Tuesday, July 7, 2015
Monday, July 6, 2015
by Meredith Cole
Some books are so wonderful that they stay with you in ways that you can’t describe. You think about the books for days and weeks and even years. The characters haunt you. And you wish the book hadn’t ended when it did, but had gone on and on so you could have continued to enjoy it. Those are the books that make me want to meet the authors and chat. Two authors that I love (and have never met--but would love to!) are Kate Atkinson and Haruki Murakami.
Back when I started writing mysteries, I had no idea such a thing as a mystery convention existed. I’d heard of Science Fiction conventions (after all, they have way better costumes!) but not mystery cons. I went to Crime Bake first, and met Lisa Scottoline (who was so incredibly charming that the next time I met her she acted like she knew who I was). Lisa was and is hilarious and honest in a way that I didn’t realize a writer could be. I went to Malice Domestic, Bouchercon, and the Edgars—and I met more wonderful writers whose books I’d read. Sue Grafton. Laurie King. Laura Lippman. Sara Paretsky. And they were all smart, funny people who were delightful to talk to.
Here’s what I discovered about writers I admire (and also about myself) after having a chance to hang out with quite a few of them. Writers in general are great dinner dates or drinking companions any day of the week. Freed from their cave, they enjoy talking to other people and are some of the smartest folks I’ve ever met. But in the end what they’ve given you in a book is what they’ve given you. And they’ve probably moved on ages ago to their next project. So cornering them for extra insight on a book they wrote years ago will often get you nowhere. Maybe some mumbo jumbo about their process (so and so was a boy before she was a girl), or how much research they did that got left out of the book. If that’s what you’re after, fine. But I suggest finding a group of fellow readers that also enjoys the writer and their books if you want to dig into meaning and share insights. It will probably be way more satisfying.
If you ever have a chance to meet one of your favorite writers, though, be sure to tell them how much you enjoy their books. That, for any writer, will never grow old, and will no doubt inspire a gab fest.
Friday, July 3, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
Here’s what I do when I get writer’s block:
And when I have no more to say, here’s what I do then:
And when I hit that wall again, this is what I do:
This question is similar to one we had awhile back, but I’ll try to be fresh with my response. But not fresh in the way my mom would call me when I was a kid mouthing off.
I don’t really get writer’s block. Only the one time that I mentioned a few weeks ago, where I wound up down in Palm Desert, playing with index cards—what else is there to play with?—while working on a script that wouldn’t come together.
What I do get is time block. That is, I find that while what I want to be doing is writing, everything else seems to get in the way. Taking the dogs out, which I love. Doing edits on an anthology, which I love. Trying to get this or that working around the house, which I—okay, I don’t love that so much. I love when they’re working though. Goofing off on YouTube, watching old bands like the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Dylan (okay, he’s not a band unless he’s with the Band and he’s not always with the Band so it depends what year or era the clip is from as to whether he’s a band or not), which I love. Or watching newer bands on You Tube, like Of Monsters and Men and The Dark Shadows, which I love. Or in between bands, like the Ramones and the Clash, which I love. Hey, it’s better, well easier than writing anyway.
But there are real things that come up that take time away from writing, but what the hell. Life happens and you gotta deal with that too. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”— even plans to write.
On the rare occasions that I might get mild writer’s block there’s a couple things I do. I’d mentioned taking drives before, hanging out, all that stuff. But I also might take a day or a week off from that particular project and work on something else. Or play. And even though I might not be thinking about it in the forefront of my mind, my brain is working in the background so that when I do sit down later I will probably be able to get on with it. Sometimes I’ll take a shower—I get a lot of good ideas in the shower. But taking a shower these days is illegal, or close to it, at least if you live in California. So if you’re planning on visiting bring a rebreather.
And if I’m still stuck, one thing I do is just write. Write anything. Let it flow. Let my characters talk and walk, stream of consciousness, and it doesn’t matter if I use any of this stuff because I’m seeing who they are, what they want, where they’re going, etc. And from that the floodgates open to the point where I’m back on track, having just the swellest of times at the keyboard.
The bottom line is that writing is a job. And just like any other job or a job where you punch a time clock I just have to be there. I have to sit myself down in a chair, stare at the screen and let my fingers do the walking. Eventually something worthwhile (well, hopefully worthwhile) will come out. Try it. I promise you it works. And if it doesn’t work, your money back. Ten times your money back.
