Thursday, February 28, 2013
Which is not to say I've never had complaints. There was one time when someone at a reading said - in very schoolmarmish tones - that she hoped I wasn't going to be poking fun at religion again. AGAIN? It turns out she didn't like the line in Bury Her Deep (DG3) where I said "The Church of Scotland gets by on a little doctrine and a lot of scones." I persuaded her that it was affectionately meant and we parted friends.
I imagine that most people's threshold is set a wee bit higher than that, but we've all got one. I wouldn't have a problem with serial killers if the muse ever dragged me that way; they're so vanishingly rare in real life and so effulgently ubiquitous in fiction that (to me) they've become almost as cartoonish as zombies and vampires.
But if the muse started whispering a tale of serial rape in my ear I'd sing "La-la-la can't hear you" until she shut up again. Partly that's because serial rapists are not rare and their victims are all around us. Hence my trigger warning. And likewise paedophila. Empathy for survivors who might be kicked back to their worst moments by my writing would always stop me dead: there's a world of difference between being "offended" and being hurt.
Serious stuff. So to finish, I'm sharing a video (click here) that always makes me laugh: three people, extremely offended. Or as they would have it . . .
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure what's off-limits for me when it comes to writing fiction. Looking back over my bibliography, I've written tales that include violence by and toward children, animal deaths, sexual assault, torture, hate-crimes, cannibalism, and a host of other taboo topics.
Only here's the thing: I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to grisly fiction. Reading over that first paragraph makes my writing sound so nasty I wouldn't even read it, let alone write it. But the truth is, I can count all my uncomfortable writing moments on one hand, and I've never once received a lick of feedback (review, email, tweet, whatever) that complained I'd gone too far. (Which is more than I can say about my penchant for colorful language; that's gotten me a letter or two for sure. So for those playing along at home, violent crime is a-okay, but referring to the perpetrator of said violent crime as a shitweasel is a no-go. Who knew?)
I suspect the reason for that is that many of the taboo topics I write about, I handle obliquely, and usually off-screen. (One of my stories that features animal deaths, a burgeoning serial killer, and the kidnapping of a little girl was still somehow tame enough to appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, if that gives you any indication.) Which suggests to me that my own personal squick-barometer doesn't so much dictate what I should or shouldn't write as it does how I write what I write. (Man. Say that three times fast.)
But since we're on the topic of crossing lines, I'll tell you something I truly have no stomach for (besides war movies and true crime, which I know is my own weird hang-up; I have trouble enjoying anything if it centers around actual folks actually dying): the culture of transgressive one-upsmanship that's sprung up in much of the modern noir coming out these days. There are a lot of reasons to tell stories - to illuminate, to inspire, to educate - but in the end, as Reece said Monday, their primary focus is to entertain. Maybe a small subset of the population finds reading the bleakest, nastiest, most unrepentantly vile stories they can get their hands on entertaining, but I sure don't. And unless you're Cormac McCarthy, you're probably not illuminating much of anything by writing them, either.
Take it from a guy who's tackled some nasty subject matter: The real trick isn't horrifying your audience; that part's easy. The real trick is to horrify (or thrill, or frighten) your audience, and make them want to keep reading anyway.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
I know there's a question of the week, but right now, my brain is divided between two tasks: making revisions to a new novel (my first standalone), and gearing up for the release of Evil in All Its Disguises on March 5th. It's pretty much impossible right now for me to think about anything else. My brain just isn't big enough.
Reviews are starting to come in for Evil, and they're enthusiastic. (Oh, would you like to read them? Click here.) Thanks to my phenomenal Forge publicist, Aisha Cloud, I have my biggest tour ever planned. I get to return to some wonderful stores I love (BookPeople in Austin, Murder by the Book in Houston, the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, the Tattered Cover in Denver, Ben McNally Books in Toronto, Book Revue on Long Island), and I get to visit a lot of new-to-me booksellers (Mystery One in Milwaukee, Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis, Book Cellar in Chicago, Mysterious Galaxy Redondo Beach in LA, Book 'Em in Pasadena). New York's wonderful Mysterious Bookshop is once again hosting my launch party (March 5th at 6pm; if you're in NYC, please come!). I'll also be at the Tucson Festival of Books and at Left Coast Crime. Full tour details are on my site. (And, um, if you want to pre-order the book, scroll to the bottom of this page. All of the stores I'm appearing at take pre-orders, and they can hook you up with a signed copy.)
