Tuesday, February 28, 2012
It came to the forefront when I started to take writing seriously, but it began much farther back in my dim, dark past, November 11, 1959, to be exact. That’s the date I had my first piano lesson.
Mr. Lishman, a dapper Englishman, was also (thankfully) quite patient. I played. He corrected. I went home and practised (fitfully), played at my next lesson. He corrected again when I usually made the same mistakes, although I occasionally figured out new ways to mess things up. By the time I was eleven, I’d had enough. I didn’t understand at the time that this was the way things were supposed to work. (I also didn’t understand that practice really does make perfect.)
First of all, popular music entered my life and I wanted to play the stuff I listened to on records and the radio*. So Mr. Lishman went by the boards, I saved up the money I earned on my paper route, and bought a guitar and amplifier. It was pretty clear after a short while that the shape of my hands was not good for playing guitar (big palm/shortish fingers) so I went back to keyboards and bought a small Lowrey Organ. By the time I was sixteen, I had got pretty good and had my own band and was playing in bars most weekends.
About that time I realized I needed to learn more and the only way to do that was to get a teacher. Enter Weldon Irvine, another patient man, and an ace on the Hammond B3 (I had managed to purchase one from money I earned by gigging.) He helped me a lot and the main reason was that I was ready to take the criticism he handed out quite freely. The rewards of learning this arcane skill were immediately obvious as I began to understand exactly what I was doing and why – rather than just playing and not thinking about anything but the notes.
Fast forward more years than I care to acknowledge. As always, a few months back, I told my new editor my standard thing: “Don’t pull your punches. I want to know exactly what you think. I’d rather be good than right.” He told me later that no author had ever said that to him.
It’s tough having to acknowledge that your best efforts aren’t good enough. In music, you have something concrete to critique (wrong rhythm, wrong notes, wrong interpretation, wrong fingerings, wrong...). With writing, it’s much more nebulous in so many ways. Sure, an editor can point out errors in punctuation, spelling, sentence construction, word choice, etc., but past that, you get into very grey areas like pacing, voice, dialogue versus description, plot construction.... It becomes very much a “this is the way I see it” situation. The person doing the critiquing may be right or may be wrong.
What’s a writer to do? First, you have to be willing to take the shot on your literary chin, walk away and think about it. Too often I hear of writers who just get their backs up from any attack on their deathless prose. They are unwilling to even entertain that the criticism might be right on the money. Yes, it’s discouraging. Yes, it’s humbling. And yes, you may even discard the criticism. The best editors allow you to challenge them right back, and if they’re astute, they’ll just sit back and say, “Okay. Defend yourself.”
It’s amazing how often you get partway through your spirited and well-thought-out defense only to realize, Oh my God! They’re absolutely right.
The point here is: you won’t ever make the progress you need to if you’re not willing to entertain criticism. For me, thanks need to go to all those patient, knowledgable music teachers who gently pulled me toward that universal truth: Thomas Lishman, Weldon Irvine, Harry Berv, and Bill Karstens. More than music, you taught me humility. My next novel will be better because of you – even though you will never have seen it.
*What was the first recording you purchased? Mine was a 45 of “Alley-Oop” by Dante and the Evergreens. (How do I remember this crap?)
Monday, February 27, 2012
Which, for American readers, is Terra Nearly-Incognita. These days, anyway. Canadians, who have been coming to Cuba for sun, fun and wintertime relaxation for going on 40 years now, continue to wonder when one of the last vestiges of the Cold War will come to an end, and something like normalisation of relations between Cuba and the USA will get started. One can hope.
In my posting two weeks ago, I lamented - I think lament is the correct word - the problems with my fourth Inspector Stride Mystery. In a sense this ties in with the title of today's posting. I think that all of us who write, and who entertain expectations from our publishers, become clock watchers after a fashion. In my own case, the original end-of-January deadline is long gone. If the end of January is no longer a "go", then the time frame shifts forward by six months, and is reset, in the manner of a clock, to the end of July, 2012. Although July seems a long way in the future, with snow still on the ground in Canada (but not in Cuba) and cold winds blowing, it really is little enough time for a major rewrite.
Back to the "other" clockwatching now. And that is about a fascinating production called The Clock, currently on exhibition at Ottawa's Natonal Gallery. It's an ambitious offering by Christian Marclay, a Swiss-American visual artist and composer, currently dividing his time between London and New York. The Clock is described as a compilation of time-related scenes from movies, and it runs for a full 24 hours. The time sequences in the compilation match the times of the actual viewing. In scene after scene, a clock or watch will appear on the screen, or a voice will state the time in the clip, and this matches up with the time on your watch.
As a movie buff of some standing, I wanted to see at least part of The Clock. My partner, rather less of a movie buff than I, said she would watch part of it, but maybe only a few minutes. With that caution in mind, we went to the National gallery at 2 one Saturday afternoon, and settled onto a sofa - after a ten-minute wait, that is, because when we entered it was standing room only. At five past four we were both still there, and when we did leave, it was reluctantly. We went back again the next day, arriving at four (to catch the continuity) and we left - again reluctantly - at six-thirty. The show really does grab you - obviously!
That Marclay has tapped into a vast number of films, some familiar, some not, goes without saying. Every genre is covered., from drama to comedy to science fiction to westerns, grainy silent films, German Productions, Japanese productions, American, French and British productions.Many familiar faces march across the screen, while many more are only vaguely familiar, or not familiar at all. And for each short sequence - few are longer than a minute - there is a time reference; a clock tower - Big Ben is very popular -
a clock on a wall, a watch on a wrist - many, no doubt, in the original film there as a product placement - or a spoken time notation. "What time is it now?" is a much-repeated line of dialogue.
