Thursday, January 31, 2013

It's not ranting if somebody asked you.

Okay, first, Elmore Leonard on said.  I agree.  In spades.  In the bucket of biggest available backhoe.  With exceptions.  I wouldn't turn to see if the ghost of Henry Fowler was creeping up behind my desk-chair if I wrote shouted, whispered, called back up the cliff towards where she was waiting, asked or answered for example.  But said is best and order a bigger backhoe for how much I agree about modifying it with adverbs.  Except for crisply.  I just love this, although I never wrote it myself when it was available.  (It's copyrighted now for Julian Fellowes to use in Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham's stage directions (since it's how she says everything.))

Now for my personal top three unbreakable rules.  I apologise in advance for seething.

3.  sneaky attributive adjectives bundled in to wreck orderly action sentences instead of rolling up their sleeves, going predicative and getting clauses or even sentences of their own.  For example:
  • She hit her head on the floor when she fell (orderly action sentence). 
  • She hit her permed and highlighted head on the polished hardwood floor as she fell (now wrecked with sneaky attributive adjectives). 
  • Her head looked softened by her perm and was golden with highlights but hit the floor like a rock anyway as she fell, bouncing off the hardwood and leaving a smear of blood on its polished surface.
Wait!  Don't click away and tell yourself you'll avoid non-Alan-Orloff Thursdays from now on.  I know that sentence is now a multi-vehicle pile-up of awfulness.  That's the point.  Who cares about her hair at this moment and who (except house buyers and realtors) ever care hardwood floors?  That's why permed, highlighted, hardwood and polished can't have their own clauses and that's why they shouldn't try to sneak in elsewhere.

2.  This is about description too.  No exceptions, no contextual considerations, just no.  Never - never - have a character look at themselves in a mirror early on in the first chapter and describe their looks.  Don't.  When was the last time you looked in a mirror and thought to yourself that your eyes were brown and your nose was small and straight?  Don't ever.  If someone you knew sighed in exasperation at that annoyingly wayward curl and tucked it behind her ear with a rueful grin, wouldn't you want to punch her in the neck?  Just don't. 

1. This is my tip-top of all time writing no-no (and the reason I used Fowler instead of Strunk and White earlier).  It's rude, it's wrong, it's stupid, it's generic he.  It's the daft idea that you can use he, him and his to talk about all of humanity: e.g. Man breastfeeds his young.  Strunk and White reckoned he or she is clumsy, singular they is illiterate and so generic he is the only choice left and, besides, only silly-billies will complain. 

Well, call me demanding, but I'll take my writing advice from someone who's not flummoxed by an evolving pronoun system.  See, the silliest, most ignorant thing about saying number agreement trumps gender agreement . . . is that number agreement has shifted once before and the sky didn't fall.    You used to be plural; the singular was thouYou was also more polite; thou was more intimate.  Politeness won.  You became singular/plural and thou dropped out of use. 

I can just imagine the mediaeval grammar mavens reaching for the smelling salts.  Woah!  Changes in the pronoun system! Number distinction lost!  You-ing social inferiors instead of thou-ing them!  Will English survive?  It will.  It did.  And it will again.  Anyway, we've got y'all, youse and y'guys coming along to do some of the plural grunt work again.  (I wonder if Strunk and White would have welcomed them.)

Rant over. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Context is Everything

by Chris F. Holm

You know what's stupid? Phillips head screwdrivers. I mean, what makes them so special? La de da, I'm all cruciform and fancy. A single slot ain't good enough for me.

Wanna know another thing that gets my goat? Handheld shots in movies. We invented dollies for a reason, people.

"But Chris," the handier among you might say, "Phillips head screwdrivers allow for deeper screw heads, which in turn provide greater torque than their flat counterparts while maintaining a smaller profile; they're just the thing when a tiny screw is called for." Meanwhile, the cinephiles in the audience are shaking their heads and muttering, "This Philistine has no idea what he's talking about. Sure, a nice, smooth dolly shot is just right sometimes, but every now and again, you need the immediacy of a scene shot in jittery handheld."

And to them, I say: damn right. It's all about the context.

So too it is with adverbs and other modifiers. Oh, sure, modifiers are easy to pick on: since they're a common crutch for fledgling writers who can't put their finger on that one perfect word, they're the editorial equivalent of low-hanging fruit. But they're part of language for a reason, and they have their place, their proper context. Sometimes they're the clearest (or funniest; Douglas Adams had a way with the funny adverb) way to get a given thought across. It's a mistake to blame the tools for the failures of the craftsman.

Speaking of context, this week's question reads as follows:
"Among Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, he states 'Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’.' What’s your rule(s) for using modifiers in your writing?"
I'd like to offer a little context for that Leonard quote, because (thanks in part to the Great Decontextualizer that is the internet) his so-called rules have become something like the Coke bottle from The Gods Must Be Crazy to aspiring writers so eager to figure out the Secret Publishing Handshake they pass them back and forth among themselves without the faintest understanding of the intent behind them. The quote comes from an essay Leonard penned for the New York Times called Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hoopdetoodle. It's a brief and excellent read. Go ahead and check it out; I'll wait.