Today's the last day that my debut novel, The Damage Done, will be on sale for $2.99. If you want to start with the first book in the series, grab it now. (Preferably from the iBookstore — they've been incredibly supportive of my work.) My second mystery, The Next One to Fall, came out in paperback earlier this month. I'm a big fan of paperbacks myself, so I hope that will help it reach a wider audience.
This is an incredibly exciting time for me. My acknowledgments in Evil in All Its Disguises are longer than ever, and there's good reason for that. I have a lot of people to thank. Hopefully, I'll see some of you on tour, so I can express my gratitude in person, too.
PS I'm giving away my last ARC of Evil in All Its Disguises on the blog today. Want to enter? All you have to do is comment on this post. (You'll also need a mailing address in the US or Canada.) The draw will be just before midnight Eastern tonight!
Monday, February 25, 2013
By Reece Hirsch
What's off-limits to me in my writing? I like to think that nothing is really off-limits but, like most writers, there are places that I choose not to go.
My thrillers are meant to be entertainments. They're sometimes bloody and violent, but I hope that they are also fun. There are some subjects that just don't fit with my idea of reader entertainment, such as child predators, and I also don't particularly like reading or writing about serial killers. I'm not saying that I might not one day find a story that I felt compelled to write involving one of those subjects. I'm also not saying that great and worthy books can't be built from that material (Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs is one of the best thrillers ever written.) There are just certain areas that I will probably always steer clear of in my writing.
Both of my first two books touch upon terrorism of one sort or another, and some writers and readers might consider that subject distasteful. I suppose every writer has their tolerances, and if they're lucky they find a readership that shares those tolerances. Sometimes a writer's work evolves in ways that tests the tolerances of their original readers, but that's a subject that deserves a post of its own.
As for last week's topic, I tend to write stories that draw from the worlds of technology, privacy and data security, so I'm always wondering whether I'm drawing too close to current events. I think my first book, THE INSIDER, avoided that trap because I started with a bit of recent history (the National Security Agency's Clipper Chip program from the mid-1990s) and developed a little alternate-history theory that brought that event to bear on then-current concerns about government domestic surveillance programs in the wake of 9-11.
My next book is drawn from some fairly recent events and a widely held theory as to what lay behind those events. Sorry if I'm being cryptic, but I don't want to give away my premise just yet. As luck would have it, that theory was confirmed as accurate in national news stories just as I was finishing my manuscript. With a little polishing, that gave my new book a very "ripped from the headlines" feel. Of course, we all know what happens to yesterday's newspaper after you've ripped out those headlines, so topicality can be a double-edged sword. A timely angle can provide a hook for your story, but it will only get you so far.
Sorry for being all over the place in this week's post, but I also wanted to mention that I'm currently reading and enjoying (despite myself) Ian McEwen's Sweet Tooth, his take on a 1970s le Carre-esque spy story. However, I think I see where McEwen is going, and his new book seems to be as much about writing and storytelling as it is about espionage. As a thriller writer who relies heavily upon story and who does not dwell in the house of literary fiction, I'm starting to feel like I'm being very cleverly and entertainingly insulted by McEwen's book. But more on that later ....
Friday, February 22, 2013
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Pull up some chairs, ladies and gents,
And I’ll tell you my thoughts on current events,
Or heroic tales of surviving earthquakes,
Reality doesn’t a good story make,
An actual thing can be a nice seed,
To grow a story people might read,
I do get ideas from what may happen in life,
But I steer clear of true war-torn strife,
I make it up! I create!
