Sunday, October 30, 2011

Never The Same Twice

John here. It is a pleasure to welcome Reed Farrel Coleman back to Type M. I met Reed many years ago at Bouchercon. In the years since, he has gone on to great successes as the bio below will indicate. Enjoy his musings, and check out his latest Moe Prager mystery Hurt Machine.

On the verge of the release of my thirteenth novel (Gun Church, and my fourteenth novel (Hurt Machine, Tyrus Books), it occurs to me that no matter how long my career, no matter how many novels, short stories, essays, and poems I have written, no two pieces are quite the same. What I mean to say that my routine may be the same and my process might be the same, but the actual writing experience is always a little bit different. I suppose that’s easily understood when I compare the two novels about to be released.

Gun Church, for instance, took me six years to write. Oddly enough, I didn’t have to struggle with the idea for the plot at all. It was one of those rare instances when the plot appeared fully formed in my head all at once. I can even remember the moment it happened. I was at a mystery writers convention, watching my friend give a weapons and self-defense lecture and demonstration. Someone in the audience asked a question about how rapidly pellets in a shotgun shell spread apart and bang! (no pun intended) I had my plot. Not only did I have the plot, but I even had my elevator pitch line—the line I might use to sell the movie rights to a Hollywood type. It’s Wonder Boys meets Fight Club with guns. Still, it took me six years to struggle through. That was due in part to the many moving parts in the book and my never having attempted such a big project before. I literally had to teach myself how to do what I needed. The novel features a book within a book, first and third person narrative, pages of Irish dialect, and so on.

Hurt Machine on the other hand took me five months to write. The odd thing is, I only had the shell of a plot when I began to write it. But series books – this is the 7th in my Moe Prager Mystery series after Innocent Monster — and series books are just easier to write. I know my protagonist and his supporting cast of characters. When you write a series, you only need to discover the antagonist and some new minor characters. You have no idea how much easier that makes things. I know the setting. I know the time period. I know the characters’ histories, faults, and foibles. I know the tone. All of these things have already been established. Plus, with a series, an author knows that a large percentage of his readers will also know many of these things. You can actually use a kind of shorthand for loyal series readers.

None of this is to say that I enjoyed writing one more than the other. Like I’ve stated, it’s not a matter of better. It’s a matter of different.


Plot summaries:

Gun Church: Kip Weiler is a former ’80s literary wunderkind who has fallen on hard times. Due to his foibles and insecurities and twenty years removed from his last novel, he’s teaching creative writing at a rural community college. One day Kip prevents his class from being slaughtered by a gun toting student. This gets Kip a second fifteen minutes of fame and, more importantly, relights his desire to write. Little does he realize the novel he’s working on may well be the blueprint of his own demise. He gets deeply involved with two of his students and a cult-like group who are obsessed with the intrinsic nature of handguns. Things really get funky when art begins to imitate art imitating life.

Hurt Machine: Two weeks away from his daughter’s wedding, Moe receives very grave news about his health. To make matters worse, Carmella Melendez, his former PI partner and ex-wife shows up after a nine year absence asking a desperate favor of Moe. It seems Carmella’s estranged sister has been killed outside a popular Brooklyn pizzeria, but no one, no even the NYPD, seems particularly interested in finding the murderer. Why? That’s the question, isn’t it?

Bio: Called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the noir poet laureate in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman has published fourteen novels. He is the three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year and is a two-time Edgar Award nominee. He has also won the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards. Reed is an adjunct professor of English at Hofstra University and lives with his family on Long Island.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

I know many, many secrets. My policy is—if they don’t ask, don’t tell.  

In my series for Poisoned Pen Press, Lottie Albright collects family histories. I do this too. Once because it was my job for a historical society, now because of my desire to preserve my own family’s history. Although the immediacy of some of my connections have been altered by death, I am a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a sister, an aunt, a niece, a cousin, a sister-in-law, a granddaughter, and a daughter.  

People tell me things, Through the years I’ve developed an instinct for what’s proper to reveal, what would simply be mean-spirited to talk about, and what is better left alone forever.  

I’ve noticed often people wait until they are in their fifties to delve into troubling issues about their family. They ask because puzzles simmer somewhere in their subconscious. The fact that it’s bothering them is proof of their need to know. 

If they ask, and I know, I tell. 

 For instance, a beloved cousin, once asked me if her father—I’ll call him Dave--was her real father. In a flash, I knew he wasn’t. Stunned that I knew this, I asked my own father and he said no, her mother had had an affair. How did this cousin know? How did I know? For my part, it was the memory of a hushed conversation, overheard in childhood. She wanted to know. Her reply was “never mind, as far as I’m concerned Dave is my real father.” Nevertheless, this knowledge put her lifelong suspicions to rest. 

 She asked, so I told. 

Recently a dear friend of mine whose father had died young remarked that her mother never remarried because she “didn’t want someone else raising her kids.” I knew better. Her mother couldn’t remarry because her dying husband had exacted a death bed promise from her that she never would. My parents did not like this man. They thought it was incredibly mean of him to bind this woman to widowhood. Nowadays, the “death bed promise” would not have the sacred solemnity as one made years ago. It would have been cruel to shatter my friend’s image of her father.  

