Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Searching for a topic

Geez… What to write about today?

It’s rainy, cold and pretty darn miserable here in Hogtown (Toronto). We call it that (sometimes) because they apparently used to drive herds of pigs into town in the old days. Really? Herds of pigs? The west end of the city once had huge stock yards where, I guess, the pigs were driven to, along with cows and chickens and such, although I don’t suppose they drove flocks of chickens into town). The abattoirs are mostly gone now, replaced by huge building supply stores (three of ’em) and the smell around that neighbourhood seems to improve daily. They figure it should be completely gone in another 25-30 years. Anyway, it’s miserable day, and I’m feeling miserable.

Earlier this year I presented some photos of abandoned buildings that everyone seemed to enjoy. Here’s another one (click HERE, please). Is that not a very cool space (assuming you’re into abandoned buildings)? No matter how cool the photo essay is, one thing I noticed was the link to the page (http://www.messynessychic.com/2014/04/22/the-secret-symphinic-stage-forgotten-35-feet-below-a-local-piano-shop/). Holy mackinaw! They got two things wrong in the page name. “Symphinic” is not a word I’ve ever seen before (but it should be) and the concert hall is supposedly 40 feet below the piano shop. I mean, what has the standard of journalism fallen to on these information websites? If you do click on the link, though, you’ll see there are another few of this sort of abandoned spaces article in the right-hand column. There are some great time wasters here if you’re trying to avoid working on your novel (or cooking dinner, doing the laundry, ignoring the kids). I love stuff like this. Facebook is loaded with it. For those trying to avoid work (or who don’t know what to write about in their weekly blog post), Facebook is your friend.

Hey! I also found this (click HERE please) – probably on Facebook – and it’s about rejection letters. It’s pretty good, especially if you’ve received rejection letters before – and if you’re a writer, you most certainly have. They are a balm to the soul. (“Hey, I’ve never gotten ones this bad, and these people went on to have a storied careers. Maybe I should suck it up and send out my manuscript again!”) Feel better now?

On the topic of criticism, I pulled this off Facebook just this morning (click HERE please). Proves there are some clever folks out there, doesn’t it? These reviews are hilarious (the pen one was my favourite). Perhaps it would be fun to search through products on Amazon to spot opportunities to leave my own clever reviews.

Since it’s easy to be a disgruntled author (the whole world is against us), here’s another link (click HERE please). This one really isn’t funny, although I suppose it might be considered that in sort of a perverse way. But it does show why the world of us poor writers is such a mess, doesn’t it, if you extrapolate a bit. I also now know why most song writers’ output is sad these days. Come to think of it, most books are pretty sad these days, probably for the same reasons.

And there you have it, folks! A blog post on a day when you don’t have anything to say. Ah! The miracle of the Internet comes to the rescue again. Hope I didn’t ruin your day with all those enticing links.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Learning Your Craft

By Vicki Delany

Rick wrote two weeks ago about how he’d turned down an opportunity to provide a fledging writer with a manuscript evaluation, not only because he didn’t have time, but didn’t think he was in the position to tell anyone how to write.

I will respectfully take this opportunity to disagree.  I have done many manuscript evaluations, and I also teach an 8-week class in writing popular fiction every winter.

Why? I’m going to paraphrase Stephen King here. He said in On Writing, that there are bad writers, competent writers, good writers, and great writers.  You can’t turn a good writer into a great writer, and you can’t turn a bad writer into a competent writer, but you can turn a competent writer into a good writer, simply by teaching them the craft.

You can’t teach talent, and you certainly can’t teach the drive and passion that’s needed to write an entire book with no promise of any reward at the end.

But you can teach the craft.  The nuts and bolts of writing.

I’ve read plenty of manuscripts full of something like: He expostulated, she ejaculated, he declared, he pontificated (no kidding!).  Nope, all you write is he said.

If you don’t believe me, read a book.  And that, I think, is the important thing about classes and evaluations.  Sometimes the beginning writer just needs someone to point out to them what’s the accepted way of doing this (which may not be the intuitive way.).  And then, he’s ready for that ah ah! moment and sees that 95% if every line of speech uses the tag “:said”. 

If they don’t read, then I can’t help them and don’t want to.

When it comes to adjectives and adverbs Elmore Leonard might have said don’t use them, but the guideline really is don’t use too many. Avoid purple prose. Don’t use more than you need to get the point across.

The teacher or evaluator can point out the overuse of modifiers or the use of weasel words. Weasel words are those words that we all use, without even knowing we don’t, and because we don’t know, we don’t see them in our own writing. Words like actually, just, really. Words that weaken, rather than strengthen, a sentence. Beginning a line of dialogue with Well or with So is fine if it’s done once.  But every few lines? I’ve seen that more often than I can count.

Does the writer assume we the reader know things?  I once did a 30 page evaluation and never learned the name of the character. When I asked the author she said, “Oh, its Mary”. She knew it was Mary, but she didn’t even realize that she hadn’t told us.

Where to start your novel?  Why, at the last possible place, of course.  I give an entire workshop called Page One Chapter One: Starting your crime novel with impact. Because that’s not something most beginning writers understand. They usually want to fill us in on everything that has led up to the inciting incident (i.e. the incident from which the entire plot flows). Or begin every chapter when the protagonist gets out of bed in the morning. Or tell us far, far more than we need to know about their childhood.

All of that, and so much more, is the craft of writing. And the craft can be taught.  



Saturday, April 26, 2014

What do the kids say?

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at a high-school career day to an audience of young, aspiring writers. My sons are 31 and 28 and so I felt there was a gulf of experience between me and these kids that I had to explore. I addressed eighteen students, seven boys and eleven girls. I wasn't certain what they expected to hear from me. I sought to be lively and engaging and provide what I thought was meaningful advice. What I got back were mostly blank stares. I tried humor to break the ice, but it was like dropping rocks down a well. Finding common ground with these high schoolers was tough. They brightened a little when I told them I wrote vampire novels. I asked what they liked to write. Lots of poetry. Apparently, they have their hearts set on the big money in literature. As for prose, most of them, even the boys, said they were writing paranormal romance. They actually said, "paranormal romance," which meant they had more knowledge of genre than most wannabe adult writers. They preferred to shop at Barnes & Noble for books instead of Amazon and the reasons were that they didn't own Kindles and didn't have credit cards to make online purchases. They were also aware that in recent years, Barnes & Noble had devoted a large section of floor space for young adult titles, and most of those were paranormal romance. A few of the girls said they were interested in straight romance. On that, I asked about their favorite books and authors. All of the kids had read Fifty Shades of Grey, none were impressed, and their comments about the book echoed what I have heard from adult readers. Their favorite characters to read and write about were dragons, witches, and zombies. They also liked ghosts and horses and the one excited conversation involved the possibility of horse-ghosts. Noir and the hard-boiled were also preferred types of stories. They all wrote their first drafts longhand in journals and then transcribed their work on personal laptops or school computers. All of the kids except one had a cell phone, which were smart phones of one brand or another. The lone holdout had been forbidden by her mom to own a phone. I asked about social media. None had Tumblr, Twitter, or Instagram accounts. The few who were on Facebook only did so to communicate with their older relatives, those dinosaurs. This revelation ran counter to my expectation that these kids would be all over cyberspace, hooking up like free-radical molecules. I asked who they connected with and it was with friends they knew personally. They guarded their phone numbers and were well-aware of the need for vigilance. The one venue for social media was Wattpad and several of the kids had accounts. They used Wattpad to publish stories and engage with other writers. Again, they were well aware of trolls. I told them I was jealous they had such a venue. In my youth, when we published stories we collected them in fanzines that we photocopied, stapled together, and then mailed out. The kids looked at me in astonishment. I expected them to ask if we had fire back then.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

I've really enjoyed the posts from my colleagues this week. Aline's post about what shoes tell us about characters reminded me of how often I look at people's feet. A man in a well-pressed business suit and scuffed shoes (who spends much of his time behind his desk and seems to assume no one will spot this flaw in his grooming). A woman dressed in an understated black skirt and twin sweater set – but a glance at her feet reveals red high heels and offers a new perspective on who she is.

I thought about Aline's post again when I read Rick's post about plotting by the seat of his pants and Donis's post about going where her characters lead her. Like Barbara, I have learned to ignore the "rules of writing" while employing the techniques that seem to work. But – as I wrote about in my last post – I am methodical when I sit down to write. Neither pantser nor plotter, I am a hybrid, who needs to believe I know where I'm headed. I begin writing when I know the first sentence. I trust that my characters will go in the direction that I have in mind – at least until we are far enough in so that I can trust them when they tell me that it didn't happen that way. I plot a few chapters ahead and believe I know whodunit.