I spin tales! I conflate!
Why be tethered to what’s in the news?
Why feel constrained by what is so true?
By the time the book hits, it’s been a long time,
Since the disaster or scandal or newsworthy crime,
Most people don’t remember the when,
Or even what happened way, way, way back then,
So I don’t rip stories from the screaming headlines,
Instead, I rip things from my super-deranged mind!
(Dr. Suess’s birthday is next week, and I don’t post next week, so… my early birthday tribute)
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Interested in trying out the Constable Molly Smith series? The first book, In the Shadow of the Glacier, is available at a special introductory price for e-readers. $2.98 for Kindle. A Cold White Sun, the sixth in the series, is now available for pre-order from Amazon and your favourite independent bookstore.
Monday, February 18, 2013
Do current events influence your ideas for books and stories?
I read a newspaper (almost) every morning and enjoy listening to NPR. I like to know what’s going on all over the world—so do I get inspired to put current events in my stories?
I tried to think of a concrete event that I read about that inspired me to write a story. I think the answer is that life in general finds its way into my stories and books and inspires me. I haven’t written specifically about the war in Iraq, but a veteran has found her way into one of my short stories. And knowing something about the war was helpful in writing about her PTSD. But I’ve never written about a specific event in the war.
The trouble with big news events (kid in the well, first African-American president, meteors in Siberia, etc.) is that everyone knows about them and starts to get distracted when they read the story. I remember this! I know how this turns out…
I realize that all sorts of minor news stories have stuck with me and elements of them have inspired mysteries. But I have used artistic license to change the actual stories to meet my fictional needs, so probably the original story would be unrecognizable to anyone but me.
I think actual events in my life are much more inspiring for me and tend to “stay with me” longer than news stories, though. The emotion of being there sears it more in my mind. It’s the what if… That moment when a car almost hits you and you think—what if? What if my life became entwined with the driver? What if I was killed and they were tortured by guilt? Or if I tried to get revenge? Either idea could inspire a story. And make me grateful that neither never actually happened to me.
Happy President's Day!
Friday, February 15, 2013
By Sue Ann Jaffarian
How do I know if a story idea is better suited for short or long fiction?
Boy, I am not the person to ask about this. If I'd followed my gut several years ago, my very popular Ghost of Granny Apples series might not exist.
|Novella due out March 5th|
When Barbara wrote back that she wanted to hear more, I fleshed out the story line a bit, again not a mystery. A minute later came another e-mail – she wanted to know more. Okay, at this point I was out of material already set in my brain so I did what any writer would do, I made it up on the fly, quickly giving the ghost a back story, personality and purpose. She would be trying to find someone to exonerate her of a murder, I told Barb. And she’d be from someplace cool like Julian, California, during the gold rush days.
At this point I went to shower and get ready for the day. When I returned to my computer there was another message from Barb: This is not a short story. This is a novel. Okay, I told her, I guess it could be a cute stand alone. No, she responded back, it’s a series. How soon can you get me a manuscript?
And thus the Ghost of Granny Apples mystery series was born. And Barb was right. Granny Apples wasn’t a short story, it was a full-blown mystery series which to date has three novels under its belt and more on the way.
|A day I'll never forget!|
The Ghost of Granny Apples is also my most popular series, barely nudging out my Odelia Grey mystery series in sales. And when Ghost in the Polka Dot Bikini, the second book in the series, was listed as the Kindle Daily Deal, it shot to #1, edging out notable authors like John Grisham and Stephen King. It didn't stay there, of course, but it's still not too shabby for an idea that almost didn’t happen! I am also pleased to say that the last novel released, Gem of a Ghost, was nominated as a Romantic Times Reviewers award.
And it all started with a short story idea that I was too dense to see as long fiction.