 She didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell. 

People in their eighties often have a compulsion to tell family stories. They tell because they want to set the record straight. They are delighted when nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and great grand-children pump them for information.  

Recently when I went back to Anderson County Kansas to visit my husband’s grave, I located the grave of an aunt who had a falling out with the family. She had asked for a private burial in a secret location. But someone knew and had taken the time to put up a wee flat stone with only her first name. I think I know the cousin who did this. I had extra flowers with me. I hesitated to lay them at her grave, but I did. I turned to leave, then went back and collected the bouquet because I wanted to honor her secret. I felt like it was a scared charge to keep. Then I wept for this tragic aunt who chose separation in death as well as life.  

No one will ask, so there’s no need to tell. 

My favorite book of poetry is the Spoon River Anthology. The author, Edgar Lee Masters, was from Anderson County. Spoon River is set in a cemetery, and in each poem, the deceased rise from their graves and account for their lives.
Writing your memoirs is a priceless gift for future generations. Urge your relatives to do this and begin doing it yourself. I would love to know how each person in my family viewed their own life.   

They were gone before I could ask. Now they can never tell.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Series Titles

I spent a couple of hours last night thinking about books titles. That wasn't what I set out to do. I was supposed to be working on manuscript revisions. But it suddenly occurred to me that if this was to be the first book in what I hope will be a new series, I needed to think ahead. And that brought me to the matter of the title of the second book.

Should titles in a series be linked by some common thread. For example, the alphabet (Sue Grafton), colors (John D. MacDonald and Walter Mosley), or questions (Patricia Sprinkle). Should titles in a series reflect the mood of the series? Or perhaps a theme? Or maybe series titles work best when they are associated with the occupation (forensic scientist) or hobby (knitting) of the protagonist.

The titles in my present series have no rhyme or reason. The one that has done best and that people tend to remember was inspired by blues music (You Should Have Died on Monday). Maybe we as writers are naturally inspired to come up with great titles for the books that seemed to flow more easily than the others and that take us to places we didn’t expect to go.

And, of course, with that title, I knew it needed to be about music. One of my characters had been a blues singer. So I looked for song titles and couldn't find one that would fit, and finally wrote my own song lyrics (not great lyrics, but lyrics that fit the story and gave me a title).

So what did my two hour detour last night tell me about the titles for books in the new series? That I like titles drawn from books, poetry, and songs. That I need a title before I can write, and a really good title helps me write better. That when I find the right title, I also find the heart and soul of my book.

I love the title of the book that I'm working on now. It was inspired by a character in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (as was the plot, in part). When I began to think about that title in the context of my new series, I realized that the aspect of the series that will remain constant is that the characters are always dealing with change -- change coming at them more quickly than they can sometimes cope. Change that produces uncertainty and anxiety. And that gave me my second title for that next book that I haven't written yet. That title comes from one of my favorite Robert Browning poems and has always haunted me.

Does anyone else need a title before you can write? Wish you could set your title to music and have it playing in the background so that you wouldn't forget what you were trying to say?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Advice From the Masters

I am on an Elmore Leonard kick right now, reading “Road Dogs.” I can never read Leonard without thinking of his “Ten Rules of Writing: Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” from the New York Times, Writers on Writing Series. This week, I also stumbled on a wonderful writer-on-writing piece titled “Advice for Beginning Writers” by John Steinbeck, written in 1963. I share them here with you.

Dear Writer:

Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in a class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyes and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories. This illusion was canceled very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, we were told, is to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, as we were told, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule given us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all - so long as it was effective. As a subhead to this rule, it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of our story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three- or six- or ten-thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that, we were set on the desolate, lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades given my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterward upheld my teacher's side, not mine. The low grades on my college stories were echoed in the rejection slips, in the hundreds of rejection slips.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done. Why could I not then do it myself? Well, I couldn't, and maybe it's because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don't know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but, after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I remember one last piece of advice given me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic '20s, and I was going out into that world to try and to be a writer.

I was told, "It's going to take a long time, and you haven't got any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor."

It wasn't too long afterward that the depression came. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame anymore. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely my teacher was right about one thing. It took a long time – a very long time. And it is still going on, and it has never got easier.

She told me it wouldn't.
--John Steinbeck, 1963
“WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.
If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's ''Sweet Thursday,'' but it's O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ''I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.''

3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ''she asseverated,'' and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ''Close Range.''

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's ''Hills Like White Elephants'' what do the ''American and the girl with him'' look like? ''She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.'' That's the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you're good at it, you don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It's my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character – the one whose view best brings the scene to life – I'm able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what's going on, and I'm nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in “Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you'll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won't get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

“Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.
--Elmore Leonard, 2001

Works Cited

Leonard, Elmore. "WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle." New York Times July 16, 2001. Arts. Web. 26 Oct. 2011. .

Steinbeck, John. "John Steinbeck and Advice for Beginning Writers." N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Oct 2011. .

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scottish Crime Night

Barbara here. Yesterday was my birthday, and as a special treat to myself, I went with a friend to hear three dangerous but hilarious Scottish crime writers talk about writing, their latest books, politics and the future of the world. Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and Stuart MacBride were in town participating in the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival, which runs for two weeks and holds a wide variety of author events sprinkled throughout the city. The Scots were being interviewed in the dank, soaring, century-old Knox Presbyterian Church, surely an inspired choice, and were proceeded to the altar by a bagpiper in full regalia.

