Monday, June 30, 2014


When you start your mystery, do you know who did it, and how do you avoid signaling it to the reader?

This is an interesting pair of questions because it’s both easy to answer and almost impossible to explain in a way others can use as a guide. Every writer develops a rhythm for telling stories, and at least half of us (the “pantsers” – seat of the pants writers) like to improvise as we go along to keep our writing fresh. I start with a protagonist, a victim, a killer and the core reason why the murder happened. I have a setting, a cast of characters, and a sense of the time of year (for some reason, that’s vital to me). That gives me a direction to start off in.

What invariably happens is that the characters make decisions that only make sense as the plot unfolds and the details emerge. A character I thought was only useful in passing leaps into the action. The weather causes a problem for my protagonist and before I know it, someone else is in danger. The killer’s actions back him into a corner I hadn’t anticipated, and what does he do? He kills again – news to me!

If this sounds helter-skelter and not something you’d be comfortable with, know there are an equal number of writers who outline, write chapter summaries, animate every character fully before they even start writing the actual manuscript. Works for them, and might for you. But I’m one of those who likes being on the edge of her seat, who thrives on the excitement of not knowing what the hell happens next until it does. Obviously, these turns and twists aren’t random. My subconscious has been building the story all along, but I was too busy putting words on paper to stop and take note. And at times these serendipitous moments turn out to be dead ends or false trails and, as much fun as they were, they have to be axed and I have to backtrack to solid ground.

The second question is one I think most of us struggle with. We know who did it and every clue seems to scream out, as if we wrote it in ALL CAPS so the reader wouldn’t miss it. Beta readers help here, as does one read in which you seek out and test every red herring and real clue to see how well they’re scattered, flaunted or hidden. I think it was Rhys Bowen who said you hide it in the middle of a sentence in the middle of a paragraph and no one will find it. Given her great success and thousands of ardent fans, I’m guessing that’s good advice.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Pinot Noir Grapes of Wrath

Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul? Why or why not?

by Paul D. Marks

Well of course the answer to this question is yes and no. How’s that for being unequivocal?

While many people think of writers, and artists in general, as having tortured souls, there’s no rule that says one must be tortured in order to be an artist.

So I wracked my brain trying to come up with some well-known writers whose names people would know who were happy and not tortured.

Zilch. Zero. Nada.

Couldn’t think of one.

We all know of the tortured writers of the present, past and near-past, Hemingway, Anne Rice, David Foster Wallace and possibly the queen of tortured writers, Sylvia Plath. The list is endless. And they created great art. But what about happy writers creating great art? Can it be done? The search for the happy writer continued.

I moved to the next step: checking the internet. And after a lot of searches, using different terms and ways of phrasing things, it seems I found one well-known writer who claims to be happy. Though when you see his name I think you’ll be surprised:

Philip Roth. Author of such happy-go-lucky stories as American Pastoral and Everyman.

According to Roth, and assuming the quote I found is correct ‘cause I never fully trust the net, he says, “I’m happy all the time, but a lot of people aren’t. I write about all those people. People in trouble make for interesting characters.”

So I guess even if the writer is happy the characters might not be and unhappy characters might make for more interesting characters.

I’m sure there’s other happy writers out there, but while the list of unhappy, tortured-soul writers is long and includes plenty of men and women, Roth is the only happy writer I could find.

This leads me to believe that many people who are tortured and scarred emotionally and/or psychologically one way or another perhaps go into writing as a way to exorcise those demons in the same way that it’s said that others with psychological problems go into psychology or psychiatry.

Artists of all kinds are said to be unhappy people: Comedians – most of them – are known to be unhappy in large measure. Lenny Bruce. John Belushi. Richard Pryor. Drug problems, early deaths in some cases. And musicians, from Beethoven and Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. Fine artists like Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, Gauguin, and, of course his pal, Van Gogh – all very depressed. The list in all of these categories is endless. And, of course, writers.

So maybe it is true that unhappy artists and writers – or characters – can reach into the depths of their souls, because they look inward – to touch some common threads that most of us wrestle with in our lives. And through their work we can see a mirror into ourselves and our society through which they can help us put things into perspective.

