Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Winnowing can be Cathy Ace

Q: There are a large number of online sites offering advice about many aspects of writing. Do you still use, or have you ever used, any of them? If so, which and why?

I think my response is going to echo those by Susan and Rae earlier this week, insofar as I find the amount of “advice” on the web to be dizzying. I am also extremely wary of taking advice from someone I have never heard of who “tells” me they are a  best-selling author…of books about writing! 

In terms of finding a grain of comfort in what one can access online, there are grains out there, but so often they are surrounded by wads of advertising and selling that it’s hard to work out what’s worthwhile and what isn’t. However, for specific questions, there are some good sources out there.

How to craft a mystery? Reading ALL these might help you think through your plot, characters, and writing approach a little more clearly:

Need to find out which agents are recruiting? Here you go:

Need to write a query letter to an agent? Here you go:

And so it goes…google can help, and some sites are loaded with content from real people who actually write and sell books…but you’ll have to sort the wheat from the chaff yourself, and sometimes there’s a lot of chaff. 

The key thing to remember when you’re searching and reading is – there is no one answer, there are no worthwhile shortcuts – so don’t expect an “Ah ha!” moment…instead expect to see similar points of view expressed by many people in different ways. Why? Because those are the key points which real writers, who write books that sell, have learned for themselves. 

I would suggest you’ll do yourself more good by being a reader of the sub-genre you want to write, than by being just a reader of books about writing, though reading hints and tips by authors whose works you admire will help keep you focused.  

 Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries.  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Where in the Web...? by RM Greenaway

Q: There are a large number of online sites offering advice about many aspects of writing. Do you still use, or have you ever used, any of them? If so, which and why

 I'm still sleep-deprived after Bouchercon in Toronto, so I'm grateful that Susan got the conversation started yesterday. I have a few thoughts to add. 
A friend (upside down) back before computers
First off, do I want to turn to the internet for writing advice? Since I spend most of my day at my computer, working or writing, I like to get away from the screen when I can, and internet browsing is definitely not getting away from it. 
Also a lot of advice on the internet comes garnished with ads and pop-ups. It's noisy. There's a lot of cut-and-paste repetition, and often (at least when I'm in a bad mood) what feels like hidden agendas.
When looking for specific how-to advice I prefer the good old book. Susan has already listed some good titles to check out.
Better yet, advice with staying power for me usually comes from the most time-tested source: face-to-face learning. Writers seem amazingly willing to pass on what they know. Maybe because they're often hard-bitten and expect to die artistic but penniless, and can only say to those who seem willing to do the same, here's how I go about it, power to ya!
i.e., I've just come back from Bouchercon, my first big conference experience. I had a great time and cemented friendships. Probably drank too much. Learned a lot too, and hearing it said live somehow drives information home better, I find.  
So that's one way of progressing in your writing: becoming more sociable, going to conventions and festivals, attending panels that interest you -- or ones that don't, just to shake it up -- asking questions. There are also workshops and writing groups and libraries that often reach out to writers.
Actually the best tips can come from just keeping your ears open. A friend's remark, an overheard conversation on the bus, a dream...
But what if you can't afford the conference or workshop route, or don't live in that kind of community, or just prefer the internet with its vast vaults of knowledge? In that case, there are a few online resources I can suggest:
TNBW: My most memorable net learning experience some years ago was joining The Next Big Writer (tNBW). There's a minimal membership fee. It's a site where you can share your work and exchange critiques. I was sweating with dread when I posted my first effort, a short story, but I'm glad I did. I immediately fell in with a bunch of writers who offered much needed feedback. I then began to submit the novel I was working on at the time, CREEP, which will be published April 2018. My tNBW crew worked hard to make my chapters stronger, and I reciprocated. I left the site after about a year, and never knew those people other than by their otherworldly web handles, so that looking back, they seem like a kind of mystical circle of friends, fondly remembered. I dedicated CREEP to them.
UDEMY: Earlier this year I took a Udemy online course on public speaking. I'm not sure any of it helped in the end, but probably some points filtered through. The course costs are usually low, and often go on sale. 
STANDOUT BOOKS: Finally, I can recommend a site called Standout Books, which comes up with regular articles. The ones I've read were well written and interesting. They pop up in my email, and the headings are always eye-catching. Check it out.
* * *
I've missed many other useful ones of course. Do you have any recommendations? 