The moral of this is two-fold: 1) don’t listen to me, I’m lost in a fog; and 2) listen to the people who know and don’t be afraid to bounce ideas off their heads. They might recognize a gem when you think you're holding a common rock.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Kidding. Just because I've never written a short doesn't mean I've never come up with plots that would be perfect for them. But when I do, I call the idea a sub-plot and lay it aside until another one comes along that complements it. Then both of them are set aside until a third spark ignites and maybe a fourth. Then there's a big sprawling complicated cast of thousands novel ready to go.
The master of this kind of of labyrinthine plotting in the mystery genre is Kate Atkinson (if you haven't read Case Histories and its three sequels you're in for a treat and three more treats to follow).
Cue utterly gratuitous picture of Jason Isaacs who plays Jackson Brodie in the telly adaptation (with Edinburgh in the background).
I'm no Kate Atkinson, but my June release, As She Left It, is the result of years of sub-plot collection.
On summer holiday in France in the mid-90s, driving to the boulangerie one morning, I had an idea about an elderly jazz trumpeter with pneumonia who needs a stand-in. This character - Fishbo Gordon - is in the book. In my head, in fact, the story was called "Fishbo's Puffer" for years.
Then in about 2005 I saw a magnificent bed in an antique shop in Castle Douglas and bought it:
It was a bed with a puzzle, a puzzle which - refracted through the mind of a mystery writer - became a secret, a secret which became another sub-plot in what was now a third of a novel.
A year later, in Leeds, on an all-girls weekend, two friends and I met a little old lady wandering around in the street (and wandering around in a gently mythical version of reality too), took her home and contacted her carers. It was a tiny incident and would have made an effective short story but I don't write short stories. So this little old lady joined the jazz trumpeter and the bed-with-a-secret and the book was halfway to being afloat.
That weekend gave me the setting too; As She Left It is set in a short dead-end street of old red-brick houses in Leeds; in my friend Diane Nelson's house, in fact, where we were staying that weekend. The wonderful design department at Midnight Ink captured the mood of the story perfectly with this jacket:
but I promised Diane that I'd show the real street too - much less gothic and grim.
In 2009, I was writing Dandy Gilver and not thinking about Fishbo at all, but one day in Tesco, watching the online shoppers filling trolleys with groceries for strangers, I got to thinking about how much you could tell about someone's life if you did their shopping and how those shoppers must live somewhere local and I wondered if they did their neighbours' shopping for them and what if they worked out that their neighbours were . . .
Another short-story-sized plotlet that was modern and dark went into the cauldron and now my protagonist had a job as well as a house and I had four linked tales to tell. It was time to start writing and I felt more than usually sure that I knew where this one was going
Imagine my surprise when, a little way into the first draft, the red bricks of that dead-end street started whispering a completely new story in my ear. It turns out, after years of preparation, that the main plot of As She Left It is none of the above. But the bed, the trumpeter, the little old lady and the neighbour's secret are all in there too and I've still never written a short story.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
My first short story came out in 2007. In Ellery Queen's "Department of First Stories," this was. Since then, I've published (pops over to his site to count 'em up) twenty others, with one more due out sometime this year. In that time, I've also written (stops to think, but thankfully is not so far gone as to need reference materials to answer this one) five novels: the three from my Collector series, plus two others I'm shopping now. (Confidential to any editors reading this: you'd like 'em, I swear. Email me and stuff.) So I guess I oughta know as well as anybody what the difference is between novels and shorts, idea-wise. And mostly, I do. Except for when I don't.
Generally, the way I tell the difference between a short-story idea and a novel idea is this: a short story is small enough that the whole thing fits inside my head; a novel isn’t. If I can see all its angles and suss out all its beats without sitting down to write it, it’s a short. If, until I take a crack at it, I can't find its edges - if it’s so damn inscrutable I'm like an archaeologist who just unearthed a single tooth, digging in the sand with a toothbrush and no idea if that's all there is to find or if I'm sitting on a T-rex - it’s probably a novel.
Or it could prove just a tooth, which explains the secret stash of false starts I've got tucked away in the deepest recesses of my laptop hard drive.
