Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Back from several expeditions

Blechta once again at the controls.

I know this is going to date me pretty accurately, but I just attended my 40th anniversary high school reunion. Also part of that event was a musical tribute/fundraiser for classmate and great guitarist, Art Betker, who passed away last January after a battle with stomach cancer.

While the reunion was great, the concert was greater still (and attended by many of the same people). Several of the bands Art had played with over the years showed up, and the resulting 5-hour Rock/R&B/Jazz concert was really extraordinary. I was in charge of the final act, a 15-piece R&B band made up of some of the best musicians it’s been my pleasure to hear and interact with. Our set was comprised of arrangements of classic soul tunes Art really loved. To hear a 9-horn line rip into “Soul Man” or “Knock on Wood” in a small club can be rather overwhelming (Charles, you should have been there!), as much for the musicians as the audience. Even a week later, I’m still buzzing. All the hours spent on the song arrangements was certainly worthwhile — although I still regret we didn't have time to do “Cold Sweat”.

What does all this have to do with writing? Just this. In my more puckish moments, I have used old friends as major components in some of my books’ minor characters. They're always the sympathetic ones and almost all of "my subject" have read the books in which they appear. To date, not of them has recognized themselves — but others who know them have. I even pointed out to an old chum where he was in the book and that the character was “sort of” him. “I can’t see that at all,” he persisted, to which everyone listening (who had also read the book) said, “That person is so you!”

Okay, confession time everyone. I know you’ve all cribbed more from friends and acquaintances than you’ll admit to. Have they recognized themselves? And what has been the outcome?


The brass end of the horn line. And yes, that is a French horn, a first for this sort of music, I'm very sure.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Book Clubs and Adjectives

Vicki here on Monday. These pictures were taken at a book club I attended last week in Oakville, Ontario. The women of the club read Gold Digger and invited me to come and talk to them about the book. One of the women dressed the part, complete with antique cape with jet beading. I am in my Savoy Dance Hall Owner Hat. What a lot of fun, helped by the number of bottles of wine visible in the picture, and really interesting conversation.

In other news, my friend Julia visited me this weekend. We went to the wonderful Books and Company bookstore in Picton, where Julia was thrilled to find a copy of the just released The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. She is a big fan of Zafon and was eagerly awaiting the new book. If you can tell by advance press and book reviews, this book is going to be a big, big thing. Julia abandoned the book she was reading and dove right into the Zafton.

She read me a quote from page one:

Don Basilio was a forbidding-looking man with a bushy moustache who did not suffer fools and who subscribed to the theory that the liberal use of adverbs and adjectives was the mark of a pervert or someone with a vitamin deficiency.
Now who does that remind you of? Hint, refer post of June 15th titled “Stop that! She said angrily.”

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Cheese It -- The Cops! by Roberta Isleib

John here. I'd like to welcome Roberta Isleib and thank her for taking time from her busy schedule to join us. Roberta is a clinical psychologist who has had eight mysteries published with Berkley Prime Crime, most recently ASKING FOR MURDER. Her books and stories have been short-listed for Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards. She is the past president of National Sisters in Crime and is currently serving as the chair of the MWA Edgar best novel committee. She’s working on a standalone suspense novel called Married Seeking Married. Read more at http://www.robertaisleib.com

Cheese It—The Cops! By Roberta Isleib

I’ve never been tempted to write a police procedural. Despite a lack of personal experience with men in blue, I’ve always been a little afraid of the police. Besides, getting all those details nailed down looked like an awful lot of work. (Although I do have a very good friend who wrote a wonderful police procedural series and claims she made every bit of it up.)

With my amateur sleuth mysteries, I assumed I could finesse most of the police work details and concentrate on things I was more interested in, like psychology and golf. But as I wrote my first book, SIX STROKES UNDER, I realized I needed some specific local facts. In particular, if a murder occurred on the golf course just before a tournament began, would they cancel or postpone the event? A cancellation would ruin my story, so I had to know. Not seeing any way around it, I ferreted out who had jurisdiction of the area covering the Plantation Golf and Country Club and drove to the Sheriff’s office.

“I’m a writer,” I told the heavyset fellow who manned the front desk, “and I have a question.” I explained the scenario. Golf course. Dead body. Tournament. He looked at me blankly. A crackpot, I could imagine him thinking, but is she dangerous?

“There’s a law enforcement library in Orlando,” he finally said (3 hours away). “I’m sure you could find the answer there.” I left in a quiet huff and promptly wrote him into the book as Sheriff Tate, a “short, very sweaty man whose uniform barely stretched over the expansive girth of his stomach.”

I didn’t venture into another police station until my fourth book, set in Pinehurst, North Carolina. The experience couldn’t have been more different. I was shepherded through the department like a visiting dignitary—no detail was too minor for the friendly woman officer to explain. She was written into a book as well, as the stern but fair Officer Cutler in FAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. She attended my book launch in Pinehurst, dressed to kill, accompanied by other excited friends and relations who all purchased multiple copies of my book.

In the intervening books, I’ve consulted my husband’s golf buddy who’s a judge in Connecticut, surveyed mystery writer types with past lives in law enforcement, and read Lee Lofland’s excellent POLICE PROCEDURE AND INVESTIGATION. But the point came where I had to go back to the well: My work in progress features a detective as one of the main characters. He’s taken a job in my hometown (Madison, CT) as temporary director of public relations and training. We need public relations in Madison—for several years our local papers have been loaded with headlines like: “Police department requires intervention,” “Officers accused of consorting with prostitutes,” “Suit alleges retaliation, malice,” and “Commission receives charges against chief.”

With some trepidation, I made an appointment to meet with our acting Police Chief. After his secretary joked that they could arrange a night in a cell if I needed a realistic experience, he gallantly escorted me through the facilities. Then, joined by a member of our town’s police commission, we talked for an hour about the stresses of the job, the role of the commission, and even the emotionally hostile relationship in recent years between the department and the citizens. Now if I can’t make something interesting out of that, I’m not much of a writer.

Can I call you if I need to make bail?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Random Points

Donis does Saturday.

I had another one of those days in which my routine was all knocked into a cocked hat.  I had to be off about business ASAP after I got up, and wasn’t able to ease into my day in my usual leisurely manner.  I’m not complaining, because I think that the shake-up is good for me.  It’s not good for my brain to be in a rut.  However, I do very much miss it when I’m unable to do my crossword puzzle.  Usually, I get up, go through the usual beautification process, then make breakfast and spend a leisurely hour drinking coffee and working the crossword.  Afterwards, my brain is lubricated, I am overflowing with words, and raring to write.

