Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Monday, July 21, 2014
by Meredith Cole
I admit that one of my time honored procrastination technique is to read books about writing. I tell myself it's to get myself unstuck, or to see if I want to use a new book with the class I'm teaching this fall, but really it's because I'm avoiding actually getting some work done. Occasionally I find a wonderful nugget in a writing book that does help me get unstuck or helps me look at writing in a new way, and then that book becomes a keeper.
Although I recommend On Writing by Stephen King (you think writing is hard? Try doing it when you're in constant pain...) and You Can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts (a short helpful book that is now available again as an ebook) to my mystery classes, my favorite writing book of all time is still Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
Two big and valuable pieces of advice that Lamott gives: Take a project one step at a time and try not to panic about how big it is when you start. Tell yourself you only have to write some tiny amount of words or just fill up a little square on the screen if you're reluctant to get started. And then let yourself write terrible first drafts. The second is something I recommend quite a bit. I've seen far too many promising writers get stuck in an eddy where they perpetually write and rewrite their first chapter ad nauseum and never finish their book. This can sadly go on for years.
Although I don't consult Bird by Bird much these days, I recommend it to beginning writers because she addresses some of the problems we all have when we try out something new. Adults who are accustomed to dashing off an email or writing a contract with no problems suddenly find themselves paralyzed at the idea of making something up and writing something as large as a novel. For me, it was transitioning from screenwriting to novel writing, and not having the least idea how to begin--just knowing that every sentence I wrote was terrible compared to what I was used to reading in published books. But eventually I realized that I had to write a terrible first draft in order to eventually get a polished and wonderful final draft.
Oh--and I would be remiss not to mention a book I contributed to: Making Story: Twenty-one Writers and How They Plot which is, of course, chock full of lots of great advice. And great for when you're procrastinating on your next project.
Friday, July 18, 2014
by Paul D. Marks
L.A. Late @ Night that appeared originally in Murder on Sunset Boulevard (and recently republished in a collection of my stories also called L.A. Late @ Night) about a defense attorney who has second thoughts when she realizes her client is guilty and decides to do something about it...
That leaves the rest of the list:
Coroner's office: Well, I've seen my fair share of blood and guts. That said, I'm also the kind of person who whenever they hear/see symptoms of a disease decides they have that disease. Which is why I can't watch shows like ER or Grey's Anatomy. I guess I can handle blood and guts to some extent, but not symptoms. I think this is what happens with medical students (so maybe I should have been a doctor). So, nope, coroner's office is kaput.
Homicide division: Now we're getting closer. The idea of solving cases and bringing the bad guys to justice strikes home with me. Yeah, I could do that. Third degree and all, with a new energy-saving bulb of course.
Beat cop: Nah. Dealing with all the bad and crazy people you'd have to deal with would make me nuts. And I'd probably end up in the hoosegow myself. That's sort of what my story 51-50, cop slang for crazy, is about. (Originally published in the Psycho Noir issue Dave Zeltserman's Hardluck Stories anthology, but now reprinted in the L.A. Late @ Night collection.)
Criminal psychologist: While psychology interests me, to deal with all those psychos would probably make me psycho and you'd have to have a gun with a hair trigger taped under your desk aiming straight at your client...just in case. Probably not a good way to begin a relationship.
Private investigator: Yeah, now you're talking. Bring the bad guys to justice. And you get to wear a trenchcoat and fedora and use words like gat and gunsel. And slap guys like eternal weasels Elisha Cook, Jr. and Peter Lorre around. Of course, you take your fair share of beatings too, so turnabout is fair play I guess. But still, gumshoe. Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? Or P.I., private dick, private eye, shamus, Pinkerton or Continental Op. And though he's more modern, I hope Duke Rogers, my P.I. in White Heat, carries on their tradition with grace and gats. And you get to have an office in a romantically seedy building with the proverbial flashing neon sign outside the window and the perpetual pitter patter of rain on that window that looks out to the City of Angels. Oh, and here's a happy little ditty about our fair city: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_8U93SvVyY
There's one element that was left off the list above: Prosecutor: Probably the best fit for me. A lot of people that have known me through the years say I should have been a lawyer (though I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not...),. I like the idea of being a litigator 'cause I love a good fight. Corporate law, nah. Criminal law, the D.A.'s office, sure. Being able to put the bad guys away, to argue a case. To logically prove a guilty party guilty. Prosecutor would be a good fit for me. But if I chose that route could I still wear the trenchcoat and fedora?
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
I don't think many police stations have full canteens with dinnerladies anymore. Shame, because that's about the only thing I'd be any good at.
Unless I was a forensic linguist. I actually was a linguist (non-forensic) once. MA, PhD, teaching in a university - all that. And what I saw of forensic linguistics was fascinating. Correcting miscarriages of justice using the power of grammar is just about the coolest thing in a very uncool discipline.