Politics, humour, history, memoir, poetry and fiction are all given their due in this annual festival. It’s wonderful to see crime fiction being given a place at the literary banquet table, when so often in Canada it’s not on the invitation list. I won’t quibble (too loudly) with the fact that the organizers reached all the way across the pond for the invitees, rather than turning to some of the extraordinary homegrown talent that has been growing year by year here in Canada. I was delighted to hear these writers talk and to hear how much we have in common, no matter where we come from and how we pronounce our rrr’s. I had met Ian Rankin and Denise Mina before, when they attended our own Canadian mystery conference gruesomely named Bloody Words. No one would mistake that for a genteel literary gathering.

This time they spoke to a packed audience of probably three hundred, who laughed and applauded their wit, their compassion and their insight. They are all three tough, gritty writers who delve into the darkest parts of our souls and don’t shy away from brutal truths, but they also infuse their works with humour, much as Shakespeare did, as a release, a counterbalance, a message of hope amid the darkness. UK writers seems to use humour and wit so much more elegantly and subtly than we do over here. It is not a question of funny vs. dark, cozy vs. noir, but both put together in a complex, layered whole. Humour makes the darkness bearable, and lifts your spirits just at the moment it’s most needed.

Mina writes about Glasgow, Rankin about Edinburgh and MacBride about Aderdeen. To each of them, a sense of real place is very important to their books. They want to show their own city in all its vivid realism, warts and all, because they think crime fiction perhaps more than any other writing deals with social issues on a realistic level, not through metaphors or fables but through real stories of the day. Crime writers are the chroniclers of communities and the individuals in them, showing society in all its layers, in all its darkness and light. Rankin encourages everyone to write about the community they know best, and that vivid realism will resonate with others around the world.

As I watched their effortless banter, their easy shift from serious to jocular, I sensed between them that mutual respect and camaraderie that I have encountered so often among my own crime writer friends. Crime writers are a friendly and supportive lot. We can be competitive and jealous, but generally we sense that we are all on this adventure together and that helping each other succeed is more important than backbiting or backstabbing. Maybe it’s because we’re all underdogs together, maybe it’s because we get our aggressions out on the page, but whatever the reason, I hope it never changes.

This just in...

I read an interesting article this past week. It seems that “they” (the experts) are now predicting the death of e-readers. Why? New technology.

We’ve spent considerable virtual ink the past few years here at Type M, discussing how e-readers were going to change the face of publishing. We may even have been correct in our pronouncements. What we didn’t take into account is that technology, as is its want, has been moving along changing the scenery around us as we fretted over these evil little machines.

Okay, here’s the section of an article published by The Street and written by one Seth Fiegerman. The title of the article is “Gadgets that won’t be around in 2020”. I think you’ll find it interesting. I’ll wait here while you read it...

“The e-reader has already undergone significant changes in its short history, evolving from a product with a keyboard to one with a touchscreen and more recently being integrated into a kind of a tablet-hybrid, but according to Mr. Golvin, the market for e-readers will mostly disappear by the end of the decade.

“‘The tablet will largely supplant the e-reader in the same way that the iPod increasingly gets displaced by smartphones,’ Mr. Golvin says. ‘Tablets will take on the e-reader function of handling magazine, newspaper and book reading.’ In essence, spending money on an e-reader that can only handle reading when tablets can do this and more will come to seem as useless as buying a GPS system that can only look up directions when other technology does this as well.

“Just how small the e-reader market becomes may depend somewhat on advancements in display technology. One of the biggest incentives for consumers to buy a pure e-reader is to have an e-ink display (like reading from a book) rather than a backlit display (like reading from a computer screen), but according to Mr. Golvin, manufacturers are already working on ways to merge the two reading experiences and create a tablet that doubles as an authentic e-reader.

“Even then, there may be still be some e-readers on the market at the beginning of next decade, but not many.

“‘It could be that by 2020 you can still buy a super cheap e-reader for $20, but by and large, the volume of sales will be so close to zero as to be indistinguishable, like CD players are now,’ he says.”

So what do you think? From where I sit, it certainly seems to state a pretty obvious case. Technology has moved on and now things are shifting once again. Actually, they never cease shifting.

Boy! Am I glad I didn’t buy that Kindle!

Monday, October 24, 2011

I've been greatly saddened this week by the death of an old schoolfriend. Geography separated us long ago and we kept in touch only casually – the Christmas letter, an occasional email, a meeting a couple of years ago when she came back from New Zealand to visit her family. She had told me recently that she had cancer, but her sudden death was a shock.

I couldn't say that we were close now, but we had been close in the teenage years – inseparable, really. We wore out her record of 'Blue Moon' by the Marcels, we could spend a whole day getting ready for a party (whatever did we do?), she gave me my first cigarette – and we 'tired the sun with talking, And sent him down the sky.' I suppose my grief today is for our lost youth as well as the happy and useful life too soon cut short.