There is also the famous scene of Harold Lloyd, from his 1923 romantic comedy, Safety Last, dangling from the hands of a clock on a skyscraper, far above the streets of what might be New York City. (And the visual is enhanced if one is aware that Lloyd did all his own stunt work.)
A review of The Clock in the Guardian newspaper makes reference to the "trance-like state" that the production induces in the viewer. And it's true. It is very hard to get up and leave, even after more than two hours. I think of it as visual-mental popcorn; as in, please sir, may I have just one piece more? You want to stay and see what happens next. And to test yourself. Can you identify the film the clip is taken from? Can you identify the actors, the familiar and semi-familiar faces up there on the screen?
Even if I consider myself a film buff of a sort, I have to admit that I could identify perhaps only 15% of the films, and maybe 20% of the faces. Mostly, it was a case of "I know who that is, it's....." But more often than not, the name does not come. Same for many of the clips. In my heart of hearts, I hope that someone, somewhere, has listed all the films and all the actors, and in correct sequence, so that on some future occasion I can consult the printout, while I watch trance-like. And this being the age of informational tsunamis, someone probably has, or is hard at it.
For a long review of The Clock, go to:
But back to Cuba, now. We are clockwatching here, also. It's Monday, and we head back to the snow and the cold on Thursday. Sad to say. But it's been a great holiday. The sun is bright and hot, the sky is blue, the waters are warm, and the beach is white sand. The resort is first-rate, the food and drink abundant, and very high quality. The staff are polite and friendly. And this for sure: one gets no sense that one is visiting a Communist state. Not a single picture of the brothers Castro anywhere. Or any sense of regimentation or oppression. This is definitely not North Korea. No resemblance at all.
But enough of this keyboard stuff. The beach and the ocean and the swimming pools beckon. There is also a first-class gym where I can contend with the accumulated excess of the past 4 days.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
At a dinner party in January, the conversation turned to our childhoods. One of our dinner companions, a man in his mid-sixties, got choked up as he described his high school graduation ceremony. “It was the only time I remember my dad being proud of me,” he said, fighting tears.
Friday, February 24, 2012
On the other hand, a publisher can ruin a book’s chances before it ever gets off the ground. There are a jillion ways to leave a great mystery collecting dust even before it’s remaindered. Nearly all of this derailment is beyond the author’s control.
Sometimes a book rises to the top despite questionable elements. In my opinion, there are some books that overcame liabilities.
Really bad titles are a nightmare. So are bad covers. It takes a great book to overcome both. To me, the classic in both of these categories was Tana French’s In The Woods. I hated both the cover and title, and put off reading it. When I did, I flipped. Tana really owes me a commission because I became one of her most enthusiastic advocates. She won an Edgar for Best First Mystery Novel.
Too long, overly detailed books with very little movement are totally off-putting—especially ones written by 90 year old women. Yet, when I finished Ladies of The Club, I sobbed and sobbed. A total melt-down. Even to me, it didn’t make sense. Didn’t know why. The book zoomed onto the best seller list.
One of the worst books I’ve ever read from a technical stand-point was Bridges of Madison County. Pathetic! Committed every sin known in creative writing. Yet again, it hit some mystifying emotional chord and blind-sided this woman with a long happy marriage.
I yelled at Mary Beth (youngest daughter) for telling me I would never guess the ending of Ann-Marie MacDonald’s As the Crow Flies. It’s really, really hard to fool me by now and especially after telling me I couldn’t guess. Her careless remark threw me into a hyper alert mode during all 900+ pages. Mary Beth was right. And the book not only was a captivating mystery, it was a stunning social novel about the 60s.
My latest best-seller pick was Defending Jacob. ARCs were passed out at Bouchercon. I loved the book and thought it had all the right ingredients. I waited to see how many things the publisher could do wrong to keep the book from rising to the top. Instead, Delacorte did everything right, from putting real publicity muscle behind the publication to rounding up top writers for pithy blurbs. Not only did this book have a difficult narrative voice (unreliable first person) it moved. That can be a make or break element for today’s impatient reader.
Defending Jacob had that single quality that I believe is essential for hitting the lists. The common denominator in all the books I’ve mentioned.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Before the late, great Ed McBain wrote his legendary 87th Precinct series, an agent offered him a warning: If he did not continue to write “serious” novels, he would ruin his literary reputation. McBain countered: “What’s more serious than life and death?”
Students of all ages get what McBain was saying. And they love mysteries. I have taught the course at various schools and at a college. We always begin the survey with Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” move to the PI novels including Chandler, and work up to the contemporary police procedural. I bring in local crime-fiction authors, and we discuss many aspects of crime and society. At the community college level, I regularly had students tell me these were the first books they ever finished reading.
That’s no slight on the course or the level of discourse these texts lead to. For instance, this week, students finished reading Michael Connelly’s City of Bones. Connelly’s protagonist, LAPD detective Harry Bosch, was named after the painter Heironymus Bosch, whose 14th century art is said to depict moral corruption. It is interesting to see how the artist’s work has influenced Connelly’s wonderful series, so I asked students to discuss just that.
The culminating assignment is below. I thought I’d share it with the Type M community.
