Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In The End Was The Beginning

Early on in my writing career a friend of my mother's made an infuriating comment over dinner. On being asked how I was getting on with my book I said, "I'm on the fifth draft at the moment." He looked startled and said, "Why can't you get it right the first time?"

I was glad when my mother never invited him back.

It was months ago—way back in July when I happily announced to all and sundry that I had finally "turned" in my fifth book. Well ... since then I've turned in the same book three more times and that's just to my agent. My editor received her copy only last Wednesday and of course I know I'll be doing a few more rounds with her. If only I could get it right the first time!

My biggest challenge is always the first ten pages. When I hear of other writers having to write the first chapter of a sequel that will be tagged onto their soon-to-be-published book as a bonus, I quake in my boots because I always write the first chapter last. When I'm starting a book, I begin on chapter two and it's only at the end that I write the beginning because I believe "in the end is the beginning."

Those first few pages are important—the first sentence is crucial. You want to reassure the reader that there is a great story there and pull them right on in.

Writing instructor and guru Lisa Cron believes the biggest mistake many writers make is withholding the very information at the beginning of their book that would hook the reader in. If you haven't already read Lisa's book Wired For Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook the Readers from the Very First Sentence—go and buy a copy. It's excellent.

She believes the following three elements should be right there in the first paragraph.

1. All stories can be summed up in one sentence—all is not as it seems and/or something surprising or out of the ordinary is about to happen.
2. Who is the story happening to? Whose skin are we going to be in?
3. Something needs to be at stake. Something we can sense is hanging in the balance.

Here are a few of my favorite first sentences—

Ronald Hugh Morrieson: The Scarecrow
"The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut."

Donna Tartt: The Secret History
"The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation."

Dick Francis: Nerve
"Art Mathews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races."

Charlie Howard: The Good Thief's Guide to Venice
"There was a burglar in my apartment, and for once it wasn't me."

Dodie Smith: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."

Anyone want to add their favorites?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A further word on e-books and ownership

If I can find a spare moment, I try to cruise the internet once or twice a week to look for possible topics for a Type M blog. Last week, very late one night when I couldn’t sleep and was too brain-dead to write, I spent a profitable few minutes and came up with a dandy topic – from very close to home, too.

First, you should read the article: Amazon tells customer she doesn’t own her e-books.

If you read my blog post two weeks ago, it’s not big news that you’re only licensing an e-book when you buy from Amazon, but this article sort of brings the whole thing home in a visceral way, doesn’t it? Even though it was a mistake, this woman’s access to her entire e-book library was taken away from her.

I was also was quite amazed when I wrote the original post – which was more about Amazon “cyberly” looking over your shoulder as you use your Kindle – how many people wrote to me commenting, “So what? Everybody on line spies on you.”

I don’t want to get stuck in that philosophical swamp again, so we’ll move on to the topic of the day: do you think it’s a good thing that you actually don’t own e-books that you’ve purchased for your e-reader?

I can see where the company is coming from. They want to sell as many e-books as possible. They don’t want their customers handing them out for free. So if you’re caught breaking Amazon’s rules, they can toss you out of the sandbox and keep everything you’ve purchased from them. That’s how software licensing works. Companies don’t often exercise their right to take software away, but they can. Should e-books be considered under the same rules as a computer program? They are in the US – a court ruling. That’s not the case here in Canada, and I don’t know what the situation is in other countries.

In the reported case here, it was all a big misunderstanding, but the main point of the story for me is that you don’t own any of your e-book purchases made on a Kindle. To my mind, that’s too much power for them to assume.I’ll bet some publishers don’t even know about this part of their dealings with the retail giant. By the way, as you now know, Kobo and books purchased from Apple iTunes, are treated the same way.

E-books are a wonderful thing. They’re fantastic for traveling, great for people with a large reading habit and limited space for books, and a cheaper way to find new authors.

But wouldn’t it be nice if Amazon was very clear right up front that you’re only buying the right to look at work they actually own? I have to live with the fact that I don’t own the software that I buy to run my computer. I don’t want that same situation with books I purchase. What’s next? You don’t own the refrigerator you bought from the appliance store? The deal here is that corporations want as much control as they can muscle over the resale of their products to a third party. Since e-books are electronic, they can get this control, something that can’t be done with print books.

It’s high time the book industry decided the conditions under which they want all their books sold. If it’s decided that the “Amazon licensing model” is the way to proceed, then well and good, but I would think they wouldn’t be happy to get caught in the middle of property disputes between e-book vendors and readers. Publishing life is complicated enough without that.

Monday, October 29, 2012

October gloom

The clocks went back this weekend and now we're into the part of the year I always hate.  The daylight hours get shorter, the evenings and mornings get darker day by day, the weather gets worse and it feels as if we're moving further and further into a dark tunnel with not even a glmpse of a reassuring light at the end.

Not only that, I'm in the dark tunnel stage of my new book as well, when it's getting more and more complex and I'm starting to panic at the thought that not only can't I see the light of the way out at the other end, I'm not even sure that it's there at all.  And with a March deadline I can't even decide that there's another, much simpler book idea out there somewhere and maybe I should just chuck this one and start again.

I keep telling myself that this is exactly how I always feel at this stage in a book and somehow it will work out if I stay calm and stop worrying at three in the morning about how on earth I did that stuff of getting all the strands straightened out and pulled together at the end before..

There's a little verse that comes to mind:

A centipede was happy quite, 
Until a toad in fun
Said, 'Pray, which leg comes after which?'
This raised her mind to such a pitch
She lay distracted in a ditch
Considering how to run.

I know looking too far ahead isn't constructive and that if I can convince myself to trust the story, take one day at a time and hand over what's going to happen to my subconscious mind instead of letting the bossy conscious one barge in to start trying to rearrange the furniture, it will be all right..  Probably.  At least I hope it will.  I'm relying on gravity to sort it out - the gravity of what would happen if it didn't.