John’s Thursday post did a wonderful job of showing the rewriting process.  His William Stafford quote about writer’s block being nothing more than not being able to lower your expectations is right on the money.  If you think you can’t move on until you perfect the sentence/scene/chapter you’re on, you are never going to finish. If you’re stuck, put something down, some reminder, or thought, a place-filler, or just a blank.  Those great philosophers, Click and Clack, The Tappet Brothers, once said that even Gandhi drove like a maniac when he was sixteen.  Allow me to modify that thought and say that even Shakespeare’s first draft looked like the dog’s dinner.  I live by this philosophy, especially lately, wherein I am not only not bringing my A game when I sit down to write, I’m not even up to my W game, half the time.  But you must plug on.  Later, you go back and make your sentence/scene/chapter better, as John illustrated. Then you go back and do it again. And again. I think that most authors are never really satisfied with what they’ve created.  As for me, I’ll tinker with a book until I absolutely have to turn it in for the last time.  Years after the book is published, I’ll find myself coming up with fresh ideas for a scene and wishing I could go back and work on it some more. 

I must say that I was quite intrigued by Charles’ post about the mental landscape.  I have always thought that one is very much affected by landscape, but I’ve never considered the idea that your very thinking patterns might be formed by the geography you grew up in. Which apparently they aren’t. However, I have observed that people are happier in some places than others, possibly due to where they grew up.  My husband was raised on the wide-open Great Plains, and becomes claustrophobic in  heavily wooded country. A friend from the Ozark Mountains once told me that she loves the woods.  She feels protected and secure in wooded country, and exposed and vulnerable on a treeless plain.  Many a city-raised person is disoriented in the wilderness, and vice-versa for someone who grew up in the country.  It’s what you’re familiar with, I suppose.  I read a piece in the newspaper several years ago about an unusually long period of sunshine in Iceland, which is normally has a cloud cover for some 300 days a year.  An interviewee said that the clear sky was nice at first, but after a week, she was beginning to feel nervous and unhappy.  I’m sure there is a story idea lurking in there somewhere.

One final word on character:  I’m currently reading a well-known book by a Very Famous Author.  The mystery is quite interesting, and the writing is excellent.  Very Famous Author really knows how to invoke a setting and construct a plot.  The characters are well drawn, but they are all so unpleasant that even though I’d really like to know how the story is going to turn out, I don’t know if I can finish the book.  I think I’m going to have to skim through just enough to get the gist and then read the end.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Mental Landscape

Charles here.

This “what comes first” thread has been stuck in my head for days now. You can read the posts below, but generally we’ve been saying that character comes before/is more important than plot. Vicki screwed us all up by pointing out that setting often drives her decisions to buy/read, and reminding us that setting often determines everything. A novel set in Manhattan will be different from one set in Manhattan, Kansas – the way people talk, how they get around, how their police departments operate. But is there more?

Her post got me thinking about a Human Geography course I used to teach. One of the geographic theories we covered was the now-discredited concept of geographical determinism, which claimed that how we perceive the world is shaped on the geography we grew up in. According to this theory, someone who grew up in an old village with winding roads and multiple streams not only sees the world differently than someone who grew up on wide open plains with right-angled roads set at even mile points, they actually think differently. Not just what they think about, but how they think about it. In a gross generalization, this theory suggested that people who grew up in the old village had their brains’ thinking patterns shaped by the winding-roads they walked on every day. Folks in this town would approach problem solving in a circuitous, roundabout way, deliberately considering all sorts of ‘wrong roads’ before they found the right one, comfortable with the ambiguity because they know that it would eventually get them where they’re going. For these folks, the phrase “You can’t get there from here” – a phrase often associated with the old, winding road towns in New England, makes perfect sense because it’s true. At the same time, folks who grew up on the Great Plains of central US and Canada – where roads are often aligned north/south-east/west and as dead-straight as a rifle shot – would approach problem solving in a more logical, practical, straight-ahead manner. Conversations with these folks would include long silences because, just like the roads, they know where the conversations were going without it having to be said.

I always liked teaching this theory because it was so easy to get students to accept it as fact – it just sounds logical and it plays into the stereotypes I’d set up for them. And I also loved it because it quickly fell apart when you did any real analysis. As the stereotypes revealed themselves to be just that and students noted all the anomalies and biases, the discussion on the theory became a much more meaningful discussion on the problems of subjectivity in the social sciences and what it means to know something and – wait for it – how you know you know. So, as a geographical theory that helps explain human behavior, geographical determinism is a bust.

But how about for writing fiction? As authors, how can we/do we/should we make use of this pseudo-science to create believable minor characters? It’s not accurate science, but does it open up ways of seeing characters that feel right, even if we know they are not? Or is any stereotyping off the mark and therefore not a reliable guide for writers? Students accepted the concept of geographical determinism when I presented it, only seeing the holes in it when I pointed them out. And be honest, there’s something innately appealing about the concept – it sottra makes sense that we learned to walk an idea through our heads the same way we learned to walk ourselves through the world.

I’ll admit it, I’ve taken us well off the topic we were discussing, looping around to try to tie it into writing one way or the other, even though, now that I’m done, it still makes little sense. But don’t blame me, blame where I grew up.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Breathing Life into a Dead-end Scene

This is about showing vs. telling, about making bad writing better, and about turning nothing into something.

You and I both know we should write every day, and hopefully we do our best to accomplish that. Writer’s block is nothing more than, as poet William Stafford said, writers who can’t “lower their expectations.” If you’re going to write every day, which is a necessity for most who write novel-length fiction, you’ll face many days when you don’t have your “A game.” So how can you work through those days and those drafts that seem to go nowhere? Below, I have written 103 words of fresh copy, a would-be opening paragraph that in its current state poses few if any interesting questions, grabs the reader with all the power of a dead-fish handshake, and makes no one, including the author, want to read on. But I will work with this scene and see if I can shape it into a potentially successful opening. I invite you to go along for the ride and take whatever you feel is useful from it.

She looked out the window, and saw the boy crossing the street alone. He was too young to cross that street by himself, she thought. His mother should be there. The sun was setting at 5:25 that Thursday afternoon. The boy was no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which was broken, the right sleeve torn. She sipped her tea and continued rocking, wondering if the sleeve had been torn by bullies and thinking, again, his mother should be walking him home as she once did with Jane, before the diagnosis, and long Jane was laid to rest.

Brutal. There is only one direction this scene can go. One sure-fire way to add tension is to change the tense.

She looks out the window, and sees the boy cross the street alone. He is too young to cross that street by himself, she thinks. His mother should be there. The sun is setting at 5:25 on Thursday afternoon. The boy is no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which is broken, the right sleeve torn. She sips her tea and continues rocking, wondering if the sleeve has been torn by bullies and thinking, again, his mother should be walking him home as she once did with Jane, before the diagnosis, and long Jane was laid to rest.

The opening sentences now pose several questions—always a goal I have when starting a story or novel. But the last lines are still flat. I’ll try playing with the syntax, shortening the sentences, and adding more tension by taking liberties with fragments.