Those who clicked through doubtless noticed something straightaway. Those hard-and-fast writing rules of Leonard's? They're not as hard-and-fast as they seem. As Leonard himself says at the outset of his essay:
"These are rules I've picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I'm writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what's taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules."
I don't mean to say that Leonard's rules (which really aren't rules, but guidelines) aren't worth heeding. What I do mean to say is even Leonard didn't intend them to be written in stone. He doesn't follow the rules 'cause them's the rules. He follows them because they work for him.

Since I'm something of a contrarian, allow me to leave you with an opposing viewpoint, courtesy of Nick Hornby, the author of HIGH FIDELITY and ABOUT A BOY. This quote is taken from his marvelous essay collection, THE POLYSYLLABIC SPREE:
"Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune, and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress...

Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you're doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they're the first to go. And there's some stuff about the whole winnowing process I just don't get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words - entirely coincidentally, I'm sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I'm sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there's nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound manly, back-breaking labor because it's such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It's also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers - treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won't mind!"

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My (Secret) Rules

By Hilary Davidson

This will come as a surprise to exactly no one, but I’m not fond of rules. To me, rules are challenges. Did you just tell me I can’t do something? Now watch me do it, or die trying. When I see lists of rules about writing, my mind always gravitates to the exceptions. Breaking the rules can be a joy.

But I have a secret: I actually have some rules about writing! Well, three, anyway. Here they are:

1. Know what words mean. This sounds so simple, until you read, “His head literally exploded.” When I see that, I expect an EXPLOSION. I do not want to discover that the guy’s head is still on his shoulders, and that I was supposed to read “literally exploded” as “he was mad.” (Note: It’s fine to misuse words when writing dialogue; in that case, you’re just introducing me to a character who doesn’t know what those words mean.) It's not uncommon to find a writer using illusion when they mean allusion, or effect when they mean affect. Words have power. Don't misuse it.

2. You need a solid grip on grammar and punctuation before you can break traditional rules. Go ahead, split those infinitives. Write Woodrell-esque sentences that run on and on, twisting around a reader’s brain. Follow in James Joyce’s footsteps. But a writer who thinks hat becomes plural when written as hat’s is not a rule-breaker. That's just a writer who doesn’t know how apostrophes work. Even if you hate apostrophes as much as George Bernard Shaw did, you need to understand their intended use. (Note: this rule is only about published work. I’m well aware that AutoCorrect can change desk to duckbucket’s and its to it's. Damn you, AutoCorrect!)

3. Don’t start slow and expect your story to grab me. I have the attention span of a gnat. If a writer hasn't caught my interest with their opening paragraphs, I’m pressing the “eject” button. This is especially true for books that begin with a lot of backstory. If I haven't started caring about a character, shoving his or her backstory at me is going to make me run away (no, not literally). The slow reveal is always intriguing.

Monday, January 28, 2013

10 New (And Much Easier) Rules for Writing

By Reece Hirsch

I discovered Elmore Leonard’s famous 10 rules of writing when I was in the throes of writing my first book.  As you would expect from a consummate pro like Leonard, the rules are blunt, wise and, well … true.

At first, rules three and four seemed a little constricting and doctrinaire.  (Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.)  However, once you start applying the principles, all of those saids just seem to drop away like white noise and you find yourself hearing the characters speak without all that distracting authorial nudging.

The downside to Leonard’s rules is that, like most good principles, they are sometimes difficult to apply.  With that in mind, I offer my own Ten New Rules for Writing.  They may not be true, helpful or wise -- in fact, they may not even be rules.  However, I think you’ll find they’re much easier to achieve.  I’m a firm believer in setting a low bar.

  1. Never open a book with the Big Bang (meaning the cosmological event initiating the expansion of the Universe).  Not to be confused with opening with a bang, which is sometimes recommended.
  1. Avoid the sentence, “We are not so very different, you and I.”
  1. Never use the verb “chortled” to carry dialogue.
  1. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “chortled” … he chortled asthmatically.
  1. Keep your use of umlauts under control, and primarily reserved for the names of 80s heavy metal bands.  Unless you’re writing Nikki Sixx’s biography, no more than one umlaut per 500,000 words of prose.
  1. Never use the words “flavor-blasted” or “manimal.”
  1. Use Elvish and Klingon dialect sparingly.
  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters’ freckle and/or mole patterns.
  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things – unless your story happens to involve places and things.
  1. Write the parts that readers tend to skip – then cut those parts out of your manuscript with scissors, burn them and keep the ashes in an urn on a shelf in the room where you write.  Do not open the urn.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Okay, It's Like This