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Thursday, July 2, 2015
Writing for me is immersive. I need to set off into the story and spend time there without getting hooked back into the real world. I can do that twice a day if I start from somewhere calm. And if I keep the bottomless vat of monkeys that is the internet far far away from my writing times. Like this:
Email, breakfast, walk, journey to story, write, come back, email, lunch, walk, journey to story, write, come back, email, dinner, the rest of life, sleep. Repeat.
But I couldn't do it if "the rest of life" - family, friends, hobbies, exercise, entertainment, social media - was mixed up in my day getting in the way of the excursions into the story. I don't understand how anyone can write with a Google alert on the same computer. I don't have any internet in my writing room. To waste time looking at kittens (and God knows I'm not judging; I love a kitten) I have to get up, walk into a different room and fire up a different machine. That's a lot of malice to forethink, when I know I should be writing.
And it gets harder if life isn't calm. I'm lucky enough not to have a day job and I share a house with just one other person who is out from eight until six. I don't have children or caring responsibilities and I live in the middle of nowhere with no near neighbours. This is why I don't go on writing retreats. They've always got too much hurly-burly and hoopla.
But occasionally life drops an anvil on you. Grief, illness, and injury have all managed to stop me writing when they come along. That's okay. They stop people doing other jobs too.
Even pleasant distractions like conventions, houseguests and monumental real-world news can knock me out of a story pretty efficiently. . . until I'm about forty thousand words in. After that a book is bullet-proof. It's as though the world of the book is more real and more powerful than the world outside and nothing in the world outside can compete.
Some friends in the writing community are famous for writing all the time, wherever they are. Tim Hallinan and William Kent Krueger can both be seen at major conventions, sitting amongst hordes of revelers typing away in worlds of their own. I've never asked but if they can do that while they're writing early chapters then I need to say this to both of them:
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
EMPTY HEADED WRITER WANTEDby Clare O'Donohue
Q: We all hit writers’ block at some point in time. What do you do to get out of it and move the story forward?
Writer's Block - the Loch Ness Monster of writing. Some insist it's real. Others, equally certain, say it's fantasy and indulgence.
I used to think it was nonsense, but I've had a sighting or two in recent years, and I've become convinced there's some truth to it. I've had stories that I wrote right into a brick wall, and nothing seemed to get me over it. Not the usual, "write badly" or even "skip a scene and pick up somewhere that interests you"... nope, not forcing a routine, or getting hopped up on caffeine, or even (surprisingly) threatening my laptop with bodily harm unless it somehow typed out the words for me.
Sure I had a busy schedule, with work and family, board commitments, blogs, my ongoing need for food and sleep... but it wasn't a lack of time. I still had time to Netflix and Hulu. I still managed to read other people's books. I was still catching myself staring off into space. It wasn't time. It was, I realized, too much stuff in my brain.
My life was busy, and my head was chock full of all kinds of stuff.
The trouble is, writing isn't just typing words as they come to you, it's imagining people, in places, doing things. Imagining takes room in your brain. It takes emptiness and quiet, at least for me. Not physical quiet. I could write in the middle of a Motorhead concert if my brain was empty. What I need is space so my imagination can stretch out and have a little fun.
And sometimes there isn't space. Sometimes life is a toddler, noisy and demanding, and ready at any moment to break something valuable. And when that happens, you have to pay attention to it. I don't make it worse by berating myself for writer's block or thinking "real writers write no matter what." I'm not a tough love kind of gal.
But I also don't indulge in it. If I'm overwhelmed to the point where my imagination has dried up, I try to do a little spring cleaning. I meditate to distance myself from things that don't really matter. I find it a very helpful tool for all kinds of stress, writer's block among them.
I recognize that there are frustrations I can't solve, at least not today, and there are things I have no control over. There's old arguments with people no longer in my life I don't need to replay. There are events happening months from now that I don't need to stress about this instant. I can turn off the news, or the Facebook feed. I'm never going to like the ending to Dexter, so at some point I'm going to have to stop re-writing it in my head.
I let go of the mental clutter and focus on the few things that require immediate attention. Sometimes that means taking a day, or a week, away from writing. I used to think that was laziness, but now I realize there's a sanity to recognizing when to step back.
Once I feel mentally decluttered, I let myself settle into a nice quiet space. I start small, by rereading what I've already written, and then I work my way back up to the 1000 words a day I write when things are humming. If all goes well, hopefully, my imagination comes out for a little playtime.
Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Monday, June 29, 2015
Friday, June 26, 2015
This week's question is a timely one for me: "Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?"