Introduction: While studying at the University of Florida, author Michael Connelly took an art history class in which he was introduced to the works of 14th Century Netherlands painter Heironymus Bosch (circa 1450-1560). Bosch was “known for [his] use of fantastic imagery to illustrate moral and religious concepts and narratives” (“Heironymus Bosch”). Connelly was so moved by Bosch’s works that he later named his protagonist, LA homicide det. Harry Bosch, after the painter.
Assignment: Carefully examine Heironymus Bosch’s painting “Hell,” which is said to portray “fantastic punishments of the various types of sinners” (“Art”). Then, considering what you know about Michael Connelly’s character Harry Bosch and the novel City of Bones, write an essay in which you examine the ways the painting and Connelly’s novel are similar or different. You may wish to consider items such as tone, setting, human nature, plot, and characterization.
Barbara here. I love how the various Type M authors sometimes feed off one another. Rick’s post of yesterday grew out of Aline’s, and mine today comes from his. He asked whether a great book that is fresh, unusual and challenges the reader’s expectations has a chance in today’s publishing market. If the publisher’s marketing gurus don’t think it can sell millions, will it even get picked up? Smaller, so-called “niche” publishers may buy it, which gives the author the joy of seeing their work in print, but doesn’t pay the mortgage.
Writers are left with a number of difficult choices. To write what the publishers and marketing departments think will sell, or to write the story the author is longing to tell? How much do they modify that story to appease the marketplace? Should they make the protagonist more likeable? Younger? Sassier? A vampire perhaps? Should they add more sex? More car crashes? Take out the classical music and add country and western?
And the question that confronts every Canadian author... Should I set my book in Canada, or in the US or UK? Many Canadian authors, myself included, were told at the outset that if they want to sell their book to a decent-sized publisher, it has to be set in the United States. Americans aren’t interested in Canada. I suspect many regional American writers are also told the same thing about their own local settings. Change it to New York, or LA, or some place more exciting. One author friend was told to change his setting from Montreal to Buffalo. Nothing against Buffalo, but really?
Authors can stick stubbornly to their principles, but then quite likely the only choice open to them is self-publishing, which brings its own headaches and heartaches. In the interests of landing a publisher who will promote, distribute and ‘legitimize’ their work, author can often convince themselves that a couple of changes don’t substantially change the story they’re longing to tell. But somewhere along the road of changes, the story itself is lost and the author feels like a sell-out. There’s an even worse word, but…
The story can be lost if the main character is no longer the one that sparked the story in the first place. The protagonist, his quest, his struggle and his ultimate evolution, are the heart of a story. When we think back on the great stories that captivated us, it is not the plot twists we remember, but the characters. Holden Caulfield, Oliver Twist…
The story can also be lost if the setting is changed. Each area has its own stories, its own geography, cultural flavour, history and tensions. Canada, for example, is a land of vastly different landscapes, from Rockies to prairies to rugged coastal rock, and of cultures and conflicts unique to each area. Just ask any Albertan, or Newfoundlander, or Quebecker. Not to mention the north.Each area has its own story to tell.
At a certain point, every author has to draw their own line in the sand. The hope of money or fame or a TV deal can move that line very far from its original point, but in the end, there are no guarantees. If the author has not told the story they wanted to tell, or do not recognize the final product as coming from their own heart and dreams, they may end up with nothing. Not even the sense of pride and satisfaction in a story well told.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
But all day my mind was moving in another direction: what if someone wrote a crime novel that had this idea as the basis of the plot? Now let’s also imagine that this novel is not written by one of publishing’s all-star crime novelists, but for all intents is a well-written and engaging piece of fiction.
What do you think might happen to it?
To give you a bit more background, consider this little experiment. Many years ago, in an effort to prove that the publishing industry really didn’t understand what it was doing, an enterprising man (one Chuck Ross) typed up a National Book Award-winning novel by Jerzy Kosinski, Steps, and submitted it to over a dozen publishers and literary agents (I forget the exact number, but it was a lot). All rejected it and none recognized it for what it was (I believe one recognized it as being “somewhat reminiscent of Kosinski”).
All in all, this is a pretty damning indictment of the publishing industry. If the people running it can’t identify something of merit that already has a track record of success, how can we writers expect them to recognize greatness that hasn’t had a chance at success? To be honest, it’s all pretty depressing. How many rejections from agents and publishers did JK Rowling have before someone took her on? Now this is not great literature, but for heaven’s sake, they can’t even recognize something that might sell a truckload of books!
The point here is that quite often it doesn’t pay to step outside the literary box we seem to all be put into by the industry. Many Type M words have been spilt about the boundaries of crime fiction, first and foremost of which is: write a series. Those of us who don’t write a series are behind the eight ball right from the start. Why? If someone were to write a ground-breaking crime novel, could they even get it looked at seriously, let alone published. I’d like to think so, but the track record, based on the story above, doesn’t give me much hope.
I can see someone spending a lot of time penning a terrific crime novel that is just too much out of the ordinary. Unless s/he is a star, would it be possible to get it published? Does quality trump expectation?
What do you think?
Monday, February 20, 2012
A young man called Len Warner, a German studying at Edinburgh Univesity, chose for his topic of study what is sometimes called 'tartan noir': Crime Fiction in Scotland.It will take the form of three or four books of interviews with Scottish crime writers – Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Pater May to name but three.
Perhaps as a result of their successes, there has been a huge flowering of Scottish crime writers in recent years. It's a very broad church, with everything from the grittiest of gritty noir to light mysteries and cozies where the cat solves the crime, so it will be interesting to see what conclusions Len comes to once he's talked to us all.