As crime writers we deal in death – violent death. It's frequently no more than a plot device, the reason for the story. I have written, dry-eyed and with analytical detachment, about the act, the body, and even the tragic consequences. Yet sometimes, as at the end of my last book, Cradle to Grave, I have found tears pouring down my face.

Perhaps that's therapeutic, a sort of catharsis of the personal experience that informs our imagination. But does that make for better writing? I don't know. It was Graham Greene who talked of 'the splinter of ice in the heart of a writer,' and perhaps getting caught up in the sorrows of your creations is an unprofessional indulgence. Police officers and medics who deal every day with the tragedies we only write about have to preserve their sanity by keeping a distance between themselves and the sorrow of others. It's difficult, though, when you have to be inside the head of a suffering character and to go along that road with them.

The thing that sometimes troubles me when it comes to real-life grief is that in time, like everything else, it becomes something I draw on when it comes to writing. I couldn't fully empathise with my characters' fictional grief if I'd never experienced it. But is that what someone once called the vampire tendency in authors? Right now, the thought makes me feel very uncomfortable.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Damn the Torpedoes

It takes a lot of discipline to write, or at least to get anything finished. Like a lot of writers, I often wonder if I’ve really got enough of that pesky discipline, and if I’m ever going to finish anything again. When I do make myself sit down and write, it’s usually quite a pleasant experience, especially if I don’t worry about what other people will think about the work. I think that’s where a certain amount of courage is required. Do I really want to say this? Do I want to bare my soul like this -what will you think of me, Dear Reader? Will you find me sappy and unsophisticated if I put this down? How about just plain horrible? Will you think I’m writing about a real person and thus dislike him or her? Will you think I’m writing about you, and thus dislike me for saying such revealing things about you?

In the Alafair Tucker series, I’m writing about a family that lived in Oklahoma in the early 20th Century. I’ve concentrated on the lovely family aspects of their lives, but I want to be as real as possible. All cannot be sweetness and light, after all. But I don’t want to write a social treatise, either. It’s a fiction, after all.

In my talks, I often say that the first thing a writer is taught is to ‘write what you know’. I think this instruction is not as straightforward as it first appears. After all, if you’re a sci-fi writer, you’d be severely handicapped when describing the planet Koozbain if you interpret the tenet literally. I feel like ‘write what you know’ has to do with telling the truth about being a human being as you know it. If the writer tries her best to be authentic, she’s going to come up with something that is absolutely unique, because every human being is unique. I can tell you from experience, Dear Reader, that this is a very hard thing to do. It’s nigh on to impossible not to want to imitate the style of a writer you admire, or to tone down what you want to say because it might offend.

The business of writing is schizophrenic, to say the least. You want to be published, you want to be read. You want to be liked. And yet, you want to – dare I say it? – create art. And the only way to do that, I sometimes fear, is to dig as deep as you can for your own truth. These days, if your truth is a certain kind of ugly, that’s often admired by the literati and disliked by the reading public. If your truth is sweet and hopeful, you stand in danger of being disdained by the literati, yet loved by readers.

My truth has a little of both. My fear is that if I tell it, I’ll be disdained by the literati AND disliked by readers. Just my luck…

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chasing Time

A week ago, I made a decision that I had been mulling over for months, one that several writer friends urged me to make. I decided it was time to end my partnership with my agent.

As you well know, an agent is required to submit to major houses. So I’m spending a lot of my spare time researching other representatives in hopes of entering into a new author-agent partnership. Although certainly necessary, this task cuts into my writing time.

There is a saying "money is freedom." Perhaps no one grasps this statement better than writers; a realization I came to years ago: most writers want money because it buys time—time to write. The vast majority of working fiction writers hold day jobs. Throw in family, work presentations, Little League, birthday parties and we end up scrounging for a couple hours of writing time a day.

So looking for an agent, or promoting one's books, (or, yes, even writing blogs) cuts into what should be my writing priority—time spent writing fiction. So, to quote Hemingway, I have said too much already.

I’m going back to my book.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lost in Translation

I'm sure there are quite a few folks out there who share my passion for the following shows on television.

Among the many I enjoy, today I'm singling out DEXTER, TRUE BLOOD and THE WALKING DEAD. All three are based on books by authors Jeff Lindsey and Charlaine Harris and graphic novelist Robert Kirkman respectively.

My husband is obsessed with THE WALKING DEAD and owns all six collections. I'm told there will be twelve so he's very excited. The fact that I share my life with someone who enjoys hanging out with zombies - especially before bedtime - may seem weird to some but hey, he's a writer too. We're a strange breed.

So far this season has been a disappointment for all three shows. For a start, the violence has increased a gazillion times - so much so that I can't actually watch a lot of the scenes anymore. Sometimes I have to dash from the room because the sound effects are pretty nasty too. I wonder if the increased emphasis on violence is an attempt to disguise the not-so-inspiring storylines. They all seem a bit flat and tired.

I shared my thoughts with Auggy, a friend and colleague at the advertising agency where I slave away from nine to six. As one of our senior digital editors (and a filmmaker too) Auggy shared a theory that I'd like to throw to the hordes.

Auggy is an avid reader. He said he was "in awe" of writers because they tell stories that mentally empower their readers by forcing them to recreate their own very personal version of that writer's world. He said that the reader subconsciously casts the story in his imagination from visualizing the physical appearances of the characters to dressing the set. The reader is even in control of the pace. He can feel the pulse of a story's heart.