And where the daylight is concerned, once St Lucy's Day, the winter solstice, is past, even if January and February still lie ahead we're heading into light not darkness so it's all right.

Of course, were were all along, from a technical point of view.  Just doesn't feel like that in blasted October.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Nobody knows nothing

That's one of my favorite quotes. It's attributed to William Goldman (novelist, playwright, and Academy Award-winning screenwriter). He offered that statement to explain that no one knows what it takes to make a hit movie.

I feel the same way about what it takes to make a bestseller novel. Name recognition helps. If I wrote under Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, or J.K. Rowling, then it's a pretty good bet that my book would shoot to the top of the lists.

But what about the rest of us?

I think I know a little more than the layman about writing fiction and getting published, and with five published novels to my credit, I presume that I have the credentials to teach long fiction. While I can sift from the "needs work" to the "pretty good," beyond that, I'm shooting from the hip. Once you get above the "pretty good," it's really a matter of style. I've read a manuscript that didn't do much for me and it went on to be a huge seller and garner a movie deal. And there are books that strike me as outstanding and yet they limp along practically forgotten in mid-list Purgatory.

At writing conferences I feel that the wanna-be's think I hold a secret key that will unlock the doors into the publishing world; that there's some formula that A + B + C = Publishing Deal. If that formula exists, I wish I knew it, because I'd use the hell out of it.

Writers get a lot of bad advice, and the present turmoil in the publishing industry, vis-à-vis ebooks and social media, really churns the mud. I've attended more than a few writing workshops with no actual book authors on the faculty. And there seem to be a plethora of panels with titles like: "How to Twitter (FaceBook, Instagram, etc.,) your way to a million dollars in ebook sales." Which makes me want to ask, "If it's so easy, then why aren't you stinking-ass rich?"

Plus there are experts who give you a list of "thou shall naughts and ye must do" for your writing. Among them: no backstory in the first twenty pages (I surveyed an armload of novels and every one of them violated that rule, regardless of genre.); never use omniscient POV; the inciting incident must be in the first chapter (or the second, the third, whatever); the first sentence must introduce the story question; never switch POV without waving a "I'm switching POV flag" to the reader; never use big words; never use info dumps. All these admonitions fill your head with barbed wire.

So what to tell you?

One. No one cares about your writing but you. If you give up, then you'll never get published.

Two. Read and write. Read and write. Read and write.

Three. Keep the faith. There is so much in this business that is out of your hands. If you get a chance, read the Foreword in Rex Pickett's hardback edition of Sideways. The man suffered the trials of Job, and Fate seemed determined to screw him at every turn...yet he prevailed because he didn't give up on himself.

So while nobody knows nothing in this business, you should know enough to keep writing.

Friday, October 26, 2012

And Now For A Little Conflict

Frankie here. I am now two weeks into the four-week "Introduction to Mystery Writing" course that I am teaching on Sunday afternoons at a public library. Last week we were discussing creating characters, and I talked about the importance of both internal and external conflict. I commented on how useful it is to create characters who by virtue of their personalities are naturally going to be at odds -- e.g., Felix and Oscar, the original "odd couple" (the neatnik and the slob).

But it has occurred to me that I should have added -- actually, I hope they realized -- that, within those categories into which we place people and characters, there is much variation. Take dog lovers. Different from cat lovers, but also different from each other. For example, the "lap dog" lovers (who prefer a small, cuddly dog) versus those canine lovers who want what one of them described to me as a "real dog" (who won't suffer serious damage if you step on him and can hold his own in a brawl).And then there is the "bed/no bed" debate. Even two dog lovers who agree on a breed of dog might be at daggers drawn about whether the dog should sleep in their bed.

Last week's discussion about character development and this week's reading of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (about a wife gone missing and a marriage gone bad) have me thinking about such conflicts. I have been relying on conflict through the five books in my Lizzie Stuart series to avoid having my lead characters fall prematurely and permanently into romantic bliss. Five books in, they are in love and engaged, but they are not two people who will be able to live together without ripples and tensions.

Barbara's post on Wednesday made me really think about what having two characters who are together means with each new book. I am not planning to kill one of them off, but I am now at the point where my list of secondary characters is becoming long. Although Lizzie's grandparents who raised her are both dead, they aren't silent. They sometimes pop into her head with folksy observations. And then there is her mother, Becca, the femme fatale, who was long-gone, but then was temporarily found. Lizzie also has a best friend, who lives in Chicago, and her best friend has a toddler, a new boyfriend, and an ex-husband. Lizzie has a neighbor who I like a lot, colleagues at school, a favorite student, a benefactor who gave her a house for her institute, and an elderly woman, Miss Alice, who owns a restaurant and was Lizzie's grandmother's childhood friend. Quinn, too, comes with his family, friends, and acquaintances. His best friend Wade, who has a wife, a former soap opera star, and a child (Quinn's godson). The friends were the focus of the last book. Quinn's family -- mother, step-father, half-sister, sister's husband and children -- make their appearance in the next book during a Thanksgiving gather.

I'm already getting anxiety attacks about that wedding that's supposed to be coming up. Where is it going to happen? How do I juggle all those folks?

In the soap operas that Barbara mentioned, when the characters and their stories start to pile up the writers get them all in one place -- at a wedding, for example -- and clean house with a fire, a bomb, or a building collapse. The body count for such catastrophes tends to be surprisingly low, with few characters killed off and most of them gathering in the hospital waiting room where they take stock and mend fences.

No solution there. My wedding problem remains, looming two books in front of me. Maybe Lizzie and Quinn will argue to a stand-still about where the wedding should be held and who should be invited and then compromise by eloping. That would certainly solve my problem about all those wedding invitations to send out. Except my engaged couple are much too reasonable and sensible to disappoint everyone by heading to Las Vegas. Oh, for a little conflict when you really need it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

To cut or not to cut

Barbara here. I am writing today about an unusual dilemma faced by authors who write long-running series. That is, what should we do with the excess baggage and characters that a series collects along the way? My friend and blogmate Tom Curran got me thinking about it when he mentioned his difficulties moving ahead with his latest Inspector Stride novel. He had an interesting backstory and characters in mind but was finding the plot unwieldy and wondered if he shouldn't throw the whole idea out in favour of a fresh book. His dilemma? He was having trouble letting go of the stories and characters, because they were so rich.