He didn't ask any of the usual questions – 'How many rejections did you have before the first book was published?' 'Do you write in longhand or straight on to the computer?' – and I don't think I've had to think so hard since the last time I was in a university seminar which, I can assure you, wasn't yesterday. He had of course done his homework and read my books, so he would pick up something my main character, DI Marjory Fleming, had said and ask me why she'd said it. I don't know how clearly other authors recall the thought processes of a character, written months or even years before, but I think if it had been an exam I'd have flunked it.
Framing an answer to his questions often needed quite a bit of thought but there was one where I came back straight away. He asked, 'What would you like your characters to know about you?' My reply was instantaneous: a horrified, 'Nothing!; They mustn't even know I'm there!'
He looked surprised and I was a bit surprised myself by my vehemence, but when I consodered it I realised why. To a character, the author would be a sinister figure, a puppet-master with permanent access to their innermost thoughts, manipulating their lives, putting difficulties in their way – in Sam Goldwyn's splendid phrase, 'Chasing 'em up trees and throwing rocks at 'em.' Not very nice, really, when you think about it.
I don't know how other authors feel. I've never thought to ask before, but I'm asking now. Would the characters you create be grateful for their very existence, or thoroughly resentful?
Sunday, February 19, 2012
As a journalist, Betty Webb interviewed U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and Nobel Prize-winners, as well as the homeless, the dying, and polygamy runaways. The dark Lena Jones mysteries, based on stories she covered as a reporter, include this year's "Desert Wind," given a starred review by Publishers Weekly; "Desert Lost" ("One of the Top Five Mysteries of 2009," Library Journal); "Desert Noir" ("A mystery with a social conscience," Publishers Weekly); and "Desert Wives," ("Eye-popping," New York Times). Betty’s humorous Gunn Zoo series debuted with the prize-winning "The Anteater of Death," followed by "The Koala of Death." A long-time book reviewer at Mystery Scene Magazine, Betty is a member of National Federation of Press Women, Mystery Writers of America, Women Writing the West, and the National Organization of Zoo Keepers.
Falling in Love with Research
By Betty Webb
I’ve written at length about my years of research for DESERT WIND, a murder mystery which contrasts the contemporary uranium mining controversy at the Grand Canyon, and the decades-long testing of nuclear bombs in Nevada.
In short,the research entailed trips tospectacular Snow Canyon, Utah; watching a marathon of John Wayne movies (his ghost turns up in the book); reading stacks of dry government and academic papers and books; and a visit to the very weird Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.
What I haven’t written about was how difficult it was to stop researching.
Historians and historical novelists of all genres know how easy it is to fall in love with research. For instance, if I wanted to write a book about an Englishwoman living in 1064 AD (which I once attempted to do), I’d need to research pre-Conquest Anglo Saxon culture. Among those areas would be: the complexities of town life versus agrarian life; women’s role in Saxon England; the slow emergence of Christianity within a heretofore pagan populace; the installation of educational institutions; Saxon metalworking and coinage; the last days of Edward the Confessor… Et cetera, et cetera.
Each of these categories (and dozens I didn’t even mention) have their own sub-categories and sub-sub categories. Take King Edward the Confessor, for instance. Edward fathered no children -- he was said to be a religious celibate -- which made the handing down of the crown after his death such a monumental matter. And researching that sub-category led me to a statement in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles, that “Edward surrounded himself with young and beautiful Norman men,” well, what a delicious sub-sub research category: the possibility that Edward the Confessor was gay. Come to think of it, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles alone would be good for several years-worth of research. Considering the numerous sub-sub-sub and sub-sub-sub-sub categories there, it could easily take a lifetime.
Get my point? Now back to DESERT WIND.
Ostensibly, the only thing I had to do for WIND was steep myself in governmental policies regarding uranium mining and nuclear testing between 1953 and 2012, and maybe read a John Wayne biography or two. But, oh, those pesky sub-categories.
I soon found myself engrossed by Paiute tribal life, the complexities of yellowcake, Navajo uranium miners, hit songs of the Fifties, Genghis Khan (yes, that Genghis Khan), the geologic strata of the Grand Canyon, the Cold War, Doris Day, water rights vis a vis Southwestern desert communities, the possibility of environmental links to certain forms of cancer… Et cetera, et cetera.
Three years after beginning my research, I had to forcibly pull myself away from the research in order to begin DESERT WIND. The actual writing process took a year. How much of my three years’ of research did I wind up using? Probably less than five percent. Do I regret spending so much time on that unused ninety-five percent?
I’m already looking forward to not using ninety-five percent of my current research for DESERT REGRET.
To read the first chapter of DESERT WIND log onto www.bettywebb-mystery.com
Follow Betty on Twitter @bettywebb
Saturday, February 18, 2012
I am going out with a bang, though. Tomorrow I am hosting Type M's Sunday’s guest blogger, Betty Webb, whose newly-released Lena Jones mystery, Desert Wind, is getting rave reviews.
As I told our fearless leader Rick, I'm very sorry to leave you. I managed to maintain my post all through the spouse's earlier health crisis in 2009, but this situation has gotten the better of me. Type M has been a wonderful experience, and I have made many good friends because of it.
But life intervenes. If any of you Dear Readers are masochistic enough to want the excruciating details, I am blogging about our health journey as well as my writing journey on my own web site (www.doniscasey.com) If all goes well, I hope to be able to come back and at least do a guest post or two here at Type M about the time my sixth Alafair Tucker mystery, The Wrong Hill to Die On, is published this coming October.
