecast did call for some, so they didn’t track mud into the house. The flour! An unforgiveable oversight on my part. You will, of course, want to take casts of footprints that have tracked through the spilled flour and sugar.”
“It didn’t get on the floor,” Estrada said. “But it’s all over the counter.”
“As the front door appears to be untampered with, and I don’t hand spare keys for my house to all and sundry, I’ll assume our intruder came in through the back door. Therefore the kitchen would be the logical first place to search.”
“Enough, Gemma,” Jayne whispered to me.
“I only want to point out the obvious facts.” I’ve been told on more than one occasion that some people don’t understand my attention to detail and thus misunderstand the conclusions I draw from it. I have tried to stop, but I might as well stop thinking. And this didn’t seem like a suitable time in which to stop thinking.
“The back door’s been forced open, yes,” Estrada said. “I’ll admit, that was a good guess.”
I was about to inform her that I never guess, but Jayne elbowed me in the ribs.

                                                                                Elementary, She Read by Vicki Delany

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, reimagined as modern young women just trying to get on with life.





Friday, February 16, 2018

Uncertain Endings


Three times lately I've read mysteries where the ending is up to my imagination. How everything turns out is entirely up to me.

The three books have one thing in common. I will never buy another book from these authors.

Seriously. Fuzzy endings are to be expected in most of The New Yorker short stories and a great many literary books. But when they occur in mysteries I feel betrayed. I don't think I'm unusual in this reaction. We're living in really uncertain times. It's as though we are required to realign our thinking on a daily basis.

Coping with the Orwellian nightmare thrust on us by politicians is bad enough, but we can't open the paper or click on our websites without another icon biting the dust.

I believe so many of the best-sellers right are mysteries because--usually--we know who the good guys are and blessedly, they know who the bad guys are. Villains are brought to justice. The world is aching for stories that draw a line between good and evil.

Recently a friend of mine--another writer--whose father had left at an early age said during an acceptance speech for an award that he learned what men were supposed to be like by watching old westerns when he was a little kid. He had no other role models.

Simplistic? Sentimental? Probably, but he could have done a lot worse. I adored the old Gunsmoke series. And how about the lovable bumbling Columbo who had an uncanny ability to smoke out evil-doers?

I realize that I'm confessing to a broad streak of immaturity, but I insist on proper endings. No one has to tell me the world exists in broad strokes of gray. I can put up with an unhappy ending if I must, but please, end the story.

Fairy tale touches still happen. People still do wonderful things. I read a newspaper article last week about a UPS driver who walked eleven miles to work every day. He was too ashamed to tell anyone he couldn't afford a vehicle. When his co-workers found out about it, they secretly started a fund to buy him a car. The unveiling and his expression of deep gratitude was posted all over the web.

People still care and cry and feel. My idea of an ideal ending was that of the men's snowboard competition at the Olympics and Shaun White's extraordinary display of emotion. For an instant we were allowed to view what was at stake internally after physically dedicating one's life to performing in a single event. For an instant we could participate in his joy and his embrasure of people who had made it all possible.

And this is the end of this post. In case you're wondering how it's all going to turn out in the long run, I'll be back in two weeks.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Little Voices Inside My Head

The little voice in the back of my head began whispering to me around page 200 of the novel I’m writing. I’ve heard the voice before, and like the other times, it began like a bad radio transmission: static muffling a cryptic message.

As always –– when I plant myself in front of the computer to compose, print the hard copy, read that with pencil in hand, and compose again –– the whisper isn’t so distant. Static fades. Eventually the whisper turns to a shout. Plot twists and turns come into view.

I grew up on a steady diet of Conan, Agatha, and detectives like Spenser and Kinsey. I experienced all kinds of plots, from the traditional mystery, to the intricate and complicated, to, dare I say, even the outlandish.

Plot, I’ve come to believe, is simply the natural sequence of events done by people whose personalities dictate said sequence.

Common sense? Of course. But I’m a genre writer (proud to be one, in fact), and even though I consider myself a character-driven writer, I know there’s an unspoken agreement between my reader and me. I’m tasked with having something to say about a contemporary issue, creating a characters you want to spend time with, and keeping you on the edge of your seat while we follow the story together to the end. These tasks are things I’m more likely to be aware of before I start a novel. When working on the book, the end game changes: I’m focused on telling the story as clearly and economically as I can.