I think I know where I'm going, but I do keep an eye out for those shoes – for the character who walks in wearing shoes I didn't expect. The character who leans back in his chair and puts his feet up on his desk revealing his flip flops. I watch for shoes and other articles of clothing. In The Red Queen Dies, Ted Thornton, my billionaire walked in wearing his "trademark" battered blue jeans. His aide, a workaholic with no sense of humor, had on a tweed jacket and tie. Sneakers on the billionaire, shoes shined to a subtle gloss on the aide. As I was writing my new book, I first saw another character standing by her bedroom window. . .she has just gotten up. She is wearing her cotton nightgown and a robe that her husband gave her for Christmas. The robe is warm and comfy as she looks out at the blizzard. Her husband comes out of the bathroom. She turns and suggests they go back to bed and snuggle. He says he'd love to but he's coming down with something and no reason for them both to catch it. She smiles and says he needs a big glass of orange juice, she will go downstairs and start breakfast. As she says this, I realize her robe has been open as they were talking. I learn this because she belts the robe as she is telling him she will go make breakfast. A loving couple, generally at ease with each other, but for some reason on that morning there is tension between them. I learned that with the robe.

Clothes and effects achieved with them – but it's hair that I find really fascinating. "Hair today, gone tomorrow," according to the old saying. Some balding men embrace their baldness, even shave their heads as their hair begins to thin. Other do comb-overs. Some wear dapper hats. Still others seek hair replacements or buy hair pieces.

Do men agonize as much about the state of their hair as many women do? As a woman who never knows from one day to the next how my hair will behave, I tend to notice other women's hair. Hair and what a woman does or doesn't do with it – I imagine – provides me with insight into her soul. Or, at least, the state of her hair may tell me how much time she had that morning or whether she made the mistake of sitting down in the wrong stylist's chair. Does she chop it off to within an inch of her scalp because she's sick of dealing with it and wants to look tidy. Does she color it, perm it, wear dreadlocks or long, flowing silver locks in defiance of the "rule" that older women should wear shorter hairstyles? Does she treat her hair like an artist's raw material, shaping it into wonderful architectural structures? Does she put on a hat when the weather is cold or brave the elements head bare because of how her hair will look – "hat hair" – when she takes her hat off? Is she an elderly woman who cringes when she sees people looking at her hair because she knows it is now wispy and fine?

Hair is there in my mind as I'm creating my characters. When Lizzie Stuart, my first person narrator, meets her friend Tess for a vacation in Cornwall in the first book in the series, Tess exclaims in shock. Lizzie has cut the hair that she always – even in grad school – wore in a bun. Lizzie's hair is now short and scalp-clinging – a style that her recently-deceased grandmother would never have approved of, but that signals the evolution that is beginning in Lizzie's life. In the second book in my new series, Detective Hannah McCabe is required to spend the night at the station house because of the blizzard. She works out in the gym and then discovers in the shower that she has forgotten her conditioner. She quickly twists her damp hair into a top-knot, thinking that it is not stylish, but at least under control. And the reader learns that McCabe's hair is curly and tinged with red. The texture and the color a reminder of her heritage – an African American mother (who was a protest poet and who I imagine wearing dreadlocks) and a redheaded Scot-Irish father (whose hair is going white, and who has a bald spot). The fact that McCabe, who wears flat shoes and pants to work, has hair long enough for a topknot suggests – as does her preference that her colleagues call her "Hannah" not "Hank" – that she may be concerned about maintaining her femininity as a woman in what has traditionally been a man's job.

I've tried doing character bios with descriptions before I begin writing. I hope that my characters faces will appear before me. But, more often, they emerge as I write – the hair, the eyes, what they're wearing. I doubt that I could provide an adequate description of Lizzie or Hannah if one of them went missing. I could provide the statistics of height and weight, put I would flounder if I were asked to describe their features to a police sketch artist. But I could describe Hannah's father. He looks like Darren McGavin. John Quinn, Lizzie's ex-cop fiance, has gray eyes and a smile that she loves. I have a pretty good idea of what he looks like because she tells me.

A more intriguing question – one I haven't thought about – is how Angus, Hannah's father, feels about his bald spot? How does Quinn feels about his thick hair that has gone gray at the temples. Does he check the sink when he combs it in the morning. He often needs a haircut – a sign that he was a good soldier, but not thrilled with regimentation. Would he go for a buzz cut or wear a hat if he started to go bald? Or, would he care?

Hair today and gone tomorrow. Very true that what our characters do with their hair, put on their heads, and wear on their feet provides us and our readers with insights into who they are. . . disconcerting to think that's true in real life as well.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

It's All About the Characters

This coming Saturday I (Donis) will be presenting a session on creating believable characters at a day-long writing workshop put on by our local chapter of Sisters in Crime. I've presented many a mystery-writing workshop in my time, and usually I include an element about characterization. But this particular session is all about effective characters.

It has been very interesting for me to closely examine how I create characters. Like my compatriots who wrote the two previous entries, below, I am a pantser. When I start a new novel, I have an idea in my head of how it's going to go, but thus far, it never has gone the way I planned. And the reason things never work out like I thought they would is because of those pesky characters.

They're real people and they won't necessarily do what I tell them.

That's the way it feels, anyway. That great philosopher Satchel the Dog in the Get Fuzzy comic strip said, Truth is more important than Fact. (Actually, Satchel got that from Karl Marx) A fictional character may may not be real, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t true. Creating a true character is like being a voodoo queen – or like Dr. Frankenstein toiling over his creation and yelling “Live, damn you, live.” You get to tell the human truth of an event by putting a person into a situation and letting her figure it out in her own way. It is a way of telling a story by breathing life into the bare facts and making them relevant and relatable for the reader. Barbara Kingsolver said it in a way that resonated with me: "A novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life."

Which is easily said, of course, but how to do it? I've written a series of seven novels around the same character, Alafair Tucker. By now, she is real to me. I know how she would react to any given situation and I simply follow wherever she leads. Sometimes she leads me to places I don't necessarily want to go, because it will mean that I have to scrap whatever idea I had for an outcome. But I have to do it, because she's the boss. I can't tell you, Dear Reader, how many times I've had to throw out an entire wonderfully written scene that I loved because Alafair (or Shaw or Martha or whoever) just wouldn't do that. And I'll bet money there isn't a working author out there who hasn't had the same experience.

After so many books featuring the same characters, I've just finished the first novel in what may turn out to be a new series, with all new characters, a contemporary setting, and an entirely new world-view. I didn't know my protagonist when I set out. It was like getting to know a person in real life. When I first met her I made a judgement about who she is, but as time went on, she revealed more and more about herself to me; by the way she spoke, the way she reacted to other people, the way she handled the situation she found herself in. By the time I finished the book, I liked her a lot more than I had when I started. She turned out to have a lot more depth than I had thought at first, a lot more strength. She isn't always right about people. She makes snap judgements. And she has quite a mouth on her. In other words, she is not Alafair Tucker in the least. And she isn't me, either.

Where do these people who populate our books come from? That's the mystery of it, and I have to admit I don't really have an answer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The secret rule of writing

Barbara here. I love talking about the writing process, as Rick did in yesterday's post. I also fall into the pantser camp. When all the "how-to" books lectured against it and most of the audiences I talked to were aghast, I began to think there was something seriously wrong with my writing style. But for me writing a book, like reading one, is an adventure, and I love the excitement of the unknown, the thrill of discovery, and the shock of the unexpected as much as the reader does. I know that many competent writers produce dramatic and unexpected books from carefully crafted outlines, but my creativity does not truly kick in until I am in the "writing zone". Rick points out that many a plot hole, left undetected in the outline, is unmasked in the writing. Besides that, many much more innovative and intriguing plot and character twists only spring to mind when I am totally immersed in the story. That is what is meant, I believe, when writers claim the characters took on a life and direction of their own.

After fifteen years in the writing business, and quite a few books under my belt, I have come to trust my own style. It is messy, frustrating, wasteful, and at times terrifying, but it is what works for me. I have learned that it's not enough to launch down the river with no idea what you might want to say and what excitement you might encounter; I need a place to start, fairly good sketches of the main characters and an idea of what the story might be about.  I've also learned that this all may change midstream as better ideas pop into mind, and so it's best not to waste too much time pre-thinking the story.