We writers do get attached to our creations. The characters, even minor ones, become part of our lives; we talk to them daily and conjure up all sorts of conflicts and horrors for them to endure. Over a long series, their lives and their histories become more and more complex. In the courses of nine books, I have not only put Inspector Green through the wringer, but his colleagues Brian Sullivan, Sue Peters and Bob Gibbs as well. And I have come to relish the trouble his daughter gets up to, each adding a gray hair to Green's head (who doesn't want to relive their teenage rebellion through the actions of their characters?), and have loved watching his young son grow and his wife struggle to understand and accept the flawed but very special man she married. His father, especially, has a warm place in my heart.

I should note that writers are not the only ones who care what their characters are up to. I get mail advising me what to do with the daughter, wondering why the wife doesn't throw him out, and threatening me with bodily harm if I kill off the father.

Yet sometimes, something has to give, lest a series get bloated with characters who have outlived their usefulness and whose struggles begin to get stale. Lest the series, God forbid, starts to repeat itself! Or lest new conflicts piled upon conflicts become positively Shakespearean in scope, as happens in soap operas and in too-long-running TV series, making the whole series laughable. How many death-defying accidents can one character endure, how many divorces, remarriages, deaths..?

Sometimes an author just has to clean house. Who to keep and who to throw to the wolves? How to shake things up and give the series a needed renovation without destroying the essence of its appeal? I am facing that dilemma as I write the opening chapters of the tenth novel in the Inspector Green series. Ten novels! When I started, I never thought I could endure ten! Only by adding and taking away characters, by shaking things up and by having complications evolve and change, have I managed to sustain the series to this point. There were readers horrified at what I did to Brian Sullivan in This Thing of Darkness (I was pretty horrified too). Other readers were askance when I contemplated adding another child to Green's life. Wait for The Whisper of Legends in April to see how that goes.

Sometimes authors take a less drastic approach by simply promoting or transferring characters out of the series, or by sending them on a holiday for a book or two, by which times both author and readers may welcome them back like long lost friends. At other times, authors take a scalpel to the heart of the series. Elizabeth George killed off Inspector Lynley's wife and Giles Blunt killed off John Cardinal's wife. These are not spoilers; they are in the jacket blurbs. That certainly gets rid of characters and provides a whole new emotional landscape to be explored with the principal character. When I briefly contemplated killing off Green's wife, I realized it had been done before. What could have been a gut-wrenching twist to the series risked being a cliche instead.

So far in my latest work-in-progress, both the junior detectives with the trouble-plagued love story have made appearances, as has Green's wife Sharon. But there remains the dilemma of his father, who has made only minor appearances in the last couple of books. I have loved him dearly since Once Upon a Time, for he brings out the tender, filial side of Green. But at nearly ninety years old, frail and ailing, there may come a time when Green, the readers, and I need to say good bye. How will I let him go, and when?

I don't know yet. Sometimes I never do, until the shock occurs.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

More thoughts on signings and presentations

Donis’s post of this weekend brings up a lot of salient points about an author navigating the treacherous waters of being out and about in public. It is indeed incredibly important for us to be able to take advantage of any opportunity to get out and talk to the wider community. Book signings, readings, talks, interviews, any event must see us prepared and aware of how we’re coming across. The bottom line should always be: if I’m successful, people will be excited to read my books. If there are sales going on at the event, you can gauge the effectiveness of how you presented yourself. Those are golden opportunities of which we must take advantage.

Having been an educator for twenty-four years (“crowd control with a beat”, i.e. teaching instrumental music), I learned early on how important it is to present yourself properly. Kids are very unforgiving. We all know how if they sense blood, they will “attack”. Remember that teacher who was gone by Christmas in their first year? We all have one of those in our past, I’m sure. Generally, they’re the ones with poor classroom skills.

Teachers also must know how to communicate effectively with their colleagues and with parents. Some of this is taught in Ed classes taken in university, but often it’s just knowledge gained along the way. Some teachers get it, some don’t.

Regardless of background, an author must realize that the job description includes, first and foremost, effectively selling yourself and your product (books).

So here are some of my personal observations based on a lot of signings (hundreds at this point), interviews (sadly, too, too few), readings and panels. Several are gleaned from hard knocks I’ve taken along the way. Hey, I’ve made the mistake, and if I can help you avoid the same error, that’s a good thing.

1. The most important (and is taken directly from my musical experience): Practice makes perfect. I cannot stress this enough. Don’t do a reading without practising it thoroughly out loud – and record it. Your attention is too scattered when you are doing the reading to analyze what it is sounding like. Be tough and honest with yourself, and then practise some more.

[A helpful hint (from a much earlier post here on Type M): you don’t have to read everything that’s in the passage you’ve selected. Lengthy descriptive passages should be truncated or eliminated altogether. You also should not plan to read from the book itself. Throw the passage (edited if that’s needed) on paper, using an easy to read typeface at a larger size and double-spaced. That way, if the light is poor, you’ll still be able to see things well.]

2. Modulate your voice and make a conscious effort to slow down your speech. We all get nervous and that generally makes us speak more quickly. Fight against that! You will be much more effective if you change your vocal tone so that everything doesn’t come out in a monotone.

3. Speak clearly. This is doubly important in an echoey space. If you don’t have a mic, speak to the back wall. Have water handy to keep your throat and vocal cords well irrigated. Again, recording yourself is invaluable. Also, try to find a large space and have a friend sit at the back if you can – then listen to what they tell you. Remember: speaking in public, especially reading, is a performance. Oh, and look at your audience as much as you can. Don’t bury your head in your papers.

