Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Being original

Is it better to be original or to give ‘em what they want? And, would you do it for free?

by Dietrich Kalteis

You give them what they want by being yourself. Writing’s the process of expressing ideas, a unique expression, different for each of us. Turning mental images into words, and how each of us approach it is different every step. And so is finding the best way to be productive and translating those mental images to words and getting them on the page. In the end we have something original, something in our own voice. And we hope that’s what they want.

Pouring ideas into a first draft, then taking out whatever doesn’t work, revising it, making it flow, making it work. Some writers call the process painful, others see it joy-filled. Plot or don’t plot. Edit as you go or edit at the end. Write standing up. Write sitting down. Nobody does it the same way, and nobody should.

If I tried to guess what the next best seller looked like, and if I tried to write it, I’m pretty sure it would be a disaster. What I write can be summed up as the kind of story I’d want to read myself. Writing a novel is a long journey, so I need to be just as jazzed about it when I start as when I’m at the end. It’s the only way I could stick with it. 

I get inspired by what I read, the films I watch, the music I listen to, surrounding myself with what I think is great. And I draw ideas from all of it. 

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”Jim Jarmusch

Would I do it for free? Well, if a writer aims to be rich, he or she could in for some bumpy road. I don’t believe an artist needs to starve to achieve something. And I like money as much as the next guy, and like the next guy, I need some to get by. But, I also need to write. So, a little money. A lot of money. There’s a joy in writing so I’ll keep doing it, and the rest of it will just have to take care of itself.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”— E.B. White

You have to start somewhere, and some of my literary heroes have proven that. Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist writing on the Kentucky Derby when gonzo journalism was born. He wrote a piece on his turbulent time watching the race, fueled by alcohol and drugs, rather than writing about the event itself. Stephen King once worked as a janitor. Harper Lee was a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines. Raymond Carver was a hospital janitor. J.D. Salinger was an entertainment director on a Swedish luxury liner. Agatha Christie worked in a coffee shop. William S. Burroughs was an exterminator. John Steinbeck worked in a warehouse. Jack Kerouac pumped gas. Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership. Ken Kesey volunteered for CIA psych tests. And Edgar Allen Poe earned nine bucks for his poem The Raven. All of them originals.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

I go my own way

By R.J. Harlick

Is it better to be original or to give ‘em what they want? And, would you do it for free? 

I hate to be so prosaic but the answer is all about dollar and cents. Most publishers, particularly the larger ones, have a fairly good idea on the types of crime fiction that will make money for them, so naturally they seek them out. Rarely do they take a chance on a purely original work of crime fiction that doesn’t fit within their definition of marketability. But most of us when we start out are only intent on writing the kind of book we want to write. It is only after failure to either get the book published or to earn a decent income, that we begin to start writing the kind of book publishers want. I know many a writer who switched in order to earn a better income.

The cozy mystery publishers have set guidelines for what should and should not be included in a cozy. Things like no overt sex or violence, no swearing, must have a pet, preferably a cat, have a fictitious, preferably American, small town setting, a straightforward plot with no contentious social issues and so on and so forth. If a writer doesn’t stay within these guidelines, they don’t get published. It’s as simple as that. But if a writer does choose to follow the guidelines, they can expect to make a reasonable amount of money. I have several friends who gave up writing more original crime fiction to go this route and are doing very nicely, thank you very much.

At some point the international publishing world decreed Canadian settings boring and unmarketable, so mystery writers in Canada are frequently prompted to change their settings to American ones at the bequest of agents and publishers. I know many writers who have done this and are doing very well with their American-based books. As with most things, there are exceptions, but I can only think of one, possibly two Canadian crime writers that have been able to make it into the lucrative American market with their Canadian settings and have done well enough to continue to be published.

After my second Meg Harris mystery was published, I realized that I was never going to make more than a modest income with a Canadian publisher. If I wanted to make more money, I would have to find an American one and, as several agents pointed out, I would have to give up on Meg and write a completely new series with a non-Canadian setting. In the end, the decision was a ‘no-brainer’.  I was having too much fun with Meg, besides I wanted to tell Canadian stories set in Canadian settings. Fortunately for me, I have a very good Canadian publisher who lets me do this and I thank them for it.

Though I am content to earn a modest income, I wouldn’t write a book or short story without any expectation of remuneration, not like I did when I was first starting out. I wrote the first two books with only a hope and a prayer that I would eventually sell them to a publisher.  Now I only write a book if I have a contract.

That's it. Enjoy your day.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Art or Money?

Terry Shames weighs in on this week’s topic: Is it better to be original or to give 'em what they want? And would you do it for free?
I’ll answer the last question first: I’m tempted to say that I practically do it for free anyway, but that would be an exaggeration. I do make money from my writing—just about enough to pay for my conference attendance and book tours. Which are fun and rewarding. But if I had to live on the money I make from writing, I’d have to be very creative with housing and transportation and be frugal with my spending. Come to think of it, that might be a real solution to my problem of losing weight.


But, I’ve already answered the question of whether I would do it for free. I wrote for years before I got published—to be precise, seven complete novels and ragged versions of others. Plus, short stories that were published in publications that paid in copies only. I always loved the writing, even though the “not finding a publisher” part was difficult.
As for the question of being original or giving “them” what they want, the answer is layered. Once you get a contract, you have an obligation to your publisher that is spelled out in the contract. It may stipulate a certain number of pages, perhaps a story based on a synopsis, or maybe a subject mutually agreed upon. Once you get a fan base, you have an obligation to the fans to produce the best story you can produce, something you know they will enjoy. That’s even more true when you are writing a series. Your fans know your characters and come to expect them to behave in certain ways.
That said, though, you aren’t obligated to feed either the publisher or your fans the same old, same old. You have the ability—even the obligation—to explore the limits of what you are writing. The most famous example I know is when Elizabeth George killed off one of her most popular characters. I asked her what her thinking was and she replied that the book was at a “happily ever after” dead end, and something major had to happen to shake up the story line and send it in a different direction.