Readers of mysteries sometimes imagine that writers carefully craft the story so that all the clues are planted, the red herrings are in place, and the sleuth's path to discovery is neatly laid out. Not in the least. While I'm writing the first draft, all I have is a meandering path towards an unknown climax, packed with suspects, surprise twists, and no idea myself whodunit or how (indeed, if) the whole thing will get solved at all. Only once I arrive at the end do I know what happened and what the story is really about. It is in the rewrites that the clues get planted, removed, buried deeper, red herrings are drawn through the plot, characters are enriched and made coherent. In the rewrites, the whole story hopefully becomes a seamless arc.

This leads me to my one secret rule of writing. Ever since I was a child, I have never met a rule I didn't want to break, so it makes sense I would object to the "how-to" books which dictate all the dos and don'ts of successful writing. This doesn't mean I haven't read them, or that aspiring writers shouldn't read them. But I believe every writer has to find the style that works for them and feel confidant enough to follow it. They have to know the kind of person they are and the kind of story they want to tell. Every writing technique has a specific effect, and by knowing the effect, the writer can choose the techniques that create the effect they want. An example of this is choosing Point of view. First is engaging, informal and intimate. Multiple is more distancing but allows for layering, colliding storylines, etc.  Elements of setting such as weather, season, anonymous city vs. intimate village vs. desolate moor all create effects on the story you are telling. Not all effects are equally desirable – the effect of having twenty-five POV characters is that the reader feels dizzy and detached from all the characters, for example.

Pantser plotting requires a lot of patience, trust, flexibility and willingness to rewrite and rewrite until the final draft is perfect. In impatient or inexpert hands, it can produce unwieldy, unfocussed stories. But it can also produce innovative, fresh, and thoroughly surprising stories that follow no pre-conceptions and are difficult to predict. I sometimes joke how can readers figure out whodunit before the end when I don't even know!

So anyone care to guess what the one secret rule of writing is? If you can't think of one, perhaps you have.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


If you’ve hung around Type M for enough time, you’ll know that my story plotting style falls into the seat-of-the-pants camp. Doing a plot outline or chapter-by-chapter analysis of what a novel’s plot will be seems far too much like “homework” to me. If a publisher wants one of these beasts I will certainly hop to it, but it’s with much (silent) grumbling on my part.

For me, there is a lot of delight in creating some characters, supplying a scenario, and letting them get down to it. I know that this far more “out of control” writing style would send those more-organized writers racing to the medicine cabinet for their store of valium, but there’s something exhilarating about “sitting back” and watching characters come to life and tell their stories.

The thing with this approach is that it can become very messy. Yes, I do have some touch points in mind for my plot to follow, usually not much more than a beginning scenario, a mid-point where I’ll need to be, and generally an idea of what the climax/solution to the mystery will be. Beyond that, I have shockingly little idea of what may or may not happen.

After ten completed novels – and three aborted projects – I have come up with ways around this chaotic method of writing. Too often, I’ve gone down blind alleys, come up against a brick wall and been forced to sit, sometimes for weeks, wondering where it all went wrong. (This is generally where I go out for long walks with my characters, trying to figure out what they want to do – as opposed to what I need them to do. It’s all a bit surreal.) Eventually, we figure it out, I usually lose a few chapters, and off we go in a new direction towards an end we still can’t see very clearly.

To those of you who say I should try outlining or synopsifyzing (who cares if that’s a real word or not?), I have. Orca likes their proposals laid out this way. I can certainly see the strengths in organizing a story before picking up one’s pen in earnest, but the most recent publication I did for them, The Boom Room, had a very odd thing happen to it at the last moment. I was literally two chapters from the end (I knew it was the penultimate one because my chapter synopsis told me so) when my plot sat up and bit me in the butt. The solution I’d submitted to my editor was all wrong. The bad guy didn’t do it after all. All the pointing I’d done throughout the plot went towards the wrong character. He was innocent! (Well, not really, but he didn’t do the crime that was central to the plot.)

The result was me having to return to the beginning, changing things up throughout the plot to reflect the new ending, then completely reworking the climax of the story, and finish off by adding an additional two chapters to make it all work out correctly. But wait! Wasn’t I supposed to be sticking to the agreed-upon plot synopsis I’d handed in to get the proposal accepted? What would my editor (who also happens to be Orca’s boss) say about this sea change to what he’d purchased?

As it turned out, not a heck of a lot. I didn’t mention what happened, and neither did he. I’m certain he didn’t read my completed ms with the chapter synopsis beside it on his desk, cross-checking one against the other. He just read through my creation, decided he liked what I’d done, and then we worked in the usual way, polishing the prose, expunging errors and typos, and finally sending the result off to the printer.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say here is that “life will find a way” (to quote the mathematician character in Jurassic Park). Writers can plot and plan and try to stick rigidly to their copious notes, but we must be prepared for characters to heave a spanner in the works at any time, completely changing the direction of our carefully planned plots to their own ends.

And that’s pretty cool, isn’t it?

By the way, today is a two-blog day for me. I also have an interview up on Steven Buechler’s blog. If you can stand more of me, drop by for a read!

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Importance of Shoes

JK Rowling is to be on BBC's Woman's House radio programme this week, talking about shoes in literature.

I'm not very good at shoes, personally, or at least Shoes, with a capital S. Going into a shoe shop, finding one I like the look of, waiting for an interminable period while they seek out the matching one, then finding that they are excruciatingly uncomfortable and having to start again, strikes me as a form of slow torture. And I do know that to be stylish you just have to not care that it hurts, but I grew out of that a good few years ago.

But when I started to think about literary shoes, I was amazed how many examples I could immediately think of, starting with Cinderella's glass slipper.(Though this, I am given to understand, was in the original French fairy tale described as being of 'vair' – fur – which was mistaken in translation for 'verre' – glass – a lot less glamorous.  Somehow a furry slipper suggests a night in with a boxed set rather than a palace ball.)

Dorothy's red shoes, Dick Whittington's thigh-high leather boots, Sex and the City's Manolos and Jimmy Choos, Posy's mother's ballet shoes in the book of the same name – I'm sure you can fill in a lot more.

The shoes that made me think, though, were Hercule Poirot's: patent leather shoes, topped with grey spats, impeccably free of dust, always a bit too tight. Those simple details speak volumes about the man. They are shoes of the city, elegant if out-of-date; the man who wears them is fussy, old-fashioned and vain enough to put up with discomfort.  Economy in description is a great virtue in a writer and Agatha Christie was a master of the art.

One British actress was known to say that when she was trying to work up a new part the first thing she had to do was decide what the character would be wearing on her feet and the rest of it flowed from that. I didn't set out with that principle when I described my two main characters , DI Marjory Fleming and DS Tam MacNee, but Tam's trainers are definitely a part of his casual, man-of-the-people nature, just as Big Marge's neat court shoes, understated and practical, shed light on her character too.

I can think of other examples I've used, too – well-polished brogues, to establish a background of country-style wealth, stilettos with a tight pencil skirt for a cheerful Liverpudlian secretary. I'm going to focus on that more when next I have a new character to create.

There's no doubt that shoes are important to our readers. Kate Atkinson (who definitely does like shoes) tells of giving a talk about her books to a large audience. When the event was opened to questions, an eager hand instantly shot up. Kate, pleased to see someone so clearly inspired by what she'd said, smiled encouragingly. 'I just wanted to know where you got your shoes,' the woman said.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Guest Author -- Mary Reed

Type M is thrilled to welcome Mary Reed to our blogging party this week. Mary and her husband Eric Mayer are the joint authors of the wonderful John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in Sixth Century Constantinople at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The Sixth Century may have been more than a millennium and a half ago, but don't think for a minute that people weren't just as inventive as we are today. Even more so, if I may say. Have you ever created your own automaton?

Three For A Letter is largely set on the country estate of Zeno, once described by our protagonist John as a man of eclectic credulity. As the novel opens, a special presentation of the story of Jonah and the Whale is under way at the estate to entertain Zeno's honoured guest, Empress Theodora.

The whale is an automaton created by Zeno's Egyptian servant who named himself Hero after, dare we say it, his hero, Heron of Alexandria, also known as Hero, who among other things drew up blueprints for dozens of automatons. His namesake's job is to create similar mechanical marvels.

Automatons appearing in Three For A Letter include a wine dispensing satyr, an archer who will take an important role in a local festival celebrating the harvest, and birds that sing, all as described by Heron in his treatise Pneumatics. However, he did not, so far as we know, provide instructions on how to construct a mechanical whale so we had to invent one ourselves, based on his writings.

And now Hero's mechanical whale makes its appearance:

The curtains parted and although there was no sign of pulleys or any other device, a large, shadowy shape, taller than a man, rolled forward.

The room's remaining light limned its broad, gray back and enormous flukes and gleamed in the great glassy eyes set on either side of its head.