So now, around 200 pages in, the little voice is shouting: Would he say that so easily? Wouldn’t the suspect have acted differently? Should she say this?

Revision turns to rewriting. Revision, thanks to the whispers, is truly a re-envisioning of the work. I'm adding scenes and rewriting to make suspects better drawn and clarify the logic behind the sequence of events.

Because of this, composition rarely feels like forward progress. Rather, reclining on my sofa, manuscript pages on my clipboard, pencil cutting words, adding words, drawing arrows, the voice becomes louder and writing becomes clearer and more focused. And I trust that the plot will come into light.

Sometimes, all it takes are the voices inside my head.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Happy Valentine's Day!


I’m taking a break from working on my book, which is due very, very soon, to wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day. My hero, Snoopy, does it better than I can so here’s a short video for you.


Last time you heard from me, I was in a sorry state, quite convinced that I was doomed. Things are looking brighter now. I had a bit of an epiphany regarding the last bit of the book, which I wasn’t terribly happy with. I’m not quite at the G&T stage, but I’m getting there.

I don’t have much else to say right now. I thought you’d enjoy this clip from the TV show “Mike and Molly”, one of the funniest ones on writing I’ve seen. Makes me laugh every time.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A SPECIAL special guest blogger: Deborah Atkinson returns!

I am thrilled to tell you that one of our former bloggers is returning today for a special appearance. If yours truly weren’t such a dunce, you would have been reading this on the first weekend of this month — but I got my dates wrong. So I am happily giving up my regular Tuesday spot to my good friend to bring you what I promise is something out of the ordinary for Type M. So take it away, Deborah!

Deborah Atkinson weaves the legends and folklore of Hawaii into suspense-filled contemporary crime fiction. Atkinson lives in Honolulu, Hawaii and is a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan, University of Iowa Writers’ Summer Workshop, and a recipient of the University of Hawaii’s Meryl Clark Award for Fiction. Her books include Primitive Secrets, which is the introduction to the Storm Kayama series, The Green Room, which was a Book Sense Notable pick, Fire Prayer, and Pleasing the Dead. Visit www.deborahatkinson.com for more information about her work.
 

Detour


Thanks, Rick, for asking me to be your guest blogger today. It’s great to be back among my mystery/suspense colleagues. I have missed you all!

Some of you know that the reason I have been missing from the mystery scene is because our family struggled with our younger son’s opiate addiction. It’s true that addiction is a family disease; the fear that he would overdose and die before he could overcome the incomprehensible pull of the drug ran our lives. Andrew has just passed his fourth birthday of sobriety and is doing well, and he has worked hard at it. You may already know that an opiate addict relapses an average of eleven times, and each relapse is life-threatening.

Though my mystery writing stalled, I wrote about our family’s struggle with Substance Use Disorder, hoping that what we learned along this long path (and it is long—much longer than the average 28-day treatment program) might help other families shorten their own roads to recovery. As I learned more about the problem, I realized how little most people know about it—including doctors and some “specialists.”

Recognizing a substance use disorder in a family member is difficult, and that is only the first step of a long journey. Even after you recognize the problem, where do you go next? And how to get your loved one to go along with the idea? He or she is in the deepest denial of all. There’s even a term for denial of a mental illness, anosognosia.
I collaborated with several addiction specialists on this book, which I’m calling Feathers in the Soul: A Guide for Families Struggling with a Child’s Addiction. It is complete and I’m looking for a publisher. I hope other people can learn from our experience and avoid some of our mistakes. Knowledge is how we as a culture and society will conquer this rampant scourge.

My favorite genre, though, remains mystery/suspense, and I am looking forward to returning to this group of down-to-earth, enthusiastic and erudite storytellers. Just so I didn’t get swallowed in the often-heartbreaking reality of addiction, I also wrote a thriller titled Impact Zone. It, too, is complete and looking for a good home.

Here’s a short synopsis. The protagonist, Hawaii native Rod Tautala, is in recovery. (Surprise!) But Rod’s real problem begins when an army buddy calls and announces that he’s mailed photographs from their time in Afghanistan. The package includes pictures of Rod’s older brother Cliff, who died there. Rod is leaving for Honolulu to visit his sick father and he asks his best friend, Sam, to pick up the package. The next day, Rod learns that Sam has been stabbed to death in front of Rod’s apartment. Stunned, Rod also finds himself guardian to Sam’s precocious and grieving sixteen-year-old daughter, Bahati, who pressures him to find her father’s murderer.

Rod and Bahati must return to Hawaii to uncover a scheme involving hundreds of millions in cash skimmed from the U.S. government during Rod’s tour in Afghanistan. (This part is based in reality.) Not only is Rod’s army buddy implicated, but Rod’s brother may also have been involved—and it looks like the helicopter crash that killed Cliff wasn’t an accident after all. Of course, a cadre of nasty killers within the U.S. government are hunting Rod and Bahati, who must overcome internal and external demons to survive.

Thanks again Rick, for asking me to guest blog. I hope to see you all in libraries, bookstores, online, and at mystery conferences. Read on!

Monday, February 12, 2018

To splash out or not to splash out?


This year here in Edinburgh, Scotland, we are celebrating the centenary one of our most famous novelists, Muriel Spark. In 2008 the Times newspaper named Spark as No. 8 in its list of "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945." She is possibly most well know for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. However, Spark is quoted as saying her favourite of all her novels is The Driver's Seat. The Driver's Seat involves a killing and is often referred to as a “whydunnit”, so I think I can legitimately sneak Spark into the Type M for Murder blog ;)



However, I'm not writing about Muriel because of her writing but because of her dress. You see, in 1951 and very early in Spark's writing career she entered a short story competition run by the Observer newspaper. She came first out of 6,700 entrants, including many from well-established writers. The win changed the course of her writing life. Now at this time she was also struggling financially. But instead of being sensible and using the very considerable prize money of £250 to pay her gas bill or buy food she treated herself to a very expensive, beautiful blue velvet dress and a complete set of Proust's 'A la Recherche du Temps Perdu'. I saw the very dress she bought this weekend in an exhibition about Muriel's life and writing at the National Library of Scotland. It is indeed a very lovely dress (as you can see from my photo). My question is this, was it a crime for her to have splashed out like this when she was so close to the breadline? What would you have done with the money – £250 is probably worth about £5500 in today's money? Would you have been sensible or splashed out on something special. If you had splashed out, what would you have bought?



I think, like Muriel, I may have treated myself to a posh new frock 😉

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Author Mike Martin on knowing when to let go

As our guest author this weekend, I am pleased to welcome friend and fellow Ottawa writer Mike Martin. Mike is the author of the gentle, atmospheric Sgt. Windflower mystery series set amid the rugged capes and whimsical villages of Newfoundland. There are six books in the series, the latest being A Tangled Web. The previous book, A Long Ways from Home, was shortlisted for the Bony Blithe Award as the best light mystery of the year. Take it away, Mike.



“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King’s advice to authors refers to our beloved characters and it’s true that most of us have trouble killing off our main players. But if that’s hard, how can we ever let go of a whole series? That’s one of the questions on my mind these days as I weave my way through Book 7, just barely dribbling out of the creative ooze, of my Sgt. Windflower Mystery Series.

Some people say that 3 books are enough in a series and others claim that there are no limits on how many books an author can pen in that type of medium. That the story only ends when the author dies. Like the alphabet ending at Y when Sue Grafton passed. But I have to admit that I had doubts while writing A Tangled Web, Book 6 in the series. Midway through I stopped, and I almost didn’t finish. But then another wave of something, I like to think of it as inspiration, came along and carried me over the finish line.

But when is the right time to let go? And is it just my decision to make? Once I create a character and a story line and put it out into the world, I think I have more obligations that my ‘egocentric little scribbler’s heart’. Maybe I owe something to readers who have committed to the series, and even to the characters themselves, as crazy as that sounds.

Loyal readers of a series are more than passionate bystanders. They are part of the process. Without them, the words on paper would have no life, no echo. Being a writer is like yelling down into the canyon. Without readers we are talking to ourselves about imaginary lives. They give our voices resonance and make the stories real. Because they are to them. So, however I decide to stop writing this series, at Book 7 or 11, I have to think about them.



And the characters. Our precious darlings. I know that some writers, famous and infamous, have just dropped them because they were bored or tired or wanted to do something more exciting. Maybe I’m old-fashioned but that sounds to me like giving up your long-term spouse for something younger, flashier. It doesn’t feel right. I have no idea how to consult my characters about leaving them behind, but I’m prepared to at least listen and let my conscience guide me.
 
Finally, I believe that if I am too old, or too tired, or if my writing dulls, I hope that my beta readers will tell me that I have reached the end of this series. If I return to the same crime or the same set-up, motive or start to mirror past stories, I think they will tell me. I also think I’ll know myself. We all want to write forever. That is what we do. But maybe it will be time to do something else, to test the boundaries of the written page. To find new adventures. Or just quietly let the characters and the series fade to black.
 
There is ‘a tide in the affairs of men’, as Sgt. Windflower might quote the Bard. But so too is there a tide in the life of a series. Knowing when to sail or to stay in port may be our greatest challenge. As you might have guessed, I have many more questions than answers. What do you think? When is the right time to suspend or even cease a series? 
 
To learn more, check out Mike's website at sgtwindflowermysteries.com.

Friday, February 09, 2018

What I Learned About My First Book

I'm about to complete a tedious project. I thought it would take a few days. With interruptions to do other necessary tasks, it has taken two months. But what I've learned has been both eye-opening and rewarding.

I mentioned at the end of last year that a new publisher was about to re-issue my Lizzie Stuart series in both e-books and print. I was really excited when I saw the new cover and then the first book in the series, Death's Favorite Child, was available on Amazon.  And then we hit a glitch. I looked at the excerpt on Amazon and discovered typos that had occurred in the process. I contacted my new publisher. He asked me to send him the list of typos so that he could contact the company that had handled the conversion process. When he saw how many errors were in the excerpt, he decided the book needed to be redone.

Good news, the publisher really cared about the quality of what we were offering readers. I offered to proofread. That was when the publisher explained that the process worked best if we could use a Word manuscript. Even better news when I found the original manuscript -- and even though the book had been done in Word circa 2000, I was able to upgrade.

Minor bad news when I discovered that the upgrade had converted all the opening quotation marks to "A" and that apostrophes had also changed to another symbol. The apostrophes could be fixed with a change and replace. The quotation marks had to be done by hand. Still not a problem.

But then I hit the major "ouch". I discovered that the manuscript was missing the last chapter. That was when I realized that the only version I could find on a CD was the last draft. This was the version that I had sent out to my beta reader who had been with me in Cornwall, England when I was doing the research for the book. Our meet-up vacation as she and her son were en route to her academic fellowship had inspired the book that I had written as a "writing exercise." She had read the manuscript and liked it--except for the last chapter. She had been unhappy that nothing had happened at the end between Lizzie Stuart, my criminal justice professor, who was vacationing with her friend, Tess Alvarez, a travel writer, and John Quinn, the Philadelphia police detective. I had added a final chapter to deal with that and to set myself up for the next book.

And there was going to be a next book because opportunity had come in the form of a tip from a friend about a new imprint, and I had sold a book that I had written when all I'd intended to do was try my hand at moving my characters from another book to a new setting. Fast, forward to 2017, and my discovery that this was not only the unedited manuscript on the CD, but my next to last version.

That's where the tedious came in. I have been reading and correcting the Word manuscript with the published book in hand. The amazing part is that aside from revisions I seem to have made in the final version to add to the book, the three rounds of editing the book went through were about my writing quirks. My excellent editor had made my writing better, but not tampered with the plot.

Reading every word of my first published book left me feeling pretty good. Death's Favorite Child was the fourth book I had written--counting the two romantic suspense novels I had written years earlier and my first mystery that was intended to be the first in the Lizzie Stuart series (and eventually became the much revised second book set back home in Gallagher, Virginia). I could see the rewards of having spent four years when I thought I was only spinning my wheels as I wrote and revised what I thought would be my first book in the series. I had known Lizzie by the time we got to Cornwall. I could hear her voice in my head.