4. When you’re speaking “off the cuff” monitor yourself for “ums”, “ahs” and other words that accomplish absolutely nothing. They’re also really off-putting after awhile, make you sound unsure of yourself, and break up your message. You wouldn’t allow “waffle words” in your prose, would you? They may also be a habit of your normal speech; they’re certainly a crutch you don’t need. Don’t let your voice rise at the end of a sentence, unless it’s a question. Again, this makes you sound as if you’re not sure of your topic.

I’m blessed with a son who has a diploma in public relations and he’s come to events, sitting there logging the number of ums and ahs, the number of times I went off topic or rambled, repeating myself. He also timed how long I spoke. The results were truly amazing to me in that I wasn’t really aware of any of my errors. It helps to make some quick notes (if you have time while others are speaking), to sort your ideas, come up with a pithy phrase or two, and help keep you on topic.

I firmly believe that being effective when speaking in public is simply a matter of wanting to be good and practice. Like any other skill, it can be learned. The nice thing is that you don’t have to pay for lessons, although if you are inclined in that direction, find the nearest chapter of Toastmasters International. They have programs that will really help you.

If you dread speaking in public, once you’ve learned to at least do it reasonably well, you may find yourself actually enjoying and looking forward to it. We’ve all got a bit of ham in us.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Dis 'n' Dat

I am back from my U.K. trip for going on two weeks now, and really very pleased to be home. I am also pleased finally to be just about over my jet lag. I guess I have been lucky in the past with transatlantic trips; this year was the first time I had to deal with jet lag. Up until now, I have always felt, in a silly superior sort of way, that jet lag was for the weaker members of the species. I was wrong. I now know that it is real, and that it can be a bloody pain. Tired and sleepy very early in the evening – 8 p.m. in Ottawa is 1a.m. in London – and coming wide awake at 3 a.m. in my Ottawa bed, which is 8 a.m. on the other side of the Atlantic. But now I am more or less back on what I laughingly call my "schedule"; sleeping better, and less semi-comatose during the normal waking hours.

The trip was a great success. A week at a comfortable flat in London on Shaftesbury Avenue, at the intersection with Charing Cross. From our flat's window, we could look out on the marquee of the Palace Theatre, where the stage remake of Singin' In The Rain was playing; and with all those wonderfully colorful umbrellas to help us greet the new day - which was often overcast, and sometimes - appropriately - rainy:


A central location, our flat, within easy walking distance to all sorts of neat places. Like the Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and the two big galleries, The National and The National Portrait. And just as important, the TKTS booth in Leicester Square where we trooped down each morning to scan the available theatre tickets for the night's entertainment. And, yes, SITR was one of the shows we took in. We didn't have great seats - nosebleed territory, really - but the show was very good. And in one number, Moses Supposes, it was rather better than the original, in tone, if not in technical execution. Who, after all, could hope to match Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly's dancing? Well, no one, really.

And speaking of dancing, our first theatre outing had us attending Top Hat, another stage remake of a classic film. Here I can report that the stage show was as entertaining as the original film. I didn't miss Ginger Rogers much (I liked Summer Stralllen better), although I did miss Fred Astaire. How could I not? Tom Chambers is a great dancer, and a better singer than Astaire, but he isn't Freddie, and that's a fact. But the production was brilliant, the dancing fabulous. In some ways - hard to believe - the stage show was an improvement on the original.

Top Hat the Musical


With all there is to see and do in London, it's almost possible to forget that one is supposed to be working hard on one's fourth Inspector Stride novel. I had planned to bring my laptop with me, but it's a weighty and somewhat antiquated IBM Thinkpad, and in the end I left it home. And I am glad that I did. There was no real point in the two weeks when I felt like sitting down to write. Too much to do and see. The IBM would have been just so much ballast.

Thinking about writing is another matter, of course. That always happened when we turned out the light each night. And happened again when I woke up in the middle of the night. Every night. As in, where is this fourth book - tentatively titled Birthright, and involving a brutal murder in the St. John's of 1948, and a long flashback narrative to Stride's time in Cuba during his rum-running days in 1933 - really going? Is it in fact going anywhere? I have been wrestling with this book, in various forms, for more years now than I like to acknowledge. The thought has occurred, more than once, that I should return it to the famous back burner - way in the back - and start all over with an entirely new book. But there are situations and characters in the problematic book that I do not want to give up on. Not quite yet. How many writers, I wonder, have an albatross like that to contend with? Quite a few - most? - I think.

But not, apparently, James Patterson. In the middle of all my agonising about Birthright, and its dodgy prospects for completion, I read in a recent issue of the Globe And Mail, a piece on Patterson that starts off with these two sentences: "James Patterson must be slowing down. Between now and year's end, he's only releasing eight novels. Three will come humming off Patterson's Alex Cross asssembly line, adding to the 17 he has already printed in the best-selling series."

James Patterson's total estimated sales of books in all the genres he works in are 150 million. That, btw, places him well behind Agatha Christie's 4 billion, more than sprinting distance behind Jackie Collins's 250 million, and Robert Ludlum's 290 million. None of that, though, is likely to cause Patterson any great amount of anxiety; not while he can stretch out by the 75-foot pool at his five-bedroom, $17 million beachfront cottage in Palm Beach, Florida.

Patterson claims that he doesn't take himself very seriously. He writes, so he says, because it's really just play for him. And to the inevitable question about when he might retire - he is at the magic age of 65 - he simply replies that one does not retire from "play". And good for him.

Even if I didn't try to write anything - other than the occasional email - while I was in the U.K., the alphabetic albatross was never far away. If not actually hanging around my neck, then close by, peeking around a corner of an ancient building in London, lurking behind a bush on the Thames Trail, or mingling with the thousands of sheep we encountered on our hikes in the Cotswolds.

