Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks....

By Art Taylor

On this day after Thanksgiving, I'm giving thanks that I haven't
  • let jealousy and insecurity about my manhood drive me to murder.
  • taken glee in lording an act of adultery over a cuckolded husband.
  • chosen duty over friendship and in the process taken the life of my oldest friend.
  • allowed revenge to consume my life and drive me into eye-for-a-eye thinking.
  • lost everything that was important to me because I was too proud to admit my mistakes.
  • taken advantage of a relative's disability to entrap him.
  • been so certain of my own values that I punish anyone who disagrees with me. 
In short, to answer this week's question—"Do you reveal your values through your characters?": No. (And that's just four recent stories that popped to mind!)

And on that note, a Happy Thanksgiving weekend to all!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Little Bit of Me

By R.J. Harlick

Do you reveal your values through your characters? If so, how?

I would find it difficult to write without putting some of myself into it. Like many writers when creating something out of nothing, I draw on my own experiences, my likes and dislikes, what I know and what I don’t know, my fears and my desires, even my dreams to help shape my characters and their stories.  

When you spend a lot of time with a series character, it’s hard not to put some of yourself in him or her. Meg Harris’s love of nature and the great outdoors is no different from my own. I gave her the kind of cottage I have dreamt about, a rambling Victorian timber cottage perched high on a granite point overlooking the sparkling waters of a northern lake.  I sent her to Canada’s far north and to Haida Gwaii, because these are places I wanted to visit.  And I had a great time while I was at it.

Meg likes to sit in her screen porch contemplating her lake view and life’s ups and downs. While I get much pleasure out of sitting in my own screen porch contemplating the nature around me, my mind is usually caught up in creating Meg’s world. Of course she loves dogs and funny thing has a standard poodle just like my own.  The only character in my books, by the way, actually based on a real live one.

Sometimes our characters become our voices.  Meg’s sense of fairness and the need to right injustice could be my own, except she is prepared to do something about it. I don’t always have the luxury. Perhaps that is my reason for creating Meg.

But don’t get me wrong. Although we share some similar characteristics, Meg is not me. I shake my head at some of the antics she gets up to and admire other actions she takes, ones I could never do. Because one of the ways you stretch yourself as a writer is by having your characters, say, do, even think things you wouldn’t and be people you aren't.

Only one month until Christmas. Enjoy your day.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Value Judgements

"Do you reveal your values through your characters? If so, how?"

by Meredith Cole

I believe that you cannot be a good writer unless you make yourself vulnerable and take risks. Part of that is being willing to write about what you value and believe. It you don't allow your reader to see what's inside of you, then your writing can often miss the mark, appearing shallow and empty. Unsatisfying.

My characters always have some sort of arc. To be interesting, they have to end up somewhere different than where they started. They are often searching for something, and trying to figure out where they fit in the world. Some of them struggle with hard questions. Is killing someone ever justified? Is stealing ever the right thing to do? And they don't always make good decisions.

There is a moment in my writing when I start to move beyond the bare bones of the plot and start to figure out what the overall theme is of the novel. It's often not exactly what I intended when I began the process. Mysteries are usually about death and justice, redemption and truth. But in my novel POSED FOR MURDER, the story was also about friendship and art. Art has the power to unite a community or rip it apart. I wanted to explore that power. But I had to start first from my values and my beliefs.

Writing well is not particularly comfortable. It can be like yanking a band aid off an open wound. It hurts. It reveals what's hidden underneath in all its ugliness. And I believe that in the end that is what makes it beautiful.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Coffee, Tea or...E-Reader?

Have you switched to reading mostly ebooks or do you still hanker for the feel of a bound book in your hands? How would you prefer to have your books published?

by Paul D. Marks

I buy and read both e-books and paper books (in both paperback and hardback).  And I’d say I read about ¾ paper books to ¼ e-books.  Some books, of course, are only available as e-books so you have no choice.  But of books that are available in each format, I’d say that ratio is about 3 to 1.

Maybe because I’m of a generation that grew up with paper books, it’s simply what I’m used to and what I like.  That aside, there are other reasons to like paper books better.  But first, the things I like about e-books. Obviously you can store about 10 trillion of them on your iPad, Kindle, Nook or whatever you use, so particularly when traveling you can take a variety of books with you.  And since I generally have at least one non-fiction and one fiction book going at the same time, I can carry one iPad instead of two books.  Also on that iPad are magazines that I subscribe to and now don’t have to carry. And a variety of other books, so if I finish what I’m reading or just get bored with it, I have many other choices to go to, including the complete set of Classics Illustrated comic books, which I bought on DVD and transferred to my iPad.  I read and loved them as a kid, but have only read two or three since I bought the collection years ago on disc.  But somehow they’re still comforting to have there. 