An admiring murmur rose from the audience as the beast's tail,moving slowly from side to side, emerged from the curtains. It was apparent that the leviathan was not being propelled from behind. Indeed, it continued forward on its own, as if truly alive. There were gasps, and John tensed, as the great head moved out over the edge of the stage. However, just as it appeared the whale would swim straight into the diners, it came to an abrupt halt.

There was a hissing noise. The whale spouted.

To the startled exclamations of the audience, a jet of water burst up from the contraption's head and descended in a cloud of droplets that caught the dim light and glittered like stars over the sea. John, sitting near the end of the table, felt mist against his face.

The flutes keened more urgently, underscored by a new sound, a clanking and ratcheting. Slowly and majestically,the whale's mouth opened a crack. Through a fence of huge bronze teeth brilliant light poured out across the banquet table to flash and coruscate amidst gold and silver bowls heaped with delicacies.

And how, you may well ask, did this mechanical leviathan work?

All actions performed by our whale could be created by compressed air, water, or various ropes, pulleys, and counterweights, important components of many of the automatons described by the ancient writer.

Thus, the whale's ability to trundle about unaided came from Heron's description of an altar that functioned in the same fashion.

Zeno's servant Hero explains the method thus:

"It's done by winding two ropes, one in each direction, around the back axle of the whale's base. Now, as you see, inside the creature are two compartments, each half filled with sand." Showing John the mechanism as he described it, he went on "Each compartment contains a weight to which one of the ropes is tied, resting on the sand. When the bottom of the first compartment is opened, the sand flows out and the weight resting on it descends as it empties, pulling its rope down with it. That in turn moves the axle to which the rope is tied. Thus the whale rolls forward. Later, when the other compartment begins to empty, the process is repeated and the whale rolls backward. It's the sort of device has
been used in the theatre for hundreds of years," he concluded.

We've mentioned before we cast our nets wide when researching this series, =and the method by which the lamps in its mouth self-kindled is explained by a paragraph in Hippolytus' Refutation of All Heresies.

Hippolytus discloses wood spontaneously bursting into flame on an altar is because the altar contains freshly-burned lime instead of ashes. When the lime is wetted by libations poured by the priest, the result is a chemical reaction with enough heat to set fire to combustible materials.

In the case of our whale, when set in motion, a particular rope hidden in its body pulls up a bar operating lids on a set of tubes filled with water, whose contents fall onto minute amounts of burnt lime sprinkled in deep grooves around the lips of the lamps, and the resulting heat causes the lamp oil to catch fire.

Of course, we could have wound up with an exploding whale but Hero was very careful in his calculations as to quantities and no doubt experimented numerous times to ensure this did not happen.

As for the spouting effect, this was accomplished, as Hero explains,with the aid of a sealed vessel semi-filled with water, forced out by compressed air. This sequence we imagined would be set in motion by a specific rope in the afore-mentioned internal system of pulleys and counterweights, which also causes the whale tail to move and its jaws to gape.

Since we did not actually build a prototype of the whale it was all theoretical but we felt, given many of Heron's much more complicated mechanisms, it could be carried out by engineers and metal workers without violating the laws of the universe. We could at least have contributed the tongue, the simplest part of the whale's construction, since it's merely made of stuffed red linen.

As events unfold, a sacred herd of fortune-telling goats living on a nearby island become involved. They are not automatons, so we did not have to create a whole herd of mechanical beasts, but at the same time they are not quite what they seem...

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several short John the Lord Chamberlain detections in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to 1999's first full length novel, One For Sorrow. The American Library Association's Booklist Magazine named the Lord Chamberlain novels as one of its four Best Little Known Series. Ten For Dying, tenth in the series, appeared in March 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press. Head of Zeus is now publishing the series in the UK and Europe. More info about their writing at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite and

Connecting the Dots

The intrepid Lottie Albright delves into old murders which causes new murders. It's not really a cold case series, as it focuses on the present day murder. Thus it technically morphs into a suspense. Will my historian/undersheriff figure out who did it back then in time to prevent becoming the victim  on the next page?

In some ways, a straight cold case would be easier to present because the Lottie Albright series is told in present day first person. I can't use flashbacks and have to depend on the back story emerging through historical investigation techniques.

My most dependable tool has always been microfilmed newspapers. The Kansas State Historical Society was founded in 1875. They have one of the world's most comprehensive collection of newspapers. All the papers are on microfilm and many are on-line through Chronicling America http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/#Kansas. Instructions for obtaining microfilmed Kansas papers can be found at http://www.kshs.org/p/newspapers-in-kansas/11528.

Since Lottie doesn't have access to the villain's mind the plot depends on her ability to connect the dots. Nothing is more valuable in both academic investigation and mystery plotting than knowing something is just not quite right. In other words, reading between the lines. Because usually newspaper items are objective.

Here's an example of what I mean by not quite right. An announcement in the 1950s local news item: "Lonnie Balfour and family will be moving to the Balfour homestead later this month. He will take over the extensive farming operation of his late father." Lottie thinks that's funny. Lonnie was a CPA and the second son. The oldest son, Jeff, was the obvious heir. He was a farmer. Was there tension over this? This leads her to the recorded deed and even more newspapers and death certificates. Aha! Lonnie died in a mysterious accident. His descendants are alive today. And so it goes. Diaries, letters, voting records, notes from organizations, and yearbooks have their own testimony.

Was one child consistently on the honor role and in every activity under the sun? And another in the same family barely mentioned in the high school newspaper or not a participate in any groups according to the yearbook? Why? With persistence, it easy to find this out.

It's easy to really keep the plot hopping through the protagonist's questions as long as the writer resists the temptation to inject a massive dose of history and cultural details. For instance, old newspapers show group pictures of students at events. The debate team is especially well-groomed, except for one member. Why was there no one looking out for this kid? Had his parents ever come to one of his debates?

Being able to enter the mind of the first person protagonist is quite a lot of fun, because one can make this amazing sleuth really smart, not at all like the bumbling novelist who hasn't got a clue.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Longest Week

It’s that time again.

The proof pages for Bitter Crossing (August 2014) have arrived from my editor at Midnight Ink. This is the stage I least enjoy, the stage when the author reads his or her novel one final time, top to bottom. The proverbial speak-now-or-forever-hold-your peace moment. Or, if you grind over every syllable, like I do, a daunting 12-hour period.

Some authors enjoy this stage. They sit down with a glass of wine and re-read their words, reminiscing about how hard they worked to get things just right. Not me. I’m thinking I could make this better. Always.

“Note that this is the last opportunity you will have to submit changes for the book,” writes my wonderful editor, Nicole Nugent, “but that we are past the ‘rewrite’ stage; only corrections that are necessary should be made to the text at this time.”


What does she mean by “necessary”? It’s necessary to always make the book better, right?
Just one more brush stroke? Please?

I’m the author who tinkers with a sentence for 20 minutes, the guy from whom the publisher has to pry the “finished” book from. After all, nothing’s ever “finished.” I mean, Fitzgerald was still tinkering with The Great Gatsby during the proof stage. And if his prose still needed work, mine sure as hell does.

I wonder if F. Scott got stomach aches reading his final proof, too. I hope he didn’t. I hope he saw his genius.

Ironically, near the bottom of Nicole’s letter she urges me to enjoy “your first copy of the book!”

If she only knew….

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The dangers of handing out (or accepting) writing advice

The dreaded “track changes”…
This past week, I was asked to be a manuscript evaluator once again for Bloody Words here in Toronto. I again declined. Mostly, it’s because I don’t have the time. I’m up to my eyeballs with far too many things to do. In fact, the harder I work, the farther behind I seem to be getting. I am not about to take on evaluating someone’s writing if I’m not going to give my evaluation the care and consideration the project would deserve.

But there’s also another reason: writing is so subjective, I don’t want to say things that are totally wrong or counterproductive to a budding author’s progress towards realizing their goals. Who’s to say that I’m right? Someone who doesn’t know any better, that’s who. “Hey, he’s written ten novels. He must know what he’s doing.” The truth is, I do know what I’m doing (more or less) – but only for me.

What I find really appalling is writers who don’t have enough skill or “mileage” under their belts, setting themselves up as experts because they’ve sold a short story or two, and then inflicting themselves on the defenseless as writing experts. If I were ever asked to teach creative writing, I would run away screaming. Being an effective teacher is a very particular (and rare) skill. I do know of what I speak because I taught music for nearly 25 years, and that’s something that’s a lot less subjective than teaching writing. I saw a ton of bad teaching – a lot of it my own. Would I want to be responsible for giving someone the exact wrong advice because I couldn’t see something or didn’t understand it properly?