As for myself, I guess I would have to put myself on that long list of tortured souls. Without going into all the reasons why, I think if you asked people close to me, my wife and others, they would acknowledge that. And I would have to acknowledge it too.

That said, I don’t think a writer has to have a tortured soul. He or she just has to have a soul and enough introspection and empathy to be in touch with it so they give us a mirror to the world – give us something we as readers can relate to and connect with.

In the end, maybe writers – tortured souls or not – are like the pinot grapes that Paul Giamatti’s Miles character talks about in the movie Sideways. We are all, to one extent or another, pinot grapes in a cabernet world. He says:

Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Not in despair, just visiting.

Does great writing come from a tortured soul?

Hmmmmm.  On the one hand Sylvia Plath, I suppose.  But on the other, Ted Hughs.  Closer to home, Edgar Allan Poe but also Alexander McCall Smith. And Joyce Carol Oates, who seems to plumb the depths of human misery from a pretty cheerful homebase. And Maya Angelou, whose soul transcended no small measure of torture and ended up soaring.

It depends what we're talking about - mental illness, external hardships, or just existential angst and its attendant gloom.

I've never believed that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, having seen too many people worn out and ground down by vicissitude. I'd argue that a writer - or radiographer or burger flipper - who overcomes illness or hardships to achieve a finished book - or clear x-ray image or evenly-browned burger - far from having lucked out with acquired strength, has triumphed.  But as to whether the books, x-rays or burgers are the better for it . . . wouldn't think so.

But say it's not Plath's or Poe's depression we're talking about. Say it's that low-level existential angst just rumbling along like a Leonard Cohen soundtrack.  Misery as lifestyle, because happiness is so uncool. Are writers more susceptible to its dreary embrace than others? Not the ones I've met. Not so far. Female poets are supposed to be the unhappiest writers of all, but the female poets I've met - Vicki Feaver, Kathleen Jamie, Carol Ann Duffy and Sharon Olds - are some of the most exuberant people imaginable, despite producing work that's sometimes plangent, sometimes searing. Perhaps they can visit despair and use it to such powerful ends specifically because they don't live there.

Who knows? I don't have an answer for this question.  But if anyone's feeling the tug of melancholy and wants help resisting it, I do have Henri the French cat. [click his name to watch - for some reason the link isn't showing up]

Monday, June 16, 2014

Me and Dostoevsky Talking at the Bar

“Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul?”

That’s a trick question, right? If I say yes and then can’t produce evidence of my own tragic life, I am giving up all possibility of posthumous fame. (It would have to be after my death since I haven’t taken on the mantle of greatness yet and time is running out.) If I say no, I sound shallow and no one will believe I’ve read Dostoevsky, except maybe in comic book form.

[I digress: Does anyone else remember comic book editions of masterpieces? I swear I read The Man in the Iron Mask, Metamorphosis, and a couple other famous novels in honest-to-god comic books when I was a kid. I also read Lulu and Archie, so I didn’t have an entirely weird upbringing. But before graphic novels, I swear someone had the brilliant idea of reducing some pretty tortured stories to flimsy paper booklets to imprint gravitas on young minds.]

Anyway, back to the question, writers who can grab us and hold us captive with their words aren’t merely people who’ve experienced a lot of pain and suffering. The world is full of staggering sorrow, tragedy, cruelty, and fear and none of that necessarily leads to art. The great writers haven’t had more pain than other writers by some arbitrary measure; their gift is in picking it apart and looking hard at it, then expressing what they observe and feel in ways that become universal rather than interesting only to them. (This is true of visual artists also, I believe.)

I’d like to put in a plug for happiness as an equally valid road to greatness for a writer, by the way. If Hamlet’s a sign of Shakespeare’s greatness, so is The Tempest. Jane Austen’s characters may suffer in their own minds, but she makes sport of them and ends her stories with smiles. As Stephen King supposedly said: "A tragedy is a tragedy, and at the bottom, all tragedies are stupid. Give me a choice and I'll take A Midsummer Night's Dream over Hamlet every time. Any fool with steady hands and a working set of lungs can build up a house of cards and then blow it down, but it takes a genius to make people laugh.” 

