Tuesday, November 30, 2010
For those of you who don’t know, the idea behind these books is that they’re novels for those with literacy challenges, either because they just don’t read well or because English is not their native tongue. The overarching mandate is “good stories well told”, but because of their nature they have to be written much differently than the sort of novel I usually write: simple language, simple sentence construction, no subplots, few or no flashbacks, a limited number of characters and no more than 20k words.
I soon fell into the habit of writing a chapter then going back next day to really looking over what I’ve written. It’s amazing how many times I’ve used a “big word” where a small one would suffice, and even though I’m focusing on simplified sentence structure, I’m still doing things that are more complicated than they need to be. Since I really enjoy the editing process, it’s no problem to shove things around, prune the dead wood and make everything simpler — and clearer.
And that’s the surprising thing. Maybe I’m building some good skills to make my writing overall better and more lucid. Maybe there are things that I can take from this little novella to my wider-ranging writing.
In the past hundred years, prose style has become much more stripped down and basic. You only need to look at a Forster novel to see how things have changed. I’m not saying that they’re better, just different.
There are things that I’m learning that I will use in my next full-length novel. In the meantime, Orchestrated Murder might be an interesting book for Type M folks to consider reading when it’s released in a year.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Hannah here and thrilled to welcome New York Times bestselling author Kate Carlisle. Kate worked in television, studied acting and singing, toiled in vineyards, collected books, and joined a commune, but it was the year she spent in law school that drove her to write fiction. It seemed the safest way to kill off her professors. Those professors are breathing easier now that Kate spends most of her time writing near the beach in Southern California where she lives with her perfect husband.
Over to you Kate!
Recently, I read an article about a nonfiction book titled The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, which chronicles the misadventures of a man who stole thousands of dollars worth of rare books from booksellers.
The article caught my attention both because I am a passionate bibliophile when it comes to antique books, and because book theft and fraud are integral to my Bibliophile Mysteries series. THE LIES THAT BIND, the third book in the cozy mystery series, was released earlier this month.
I created the Bibliophile Mysteries precisely because I love old books so much, with their lovely leather bindings, the intricate hand-colored artwork, the delicate gilt applied hundreds of years ago. I don’t condone stealing, of course, but a part of me understands the passion behind the theft.
The story got me thinking of the “must-have” gifts of this holiday season. Really? Must have? I don’t usually care to have the same things that every one of my neighbors have. What a boring world it would be if the décor were identical inside every home. I don’t covet my neighbor’s iPad … but let’s say that same neighbor had a first edition copy of Oliver Twist, a book that drives someone to murder in THE LIES THAT BIND. Ah! Then I might find myself peeking in her window late at night just for a glimpse.
Antiques, whether books or otherwise, appeal to me on an emotional level because they provide a tactile way to connect with the past. These treasures inspire leaps of imagination. One might wonder at the world in which the antique was created. Who made it? Who owned it? What did they think and feel when they looked at the object? What did it mean to them?
Often, antiques are around because they are of such extraordinary quality that their caretakers over the years safeguarded them for future generations. Old world craftsmanship is a pleasure to behold.
I do believe that quality craftsmanship exists today. There still exist artisans who appreciate the importance of fine detail and who would rather do the job right than do it fast. They create the modern day treasures that will be antiques one day because they’re beautiful, and they aren’t mass-produced. And we’ll do our best to keep them safe from children and pets and drunk Uncle Larry and too much sunlight.
I don’t understand the Christmas rush to go out and buy something that anyone can have. I would much rather receive something unique, with a story behind it. Although … an unused iPad in its original packaging will be worth a mint a hundred years from now. Buy one now and resist the urge to open it, and you could pay for your great-grandchildren’s education.
What’s on your wish list this season? If you could have any treasure from any era, what would you want? If you could have any modern gadget or gift that you see advertised in the paper or on TV, what would you want?
By the way, I’m holding a contest for members of my mailing list. One random member will be selected on December 2 to receive a keepsake book with a matching box, both of which I made myself in a recent bookbinding class. Join my mailing list at www.katecarlisle.com for a chance to win!
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Friday, November 26, 2010
Peter here. I was reflecting the other day on what it is, exactly, that I like to write. And it came to me in a blindingly obvious flash of insight. I write what I like to read.
We’ve all been asked by aspiring writers what it is they should write. And the standard advice is: Write what you know. And yes, to an extent, that is true. But what do any of us know about crime, unless we are criminals ourselves, or ex-police officers?
Of course, crime is just the genre. The stories more often are about people, the human experience, the human condition. There was a discussion recently on TypeM about themes in our work, and most everyone seemed to feel that there was always a theme buried somewhere in the story.
I know that there is always some element of each book I write which is themed - whether it relates directly to the story (as in a medical or scientific theme), or to the vagaries of human frailty (as in guilt or arrogance). I once wrote an ambitious adventure story set in south-east Asia called “The Noble Path”, and it may not be obvious on the surface, but the motivation that drove the writing of it was the idea that in some circumstances innocence can be a more powerful force for destruction than evil (inspired to a degree by Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”).