I’ve been working on a spec screenplay – that’s Hollywoodese for no one is paying me to write this bad boy – and even though there’s the advantage of film being a visual medium, there are times when you have to explain what the heck it is the viewer is seeing.  My hero is a former Night Stalker, one of an elite band of chopper pilots who ferry in Rangers and SEALs on those high value target missions like the one that eliminated Osama bin Laden.  His backstory is on one such mission something went way wrong and he winds up crashing, Black Hawk down as it were, killing two innocent civilians, a mother and child.  He is wracked with guilt over this and as they would have said in one of the 1930s Warner Bros. aviation B efforts, he’s lost his nerve.
But how to communicate that without, as my Criminal Minds colleagues have noted in their posts on this topic, you have the information dump scene.  Say where the guy’s buddy says as they drink their beer.
“You know, Bob, when you cracked up your chopper when the mission went bad in Tikrit five years ago, killing that mother and child, and you subsequently lost your nerve, I thought you’d never fly again.”
Turns out it took me several scenes to tell that, or rather show that to the audience.  I still had to sneak in some dialogue exposition, but hopefully it’s indirect and not too on the nose.   I was listening to Quentin Tarantino on Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment on my local NPR station the other week discussing his new, and somewhat infamous, film Django Unchained (which I enjoyed, but that will be a riff I undertake next week on Dr. Pop, the other site I blog for regularly).  He was talking about trying to have his characters doing some other bit of business while also conveying expository dialogue. 
Te'o and the woman, Diane O'Meara, whose image was stolen
by the fake Lennay Kekua
Though the more twists and turns you employ in the plot, the more the reader or viewer will go along with a character telling you what has gone on.  Take for instance the Manti Te’o story and his would-be girlfriend "Lennay Kekua."  I won’t go into a chronology of events as, for one, it seems there’s several versions of the chronology of what happened, and who said what when.  But I will try to outline the events.
Te’o is an NFL prospect, a former outstanding linebacker for the Fighting Irish.  Last September at the Notre Dame versus Michigan game, after Notre Dame won, the night supposedly of Kekua’s funeral, he dedicated his two interceptions to her.   Te’o never met this woman who he maintained an online relationship with over several months -- yet according to him they did talk over the phone numerous times.  At various times he also indicated, or seemed to then, that they had been physically together.  He has now stated he kept the lie going when he found out the truth this past December so as not to embarrass himself.  And apparently it was actually a man pretending to be the female Lennay Kekua all the time.

This story begs for exposition. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Me and Oprah

by Alan

Exposition – there’s no getting around the need to explain what’s going on at times in a story. Are you “gather them in the drawing room and have the sleuth lay it all out” type or how do you handle this?

“So Alan, you knowingly explain things for your readers in bold, brash exposition, right in the middle of your stories,” Oprah said, leaning in for the kill. “What is that?me and oprah

I swallowed and tried to put on my best game face. Deny or come clean? Or waffle? “Well, Oprah, I’m a storyteller, and I know it’s wrong to always simply explain things. It’s much better to place things in context, or to dole stuff out in small doses.” I paused. “Or even to sneak explanations into dialogue. I know too much exposition is wrong, but everyone does it. In fact, I don’t think I could have written those seven manuscripts without doing it.”

Oprah sat back, smug look on her face. “Yes, but what about your millions of fans? What about all those people who looked up to you, admiring you and your incredible achievements? Don’t you know that nobody likes exposition? Info dumps are boring. And frankly, they’re the mark of an amateur.”

Millions of fans? What was Oprah smoking? Sure, my family liked my stuff, but…I regrouped. “Oprah, I do my best, I honestly do. But sometimes there’s no other way. Sometimes you have no choice but to blatantly lay out what’s going on. I try to keep it short. I try to make it interesting. I try to come up with clever ways to make my readers take their medicine. I guess not everyone agrees with my methods. One thing I can promise: I’ll continue to strive to do better.”

She nodded, clearly not believing my latest line of B.S., then spoke earnestly to the camera. “We’ve got to take a break. When we return, we’ll really put our guest on the hotseat.” An aide rushed over to freshen Oprah’s make-up, while I sat there, alone with my thoughts.

I never was a fan of exposition. I preferred action, dialogue. You know, interesting stuff full of conflict. Not dull explanations that drag the narrative drive to a screeching halt. But at times, exposition was inevitable. So I did my best to slide it in without notice. Sometimes, I tried to slip some “story explanation” into my characters’ interior monologue. You know, have a character sit someplace, alone with his thoughts, recapping what’s going on in the story. Still, I often got the feeling that my efforts were clunky and transparent.

“And we’re back,” Oprah said, turning toward me. “America wants to know why you feel the need to hide behind passive and weak sentence construction. What do you say to those charges?”

I crossed my arms across my chest, in a vain attempt to keep my career from going down deeper in flames. “Mistakes have been made.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Information Dump