You’re getting this from someone who assigned a promising student the drums many years ago. Scott Harrison has gone on to become a very accomplished and successful musician – on trumpet. We laugh about it whenever I see him, but inwardly I’m appalled by what I did. You see, I almost assigned him trumpet, but I needed someone with innate timing to be the percussionist in my beginning band, and Scott filled the bill. I gave him the wrong instrument for the wrong (and admittedly self-serving) reason. Thank the stars he got it right on his own.

It all boils down to this for me: who am I to be telling impressionable writers what is right and what is wrong?

In defense of my position, I hold up the multitude of tales about writers who had their work rejected a humiliating number of times by agents and editors – the “experts” – only to eventually find outrageous success when their work is finally accepted by someone who’s willing to take a chance. Those stories are true. What did those experts miss – and why?

The other thing is taking part in critiquing groups with people who know about as much as you do. I’ve seen good writers become paralyzed because of conflicting advice, or taking all the advice, their writing turns into beige pap because there is no personality left. It only makes sense to me to take advice from people who know more than I do. Just because a certain passage doesn’t work for a certain person doesn’t mean it’s wrong, for instance. Do you honestly expect everyone to love everything you write? That’s nuts. Even Shakespeare has his detractors.

Elmore Leonard said one should never use adverbs. I believe Mark Twain said never use adjectives. You cannot say never in writing, and I’m always skeptical of those who espouse hard and fast statements like those in any art form. To my mind, great writing lies in the grayness, and in breaking the rules effectively. Good art can seldom come out of black and white rules. What one should be is aware of all the “rules” and then to forge one’s own path.

I will close, though, and actually give the two pieces of advice that I feel are worth sharing:

  • if one person says something critical about your writing, they may be correct. But if several people say the same thing about your writing, they’re most certainly correct. Think about the former. Listen to the latter;
  • the only true path to success as a writer, is to never be anything but truthful with yourself. To have any hope of success, you must be able to step back and evaluate your writing truthfully and honestly.

And here’s some incredibly astute advice from Neil Gaiman: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

The best experience I had with an editor was at the hands of Pat Kennedy, of whose skills I think a great deal. She flagged various things in my edited ms as deserving of the chop. A few of them I thought were wrong-headed. She smiled, leaned back in her chair and said, “Okay. Defend yourself.” I started off, and a few minutes on, the light invariably went on in my head, and I would realize she was correct. I only stuck to my guns on one point, and guess what? Time has proven that she was right about that one, too.

When you find a really great editor, you’ll know it. Hang on to them for dear life.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Guest post - Stephen Booth

Aline here. I'm delighted to welcome Stephen Booth to Type M.  He's a highly successful British writer with a string of awards and commendations, notably as the winner of the CWA's Dagger in the Library and the Barry Award for the Best British Crime Writer of the Year; he's been a finalist in the Gold Dagger too. His books have been published in fifteen languages and recently his back list novel, Black Dog – which he talks about here – has been taking America by storm since it was published by HarperCollins ebook imprint, Witness Impulse (my publisher too!)

Here in Britain we're hoping to see his Peak District series, set in scenic Derbyshire, on our TV screens before long.

Time is a strange thing for a writer. It can be a friend, or an enemy. And I’m not just talking about those pesky deadlines which make such an interesting sound when they go whooshing past.

When you write a series of mystery novels, you find yourself switching between two parallel timelines – the real one that your families and friends exist in, and a fictional one inhabited by your characters. In a way, we’re all Time Lords living in a Dr Who episode. I’m very aware that my protagonists, detectives Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, are aging much more slowly than I am. When they reach middle-age, I suspect they’ll regenerate into younger versions of themselves.

The relationship with fictional time becomes more difficult to handle as years pass in the real world. We all like to think we improve as writers over time, that each book we produce is better than the last, thanks to our finely honed plotting techniques. But for readers, all those books exist simultaneously. When you’re 14 books into a series, the worst thing a well-meaning reader can say to you is: “I think your first book is the best one.” So I’ve been going downhill ever since, have I? I might as well give up now…

Sometimes, it’s nice if we can allow our first book to settle gently into history and become a ghostly memory. But often the ghost comes back to haunt us.

I wrote my first novel when I was 12 years old. It was a science fiction story about astronauts landing on a planet and meeting aliens (well, it was the 1960s!). For years, I worried that my mother had kept that juvenile sci-fi epic hidden in a drawer and would one day produce it for visitors like an embarrassing childhood photograph. It never happened, for which I’m eternally grateful.

But what if your book has been published, and begins to take on a life of its own? The first novel in my series about two young Derbyshire police detectives Black Dog was written way back in 1998. That might not seem such a long time ago, but it was a different century, a different millennium, a world wholly unlike the one we live in now. The internet was a thing most of us thought was imaginary. People didn’t walk around permanently plugged into their smartphones and MP3 players. We even trusted our bankers.

In the newspaper office I worked in back in the 90s, we had just one cellphone. It was kept locked in the news editor’s desk and was issued only when someone needed to be in touch with the office and might not be able to get to a public phone box. Reporters and photographers fought over the privilege of using this amazing device. It was about the size of a house brick, and you had to be careful not to snap off the antenna.

In the police service, junior officers weren’t issued with cellphones either. As detective constables, Ben Cooper and Diane Fry wouldn’t have had phones at the time, only radios. But I recall thinking that cellphones were becoming more common, so I decided to let my characters have them in that first story. It was a good choice!

I’ve been thinking about this passage of time recently. Thanks to the digital-first imprint Witness Impulse, my early Cooper & Fry novels have been getting a new lease of life in the USA through ebook editions. The series was re-launched from the beginning with Black Dog. Amazingly, it sold so well that it reached number 1 on Barnes & Noble’s Nook bestseller list.

So thousands of new readers have been picking up a book written in the dim and distant 1990s and no doubt expecting it to be a contemporary novel, since it’s only just appeared on their ebook readers. And they find themselves reading about characters who drive around in cars no one has manufactured for years, young police officers who marvel at the ability to communicate via cellphone and never think of googling someone they’re interested in. Ben Cooper actually goes into a bookstore for information, for heaven’s sake. And people shop at Woolworth’s. Woolworth’s!

I can only assume that readers accept the fact they’re reading something historical. They must be taking all the archaisms into account, the way you do when you’re reading a Sherlock Holmes story and enjoying a description of Holmes and Watson travelling in a horse-drawn cab through a Victorian fog so thick that it obscures the gas lamps.

But of course Black Dog was a contemporary novel when I wrote it. There’s nothing I can do now to make those distant versions of Ben and Diane aware of 9/11, or anything that’s happened in the world since 1998. Strangely, this means that Cooper & Fry are still aged in their twenties for many readers in the USA, while here in the UK we’ve reached Book #14, so the same characters are well into their thirties and know all about the banking crisis and the use of social media Those two timelines are rapidly becoming three.

And then there’s the prospect of a TV series. Cooper & Fry are currently in development for a UK crime drama. Once you sign over your rights for the small screen, you enter a whole different universe where your characters begin to evolve in unexpected directions. If that happens, I might just go back into my Tardis and shut the door. My world is much bigger on the inside anyway.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Thank You for That Question

I learned something important this week. I was invited to speak during Library Week at a public library in a nearby city. The invitation came from a mystery discussion group that I've spoken to before, and I was delighted to be invited back again. Or, as delighted as a night owl who really wants to do something can be when told that the invitation is for mid-morning when mouth is not necessarily connecting with brain yet.

But what gave me more pause than needing to be up, dressed, and on time with functioning brain was what the group leader had said in her e-mail. She mentioned that the group would be interested in hearing about my characters and the writing process and how I got my ideas. Actually, her questions were more specific. The questions that writers often are asked at talks or following panels. What gave me pause was that my first thought was, "What else can I say about that?" I had the feeling that I had said it all before, and I would try again to explain my writing process and be no better at conveying what I do than I usually am. And they would be bored because I was muddled and lackluster, and we would all have a less than sparkling morning.

Now, in truth, I knew it wouldn't be that bad. After years of being an "author," we all learn how to rise to the occasion. To tell interesting stories -- or, at least, stories that we've told often enough so that we've gotten them down and can pause for the laughter. But this time, I wanted to just say, "My writing process is messy and disorganized" (something I've said before) and this time actually demonstrate (something I've never done before). For my own amusement, I decided to document the scatterbrained way in which I get to what eventually appears on the page.