So, in examining my motivations for writing what I write, I came up with several thoughts. Write what you know. Explore a theme which interests you, or with which you are familiar. But, most importantly, write what you like to read.
I think that if, as a writer, you take yourself on a journey which you enjoy, then that will transmit itself to the reader.
The mistake I made as a young man was in trying to write the great novel. I had steeped myself in the great writers of the twentieth century, and wanted to write like they did. And so I wrote several books in an attempt to emulate their success. Of course, none of those early books got published, although the writing of them was not in any way a waste of time, as I can look back now and recognise that I was learning my craft.
But it wasn’t until I wrote a thriller - the kind of book I enjoyed reading as an escape from the daily dirge - that I got my first book published. And in retrospect I realise that I had effectively (and quite unconsciously) rolled all those bits of advice into one. The story was about an investigative journalist - I was working as a journalist at the time. It was set in Scotland and France - countries I knew well. The theme was corporate corruption - something which, as a journalist, had fascinated me. And, of course, it was a book I would have liked to read (or a movie I would have liked to see).
But I have a confession to make. I also used to love to read stories which explored the power in relationships between men and women. Not romances, in the conventional sense, but stories of tragedy, betrayal, redemption. One of my favourite writers, whose books often explored such themes, was H. E. Bates. To an extent I have always touched on these subjects in my own writing, but somewhere deep down I guess I always wanted to write the great love story.
I think, perhaps, in my forthcoming book, “The Blackhouse”, I finally achieved that ambition. The fact that it is as much a novel as a thriller, also fulfils two more of my own criteria. The book is the first of a trilogy. I have already written the second, and following the recent discovery that my first love - who had inspired one of the main characters - died eight years ago, I am not at all sure that it will end well.
It is a journey that awaits me. But one that I want to make, if for no other reason than to find out for myself how it all ends.
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
The book business is like a wild train ride these days. Everyone on it, from author to agent to bookseller and publisher, is scrambling to figure out where it’s going and how they can get on board, or at least cling to the outside hoping not to fall off.
In past years, when my Fall book was released, I would have as many as fifteen to twenty signings in bookstores within a two-day drive. I raced from store to store, greeting potential readers and talking up my books. It helped to build not only readership but also personal ties to the booksellers, who were invariably gracious and supportive.
This year, my book signing tour is almost dead. In city after city, the independent bookstores are gone, along with the knowledge and personal connections I had cherished. Left are the Chapters and Coles stores, spreading across the country in possibly the largest monopoly ever created in this country. While the in-store staff generally love books and are delighted to connect with you, they have no power. A small cadre of buyers at central office controls what books are bought and how many. Another small cadre set policy on bookstore events, and stores can’t plan their own local events without having them vetted more centrally. A complex event application form has to be submitted and approved. An eight-week lead time is required in order to ensure the application form can be processed and the books ordered. Furthermore, their new policy appears to be no signings in November and December. This means that an author or publicist seeking a signing has to start the process before Labour Day. If you have personal connections with individual store managers, this overly bureaucratized process can be hastened, but harried managers have little time to take on the extra work.
Instead of signings, I find myself in cyberspace along with all the other authors. Blogs, Facebook, interactive websites, Twitter, and You Tube are the new marketplaces, and they have become as crowded with competing chatter as any third-world flea market. It’s tiring, bewildering, and not nearly as satisfying as face-to-face talk. I also have absolutely no idea whether it’s doing any good. Everyone in the book business is trying to figure out what will connect them with readers without consuming every spare moment of their lives. At the same time, newspaper book sections are shrinking, ad costs are exorbitant, and book placement surcharges are out of reach for all but the biggest publishers, leaving publishers or authors scratching their heads about how to get the word out about their new books.
Dire predictions are being made about the future of books. Ebooks, vertical monopolies, declining readership, the rise of frivolous celebrity books… Is the train about to wreck, or is there some small side spur that can salvage, if not the industry as it is now, some elements of it still worth saving? I’m not an apocalyptic thinker, I’m a natural optimist. If you take a long enough view of history, some things die, others transform, and still other things are born. I have noticed some very interesting trends beginning to emerge in this clamorous cyberspace where we all congregate.
Online bookstores, although playing a large part in the demise of brick-and-mortar stores, are reaching customers quickly and efficiently in all corners of the country. Indeed, the world. No longer are you out of luck if there is no bookstore near you. Through Amazon, one can order my books everywhere in the world. Chapters, Barnes and Noble, and Borders all carry my books online. And through a clever payment scheme, Amazon encourages the sale of books through private blogs and websites. Even as professional review sites dry up, customer reviews are cropping up on blogs and in all the online bookstores. Everyone is invited to rate or review books. One can certainly argue the quality of customer reviews vs. professionals, but readers are talking about books and participating in the evaluation process more than ever before. Water cooler chats in cyberspace.