But that's not the whole answer; it can't be. Because one of those five novels I mentioned? It's based on one of my twenty-odd short stories. "The Hitter," to be specific. To me, the novel and the short are very different animals, but the fact is, the basic idea behind them is more or less the same, which sort of torpedoes my edges-and-dinosaurs theory. (Note to self: come up with better name for said theory. That one is stupid.)
So if the idea is more or less the same, how do they differ? Perspective. Scope. Voice. The short is told in first-person, and is therefore very limited in its narrative. Loads happens off-camera, so to speak, and the antagonists are far from fully fleshed. The novel is told in third-person, and thanks in part to its many point-of-view characters, its story is far more expansive. What was initially a claustrophobic tale of one man's undoing is now an elaborate, high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse. With luck, I kept the stuff that worked in the short (it was nominated for an Anthony and selected to appear in THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2011, so something must have), while at the same time creating something all its own.
The fact is, I'm not sure why one idea spawned two stories, one long and one short. The simple answer is, I thought I was done with it, and then one day I realized I wasn't. So maybe my answer to this week's question should be: I don't know how to tell the difference, or even if there is one, but lucky for me, the ideas themselves seem to. And as long as they keep coming, they can be anything they'd like. (Except maybe interpretive dance. No one wants to see me in a unitard.)
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
It can be downright embarrassing to admit where my ideas for novels and short stories come from. At best, I'm an eavesdropper, picking up bits of conversations here and there and warping them into fictional tales. People understand that you see and hear things that go into your fiction. What's harder to explain is when the dark thoughts come from something completely innocent, or even beautiful. But that same shadowy idea can be turned into a novel or a short story. It's all just a matter of perspective.
While I was on tour for The Next One to Fall, I told the story, many times, of what inspired the book: in the fall of 2007, I spent three weeks in Peru. Like Lily Moore and Jesse Robb in the novel, I decided to start with the highlight of the trip, Machu Picchu. I still remember how awestruck I was by the sight of the famous Lost City of the Incas, the mountaintop citadel that the Spanish conquistadors never discovered. Taking in that magnificent sight, the first words out of my mouth were, "This would be the perfect place to kill someone."
I knew, at that moment, that I wouldn't only be writing about Peru for travel magazines. The idea of one traveler murdering another was something I wanted to explore in fiction. At the time, my first novel, The Damage Done, was still a work that was very much in progress. I didn't know whether I would ever write it, beyond the initial four chapters I'd penned. (Those four chapters never actually made it into the book, by the way.) I knew that the idea that was spinning in my mind — about a possible serial killer on the loose in Peru — was something that would take a book to explore. But I also knew I wasn't ready for that, and so I decided to write a short story instead.
The result was "Stepmonster," which was published by Thuglit in March 2009. I decided not to use Machu Picchu as the setting, but the capital city of Lima instead. (My love of Inca history and legend is such that it really needed a book, and my post-Machu Picchu travels in Peru unearthed a number of spots that I decided were ripe for fictional murders; I'm working on another story set in the Andes now.) The Next One to Fall came much later. On the surface, the two have little in common. But the truth is, they both came out of that crazy germ of an idea I had when I was standing on that mountaintop.
I don't think anyone can tell you, straight off the bat, whether an idea is a better fit for a short story or a novel. To some extent, the writer has to decide how much time s/he wants to spend with the characters that populate the tale. Do you want to tell a story about a particular incident at one point in time, or do you want to leave room to explore more? As with everything I do, it feels like instinct plays a huge role. The best piece of advice I can give: if in doubt about whether your idea can fill a novel, start with something short and see where it goes. The answer is never just in the idea itself, but in the writing.
Speaking of The Next One to Fall, today it's being released in trade paperback by Forge. If you haven't read the first book in the series, The Damage Done, the eBook is on sale for $2.99 until February 27, 2013. The third book in the series, Evil in All Its Disguises, will be out on March 5th — just three weeks from today! Check out the early reviews.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Friday, February 8, 2013
For instance, a short storey has certain requirements, length being a major factor, that dictates how the story is written – what’s included and what’s not. Writing my blog posts I’m cognizant of not wanting them to be too wordy, punchy, and try to make my points quick and declarative.