On our last day in the Cotswolds sojourn, we rode a bus to Stow-on-the-Wold - and, yes, the name is hyphenated - and there I did my usual. That is, I headed for the nearest bookstore. I did buy a number of books on the trip. Some I bought in Oxford, at Blackwell's - you cannot go into Oxford without going to Blackwell's, after all; and others elsewhere. A visit to Portobello Road saw me come away with two posters on Beatrix Potter Books - The Tailor Of Gioucester, and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers:

   The Tailor of Gloucester


               The Tale of Samuel Whiskers                        

Both of them suitable for framing. That meant, of course, that I had to buy the books also. Which I did. Also, in Stow-on-the-Wold, I picked up a used Penguin paperback, Character Parts, by John Mortimer. It's a collection of interviews that Mortimer did back in 1986. Mortimer, in addition to all his other skills, literary and legal both, was a great interviewer. Great in that he allowed his subject to hold forth, uninhibited, and then added in the essential other bits that fleshed out the character he was speaking with.

John Mortimer, of course, was a brillliant man, a polymath in a sense. He was a successful barrister, a playwright of renown, a novelist and a screenwriter. During the war, he worked with the government's Crown Film Unit; a job that gave him the story-plot for his first novel, Charade. (Which has nothing, btw, to do with the wonderful Cary Grant-Audrey Hepburn film from 1963.) One of Mortimer's greatest achievements was his 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited for Granada Television; a series I own, and have watched at least a dozen times. (And not, heaven forbid, to be confused with the godawful film version from 2008.)

Another of Mortimer's great achievements is his famous Rumpole series. The stories are gathered in six collections. The Rumpole television series, starring the inimitable Leo McKern, was likewise a great success.


Mention of this series, takes me back, however circuitously, to the matter of mystery and crime fiction - loosely defined. One of Mortimer's interviews in the aforementioned Characters, was with Ruth Rendell.

Like the Globe piece on James Patterson, the opening sentences of the Rendell interview caught my attention. Forcefully.

"When it comes to murder and kindred atrocities there is no doubt that women lead the field," Mortimer wrote. "Patricia Highsmith, almost in love with a charming and amoral crook, P.D. James, mistress of forensic detail, and Ruth Rendell divide the field. Unlike their predecessors in the Agatha Christie school of detection, their murders are not bloodless crossword puzzles or parlour games....The nature of evil is, for the present generation of women sleuths, a serious business. They not only have the key to the morgue but are not afraid to venture into the criminal's skull."

Ruth Rendell adds a number of cogent points to Mortimer's observations, partly in her response to the inevitable question: "How do you meet anyone like (the) characters (in your novels)?"

"I walk about, and I watch people. I've got to know some strange characters from all the rooming-houses in London. There are quite a lot of them, friends and relatives of people I met in the late sixties. A great deal of crime writing isn't about crime. It's about people leading ordinary lives. Writing isn't a puzzle, but it's about suspense, keeping going with little moments of uncertainty."

Mortimer finishes his interview with an observation that will please all here at Type M, and anyone anywhere who takes his/her writing seriously:

"If it weren't for a ridiculous literary snobbery about 'crime writing' Ruth Rendell would be acclaimed as one of our most important novelists. She fearlessly inhabits her own disturbing world, writing incessantly and walking. "

And amen to that.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Talked to Death

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel at the annual Western History Association convention. My presentation was about the Harlem Renaissance in Helena, Montana and Laramie, Wyoming. My research and the anthology article I had written were sound.

My talk was not very good. I was embarrassed.

In September, the Ingram's rep at the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers annual trade show told me I needed to talk about my books more if I wanted to sell to independent booksellers. She told me I should practice a talk first and get competent criticism.

I've gotten lazy. Here's where I went wrong with the WHA talk:

I didn't ask enough questions in advance about the format. I'm used to being on panels with an informal exchange of information. The WHA panel involved a serious presentation of one's written work. I had twelve minutes, so I ended up scanning through pages and editing on the the fly. I need to cut the material in advance, time it to the last minute, and practice reading it aloud.

Yes, reading it! These kinds of talks are not intended to be lively. Panels on writing mysteries are quite different. They are propelled by sound bites and witty quips. Fans relish banter among the panelists.

I am going to prepare a short talk for various kinds of groups: I can talk about Western Kansas, homesteading, collecting oral history, geneology, 19th century African Americans, writing mysteries. Lots more, actually. And you can too. The non-fiction aspects of our mysteries can be of interest to a variety of organizations.

Here are a few random observations about giving a successful presentation:

Talks should be timed. I'm going to tape that up somewhere and read it every day until I believe it. Thirty minutes max is usually ideal.

Equipment rarely works. It's sort of a cosmic rule. Arrive early and check things out. Have a back-up plan.

Many, many people hear poorly. The dumbest question we ask is "can everyone hear?" No, they can't. The people who can't hear, didn't hear the question. Sometimes they are too embarrassed to admit it. Use a mike whenever possible.

And now I have a question for the Type M community. At a signing, some people just want to get a book autographed and leave. Dinner to fix, kids to pick up, you know. Some people would like to keep you talking for a hour or more. Both are present at the same event. What is an anxious author to do?

We would like to keep our fans, not talk them to death.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Musings From a Scattered Week

A lot going on this week, but all of it seems disjointed.

Tuesday, I ran a short-story-writing workshop in my daughter's sixth-grade class. It was the culmination of my visit two weeks earlier when I helped each student create a character sketch and write a compelling opening line. They went home and drafted a story. This week, I returned with five high school students from my creative writing workshop, and we helped the students revise. My daughter's teacher will take it from here, and they are to produce a literary journal with all the stories in it. I can't wait for my copy!

On the publishing front, several blurbs for my 2013 novel This One Day have rolled in, which is exciting and makes it feel like having the hardcover in my hands is actually inevitable.

The rest of the week has been spent working on deadline. I've been up early to work a couple hours before school and staying up late to work an hour or so before bed (candle at both ends, so to speak).

I attended a round-robin poetry reading Tuesday. The format consisted of four poets sitting in a row, each reading a poem that related to (or attempted to relate to) the previous poet's poem. Very interesting. Very funny. How neat would that be to do with fiction writers, especially crime writers. Read a scene and have someone follow it with a scene of their own. Anyone ever hear of such a thing?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Data mining and the brave new world of book publishing

I used to believe I was a bit weird when I would find myself siding with conspiracy theorists about the Kennedy assassinations. Reading Aline’s post of yesterday and then doing a bit of research made me feel far more normal – and far more disgusted.