When a book is adapted into a TV show or a movie, that unspoken agreement between creator and reader is broken. The lens of a camera is like a funnel. It narrows the content down to one person's vision which the viewer is forced to accept.

Some books translate beautifully - the Harry Potter franchise is a great example. Others fall flat. One of my favorite all-time films is THE ENGLISH PATIENT. But for me, the book was horribly fragmented and yet the hugely talented Anthony Minghella's cinematic version was truly spellbinding. I've seen that movie nine times. (I've watched GLADIATOR ten, but for a completely different reason).

As always, a lot can be lost in translation. I would love my series to come to life on the screen. It's a risk of course, but I'll take it!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Out of ideas

I don’t know what to write about for my weekly blog posting today. There’s a lot going on in my head, but none of it seems to be cannon fodder for Type M.

I could tell you about the production of Verdi’s Rigoletto that I saw last night. The singing was lovely, along with the singers’ acting. The set design and director’s concept of the story left a lot to be desired, though. Oh, the one set was impressive and quite lovely in its own way, but it kept getting in the way. My wife and I both felt that if someone was not really familiar with Rigoletto’s storyline, they would have had no idea where most of the action was taking place or what was really going on.

I could relate all of this to writing crime fiction, and how the proper setting is so important to developing a convincing storyline, and how characters, no matter how well they’re drawn, can come off as lost and disjointed because the writer hasn’t given readers a clear and consistent context in which to understand them. Just because you describe the setting well doesn’t mean it really works.

And I could tell you how we were left scratching our heads as a long white ladder descended from the ceiling in the scene where Gilda is abducted. A ladder? What was that doing there? What did it mean? Do we have similar “white ladders” in our stories? Things that make sense to us, the writers, and something – since we can explain it directly to them – that we convince our editors to go along with, but leave our readers (who aren’t privy to the explanation) scratching their bewildered heads?

Or I might tell you about the real-life mystery that’s playing out on our street right now. Our across-the-street neighbour had the tires on his two cars slashed last week. Nothing special, you might say? Kids doing a spot of vandalism? How about if I told you about the note the perpetrator left under the wiper blade of one vehicle? How about the fact that this person took exception to our neighbour parking on the street too often and decided to slash his tires as a “first warning” that this will not be tolerated. Of course I’d have to say that now everyone is looking at everyone else and wondering if they’re the one.

This could be related to every crime writer as a golden opportunity for some in-depth research. How real, first-hand knowledge could make a story incredibly more gripping because the writer knew exactly what it felt like to go through something like that. We let opportunities like this slide by to our own peril – even if it might make us somewhat uncomfortable to pick over the carrion of neighbour’s problems.

Oh, I wish I knew what to talk about with you today, but I’m completely out of ideas.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Entertaining Myself

I'm still driving myself mad trying to finish the first draft of my new book. When I approach the end of the first draft, I put my head down and go. I don't try to be logical or polished. I can fix my clumsy sentences and nonsense later. I try to finish. I also try to entertain myself, because that helps me stay motivated.

When I am writing, especially a first draft, I only have an audience of one - me. I write a story that I would like to read. I did not always do this. I used to try very hard to write for The General Reading Public. But I began to have some publishing success when I forgot that notion. I write about what interests me.

Then, when the editing and rewriting process begins, I listen to suggestions from my pre-publication readers (sometimes) and from my editor (always), and tweak the story as per instructions in order to broaden its appeal.

My stories therefore probably appeal most to people who are like me. Sadly for the scope of my appeal, I am not a teenage boy or a romance-starved young woman. I’m not judging hero tales or romance novels, here. I think they are great, but my interests run in other directions these days. I tried to write a romance novel once. I had a wonderful idea, and I really think it would have been a good story, but I couldn’t sustain my own interest, and the book petered out before it was finished. I’m sorry to say this, because a popular romance novel will sell ten times as many copies as a popular mystery.

Having made the statement that I strictly write what I like and to hell with the audience, I now have to admit that I’m lying. I do construct my current series to please myself, but there are many things I’d love to write about, yet am not brave enough to attempt.

Even that is not true. I do write them, but am not brave enough to try to have them published. I fear that if I did, someone would send men in white coats to chase me around with butterfly nets.

And so I haven’t thus far tried to sell Kafkaesque expositions on the nature of reality. Instead, I write something else that entertains me - historical mysteries with a spookily intuitive protagonist.

I wonder how much can we tell about an author from what he writes? I know that when I read book reviews, I can often tell more about the reviewer than the book. Does an author reveal himself in his novels? Are the authors like the characters they write about? Do they have the same fears and anxieties? Are they as intrepid, grieving, hapless, innocent, weary, or clever?

I’m an Oklahoman who writes about Oklahoma. But am I like my protagonist, Alafair? In some ways, I wish I were, but I don’t think so. I live a hundred years later, I’m twenty years older, and childless, to begin with. Neither am I brave, intuitive, or nearly so sure of myself. I create a being with the qualities I wish I had, and live vicariously through her. I also indulge some of my more evil inclinations when I write, and not always through the villains.