 by Tracy Kiely
We all know when we are in the midst of an information dump. Our palms begin to itch, our gaze wanders, and we begin to squirm. The sensation is not unlike being cornered by that certain relative – you know the one – who insists on telling you every detail about her life.
In real time. 
It usually goes something like this:
“So last Saturday, Bob and I decided to try out the coq au vin that everyone is raving about from that new restaurant – you know the one – that cute little bistro on Main Street. It used to be that horrible Italian place that served that awful lasagna. The owner was that big sweaty man with the limp. He probably wouldn’t have such a terrible limp or sweat so much if he bothered to lose a few pounds. Judy said he drank, and I think she’s right. There’s simply no other excuse for that lasagna.
“Anyway, so Bob and I had a 12.30 reservation. At the bistro, not the Italian place. We left the house at 12.15 – no wait, that’s not right. It was more like 12.10, now that I think about it. You know how terrible traffic is this time of year. Why, last week it took me nearly an hour to drive to the hairdressers. Can you believe it? An hour! Judy said she once was stuck in traffic for thirty minutes trying to get to the bank. They really need to put a better traffic light in downtown, but I think the real problem is all the tourists. They love nothing more than to drive around, sightsee, and cause problems.
“Anyway, so we got to the restaurant at 12.20 and guess what? Our table wasn’t even ready! But who do you think I saw? Mary Fisher! You remember her, don’t you? She had that terrible accident a few years back and now has to drink all of her food, poor thing.”
Of course, by now you’ve intentionally split your glass of wine down your shirt to give yourself an excuse to run away rather than hear how poor Mary Fisher drank her coq au vin.
Were it only so easy when reading a book.
With authors, there tend to be two kinds of information dump. The first is the “Let Me Impress You With My Extensive Knowledgeable Dump.” These kinds of dumps are by far the more annoying of the two, as they usually have nothing whatsoever to do with the story and only serve to as a venue for the author to lecture you on a favorite topic. One minute you might be reading a cozy mystery set in an ancient Irish castle and the next minute you find yourself reading several jam-packed pages outlying the subtle differences between the mating rituals of the African Forrest Elephant and the African Bush Elephant. I have been guilty of this one myself. I once wrote a scene that took place in the British Portrait Museum. I ended up writing ten pages about the portrait of Richard the Third and the completely (in my opinion) flawed theory that he killed his nephews and buried their bodies in the Tower of London.  (For the record, I believe that Thomas More libeled Richard to curry favor with King Henry VII and that it was Henry who killed the young princes. Read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and we’ll discuss).
The second kind of dump (I really should have thought these terms out a little better) is the “Let Me Explain All of This To You Now Because I Really Need To Get This Out So I Can Move On Dump” and it is far more common. Most writers have fallen into the trap at one point or another. Usually it happens because an author will have a lot of information that has to be conveyed before she can move on with the story and she just wants to get past it. Or she might be nearing the end of her mystery and needs to give a final summary of who did what and why. The trick however, is to dole it out, not dump it over the readers’ heads all at once like football players do to their coaches with those huge barrels of Gatorade.               
There are various techniques that can be employed to avoid the dreaded dump (again, sorry). You can bring out the information through a series of conversations, over a period of time (“Sara, do you remember when I told you that the dead guy we found in your mudroom reminded me of someone? I just realized, it was my ex-husband – the one I thought died in the war!”) You can bring out the information through a conversation with a character who is unaware of certain events. (“Miss Velour,” asked Detective Rumple Pants, “can you tell me what your relationship was with the deceased and where you were last night and why he was wearing you underwear?”)  The main rule of thumb to follow though is to ask yourself if the details you are including are relevant to the story. If they aren’t, hit your delete key.  If they are, then dole them out slowly. After all, those coaches secretly hate it when all that Gatorade gets dumped on their heads, and so too do your readers.
But, FYI: King Richard was totally framed to cover up the heinous crimes of Henry Tudor.          

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Avoiding the dreaded info dump

Exposition – there’s no getting around the need to explain what’s going on at times in a story. Are you “gather them in the drawing room and have the sleuth lay it all out” type or how do you handle this?

By Vicki Delany

A very pertinent question for me this week.  

I’ve given a lot of workshops over the past few years, I really enjoy teaching and meeting new prospective writers.  I decided to branch out a bit this winter and offer a complete course in Writing Popular Fiction through my local library.  The course has begun and I have a group of eager students with a lot of promise.

One of the things I find that you always have to remind beginning writers is to avoid the dreaded info dump.  As Meredith stated so well yesterday, anything that belongs with “As you know, John…” has got to go.

But, yes sometimes you have to tell us what the heck is going on.  Often, the worst possible way to do that is through dialogue. Instead of “As you know, John, our father died last year.” I’d prefer to say it right out. John and Jane’s father died last year. What’s wrong with that?

How about Jane still hadn’t recovered from the death of her father?

Same thing with the sleuth in the drawing room hypnosis. I’d much rather see the sleuth’s thought process throughout the book as it leads her to her conclusion, than sit through her explaining to everyone how her thought process works.  “Once I realized that Sir Nigel Rancid-Goatsmell smoked Turkish cigarettes then I realized that…”  would work so much better as, Something about the scent of Sir Nigel’s cigarette reminded her…

Similarly I find that you can waaaaay over do telling us that the character is thinking as in Sir Nigel’s cigarette, she thought, smelled bad. If she is the POV character then every thought or feeling must belong to her. Just say Sir Nigel’s cigarette smelled bad.

When it comes to exposition in a long running series, I find that you can run into a problem of how much is too much too often. You want the reader who’s picked up this latest one without reading any of the previous ones to know something about what happened in earlier books, but you don’t want to bore the long-time reader by saying it all again.  For example, before the Constable Molly Smith series begins her fiancĂ© is killed, knifed in a back alley. She becomes a police officer largely to work though her grief.  I am now writing book seven in the series.  Graham’s death is still a part of her life, particularly as how it affects her new relationship.   

Do I need to tell everyone one more time, about Graham?

Monday, January 21, 2013

When you've got some 'splainin' to do

by Meredith Cole

One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is to trust your reader. Readers are pretty smart people and usually can figure out what's going on. Or they at some point learn to trust you and hold on for awhile until you have a chance to explain a little. And if you have to ask if it's too much exposition, well, it probably is.

So I'm clearly on the side of cutting exposition. Especially in the first chapter. There's nothing that bores me more than a book that introduces every single character in the first chapter and gives you a snippet about them totally separate from the story. I never remember anyone later! To remember them I need context, and I need to know who is important. I certainly don't need their resume. "After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Bill went on to work at a law firm in Charlotte for several years..." I'm not interested in hiring either your protagonist or villain anytime soon, so let's just focus on what's important to the story, okay?