Online bookstores are also using complex algorithms to track customer buying habits and to recommend other books. I first learned this when a friend told me Amazon had notified them by email that my latest book was now available. They had bought a previous book on Amazon, and the juggernaut had “remembered”. Furthermore, when you click on a book, Amazon generates several lists of book suggestions. For example, “customers who viewed this book also viewed…” and “customers who bought this book also bought…” and “frequently bought together...” The books being connected to mine are far from random. Along with expected authors like Mary Jane Maffini, Joan Boswell, Vicki Delany, RJ Harlick – with whom I share many friends and signing tables – my book generates connections like Peter Robinson, Gail Bowen and Louise Penny, along with gritty British or Scandinavian mysteries. In other words, books similar to mine.
This virtual recommendation list will never replace the independent bookstore whose owner knows your taste along with every book in the store, and where you can browse back covers and first pages at your leisure in search of a new author. But it will go some way towards helping the bewildered reader navigate the overwhelming selection of titles crowding the virtual shelves. From the recommendations list the reader can click on the book, read reviews, editorial summaries, check out the author page and even read an excerpt.
There is nothing like the feel of a paper book cradled in your lap as you curl up by the fire or laze on the beach. There is nothing like the ambiance of an independent bookstore filled with carefully selected titles and a committed bookseller. Like the personal book signing, I hope they are not swept off the track by this speeding monolith of a train hurtling into an unknown future. We can’t turn back time or ignore the digital revolution. But perhaps, around the bend lies not a train wreck but a series of spurs that will foster new growth, new loyalties and whole new generations of readers. An author can only hang on, and hope.
Okay, the title is definitely tongue-in-cheek. And this week’s blog posting is a bit of a cop-out since I’m currently really busy on other things, and heck, it’s not every day that Blechta gets interviewed for anything. For the record the clip above is an interview that I did a few weeks ago for The Mark News, a Canadian online news service.
We decided to do the interview and “B-roll shots” at Toronto’s historic Distillery District. It’s got great visual atmosphere and a ton of good places to shoot. The real issue is to avoid security because you aren’t supposed to shoot anything (other than vacation shots) down there without permission. That’s a train’s bell ringing in the background at the beginning. The property abuts Union Station. I love trains, so I’m glad they used that part of the sound track. What you saw was edited down from about 15 minutes worth of yours truly shooting his mouth off.
We shot the cover of my fifth novel, When Hell Freezes Over, in an open area of the Distillery District. They also shot a lot of Cinderella Man down there (along with a ton of other productions) because of the cobblestones and old buildings, and according to Wikipedia it’s “the largest collection of Victorian era industrial architecture in North America”.
So now you know “the rest of the story”. If you’re ever in Toronto, a trip to the Distillery District is certainly worth the effort. You probably won’t see me there, though...unless someone wants another interview!
Monday, November 22, 2010
What would you do if you believe the person you trust most in the world has betrayed you? What would you do if you discover that the person you trust most in the world believes you capable of betrayal?
That is the question that forms the heart of my new book, Negative Image, the fourth in the Constable Molly Smith series from Poisoned Pen Press.
Mystery novels, or as I prefer to call them, crime novels, are frequently disparaged as not being important or literary. Particularly in Canada, where I live, the very idea of a crime novel being short-listed for an important award would have people rolling in the aisles in laughter.
It seems a strange mind-set to me.
Crime novels, it has been said, show the human psyche under pressure.
Crime novels take (usually) normal people and put them through a heck of a lot. Some survive, some do not. Physically as well as mentally or morally.
Crime novels allow the reader to ask him or herself: what would I do in this situation? What would I do if this happened to me? How far would I go to save my child/defeat my enemy/get revenge/save myself? What would I do for money/for love?
Would I do the right thing, or would I fail?
In Negative Image a long time marriage is under almost unbearable strain. One partner distrusts the other, the other is horrified to discover how deep the distrust goes. Old secrets, long concealed, are revealed. Another marriage ends shattering all involved, and a young woman is very hesitant, frightened almost, about the beginnings a new relationship.
The use of a crime or a mystery allows the author to up the stakes for the characters, but the essential humanity and the complex range of human emotions are what’s all-important.
Crime novels often reflect the worst (and the best) of the world in which we live. Here in Canada we have been captivated by the tale of one Colonel Russell Williams, commander of the largest air force base in the country. A military man so prominent he has piloted the Queen.
And in his spare time he dressed in stolen women’s underwear and was a sexual sadist and serial killer. An unprecedented amount of the police investigation was revealed to the media, including the video of the initial police interrogation. Williams starts off calm, sure of himself; by the end he’s confessing to murder. “Why did you do it?” asks the officer. “I don't know the answers, and I'm pretty sure the answers don't matter” he says.
Of course it matters, it matters a lot. And because we’ll probably never know the answers to why Williams did the things he did, we’ll read and write crime novels to try to get some insight into what causes a person to go bad.
And perhaps also give us some insight into what we might do, if we come across such a person.
As we all know, crime novels can come in many forms. Some are as I have described, some are not. Mystery novels can feature emotionless automatons or have formula plots. But so-called-literary novels have been occasionally been stiff or unoriginal as well, you know.
An article recently in the Globe and Mail was headlined “Freedom’s just another world for absolute banality”. The columnist went to refer to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as, “Dull narratives about dull people leading dull lives”. “Coming up,” she says, “with actual plots and genuine revelations is exhausting work.”