Looking for "my show and tell" documents, I went into the closet in my office and started pulling out boxes. Maybe, I thought, I could find and copy two unpolished pages from different drafts of a manuscript. Since it was morning when I had this thought, it didn't occur to me to go to my computer and print out these two pages from different drafts. I'm glad it didn't because while I was digging around in boxes, I came across an exhibit that captured what I wanted to convey. I found a small spiral-leaf notebook. Flipping through it I find I'd written two versions of what I had apparently intended to be the title of my first published mystery. I'd scribbled these versions of the title at the top of a page on which I'd listed the stages of the hero's journey (Joseph Campbell). Apparently I'd been to my RWA chapter meeting (where Campbell is sometimes discussed) and then come home and tried using the stages to think through what was happening with my protagonist. Her journey began when lightning struck a street in the backyard of her grandmother's house in Kentucky. Finding my notebook page, I thought, "Wonderful, I'll copy the page from the journey and the page from my published book and tell them what inspired the incident" (a friend telling me about a windstorm that had come out of nowhere and knocked down a tree that she had been admiring a few minutes earlier).

So I had the beginning of my talk. I intended to point out that the title I had thought of using was nothing like what I had ended up with.

Then I flipped to the next page in the notebook. There at the top of the page was the title of my book -- Death's Favorite Child. Below that was a summary of a scene that occurred in the book but involved a different character. And below that a line from a poem -- about betrayal. My book's title appeared in that line that I had apparently intended to have one of my characters said. And, I thought -- "Aha! The title really did come from a poem." But when I Googled the line nothing turned up but my own book title and fragments of what I'd seen in various places when I searched for lines about death. So, it seems I cobbled together bits and pieces for my fake line of poetry and took my title from something I'd made up. Which didn't surprise me when I thought about it because I ended up doing that for the title of my fourth book You Should Have Died on Monday and for the faux blues song with those words in the lyrics that my femme fatale sings. I was concerned about copyright -- and rather pleased when a few reviewers thought it was a real song. The interesting part is that no one ever utters that line of poetry in the first book. Good thing because it was bad.

But the most important thing I discovered was that the title that hadn't worked for my first book was now perfect for my 1939 historical thriller. Not as a title for the book I'm working on, but as a phrase that one my characters -- the villain -- writes in his journal. Those five words capture who he is and how he sees himself.

Getting back to my talk -- I also decided to tell them about my frustrating experience with my current nonfiction book. I've mentioned this book before. It's about dress, appearance, and crime. My agent is waiting for the proposal and the sample chapters. But I've been stuck -- table of contents done, know what I want to write, have tons of material, but unable to write the two chapters I need. As I was thinking about how to explain why I couldn't do what I've done before, I suddenly understood my problem. My agent has asked me to be sure to include the last chapter in the book because it deals with a case that has been in the news. But what I suddenly realized is that I have never done that before. I am all over the place when I'm brain mapping and doing research and reading and doing all the prep work for a nonfiction book. But when I sit down to write -- whether fiction or nonfiction -- I write in a linear fashion. As the King in Alice advises, I start at the beginning and go on to the end, then stop. If I'm writing a mystery, I can't skip to the next scene. If I'm writing nonfiction, I write the chapters in order. Being asked to write the last chapter had thrown my mind into turmoil. That's not the way it should be done, my stubborn unconscious has been telling me.

But, I think -- I hope -- I may have solved the problem. I remembered -- something I had forgotten -- what I normally do when I'm writing nonfiction. I collect the articles and other material I need to refer to and create a file box for each chapter. Then I work my way through the boxes. I have to follow this process because my brain needs order and system.. I need to get the piles of paper off my desk and the floor and corralled. So what I'm going to do is pretend that I'm about to write the book. Buy my boxes, sort the chapters -- looking through the material again as I go -- then write the first chapter, sort through the boxes for the next ten, making notes, and then write the last chapter. I will still have to re-write the last chapter when I write the entire book, but maybe this will allow me to finish the proposal.

After I shared this problem during my talk, a woman in the audience came up and suggested I move the last box to the front of the queue, dress it up in colored paper and keep looking at it. And my mind will begin to think of it as the first chapter. I think I need to leave it at the end, but maybe dressing up both the first box and the last will work.

And that is the tale of how in the process of digging deeper for my morning book group talk, I made some fascinating discoveries about my untidy brain. I related another story to them about an idea I'd once had and written down and forgotten that I'd written down and then years later discovered on a piece of paper after having what I thought was a new idea. That was the lead-in to sharing some findings from Dr. Nancy Anderson, PhD, from her research on the creative process shared by artists, writers, and scientists. She describes the four stages of the process -- which I would share with you here if only I could find the folder that contains the title of the article so that I could get to the link. Anyway, what resonated with me was Dr. Anderson's description of the incubation stage in the creative process. What struck me was her description of the probably chaotic, but elegant manner in which the unconscious puts together the pieces and delivers them to us in that "eureka" moment we get in the shower or while out taking a walk. Coincidentally, as I was driving to the library, a short story writer being interviewed on public radio was talking about "the wisdom" of the unconscious mind and how he has learned to rely on it.

What I've learned is to say "thank you" for being asked questions often enough that I feel obliged to really dig for new ways to answer them. I am also thankful that I have been reminded to go through my old boxes, flip through notebooks, and think more about my process.

Now if I could only remember not to jot down notes to myself on paper napkins that I end up accidentally tossing in the trash . . .

Thursday, April 10, 2014

How to Pick a Good Title

I (Donis) love reading about how the titles for my favorite books come about. Often the author titles her own book, but that’s not always the case, you know. The final word on the title and cover of a book comes from the publishers, and if they decide on something the author isn’t thrilled with, that is too bad. I’ve been lucky. Thus far my publisher has used every title I have submitted.

Titles are important. You want to convey something of the spirit of the story, catch the reader’s eye, intrigue her enough that she wants to read that book. For the first book in my Alafair Tucker series, I went through several titles before I landed on The Old Buzzard Had It Coming. Since the book takes place in Oklahoma in the dead of the winter of 1912, I first tried to find a title with the word “cold” in it, as in “cold blooded murder”. For a long time, the working title was Blood Run Cold, but in the end, I decided that wasn’t ethnic enough, and changed it to He Had It Coming, since the murder victim is quite a horrible person. Then, one day my mother described a man who lived in her apartment complex as an “old buzzard”. Aha!

That title has served me well, even if early on, my sister-in-law Dolores couldn’t quite remember how the title went and called it The Old Coot Deserved What He Got, which is pretty good, too. In fact, we considered an entire series with similar titles: The Miserable Son-of-a-Gun Got What Was Coming to Him, The Skunk Couldn’t Have Died Soon Enough, and the like.

I decided to go for something short for the second book, and agonized for a long time before my husband actually dreamed the title Hornswoggled. Since that book, I’ve more or less given up on short titles. The production manager at my press used to tease me for using such long titles that she couldn’t fit them on the spine. But what can you do?

I sometimes have a title before I have a story in mind. That’s what happened with my sixth book, The Wrong Hill To Die On. The idea for that title was given me by an Illinois mystery author, Denisa Hanania. People are always giving me ideas for book titles. Seems every person living has heard her grandmother reel off a folksy saying that would fit right into the world of my early 20th Century Oklahoma family.

Most of the time I don’t have a title in mind. I just wait until one of the characters says something that sums it all up in one eye-catching phrase. Often for me, good title is like pornography. I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it. That’s what happened with my upcoming June release, Hell With the Lid Blown Off. One of the characters was surveying the devastation following a tornado that rolled over Muskogee County Oklahoma. It looked like hell with the lid blown off, says he.

Thank you, Trent Calder.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

My Lucky Writing Sweater

I've been a happy camper this week. For the first time in months I've got four whole days at home in Portland before heading back to Los Angeles to work my "day job." I also have four days to complete my latest round of revisions for the second book in the Honeychurch Hall mystery series. Did I also mention that I have to write a gazillion blogs for a Virtual Blog tour that's coming up in May, too? So you could say I'm a tad busy.

This means that I am a bit of a slattern. Laundry doesn't get done, my husband has to cook or we have to order-in ... and I wear the same sweatpants and green sweater—I would call it a jumper but Americans will get confused—every day. It's cashmere with a hood and I've had it ever since I started writing "properly." It's full of moth holes and there are a few dubious stains on the front but for some reason, it inspires me to write.  I call it my lucky writing jumper.