Here's what I do want to know. I want to know what's important. I want to know who is important. I want you to make me think I know who the killer is and then show me that I'm wrong. I want to be sucked into the book and racing to finish it before bedtime, not wondering how many pages are left and stifling a yawn.

But what if you really need to tell something? Make sure you have someone tell another character who really doesn't know. If not, your dialogue starts sounding like it belongs in a Soap Opera. You know what I mean. "As you know, your cousin who was married to my ex-wife and just got out of prison, has just claimed that my child is his."

Too much of the boring stuff and I stop trusting the writer to tell me an interesting tale and I throw the book across the room...

But wait... I shouldn't be talking about violence today. I just remembered it's Martin Luther King Day. Do you think he has a quote appropriate for the topics? (Quick pause as she Googles...) Ah-ha! I think this one is relevant:
Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.
So true! So just tell me about the first step, not the whole staircase and let me be surprised. I know you'll explain later.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fade To Billowing Curtain

My rule of thumb is that sex and violence should not be gratuitous. It should be a natural part of the story being told and the characters involved. If it’s added simply for titillation or shock value, then it doesn’t belong and cheapens the story.  I feel this way about my reading also.  If I’m chugging along reading a book and suddenly naked bodies are writhing in a pile or heads are being lopped off willy-nilly and I go “huh?” then those scenes usually ruin the story for me. Now if naked bodies are entwined and heads are flying through the air and it doesn’t elicit a “huh?” then those scenes probably felt natural to the story line and the characters and won’t bother me a bit. 
When it comes to writing my own books, I have to remember my audience and my “brand.”  Most of my readers expect funny amateur sleuthing from my books. They do not expect to encounter overt violence and sex while reading about the adventures of Odelia Grey or Granny Apples. They expect good clean fun. And no matter how much I may be tempted to insert something a little grittier, I have to remember the path I have carved and stick to it. In my Madison Rose Vampire Mysteries I added more violence and sex and it was received well by my readers, but then the main characters are vampires and, well, hot.
That doesn’t mean there is no sex and violence in the Odelia and Granny books, just that it’s tempered with my understanding of what my readers expect. When Odelia and her husband snuggle in bed and start to get frisky, there might be some fun slap and tickle to let readers know what’s about to happen, then it’s a fade to the next chapter or scene.  There is violence in the books, but it’s not graphic. People get shot or assaulted on the page, but I leave out the gritty details. And that’s the way my readers, and my publishers, like it.
The same goes for Emma Whitecastle in the Granny books. When Emma and Phil Bowers are off on a romantic weekend, readers will be treated to some fun, but most is left to their imagination.  However, in my last Granny Apples novel, Gem of a Ghost, Emma kissed a man who was not Phil and I received all kinds of e-mails and messages about how awful Emma was behaving.  Several readers threatened to not read any more books in the series. One reader actually called Emma “a tramp” for the kiss and for her attraction to the sexy archaeologist Quinn Keenan.
Yeah, readers do take it that seriously.  Does that mean Emma will never be tempted in future books? No! First of all, it was just a kiss, folks! Secondly, temptations not only make for fun reading, but it's part of real life. So put on your big girl reading panties and get ready for some excitement.
Establishing a cozy or solf-boil brand also doesn’t mean I will never write a sexy, gritty novel (I’m actually itching to do one),  just that it will not be part of the franchises I currently write. And it will probably be published using a pseudonym.  Not that I would be ashamed of the books and would hide that it is me behind the words, but to alert readers that this is a different kind of book from a usual “Sue Ann Jaffarian novel.”  Using the pseudonym would be me waving a flag saying, “Hey folks, be warned, this is me forging a different brand, not to be confused with my others.”
Will that work? Probably not. And most likely I’ll receive tons of mail, some in favor, some not. But they will be warned.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Kisses and cocktails and a little light jazz.

How much sex and violence do I weave in?  Are you accusing me of writing crafting cozies?  I couldn't weave with a gun to my head.  Or crochet.  Or knit.  I've often said that the greatest technological leap in the evolution of modern humans happened the day someone looked at a sheep -a sheep! - and said "I've had a brilliant idea.  Why don't we . . ."

Some of my friends on the other hand . . .

Okay, enough willful misunderstanding of the question.  Honestly?  When it comes to the Dandy Gilver mysteries, very little.  These are my hommage to the golden age and I don't put anything in them that you wouldn't have been found in Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham or Josephine Tey (although I'm not sure I ever have managed a tone as dark, bleak and just plain nasty as some of Allingham's - how these ever got the cozy title, I'll never know). 

So, it's an extra constriction, to be sure, along with the requirement for an early murder, a late solution, and some red herrings, but if we minded constriction we would hardly be writing in this genre, would we?  The compensation for me in the Dandy stories is that no one has a mobile phone, there is no forensics and I never have to write one of those desk-bound google scenes.  When Dandy Gilver and her sidekick Alec Osborne dig for background they do it in dusty church vestries or the mahogany-lined offices of shipping agents or what have you, with scope for all manner of Dickensian walk-ons.  