In my latest book, A Reckoning in the Back Country, I realized that I wasn’t happy with my main character, Samuel Craddock’s, lady love. I thought Ellen was boring. My solution was to send in a new love interest. She practically forced herself into the book and I immediately adored her. Some of my readers loved the change, some of them were wistful for the old relationship—and one woman warned me not to marry Samuel off because she wanted him for herself! The fun part for me came when I discovered that Ellen, the “old” love interest, had a secret that she had been keeping from Samuel. That’s the kind of originality that can’t be stifled by an obligation to “give ‘em what they want.”
In the end, discovery is what makes writing worthwhile. Even if you have obligations outside your own creative impulses, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the process of discovery that happens within those boundaries. And of course, you can always take off and write something you don’t have a contract for, or even something you don’t plan to publish. We writers live in worlds of our own making—which is why I would do it for free!

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Name Game

How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

by Paul D. Marks

For names I simply call up Ye Olde Name Generator (see pic). A complicated machine of many parts. I feed in the alphabet and it spits out glorious and diverse names, usually something like “Joe”.
Or I might play the name game, you know, “Shirley! Shirley, Shirley, Bo-ber-ley, bo-na-na fanna, Fo-fer-ley. fee fi mo-mer-ley, Shirley!” – Is anyone even named Shirley anymore? If I was setting something in the 1950s it might be the perfect name.

But seriously, he said in the deepest old-fashioned DJ voice he could muster, in the olden days I would look through baby naming books, at least for first names of both boys and girls. Today I look on the internet. There’s all kinds of resources there for names of various ethnicities, what names were popular in a certain year, etc., so if you have a story with a character of a certain age you can see what names were popular for boys and girls the year that character was born. Sometimes I’ll look at movie credits of different eras to get an idea as to names for various time frames.

And yes, names can sometimes change multiple times before a story is done, which is what makes the computer global change function so wonderful. Often a name will change at least once. Frequently, I don’t even have a name for a character when I start so use placeholder names. Often movie stars’ names. In a story I’m working on I used the name Joan Crawford for a character until I could come up with an appropriate name for that character. I don’t want to be slowed down by trying to think of names too early in the process.

Also, sometimes I might like a name so much I decide to hold it back for another work where I can give the character with that name more “screen time.” That also happened in the story I’m working on. I have a character and gave him a name I like a lot. It’s also a name that says a lot. Then I decided I liked the name so much I didn’t want this character to have it because he’s such a minor character who gets killed off before we really even get to know him. But because I like the name so much I’m going to change it in this story and save it for something else, where he’ll have more scenery to chew on.

I also have a character named after a real person in a real case in this same story. That name will also change before the story sees the light of day.

Some naming rules:

They shouldn’t be too hard to pronounce – you don’t want readers stumbling over them.

Don’t try too hard to be unique  – like soap opera characters that always have names like Raven Snow or Chastity Chamberfield, unless going for humor or irony.

Names can be symbolic, foreshadow things or can be ironic. In my story 51-50, the cop character, Cleaver, is purposely named after Ward Cleaver, the all-American father on Leave it to Beaver. I wanted to play against that all-American image of Ward Cleaver with a tough cop about to lose his sanity.

Names can be revenge for someone you don’t like – but be careful when doing this and disguise it well.

Names can be an homage.  In my short story Free Fall, the femme fatale is named Gloria, after film noir icon and femme fatale Gloria Grahame. In Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat (not yet published), there is a character named Chandler – a woman cop – but we all know who that name pays homage to.  And in my story L.A. Late @ Night and my noir story Born Under a Bad Sign, there is a cop named Larry Darrell – which pays homage to Somerset Maugham’s character in The Razor’s Edge (my favorite book of all).  Not that he’s much like Maugham’s Larry Darrell, but still.

Names can give insight into the character – who they are and where they’re from – sometimes the story behind the name can give you a little extra info about the character – for example Michael Connelly’s Harry “Hieronymus” Bosch – a unique name with an interesting story behind it.

Sometimes names should break stereo types: In White Heat there is an African-American character named Warren. Someone who read the book said Warren isn’t a black name. But I named the character after a black Marine friend I’d had. Just because a character is black or Hispanic, or any other ethnicity, doesn’t mean they have to have an ethnic-sounding name.

Titles are pretty much the same. Sometimes an appropriate title just pops into my head out of the air. Sometimes it’s an overheard snatch of conversation, a well-known phrase or song title. Sometimes I just have to think about it. But again I don’t halt progress to worry about it. If I come up with titles that I think will be good for a specific project I’ll list them at the head of the story’s file. And keep adding to that list till the right one sticks. I have a file of story titles that’s something like 30 pages long. Sometimes I look at it, often I don’t have to.

I don’t have a file of character names, though I do have a handful of those jotted down in a file or two somewhere, but not as methodically organized as my title file. I tend to wing it more with character names.

Whether titles or names, as Shakespeare said, Joe Shakespeare from Queens, “Rosie Tamborello by any other name would smell just as sweet as baked ziti.”


And now for the usual BSP:

There’s a fun and interesting article on Alfred Hitchcock in the Washington Post (and other places) from Associated Press writer Hillel Italie: Alfred Hitchcock Remains an Influence on Crime Writers. It includes quotes from Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mike Mallory, SJ Rozan, A.J. Finn, Otto Penzler.......and even me! Enjoy!

Also, my Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down and Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. Here is the new cover reveal:

Check out my website: