Thursday, April 25, 2019

Plot Points

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits of outlining a novel before you begin writing. I’m still plugging away at it, and, having moved scenes and added and eliminated characters, I’m more committed to outlining than before.

To outline or not to outline? According to The Writing Cooperative website, Joyce Carol Oates claims, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” And Ernest Hemingway said, “Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.”

It’s hard to argue with either of these two writers, and one of the major takeaways I have from this experience is that outlining allows me to see the story arc from thirty thousand feet. As the story takes shape, I can view the beginning, middle, and end and make decisions. For instance, I have made major plot revisions –– adding a backstory to clarify a major character’s motivation and cutting another character out completely –– before I begin writing.

In the past, I have written novels the way one drives at night –– writing “to the end of my headlights.” That is, writing each scene based on the scene that preceded it, and making plot decisions based on the previous scene and my instincts, guided by what I know about the character. This is an exciting way to write. The adage “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” can be fitting. I wrote This One Day (as K.A. Delaney) that way. I didn’t know how the book would end until I was thirty pages from the conclusion. And it was terrifying.

More recently, I pulled a hundred pages from the draft of a novel and eliminated an entire secondary plotline. Both revisions cost me months –– months that, given my day job (I’m a boarding school teacher, dorm head, department chair, and coach), amounts to large chunks of time that I simply don’t have to waste.

But opinions vary, and Stephen King says, “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

I’d love to hear what my Type M friends say on the matter.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Changing Agatha

I’m heading to Malice Domestic next week so my thoughts turned to Agatha Christie and the new version of “The ABC Murders” available on Amazon. I usually jump at the chance to watch every new screen version of an Agatha Christie story, but I wasn’t too sure about this one. I’d heard things.

I finally decided I needed to check it out myself and come to my own conclusions. I liked it much better than I thought I would.

From the beginning it seems un-Christie-like. Everything’s darker, everything seems more extreme from the portrayal of English society to Poirot and some of the other characters. Then there’s the scenes with sexual overtones that don’t exist in the books and add nothing to the story, at least as far as I’m concerned.

In the book (you know I reread the book right after I saw the screen version, right?), Poirot is at the top of his game, enjoying his “retirement”, still working cases and working with Scotland Yard. Hastings is there and so is Japp, though the main Scotland Yard detective on the case is a younger man, Crome, who isn’t all that enamored with Poirot.

In this new version, Poirot has been disgraced. Japp is no longer at Scotland Yard. Hastings is nowhere to be found. The Yard no longer considers Poirot an asset and the public basically hates him. Crome is there, but his character is more amped up. He’s very very anti-Poirot.

Both stories are set in the 1930s, though in slightly different years. In the screen version, England is definitely anti-immigration. People protest about immigrants, there are posters on the wall denouncing them and people wear pins indicating they dislike foreigners. In none of Dame Agatha’s books, as least as far as I can remember, was anti-foreigner sentiment so much in the foreground. Someone might comment on Poirot being a foreigner, but it’s so slight it’s nothing.

And then there’s the portrayal of Poirot himself. John Malkovich does a fine job, but it's not the Poirot I'm used to. He’s taller, more melancholy and less fussy. He also seems a little lost and friendless. One of the subplots delves into Poirot’s background before he came to England in 1914, something which I don’t remember Christie talking about much. What’s revealed in the story is quite different than anything I expected. At least they didn’t change whodunit. The basic story line is also similar though some characters have been changed and scenes both added and deleted.

I don’t expect screen versions to always adhere to every detail of a story. Sometimes, what works for a book doesn’t work for a movie/TV show and vice versa. I’ve even liked some screen versions better. But, when it comes to Christie, I really prefer them to stay as close as possible to her story.

That’s why I prefer the David Suchet version, which is pretty close to the book, though not in every detail. Still, I think this new version is worth watching.

That brings me to today’s question: What do you think about screen versions that change characters and storylines from the original book? Yay? Nay? Depends? I’m in the depends camp.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Floundering in the book promotion world

by Rick Blechta

I was buttonholed this past week by an author who has her first book coming up for release in June. She was thrilled to meet a real live “published author” and immediately began peppering me with questions, all of which were about promotion.

She’d gotten a one-page PDF from her publisher about what she could do to promote her book. It also included a questionnaire basically asking what she’d already done. Did she have a website? Was she on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc? Was she a member of a group that would buy her book? Could she think of alternative places to sell her book? Did she know any broadcasters or media people? And so on.

The poor thing was completely confused and stumped about how to do all these things. She’d first told her publicist this and was (nicely) told that with so many authors to promote, there wasn’t time to hold her hand. “Ask another author for help.”

And then I came along.

First of all, when I’d heard her tale of woe, I was annoyed at the publicist. So it’s expected that other authors will help out? Come on!

But I also felt very bad for this nice lady, and couldn’t bring myself to turn my back on her. She was pretty darned desperate.

She’s not too computer savvy, but her daughter and granddaughter are. She knew how to search for things on the Internet, so we talked about that. “There’s a lot of free help out there. You just have to find it. It will take time to get good at searches, but you’re smart. You’ll get the hang of it.” If we’d had a computer handy, I’d have done a bit of quick work to get her started.

For the website, I suggested one of the sites that offers good, ready-made templates and great customer support. “Maybe your granddaughter could help you design something simple. You don’t need a complicated site.”

She was on Facebook, but only sporadically used it to find former classmates, childhood friends and the like. You need an author page.

After nearly an hour-and-a-half, I felt as if I’d barely scratched the surface of author self-promotion. I did have to extricate myself from the situation because I could have spent a week showing her the ins and outs, but at least I’d given her a small box of “tools” with which she could start off.

Now, this is not an isolated case. There are lots of authors, new and old, who desperately need help in this regard. I’ve never heard of a publisher who gives much help, and honestly, they really don’t have the time to help authors through this quagmire. But they also should be able to point their authors in viable directions. After all, the publisher will benefit from the sale of every book, too.

The Internet is a good source of help, but there is a hell of a lot of information out there. It would take multiple hours to wade through — and in the end you wouldn’t know what is good advice and what is bad.

She could always hire professional book publicist to help, but there are a lot of sharks in those waters and I felt obliged to warn her away from that unless she got personal recommendations. Since she doesn’t know any other authors, that’s not likely to happen. I don’t know anyone and I got horribly burned in this regard several years ago.

Does anyone out there know a source of good, reliable information on the Internet or in a book to help my new friend out? Suggestions will be gratefully received and passed on immediately.


Monday, April 22, 2019

Life Balance

In addition to having written three novels (the third, Graveyard Bay is scheduled to be released in September), I have a day job.  I’m the president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce here on the Crystal Coast.  It’s a fantastic gig.  I’m the cheerleader for one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In itself, that’s a full-time job but additionally, I sit on numerous boards (economic development, public school foundation, transportation committee, downtown development, juvenile crime prevention, etc.).  On top of that, this year I’m the president of the Business Alliance Protecting the Atlantic Coast, BAPAC,  an organization representing 42,000 businesses and 500,000 commercial fishing families from Maine to Florida.  This group is dedicated to doing what its name says,  protecting the Atlantic Coast, primarily from offshore oil and gas drilling and seismic testing.

When do I get a chance to write?

Sometimes early in the morning, even before the coffee is brewed, I might be jotting a few thoughts down.  At lunch, while I’m wolfing down a chicken salad sandwich at my desk, I’ll knock out a few sentences or rewrite a paragraph.  After work, before I start making dinner, I’ll hammer out a page or two.

Where I do the bulk of the writing is on weekends.  Before my wife is up, I’ll walk down to the ocean, then come back and work out.  Then, I always have breakfast with Cindy while we read the multiple newspapers we get on weekends.  Yes, we still enjoy getting newspapers delivered to the curb and spending time with them at the breakfast table.  And we always find something interesting to talk about.

Then I’ll go upstairs to my office over the garage, dither for a while on the internet, look at my watch and figure I’ve wasted enough time.  I turn on some ambient music and begin work in earnest.

A balancing act.

Luckily, my three children are grown.  I don’t have to drive them to soccer practice, or help them with their homework, or take them to the park or the beach.  More time for me to write.

Unluckily, my grown children and my grandchildren are a long way from where we live. I would love to see them more often.  But the fact that they’re not here gives me more time to write.