That is, if I can get the finishing touches on the new book between nursing chores. It would certainly help if I were able to practice the craft with any consistency, for if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that constant distraction and virtual brain death is really bad for creativity.
When I was a kid, I started writing stories as a distraction from family trauma. I created worlds and escaped into them. I don’t know the reasons why Ruth Rendell, Colleen McCullough, Scott Turow, my colleagues here at Type M, and all the thousands of other authors write, but it has been forcefully brought home to me over the past months that authors do a service to humanity as important as any artist, humanitarian, or theologian.
They help us cope with life.
So hail and farewell for a while, Dear Readers. I’m sure we will meet again. As I ponder the future, I shall leave you with a stanza from one of my favorite Irish folk songs.
...Then since it falls unto my lot,
That I should ride, and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
Good night, and joy be with you all.
Friday, February 17, 2012
The result is a "to-do list" gone mad. You list not just the top five items you need to get done today or this week or month or year. Instead, you dump out everything that you need to, want to, ought to, and/or should get done. You include nagging irritants like the leaking bathroom faucet (fix it or call a plumber) or the address book that you need to update or the birthday reminder system you need to set up. Little stuff and big stuff, you get it all out of you head. Dump it all on paper or wherever you prefer to record it.
The idea is that by clearing out the clutter, you relieve the constant distraction and stress of having so many things to do that you can't focus on any one of them. You see it all, and you can then get organized.
Now, I have to admit that I encountered this concept on a plane or a train a year or so ago. I don't remember if I saw it in a book I'd picked up at a newsstand or a magazine on the plane or train. I know I thought it interesting enough to pull out some paper and try it out. But it seems that when I got to my destination, I forgot about it in the rush of all I needed to do. I rediscovered the concept again this week when I was looking for a folder that I couldn't find (the filing system that I need to update). Instead I found that piece of paper from my trip. Defeated in my effort to find my file, I sat down to complain on paper about all of the things I needed to get done and all of the "little" things that were holding me back. I tried "mind dumping"-- this time taking it seriously.
At the risk of sounding like an actor in a commercial for a pain killer, I got instant relief. Seeing that I had six pages of big and small tasks to get done sometime in my lifetime should have scared me silly. But instead I suddenly felt in control. I broke the list up into categories, with a separate category for the constantly irritating. I generated a tick-off to-do list of errands, and my mood improved by 100%. I did this about three days ago, and since then I've been carrying my master list around and adding to it as other tasks come up or occur to me.
And it's working. I feel energized. I'm not staring at the piles of paper on my desk wondering where to start. I've called my contractor and gotten to the post office.
I'm impressed by this because I am a chronic list-maker. I have been since I was in college. I love those days when I "work" my list and can see what I've accomplished at the end of the day. But it seems I had gotten to the point when there was so much to get done that no list I had come up with was handling all the stress-making clutter in my mind..
That brings me to the other discovery I made this week. I tackled a need-to-get-done that I had been putting off -- the "Author's Note" about the historical facts in my new mystery. Yesterday, I went to the university library and indulged myself in shelf-browsing. And there in front of me was an eight volume set from the 1930s covering all of the plays performed in New York City theaters during the 19th century. This set of books had not turned up in my online search. The reference librarian hadn't mentioned them because I had asked her about an actress about whom I could find little information. But there in front of me were dusty volumes with the answers to all of the questions that I should have asked. Eureka!
And that is why I am writing in praise of "mind dumping". The process did not give me more time. But it has given me the sense of being in control. Without all those things I should be doing and was probably forgetting nibbling at my mind, I was relaxed enough to browse the library shelves. Able to focus on that single task, I found what I needed.
I should mention that this week, I've also came up with the title for the second book in the new series and wrote a plot summary. I may be acccomplishing more because I'm getting more exercise and eating right or because the stars are (for the moment) aligned. But, for now, I'm going to give a lot of the credit to clearing the clutter out of my head.
Anyone else had good results doing this?
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
On that particular day, we were—without meaning to be callous—lucky enough to be present during the investigation of a fatal accident at a local car wash and garage. Apparently, a fifty-four year old man had taken his eighty-year old mother to fill up their car with fuel at five in the morning. Tragically, the son had reversed over her whilst she was refueling (in her pajamas) at the pump. It turned out that his mother was not his mother at all. She was his wife. There was a hefty life insurance policy involved and you know the rest.
Villains come in all shapes and sizes yet it’s the “normal” kind that interests me the most. I’m far more intrigued by the friendly neighbor or someone who “would never hurt a fly.”
To create a “normal villain” it’s essential for the reader to relate to the antagonist on some level and that he (or she) is appealing and engaging. It’s important to remember that all villains are heroes’ in their own story. They don’t see themselves as the bad guys at all.
So, how do we create this accessible bad guy?
First of all, let’s define “evil”? What separates a good person who does “bad things” from a bad person who does bad things? Aren’t we all shades of gray? Let’s give this bad guy a history and a motivation for doing bad things. Let’s also remember that he too, is the culmination of his environment, his past and his choices. If your villain made bad choices, what were his reasons? Were they connected from an incident in his past? Does his behavior stem from a fear born of ignorance? Perhaps it began with an illness, a broken love affair or a perceived (or real) crime committed against him? What prompted him to cross to the dark side?
I often think back to the horrifying scene at the car wash in Las Vegas. I wondered what pushed a loving son over the edge?