Just Google any of the keywords above, and you'll find tons of information, of course—but what I've been interested in is a different bit of history: One of the 12 is missing, stolen from the University of Virginia's Alderman Library back in the early 1970s and never recovered.
Here's a glimpse at the research I've done on this—and a thank you to the folks who've helped me:
- Tracking down the original AP coverage, thanks to a librarian at George Mason University, since the library's database for AP articles doesn't go back that far
- Gathering information from U.Va. thanks to a media relations representative who's gone above and beyond the call of duty in answering emails (and who very graciously said he enjoyed my story "The Odds Are Against Us" and invited me to get together with him if I came to Charlottesville)
- Getting information on security issues from such old journals as The American Archivist and Georgia Archive and from the the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (
RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries—and still trying to track down an old copy of Library Journal from 1974 with an inventory of everything that was stolen
- Searching for the 1988 Sotheby's catalogue which detailed the history and condition of the Tamerlane that sold then and also provided information on other copies of pamphlet (I can buy the Sotheby's catalogue for $60, but I haven't gone there yet)
- Reading many, many pages of notes from the website of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore (a tremendous resource)
- And, of course, reading the full contents of Tamerlane itself—including various versions of the title poem (and from elsewhere in the Poe canon: "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "William Wilson" and a little bit of "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-tale Heart" and....)
Overkill maybe on the research... and yet...
And yet: Rather than just providing detailed backstory for me to fold into a conversation, all that reading and research has sparked my imagination toward the plot of my own story and seems to be helping to shape what happens.
Part of this may seem obvious, of course: If I'm fictionalizing a story around a true-life event, then I have to be faithful in some ways to what actually happened. (I feel strongly about this, but others do not; consider, for example, some of the novels built around the Gardner Museum heist in Boston.) But it's more than that too. My story isn't just adhering to the details of what happened, but it's being shaped by possibilities spinning off of those "what ifs" from the brainstorming that goes hand-in-hand with dense research.
I'm hopeful that at least part of that process might work.
Beyond that, I'll simply agree with many of the comments that my colleagues here have mentioned already this week. The way we writers incorporate research into our stories should never bore or burden, and a little goes a long ways.
On the Road with Del & LouiseIn another direction, just a quick bit of news. My forthcoming debut book, On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, to be published September 15 by Henery Press, is now up for pre-order at many places, including at my own local independent bookstore, One More Page Books and More in Arlington, VA, which will be hosting my book launch on Saturday, September 19.
Click any of the links below to pre-order—or if you want to save your money, you can first try to win an advance copy through my Goodreads giveaway, running now through Sunday at midnight.
One More Page (pick-up): https://squareup.com/market/one-more-page/on-the-road-with-del-and-louise-signed-store-pick-up
One More Page (shipped): https://squareup.com/market/one-more-page/on-the-road-with-del-and-louise-signed-by-art-taylor-to-be-mailed
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Sometimes you become so interested in the research for your book that it takes over the story. What do you do to keep it from becoming a treatise that only serves to make your readers’ eyes close with boredom?
Some people, old roommates mostly, call me lazy. I prefer the term efficient. I don’t like waste, be it energy, food, money, brainpower, or time (especially food).
I know a lot of writers enjoy spelunking in the proverbial stacks, unearthing long-forgotten historical tomes. Their jaws drop in wonder at a newly-discovered journal from the 1300’s or a never-before-seen map of the ancient Roman empire.
I’m not one of them. I strive to do exactly as much research as necessary and not one iota more. I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of including too much research in any of my books or stories. Ever. Really, EVER.
Readers don’t need to know how the sausage is made. They just need to know that one of my characters has stopped at a street vendor to get a delicious brat on a bun.
Don’t get me wrong, I work hard to make sure that what I write is as accurate as possible and, in order to do that, research must be conducted. It’s just not my favorite thing. That’s why I rarely worry about bombarding my readers with all kinds of arcane knowledge. I try to give them just what they need to understand whatever is going on in my book.
I operate on a simple plan: if it serves the story, it goes in.
If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Still a few more days left in Amazon’s The Big Deal sale! More than 350 Kindle books for up to 85% off, including RUNNING FROM THE PAST for only $1.99!
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Monday, June 22, 2015
by Meredith Cole
It's easy to get distracted when you're writing. Sometimes, instead of actually fixing a plot point that doesn't work at all, you can find yourself distracted by research. You dig deep to find out everything there is to know about a certain gun or traffic patterns in the city where your book is set. The next thing you know, you have enough for a non-fiction book on the topic and you've completely neglected your fiction altogether.