The boy is crossing the street. Alone. Head down. Tiny sneakers shuffling through the snow. From where she sits, Maggie can see his breath coming in small puffs in the cold air. Too young to cross that street by himself. Where is his mother? It is nearly dark at 5:25 Thursday afternoon. She thinks of Jane, before her diagnosis, much before all that followed. The boy is no older than seven, wearing a worn winter coat, the zipper of which is broken, the right sleeve torn. She sips her tea. Rocks slowly. Thinking. Jane? Jane? Did bullies tear the boy’s sleeve? Where is his mother? She’d been there for Jane, although it didn’t matter. The disease was the ultimate bully. Rocking slowly, the teacup begins to tremble. The realization made her stop: This boy’s mother doesn’t deserve him. The next realization was the one that made her set her teacup on the windowsill and stand. There is an empty bedroom downstairs. The rag. The ether. She will save this boy. She knows she must.

Still rough around the edges, but I can work with this. Most importantly, I want to work with this now. The old lady has come alive. She’s creepy now, and she offers me lots of questions to examine during the writing process. What was her relationship with Jane? Does she feel guilty about Jane’s death? What will she do when she gets the boy? Are the bullies only imagined? Did you notice that I never explicitly offered Maggie’s age, but rather, I gave details (including a name) that I hoped would resonate?

How far will this story go? No way to know until I really delve into it, but now the story is there. I have a character ready and able to lead me someplace interesting. Most importantly, I’ve turned nothing into something, which is the goal of every writing session.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Character vs. Plot? Or something else.

Vicki here, with 0.02 cents to add to the great debate.

It’s like Coke vs. Pepsi or Betty vs. Veronica or Kirk vs. Spock. The endless argument about which one is better: Character or plot. I come down hard on the character side, but I’d like to throw in a third option: Setting.

I have been known to choose books because of their setting, and only because of the setting. For example, that is how I first came to Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series, because I am interested in the far north. When I heard that Debby’s book, Fire Prayer, is set on Molokai, the most “Hawaiian” of the islands, I snapped it up and was not disappointed. I love wilderness and small town settings, probably because I like wilderness and small towns in real life. I love the quirky, modern British books set in towns and the countryside, such as those of Aline Templeton and Stuart Pawson.

Personally, I almost never read a book set in a big city. I’ve never considered why before. Perhaps because I find that most big cities are pretty much the same, and I don’t want to be in a city in my real life, so why would I go there in my fictional life? Exceptions? Sure. I have just finished 74 Miles Away by my Prince Edward County fellow author J.D. Carpenter. Great book, and I enjoyed it despite the fact that it is set in Toronto (although it does have a small scene in the County.) J.D. is working on a new book that is set in the County and I can’t wait for that one. Rick’s books are mostly set in Toronto, but I make an exception for his because the characters are always so wonderful. I wonder if Rick’s books could be called “Music-based”. Does anyone pick up Case of You and say “Oh, yeah. A book with jazz musicians. I’m in.”

Anything other than character/setting/plot? On a panel at Left Coast Crime someone told me her book was ‘background’ based. That was a new one. What she meant is that the most important thing in the book is the backstory. The excellent Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley might fall in that category.

Time period probably falls under setting, and I’d suggest that most historical novels are heavily setting based. My own Gold Digger simply would not work in any other time in any other place. When I got the germ of an idea for that series, the first thing I had was the setting: Dawson, Yukon in the gold rush year of 1898. I then populated the setting with characters and only then started working out the plot. I would guess Donis’s books evolved in the same manner.

Character/Plot/Setting/Backstory/Music. Pick your poison. It’s what makes crime fiction such a marvellous field.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Guest Blogger Hannah Dennison

Once you've written several installments of a series, how do you keep your facts straight? I am so pleased to welcome our Sunday guest blogger, Hannah Dennison, author of the hilarious "Vicky Hill" mystery series.  Or perhaps I should say I'm chuffed.


When Donis invited me to muse on the wonders of writing a series, her timing couldn’t have been better.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to be the guest author at a local book club’s annual tea party. A book club had picked A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE! I felt chuffed and more than a little special since that meant they must have made choices

Ignoring my mum’s warning that “pride goes before a fall,” I couldn’t wait to spend a whole hour eating a delicious cream tea and talking all about Vicky Hill. However, it’s one thing to do book signings and chat to readers before they’ve read your novels but quite another to be in the hot seat and grilled by thirty intelligent women who had taken the trouble to really study the book. 

One member brought photographs downloaded from the Internet referencing certain quirky British elements in my plot; another asked really excellent questions as to character motivation and why I made particular choices in my plotting. As the questions kept coming, my seat got hotter and my heart sank lower. You see, I couldn’t remember a single thing about my first book! I knew that chickens featured in there somewhere. I vaguely recalled the sex of the killer, but more mortifying, I couldn’t remember why she did it. There is only so much one can attribute to having a senior moment. I am currently writing the fourth in the Vicky Hill mystery series. My second, SCOOP!, was out in March. The third, EXPOSE, will be published in December. 

I had moved on. 

The moment I got home, I created a Vicky Hill “bible.” I chose Power Point software mainly because I can view the sidebar which doubles as an index and allows me to see at a glance all the “ingredients” in my series.  In the bible I’ve included interior descriptions of houses, makes of cars characters drive, every method of murder used in each book and even a list of what Vicky ate on her first date and whom she has kissed. I realized that no matter how much I thought I knew the fictional world of Gipping-on-Plym—after all, I created it—my readers knew more!

It would also appear that my characters know more than I do, too. Donis wasn’t exaggerating when she said characters become alive and often refuse to die. I tried to kill off two in A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE!  The first was supposed to drown in a canal; the second had a fatal nut allergy and was actually lying in the morgue after eating a chocolate Brownie when he made a miraculous recovery. He—Steve, such a dear man albeit hugely overweight—has gone on to great things in subsequent books. 

When one’s characters become alive, it’s exciting. My editor at Berkley Prime Crime believes readers are far more likely to remember character-driven scenes rather than specific plot points. Even though I struggled to answer plot questions at my tea party that afternoon, most of the book club members easily recalled certain situations that Vicky found herself in, savoring the conflicts and humor rather than the why. 

Mystery series are chiefly character driven for this very reason. Readers want to return to a familiar world with trusted characters that have become friends—though this presents many challenges for the author. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to spend months with your characters. The writing really does get easier. On the other, there is the need for continuity but with enough change that the reader sees you are not writing to a format. Whatever characteristics you give your protagonist in the first book, have to stay. In the TV world, the term to avoid is  “jumping the shark.” Characters have to act in character otherwise readers will feel cheated. Somehow you have to present your protagonist in a different way each time so that a reader who has read all your books learns something new. At the same time, someone who is meeting your hero for the first time must be able to understand him or her completely. 

Having a theme often helps. In the Vicky Hill mysteries she yearns to belong and have a real family. On a general level, I like to explore the concept that falling in love at seventy is as painful as when you are a teenager. 