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
On the subway ride home, we both kept pretty much to ourselves. I can’t speak to my wife’s reason, but I was contemplating the nature of a great story. That has continued into this morning and spilled over into this week’s Type M posting.
Tosca is one of the most popular of operas and the reason for that is because of the natures of the characters as much as Puccini’s glorious music. Not much really happens in the opera’s plot. It can be summed up in very few words. The cast is very small: only three characters with the odd bit of help by some others who sing very little. Cavaradossi is an artist from a good family and gets mixed up in politics, helping a political prisoner avoid the police. Tosca is his lover, a simple and devout opera singer with a bit of a jealous streak. Pitted against them is the vile Scarpia, the head of the Roman police who wants to execute Cavaradossi and force Tosca to submit herself to him. All are drawn in a very melodramatic way. And by the final curtain, all are dead: one through murder (Scarpia), one through treachery (Cavaradossi) and one through suicide (Tosca). Not very nice, eh?
But audiences have eaten it all up since the opera’s first performance in 1900, even though critics have been less kind, right from the beginning.
And why is that? Because the libretto (taken from the play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou) is just so universal. The villain is someone you can really hiss. Scarpia is a true shit of the first water. Cavaradossi is somewhat of a cypher to me in that he seems to be a bit of a dolt in many ways. But Tosca, ah Tosca, is such a genuinely tragic person, someone who doesn’t deserve any of what happens to her. Her second act aria, the famous “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art, I lived for love, never did I harm a living creature...why, O Lord, why do you repay me thus?”) lays it all out for us. And we all just buy into it. Why? Because it rings so true. We immediately understand the tragedy of her circumstances.
I’m currently writing the sequel to my forthcoming novel, The Fallen One, and the main character is someone who is tragic in much the same way (she also happens to be an opera singer). In both novels, Marta Hendriks finds herself in much the same place as Floria Tosca. She is beset by evil not of her own making. And like Tosca, she responds to her situation in ways that makes everything worse. I didn’t realize until last night just how close the connection between the two heroines actually is. I have to redouble my efforts in making this connection even stronger.
I can only hope that in the end I will have drawn my own character in a way that will resonate as successfully as Tosca does with audiences of readers who eventually happen upon my two novels.
And that’s the real trick, isn’t it?
Monday, February 13, 2012
I first started the writing of mysteries after I retired from my day job. That was in July of 1997. I was fifty-seven at the time, a late bloomer. I had always "wanted to write", but never seemed quite able to do it. (Fiction writing, that is; I was a hired pen at the Library of Parliament's Research Branch here in Ottawa, and I wrote for a living.) After my first book, Undertow, came out late in 2002, I believed – erroneously, as it turned out – that I was home free, that I had found the magic key. Surely, the next book - and the next, and the next – would flow from my pen (or keyboard), a Niagara of paragraphs and pages. It didn't happen that way. Each of the two succeeding books was as difficult as the first, and took about as long to write.
Now I am struggling equally as hard with my fourth book. About two weeks ago, I sent half the new book – tentative title, Birthright – off to my publisher and his editor. I had doubts about the structure and organization, and I wanted some feedback. To my not very great surprise, the feedback was to the effect that the book as it stands now needs much better organization and structure. Even more to the point, it is not written as a mystery novel, not in its current form.
And that takes me back to the title of this post. In writing the book, I strayed away from writing a mystery. Instead, I was trying to write an historical novel about my protagonist's rum-running career during Prohibition, and – to really complicate things – about the impacts of WW2 on a number of the characters in the narrative. The book, as it stands now, is divided between 1933 - in Cuba and England – and 1947 in St. John's, Newfoundland, the setting for the first three books in the series. Trying to connect the two time periods and the three different locations is proving very difficult.
I believe I am correct in saying that the requirements/ingredients for a mystery novel differ from those of a non-mystery. If one is writing a mystery, the "mysterious" part has to be obvious from the start. That is one of the feedback items I received from my editor. I wrote some interesting stuff in the first half of the book – some 168 pages – but "Where was the mystery?" she asked me. Well, I replied, the mystery really starts in the second half of the book. "Well," came the response, "you might want to move the second half to the front, and even dispense with a large part of the narrative as it now exists. You’ve written some interesting stuff, but it isn't clear that it's a mystery that you are writing."
So, now I am more or less back to the (in)famous "square one". On the positive side, there are some 250 pages of text written, some of it relevant to the "mystery". And some of it quite good – if I do say so. There are also the characters, most of them well-defined, most of them interesting.
Some years ago, I started to draft a short article on how to write a mystery novel. Had I completed it, the title would have been: "First, you kill someone." Someone is dead at the start, and the story goes on from there – backwards, forwards, and sideways. I should have kept that in mind when I started this current book.
For additonal instruction and guidance, I might also have re-read one of my favourite short stories by Somerset Maugham: The Achilles Statue, also called The Creative Impulse. It is the story of Mrs. Albert Forrester, a noted writer of poetry, essays and criticism:
"All the critics agreed that Mrs. Albert Forrester's books were excellent. She was considered by the critics to be a writer of the highest merit."
The trouble was, Mrs. Forrester's books, however highly regarded, did not sell. Critics do not buy books.