Fortunately we have crime writers prepared to do the exhausting work, and mystery novels to read.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Friday, November 19, 2010
The reason for the late posting of my blog is a case in point. With Irish and American friends, I am currently on a wine-tasting tour of the Gaillac region of France. This was an area that I discovered while researching the second book in my Enzo Files series, "The Critic". I fell in love with the area, and with the wine. And in return for my writing, I was made a chevalier of the local wine-making brotherhood, the "Dive Bouteille".
But it is also heartening to know that my book brought me new fans here, even although it has not yet been published in French. When I arrived this morning for a tasting at one of the wineries that featured in the book, I found that they had mounted a display of the books and a poster advertising it in their tasting room.
When, they were desperate to know, would the book appear in French. Well, here's the thing... the books in the Enzo series were not written for the French. They were written for "foreign" readers - English, Russian, German, Scandinavian. I explain some of the peculiarities of French culture, as well as describing daily life. Of course, such things are known to the French, who would find it irritating to read about them. None of us likes to be told what we already know about ourselves.
So this week I have embarked on a process of adapting books set in France for a French readership. How bizarre is that? I am already well into the adaptation of "Extraordinary People", and am amazed at just how much I am cutting, and how the cutting is improving the manuscript.
A lesson for the future, perhaps? How much do we really need to explain to the reader, and how much can remain as "subtext"?
Strangely enough, in looking at some of the later books in the series, I realize that I have explained less and less. Story and character dominate, as they should. After all, if a reader picks up the books mid-series, he or she will not be privy to all those earlier descriptions and explanations. So, in the end, all those revised manuscripts are almost certainly going to be an improvement on the originals.
Maybe I can persuade my American publisher to take them on board for possible future editions.
Meantime, I must rush off. I have a pressing engagement with a bottle of wine.
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Try to guess which is more fun.
I never deny that writing is a lot of work. I once read that Evan Hunter (Ed McBain) wrote a minimum of 10 hours a day and that Stephen King writes 10 pages a day. By contrast, I’m usually ready for a break after 90 minutes. But now, after a15-hour workday, when the 18 15-year-old boys (and my wife and three daughters) are asleep, I can’t wait for the chance to work on the novel. It’s my release.
This revision is also interesting because I’ve never worked this way before. Typically, one cuts during the revision process. I’ve added an entire storyline to a bioterrorism novel. Most of the legwork was already done—I’d researched and interviewed bioethicists, university chemistry professors, and others in the medical and legal fields—so now I’m doing what I enjoy, creating and following characters.
What I’m especially curious to discover is whether or not my current ending still fits the novel. I like the thrill of discovery as I write, and usually I don’t know the endings of my books until I’m 50 or even 20 pages from the conclusion. (Twenty was cutting it close, and that was scary; ironically, it might also be my best ending.)
The papers will not grade themselves, so back to work I go.
But I’m interested to hear from others about a unique revision process.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
As a member of Sisters in Crime I often take part in panels held in various libraries scattered throughout Southern California. I love supporting our libraries. They’re fun and each time I always come away having learned something new about a fellow author or find some great writing tips. Often, it’s just nice to spend an afternoon commiserating or celebrating about the trials and tribulations of being an author.
This past Saturday—topic, Spice Up Your Holiday Reading—my kindred panelists were Michael Mallory (a terrific moderator), Aileen G. Baron and Betty Hecthman. Aileen, who writes archeological mysteries, was sharing her frustrations about the challenge of finding the right place to put the historic Mission at San Juan Capistrano in her book since it had served as the initial spark for her plot.
Earlier posts on Type M last week talked of how life-changing personal experiences appear in novels in various disguises—after all, we write what we know. But what about those vivid scenes that became the seed of a story but perhaps, as the story develops, no longer fit?
Aileen’s dilemma reminded me of the completed manuscript submitted to my publisher for A Vicky Hill Exclusive! I had written eleven drafts—it was my first novel—and the climactic scene was something that tied the entire plot together. It was also the one scene that had given me the idea for the plot in the first place and was intensely personal. As a cub reporter for our weekly newspaper, I’d gone undercover and got myself into a rather tricky situation with the local coven of witches. Without going into the juicy details, I escaped unscathed.
Unfortunately, my editor felt the scene too risqué for the genre and insisted I take it out. The plot collapsed (of course) but, after the initial horror of having to rewrite the entire thing with a new storyline, I got to work and fixed it. It made a better book but jeez, it was tough.
What about you? Have any scenes dear to your heart ended up on the cutting room floor?
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Good. So I’m writing one of these novellas and enjoying it as much as Barbara did. But that’s not what I want to talk about.
The plot involves the murder of an orchestra’s conductor. Now I know my way around one of these unwieldy organizations pretty well, but not having done more than get hired on as an extra for the odd gig here and there, I haven’t been in one day in, day out. When you are, you understand the dynamics of inter-musician relationships much better, probably better than you want. Suffice it to say that they’re pretty much incredibly large dysfunctional families. Bad blood abounds, relationships are made and broken (as are marriages between orchestra members), and factions can’t help but form. The biggest upheaval always comes when a new conductor takes the helm. They naturally become the father (or mother) figure since they’re in the position of power, and the musicians respond accordingly.