Monday, October 16, 2017

One Hundred and Sixteen Priceless Bites of Writing Advice Before Dinner

Q: There are a large number of online sites offering advice about many aspects of writing. Do you still use, or have you ever used, any of them? If so, which and why?

- from Susan

20 Writing Tips from 12 Bestselling Fiction Authors
21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips from Great Authors
19 Amazing Pieces of Writing Advice from Authors
50 Pieces of Writing Advice from Authors
6 of the Best Writing Tips & Advice from Successful Writers
Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

That’s 116 priceless bits of advice right there, and I am only on the first page of the Google search that apparently continues into the next millennium. I pity the poor novice writer, eager for help and inspiration, turning as one always does these days to the Internet. How do you filter the advice? Who are these bestselling, highly successful, great writers and how do you know that what worked for them will work for you?

I may have looked at a few back in the early 2000’s when I was just facing up to my writing passion and wondering what to do next. I seem to recall there was a listserv – Dorothy-something? – that several people recommended, but the complications of joining and reading what seemed like an awful lot of unfocused chatter wore me down quickly. I had a more than full time job then and wanted to cut to the chase. Not sure when it went live, but Writers Digest had an online presence, but maybe you had to pay? What I’m realizing is that, no, I really didn't gravitate toward or use online writing advice sites much.

Now? I have friends in the business, I have an agent, I have an editor, I have a couple of fantastic beta readers, I get reviews, I have my own experience of what works and what doesn’t. And occasionally I’m asked to share what I’ve learned in presentations, and that forces me to consider carefully and be honest about what I think – because no one absolutely knows – works, which helps me.

I’m not dissing online writer advice. I might turn to the web if I were starting today. But I have more faith in classes taught by genuinely successful writers, workshops with smart faculty, a few outstanding how-to books on the topic*, and the best writing advice in the world: the work of authors in any genre whose stories or non-fiction prose set the shining examples of how to write so that you move people, surprise them, convince them of something.

Ginormously successful writer JK Rowling offers 13 pieces of writing advice in a Google-searched post I stumbled upon today. I like the last one, which is a sort of shrug about the whole idea of taking other people’s writing advice:

“I just write what I wanted to write. I write what amuses me. It's totally for myself.”

* I’ll just mention a few I think are worth checking out. There are others…

Gillian Roberts’ You Can Write a Mystery
James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel
Jane Cleland’s Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot
David Corbett’s The Art of Character

Friday, October 13, 2017

Book Reflections: Bouchercon '17 Edition (Quick and Dirty)

If time were no problem, what books (by other people!) would you read again a) from your childhood, b) from your young adult life and c) from the last five years. Why?

I've been considering where life and society should fit in my fiction work, going as far as reexamining John Gardner's same notions in On Moral Fiction. I always wonder whether I should say something, or not say anything at all and allow my writing to do the talking for me. If folks want to know my opinions, they can be found in books with my name on the cover. Except life doesn't respond to deadlines and publication dates. It moves too fast. I also consider what cost to be a relevant voice when I have to use it in a medium of one-hundred-forty characters at least ten times per day? Then I remember I often find horrors in that which everyone else finds really cool.

My first exposure to popular fiction that scared the shit out of me is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. We've all read it, so I'll spare you the synopsis, but when I was growing up, I read that book fully expecting good to win out over evil, per usual, only to find the good in Bradbury's America was neglected and even inured out of the individual. Surrendered. Sacrificed for the comfort of ignorance. Guy Montag seemed like no hero. In fact, there are no heroes in that book. It haunts me still. I'd read it once a year if it weren't already burned into my quiet fears. That's lasting relevance, not in tweets that serve as the red meat to readers treated as an author's base, but in a stunning work that still has the power to make tomorrow feel like it just may have happened yesterday. That's moral fiction. That's what I want to do.