The bottom line for me: Great writing is, for the reader, a personal, empathetic, transformative experience wherever we find it and whether or not it has a famously unhappy writer’s name attached to it. Which means, I suppose, I have some chance of occasional, if not generally acknowledged, greatness!


Friday, June 6, 2014

The Long and Winding Road

How did your first novel/story come about and how long did it take to get it published?

by Paul D. Marks

Since I love using Beatle song titles, the path to my first fiction publication was a long and winding road.

There's really no simple or easy answer to the question of how my first story came about because it's so long ago who really remembers? I know who doesn't: me. I don't even remember what my first story was. What I do remember is that I was always writing something. I think I started off writing poems and song lyrics. One time I even wrote some lyrics in the margins of a science test. And the science teacher also happened to have a music publishing biz on the side – which I didn't know. He liked the lyrics so much he wanted to publish the song. Unfortunately, the lyrics I wrote were for the Beatles' I'm Only Sleeping.

But one of my early novels, a satire about a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood, was almost published way back in the 80s. Almost. It was accepted for publication (if that's the right terminology) by a major publisher. But then there was a "housecleaning" at that publisher: the old team of editors and assistant editors got swept out. And the new team didn't want most of the old team's slate of projects, so I got swept out with the "new broom". So that one almost got published. But by the time it was put into "turnaround" it was too late for it as a lot of the humor was dated. Remember Fawn Hall, Jessica Hahn, Donna Rice and Gary Hart – see what I mean, dated. 'Cause even though it was about a guy trying to make it in Hollywood, it had a lot of topical and satirical humor of the day. I work on it every once in a while to remove the dated satirical elements and make it more neutral in terms of topicality. So one of these days it might see the light.

The first writing that I got paid for was a piece in one of the L.A. papers about John Lennon on, I believe, the one year anniversary of his murder. It wasn't fiction, but it felt awfully good to actually get paid for writing something. But even though it felt good to be paid, there were mixed emotions because of the subject matter.

clip_image002My first published fiction was a story called Angels Flight (before Michael Connelly borrowed the title from me 😉). It was published in the Murder by Thirteen anthology and recently republished in L.A. Late @ Night, a collection of five of my stories. A new review of L.A. Late @ Night in the current issue of All Due Respect calls Angels Flight the reviewer's favorite story in the collection and says this about the two main characters, "They're a dynamic pair, and I'd like to see them together in more stories," so I might just have to oblige him.

The title for Angels Flight was inspired by the famous funicular railway in downtown L.A. and my love for old Los Angeles. I think the story was inspired when they drained one of the lakes in L.A. and found all kinds of junk there. So in my story they drain Echo Park Lake, finding a dead body and the story takes off from there. And even though it was originally published in 1997, it's still one of my favorites. I think it's (hopefully) surprise ending brings to mind Shakespeare's quote, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

After Angels Flight, I had more stories published and eventually my novel White Heat. And all I can do to end is quote another rock band, the Grateful Dead, "What a long strange trip it's been."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Funny Old World

by Catriona

"How did your first novel come about and how long did it take to get published?"

Depends when you start counting from. I was forty and I'd always wanted to be a writer, so you could say it was forty years, minus a few early ones mostly spent drooling.

Or sixteenth months, which is how long it took from my agent accepting an offer to the book hitting the shelves.

The most honest answer lies somewhere in between, of course.

For a start, my first book was actually my second. In 2001 I wrote a heart-felt stinker of a story and started collecting rejections including the crucial one which went:"I don't like this but I quite like you - show me something else when you have it".  (Sidebar: imagine if an agent said "I quite like this but I don't like you - never approach me again".)

After eighty rejections, I listened to what I being told - sometimes that's a great idea.

By the end of 2002 I had my something else and sent it to that one agent, who liked it.  She took me on in 2003, sold the book to Constable and Robinson in early 2004 and AFTER THE ARMNISTICE BALL was published in June 2005.