There is also a danger that a series can become stale. How many murders can happen in a small Devonshire town without the population being wiped out? When has a series run its course? How on earth do you keep it fresh? Developing the secondary characters often works though hopefully they won’t steal the limelight from your protagonist. The most effective way is to make sure the protagonist is evolving. 

To this end, I gave Vicky two personal challenges. As the daughter of the infamous silver thief, The Fog, currently on the lam in Spain, she’s worried that her father will demand she give up this “reporting nonsense” and work for the family firm. Or worse—Vicky will inadvertently betray him. On a romantic level, Vicky remains pure and unsullied. If she finds Mr. Right and experiences the fireworks of carnal love (she’s ever hopeful), the intrigue for her search for love will be over.

I strongly believe that when a character’s life problem or personal challenge is resolved in a series, some elemental pizzazz vanishes. And what about the question of aging? I deliberately put the timelines of my books close together. It’s feasible that Vicky will still be searching for Mr. Right in six months to a year, but in ten? Just how old is Miss Marple? Really? 

I feel lucky to be writing a series and although I’m already worrying about Life After Vicky Hill, I’m more concerned for Vicky’s immediate future. As I feverishly write her fourth adventure, my editor insists Vicky keep all her options open. If this one is the last, then my poor heroine’s worst fears are realized. 

Not only will she be left on the shelf—literally—she will die a virgin.  And that would be a tragedy.


Hannah's web address is www.hannahdennison.com

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Spending Time With Friends

Donis Typing today.

All right, I have to weigh in on the character vs. plot question, as well, and like my blogmates, all my weight comes down on the side of character.  I’ve read many books with clever plots that delighted me at the time, but no matter how skillfully a plot is constructed, months later I don’t remember the story nearly as well as I remember the characters.  And if I liked the characters, I want to keep company with them again.

Reviewers and the literati elite seem to go all breathless over dark and tortured characters in hopeless situations.  This isn’t a new phenomenon.  This kind of book can be a brilliant art form, as it is with noir novels, when it’s full of dark humor and a thoughtful, perhaps cynical, exploration of human nature. I find that even though I still love a good dark novel, I can’t take a steady diet of self-destruction and hopelessness any more.  As the English say, I think I’ve had enough of both in my real life to be going on with.  If I’m going to spend many hours of my life with these characters, I damn well better like them.

So, like Charles, I’ll happily while away the time reading about Bertie Wooster’s pointless night out, because it’s a lot more fun than sitting in a hospital room.  

Speaking of which, I’ve just finished reading my first Ngaio Marsh novel.  I had never read New Zealander Ngaio Marsh, but I picked her up because one of my husband’s nurses was also a Kiwi, and she and I spent quite a while discussing mystery novels.  The one book I have read is called A Man Lay Dead. It’s a typical 1930s style English country-house mystery, full of upper class ladies and dandies and stalwart servants. The plot is convoluted beyond belief, involving an antique dagger, a gong, a game of Murder, a single calf-skin glove, a bannister, and  a mysterious Russian secret society.  And Marsh’s writing style - and use of adverbs - would drive Vicki mad.

The sleuth, however, is a humorous, upper-class, Oxford man.  None of the other characters can figure out why someone with his background and breeding has deigned to become a common detective.  Turns out he’s so brilliant that he simply has to have puzzles to occupy his feverish mind.  Sort of a Sherlock Holmes with a sense of humor.

He entertained me.  However, even though I just finished reading the book last night, I’ve already forgotten why the murderer did it.  One of my favorite examples of plot versus character is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The plot is so complicated that Chandler himself couldn’t quite figure it out.  But the characters, setting, and dialog are so compelling that nobody cares.

Last year about this time, Hannah Dennison favored us with a guest blog following the publication of her first book, A Vicky Hill Exclusive.  Since then, her second Vicky Hill novel, Scoop!, has been released by Berkeley, and the third, Expose*, will be out in December.  Hannah will be back tomorrow at Type M, no longer a newbie author, but well broken-in and dealing with the eternal question of how to keep your characters and your series ever moving forward.


* That’s Expos-AY.  I can’t find a diacritical mark on this dang keyboard.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Chicken, no egg.

Charles here, weighing in on the Great Character or Plot Comes First Debate.

To me it’s obvious – it’s plot.

Only kidding, it’s character. And with some characters I’ll read anything they want to do. Bertie Wooster describing a long and pointless night out? I’m there, hoping that he stretches it out to 50 pages. General Sir Harry Paget Flashman ranting about people braver and more honorable than him? They’re not hard to find, but I’d listen to him rail against them for chapters. If it’s a good character, well-drawn and fleshed out, I’ll stay glued for as many pages as you’ve got.

I hope I don’t sound too addled, but many times – too many, really – I forget the plot. When life rears its ugly head, I may have set down Book A for a few weeks. Since I often read four or more books at the same time (right now it’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Where Eagles Dare, the new on one Mark Twain and a book by Kerry Greenwood, the title escaping me at the moment.) So weeks go by but I still haven’t given up on Book A. If I liked the characters (plural, as one good character won’t make up for many poor ones) I’ll pick it back up and read it, not bothering to go back and refresh myself on the plot. Who cares, I say as I flip the book open, I just want to spend a few hours with a some interesting folks.

But right now, as my lunch hour draws to a close, I have to run off to spend a few hours with some interesting folks I work with. I don’t even think there’s a plot to this story.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Character or Plot?

One week each year, I travel to Daytona Beach, Fla. to score Advanced Placement essays with several hundred of my closest fellow composition instructors. It’s always a great week, an annual reminder of how talented some of our high school writers are and, on the heels of a long school year, a slap-on-the-head wakeup call as to why I teach. After all, as an English teacher/writer, I’m like a missionary spreading the Good (literary arts) News: To quote Prince Hamlet, it’s all about “words, words, words.”

But this year, a fellow teacher’s remark got me thinking. He was holding one of my novels and asked if my five books featured the same protagonist. I said yes and explained that it was a series, that I’m a crime writer.

A look of recognition flashed. Ah, yes. “What’s your formula?” he said.

Fingernails on a chalkboard.

“No formula,” I said.

No offense was intended. My career in academia has included teaching at the collegiate level. So, believe me, I know literary snobbery when I see it. Rather, his comment led to a discussion of the age-old question: Which comes first, character or plot? The answer probably depends on the writer. My method lies in the answer I gave my colleague, “I didn’t know how the book you are holding would end until I was thirty pages away.”

He was flabbergasted. How could that be? Agatha Christie wrote her books backwards, last chapter first and so on. What if you can’t figure out how it will end?

“Isn’t that terrifying?” he said.