I take time for the things I enjoy doing.  I love reading (I’m nearly finished with Don Winslow’s The Border, a 720 page thriller I can't seem to put down), and I do all the cooking.  Something else I love.

Cindy and I make certain that we spend time together and with friends, we watch movies on HBO and Netflix together, and every couple of weeks, we go out for dinner.  This part of North Carolina has some world class restaurants. And being the president of the chamber of commerce, we’re often invited to events on weekends, most of them revolving around food.  It’s a wonder that I don't weigh 300 lbs.

 Writing is a solitary adventure, but life is meant to be lived with the people you love.

Knowing that this is Easter weekend and my wife’s birthday, this blog will be blessedly short. My advice is this: write when you can but always stop and smell those flowers.  It’s springtime here, and in our little patch of the world, the flowers are spectacular.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Places Remembered

I've been thinking about setting -- particularly in the wake of the fire at Notre Dame. I was in Paris for the second time a few years ago. That time around I was traveling with my aunt and we were visiting her son and his family. We traveled from the house they had bought in Normandy to Paris. At the time I was looking ahead, scouting out the setting for a future book in my Lizzie Stuart series. I was already planning to send Lizzie and John Quinn to France on their honeymoon.

Lizzie, my history nerd, would walk through Paris with guidebook in hand. How could she not have gone to Notre Dame? Undoubtedly a scene would have happened there. Maybe she would have seen someone or heard something. Maybe had a glimpse of another character I already know will appear in that book.

That book isn't the next in the series, but the one after. I've been debating France, but it is the destination I've always had in mind if Lizzie and Quinn make it to the altar. I've also recently considered Ireland because of Quinn's family ties. But if they should go to Paris, I need to make a choice. The series is in the recent past. The honeymoon would happen during the first week of January 2005. So what about Notre Dame?  How does one handle a setting that has changed in an event that was deeply emotional for many people?

This gets to the larger question of recovering the past. As my fellow Type-Mers have discussed, setting is important. I, too, spend time in the field, exploring the places where my books and short stories are set. It is disconcerting to discover how much real-life settings change. This is less of an issue writing in the recent past or near future. Enough is there to have a sense of how it once looked or will look in an imagined future. But when the setting has only a marker and the surrounding area has changed, one is left only with photos.

I need to go to the site of the 1939 New York World's Fair. Knowing how little remains from the fair, I haven't rushed to make the pilgrimage. But I will eventually. Standing there, with map and photo book, I hope I will be able to get the "lay of the land".

And if  Lizzie goes to Notre Dame in 2005, I'll need to figure out how to treat the tragedy of the fire with respect while being true to what she would have seen and commented on.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Books to Get You Through Hard Times

Last Saturday here on Type M, Vicki wrote about finding good books to read on a long airplane flight. This put me in mind of all the books that have gotten me through hours of waiting to hear the outcome of some operation or another that my husband was undergoing. Therefore, Dear Reader, allow me to offer my own list of Books to Take Your Mind off of Your Troubles for A Little While.

One of the books I suggested for Vicki's plane trip was Rhys Bowen's The Victory Garden, which I had just finished reading in a surgery center waiting room while my husband was having his eye operated upon.* The Victory Garden is a stand-alone set in Britain during World War I and featuring a young woman who volunteers to become a “land girl”, one of the women who worked on the farms while the men were fighting. She ends up tending a traditional herb garden on a large Devonshire estate and nursing the local villagers through the influenza pandemic of 1918. One of my own novels, The Return of the Raven Mocker, set in rural Oklahoma during the pandemic, also dealt with traditional healing and the way women supported one another through tragedy. It was a lovely, uplifting tale to read, especially needed at the time.

I don't remember every book I've read to get me through waiting/recovery/long days and nights beside a hospital bed, but there are a few that stand out: Deborah Atkinson's Fire Prayer, her third Storm Kayama novel, set on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, got me through the first of Don's bowel resections in 2012. Vicki Delany's More Than Sorrow, a beautifully written tale about the wounds of war, past and present, got me through the second bowel resection in 2013.