Meantime I wrote another something else, which the agent thought was Stinker No. 2 and advised me to put in a drawer. This time I didn't listen - sometimes that's a great idea too. I stuck with the book but changed agents and I've been with the magnificent Lisa Moylett ever since, through thick and thin, booms and busts, across continents, oceans and forever.

That first book was Dandy Gilver No.1. Now, more than ten years later, I've just finished the first draft of Dandy Gilver No. 10, (w/t DANDY GILVER AND THE DANSE RATHER MACABRE). Not bad for a story that was supposed to be a confidence booster between proper projects.

It went like this: Neil, the undergardener, and I were sitting on the beach one evening in summer (a Scottish beach, so well-wrapped up and still blue with cold), and I was facing with some dismay the stark reality that my brilliant idea to pack it all in and be a writer wasn't working.  I was wondering what to try next, when Neil spoke some pretty fateful words.

"What do you love?" he said.
"Crime," I said. "But that's no use, because the kind of crime I love most is Sayers and Allingham and Innes and Marsh and Christie and they're all dead. No one writes that kind of crime anymore."

Yup, I am that dumb. "No one is writing the kind of books I love" struck me as a problem. But I need to say two things. 

1. Of course people were writing them: Carola Dunn was and Jacqueline Winspear was just about to start. Charles and Caroline Todd were gearing up and Laurie King was well away.  Of course, if I had known that I might have been too intimidated even to try. But because I saw this as a kind of private treat I just went for it.
2. Neil's pretty dumb too. He encouraged me to take time out to write this daft 1920s story and then go back to trying to think of something I could sell.

We deserve each other really.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A(nother) Book Is Born

This week’s question: How did your first novel come about and how long did it take to get published?

My first novel never did get published. It never got finished. Right now, I can’t remember if it even had a title. I’d forgotten about it until this week’s topic got me thinking. I have it somewhere. It was typed on an IBM Selectric, which goes a long way to explaining why it never got finished. I’m a terrible typist and helped make Liquid Paper profitable in its day, which would have been the early 80s, I think, before I got my first computer.  The ‘muddle in the middle’ was bad enough, but I distinctly recall the moment I realized I had to change the protagonist’s rank in the SFPD for the story to work. It was around page 150 and there was no way in hell I was going to re-type 150 pages! Into the drawer it went and I figured writing anything longer than four pages was not part of my future. I’d stick to reading crime fiction.

Fast forward to about 2003. My partner was a sculptor and we hung out with artists, collectors, gallerists, and museum staff. Many of them had outsized personalities and one in particular was nasty to my guy. “Honey, I’ll kill him,” I blurted out one day, and realized immediately that I had the makings of a great story I was itching to tell. I got more active in MWA to get inspired, signed up for a serious mystery conference and hammered out five chapters. Over the next couple of years, having gotten some useful feedback, I re-wrote the five chapters more than once. I couldn’t seem to get past them, though. My work life called for much writing, but in academ-ese and bureaucrat-ese and, frequently, in the voice of a 65-year old Jesuit priest (the president of the university). Finding the energy and focus to switch gears at night and write like a breezy young divorcee who stumbles over dead bodies was not working well for me.

Tempis fugit. Finishing a credible novel, finding an agent, and getting it published quickly rose to the top of my bucket list. So I figured out how to quit the day job, and finished the first draft in five months. Found a critique group, rewrote, polished, and after a stumble or two, found an agent. She took my manuscript to market in August 2008 – yes, the very moment the publishing industry began to deflate like a defective balloon. When we got a decent offer, we grabbed it, and counted our blessings. MURDER IN THE ABSTRACT came out in May 2010. It went on to sell into large print, mass paper, book club, and e-book editions, not bad for a first book.

Every published author’s story is different, but we all hit a wall somewhere, maybe more than one, on the way to writing the best first book we’re capable of. The trick is to respect your goals, speak them out loud, and then pay attention to the ways the universe – in the form of your family and friends, job situation, network of other writers – points you to a way through the wall.

 - Susan