Yes, it can be. But I enjoy dropping characters in a dense forest of emotional and/or physical strife and watching them search for a way out. And there is always an end—if I’m smart enough to see it. Usually, I just need patience and revision. What it comes down to is that character always comes first; plot is a very distant second. Plot can only be the result of character, because setting and action depend on a character’s skill set, intellect, and life situation, which combine to create a one’s personality. And personality is character.

Thus, character always comes before plot, even in seemingly “plot-driven” fiction. Take Stephen King or Dan Brown, for example. If I don’t care about, or relate to, or believe, the characterization—if they’re not real to me; if I have no emotional connection and investment in them—I’m not scared when reading a King book, or I don’t follow Robert Langdon to Kingdom Come and back chasing the mythological cup.

So, for me, it’s always character first.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Compelling Reads: What makes a book grab hold and not let go!

(I couldn’t resist!)

My friend Lise McClendon and I will be doing a 45 minute mystery workshop at the upcoming Jackson Hole Writers Conference, June 25-28. If you haven’t heard about this con, check out the website at http://www.jacksonholewritersconference.com. It’s a great conference, limited to about 150 attendees, where the everyone has lots of easygoing face time with authors, editors, and agents. Barbeques, dinners, drinks, and conversations. And how can you beat Jackson Hole as a venue? Can you tell I feel blessed to be part of this? But I digress.

Since Lise and I only have 45 minutes, we want to get right to the important stuff. Plus, in past years, we’ve noticed that many of the attendees are well on their way to at least finishing their first book. As at most conferences, there’s a range of experience, but we don’t want to be too remedial in our approach. We decided that we’d like to get a discussion going about two main topics: First, what grabs you (the reader) in a novel? What features of that book make the reader unable to put it down? And second, how do you (readers and writers) view genre labels and how much do you find them to be marketing tools as opposed to descriptions of books?

I’ll try to briefly answer my own questions, but would love to hear from other readers and writers. The characters in a novel are the first to grab me. I just finished Paul Levine’s excellent thriller Illegal, and Jimmie “Royal” Paine got my attention right off the bat. He’s got the heart of an altruistic fighter, but is on a self-destructive path. I cared, and I wondered about his actions. I cared even more when I found out why he behaved like this. No, he wasn’t an alcoholic with a shameful past or a product of an abusive home, etc and so forth, (I’m growing tired of these). He’s a normal guy, but something happened to him.

Then Levine added more characters I cared about, plus a handful of vicious, despicable ones, but some of these had surprising, if not redeeming, qualities. (Wanda the Whale, what a vision) He put them all in a vivid backdrop, a sense of place with dust I could just about taste and aromas that drifted right off the page. And after that, he added danger. Peril into which the nothing-to-lose protagonist threw himself with intelligence and purpose.

Look at what keeps people going back to the “classics.” I loved the characters and the fight for justice in To Kill a Mockingbird. Romeo and Juliet, timeless in its tale of forbidden love, evoked tears and showed the ruin wrought by hatred. The Merchant of Venice covered a few details like bigotry, preconception, unjust punishment, an intelligent heiress, and usury. Oedipus Rex not only showed the destruction brought about by hubris, it was also a mystery story. I could go on and on, and many of you could add even better examples.

I have to admit that I am influenced by genre categories. I seek out mystery bookstores and drift to the mystery sections in chain stores. I like mystery, thrillers, suspense, some literary fiction (what is that, anyway?), some Young Adult, some Sci Fi, heck, I like a well-written book. Back to the question about what grabs you.

My problem with genre classification is a great deal of it (now more than ever, I believe) is based on marketing, and has little to do with the book content. Check out this article in Publishers Weekly, by PW reviewer Peter Cannon: http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6552980.html. It’s dated April 21, 2008, and is aptly titled, “The Mystery of the Thriller: Navigating the Divide Between Marketing and Content.” I’ve excerpted a quote which illustrates what bothers me about genre definitions.

“Not so long ago, Janet Evanovich's publicist politely suggested it was time Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels were reviewed in Fiction rather than Mystery. I had to agree it was now that the series was hitting bestseller lists and made the switch. Typically, a series will start out as mystery and later get upgraded to thriller, with either increased sales or the hope of same. At some point, Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins mysteries became Easy Rawlins thrillers.”

Just about curled my hair, which takes a lot of effort, believe me. So what do you think? Is this a good start for a mystery workshop, where writers aspire to have their books published and appreciated by readers everywhere? We may need more than 45 minutes.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Stop that! She said angrily!

Time for Creative Writing 101. We get a good number of readers visiting this blog who are working on their first novel or short story, so I thought it would not come amiss to repeat a couple of the basic rules of creating writing.

What brought this on is the following: I have read two books this week. Book One is published by a mid-sized Canadian publisher, by a mystery writer I have not read before. Book Two is an English crime novel by a writer who is one of my favourites.*

They both commit the unforgiveable sin of using expressions such as: he said angrily, she said crossly, he said suspiciously, he said coldly, she said hastily. And not once or twice, but once or twice per page, particularly in the case of Book One. What’s wrong with that? you may ask. Simply put, if you can’t tell by the dialogue that the speaker is angry or cross or suspicious or cool, or in a hurry, then there is something wrong with the dialogue.

Book One accompanies this with the excessive use of exclamation marks. I was taught that every author has a ration of five exclamation marks which they can use for the entire length of their career. Book One used four in one paragraph! Imagine that! Book Two has exceeded the aforementioned ration, but not too too badly. Again, you ask what’s wrong with that? It’s not natural. Unless you are writing about a gaggle of teenage girls talking on the phone: OMG! Did you see her dress! I don’t know why she even bothered! What a freak! My mom’s coming! people rarely spend their lives in a feverish state of high excitement.

Does it matter: yes, actually, it matters very much (actually, incidentally, is a word that should be avoided wherever possible – it’s a weasel word, one that reduces the impact of the sentence.) As I read these books, I am jerked out of the story at every ! and every he said, crossly. I will not seek out any more books by Author One, and I although I will read Author Two’s next book, I am disappointed.

* I must mention that I have never met either of these authors personally, so if you think I am talking about you – I’m not.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

An Elmore Leonard Kind of Day

Donis here. For some reason, Elmore Leonard has kept popping up in my life over the past few days.  I heard an interview with him on NPR last week while I was driving to the hospital, and just today,  I read an article by him in my latest AARP Magazine.  (All right., just keep your thoughts to yourself.)

I’ve seen Leonard speak a couple of times, read several of his novels, and many of his articles and books on writing.  His thoughts on the craft always resonate with my experience of it.  I think that anyone who writes regularly, no matter on what level, can relate.

In the radio interview, Leonard spoke about hearing a critic talk about the theme of one of his books. He realized that the critic was spot on in his analysis, which interested him no end, mainly because he wasn’t thinking of any theme at all when he wrote the novel. 