P.S. I’m building up my courage, so never fear, someday you’ll be able to read my Kafkaesque exposition on the nature of reality. While I’m writing it, I’ll laugh, I’ll cry, I’ll break my heart. And if I’m good enough at it, maybe you will too.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Right Prop

Frankie here. Last Saturday, our local chapter of RWA had a day-long workshop. Our speaker was Leanna Renee Hieber, who writes a series (set in Victorian London in a parallel universe) with elements of myth, fantasy, and the Gothic. Leanna has a background in theater as an actress and is now adapting her first book as a Broadway musical. Her workshop was about applying the techniques of theater to writing.

Post-workshop, I returned to the manuscript that I’m been revising (my 2019 police procedural). I scanned the pages thinking about my city, Albany, as a setting and about how I could make better use of the unique architecture. I thought about my characters, their motivations, and how they moved through space.

What I didn’t think about was props. I didn’t plan to place a gun over the fireplace that would have to be fired by the last chapter. All the other objects I thought I needed were already in place.

But something was still wrong. That last chapter that my editor has asked me to expand was not working.

After another four days of getting nowhere, I spent Wednesday night tossing and turning, in that twilight place between dreams and wakefulness. I woke up sluggish and cranky. To get through the day without channeling Ishmael and knocking people’s hats off or taking to the sea, I decided to work out to an exercise video.

In the middle of a kick, it all fell into place. Instead of the verbal slip by the killer that I thought I needed, what I really needed was a prop. Something my police detectives could see and comment on, but that would only make sense in that final chapter. Not a piece of evidence at the crime scene . . . no, something commonplace. Something I could put in plain sight in an everyday setting. Something the killer saw and realized action needed to be taken.

When I thought of this prop everything else fell into place. I saw it all. I was there in my killer’s head and understood why three people had to die.

My mystery isn’t likely to be adapted as a musical, but I’ve been doing my happy dance with occasional whoops of joy.

As Leanna observed, learning about the creative processes of people in other fields can make us better writers. I’m going to take an acting course and maybe one on set design, learn to play the guitar, and how to sculpt. Take a cooking course . . . seriously, I do need to get out of my own little world more.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Steve Jobs, part deux

I found Aline’s posting from yesterday very interesting. I don’t think we’re that far apart in years (and one never asks about age, does one?), so my experience with “writing technology” is quite similar. I had an added impetus to explore technological change, though, due to the fact that I’m left-handed.

My long story is a sad one. My first grade teacher was a newbie, born of the (somewhat misguided) school of thought that “the child should express him/herself”. This apparently extended to the way we gripped those fat red pencils kids use in the lower grades. To say I have an oddball grip of writing implements is being exceptionally kind. I also write overhand, so being a lefty, the side of my hand trails across the paper. Soft or hard lead, all pencil writing was smudged – badly. I also had to be very careful with pens. The cheap ones seemed to work best, so I used those. With those hand-cramping Bic pens I struggled through high school and university, dreading all tests that involved a lot of writing. One time, my hand cramped so badly I couldn’t finish the exam. My teacher kindly granted me an extra half hour.

Needless to say, I discovered typewriters very early. My mom had an old Olivetti that I loved and I did a lot of my homework on that machine. My graduation present from high school was a portable typewriter and that took me through university. I’m with Aline about carbons, too. Awful things...

For the above reasons, I also went to computers very early on. Working in schools helped there, too, since we had the odd Trash 80 and Apple IIs. What got me heavily into computers, though, involves a nasty run-in involving a very complicated musical score.

I was conducting the Wind Ensemble at the Royal Conservatory of Music here in Toronto and I decided to do a transcription of “Venus” from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. It took many hours of work to get all 36 parts sketched out on huge sheets of manuscript paper. When it came time to do a final pristine copy in pen, each side of each page would take 6 hours of tough work. For one page, instead of turning it over, I flipped it over with the result that I spent 12 hours on the two sides and it was unusable since the verso side was upside down. I won’t even go into the hours it took to write out all the individual parts. It was a black time indeed and I knew there had to be a better way.

Enter a program called Pro Composer that allowed one to produce a decent-looking score and automatically extract all the parts. Gone was the largest part of the tediousness of composition. Pro Composer also played back my compositions so I would know when I handed out the parts that they had no mistakes. That’s a real boon when teaching students, believe me.

It was an easy extension to realize that computers were perfect for writing. And this is where Steve Jobs comes in to the story. A lot of people aren’t aware that he insisted on even early Apple programs that they allow users to produce great typography. We can thank him indirectly for scalable fonts and a lot of the typographical nuances that are available on all computers. He pushed that and got third party vendors involved, too.

Sadly, this doesn’t mean that everyone produces great typography on their PCs. That requires a bit of study and care, but even out of the box, it isn’t hard to make our work look pretty good – and readable. Word processors are really lovely inventions.

I still enjoy writing by hand. I even use fountain pens after I found an incredibly quick-drying ink and the right kinds of paper. There’s something so visceral about putting words down on paper by hand. First of all, one tends to think a little bit more before scribbling one’s deathless prose.

But I can certainly say that I probably wouldn’t be a writer if computers hadn’t come along. Even with a typewriter and correction fluid, producing several hundred pages is definitely not fun.