But now I've started writing modern stand-alone suspense too.  In the first one, As She Left It the story didn't throw up much in the way of either graphic sex or explicit violence.  It was a relief not to have to keep checking the vocabulary in the Shorter Oxford for anachronisms, mind you, and I may have gone slightly F-tastic with the curses just because, for once, there was nothing stopping me. 
In the new one (working title The Day She Died) the story does involve sex and violence and I've followed the characters into the bedroom and out again as well as watching the bones shatter and the blood drip from quite close-up too.  It's still being edited.  Maybe some of the squelching (sexual and violent) will end up on the cutting room floor.  If so, it'll be because, as Chris said yesterday, the story is better without it.  We'll see.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

No More, No Less

by Chris F. Holm

When I sat down to write this post and saw the question of the week was "How much or how little sex and violence do you weave into your stories?" I had a moment of deja vu: I was certain we'd covered this before. So certain (by which I mean so lazy I hoped I could recycle old content to feed to the fortnightly blog-beast) in fact, I googled up the ol' CM-archives, at which point I discovered that I was mistaken; the old question was an altogether different one. (Boo.) But (and this is the kind of but Sir Mix-A-Lot might well appreciate, being rather ample) I wasn't wrong about being able to recycle content. (And yea verily, the blog-gods were appeased.)

Let me explain.

A while back, we Criminal Minders tackled the question, "Is there any such thing as too much sex or violence in fiction?" In response, I wrote a list elucidating my views on the subject which consisted of the following bullets (click through to read the post from whence I yoinked them, complete with additional bullet-by-bullet-blather from yours truly):

1. Every Story Has Its Own Line
2. Every Reader Has Their Own Line
3. Every Writer Has Their Own Line
4. Fiction Itself Has No Line
5. Sex (or Lack Thereof) and Violence (or Lack Thereof) Have No Inherent Artistic Valu

Alert readers will note that that question was of the how-much-is-too-much variety, whereas today's is how-much-do-I-use. But here's the thing: my answer is pretty much the same. Because my goal in any given tale is to find out where the line in bullet one (the story's) and bullet three (my own) intersect, and treat it like a target. Any more sex or violence than that target is gratuitous. Any less, and I'm not serving the story.

Serving the story is the key. I've long joked that I don't write sex scenes because my grandparents read my stuff, and though my reason is facetious, the fact remains I managed to write four books and twenty-odd short stories without a single on-screen act of boot-knockin'.

But I've written five books, not four. And the fifth book (as yet unpublished) has three sex scenes. Two are handled obliquely. One's as on-screen as it gets. And I'm proud to say the onscreen one's as unerotic as can be.

Yes, you read that right. And no, I'm not trying for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Fact is, that scene only survived editing because it wasn't there to titillate. It's a scene in which a man hitting rock-bottom falls off the wagon and has sad, unromantic sex with another lost soul too far gone to realize the brief, chemical-abetted solace they find in one another is a far cry from real happiness. It's an important character beat, and a poignant, human moment. At least, it better be, because it sure as hell ain't romantic.

I'd like to think I treat violence the same way. In fact, though my stories have no shortage of sturm und drang, my tolerance for writing explosions is on the wane of late; I find the quiet character moments far more satisfying, and more devastating. I wonder if that means in the future, I'll tend toward writing stories with more of the latter and less of the former. Time will tell, I guess. Lord knows I have no idea. I'm here to serve the stories, after all, not the other way around.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sex? Violence? Yes, Please

By Hilary Davidson

It's hard to be a reliable judge about how explicit your own work is. When I read this week's question, my first thought was, "I don't write about sex or violence." Then I took a quick inventory of my short stories and novels. It turns out, there's some sex in there. Also, some violence. Who knew?

My first published story, "Anniversary" (which appeared in Thuglit and will soon be seen again in Feeding Kate) is a tale of stalking and sexual obsession. "Fetish," published by Beat to a Pulp, has more kinks than the proverbial garden hose. "Hedge Hog," published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, almost never saw the light of day, because some people at the magazine were concerned about its sexual content. "A Special Kind of Hell" in Beat to a Pulp: Round Two, features a couple's sado-masochistic relationship. "Necessary Evil" in Noir at the Bar 2 is about one man's torture fetish. Both "Darkness in the City of Light" (coming soon in Ellery Queen) and "The Barnacle" (coming soon in The Malfeasance Occasional) feature explicit murder scenes. "Insatiable," in Beat to a Pulp: Round One, is just sick, sick, sick.

Really, I'm a nice girl from a good family.

Here's the thing: I'm not writing about sex or violence, per se. I'm exploring what makes certain people tick, and that can require going into some very dark places. In "Anniversary," I'm exploring what goes on inside the head of a violent stalker, and how he justifies the horrifying things that he does to the woman he believes he loves. In "Fetish," what I'm concerned with is how people can manipulate a desire for love — and a fear of guilt — to make others do terrible things. "A Special Kind of Hell" is really about how love and trust can be abused. "Darkness in the City of Light" is about the dark side of a seemingly close friendship.