So here I am toodling along through the novel and I start having all these questions and doubts about what I’m writing. Even though readers probably won’t detect when I make up things out of whole cloth, but even so, it’s important to me to get things right and have everything be as accurate as possible.
Yesterday, I was wondering on whom I might impose myself for a spot of research and reassurance. Like magic, I hear from an old friend who plays in an orchestra (which shall remain nameless). Seizing the opportunity, I pepper him with my questions. Do things really happen the way I’ve been describing them? I don’t want to be too over the top here, after all.
“Why do you want to know all this?” he asked.
I explained about the novel I’m writing.
“So who’s the person who gets murdered?”
“The conductor. All the musicians confess.”
Silence on the line for a moment, then he answers with a bit of a laugh, “I play in that orchestra.”
Life imitating art – or art imitating life?
Saturday, November 13, 2010
Friday, November 12, 2010
Rather than relate the results of that search here, I am going to link to the very first posting on my new personal blog, which I kicked off this week with that rather sad tale.
I would be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on it.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
In fact, I’ve had to think about dialogue a lot this week. I wrote a story over the summer that I just came back to, revised, and sent off to several publications. The story ends at its climax—and hinges on its final line, which is spoken by the 10-year-old protagonist.
The story has its genesis in a news article I clipped from the USA TODAY last summer, a feature on the Revisiting Hearts Day program, which is a prison program in the U.S. designed to let convicts spend one day each year participating in normal parenting activities.
My story, “364 Days,” is about a boy who struggles as he awaits his annual visit with his convict father and explores the ensuing issues any fatherless boy would face. The story ends with this final scene:
“Did you take that bike, son?” the officer asked, eyes narrowed, head tilted to the side as if uncertain of the situation. He was a large black man and kept looking from T.J. to the $219 price tag hanging like a written confession from the handlebars.
The man’s dark face shone, glistening beneath the moon.
T.J. didn’t answer. He stood staring at the ground.
“Son”—the man knelt beside him—“do you know what you’ve done?”
“How old are you?”
“You took the bike just to ride it in front of the store?”
“I’m not your son.
“…you’re in a lot of trouble.”
“Why did you take the bike?”
He looked at the man. Then he looked away, back toward Ridell Street, where his mother was still with Marty, where his days of playing basketball were over. Finally, he turned back and refocused on the ground. “Because once a year ain’t enough,” he said.
“What?” the officer said.
“Put me in Garriston,” T.J. said. “Once a year ain’t enough.”
I went back and forth with the ending of this story. In June, the story ended without the final two lines, simply, “Because once a year ain’t enough,” he said. Then, after giving it a couple months to rest and coming back to it with fresh eyes last week, I thought the conclusion needed clarity, and I added the cop’s final question and the boy’s explanation in which he names his father’s prison.
Fiction writing is often like a tightrope walk: How much information is too much? I want to take care of my readers. But I also want them to play a part in my story. However, “364 Days” ends at its climax. The pathos must be clear.
It’s a delicate process, one that might not be over.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Barbara here, just back from a day at the spa and feeling very mellow. Which is a good thing, because my writing life is somewhat hectic at the moment. I have a new book out, a launch to plan, book signings to set up, announcements to send out, and several blogs to write. Multiple demands, deadlines, long to-do lists and overflowing inboxes do not encourage the writing muse to visit. Just ask Vicki Delany.
On this week’s Monday blog, Vicki talked about her struggles to come up with an idea for her new standalone. After seven series novels in a row, had she lost the knack for creating a story from scratch? Was she dried up? Burnt out? In passing, she mentioned that she is in the middle of a huge publicity push for the release of her latest novel, Negative Image.
No writer wants to feel that our creativity has deserted us, and that we’re condemned to writing the same story over and over in thin disguises. We always want to improve our craft, explore new frontiers, experiment with new forms. But there is also this sneaking fear that those boundaries are finite and our well of ideas is shallower than our ambition.
We all write differently. Some of us strive mightily to come up with one decent idea every few years, others are bombarded with fresh ideas constantly. Some of us need hours of uninterrupted peace to get into our creative zone, others do their best “writing” while stuck in traffic on the expressway. Some of us find the looming shadow of a deadline galvanizing, others find it terrifying. I do know that there are endless possible stories out there, and endless intriguing characters, but when the mind is too distracted, overloaded or preoccupied, even the most faithful muse will desert us.
It says “You’re not listening. I’ll come back another time when you’re not so busy.” Without a doubt, Vicki’s muse will be back.
But her dilemma got me thinking. It casts a whole new light on that all-too-familiar question posed to authors. “Where do you get your ideas?” “From everywhere and anywhere” is our usual patient response. Ideas are in the old guy with the mismatched shoeslaces at the coffee shop, in the snatch of angry conversation overheard on the bus, in the small snippet of news on the back page of the paper. But how do we know they’re good ideas, and how do we grab hold of them and use them to launch a story?