I’ve had a similar experience, more than once, in fact.  I do not set out to write a book with a particular theme.  I start with the characters, put them in a situation, and let them go at it.  Much to my own bemusement, between the time I type the first word and the moment I finish, often a theme develops all by itself.  And I usually don’t see it myself until a reader points it out to me.  At which point I slap myself in the forehead and exclaim, “Why, so it is! However did that occur?”

Many, many times readers have discovered things in my novels that I didn’t know were there.  I love it when someone makes a comment about something I wrote that makes me realize that I’m infinitely more deep and insightful than I realized.  Of course, sometimes readers just make things up, putting meanings to scenes or actions that have nothing to do with what I meant when I wrote it.  Readers’ and critics’ comments about my work very often tell me a lot more about them than they do about my story.  

They can make things up if they want to, though.  Once I’ve written a novel and it’s out of my hands and in the hands of the reader, what she gets out of it is none of my business. 

I’ll tell you truly.  When I write, I work as hard as I can to create something meaningful, and artistic, and special.  I feel it in me, and it’s painful to wonder if one has enough skill to get it on the page. If what a reader discovers in my work is wonderful, moving, helpful, or gives her pleasure, I feel an almost religious awe that I was somehow the conduit for that.

In the AARP article, Elmore Leonard wrote, “After 56 years you’d think writing would get easier.  It doesn’t. If you’re lucky, you become harder to please.  That’s all right, it’s still a pleasure.”

Friday, June 12, 2009

August in June

Last night, Rose and I went to see the August Wilson play Fences at the Geva Theater. The performance was outstanding – one of the best dramas I’ve seen at Geva in years – and everyone in the cast was fantastic. If you know the play, you know that it focuses on the life and “fences” in the life of an ex-Nergo League baseball star, and Tony Todd, who played Troy – was simply mesmerizing. It was a late night but Rose and I stayed up to discuss the acting, the set and most of all the play itself and its multiple and deep themes. It’s great stuff.

I wonder if anyone ever thinks about the ideas behind the books I write. I wonder if anyone ever ponders the deep messages and wise philosophy they discovered between the covers of one of my books, if readers meet to discuss the “greater implications” and “moral issues” that they found so succinctly and compellingly presented. I wonder if – just as I did after seeing Fences – people lie in bed, staring at the ceiling, forcing themselves to stay awake just to keep the memory of the experience alive in their head a bit longer.

I wonder if anyone does this when they read my books. I would like to know – partially out of vanity but more because I got no idea what they could have found.

Maybe it’s in code…

PS – yeah, this is our little band.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Research: Not Always Work

It never occurred to me that I was writing procedurals until about halfway through my five-book Jack Austin PGA Tour series.

You’re probably either thinking I’m an idiot or I’m lying, but I’m just being brutally honest. In truth, it wasn’t until I’d gotten an idea for a new series that I realized all the research I had done on the PGA Tour, and the day-to-day life of players and their families, that I realized I was doing what police procedural writers do, except with golf. I was on a first-name basis with a staffer at PGA Tour Headquarters in Ponte Verde Beach, Fla. I had a player and his wife read drafts prior to publication. I was on the Tour’s media mailing list. I received GOLF WORLD weekly to stay current on all the professional tours worldwide. And, living in New England, I wrote a monthly column for a California-based golf magazine.

This took time and energy, but I never thought I was writing “procedurals.” Those were written by the guys who had to slog through DNA books and police manuals (which, if you haven’t read one, makes that chemistry textbook you read—or was supposed to have read—in high school, look fascinating).

I couldn’t have been writing procedurals because I was having too much fun. Golf writer James Dodson once wrote that when his kids asked why he watched so much golf on TV he told them he was “working.” Research can be fun, which is good because—thanks in large part to the great work done by Ed McBain, one of my heroes—if you’re writing contemporary crime fiction, you simply must do your homework. After McBain’s terrific 87th Precinct series, who would dare write a police procedural without doing ride-alongs and interviewing cops? Writers know McBain could develop a character fully in about 20 words (while the rest of us need a full scene to do the same), but readers are often most impressed by the fact that even after 54 87Th Precinct books, he never fell behind in his investigatory and procedural facts.

Not all writers enjoy research, and not all research is fun. But if you’re open and inquisitive, most of it can be. I recently got a hands-on demonstration from a border patrol agent in the techniques used to locate and track border jumpers. Agents call it “sign cutting”—techniques used to determine if landscape has been altered. During my “border tour” (ride along), we were traversing a two-rut field road when the agent stopped the truck and climbed out to examine a low-hanging tree. The incident led to a long conversation about the different sign-cutting methods used on the northern and southern borders respectively, and how weather impacts the processes. Likewise, in 2007, after setting a Jack Austin scene at the Deutche Bank Championship in Boston, my wife and I were generously sent seven-day passes to the event by the tournament director.

My first job after college was as a newspaper reporter for a daily paper in upstate New York, and, amidst the age of the “information highway,” I still believe the face-to-face sit-down with an expert provides the most timely and trustworthy information. So perhaps that explains why I think the biggest perk of thorough research is getting the chance to meet people you would never otherwise meet. You might not find sign cutting as fascinating as I do, but I guarantee riding with a border patrol agent and hearing about his/her career on the southern and northern borders would prove that research in fact can be enjoyable.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Life gets in the way

Sometimes life gets in the way of writing, doesn’t it? The last couple of weeks in our household have been packed. A trip to the emergency room, travels, homecoming college student, and a high school graduation. Aside from the trip to the ER, which turned out okay and will provide riveting details for a novel one day, all is well. Still, five minutes at the computer is about all the time I’ve got. And I’ve already told you what a slow writer I am.

Consequently, I’m going to share some graduation pictures, because graduations here in Hawaii are like none I’ve ever seen elsewhere. No caps and gowns here! Hope you enjoy, and can just about smell the flowers. Meanwhile, my little wheels are working on a specific scene in my next novel. Like Vicki just mentioned, some of the best plotting is done when we’re not at the keyboard, but you knew that.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

(Trying to) Let your characters dictate the action.

Vicki’s blog entry yesterday was something I’m also dealing with at the moment, even though I’ve not yet started to write my next novel. I am in the middle of writing up a plot summary for it, though, at the request of my agent. (This is what I call a “Yuck Project”. These things always have far too much of the feel of “homework” for my liking. Still, like homework, it has to be done.)

Like Vicki, I’ve always felt that the most successful novels are those where the author sets up the characters and their world, and then let’s them go at it. How many times have you been thoroughly engrossed in a story when all of a sudden one of the characters does something so, um, uncharacteristic that you just fall right out of the book? I’ll bet, more often than not, this is a place where the author “imposed his will” on the plot in order to make it go in the direction needed. I know, because I’ve been guilty of this offense. And to my experience, it never really works.

What does one do to counteract this? My solution is to give my characters as much of a full life as I can — well outside the scope of my story line. Sometimes I write it out, sometimes I just store it away in my head. I think it’s a given that our early experiences (certainly before age twenty) have the strongest influence in how we live and react to things we come across in our “later lives”.

So I’m spending time with each of my projected main characters, giving them as detailed childhoods as I think they’ll need. One is going to be a lawyer. He’s intelligent, very passionate but rigid in his beliefs, dogmatic, more than a little stiff but also a hopeless romantic. What happened in his, say, sixteenth year that caused him to turn away from his passionate, emotional side, and become maybe too analytical and rigid in how he deals with certain situations?

All the while, I’m aware of the things he’ll be required to do in the course of the novel’s plot, and hopefully, those plot points that can become game breakers or places where the author’s omnipotent hand forces characters to do “wrong” things (as Vicki wrote about) won’t be sticking points at all, but places that ring very true for the reader. And make the characters seem more real to the reader.

Will all those imagined youthful experiences wind up in the novel? Heavens no! One or two might turn up, but by knowing they happened, I will be writing with a much stronger, more certain hand.

At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work...


A quick sidebar: This past weekend at Bloody Words in Ottawa, I was on a panel called "Ink versus the electron" that examined whether books will remain ascendant or electronic readers will take over. Melanie Fogel sent the panelists the following link which I think everyone will find very amusing: http://smellofbooks.com/.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Believe in Yourself. Your Characters Do.

If it's Monday, this must be Vicki.

If there is one thing successful fiction authors have to have it’s a belief in themselves. They have to believe absolutely that they have the ability to create a good story.

Plenty of people, probably numbering in the millions, have an idea for a book or have begun to write one. More often than not, nothing comes of it, and the work is never finished. In many cases they hit the ‘soggy middle’ (refer previous post!) or can’t find their way through a tricky plot point, and give up.

Once you have a book or two under your belt, there comes a time in which you believe in yourself, or in your characters, and that knowledge will carry you through.
Case in point – I am a rough outliner, meaning that I have an idea of how I want my story to progress, and what obstacles are going to impede the characters. But the outline is drawn in broad strokes only and all the details have to be filled in as I go.

I’m working on Smith and Winters #4 (catchy title, eh?) in which there is a subplot involving a series of break and enters when people are away on vacation. From the very beginning I knew I had to come up with something that the homeowners had in common. Some reason why these people were broken into and others were not. But the reason had to be obscure – otherwise the police would discover it quickly. Cancelling the newspaper, or using the same house sitter, is too obvious. Trusting myself to think up something eventually, I made a note on a blank page saying “Reason XX knows these houses are empty?” and then settled down to write the book. I was approaching the end of the first draft. Still no idea. Kennel? Kids sports teams? Nope, Sergeant Winters would have considered that. I have to be smarter than Sergeant Winters.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. I trusted myself to come up with an idea, but I will confess I was getting a bit nervous. And then it happened - I was taking a walk, thought of something I’d seen, and – presto - I knew the answer. So perfect it even fit into another plot point without jiggling.

The moral of the story is to trust yourself. Or trust your characters. I’m sure John Winters would have thought of it eventually.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Escape Literature

I’ve spent the past week sitting in a hospital again.  My husband had surgery on Monday, and will be lying around with tubes sticking out of him at least until Saturday. (I’m writing this on Friday night).  The surgery went well, by the way.  Thanks for asking.

The operation lasted eight - count’em - eight hours, during all eight of which I sat in the waiting room, alternatively staring at the wall and reading.

A good book can get you through a lot.  I have Deborah Turrell Atkinson to thank for helping me endure Monday.  I read Pleasing the Dead from cover to cover, following Storm Kayama around Maui.  I hesitate to admit that I read the entire book in one day.  As I have said repeatedly (for of what use is a good line if you can’t  repeat it at least a dozen times?), when someone tells me she read one of my books in one sitting, I am complimented, but it always occurs to me that it took me a year to write the thing, so the least she could do is read it five or six times.

Since then, I’ve been passing the time sitting in Don’s room with Ruth Rendell for company, getting a lesson in master writing and wondering if I’m going to live long enough to get that good.

It would certainly help if I were able to practice the craft with any consistency, for if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that constant distraction and virtual brain death is really bad for creativity.

When I was a kid, I started writing stories as a distraction from family trauma.  I created worlds and escaped into them.  I don’t know the reasons why Debby Atkinson and Ruth Rendell, Colleen McCullough, Scott Turow, and all the thousands of other authors write, but it’s been forcefully brought home to me over the past months that authors do a service to humanity as important as any artist, humanitarian, or theologian.  

They help us cope.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Booking the Band

Charles here – you, wherever you are.

Frequent readers of this site know that I work at Dixon Schwabl, an advertising, marketing and public relations firm here in lovely Rochester, NY. Lately we’ve had a lot of pregnancies in the agency with new babies popping out every couple weeks or so. Yesterday, to celebrate this grassroots Baby Boom, we held a “Family Stimulus Party”. Actually, it was just a convenient excuse to throw a party. The highlight – for me anyways – was a performance by Job Order, a ska/rock/pop/party band made up of employees (and one honorary employee) of Dixon Schwabl. Take a guess who was on tenor sax.

I bring this up not just to show off but because this morning, (it’s now 5:45am on Friday) I feel a lot like I do six months after I launch a new book. That thrilling moment when you’re on stage is comparable to the rush you feel when your book first hits the stands, but now, hours after my ears have stopped ringing, it's quite similar to that lull that descends the further you get from the big launch. You look back at the fun you had and wonder if it will ever be that good again and you want it to happen soon. But more than anything, you want to jump right back in and start with something new.

Yesterday before the “gig” (that’s a term we hip musicians use – it means “performance” – non-musicians should refer to it as a “show”, man), I brought in a CD with 20+ new songs I want the band to consider. Granted, according to The Rules, I get to formally suggest only two songs, one of which the band will accept and add to the repertoire. (This last round I somehow managed to sneak 2 songs onto the set list – the Ska-J version of Minnie the Moocher, and a ska version of You Can’t Always Get What You Want which was similar to the version done by Band From TV.) For some reason, these new, as yet unpicked, unpracticed and unperformed songs were more interesting than the songs we were about to perform. It’s just like the feeling that many (most?) authors experience about three-quarters of the way through the book they’re working on, when all these ideas come about the next book they want to start, even before they are completely finished with the last one.

I’m sure the band will take a few weeks off from practicing, but I bet that every one of the band members is secretly itching to jump right back in and start over with new stuff. And I bet that each one has great memories about the show yesterday, but they have bigger hopes for the next gig. My bandmates may not be published authors, but right now they know just what it feels like.

[And because I know you want to know, Job Order is Shad Froman on lead vocals, Kathy Phelps and Wayne Gormont on lead and backup vocals, Bruce Rice on lead guitar, Bob Hotchkiss on rhythm guitar, Mike Sperber on bass, Matt Bielewicz on keyboards, bongos, harmonica and hand cymbals, Will Bower on drums, Mike Schwabl on vibraslap and yours truly on tenor sax.]