For instance, a forensic linguist can look at a confession and isolate then analyse elements such as sentence length, clause structure, phrase structure and vocabulary choices to build a linguistic signature for the author. It was a punch-the-air moment the first time I saw an analysed false confession, where a prisoner showed his own signature all through a long piece of discourse and then "unaccountably" started speaking exactly like one of the cops in the room when it came to the mea culpa.
There are more straightforward investigative use too, such as busting hoax 999 calls, ransom demands and even suicide notes, and it's getting easier all the time as the collected corpus of texts gets larger (what a depressing job it must be to input and tag suicide notes, mind you . . .)
When I turned to crime-writing, I scratched my head for a while wondering if I could use any of my former life as material. Could there be a forensic linguistics procedural series? It didn't take long to decide that it would be kinda one-note (like those really specific comic-book heroes who just happen to find themselves in situations where their really specific super-power is just what's needed, over and over (and over) again. Was there any other way linguistics could be useful? It didn't take long to decide "nope".
So I had no justification for feeling aggrieved when another writer - actually a team of two (which is cheating) - recently came up with a brilliant linguistics-based mystery series. Based in Britain. And historical to boot. Ouch.
Yes, I contracted a bad case of premise-envy over DE Ireland's debut Wouldn't It Be Deadly, in which Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle team up to fight crime. Curses! I read it to give a blurb, though, and in all honesty I couldn't have come up with the plot to save my life and I've never written anything as funny as the denouement. So, not at all through gritted teeth, I say three cheers for Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta - and roll on September and the launch day.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Monday, July 14, 2014
Friday, July 11, 2014
This week's question—"Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?"—prompted a number of immediate responses in my mind, several of them a little contradictory:
- Because I have a less strenuous schedule during the summer break (vacation) from my teaching duties at George Mason University, I usually find more time to write then.
- Despite best plans to get some reading and writing done on my recent beach vacation down in North Carolina, it was tough to carve out any time at the computer or even to jot down occasional passages or ideas in a notebook.
- Getting away from the computer or the notebook—a vacation from the daily routine of writing—often frees my mind in ways that staring at the screen or the page doesn't and ultimately results in some of my best ideas.
- But then showing up every day to write build momentum, keeps the mind working and focused, and....
So.... daily focus? occasional short breaks? but not a full vacation, at least not by choice?
Maybe some of this explains why I write at such a glacial pace....
Thursday, July 10, 2014
It's summertime and everyone's downing tools and heading for the hammock (if only). Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?
SPOILER ALERT: This blog post will have nothing to do with writing and everything to do with vacations. Specifically, mine.
Now, did somebody mention vacation?
I just got back from a week in the Denver area, visiting my older son who has a summer internship at a medical center there.
We had a swell time.
We went to the Denver Botanic Gardens, and saw some very cool blown glass from somebody named Chihully.
We ascended Pike’s Peak, all 14,110 feet of it. (We didn’t hike it, but drove a rental Ford Focus. Which, I think, was more strenuous than hiking.)
We saw some animals we don’t usually run across (and we avoided running across them in our rental car): marmots, prairie dogs, black-billed magpies.
We drove up and down Colfax Avenue, which made me appreciate where I live very much.
And we did not stop for any hitchhikers!
A good time was had by all!
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
Monday, July 7, 2014
But there is a lot about the book that I don't know when I start writing. I usually only figure out the "clothespin" scenes, or the big scenes that drive the main plot of the book, before I begin. This is a little like deciding I am going to drive from New York to New Orleans, but I'm not sure yet what route I'm going to take. The route will be important, and each decision I make will change the experience of the trip and/or the plot of my book. But I'm not quite ready to commit until I check out all my options.
Something important that I haven't always figured out before I begin are the identities of all the minor characters. And that's when things can get really interesting. Minor characters are great red herrings and can help create subplots for your book. They can skulk about in the background guarding their secrets and attempting to distract your hero/detective from figuring out identity of the real villain.
Friday, July 4, 2014
by Paul D. Marks
I have to start off sort of like I started the last blog post two weeks ago. Then it was 'yes' and 'no' to the question. Now it's 'it depends'. Because there is no right or wrong way to do anything most of the time. So sometimes you know who the badguy is from the get-go, and sometimes you don't.
Different stories generate from different ideas and sometimes those ideas are more "complete" than other times. Sometimes you might come up with a good villain and build the story around them, so you know whodunit right off and work up to that.
Sometimes you start with the main character or a peripheral character, so you might not know whodunit. And if you work like me, a "pantster," you just start writing and see where it goes—and can even be surprised by whodunit. And sometimes (there's that iffy word again) you have a plot idea or a hook or some notes or thoughts in your head about incidents or actions, character bits, dialogue, maybe an opening line or scene, etc., and you weave those into the story as you go and see whodunit from there.
And sometimes you might think you know whodunit...but your characters come to life and have lives of their own, take you in a different direction and surprise you. So the second part of the question—when do you decide whodunit?—works itself out one way or another, depending on which route mentioned here or above you take. At least if you're a pantster. Obviously, people who outline might have all of this worked out ahead of time.