I generally avoid conversations that involve a conflation of the moral with the political, mainly because I refuse to allow my productivity to be hampered by the same ol' wine in a new skin. I like to tell people how, the day after the election, I woke up and saw a black man in the mirror, same as the morning before, therefore life is life and it's best to get on with it. We all know something is off about the world right now. No one needs me to debate the nuances of that wrongness. I'm more interested in where we're headed as a species and what we're doing to our environment. In this, I've always been attracted to future history as a genre.

My young adult life, around the age of twenty-four or so, I was given a copy of Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler. It's cliche to claim my mind was blown. More like, for the first time, in the pages of this singular achievement in dystopian science fiction I could see how a big ol' world goes wacky through the action—and indifference—of each and every individual citizen. The idea of Lauren Oya Olamina's struggles with coming of age, with a disability she understands as a gift (or vice versa) is stunning in its normalization of that which is fantastically abnormal. Religious fanatics in power run amok, resource scarcity as commonplace, and the outer and inner destruction of America is the backdrop to a tale of a real black girl examining her real issues and coming to find and trust herself. Good thing, as nothing else around her can be trusted. I caught grief at customs in Canada for declaring the books I brought to Bouchercon. I was led off to an out of the way screening area and grilled on my business in Toronto, when I'd be there, when I was leaving, by a stone-faced brown man wearing a bullet-proof vest and considered how, in Butler's incredible novel, Canada walls itself off from the US for its own good. Once it was all done and I rode the train to the conference hotel, I felt a bit of a chill and resolved to watch the news every day in case something happens where I maybe shouldn't leave.

More than a few reviews of A Negro and an Ofay make allusions to Chandler, and oh what a debt we of the hardboiled-gumshoe variety owe to him. Yet and still, for all the pleasant comparisons, I wasn't the biggest Chandler reader coming up. I loved Philip Marlowe on screens and over the radio—Gerald Mohr will forever be the only Marlowe for me—but I was a Rex Stout and Chester Himes reader who allowed himself to step out with a Donald Goines every once in a while. I really only read The Big Sleep, that which looms large over us all, about two years ago. Sure, I looked at it, flipped through it, but it just wasn't ever on my TBR list.

Once I read it, I immediately got it. It's moral fiction of a different kind, that which informs the reader how to behave in the face of evil that is part and parcel of the world's appearance. Even look cool doing it. To be uncompromising unless moved by the heart, manipulative and deceitful only in the course of uncovering the truth, and to assign the white hat to the least evil in the situation is all Marlowe's way. I often fail to see anything Chandler did with him in my work, but compliments are nice. The book is far nicer. In fact, it's a classic examination of human behavior that ranks with Plato's Dialogues. I'm glad I waited. It may have influenced me too much if I read it earlier. It may have even put me off to writing my own.

Now back to panels, and checking my stack in the book room, and seeing old and new friends and counterparts.

- dg


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.

Works By Danny Gardner


Thursday, October 12, 2017

Revisiting Old Favorites

READING If time were no problem, what books (by other people!) would you read again a) from your childhood, b) from your young adult life and c) from the last five years. Why?


This is a tough one. So many books that I loved as a child. My mother taught me to read early. Yes, four-year-old Jimmy was a whiz at reading Dick and Jane, Goofus and Gallant, and, of course, Abélard and Héloïse. Oh, wait. That was a little later. But the book I’d like to re-read isn’t actually a book. It’s a poem. “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. Why? Because I loved the mood of the poem, dark and romantic; the repetition and rhythm, like a horse’s gallop; and the fact that my mother read it to me countless times as a bedtime story. If this opening stanza doesn’t grab you, check your pulse.

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Young Adulthood
P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels and stories. I’m not sure why I love the upperclass twit Bertie Wooster so much. A few things come to mind about him: his charming buffoonery and innocence; his plain thingness; his constant habit of finding himself engaged to domineering women he doesn’t want to marry; and his ageless, carefree existence as a self-described boulevardier. For me, Bertie provides a respite from a festering world of woe.

Jeeves, of course, is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman. He tolerates his master’s quirks and foibles with characteristic phlegm, appears to bend to his wishes while actually imposing his will on the feckless and clueless Bertram. Bertie and Jeeves make for a timeless pair. And Wodehouse’s precious prose is about the funniest stuff I’ve ever read.