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Why Golf?

Why Golf?

This is the question I’m inevitably asked anytime I do a reading and Q&A: Why a golf mystery? Why that combination?

The answer: Metaphor.

Raymond Chandler, in his classic 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder” wrote: “In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.”

Redemption and metaphor. Chandler, of course, knew exactly what he was doing. All art functions metaphorically, and Chandler established a character who represented all that was virtuous in society. We relate to works in which we discover a human condition similar to our own, whether these works are novels, essays, movies, or songs. Hell, the first time I read The Big Sleep, I wanted to be Philip Marlowe.

And so the Jack Austin PGA Tour series was born of metaphor. Golf is the last untarnished professional sport. It remains a game of integrity. PGA Tour players call penalties on themselves that cost them (and their families) great sums of money. Perhaps there is no better recent example than the case of J.P. Hayes, the man who coincidentally serves as a technical consultant for my series. In November, during the second stage of the 2009 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament (affectionately known as “Q School”), Hayes unknowingly used a prototype Titlist ball not yet been approved by the United States Golf Association. Titlist, Hayes’ sponsor, had sent him the new balls to try, and he had practiced with them. One remained in his bag when he left for Q School. Upon changing balls during the Q School round (pros often change balls every two or three holes), Hayes inadvertently put the prototype ball in play. He made the discovery after his round, back at his hotel room, while going through his bag.

His wife and two kids were home in El Paso; he was completely alone in that hotel room.

Yet Hayes picked up the phone, called tournament execs and explained what had happened, knowing full well the penalty: disqualification from the event and thus the forfeiture of his PGA Tour playing privileges. The detective, Chandler wrote in his famous essay, “must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” Hayes’ reply when asked why he turned himself in: “Everybody out here [on Tour] would’ve done the same thing.”

Ah, maybe.

But as a golfer, a golf coach, and as a golf fan, and a reader of mystery novels, I want to believe that other pros would have done the same thing; because in Philip Marlowe’s world, the man who walks untarnished down the mean streets certainly would have, as Hayes insists, “done the same thing.” Jack Austin is surely fictional and a very flawed character, but at his core his values are not unlike those for which most of us strive.

So to answer the question I originally posed, Why the golf mystery? The answer is because the metaphor bridging the world of professional golf to the world of classic detective fiction strikes me as not only fascinating but undeniable. Or in simpler terms: Because Philip Marlowe would shake J.P. Hayes’ hand.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Fiction and Nonfiction

My blog-mates have been discussing some fascinating and crucial aspects of writing. Last week, John asked the question, “Should Fiction be Fictional?” Good question.

Like Elizabeth Spann Craig, who wrote a thoughtful comment, I often use a combination of people’s personality traits in developing a character. One satisfying practice I’m sure we all do (What? Don’t tell me I’m the only avenging writer!) is to lampoon, vilify, or (devilish cackling) kill off some evil bastard we know in real life. Naturally, we change the slimy goombah’s name.

Though I start with a specific individual in mind and I even use a situation similar to the one that set me off in the first place, something very interesting begins to happen. Not only does the character take on a personality of her own, the situation evolves. And that's where the fun begins. Sometimes the character gets a thousand times more nasty. Other times, the person has rescued a three-legged dog from a raging brush fire.

Like everyone on this blog, (Vicki can attest, because we did dozens during our exuberant, exciting, and exhausting tour a few months ago) I speak at writing classes and writers’ workshops. Over the years, I have had several people ask about the fine line between fact and fiction. These questions often come from people writing memoirs, and the writer is “stuck” because he/she doesn’t know how to get from one “real” situation to another. The author has been putting together either oral tales or stories from letters written at the time.

First, I tell the person I haven’t written a memoir. Sometimes I take a leap and suggest the author try unleashing himself from the confines of non-fiction. How much of memory is fiction, after all? Some great novels have been written on that theme alone. Change the character’s name, write the story, and then take a step back and see how it reads. If the author wants to, he/she can go back and change the name back.

It seems to me that non-fiction writers have to deal with more accusations than fiction writers, though Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose, was based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote and controversy still swirls around this riveting story. Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough do thorough and painstaking research, yet each has faced accusations. Even if a work is nonfiction, readers demand a lively narrative and where does one draw the line? Whose account do you believe?

Don’t even get me started on today’s politicians. Who’s going to write U.S. history, circa 2000-2008? Hope I’m around to read several versions, because they aren’t going to tell the same story.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Discovering the truth

A good friend recently sent me recordings of songs written by him and his daughter and performed by her. He wanted my thoughts. I felt they were very good songs and her vocal performance was uniformly excellent. The musical backing on them was competent, but I felt it had some issues.

I gave him my honest opinions and discovered he really didn’t want to hear them — in some regards.

I wasn’t the only person he sent them to, but in discussing the recordings with him, I discovered that all the people were friends or at least acquaintances.

My response was that you then can’t trust what we tell you. Why is that? Because I know from past experience that it’s far too difficult to tell a friend what you truly feel — if it’s negative. How do you tell someone their darling bundle of joy looks more like a chimpanzee or a troll than the cooing, gurgling bundle of joy they see? It’s really impossible if you want to keep that person as a friend.

Fortunately, I had no issue with my friend’s music or his daughter’s performance, but I was frank about what I heard in the back-up musicians’ performance. When his defenses began, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. And in the end, it’s only my opinion, right? I’m not professing to be God here. Far from it.

When we create a novel or a piece of music or a painting, if we truly want to get the straight goods on what we’ve done, we have to solicit “honest” opinions — and I maintain you won’t get those from friends.

My wife is my most brutal critic, but we’re in a long relationship where we’ve learned to critique each other honestly. It’s often not fun to hear, but even so, I don’t completely trust her, and if I asked her — wait a minute, I will...

Back again. As I suspected she doesn’t completely trust me, either. It’s terribly difficult to tell a friend that what they’ve shown you is not good. Even if they ask you to be brutally honest, you still pull your punches. You don’t want to hurt them.

I told my friend to give the recordings to someone who will in turn pass them on to a qualified listener in order to get their impressions. By removing the critiquing from the “friend factor”, he will get a more honest appraisal. I also told him to do it a number of times. You need a good sample of comments in order to “average” them. If more than one person says the same thing, you must begin to think you've got a real problem and not just a quibble.

So what I’m saying is this: if you want your writing to be the very best it can be, you need to hear the unvarnished truth about it. How many of us have shown our “baby” to friends who make a few, small, negative comments and finish by telling you how much they enjoyed it, only to send the ms to an agent or publisher and be told it’s complete rubbish? I wouldn’t even trust a critique group for this. They can certainly be helpful along the way, but in the end, can you trust them completely?

Only strangers can be fearlessly honest.