Long, involved historical series like Colleen McCullough’s five book series on the end of the Roman Republic, the first of which was The Grass Crown, and Laura Jo Rowland’s series set in 17th Century Japan (The Perfumed Sleeve is one of the titles), and her Samuri detective/chancellor/family man Ichiro Sano, have lightened my life during heart surgeries, kidney procedures, blood transfusions, wound infections, broken bones, and long periods of recovery.

One of my favorite discoveries happened during the worst of the health crises, back in 2009, when all this folderol started with a near-death and long long hospitalization. A friend of mine visited us in the hospital and brought me a honking fat book that she said she loved. I had never heard of it. It was a fantasy novel called A Song of Ice and Fire, better known as Game of Thrones, Book One. Not my usual kind of thing at all, but I took it and thanked her. After she left I started reading it in a rather desultory fashion, but I was hooked in about three pages and ended up reading the entire 800 page book in a matter of days. It just goes to show you that you should never limit yourself to any one genre or theme when it comes to reading, beause good story telling transcends all that jazz.

So tell me, Dear Reader. What books have saved your sanity and gotten you through hard times? Your suggestion may help someone through a crisis!
*The eyeball stitches come out today (Thursday), thanks for asking.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

City vs. country

Aline's post on setting really resonated with me, as did Rick's ode to Notre Dame. I too spend weeks driving around the areas I am writing about, taking photos, dictating observations into my iPhone, and jotting notes at night. Stories take place in time and place, and the vibrancy of the story is directly related to the power of the setting. Settings are not mere backdrops; they evoke feelings - the fear of a dark forest, the excitement of a rushing river, the joy of a sunlit meadow, and the peace of loons on a lake. They can inspire awe. As Rick says, no one walks out of Notre Dame untouched by a sense of overwhelming awe.

Good writers use these feelings as a film director uses music - to wrap the reader in the full experience of the story. The setting can complement or contradict the mood of the story, but it always contributes an effect.

Granite islands in Georgian Bay

Aline makes an interesting point that rural settings may be more powerful in this regard because they are so closely linked to ever-changing nature. A concrete jungle is a concrete jungle, but meadows and forests change with the seasons, the time of day, and the weather. Having written a series set in the city (my Inspector Green series) and another mostly in the country (Amanda Doucette), I do find I am much more immersed in the rural settings. I think about the weather because it affects what the characters will be doing out on the land, how they will feel, and what trouble they might get into. I think about the specific terrain they are travelling through. The rocks they will trip over, the mud they will step in... I think about what the characters see, hear, and smell as they are moving through a scene. If I want the reader to be immersed in the story, I have to describe it for them.

Besides drawing the reader into the story, another interesting job of setting is to reveal character. Different characters notice different things, and what they notice tells a lot about them. For instance, Inspector Green grew up in the dusty back alleys of the inner city with little knowledge or appreciation of nature. He notices the drug deal going down on the corner and the homeless guy who's missing from his spot, but he wouldn't know the name of a bird or flower if his life depended on it. He would never stop to drink in the beauty of a sunset.

Cities have their own power to evoke feelings and atmosphere. Unraked leaves, razor trimmed hedges, peeling paint, gaping potholes, and spectacular peonies or azaleas are all details that evoke vivid impressions. Streets and neighbourhoods have their own smells and sounds too, from the balcony barbecue to the roaring dump truck, and characters react to them differently. Green would barely notice the belching exhaust of a passing bus, but he'd notice the smell of bagels freshly baked.

Each detail draws the reader in, enriches the story, and reveals character. But endless description stops a story dead, especially when the reader is racing toward the climax. The key is to capture a few unique, vivid details that will stand for the whole, much as a painter does when they confront a complex landscape. Choosing those details and cutting out the less powerful are crucial skills of good writing. Or usually re-writing. I often put down a bunch of possible details during the first draft and then pare them down to the most powerful during the second pass.

The hoodoos in the Alberta badlands

So city or country? Which is more complex? I think in the hands of a good writer, the possibilities of both are as endless as the details to be captured. Perhaps we have to work a little harder when writing rural settings because readers may be less familiar with them and have fewer memories of their own to help them become immersed in the scene. In that way, a high-rise is a high-rise and a belching bus is a belching bus, but if you've never been to the islands of Georgian Bay or the badlands of Alberta, you're going to need some help.