Here’s a little known fact: I name my beloved cats after characters in the Wodehouse novels. There was Gus, Bingo, and Barmy (all passed on). Then Bobbie (after Bobbie Wickham) and Clementina (her younger cousin). We were told, by the way, that our cat Clementina was a female. Turned out to be a male, and his name has morphed to Tinker.


Past Five Years 
I re-read Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific several years ago. What makes those stories so powerful for me is the juxtaposition of the everyday, humdrum life of the sailors and nurses against the backdrop of the looming battle for the Pacific. Life on the atoll feels unreal or on hold. Stateside mores are lost in this temporary way station. Normality cannot compete with the fear, loneliness, and empty time of a phony war in an beautiful and enchanting place. Nice American nurses from Little Rock fumble away their chastity to opportunistic officers and fall in love with mysterious Frenchmen. Nice American boys from Philadelphia fraternize with brown-skinned Polynesian girls they can never take home to Mother. Great airfields are built and spies monitor ship enemy movements, as battle plans take shape. Atabrine is everyone’s drink of choice.

If I have misremembered any details from these beloved books—which is entirely probable—I apologize. It only goes to show that it’s time for me to re-read them.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fuel for the writer

by Dietrich Kalteis

If time were no problem, what books (by other people!) would you read again a) from your childhood, b) from your young adult life and c) from the last five years. Why?

I will always make time to reread a great book that I loved the first time around. And I vividly remember some of the books I read when I was a kid, recalling some of the strong images they evoked. Maybe I’ve outgrown the Franklin W. Dixon’s Hardy Boy novels, but back when I was a kid I couldn’t wait for the next adventure from Frank and Joe. Although I was somewhat disappointed when I found out years later that Franklin W. Dixon wasn’t a person, but a pseudonym for a collective of ghostwriters who wrote the series over the years. 

And I loved reading westerns back then, authors like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. And I read my way through heaps of comics like Dell’s The Lone Ranger and Marvel’s Gunsmoke and Rawhide Kid. It was the silver age of the comic book, so like every other kid I always had my nose in the latest from DC Comics or Marvel. I had stacks of them, and we used to trade them when we were kids. I haven’t read a comic book in a long time, but I might reread some of the novels I loved back then, like The Call of the Wild, Howard Pyle’s tales of Robin Hood, or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Later, when I found myself in the halls of higher learning, I was influenced by what everyone else was reading — like Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.  And I remember novels like Go ask Alice, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the novels by S.E. Hinton. Although my taste for westerns never faded, I got into those by Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, and of course, the early Elmore Leonard westerns like Hombre or Gunsights. And then there were the teacher’s assigned novels which led to some of my all-time favorite books: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Animal Farm, 1984 and The Lord of the Flies. All of which I have reread at some point. 

After my schooldays, I discovered other great voices like Bukowski, Kerouac, Hunter S, Thompson, and I read everything by these authors that I could get my hands on. I also got into the crime novels of Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins and Charles Willeford, and thrillers by Ian Fleming and Ken Follett. And I’ve never tired of reading and rereading them. And despite how much I read, there are plenty of books by authors I loved that have slipped by me over the years, and I’m still catching up on some by Robert B. Parker, George V. Higgins and Donald E. Westlake. The trouble with going back and rereading any book is that there are so many new novels coming out all the time, it comes down to a question of having the time to do it. 

Nowadays, I’ve been reading a lot more Canadian crime by authors like William Deverell, Marc Strange, John McFetridge, Owen Laukkanen and Sam Wiebe. And there are many other Canadian writers that are on my to-read list that I’m looking forward to checking out.