As to how not to unconsciously giveaway who done it – that's where having other people read your story can come in handy. They can see the stuff that the writer is too close to notice. So you read and re-read and write and rewrite, and as you do, you try to catch and fix those kinds of things. And this is where it can be an advantage to be a pantster—since you don’t know who the bad guy is, you end up writing it in a way that doesn’t reveal too much and later, when you’ve figured out who the bad guy is, you can go back and add little hints earlier.
In my novel White Heat, not only do I know who the badguy is from the beginning, but so does the reader (sort of). Because he goes into the main character's office, private detective Duke Rogers, and hires Duke to find a "long lost friend." It's such an easy gig that Duke doesn't even do the paperwork, just tells the guy to come back in a couple of days. Duke gets the info for him, the guy pays for it and splits. Duke doesn't even know his name, or at least his real name. A short time later he's reading the paper, finds the "long lost friend" has been murdered and Duke knows he inadvertently helped the bad guy find her. Feeling guilty, he determines to track the badguy down on his own time. But where to start? As I say, we meet the badguy right away, but we don't really know who he is, where he's from, etc. And that's the main plot of the book, Duke trying to figure out who he is and find him and bring him to justice.
One Amazon reviewer complained that we "know" who the killer is too early on. But, as I say, we do and we don't. We see him, but we don't know who he is or anything substantive about him. This reader had a problem with that, and that's fine. But I knew who the killer was and Duke knew who he was (sort of) and that's the story. Sometimes the mystery is not in ‘who done it’ but in the why, where and how? What I'm trying to say is that for me the story and characters are often more interesting than the whodunit, though that's fun too.
In another example, in my short story Dead Man's Curve, from the anthology Last Exit to Murder, the main character, Ray Hood, is a guy on his uppers. He's old, he's a druggie and his glory days as a backup guitarist for Jan and Dean are behind him. So when he gets a chance to do an illegal favor for a friend that might lead to his eventually getting another shot at the spotlight he jumps at it. But what interests me is Ray's story, more than the overarching plot or whodunit, as we know who dun it early on. I was even concerned that the editors might want to take out a couple of "quiet" scenes that didn't necessarily advance the plot, but they didn't and I was glad. Especially because those were my favorite scenes in the story. The scenes where we get to know Ray, see what happened to him, see his day to day life. The rest of the story moves ahead at a quick pace, those scenes slow it down a bit, but in a good way, I think. I guess what I’m saying here is that even though I write mystery and noir stuff I tend to focus more on characters and the why rather than the who done it.
We all read mysteries for different reasons, but a lot of the time it is because we want a sense of justice and good triumphing over evil, as well as for character and the actual "mystery". Even in noir and hardboiled there is ultimately some kind of justice, though it is usually a little muddied and unclear. In real life murders go unsolved for years, sometimes never to be solved. The Black Dahlia murder is still unsolved, but in fiction it has been solved dozens of times. So the who-dunit is obviously important to us. We want resolution, but we also want to learn and experience something more than just whodunit. We want to know the characters on a deeper level and the why of it and that's important too.
And Happy Fourth of July to everyone:
Thursday, July 3, 2014
Is that a problem when it comes to pitching clues? Oh, yes.
I've written ten Dandy Gilver mysteries now and I've been surprised at the end of four of them when I find out who the murderer is. Four or five. I can't actually remember who the murderer is in the one I've just finished writing because I haven't read it yet. (See other posts for extreme pantserhood).
When I changed my mind about the culprit at the end of Book 1, I reckoned I didn't need to change anything else earlier in the story. It was all there, pulsing on page. However, three out of four of the first ms readers didn't know whodunit when they had finished the book. That is not really a very great state of affairs. So I did change it to make things less oblique but I still come across readers who don't agree with me about whodunit in AFTER THE ARMNISTICE BALL. They don't seem to mind and who am I to argue.
But I started Book 2 determined to stamp all that sort of nonsense out and the result is that everyone always knows whodunit halfway through THE BURRY MAN'S DAY. Ah well. Again, people don't seem to mind.
Then there's Book 3 - BURY HER DEEP - aka The Concept Album, or in the words of Dave Headley of Goldsboro Books (one of my favourite bookshops and one of my favourite people) "the one where nothing happens". So the question doesn't arise but again no one seems bothered.
But I knew better than to try it twice. In Book 4, tons happens. It's a veritable circus. No, really - it's a circus. Look:
But even though THE WINTER GROUND is packed with incident and characters, not many of the incidents are clues and not many of the characters are suspects. It's still one my favourites, though. Because . . . circus.
Finally, came Book 5 where I got it juuuuust right. I did know whodunit all along, every character is a suspect, every incident is either a red herring or a clue, and it's my absolute favourite, because I knew I had cracked it. DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS was when all kinds of extra great things started to happen.
And also the brand-new and quite delicious UK Book 9 (July):