What Amazon is doing with the Kindle, to my mind, is absolutely unconscionable. In this age of hyper-marketing, corporations seem to thing that there are no limits to what kind or amount of information they can collect. Having looked at Amazon’s privacy agreement for the Kindle, I will certainly never buy one.

Do you own a Kindle and did you even skim the privacy policy that you had to agreed to when you bought it? Have you ever read any software agreement?

Being that I’m prone to conspiracy theories in the first place, I have read many licensing agreements for the large software programs I have to use in my daily design work. First off, would you be surprised to know that you likely don’t even own that program you just paid $1500 for? That’s correct. If they wanted to (and I suppose they’d have to have a good reason to do it), the manufacturer could come and take your software away. You’re only licensing it.

The length and complexity of software “agreements” makes it unlikely that most people will bother reading them carefully. We just want to get on with our purchase and get the darn thing installed and running. Heck with the fine print!

In the case of Amazon and Kindle, you’re agreeing to a lot of things, and if you want to use their product, you have to like it or lump it. I haven’t looked at the other e-readers on the market, but I’ll bet they’re doing similar things.

I agree with Aline that a bit of the tracking Amazon is doing through their gadget is understandable, but the fact that they’re basically looking over your shoulder as you’re reading, well, it totally creeps me out, and is way past the boundaries of anything reasonable. In using your Kindle, you’re basically giving Amazon carte blanche to find out way more than I feel they need to. Is that really what you want?

There is another side to this dark coin: they say they value your privacy, but do they really? Their policy is not to share the data they collect. They say they’ll use it to make your Kindle experience better for you. Why then do they need to know what notes your making, how often you read the book, and how quickly? Information is valuable as a commodity. Do we trust these companies not to sell it to interested parties?

If you want to read more on the subject, then click on this article from The Guardian. Be prepared to be frightened.

As far as I’m concerned, convenience be damned. I’m sticking to paper books until this sort of thing stops. I will not agree to more snooping in my life (there’s already more than enough of that through my computer, thank you very much) when I sit down to read a book. The only way we can make Amazon stop is if we complain loudly and strongly.

And as if this weren’t bad enough, use Google to check out what’s going on with the browser on the new Kindle Fire tablet. But be aware that Google is as aggressive as Amazon in their data mining.

Big Browser, anyone?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Big Brother is Watching You

When you read a book on Kindle, do you realise that it is also reading you?

Sign up to Kindle and one of the conditions is that you give them permission  to store information. Fine, you say; they know I'm reading this book because I bought it from them and I expect it's useful for them to compile their sales figures.

It's not only your choice of book they monitor, they monitor what you think of it. Did you know that the tracking information includes how quickly you are reading - the bits you linger over, the passages you read faster, the pages you skip over altogether? They know if you highlight something and analyse the popularity of particular ideas and plotlines. This charmed you, this excited you, that just bored you.

Some publishers are now putting out digital versions where after the book is published, the plot can be changed to go along with the information on what is most appealing to readers. Even more sinisterly, there are algorithms now making it possible for a book to be tailored to the  individual. The book I read, once my affection for Georgette Heyer had been recorded, wouldn't be the book that you, with your affinity to James Joyce, would be reading, even if it had the same title. I have a nightmare vision of a literary Groundhog Day when whatever we chose to read, it would always turn out to be the same book. And even I would get tired of cotillion balls, stage coaches, misunderstandings and a happy ending.

Admittedly commercial writers have always had an eye to popularity. Even Dickens, when he was writing Great Expectations as a newspaper serial, had alternative endings in mind and the one chosen would depend on the reactions of his public.

They were people who wrote to him to volunteer their opinions, though. This seems to me different. Speaking as a reader, this feels like spying on my innermost thoughts, an invasion of my mental privacy. Speaking as a writer, if I'm having a one-to-one conversation with a reader, I don't want anyone else eavesdropping.

Market research and feedback is all very well and we all do it, if we want to stay in print. But if fiction becomes as homogenised as long-life milk, we are looking into the abyss. And, as Nietzsche reminds us, the abyss also looks into us.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Road Trips to the Mysterious Midwest

Our weekend guest is Brenda Chapman. Welcome Brenda!


I have just returned from Cleveland, Ohio and Bouchercon 2012, the American mystery author and fan convention that draws nearly 1500 people from across the continent and the British Isles. This is my second time attending – four years ago, I made the trip to Baltimore where I participated on a writer panel and spent hours being entertained by some best-selling authors that included Harlan Coben, Lee Child, Laura Lippman, John Connolly, Mark Billingham and John Harvey.

I have to confess, I’d never read any of their books and wasn’t even all that familiar with the majority of their names, but four days of listening to them talk about their lives and writing got me hooked. I returned home eager to dive into their books, and soon broadened my mystery-reading horizons. If I am anything to go by, mystery conferences are a worthwhile venture for authors.

The thing that amazed me most at the Baltimore Bouchercon was the fan fervor. During panel Q and A sessions, readers in the audience spoke confidently about characters, plots and settings and asked pointed questions of the authors, sometimes quoting dialogue or discussing motivation as if they know the characters intimately. Some even cited page numbers. These were diehard readers, the likes of which I’d never seen before. By all accounts, Cleveland and the American Midwest is a mystery-reading hub with readers equally if not more knowledgeable, if that's even possible.

I had a small taste of this passion a few years ago when I drove to Muncie, Indiana for a Magna Cum Murder with Mary Jane Maffini at the end of October. En route, we stopped for an event at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch to be specific, just outside of Cleveland. Before our readings, five or six of the librarians took us for dinner at a very good Indian restaurant. The discussion was warm and interesting – their enthusiasm for us as mystery writers and their love of books put us completely at ease – and they really knew their mysteries.