To summarise the story, Mrs. Forrester's husband Albert, who was her sole financial support, grew tired of the pretentious literary life that he shared with his brilliant wife, and he ran off with the family's cook, Mrs. Bullfinch, and settled into a flat with her. Albert didn't care for his wife's writings; he liked to read detective stories instead. He read hundreds and hundreds of detective stories. And now that he was gone, he advised his wife to put aside her brilliant writing, and write the kind of detective story that people who actually bought books might like to read. And buy. Albert even told his wife how she might start her detective story:
"I like stories which begin with a very respectable-looking, middle-aged, well-dressed gentleman, wearing a gold watch on a chain, lying dead in Hyde Park. People like to read about the murder of a respectable-looking, middle-aged gentleman," he went on. "People like to think that everyone has something to hide – even respectable-looking, middle-aged gentlemen."
Thus inspired, Mrs. Forrester went home directly, and began to write her detective story. When it was published – as The Achilles Statue – it was a great success, and she became famous at last. And wealthy, too.
And, by the way; Albert and Mrs. Bullfinch lived happily ever after also.
The message for me being that if I set out to write a mystery novel, then I should write a mystery novel. Don't try and write something else. I dread the idea of writing my books to a "formula" – what Barbara Fradkin calls "The F Word" – and I hope I never do that. But there are essential components to a mystery novel.
So, I will start again on my new book. And this time I will start the book by killing somebody. And go on from there: backwards, forwards, and sideways.
Friday, February 10, 2012
In 1880, Kansas was the only state in the Union to have a prohibition amendment in its constitution. Today, it’s only one of three states dry by default. That means you can’t get a drink unless the good citizens have voted a “local option” to allow it. Through local option, if a voting entity—say, a county, a town, or a township, wants to allow the sale of booze, they can vote to permit it within that little area. If a county is “dry” and a town is “wet,” you can get a drink in that town, but not in the rest of the county.
Wednesday, February 08, 2012
He was right, to say the least.
Dyslexia appears as a motif in all five of my Jack Austin novels, as protagonist Austin and the teenage boy he takes in, Nash Henley, both struggle with the affliction. And, as many readers have guessed, their struggles are based on my own. However, my books also illustrate what I have long believed, as Austin says in more than one book, “Dyslexia is a blessing.”
The New York Times article highlights recent research suggesting dyslexics actually learn some visual processes better than those without it. In the fall 2005 UNH Magazine article “Becoming John Irving,” author John Irving, a dyslexic, praises his slow reading pace for allowing him fall in love with language, eventually inspiring his many noted works. Many authors, in fact, have dyslexia, and I agree with those writers who claim—and what the recent New York Times piece points to—that dyslexics recognize certain patterns better than most. My long-held conviction is that this helps one in the creation of something requiring intricate layers, such as a novel or a painting. Moreover, I believe this to be particularly helpful in the mystery genre, which requires clues to be precisely placed.
When I was 10, you could have told me an article proved dyslexia would allow me to be the only kid in school with pixie dust. Then, I still would have given anything to be rid of my “learning difference.” Now I’m 41 and have more or less grown into my skin, and the Times article makes perfect sense to me. The bottom line for me has always been that I have come to believe dyslexia enables me to write better fiction than I could without it. And recent research is finally supporting that claim.
Today I pay homage to a literary legend who inspired countless writers. As I write this blog, Charles Dickens turns 200 years old. I use the present tense because in many ways he is still very much with us. Still speaking to us, touching us, teaching us, and giving us hope. There are parties for him across the world, from Westminster Abbey to Carmel, California.
Dickens died at the age of 58, having written 15 major novels, many of which were serialized, as well as numerous short stories and plays. Since his death, his stories, his characters and his portraits of society's bleak underbelly have continued to enchant us. 320 films of various kinds have been inspired by his works, and some of his characters are icons. Who can forget the artful dodger, Miss Havisham, Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber, or Sydney Carton?
This blog is not intended as a literary commentary on Dickens' contribution to our heritage. There are many who have said it better than I. I merely want to comment on what he meant to me, as a writer. Dickens' novels were among the first adult novels I read as a child. He, along with Shakespeare, was a constant on school curricula. Long after the other novels have faded from my memory, I remember Dickens' characters – vivid, genuine, flawed, at times funny and at others tragic. I remember the stories – those broad, sweeping plots full of twists and cliffhangers that snatched you up and never let you down. I remember the sights and smells and sounds of the dirty back alleys, the ghostly mansions, the bleak orphanages.
Dickens taught me that you have to write stories that are worth telling, and you have to care about what you're writing. You have to write with passion, tension and humour if you want others to love, cheer and laugh at your words. He has had his critics, who accuse him of melodrama and contrivance. But 200 years later, his characters are still touching hearts. If that's melodrama, give me more.
Thank you for all the tales you have given us, and Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens.
Tuesday, February 07, 2012
I was sent the following link by a fellow book lover and I spent a lot of time looking at each photo and thinking, “I really want to visit these. One is in Rome and I was in Rome last summer. Had I known, my wife and I would have visited in a heartbeat.
So, fellow book lovers, click on the link below and be prepared to see some jaw-dropping bookstores – most in Europe. Then I have something to ask of you all: let us know (by leaving a comment) which is your favourite from among these beauties. Or do you have a favourite that’s not included on this list? One that’s mentioned in the comments after all the photos is the Chapters Bookstore in an old theatre in Toronto’s west end. I’ve signed (and bought) books there, and believe me, it’s a lovely space. And way back, when it was in its original incarnation, we went to see movies there.
So get out a handkerchief to catch the drool, because you will drool.
Monday, February 06, 2012
I've never been a sound sleeper, and drifting to the surface between sleep cycles tends to bring me into wakefulness, with my mind springing into action like a hamster leaping to its wheel and getting the whirring going. And yes, like the wheel, the thoughts more often than not are circular rather than linear and constructive.