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my writing process and mentioned that all I need to get started is the theme I want to write about. Some authors commented that they never know the theme until the book is over, or that the theme emerges only gradually as the story unfolds. For many, the story seems to start with character. Who they are writing about, not what. Vicki herself is waiting for a character to emerge in vivid enough detail to start her story.
My experience is quite different. I don’t know my characters very well when I start out with them. I write scenes with them, I create journeys for them, and meet the other people in their lives, and over the course of the book, they develop and grow from their initial vague beginnings into vivid, unique characters. It is only once I have finished the book that their full character is revealed to me. Once I know who they are, I can flesh them out further in rewrites.
This is not to say that I know my theme in all its vivid detail either when I start my story. It is usually a vague idea, but one compelling enough that I want to explore it. War crimes. Post-traumatic stress in soldiers. In the latest book, the deadly power of love. I decide I want to write about XXX, I ask what characters I might need, and off I go. I usually don’t know what I want to say about XXX, and indeed sometimes I realize halfway through that I’m really writing about YYY. But the theme serves to focus me.
Perhaps this different approach stems from the fact I write a detective series. Thus, some of the main characters are already laid out for me. The question I ask is not so much “What is this character’s story?” but “What is Inspector Green’s case going to be about this time?” The only character who dictates the storyline from the outset is the victim. Once I ask “What is the story of this person’s death? What happened here?” then Inspector Green and I are off on the case. I may ask “Who is he, and why would someone want him dead?” but often that too unfolds maze-like as I follow the story. The character may not be who I thought he was, and the reasons for wanting him dead change with every twist.
Sometimes writers are asked “What’s more important in your writing – character or plot?” They are two sides of a circle, each incomplete without the other. A story is about characters doing something, and somewhere, hidden in that doing, lies the theme. Ideas, whether they be characters, plot points, snippets of news, or themes, are like the grain of sand in the oyster. They gets the muse working, and slowly bit by bit, a pearl is built around them. Perfect, multi-layered, and often bearing no resemblance to the original idea that started it all. I wonder where other authors find their grains of sand.
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
So, Vicki, don’t worry, be happy. I’m certain knowing your prolific ability (as opposed to profligate), you’ve already got at least one novel in the can. You’ve had an enviable string of books in the past 18 months. Maybe your imagination has just decided that it needs a holiday.
I’ve been stuck in the doldrums many times and it ain’t fun, especially when you have a gun to your head. As you might expect, the gun makes it worse. And as that pressure builds, creativity slips farther away. It’s maddening.
My suggestion is with the wonderfully clear evening we’re having in Ontario, that you take out a chaise longue, bundle up warmly and have the warming beverage of your choice at hand, and just commune with the night sky. Another alternative is to take a long walk, as you’ve already suggested. The main thing, though, is to let your brain just relax and unwind.
It may take a few doses of this medicine (ignoring the whole problem), but if you’re like me and any number of people I’ve spoken with over the years, eventually you’ll find that all of a sudden the defining idea, that brief spark that sets off the whole conflagration once again, will just pop into your head and you’ll be off on another 300+ pages of discovery.
Just don’t try to force it.
Monday, November 08, 2010
I’ve decided to take a break from Molly Smith for now (Look for Among the Departed in May) and write a standalone for Poisoned Pen Press. The next Klondike book, Gold Mountain, is at my critique group receiving critique (not too harsh I hope).
And I sit poised over my computer, awaiting inspiration.
It ain’t coming.
Usually at the beginning of a new project my mind is humming with activity for weeks before. Ideas for characters, names (nod to Hannah), details of the setting, rough plot points. This time, pretty much not. I don’t even have the main character’s name, which is a big thing for me. Unlike Rick mentioned in the comments to Hannah’s post on names, I never begin a book without the protagonist’s name, and I’ve never changed a name once I’ve settled on it.
As I typed the above sentence, something occurred to me – perhaps I can’t get started on this book because I don’t have a clear idea of my protagonist. If she doesn’t have a name, then she isn’t real. The question then becomes, why isn’t she taking shape in my mind? Is it because after writing seven series books since my last standalone I’m not used to making up a protagonist from scratch?
Maybe I’m getting burned out. I’ve been on blog tour for a couple of weeks and writing constantly about myself, and trying to make me and my books sound interesting is a heck of a lot of effort. As well as the blog tour, I’m also doing booksignings for Negative Image and have the publicity machine going full force.
And I’m just back from a family vacation in Las Vegas (11 Delanys staying in the same hotel). Didn’t think much about writing books while in Vegas.
And now my computer is broken. I spilled coffee into the laptop. Fortunately I bought this little netbook recently and fortunately I backed up all my current projects to work on in Vegas, so I am at least partially connected.
Perhaps I just need to go for a long walk or clean the house (and does it need it) and let my mind wander for a while. It’s not failed me before. Somewhere in there there is an exciting, interesting, vibrant character waiting to come out.
Incidentally, I’m doing a lot of booksignings around Eastern Ontario and the GTA this month. My schedule is posted here: http://booktour.com/author/vicki_delany.