Oh, and my first word of advice to anyone who yearns for the life of an ink-stained wretch is to learn how to touch type. I did when I was 42 using Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. It took me 3 months of 10-15 minutes every day and that was the best time investment I’ve probably ever done.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The sad death of Steve Jobs has been all over the papers this weekend, and as I sat down at my desk in Scotland to write this blog, which will appear thousands of miles away on your computer or your i-Pad or your i-Phone on Monday morning, it prompted me to look back in wonder at what has happened to the act of writing in my lifetime.

I didn't use a quill pen, exactly, but in every other way my childhood stories were written just the way William Shakespeare wrote his plays – though maybe it kind of worked better for him than for me. Then I was given a typewriter, and how excited I was that my stories now looked like the proper kind you found in a book. It was a little less thrilling when it came to writing real books that way, though. Anyone else remember the hassle of putting in the carbon paper to get a copy, and how often it went in the wrong way round and you didn't discover till you had typed the whole page, which now had a mirror-writing version on the back? Then there were the smears of ink that got on your hands and thence to your face, not to mention the joys of Tippex which never dried as quickly as you thought it would. When an editor wanted changes, you wept as you re-typed the whole thing, page after page.

The Amstrad heralded the dawn of a new age. I viewed mine with respectful terror, but threw out the Tippex with a whoop and a holler. Faster and faster the changes came, bringing the bliss of word count, spell check, cut and paste, headers and footers, attachments. No more bulky ms to be run off and posted at vast expense. No problem with editorial changes. Hours of harmless fun deciding a semicolon would be better than a comma there, deciding it wasn't after all and changing it back. And now, with a few clicks of the mouse, a book that can be launched without even the formality of putting it on to paper.

It's been a wonderful journey, and I'm grateful to have been along for the ride, if perhaps a little dizzy. But to be honest, when I'm starting out to write a scene, or when things get sticky, it's back to the old pen and paper. It worked for Will, after all.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

And Then She Ate a Peach

Remember, you are what you eat. Here’s what I am today:

2 pieces of raisin toast, 2 cups of coffee;a sample of sunflower butter on toast from Trader Joes; 1/2 Ambrosia apple; 1 cup of vanilla rooibos tea. 1 container apricot mango yogurt; 1 eggplant rollentini frozen entree; 1/2 chocolate chip cookie. 8 mini-pretzels.

Does that tell you anything about me?

Sylvester Stallone once said that he ate lots of protein before filming Rocky, because lots of protein builds your muscles and slows your thinking, and lots of carbs before filming the movie Assassins* because carbs give you a shot of energy and help you think fast. When you saw Rocky Balboa slug down a glassful of raw eggs, did that tell you anything about his character?

Just as a character’s surroundings, clothing, dialect and vocabulary, or choice of friends and activities show you a lot about what kind of a person she is without the author having to tell you, I’ve been noticing that what the character eats and how, and his attitude toward food, can do the same.

I mentioned this to my husband, and he told me that a particular passage in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises has stuck with him for years since it set such a scene for him. He read about a group of men traveling through Spain together who take time out to eat lunch, and, forty years later he still remembers the menu : They drank red wine out of a goatskin bag and ate tuna, boiled eggs, and lettuce with a little vinegar on it. Can you see it? The camaraderie, the Spanish countryside, the young men roughing it with a makeshift meal.

To test this theory, I closed my eyes and pulled three random mysteries off my shelf and leafed through to see if I could find a place where the author used food to set a scene or gave us insight into a character.

1. Bailey Ruth may be a ghost, but that doesn’t mean she’s not interested in food. This is a scene from Merry Merry Ghost, by Carolyn Hart : “On a sideboard stretched an array of tantalizing holiday treats: cheese, fruity, crackers, brownies, and what might be the remnants of a birthday cake.
I was ravenously hungry. Being on the earth, even when not visible, I needed food and sleep. I found that interesting. I zoomed to the sideboard, eyeing the Brie."

2. Does Ellie Foreman feel comfortable with her wealthy and privileged lunch companions? What do you think? From An Image of Death, by Libby Fischer Hellmann: “...I shoveled salad into my mouth feeling just a bit overwhelmed.
The waiters cleared our plates, then brought out brandy snifters filled with sorbet. As I smiled up my thanks, I caught the waiter staring at my chest. I looked down. A dark, oily stain was spreading across my blouse ...I propped an elbow o the table, in an effort to hide the offending spot. Resting my chin on my hand, I tried to appear thoughtful."

3. I think we know just what Jessie’s ex-cop dad and dad’s old partner were like, now. Taken from Liar’s Anonymous, by Louise Ure : “After five eight-hour shifts a week, they fished Pena Blanca Lake together for stipers, smallies, and wahoo, and practiced their fire-extinguishing skills every weekend barbecuing ribs and beer-soaked chicken in the backyard."

I was three for three.

*actually, I believe it was Paradise Alley, but I think his character was smarter in Assassins.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Novel to Story

About a year ago, when I published my first short story, my agent asked if I had a story featuring the protagonist in the novel he was shopping on my behalf. His point: if I could sell a story featuring the same character, it might give my protagonist traction with the publishing houses we were approaching. (Logical? Maybe. Then again, who can figure out the publishing industry?) It was a mute point anyway. Neither of the two stories I wrote last year and sold to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine feature the female border patrol agent who stars in my would-be new series. But I've been thinking of my agent's comment ever since.