There's only so much space in a short story, so there are limits to what you can explore in a particular piece. There's far more room in a novel, which allows for things to be more complicated. Yes, there is some sex and violence, and plenty of ulterior motives to go with both — and that's true of characters both "good" and "bad." In The Damage Done, Lily sleeps with her former fiancĂ©, and she unwittingly becomes a participant in a scene where a person is tortured. In The Next One to Fall, Lily is abducted by a man who attempts to coerce her to have sex with him. In Evil in All Its Disguises (coming March 5th, 2013), Lily is pursued — to the point of being stalked — by a man who has a disturbing obsession with her. I don't think any of the sex or violence is graphic, but it's there, sometimes on the page but, more often, under the surface, needling and shaping the characters in the book.

*          *          *

Coming soon: the trade paperback of The Next One to Fall will be released by Forge on February 12, 2013. (You can win a copy on Goodreads.) My third novel, Evil in All Its Disguises, will be out from Forge on March 5, 2013. Want to win an advance copy? Sign up for my newsletter. If you're registered with NetGalley, you can download a copy right now!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Dating Game

By Reece Hirsch

A twenty-something beta reader of my new manuscript suggested that some of the pop culture references might be a bit dated.  The comment made me realize something that probably should have dawned on me a long time ago – by attempting to write popular fiction, I am now, by definition, writing for an audience that includes readers who are considerably younger than me, with cultural reference points that may begin in the 1980s or 1990s.

I don’t consider myself out-of-touch with current pop culture.  (I know what you’re thinking:  that’s the sort of thing that is also said by people who still “get jiggy.”)  I listen to new music, see new movies, read new books, watch a probably unhealthy amount of television, and regularly read (or at least flip through) Entertainment Weekly.  There are admitted gaps in my pop culture IQ like reality TV and tween culture, but I am more than comfortable living with those blind spots.  I prefer to consider myself pop culture enhanced – I've been sucking down pop culture long before many of my readers were born.  That means that sometimes I probably need to just keep those references to myself.

I took that beta reader’s comment to heart and looked very carefully at my pop culture references in one of the last passes through the manuscript.  Along the way, I developed two working rules.  First, make sure that the references really work in context or you may be dating your book to no good purpose.  Second, try to stick to references that are “classics” (an idea that Meredith touched on in her post last week).  By classics, I mean something that, whether old or new, is entrenched enough in the popular culture that the reader should know it whether they are 18 or 50, both today and several years from now.

Here is a list of pop culture reference points that either were in my first book, are in my second book, or were deleted from my second book.  Which ones do you think are “classics”?  Which ones are too obscure, dated or “non-classic”?  Which ones work today but probably wouldn't work for a reader five years from now?

1.  Leonard Cohen

2.  Ross Macdonald.

3.  Thievery Corpration.

4.  “Love Removal Machine” by The Cult.

5.  Glenn Gould.

6.  The Warner Brothers cartoon with the sheep dog and the wolf who punch the clock.

7.  Keyser Soze.

8.  Shaquille O’Neal.

9.  Charles Barkley (trend emerging, need to watch that).

10.  The Godfather.

11.  Sleater-Kinney.

12. Bikini Kill (associated with the same character as 11).

13.  Sir Ian McKellen (who makes a fleeting appearance in The Insider as the Grand Marshall of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade).

14.  Steely Dan.

15.  Taylor Swift.

16.  CSI.

17.  Boba Fett.

18.  William Gibson.

19.  War Games.

Let me stress that I learned my lesson and did not use all of the above references, but I wonder if we agree about which ones didn't make the cut?

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Old and the New

I recall several years ago my then editor admonished me about too many pop cultural references in my book for fear that would date the story.  At the time I pishawed such advice ‘cause hey, I was young (younger then anyway) and with it, baby.  Now though in the intervening years I have come to see the wisdom of those words.  This has been particularly driven home to me when something of mine gets reprinted and, as is the nature of pop culture, such references do stand out as dated.  Though I did get a chuckle replacing an aside a character makes about Madonna with Lady Gaga.

As I write this post, the melancholy song, “Where Are We Now?” from the new David Bowie album, The Next Day, plays on the radio, his first release in a decade.  The Thin White Duke’s new LP, I mean, CD, no, download it seems as it was delivered exclusively to iTunes, coincides with his 66th birthday.  So every once in awhile, the old is new again it seems.

But I am a connoisseur of and a purveyor of pop culture.  Though, oddly, I am loath to wear brand clothing like a swoosh on my tennis shoes or the polo rider on my…polo shirt.  Yet how can I write a short story about say people trapped in a bad situation and not have somebody nervously crack about “At least the zombies haven’t shown up.”  I can’t help myself.  I try to use these references judiciously, but I can’t escape the stuff that’s around us and not want to use some of that to give my story that sense of immediacy.

For instance suspense was built in those ‘40s noir flick the hero desperately searches for a phone booth or an open drug store, as they had public phones in them, along a rain soaked city street at night.  Nowadays, you have to explain why that character can’t get a signal on their smart phone or they forgot to charge it the other night and the battery’s going out. 

Still, that’s why the Good Lord in his or her infinite wisdom invented the classics.  Those items like ‘50s cars with fins of ‘60s-era muscle cars that have stood the test of time.  Certain songs be it Sprinsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” or “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” by the Delfonics, man those tunes have something to say to each generation as far as I’m concerned.  Same goes for Jameson Irish Whisky or the PI’s trusty .45 -- iconic imagery that evokes much but just having them around.