The library was a treat as well. It was an old converted mansion and with rain slashing against the windows, the ‘dark and stormy night’ ambiance was complete. Mary Jane and I read in the gorgeous fountain room to about forty guests. We were treated like visiting rock stars, particularly Mary Jane, who'd already earned an Ohio fanship.

This time, I was better prepared for what lay ahead in Cleveland – I'd read every book in the Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series and she just happened to be the American Guest of Honour. Michael Connelly, one of my favourite authors, also attended, and while he wasn't a guest of honour, he was interviewed and sat on panels. On Friday, I was part of a panel discussing small-town murder, participated in the popular 'Meet the Canucks' event and was a guest of the Cuyahoga Library at a Friday luncheon. The conference provided lots of opportunity to mingle and meet new authors and readers

It was an invigorating few days, for authors and fans alike. I returned home with a new list of authors to read, and hopefully, some of that Midwestern readership now have one or two of my books on their reading list as well.

You never know. Somewhere down the road, it could be my characters those Midwest fans are quoting…

Brenda Chapman is an Ottawa mystery writer with seven published works for both teens and adults. Her latest novel Second Chances was released by Dundurn in September 2012. You can read more about Brenda's Bouchercon trip to Cleveland on her blog at

Friday, October 12, 2012

On Patience and Typos

Rick's post this week reminded me of a conversation I had with another writer while I was at Bouchercon. We were discussing the research on how rituals (e.g., taking the dog for a walk) can be used to enhance creativity. During that conversation, I told the friend I was talking to about something that had happened the week before.  As I may have mentioned here, I need a title before I can really settle down to write anything – whether blog post, article, or book. Sometimes I can put off searching for the right title until I've worked my way through the research and rough outline part of the project. Other times, I'm just stuck and there's no help for it but to try to find a title. Successfully completing that process tells me what I'm writing about.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an idea for a short story set in 1955. The idea came in spurts and starts. It wasn't even clear to me why 1955 rather than 1945 or 1965. Then I remembered Emmett Till, the fourteen boy from Chicago, whose murder in Money, Mississippi and the acquittal of the two men who killed him had been a pivotal moment in the modern civil rights movement. That case was the starting point for the short story that I wanted to write. That was why 1955.

But no words were coming. So I turned to the task of finding a title for a story that I hadn't written. In fact, I obsessed over coming up with a title. I finally remembered the title of the first (still unpublished) mystery that I wrote – and that had nothing at all to do with the short story that I was writing. But the title was perfect. I went to my computer, opened a new document, and typed the title and my name. I was so pleased with myself that I called it a day – saved the page that was blank except for the title and my name – and went out to do an errand.

It was the next day, when I opened the document, that I saw what I had done. The last word in the title of my proposed short story was supposed to be “Due”. That was what I had intended to type. Instead, I had typed “Do”.

And the really fascinating part about how the brain – the subconscious – works is that in that second between seeing and recognizing my “typo” and deleting it, my brain realized that my mistake wasn't a mistake. The "Do" in the title completely changed the meaning. The title became a tongue-in-cheek pun. And the setting of the story, even the protagonist, was now right there in front of me.

And – believe it or not – that simple “typo” had suddenly put my writing universe in order. I have been bouncing back and forth, between past and present, in my Lizzie Stuart series. Lizzie is a crime historian. She does research on crimes in the past and in the process often finds herself dealing with crime in the present. I also have a short story set in 1946 and featuring her grandfather that I wrote for an anthology. And I have been working ever so slowly on a stand-alone set in 1939. And then there is the near-future police procedural set in Albany, New York in 2019 that will be out next year. First, I hope, in a second series. So past, present, future. Bouncing around.

But suddenly with that one “typo”, my subconscious seemed to have pulled it all together. After a half hour of scribbling on a yellow legal pad, I was calling myself “brilliant”.

Or, may be not…It feels right at gut level. It feels right when I outline it. But I need to talk it out with someone who is objective, who has a logical mind. So I'm going to invite a friend of mine, who is both a lawyer and a historian, out to dinner. I'll lay my idea out before her and have her “cross-examine” me about it. Then I'll be able to see if this will work.

Whether it's a good enough idea to truly bring order to my writing universe or only useful in finishing a short story, this experience does fit in with Rick's post about the value (virtue?) of patience for a writer. I have been waiting at least four or five years to learn the identity of my character Lizzie Stuart's father. She doesn't know. I didn't know. But I may now – or, at least, I know his background.

Wait and sometimes you do receive.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Writerly Work Ethic: A Well-Earned Cliche?

Forgive me, Type M Community, for I have sinned (last week).

The fact is, I was far too happy (and thus distracted) not to do so.

But I apologizing here and admit that I missed my post last week. You see, I'm happy when I'm writing, and now 30 pages into a new novel, I got distracted, caught up in the new book, and never made my way over to my Type M commitment. I was lost in my own words. How many times have you heard that? A writer claiming to have gotten so involved in his or her book that everything else fell by the wayside while he or she was writing? An excuse? Sure. A cliche? Maybe.

Which brings me to this week's topic.

Writers hate cliches. But lines become cliche for good reason: they are either true or state something in a way that forces others to work hard to come up with something better. One read through Hamlet tells us there are cliches ("There's the rub," for instance), which one would have to work long and hard on to better.

And working hard and long to select precise words and phrases is exactly what we do--and most, believe it or not, enjoy that. In fact, hard work, when one discusses writing, is nearly a cliche, too. I found myself saying lines like these often: "Work ethic counts in this profession." "Write a page a day and in a year you'll have a novel's worth of pages." The list goes on, and like a good cliche, it should go on.

One thing we haven't discussed often here, to my memory, is perseverance or work ethic. I would love to hear what my Type M colleagues have to say on the topic.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Vanishing Voices from the Past

Barbara here. Today I was reading a friend's Facebook posts about the recent mystery conference, Bouchercon, and it struck me once again what an extraordinarily different world we inhabit now compared to that of my childhood, let alone my mother's. Today with a few clicks of a button we can capture moments in words or images, and send them all around the world to people we may never have even met. Today, we write about our travels, our surgeries, our dinner parties and our triumphs large and small, in blogs, text messages, Facebook posts and even 140-character tweets. All instantaneous, all fleeting.