I have always loved Ed McBain's short story "Sadie When She Died" and have read it many times. The story features McBain's 87th Precinct family and offers a unique plot twist at the end, one readers (at least this one) never saw coming the first time through.

An interesting aside: McBain later turned the story into a novel—same title, same plot. It makes perfect sense; the story is compelling, the motivation behind the antagonist's rationale fascinating. And, of course, the police procedural aspects are interesting and insightful as with all of McBain’s work. The process also makes sense because many writers—McBain, I believe I read somewhere, included—begin writing stories before moving on to novels, the thought being that one should master the shorter form before attempting the longer one.

However, I did not begin writing fiction this way. I sold five novels before trying my hand at the short-story genre. I tend to "see" my stories in a much longer structure, rather than the three-act story sequence.

Yet this week I finished a story that came to life in a manner opposite McBain's creation of "Sadie When She Died." I turned the plot of a 90,000-word novel into a 5,300-word story. The process was fascinating—and far from easy. I began the story in July and struggled mightily along the way. The story’s conclusion results in the same outcome, yet the ending is, as one might imagine, different from the novel’s. And I'm left considering which I like better. Probably the novel's ending.

Regardless, the process was unique and educational. The plot of the novel is a spider web, roaming from one event to another, some related. The story, though, demanded that I fine-tune the plot and add what probably amounts to a three-act structure.

Going story-to-novel has got to be easier than to going novel-to-story. But like writing a reserve outline, I learned exactly where I digressed.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

To Tweet or not to Tweet ... that is the question

Like many authors - or perhaps it's just me - I've questioned the effectiveness of Twitter. I rarely tweet and what tweets I tweet are those generated by default via some fancy-smancy Facebook or Linkedin connection that my techno savvy friend Yunhe (pronounced Win-hay) set up.

Most of the time I wait for a big batch of Twitter requests to build up in my inbox and then accept them whilst I'm on hold on the telephone at work. Am I a terrible person? Who am I to reject a request? I need all the social friends I can get. I'm not exactly sure why but since everyone else is doing it, I don't want to get left behind. I am a bit more circumspect about people I follow though. I like to look at who they are and what they do.

So you can imagine my absolute delight when something actually fabulous and productive came from Twitter. Since my Vicky Hill series will come out in the UK next year I started to pay attention to any British writers or journalists who were asking to follow me. One was freelance journalist and writer, Walter Ellis  On checking Walter's website, I found out that he and I had worked for the newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell a gazillion years ago.

One thing led to another and to cut a long story short, Walter put me in touch with Chris McVeigh, a digital publishing consultant who runs his own company called FourFiftyOne on both sides of the pond.

It turns out that not only does Chris work closely with my new publishers—Constable & Robinson—but he lives about six miles away from me in Santa Monica. I'm meeting him for coffee soon to hopefully draw up a plan of action.

True, this smacks of six degrees of separation and all that but frankly Twitter provided the missing link.

So from now on, I'm all atwitter.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

And now this short commercial break...

I’ve spent yesterday and today, helping get my website reorganized, releases designed and emails, Facebook and other announcements done, all to do my part so that my new novel can get its launch into the world. Orchestrated Murder was released on October first and is now available at fine bookstores and all online booksellers.

That’s right; I have a new book out. It’s part of the same same series that released Barbara’s excellent novel of last spring, The Fall Guy.

Have to take a short flight or wait for a doctor’s appointment? Rapid Reads are not only short novels for people on the go, they’re also aimed at those whose reading skills are not quite comfortable, or for those for whom English is not their first language. Even though they have simplified construction and structure, they’re also fully realized and the publisher insists that they tell an excellent story.

I enjoyed writing this book. And now you can enjoy reading it! Click HERE to find out more.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled blog.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Tempus Fugit

Donis here, Dear Readers. Time passes so quickly that it alarms me sometimes. How did I get anything done at all in my real life when I worked for other people? The truth is that I didn't, or at least I was only able to do whatever was absolutely necessary to live.

Now my work is writing, and work at it I do, and yet it still feels to me that I'm always short of time. Days bleed into one another, and weeks, and months, and a year passes without my quite being aware of how it happened. It seems that I'm constantly busy, and yet I feel like I make little progress.

Yet when I remember the monumental events in my past, the ones that changed my life or set me on a new path, I realize that most of them happened quickly, sometimes in an instant. I think of that when I'm frustrated, when it comes to me that I have less and less time in front of me to fool around with and wonder if it's just going to be like this for the rest of my life.

In the words of that immortal philosopher, Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'til it's over."

With that in mind, I keep plugging along on the new book, and I finally see an end to the first draft, at least. I need a few more good weeks of writing. October is shaping up to be very busy, so I'm working hard to get as much done as I can before things get crazy(er).

As for the new book, it's interesting to see how it's shaping up. No matter what you plan to write, things show up in books that never occurred to you when you started out. Funny. You dig deep for your characters, and bring up a lot of stuff that was way down inside yourself.