Must be why I usually give my protagonists an older car with maybe even a cassette deck in the dash of that bad boy.  Driving in from that darkness on the edge of town, the Delfonics playing on the deck, the .45 in the glove box – the latter term I note still being used in the manual for our fairly new Prius. 

But come on, what does it say if I have my mysterious stranger roll into town in a Prius versus a ’67 Pontiac GTO with Cragar rims, a dent in the rear quarter panel and four-on-the-floor.

Yeah, that’s the stuff.  And for more of that good car stuff, click here for video tour of GM’s Heritage Center, their Tunnel of Love of old and new cars.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

You Bet Your Bieber!

by Alan

How much pop culture and/or current references do you put in your work? Do you fear dating the material versus giving the story a sense of immediacy?

This question is as groovy as the Fab Four playing Frisbee with Mick and Keith! sgt pepper

I have absolutely no hesitation about using any and all (clever) pop culture/current references I can wedge in (as long as they fit the story and the characters, of course). I believe the type of car someone drives or the kind of beverage he drinks or the TV shows a person watches says a lot about his character. A guy driving a Ford pick-up drinking Iron City who watches Justified is bound to travel in different circles than someone driving a Lexus drinking mangotinis who’s partial to PBS. (Yes, I’m including brand names in the discussion.)

To me, including pop culture references in a character’s dialogue (or interior monologue) adds verisimilitude. I mean, there are a lot of people (in the real world) enamored with pop culture (have you seen the tabloids at the supermarket checkout counters?). So why wouldn’t my fictional characters do the same? If they didn’t, they wouldn’t seem real, at least not to me.

Am I worried about my work becoming dated? Not in the least. I’d be ecstatic if people are still reading my work far enough in the future that my current references feel dated.

I do try to hedge my bets, where possible. When I do make these references, I generally try to pick an icon or very well-established brand, for two major reasons. I want as many people to “get” the reference as possible, and I believe that the more well-known someone or something is, the longer the staying power will be.

Besides, if Stephen King can get away with peppering his stories with pop culture references, why can’t I?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Trying Not to Date Yourself

How much pop culture and/or current references do you put in your work? Do you fear dating the material versus giving the story a sense of immediacy?

First, Happy new year everyone.  I hope you all had a great Christmas.  I certainly did.  My family went to Mont Tremblant (near Montreal) for a ski vacation.  All my children were there, which is a big deal as they all have to fly into Ontario from the various places around the world where they are currently living.

To this week’s question.  Pop cultural references.  I do try to use them.  I figure I’m not writing works of classic literature that will be studied for generations to come; I’m writing books to be read now, and then hopefully the reader will look forward to the next one next year.
However, come to think of it, if I was writing works of classic literature… putting in some pop cultural references would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t one read Charles Dickens or Jane Austin to get a taste of the times in which they lived?

I do have one handicap in the pop culture references department.  Molly Smith is in her twenties.  I am not. After a couple of instances of my daughters roaring with laughter when Molly or her contemporaries said something that my friends and I might have said (e.g. He’s such a doll!) I have learned to seek outside advice when trying to be ‘hip’.  In particularly Molly’s musical tastes are definitely not mine.  I love Bruce Springsteen, she’s more an Amy Winehouse or Adele sort of girl.  (I love them too, come to think of it, and was introduced to them by my own daughters).  If I want a Springsteen reference, I give it to Molly’s mom, Lucky.  Now, she knows the same the pop cultural references as me.

So yes, I try to drop in a few cultural references, because I believe that helps the reader ground themselves in the here-and-now of the story.  It’s hard to write a contemporary-set story without dating yourself anyway, I think. Lucky drives a Corolla, not a Studebaker.  

Monday, January 7, 2013

Staying ahead of the curve

 by Meredith Cole

Sue Ann and I decided to celebrate the New Year with a Criminal Minds switch and now we'll each be seeing the blog from a different point of view. So Monday is my new spot. Usually I cap off the week on a Friday with a lot of "what he said" and "she's brilliant"--but now I'm the first one out of the gate. No pressure or anything...

The question this week is whether we put pop culture or current references in our work, or do we fear that we'll date our books? The answer for me is yes--and no.

Let me explain. My Lydia McKenzie books exist in a fictional Williamsburg, Brooklyn where there are places that are a bit like actual places, and people that resemble people that are living--but have been altered enough to not be completely recognizable. I have lots of fun inventing silly artists, horrible bands and trendy spots. I do mention fashion a lot, but that strangely enough doesn't seem to get me into trouble. Fashion never seems to change much any more. It just seems to repeat and revolve around and around like a puppy chasing its tail until what was out is quickly in again.

Lydia doesn't mention reading the latest best seller or listening the latest hits. Instead she's a mystery fan and a film noir freak. She likes vintage clothes and is disdainful of pop stars. So I get to skip over mentioning anyone that might be completely "hot" this year and totally forgotten next (Brittany? Brittany who?) and might make my book feel dated. This is also good for me because my pop star knowledge is a bit spare (especially when it comes to reality TV).

The books also exist in a late 90's never land, before the luxury condos and the Whole Foods came to Williamsburg. They happen before NYU put a dorm there, and before the rent got so high all the galleries moved to the Bowery. For me the neighborhood will never be so cool again as that time, partially because I will never be that young again. They exist in a time when I was a young film maker and had just moved to New York. I can never go back to that time so I just visit with Lydia from time to time.