When I was a child, the diary was the thing. Every girl had a diary, usually with a frilly pink cover and a little gold key that was supposed to protect our private musings from prying maternal eyes. I had one, but most of the time it languished in my drawer. I wasn't very good at the "Dear Diary" confessions. But I did write a detailed diary during the trips I took as a child, and I wrote letters home from camp. I hope these childhood records are still stashed in a box in my mother's storage locker.

Much of the daily chatter between friends and family was carried out by phone, however. Not the ubiquitous cellphone that keeps us in constant contact today, but a clunky (usually black) rotary phone with the curly 25-foot cord that allowed us to drag the phone from the hall into the privacy of our room. Those conversations were lost in space the moment they were uttered. In my mother's childhood, when almost no one even owned a telephone, letters served as the medium of exchange. People wrote delightful, chatty letters to friends, family, lovers, etc. as a way of keeping in touch and sharing their thoughts. Over a lifetime, letters served as a valuable insight into that life.

There is much to mourn in the demise of the letter and the diary besides the loss of permanent records. Because of the ease of the internet and the computer, people communicate with more people and more often than they did before. Much has been said elsewhere about how relationships have changed as a result - more relationships but less true closeness, hundreds of friends but fewer real ones - but here I only want to mention how much more difficult it has become for writers. Especially those of us who kill for a living.

Many books have at their core an old secret or a historical event that still casts a shadow over the present. Murder is so much more deliciously complex when its roots lie deep in the past and must be uncovered before the mystery can be solved. Writers use different techniques to tell that history, such as court transcripts, newspaper clippings, or an oldtimer's reminiscences.  But there is nothing quite as personal and as intimate as letters found in the attic, or a diary hidden in the victim's closet. I used a diary in Honour Among Men, newspaper clippings in Beautiful Lie the Dead, and most recently old letters in The Whisper of Legends. 

In ten year's time, there will be precious few letters and diaries through which to tell our stories. Yes, our sleuth can read blogs and troll through Facebook posts and emails but that will give access only to the near past. But at the present rate of change in technology, even twenty years into the past will be out of reach. As an example, I have stored in the back of my desk whole boxes of 5 1/4 inch floppy discs with documents on them in some extremely primitive version of Word Perfect, as well as stacks of the more modern 3 1/2 inch floppies. I suppose it is still possible for a enterprising sleuth to cart a box of floppies to a special electronics museum and get them translated into a format he can read. But today even those tangible representations don't exist. Emails disappear when the recycle bin is emptied. Text messages, tweets, posts and blogs may be archived for a short time before being wiped from existence when the blog or website is taken down.

Gone then is a wonderful channel through which a writer can introduce the characters and events of the past. Either we will all have to get very inventive...

Or we will have to turn to writing historicals.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Value of Patience

After having spent a lovely time at Bouchercon in Cleveland this past weekend, I thought I’d get away from the promotional side of things, something I’ve been concentrating on for the past month or so of blog posts.

Since I haven’t had much time to write anything for my current novel project over the past two months, I’ve been breathing a sigh of relief. Huh? Shouldn’t I be more antsy than ever? This book has gone hardly anywhere since early summer because of work-related business and promoting my new publication, The Fallen One. (You knew I was going to work that in somewhere, didn’t you?)

The reason I’ve felt some relief is that I had reached a plot impasse. Not being able to write, I didn’t have that roadblock staring me in the face every time I sat down at the computer.

I did have a clear idea, as I always do, about the beginning, middle and end of the story, but things hadn’t been going well. The middle is where most of us tend to get in trouble, isn’t it? You’re standing there at a crossroads in the plot, wondering which fork to take. Having taken the wrong route several times in the past, I could recognize the danger signs. I even took a few tentative steps down each route to see if I could feel the literary ground firming up beneath my feet. When there was nothing to confirm that there wouldn’t be a trackless swamp just around the corner on either route, I just stopped and waited.

And waited.

One thing I learned, even before I began to write novels, way back in my more musical days, is that you can’t force or hurry inspiration. It will come at its own time and of its own accord. It’s like the old Mark Twain quip: “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It only wastes your time and annoys the pig.” Forcing inspiration is very much like getting vocal lessons for your pig.

So for the past many weeks, I’ve been sitting in the middle of a road of my own making, waiting for the construction crew to arrive and lead me to novel-istic salvation. They arrived on Sunday as I traveled home with Vicki Delany along the I90 along the southern shore of Lake Erie. As always, I wasn’t remotely thinking about my novel, but we were talking about self-published books. Suddenly, the solution to my plot conundrum just popped up inside my noggin with an almost audible “ka-ching”. (In fact, I looked over at Vicki to see if she’d heard it, too.)

The solution, if you care to know, was to take a hard right, drill through that large hill (The Alps) and move a whole section of the book to Rome from Paris – hence the tunnel. When I woke up yesterday morning, too early to go downstairs since we had house guests, I went over my new plot revelation. The more I sounded it out, tested it against some plot ideas I already had developed during my wait, the better the trip to Italy sounded, especially since I had already planned to move the action to Venice shortly after this section.

The inspiration I had been lacking, that little germ of an idea that now seems so obvious, makes me feel like a complete dolt for not recognizing it. It won’t even take much adjustment to the quarter of the book I’ve already written to make the change snuggle in nicely. Not only that, it will open the door to some plot tension I wanted to generate between my main character and her husband.

How could it have taken me so long to see the solution? It’s not like I wasn’t standing there with open brain shouting to the winds, “Hit me with your best shot!”

But that’s the way it always is with inspiration. It comes at its own time and speed, and you just have to patiently wait its arrival.

Or maybe it has something to do with that road back to Toronto from Cleveland…