I have also created 'incentives' to help me stay on track. These include plenty of unhealthy snacks like chocolate bars, drinking endless cups of coffee and eating carefully rationed Jelly beans (35 per portion). I set an alarm to go off every forty-five minutes that gives me permission to stop for a treat— the addictive but trashy Daily Mail Online (10 minutes), Facebook (10 minutes) walking to the river and back (10 minutes - we're close to the Willamette) and watching a five-minute clip of Dudley Moore from the movie "TEN" to make me laugh. Since I write facing the window this last treat has caused a few raised eyebrows from my neighbors across the path. I suppose I must look a bit odd laughing manically to myself. "Oh look, it's that weird woman in green who dashes down to the river and back."

I started looking at the habits of other writers. Truman Capote supposedly wrote supine, holding a glass of sherry in one hand and a pencil in the other. John Cheever wrote in his underwear; Agatha Christie sat in her bath-tub eating apples when she was devising her plots.

Victor Hugo's situation was slightly different however. It was said that since he was always late delivering his manuscripts, he no longer wanted to incur the 1,000 francs fine (thank heavens we don't have THAT anymore!) So Victor Hugo decided to put himself under house arrest, lock up his clothes and wear only a long, gray shawl. The reason being that if he couldn't get dressed, he couldn't go out—and that's how he met his deadline.

At the time of writing this, I have no plans to switch my green writing sweater to a gray shawl because that really would get the neighbors talking.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

You don’t have to use a lot of words to be effective

I was approached by Orca Book Publishers a few years ago and asked if I would be willing to consider writing a book for them. The details of the project were that it had to be simply constructed: few characters, simple sentence construction, straightforward timeline, vocabulary of no more than mid Grade 4 and between 12,000 and 20,000 words. “But above all, it has to be a good story, well told,” said the email from Bob Tyrrell, the publisher.

I knew Orca as a childrens’ book publisher, but this series, Rapid Reads, was aimed at adults with low literacy skills, or adult ESL students, but also for people with normal reading skills who wanted a quick read, say, for a one-hour plane trip or something to take along when faced with time in a doctor’s waiting room.

I was definitely interested, but also apprehensive about whether I could pull off what I was being asked to do. I don’t write this way. Or I should say didn’t write this way. Signing the contract was one of the tougher things I’ve done. Somehow or other, I now had to do accomplish this task.

My usual way of writing is to begin my day rereading what I had put down the day before. I’m from the school where you charge to the end of the book, and only then do you go back and begin smoothing out the rough spots, sorting the plot “wheat” from the chaff, and correcting as many errors as possible. If you’re constantly editing as you go along, you often get so bogged down you risk losing enthusiasm for your story.

With this book (Orchestrated Murder), I found myself every morning looking at each sentence with a critical eye to the assignment: keep it simple, direct and with sentences that popped while still using simple vocab. I’d certainly written with that in mind, but every day when I reread, I was amazed how much dross had still crept through. So as I read to get myself back into the story, I succumbed to doing what I thought of as “preliminary weeding”. Quite often I’d prune away a good quarter of what I found.

And you know what? It was better. Sometimes compromises had to be made in word choice, but I always found it possible to say what I needed to even within the tightly restricted framework. Once I found my centre for this kind of writing, I really began to enjoy the little game.

Now that my second Rapid Reads book has come out (The Boom Room), I’ve been again looking at what I learned in writing these two novellas. Even though I love words and am so thankful that I write using the English language with its nearly infinite flexibility, I’ve discovered (ha!) that less can be more. For someone who loves words, trying to keep my writing to a minimum is a sort of sad thing to have to do. But I can’t argue with results.

What’s going to be really interesting is to see what readers and reviewers think of my next “post Rapid Reads” full-length novel, Rose for a Diva – because my writing has changed. Yes, I love the freedom of not having to constantly look over my shoulder for the Sentence Structure and Vocab Police. (Not that Orca ever made me feel this way – that construct was completely my own) But I had fortunately learned something very useful, and due to the fact that I was seriously over the word count, my new skill became indispensable when I was trying to lose as many words as possible during my final edit of the novel. Will anyone notice the change? I don’t know. At this point in every book, I have zero idea whether I’ve done something worthwhile or failed miserably. I wouldn’t trust anything my editor says since she’s not about to tell me that the book sucks even though she tried to make a silk purse from my sow’s ear. As a matter of fact, she hasn’t said anything – hence a lot of my doubt.

Now for the Big Reveal. What got me started on this topic today is THIS. I think these little gems are brilliant work. Ernest Hemingway would be proud. Reading them, I’m led to think of the classic Hollywood pitch. You need to hook a producer in a few deft sentences. In the case of a horror story, I think any of these might do the trick. They’re evocative, succinct and they sketch a picture that leaves it completely up to the readers’ imagination to fill out and make real.

You don’t need to use a lot of fancy words and brilliant sentence construction, just a few deft phrases can do engage your readers’ imaginations. That’s what real writing is all about, isn’t it?

Monday, April 07, 2014

What's In a Name?

After reading the posts last week about titles for books my eye was caught by a newspaper article in The Times yesterday about names for children, which serve something of the same function.

Every year, a list is published of the most popular names registered in Britain and it's interesting to see the fashions that come and go.  In general, it's the conventional ones that stick around – Jack, Olivia, Alex were high listed this year, along with Mohamed – but there are waves of fashion. Names like Charlotte, Sophie, Alexandra and Victoria were popular at the time my daughter was christened, but her children and their friends have less traditional names – Niamh (pronounced Neeve), Freya, Aliyah.

My oldest granddaughter is called Milena, a pretty mid-European name I hadn't heard before – though chosen, I was told, because my daughter and her husband had bought a book called 1001 Girls Names and it was the only one they could agree on.

The list that caught my eye yesterday wasn't about fashionable names, though. It was about names that were moribund, with not a single use registered over the whole of the past year. Some were perhaps unsurprising – Blodwen, Percy, Doris – but I was astonished, and even miffed, to discover that Marjory in all its forms – the name of my detective DI 'Big Marge' Fleming – was one of them... What, I wanted to demand, was wrong with it? It's an ancient and honourable name, good enough for Marjorie Allingham, the English mystic Margery Kempe and even the little girl on the seesaw in the nursery rhyme.

But my lead character is now, inevitably, dated by her name. And the discussion on book titles did make me wonder about that too – do our own titles date, as time passes?

One of the stand-alones I did before the DI Fleming series has just come out as an ebook in the US.  It's about a murder that takes place at a music festival and it's called The Trumpet Shall Sound. I had in mind the aria in Handel's Messiah, which goes on 'And the Dead Shall be Raised' – appropriate for what happens in the story. At the time, I thought my readers would recognize the subtlety.

But classical works like that aren't as well known as once they would have been and allusive titles can just miss their mark, leaving readers puzzled. Perhaps the long, explanatory titles, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, are not just fashionable but practical too.

As I've said before, though, I'm not entirely sure that our agonies over getting the title exactly right are worth it. When my husband asked me recently what the book I wanted him to bring down from the bedroom was called, I could only say, 'I don't know. It's the one lying beside the bed.'

Saturday, April 05, 2014

A Warm Welcome to Johnny Shaw!

Hannah here ... first of all, a big thank you must go to Lee Goldberg for introducing me to Johnny Shaw in cyber-space. Having just relocated to Portland, Oregon, Lee thought we would “get along.” And I’m happy to say that he was right. Johnny has to be one of the most versatile writers I know and hugely entertaining. If you check out his website you’ll see what I mean.

HD: Both of your books, Dove Season and Big Maria, are vividly set in the Imperial Valley where you grew up. Tell us why you decided to go back to your roots.

JS: I never thought that where I grew up was exotic in any way until I left and examined it. I suppose it took that distance to see it for something unique. I realized that few people grew up on a farm across the street from a Mexican field worker bar. Nor did they live on the border or the desert. There’s no place on Earth like the Imperial Valley. And even though I left when I was 17, growing up down there definitely shaped who I am as a person and a writer.

HD: The Imperial Valley is a far cry from Portland, Oregon. How did you find your way up to the Pacific Northwest?

JS: My wife and I had been living in Los Angeles. I was working as a screenwriter and she worked in animation, but we were both ready for a change. I also owned a used bookstore down there. When the lease on the store ended, I had the choice of renewing for five years or shutting it down. We looked at each other and realized that we could live anywhere; that we didn’t need to be in LA. We ended up in Portland and love it, but we were really going away from LA more than we were going toward Portland at the beginning.

HD: I first met you in the pub where you write. What’s a typical writing day like for you?

JS: It depends on deadlines and obligations, of course. But on a typical day, I prefer to write after lunch. I’ve always written in bars and cafes. When I started writing, I was dirt poor, so I always lived with fifty roommates and got in the habit of leaving the house or apartment to get things done.