So how do you show your reader that you know your stuff without boring them completely? I think the secret is in the details you sprinkle throughout your story. If the details that are relevant to your story ring true, your reader will be right there with you. But if you're heavy handed with the details and interrupt the story to explain something for pages and pages (just to show them that you know your stuff) you'll lose them. Eventually, too, you have to leave the research behind and take a leap into the unknown and enter the world you've created.
Right now I'm grappling with the question of how much research is enough and how much is too much with my current book. It's set in 1951 in a small town. I've been surprised by how much 1951 was similar to the way we live today (cars, refrigerators, telephones, television...). But the difference really is in the details. The prices of things. The language. The options for women. I've done far more research on bank security and details on life in the 1950's than will ever make it to the final pages. But hopefully when you read it, it will feel right to you and the story will suck you in. And then I can feel like I've done my job.
Friday, June 19, 2015
Those in the writing know often suggest that writers prepare character profiles for each of their major characters. If you follow this approach, what do you tend to highlight? And if not, how do you keep track of your characters as the story progresses?
Before I respond to the question, from the Official Department of BSP:
This blog post was done a couple days ago, ready to be scheduled. So I’m happy I waited on that since I have to add something additional to it: Macavity Award finalists were announced yesterday. I’m thrilled and honored that my short story, “Howling at the Moon,” from Ellery Queen, is one of the nominees in the short story category. And honored to be in the company of Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Travis Richardson and our own Art Taylor. Yea, Art! But the good news doesn’t stop there, fellow Criminal Mind Catriona McPherson’s novel “A Deadly Measure of Brimstone” is nominated in the Best Historical Novel category and she’s also nominated in the Best Mystery Novel category for “The Day She Died”. Yea, Catriona!
I want to thank Janet Rudolph and everyone who voted. I hope you’ll all read all the nominated stories and books. I believe most of the short stories are online. Here’s a link to the Anthony Award short story nominees, of which four, Art, Craig, Barb and I are also nominated. So if you scroll down to the short story awards, there will be links to our four stories that are also Macavity finalists: http://bouchercon2015.org/anthony-awards/ And you can find Travis’ story in ThugLit issue #13.
By the time I sit down to write, I’ve usually been thinking about the characters and major plot points in my head for some time. And since many of my characters are, at least in part (composites), based on people I know or know of, it’s sort of easy to keep it together. The problem is when you’re working on more than one thing at a time they can all run together.
The main concern with characters is to be consistent. What’s important is to keep track of what you’ve actually said in a work or series so the characters remain true to themselves/consistent. On a very simplistic level if a character likes chocolate at the beginning and hates it at the end, people will be taken out of the moment, out of the “reality” of your story. Unless that’s your character arc, how and why he comes to hate chocolate by the end.
Remember, too, that you don’t have to use every bit of background in your character profile. It’s good for the writer to know all these things, because these traits will make the character act or react in various situations. But maybe it’s not necessary for the reader to know everything – just enough to buy any actions on the part of the character.
Another good tool is Proust’s Questionnaire. Change ‘you’ in the questions to your character’s name and it will really get you thinking about who your character is.
1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
2. What is your greatest fear?
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
5. Which living person do you most admire?
6. What is your greatest extravagance?
7. What is your current state of mind?
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
9. On what occasion do you lie?
10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
11. Which living person do you most despise?
12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
16. When and where were you happiest?
17. Which talent would you most like to have?
18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
21. Where would you most like to live?
22. What is your most treasured possession?
23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
24. What is your favorite occupation?
25. What is your most marked characteristic?
26. What do you most value in your friends?
27. Who are your favorite writers?
28. Who is your hero of fiction?
29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
30. Who are your heroes in real life?
31. What are your favorite names?
32. What is it that you most dislike?
33. What is your greatest regret?
34. How would you like to die?
35. What is your motto?
For those who are interested, there are many variations of character profile forms online. Just search “character profile”.
There are more things one can ask about their character or put in their character’s “profile”, but I think this is a good start.
My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was just picked up by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Not sure when it will be published yet. Set on today’s Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, not that other one back East. But the ghosts of Chandler, Fante and Cain are there in force.
And my noir mystery-thriller novella, Vortex, will be out soon. Advance Reader Copies are available if anyone’s interested. Hardcopy. E-version, stone tablets, hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, written on sand, any format. Choose your poison. Contact me at Paul@PaulDMarks.com if you’re interested.
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