And -- having no expectation at all that the Cornwall book would ever be published -- I had given myself the liberty to write exactly the kind of book I would like to read. I had written a book that was my take on an Agatha Christie mystery with an African American female sleuth and a diverse cast of characters -- from a Philadelphia homicide detective who was dealing with a "bad year" to an famous artist, who was a lesbian who challenged stereotypes to a Southern-born teenager who walked in and set a pivotal twist in motion.

What did I learn?  That there were some things I got right in that first book. I also rediscovered a minor character who is now going to make a return as the catalyst for a short story that I promised to write for an anthology. Sometimes even a tedious task can yield unexpected rewards.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Set to Launch and Reading Reviews



My newest Alafair Tucker novel, Forty Dead Men, has finally been released into the world—at last! It seems to me that this book was a LONG time coming. I turned in the final revised manuscript months ago. A few years back I went to a book launch for a novel that was number 12 in a series, and the author said he was currently working on number 14 and could hardly remember what number 12 was about! I’m not that bad, but I have moved on and sometimes have to remind myself that such and such an event happened in this novel and not that one.

I’ve been gearing up for the personal appearances that go with a launch. This always entails a new outfit and a new hair color. I always plan on it entailing a 20 pound weight loss as well, but as yet that goal has never been accomplished.

Forty Dead Men has been released both in paper and as an ebook. If you would like to check it out, I invite you to breeze over to my website where I have have posted the first couple of chapters. I hope you will find yourself intrigued. This week Barnes & Noble has chosen to feature Forty Dead Men on the first page of B&N Press Presents.

The early reviews have been excellent, I am happy to say. I don’t read my reviews as religiously as I did early in my writing career. I like it when the review strokes my ego. I try not to let it bother me if someone is less than enthusiastic. Of course, having said that, I can get dozens of five star reviews and one three star review and the less effusive one is the one I remember. I think that reviews tell me quite a bit about the reviewer. In fact, they may tell me more about the reviewer than they do the book itself.

Readers will often love something about your writing that you never anticipated. They’ll make connections that you didn’t even realize you had put in there, or attribute something to a character’s motives that you didn’t mean AT ALL. Still, once a book is published it isn’t yours any more, it’s the reader’s, so you can’t really complain. (Well, you can, but you shouldn’t) Sometimes reviews are on the nose. A review of one of my early books said, “The writing style is humorous, and odd.”  That pretty much summarizes my view of humankind. All it’s members are very humorous and odd.  That includes reviewers.

My official book launch will be in a couple of weeks. It won’t be a media event, but it’ll be fun and I hope you’ll come if you’re in the area. Here’s your invitation:

Please join me for the launch of my tenth Alafair Tucker Mystery, 
Forty Dead Men
 February 24, 2:00 p.m. at Poisoned Pen Bookstore,
1404 N. Goldwater Blvd, Suite 101, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
I’ll be joined by authors Dennis Palumbo and Priscilla Royal, and Dana Stabenow will join us for a tribute to the late, much beloved Frederick Ramsay.
Please come.

Forty Dead Men is a tragic, bittersweet story of a returning veteran and PTSD. While there’s a mystery, the story actually revolves around Gee Dub. Even if you haven’t read the previous Alafair Tucker mysteries, you can pick up this book. And, if you’re a fan of the Ian Rutledge mysteries, you might want to meet another veteran of World War I. Lesa’s Book Critiques, February 5, 2018

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Confronting dull as dust

More thoughts on Sybil's and Aline's posts, both of which resonate so vividly with us all. It's so nice to feel we writers are not alone in our madness.

I have a twist to add to Aline's seven stages of writing. In my case, the desperation stage usually hits when I realize not only do I not have enough plot thrills and twists to fill 300+ pages, but the 64 pages I have written are as dull as dust.


I write two different types of books – my Rapid Reads novellas which are about 20,000 words, and my regular mystery novels, typically 90,000. The Rapid Reads have several constraints, including a linear storyline with no flashbacks or subplots, and a limited number of characters. I suspect we all cheat a bit on the subplot bit; they are, after all, often an integral part of the main plot.