That long walk might have to wait for a while.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
Saturday, November 06, 2010
Mary Anna Evans - A Matter of Perspective: A Novel-writing Engineer Takes a Look at the BP Oil Spill - Part I
Donis here. I’m doing something a bit different this weekend, Dear Reader. My Sunday guest blogger, Mary Anna Evans, suffered a death in her family last week, and rather than h
ave her take the time to write a new entry for Type M, I asked her to send me something she had written or blogged about in the the past that she particularly liked. The following essay about the Gulf oil spill is so fascinating that rather than edit it in any way, I’m posting part of it today and the rest tomorrow. Enjoy!
Mary Anna Evans has degrees in physics and engineering, but her heart is in the past. Her series character, Faye Longchamp, lives the exciting life of an archaeologist, and Mary Anna envies her a little. Her latest book, Strangers, set in St. Augustine, Florida, has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press.
This is a post I wrote in June, after visiting the area south of New Orleans that was so affected by the BP oil spill. I think this is such an important event that I am setting my current work-in-progress, PLUNDER, in that area. We'll be seeing the fallout from the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon for a long, long time. - Mary Anna.
Aerial images of oil covering the surface of waters that were once turquoise and clear.
Suffering turtles and water birds, thickly coated with petroleum.
Computer-generated maps purporting to tell us all how bad the situation in the Gulf of Mexico is going to get.
Like the rest of America, I'd seen all those things on my television, but I'm writing a novel set in south Louisiana and the oil spill changes everything. I needed to see the situation with my own eyes. And as a person with a long history in the area, including a brief stint working offshore south of Grand Isle, Louisiana, I needed to see it for myself.
I am the author of a series of mysteries that feature an archaeologist who works in the southeastern United States. Because of the nature of archaeology, it only makes sense that I weave the history of my books' settings into the plot. Because of who I am--a chemical engineer with another degree in physics, who has worked as an environmental consultant--I feel compelled to make sure my fictional world operates properly. My stories are intended to be entertainments, so the history and science are buried
deep beneath the surface. I do not believe you will ever pick one up and say, "This reads like a textbook! Yuck!"
On the contrary, the books get great reviews that use words like"fascinating" and compelling," and they've won awards for being fun to read. But they also get good reviews from archaeologists and recognitions like an award from the Florida Historical Society. When I start researching a new story, I'm serious about getting things right, so I go to the source.
When I wrote my fifth book, Floodgates, I sold it to my editor by pointing out that I was the author to write a book about post-Katrina New Orleans that would be different from any other, because I have family there and a personal history there that includes a summer working offshore in the Gulf. I also pointed out that, as a licensed engineer, I just might have something worthwhile to say about the levee failures.
She saw my point and let me write the book. I made much the same argument in favor of my writing my current work-in-progress, Plunder, a book that features the oil spill catastrophe and, again, she let me write the book. (I love her for being willing to listen to me.)
I figured that something as unprecedented as millions of gallons of oil stretching over a goodly chunk of real estate was something I needed to see with my own eyes before I could write about it intelligently, so I got in my car and drove east until I got to New Orleans.
As I drove across on I-10, the only certain indication of the disaster was periodic announcements on the Panhandle radio stations that scattered tar balls had begun washing up on their beaches, but that they were otherwise fine and open for business. As we all know, by the end of the day, those tar balls had proliferated and morphed into the splattering of oil globs that has at the time of this writing has affected 150 miles of what were the prettiest beaches I've ever seen.
There was an odd moment when I an unmistakable whiff of raw oil seeped into my car cabin. I still don't know how this could be. I was miles inland from the gulf. I spent the next few days after that way down in the Mississippi delta, which is soaked
with the stuff just a few miles way from where I was, yet I only detected such a strong scent of oil once. And when I did, there was no oil in sight. Can sea breezes really carry volatile organic compounds so far? Who knows? I'm sure BP doesn't.
Another subtlety I noticed during my drive were two trucks loaded with pipe that was maybe 3 feet in diameter and 20 feet in length. It wasn't a particularly noteworthy sight, except for the police escort, before and after the trucks. There was no wide load sign, and the loads weren't wide. These escorts weren't the traffic technicians that usually accompany wide loads. They were marked cars with blue lights flashing. Coming home, I saw other trucks carrying the exact same load and being escorted in the exact same way.
I think the pipe was destined for the relief wells being drilled to stop the oil flow, and it was a visual reminder of the enormity of that task. If it takes two trucks and two law enforcement vehicles to transport about 120 feet of pipe, what level of effort will it take merely to get the equipment for those very important wells to the site, much less to drill two such tremendously deep wells? This may be part of the reason we're being told that it will be August before the wells will be finished. Again, who knows? Maybe somebody has to make the pipe before the wells can be completed. It seems to me that someone should have thought of the logistics of this Herculean effort before they ever began drilling at that depth in the first place.