There have been writers who’ve written stories using only the 140 characters per tweet limit of twitter. Earnest Hemingway’s classic short, short, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn,” is sited as inspiration. Comedy writer Justin Halpern has to move back in with his folks. He tweets of the funny bon mots his father riffed off became the collection Sh*t My Dad Says, and a sitcom, a short lived sitcom, but a sitcom nonetheless. "The worst thing you can be is a liar. . . .Okay, fine, yes, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then number two is liar. Nazi one, liar two."
Flash fiction continues to be written ine sites and for a time there was a short story publisher who published their stories specifically for cell phones before the advent of the smart phone and the larger screen. In fact I did a reading not too long ago where one of the writers read her work on the screen of her phone. E-books do allow for a lot of junk out there, but has also ushered in a new era of pulp in the form of 25,000 words or so new novellas and short story anthologies of revived (and in public domain) characters like the Green Lama, the first Buddhist super hero from the ‘40s, and new characters as charted on sites like All Pulp.
For me then, I just want to get my work out there, and game to try whatever format that will have me. Yes, personally I prefer the paper book but even I, a semi-Luddite, have read material on the Kindle. This is the Kindle my wife got me a couple of Christmases ago and as she got tired of me not firing it up, she’s appropriated the device and now I borrow it. Yet currently I have an e-book novella, the Essex Man, in the publishing queue In the vein of new pulp, he’s an over-the-top action-adventure hero I hope will be the first in a series of e-books, then collected hardcopies done print-on-demand of the character.
So until the big “They” create the machine to write creatively, which I’m sure some geek is working on, I’ll keep sweating away on my stories. Right now though, must write good for my robot overlords…entertain…entertain…entertain…
Thursday, February 7, 2013
In your ideal world as a writer, do you foresee a balance of writing hardcopy books and stories and some ‘E’ material or, gasp, will your original work only be available in e-format one day? And does it matter??
In my ideal writer world, yachts, Greek islands, and dark-chocolate-covered marzipan figure prominently.
But allow me to answer the question a little more directly.
I’m a storyteller at heart, not a book provider. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love books. I think they are pretty close to the perfect way to deliver stories. They’re relatively cheap. And portable. And they smell good.
So, in summary, I’d like to provide my stories in whatever medium my readers want: ebooks and print books and audio and film and large print and direct cranial downloads, too, if it ever comes to pass.
Having said all that, I shall now contradict myself! (Just call me a fence-straddler.)
For the past year or so, I’ve been conducting an ebook experiment. I’ve self-pubbed two original ebooks, THE TASTE (horror) and FIRST TIME KILLER (thriller). In the next month, I plan to release another ebook original (RIDE-ALONG). Right now, there is no printed version available—only digital (At some point, if there’s sufficient demand, I hope to have all of these titles in print-print).
Why go the ebook original route? Many reasons: quicker to market, cheaper to produce, easier for readers to buy and a lower price tag, didn’t find a home in a big publishing house, larger royalties. However, here’s the biggest reason to offer affordable ebooks: BECAUSE PEOPLE WANT THEM. I learned in Marketing 101 that it’s generally a good idea to give customers what they want at a reasonable price.
Here’s one data point in my experiment: Last week, as part of a two-day Kindle Select promotional campaign, 11,000+ people downloaded free copies of FIRST TIME KILLER. (I know many of them won’t ever read it--a lot of people like FREE things, just for the FREE of it.) This tends to support my theory that: PEOPLE WANT AFFORDABLE EBOOKS (see above).
Does this mean from now on my work will only be available in e-format?
No, no, and no. PEOPLE WANT PRINT BOOKS, TOO!
It’s a strange new world out there, and my goal is to
have as much chocolate-covered marzipan as I can reach as many readers as I can!