So, if an author has a voice that resonates with me, I search out everything he or she ever wrote, and any novel that I consider great will get reread at some point. Reading inspires me to write, and what I choose to read influences my own writing, so reading and rereading can be kind of like fuel for a writer — this one anyway.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

So many books in my life

By R.J. Harlick

What books would you read again a) from your childhood, b) from your young adult life and c) from the last five years

My parents were both avid readers, so I grew up surrounded by books. Though I have little memory of them, I know the first books my mother read to me were the Burgess books, ones my mother and her two siblings read as children. I still have two of them, The Adventures of Prickly Porky and The Adventures of Buster Bear by Thornton W. Burgess, one dating from 1924 and the other from 1926. Though they are a bit worse for wear having gone through the three kids in my mother’s family and then me and my two sisters, they still have all their pages. Time, I say, to read them to the next generation.

The two books I do have vivid memories of reading in my early years had all to do with horses. I was horse mad and was an avid rider in my teen years and on into my 20s. While on a diplomatic posting in Moscow, I rode at the famous Hippodrome, which dates from czarist times. But it has been too many years than I care to count, since I felt the rush of the wind while cantering along a forest trail.

I imagine it was the first horse book that hooked me. Black Beauty by Anne Sewell, a British classic. I can recall weeping copious tears as I read it and reread it I don’t know how many times. This book belonged to my father.  Filled with illustrated coloured plates, it was old enough to have come from his own childhood. Unfortunately, I thought these plates were perfect to hang on my wall, so I cut them out. Needless to say, Dad was not amused.

The second horse book that captured my interest was Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I loved this book and used to dream of having such a horse. Though I read The Black Stallion Returns, I didn’t like it as much, so never bothered with the others in the series.

While touring Europe in my late teens I developed a thirst for 19th century writers, in part I suspect, because they were usually the only English-language books (Penguin paperbacks) available at the various bookstores I would visit during my year long travels. I devoured books by Thomas Hardy, George Elliott, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert and other ‘Greats’ well into my early 40s. But interestingly enough I haven’t cracked a cover of one since. Correction, except for one, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  I have re-read it numerous times, each time learning a bit more about 19th century Russia and the lives of the many characters struggling to survive the invasion of Napoleon’s massive army. While living in Moscow I was frequently reminded of this disastrous invasion, whenever I drove by the Triumphal Arch built to commemorate Russia’s triumph over the French upstart. But it wasn’t Russia’s prowess as a military might that vanquished them. Rather it was the Russian winter, much like a Canadian one, eh?

I also developed a love for early 20th century American novelists, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Two that come most to mind, are The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald and The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. Maybe it is time to give them another read.

And now I come to the most difficult part of this question, recent reads that resonated enough to make me want to read them again. The six voluminous volumes in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles immediately jump to mind. I think I have re-read them three times. But I have written about them in earlier blogs. Besides I haven’t re-read them within the last 5 years.

Over the past number of years, I have tended to concentrate on mostly crime fiction and while I have enjoyed many of them, I can’t think of any that sparked my interest enough for a re-read. But there is a recent book, a so called literary novel, which I am still thinking about. It is The Break by Canadian author, Katherena Vermette. Published in 2016 it has been nominated for a number of awards. Set in Winnipeg, the story revolves around a sexual assault, so I suppose it is in a way a crime novel. The story unfolds through the telling by ten different narrators, mostly indigenous women, many of them related. I found it a very thought provoking book. To learn more about this intriguing book click on this link.

Bouchercon time is almost upon us. I hope I will see many of you in Toronto, my home town. Just in time for the conference is the release of my latest and 8th Meg Harris mystery, Purple Palette for Murder. You will be able to pick up a copy at the Sleuth of Baker Street table in the dealers room. Keep in mind, it won’t be officially released in the US until Nov. 7. I’d be happy to sign it at the following appearances.

Thursday, October 12,
        8:00-10:00 - Author Speed Dating
        4:30-5:30 – Crime Writers of Canada table in the Book Room

Friday, October 13
         2:00–3:00 - Cultural Immersion panel: Mysteries steeped in different cultures
         3:00-3:30 – signings in the Book Room
         6:00-7:30 – International Reception – presentation of former CWC presidents
         9:30-11:00 – CWC Pub Quiz in the hospitality room

Saturday, October 14
         7:30-9:00 – SINC breakfast
         10:30-11:30 – Meet CWC authors in the hospitality room – table 11

         2:30-3:30 – Meet CWC authors – table 9