Between noon and about four or five o’clock, bars tend to be pretty empty. I can sit in a corner and drink coffee without taking the seat of a better customer. It’s important to be in a place where I feel welcome. I found that place in Portland. And when I travel, the first thing I do is find the place I can sit for three or four hours without someone giving me the stink-eye—usually some dive bar.

HD: You are a screenwriter with an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA, what made you cross over to long-form narrative? Has it given you a different approach to your writing?

JS: I had always been drawn to collaborative media. As much as I like sitting alone and writing, I really like working with other artists. In independent film, there’s an amazing artistic conversation—same with writing for stage. But the bigger the budget, the more at stake. And that means less control for the writer. The discussion becomes more money-driven. I still enjoyed the work, but it was less satisfying creatively.

I hadn’t written a short story since junior high school when I sat down to write Dove Season, but I thought it would be interesting to write a novel. I just wasn’t sure if I could finish one. I didn’t even tell my wife I was writing a novel until about 100 pages into it. I tend to see the characters and scenes visually in my head like a movie. And my knowledge of structure, dialogue, and scene construction definitely come in handy. My work tends to be cinematic in that regard, although I do like to turn a phrase, as well. Which is something you really don’t get to do too often in screenwriting.

HD: What’s next for Johnny Shaw?

JS: My new Jimmy Veeder Fiasco novel, the follow-up to Dove Season, comes out on May 1st. It’s titled Plaster City and follows Jimmy and his best friend Bobby Maves as they drink and fight their way through the desert in search of Bobby’s missing teenage daughter. As you’d expect, things don’t go according to plan.

…And finally, if you’re as fascinated as I am by the action heroes of the 1970s and 1980s “a bygone era filled with wide-eyed innocence and mustaches” check out Johnny’s hilarious FREE quarterly newsletter Blood & Tacos “Because if it’s too cheesy, it’s a quesadilla.”


Thanks so much for stopping by.

Friday, April 04, 2014

This Above All

Next week I will be speaking to the English and History students at Fort Hays State University. My topic will on the nuts and bolts of publishing: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Some of them will be very interested in publishing as a salaried position or as a freelance writer. Some will want to pursue an academic career. If they want to succeed in academics, they must make a publishable contribution to scholarship.

Through the years I've helped quite a few people and taught a course at Hays several years ago on writing for the popular press. I've come to believe the biggest reason most don't get published is they don't a single thing about guidelines. There are other reasons, but this is the main one.

It's really, really easy to learn about a publishers guidelines now. All you have to do is Google. What are guidelines? Simple, it's how, when, and where a publisher wants you to submit your story or article.

It's critical information. I'm tempted to write this post in all caps because it's that important. When a publisher says they want your query letter by snail mail, he really means it. Or perhaps he will only consider email. Or the house hates queries and will only consider the whole book. Some want fifty pages, or sample chapters or the chapters plus a synopsis. Find out.

In addition to this information, some will state what they don't want to see or give you hints. A surprisingly number of magazines have an strict limit for word length. Some only want agented material. My mystery publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has an extremely rigid set of guidelines, and they will only consider new books at certain times of the year.

For those of you who are trying to break in, target a certain house, and look up their guidelines. Then follow them to the letter.  It will put you far ahead of the competition.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Lonely Road

John here.

I'm enormously fortunate this year to have two novels being published in a nine-month span. Part of the pre-publication process includes landing reviews and digging up additional media opportunities. I've been trying to pull my weight and help my respective publishers.

I was struck recently by how differently my two publishers approach the author's role in promotion – and I'm left scratching my head.

This One Day, was published in January. I was told right from the start the publisher had meager resources to assist me in marketing the book. Therefore, the bulk of the promotional legwork would fall to me. I’ve contacted several reviewers and stores but gotten little traction on either front.

Bitter Crossing will be published in August. The publicist at this house has told me to resist reaching out to media outlets and reviewers – unless I have a prior relationship with them – since most media members don't want to hear from authors directly. Put simply: it looks amateurish. My job, I’ve been told, is to provide contacts and ideas; the publicist will take it from there.

The fact that a publicist has been appointed to Bitter Crossing probably explains a lot. Obviously some of this has to do with the size of the publisher (both houses are indies) and how many resources the house is allocating for each title. Bitter Crossing has been deemed a "front list" title, so it receives additional support.

However, what I keep coming back to is how tied an author’s hands can be. If the publicist is right (and I have no reason to think otherwise) an author has little chance to generating reviews or feature opportunities on his own. It's a catch-22: if you don't reach out to journalists and reviewers, no one else will; however, to do so looks amateurish.

In the end, it comes down to the fact that if no one is marketing your work, you have little to lose. So you might as well contact as many media outlets as you can and cross your fingers.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

The Spoken Story

Barbara here. I am not here to talk about the agony of thinking up book titles, although the topic is fascinating and we writers all have harrowing experiences to share. I am here to discuss a more arcane process; that of converting a written book to audio format.

Over the past few months, all nine books in the Inspector Green series have been converted to audiobooks. I'm thrilled to announce they are all available now at audible.com, iTunes, Amazon and probably other sites I haven't heard of. I was delighted to be involved in the process because the narrator chose to consult me about everything from the pronunciation of French Canadian names to the Irish Ottawa Valley accent of some of the characters.

Prior to this experience, I had imagined that an actor was hired, handed the book and placed in front of a recording studio mike, where he or she started reading at the beginning and continued until the end. Possibly with breaks as needed to eat and sleep. I should have known better. One of my daughters is an actor, and I know how committed they are to their craft. Like writers, they do their research, delve into character, and try to get the details right.

When we writers pen our words, we may have an accent in our heads, or an accurate idea of how Gananoque or Archambault should be pronounced. But it actually doesn't matter whether the reader knows or not. Maybe a reader from Australia or Belfast reads those words as Gananoke or Arch-am-bolt without missing a beat. But a listener from anywhere in Ontario, upon hearing Gananoke, would dissolve into a paroxysm of laughter that would destroy any magic the story had woven. The story would lose its credibility, and probably the author with it.

It takes a committed narrator to ensure that doesn't happen. The man who did eight of the nine Green books contacted me early on to ask whether he could verify words with me, and thus began a delightful collaboration that spanned several months and during which I realized just how complicated the conversion from written to spoken word actually is. My narrator was a young American named Kevin Kraft from New Jersey. He had to take a crash course in French names, French phrases, Yiddish, and many other names from around the globe that routinely show up in a cosmopolitan city like Ottawa. From Zdeno Chara to Nadif and Marija to Romeo Dallaire; he checked them all. In fact, not only were most French Canadian names completely foreign to him, but Americans have anglicized their own names of French origin, so the pronunciation is utterly wrong for an Ottawa setting. Imagine if he had pronounced Benoit as Bin-oyt instead of Ben-wah.

Prior to consulting me each time, Kevin researched extensively on the web to try to find either phonetic renderings or audio recordings of the words. To be thorough, he usually found at least two sources, which were often contradictory.The web is full of dictionaries and translation sites that generate audio files. Some of them produced laughable results; for example, the site which suggested Levesque should be pronounced leh-ves-kew. In these cases, I appreciated his thoroughness, although I did wonder how he could possibly be paid enough. Probably, like writers, he wasn't.

I learned a great deal about how to convey sound phonetically. Forget the little accents and dashes and hats we used to put on letters in the dinosaur age. There are no keyboard symbols for those (at least not easily accessible). So we used a whole new system. Caet for cat. Caht for caught. Cayt for Kate. And consonants! Ch, sh, dj, zh... Each word had to be dissected so that words like Majdanek would be correct. Kevin could hear differences in sound too minute for my own ear, but he wanted to be just right. Like a writer, it had to be good enough for himself first.

Kevin also worried about getting the characters' voices and accents right. If I described someone as rough and blue collar, he attempted to portray that. One character in HONOUR AMONG MEN was described as having a Cape Breton accent. Kevin wanted to know what that sounded like, so I sent him a YouTube clip of a couple of Cape Breton comedians. He couldn't understand a word and thought I was joking.

I truly appreciated the care and respect with which he treated my work. So far I have not yet listened to any of the books. I am like most writers in that respect, I suspect. The story and the characters live in our heads, and it would feel odd to hear it read to us. To hear Green speak, and Sullivan answer, in an unexpected Ottawa Valley Irish accent. Perhaps it is much the same way film adaptations seem like strangers to the writers who created the original book. Maybe someday I will have enough courage or emotional distance to hear them. How do other authors feel about their audio books? Is it an odd experience?

In the meantime, I would love to hear from people who have listened to the books. Tell me what you think! And if you like it, tell the world!