Writing my full-length mysteries, I used to be a pure pantser writer, putting pen to paper as soon as I had the opening scene in mind and moving forward as each next scene came to me. Hence I never had an idea where I was going, how long it would take, and where I would land up. Everyone who writes this way knows how terrifying it can be. Periods of desperation, inspiration, and elation oscillate throughout the whole first draft. As I've evolved into more complex plots with several points of view, intersecting storylines and flashbacks, however, I've discovered that flying purely by the seat of my pants doesn't work too well; I need to keep track of where things are going and make sure the different storylines mesh. So I have developed a hybrid pantser/plotter style. I still don't know where the whole thing is going nor where it will end up, but I can see a half dozen scenes ahead and know what needs to come next.

I credit this change to my Rapid Reads experience. Because in the beginning, the publisher required a detailed chapter outline before sending the contract, I learned to think the story through from beginning to end, with each step along the way. I didn't enjoy it, but I discovered with a linear, 20,000 story, it was fairly easy to do. And it does make writing that first draft a much smoother, less terrifying process.

This is where the "desperation because this story is dull as dust" problem rears its head, however. What looked in the outline to be enough story to fill 20,000 pages turned out to be plodding and flat. Outlines do not give you the sense of drama that is needed to sustain interest. "And then he talked to the police and learned..." looks as if it should fill a chapter, but much more conflict is needed. Not just obvious, simple conflicts, like the cop doesn't want to talk to him, or the cop is dating his ex-wife, but an unexpected twist that adds a new dimension to the story and often takes it on another path entirely. Which is why I never liked outlines in the first place. Inspiration comes to me when I am deep in the scene, when a character says or does something, and I think "ahah! that's a way cooler idea!"

I am at that stage in my current Rapid Reads project. Halfway through, and aware that I need something to spice it up. The joke among crime writers is this is where you drop another body down the chimney, or send a woman through the door with a gun. But merely adding random twists will not always make a book more intriguing – we've all read books where we rolled our eyes and said "oh not another car chase, or explosion, or even dead body." The truly great twists come out of the story that came before and affect the characters on a powerful personal level. They need to deepen the tension, raise the suspense, and confound the characters as well as the readers.


A neat trick. Finding that perfect twist is the challenge of this "dull as dust" stage. I fret and argue and reread and ask "What if? What else? What is the worst that can happen?" And sometimes I just carry on, hoping the inspiration will fall into my lap somewhere down the line. Sometimes it only comes during the rewrites. All I can do is hope that eventually it does. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Writing to a target

by Rick Blechta

I’ve been working on my next fictional foray for far too long now. Yeah, there are some excellent extenuating circumstances involved, but the fact is I really want to get on with this, get to the end of the novel and then sit back and see what I’ve got.

Several years ago while in Italy scouting locations for my most recently published full-length novel, Roses for a Diva, I saw Michelangelo’s final (unfinished) works, the Florentine Pietà. Everything is roughed out fairly well (the figure of Christ seems to be nearly finished), but the work is not by any means completed.

This is the way I now view a completed first draft. Everything is there (generally) but it’s all very coarse. Those polishing edits are still very much needed.

I want to get to that point with my current ms!

Thing is I’m also laying the foundation for a (hoped for) series and there’s a lot of spadework involved to set things up properly. There are very few relationships that are ongoing at the beginning of the story — especially between the two protagonists. So I have to include a good dose of context and information.

What I realize now is that I’m faced with having a novel that could be too long for most publishers. Working on my side: it’s a thriller (which tend to be longer than most crime novels), plus it’s a political thriller (allowed to be even longer it seems). Working against me: I don’t see how I can tell my story in fewer than 100,000 words.

All that being said, the editing process allows me the opportunity to whittle things down, chip away at my “sculpture”, polishing and refining it in much the same way Michelangelo would have done had he finished his work. I’d prefer to keep my ms to 100,000 words more or less, but at the rate I’m piling up the verbiage, that could become a tall order to tell my story effectively.

Time will tell.

Does anyone else out there have trouble keeping their mss to an appropriate length for publishing norms or am I a (verbose) exception?