Authors who were interviewed about the findings weren't at all enthusiastic about dealing with the problem. Some of them had an almost superstitious objection to sedation or even Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – which has a good record in treating insomnia – as if, perhaps, sleeping badly was a sort of devil's pact they had signed up to in exchange for the ability to spin stories – one answer,perhaps, to the common question, 'Where do you get your ideas from?'
Recently I finished a book I'd been working on for a long time and was feeling tired and jaded. For once I had no new idea burning in my brain, and for that spell I slept much more soundly, for seven or even eight unbroken hours. Now, when the ideas are stirring again, I'm back to the old pattern.
On the whole, I don't mind, though I hate waking between 2 and 3 am. That's supposed to be physically our lowest point and I always find that's when the dark things come out of the corners and explain in ghoulish detail just how hopeless everything is. It probably has something to do with low blood sugar levels but at that stage I'm still too tired to make myself get up for a cup of tea and a biscuit, so I just lie there and let them crawl all over me.
Waking in the very early morning, though, is different. I'm rested but drowsy and that's when the useful, dreamy thoughts appear, uninhibited by the stern control of the fully conscious mind and problems often solve themselves so that you can drift contentedly back to sleep till the alarm goes.
Sometimes,of course, the idea that seemed so brilliant when you were half-asleep doesn't really stand up to daytime scrutiny. It was, according to William James a poet, Mrs Amos Pinchot, who woke up eager to read what she had scribbled in the middle of the night, convinced it would be the best poem she had ever written and was bitterly disappointed to find, 'Higamus hogamus, woman is monogamous. Hogamus higamus, man is polygamous.'
Still, who's to say she was wrong? I've never heard of any of her other poetry.
Friday, February 03, 2012
I have tried those “simple strategies” found in magazine articles. For example, set aside ten minutes a day and get all your worrying done in one session. Or write down everything you’re worrying about, read the list, then rip it up and walk away. Such strategies never worked for me – not even those described in the book or two I picked up about how not to worry.
And then, I had an epiphany. I realized that I was using the wrong word to describe what I do. With that realization, I now approach what I formerly thought of as “worrying” with great enthusiasm and even delight. What I have thought of as “worrying” should really be described as “forecasting” or “engaging in risk assessment” or “scenario-building.” What I have described as “worrying” when done well, and with use of all available data and unrestrained imagination, can really be viewed as a rational response to an uncertain world.
The fact that this has only recently occurred to me can be put down to the fact that I was never a Girl Scout. However, I always wanted to be – a Girl Scout, that is. I have always wanted to be capable, competent, and ready to deal with any situation. But feeling ill-prepared, I instead worried. And I worried about worrying. No more. Now I know that the activity that I engage in has a much better and more praiseworthy name when done systematically. Did I forget to mention that I joined the World Future Society while researching my near-future police procedural? That was when I began to understand the error of how I described and understood what I do.
Having had my epiphany, I can now face the future with confidence. When presented with a question about what should or might be done, I can now without hesitation launch into my analysis of the situation and the possible outcomes of various choices. If my colleagues, friends, and relatives should grow irritated when forced to listen to my in-depth analysis, no matter. I will continue silently.
Now I know I am not a neurotic, wimpy person who “worries” but instead a much more interesting creature – a woman who “considers all the angles". This should certainly help my writing. Actually, that particular phrase reminds me that I want to try my hand at writing noir.
In fact, I have a character named Becca, who is the wayward mother of my series protagonist. I’m fascinated by Becca, but she has appeared in only one book. Maybe it’s time to see what else Becca has to say. She’s a woman who has spent her life considering all the angles. A bluesy, noir femme fatale. Ordinarily, I would worry about letting Becca out on her own, but no more. I no longer worry. Now I assess the situation.
Thursday, February 02, 2012
I was silent for a moment before asking a question that probably makes me either totally naive about current publishing trends, more nostalgic than Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, or just terribly simple.
“But you’ll never do a signing. Doesn’t that bother you?”
It was my honest response.
I have read Internet blog posts by and articles about authors, who are far from household names, earning upward of $4,000 a month selling e-books. And I know electronic publishing is trending in a direction that indicates 50 percent of all revenues will come from electronic sales in only five years.
Yet as an author, I long for the days when the first copy of my book arrives. When I open it, examine at the cover (and hopefully enjoy the sight, although not always, and that’s a whole other post), smell the paper pages, and proudly display my year’s accomplishment on my coffee table.
All this from a guy who buys most of his books in Kindle format. Conflicted? Admittedly. After all, I’d happily join the club making $4,000 a month selling e-books; I have three college tuition bills coming due soon. However, I also love face-to-face book signings, love owning both paperbacks and hardcovers. So as statistical evidence mounts indicating e-sales will soon leave print books in the abyss, I realize some version of an online author-reader event will eventually swallow up experiences like signings.
And that will be a sad day, indeed.
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
- The appearance of a story changing character to take the plot in a different direction.
- Introduce a “ceremony” or an event where all the characters are in one place—plenty of opportunities for new conflicts.
- Toss in a few gold coins i.e. don’t use up all your clues in the first half. Spread them out a little.
- Re-examine the core of your story. If it’s not strong enough, this is where it could collapse.
- Study your villain—what’s his or her Achilles heel?
- Introduce an unexpected alliance between characters that had previously feuded.
- Take a deeper look at the minor characters—can any of them play a bigger role?