As I neared New Orleans, I drove over swamps and industrial canals and neighborhoods that shouldn't be still trashed from Katrina, but they are. I whizzed past high-rises and the Superdome, and my car climbed high, high above the Mississippi River. Then I hung a left and stopped in Algiers to pick up my cousin Cheryl.
Cheryl grew up on the West Bank and still lives there. She spent several years living in Plaquemines Parish. She'd told me that she thought she could find a friend with a fishing camp we could borrow for the weekend. She could think of three off the top of her head, but she hoped she could get us access to her friend Kenny's camp because it "was nice."
I was expecting something like this:
(Notice how the gorgeous water and sky makes plumbing-free shacks built with scraps of plywood and random pieces of roofing look fairly beautiful.)
Here's the actual camp:
It has four bedrooms, granite countertops, stainless steel professional appliances, and it is beautifully decorated. I looked and looked for something in that "fishing camp" that wasn't nicer than anything I owned. Nope. I was hoping for a relaxing getaway, but I really didn't expect luxury. Score!
On that first evening two exhausted single moms planned our tour of the Mississippi River delta. We did this while sitting on the porch of that magnificent "camp", looking out over the water while we soaked in the jacuzzi, drank beer, and digested a big platter of crawfish. It was truly hard to imagine the devastation that is surely coming to that very spot.
The next morning, we headed south, intending to drive down Plaquemines Highway until it ended in Venice.
To picture this drive, you must first know that the countryside is utterly flat. The difference between water and land in this part of the country is sometimes a mere matter of opinion. If a person digs a ditch, hecreates a canal. If he takes the dirt from that ditch and piles it alongside, he creates something that looks to the Louisianan like dry land, so he thinks he might as well build a house on it...and it will be a canalfront house, which is a wonderful thing in this place where everybody loves to fish.
The land on either side of the highway was always low-lying and it was often swampy. The Mississippi River was to our left, and various bays and waterways that are attached to the Gulf were on our right. Waterfronts in both directions are protected by levees, so there was almost always at least one levee within sight. Often those protective piles of dirt rose above us in both directions, a visual reminder that we were following a narrow spit of land as far out to sea as it would take us.
Between our camp in Myrtle Grove and Venice, I had spotted Fort Jackson on the map. It was labeled as a historical site, so I figured it was more than just a campsite named after a long-gone fort. The fort was well-marked, so we had no trouble finding the beautifully constructed old (1822!) masonry building. Unfortunately, it was closed, probably in the wake of Katrina, but we could drive along the access road between the fort and the river. We parked there and got out to explore the area that wasn't closed. Up on the levee was an observation point with a wonderful view of the river and the fort, and of a bayou across the river known as Mardi Gras Bayou that is said to have the oldest place name (1699!) in the Mississippi Valley.
This little tour would have been exactly as I expected it to be, except for the constant thwapping of helicopter blades. Some sort of relief effort was being conducted from the fort property, and many helicopters were taking off in quick succession. They were dangling cables loaded with...something. Dispersant? Cameras? Cheryl and I could hardly contain our curiosity.
We didn't feel comfortable striding into that busy makeshift heliport, so we approached two gentlemen walking across the parking lot. They were wearing protective jumpsuits and had just disembarked from a helicopter that didn't seem to be associated with the others. It turned out that they were with the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and they'd been out doing reconnaissance. They'd come in to deliver an oiled pelican to someone who could help. We asked if they'd seen the spill. They said, yes, and that it was bad. They gestured across the highway and said "It's about fifteen miles over there."
Now the twisty river makes the geography of that area mindbendingly difficult to grasp, but I know one thing. Fifteen miles isn't as far as I'd like it to be. We were well above the end of the road at Venice, and Venice is a long way from the river outlets. I did not like hearing that the oil had come up so far.
The two workers needed to go get some lunch, so we didn't keep them, but we did ask if they knew what the helicopters at Fort Jackson were carrying. "Sandbags," they said. "To fill the gaps between some of the barrier islands."
Now, sand is heavy. The sandbags that those big helicopters were able to carry were relatively small. How many trips will it take to move an
appreciable amount of sand by air? Nevertheless, those pilots were giving it a good try. Helicopters came and went so rapidly that the whole area sounded like a war zone.
Here's one of the choppers flying over the old fort. You can see the sandbag cable dangling.
And here are some other helicopters, flying over the fort's riverside lookout post, heading off on a mission that doesn't seem to involve sandbags. They were heading across the river, while the sandbag activities seemed to be west of us. I'm thinking they were doing reconnaissance.
When we left Fort Jackson, we headed to the end of the road in Venice. There, we saw a command post sending many workers out into the spill zone. When we got back to the house in Myrtle Grove, we were surprised to see another command post at the marina there. Again, workers arrived by the busload, and a flotilla of boats loaded with passengers were heading out.
Two things crossed my mind. First, all that effort is just not enough. Huge efforts by lots of people will help the situation, but the affected area is unimaginably vast. And second, I was disconcerted to see so much work being done so far north.
We had plans the next day to take a boat out to see the spill. The presence of these workers made me think we wouldn't need to travel nearly as far as I would like.
Tomorrow : The spill
Mary Anna Evans' web address is www.maryannaevans.com