For readers, do you have problems with longer novels or does good quality writing — something that’s first and foremost in my mind, believe me — enough to keep you going in longer stories?
___________________

Interesting sidebar: You'll notice the older man holding up the body of Christ in the sculpture. That’s Michelangelo who included himself in the work. So we have a very clear idea of what this famous artist looked like at the end of his life.

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Seven Stages of Writing a Novel

It was Sybil's post the other day, talking about the stage we all know  - that crisis of confidence we get near the end of a book and suddenly start panicking about the approaching deadline when no ending appears to be in sight - that got me thinking about all the different stages on the way through - seven, I reckon.

1.  Inspiration.
This is the good bit.  This is the time when your head is teeming with ideas, so many that you can't write fast enough to get them on to the screen.  Your characters spring to life, the plot sweeps them along and you just know this is the best book you're ever going to write.

2. Deflation.
What Ian Rankin described as  the 'page 64' problem kicks in.  All those fantastic ideas that were going to fill a whole book have been worked through and it's still only, yes, page 64.  Now you have to find more ideas to take you through the next 235.  At least.

3.  Perspiration
This is what separates the writers from the people who think it must be lovely to write a book.  This is when you grit your teeth, sit at your desk and graft and graft until the whole thing starts to take shape in your hands. By way of reward, you do occasionally get spells when the story takes over and again your fingers are flying across the keys.  This is the addictive bit, the cruelly seductive charm of creative writing - cruel, because the next stage is

4. Trepidation
You pause to reread what you've written and suddenly you're not sure it's working as well as you had thought it was. Or at all.  Indeed, maybe you should never have started this book. You had other ideas at the time - why did you decide on this one? You're now frightened that you have wasted months - months! - of your life that you will never get back.

5. Desperation
And the deadline is approaching so you haven't time to scrap it and start over, but you have no idea how you're going to bring this wretched thing to any sort of conclusion, let alone the sort that leaves the reader immediately clicking on Amazon to find another one.   Putting a wet cloth round your head, you read it again and again till two in the morning - and then you discover the meaning of the phrase 'the inspiration born of desperation'. There are two or three things you see now that you can do that would help a bit - actually, quite a lot, and they're not even very radical.

6.Elation
You've cracked it!  There will be a book after all!  You're racing to the finish line, and everything is falling into place.  There!  And now you can type the beautiful words, 'The End.'  And maybe it isn't quite as amazing as it was in your mind before you actually started to write it, but still you know you've done a good job.

7. Consumption

Champagne, if you like, though personally, I find a really stiff gin and tonic hits the spot more precisely. And after a couple of those you'll forget that any minute now you're going to have to start another one.  Still, you've got a couple of brilliant ideas for it already...   

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Chopping Wood

I came up as a newspaperman, covering meetings, scribbling in a narrow notepad (I still carry one with me), and printing out stories to edit with a pencil before the final submission. The hard copy was often flooded with annotations, slashed words, arrows, and my cryptic block letters. This was how I learned to revise –– from a burly, bearded, redhead at the city desk of the Dunkirk Observer. He took one of my early stories and slashed, drew lines to indicate relocation, and simplified, then handed it back with a simple, “Get it?”

Got it.

And, after a few weeks, I realized how it should be done. That was 1991. I was working nights at the Observer during my junior year in college, spending days as an English major who rarely left the newsroom at my college paper.

The process was simple: write, print, stack the pages on a clipboard, sit down with my pencil, and “chop the wood,” as Clyde Phillips told me recently, describing revision. “Keep chopping that wood.”

For a while, I put down the ax.

Maybe I didn’t put it down so much as I replaced it. With a computer. Moving and deleting became so much faster, and time is everything in the news business. And moving text could be done with a click of the mouse. Why draw lines and arrows? After all, it takes me an hour to go through 20 manuscript pages with my trusted pencil.

But that’s the thing, it’s trusted for a reason. The process of revising on hard copy yields better results. For me.

Why? Not sure, exactly. Maybe it’s no more real than a paper vs. plastic preference. Maybe it’s psychological, a mental preference of a neurotic writer. But I don’t think so. My prose is better –– clearer, more refined, cleaner, and more sparse –– when I work on the hard copy.

My clipboard is the chopping block, and I’ll continue to whittle away.