There’s also a certain immediacy with e-books. You can read in the dark or buy an e-book in the middle of the night on a whim.  And there’s also certain kinds of books that I’d just as soon read on an e-reader, like manuals and other such things.  One major advantage of e-books is less clutter.  We’re running out of shelf space and have books overflowing off the shelves and have even more shelves in the garage. Maybe we should start a lending library?

But despite all the cool things about e-books, I still prefer paper books for several reasons. The main one being the tactile sensation.  The heft of them, the smell.  The overall feel. All the sensory things you don’t get with an e-book. On hardbacks, I also like to read the jacket copy, front, back and inside. I like reading the short summary of the story, the author bio and whatever other goodies are there.  I miss that on many paperbacks as well as e-books. 

And lately there have been reports saying that when one reads a book in electronic form readers don’t absorb as much information as when reading traditional books. And since most of us here are mystery readers and writers, check this from The Guardian, August 19, 2014: “A new study which found that readers using a Kindle were ‘significantly’ worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occurred in a mystery story is part of major new Europe-wide research looking at the impact of digitisation [sic] on the reading experience.” (itals added)

Both types of books can be easily highlighted.  But I also like to write notes in the margins. And it’s much more of a pain to type a note on a Kindle or other e-reader. But an advantage of the e-reader is being able to highlight a word and look it up in the dictionary. That is a very cool feature. But not enough to make me want to read more e-books.

My novel, White Heat, has sold a lot more e-books than paper, though I’d prefer if it was the other way around.  Not for the money, but for the feeling (whether real or imaginary) of something solid and permanent.  Even though e-books may outlast paper books in the long run, there is something more “real” about a paper book. And when you go to conferences, like Left Coast Crime or Bouchercon, or talks at libraries or book groups, it’s nice to have a paper version with you.

And don’t you love going into a house with lots of books everywhere, seeing their covers and spines and what your friends tastes are (so you know who to dump—only kidding). I’d miss that if everyone had only e-books.

Isn’t it just more satisfying to see a three dimensional book, with a spine and back cover, as well as a front cover. Also, particularly when reading the classics, like Chandler, Highsmith, Hammett, Ross MacDonald, they sort of “need” to be read in the traditional form, sitting in a wing chair with a glass of Scotch by your side. 
Raymond Chandler Paper Covers
Raymond Chandler Paper Spines

Raymond Chandler e-book Spine

White Heat Ebook Cover

White Heat Paperback Cover

White Heat Paperback Spine

White Heat e-book Spine


And I’d like to congratulate two of our fellow Criminal Minds on their awards at Bouchercon a few days ago, so:

Congratulations to Catriona for her Anthony win! 

And to Art, for his Macavity win! 
Well done!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

How do I prefer to have my books published?

Today! That's how. And that's why this post is a wee bit late going live. 

Dandy Gilver No. 8 - A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE - is out today and I'm preparing for a launch party tonight. The eggs and butter are coming to room temperature and soon there will be cakes.

BRIMSTONE is stuffed to the brim with technology.  It's set in 1929 in Laidlaw's Hydropathic Hotel in the hills of Moffat, where affluent and sickly patrons go for the likes of Faradaic, ultraviolet and galvanic heat baths. It's basically sulphurous spring water so disgusting it must be good for you and electricity - new and exciting! 

Water and electricity combined - how could it possibly go wrong? Well, it does. The Moffat Hydro is pretty luxurious but it shares one feature with every motel in mystery fiction. Guests check in . . . and you can guess the rest.

I'm not so much for technology, me.  I don't own an e-reader and don't have any plans to, even though that meant that over the summer I took five paper books to Scotland with me to prepare for Bouchercon moderating and then brought them back again in case I needed to check anything.

I like the double-page spread of a book. I enjoy seeing the jacket design while I'm reading one. I would miss the way your fingers tell you how much of a book is left and so you can plan the last reading session, with a cup of tea and guaranteed quiet while you race to the end.

I *can* read online, but it always feels like work, never pleasure. Likewise I can use a clothes drier, but I don't own one and the smell of line-dried clothes is one of my life's pleasures. I can use a microwave but I don't own one and the sound of a bubbling pot on the stove makes me happy. I always say I'd make a great Amish housewife if it weren't for the fundamentalism.

And the small matter of being a crimewriter too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


by Clare O'Donohue

Q: "Have you switched to reading mostly ebooks or do you still hanker for the feel of a bound book in your hands? How would you prefer to have your books published?"
Taking the 2nd question first, I don't care if people read my books on paper, as e-books, as audio books, as smoke signals, or have them performed as an interpretative dance. Whatever gets the story to the reader is fine with me.

But when I'm reading, I have a definite preference. I prefer books.

I understand the convenience of reading on a Kindle or Nook. I can only imagine the space it would free up in my suitcase when I travel. And, as I look over a pile of books I brought back from Bouchercon, I'm pretty sure switching to e-books would mean a lot more room in my house too. But I'm pretty stuck on printed books.

I like the soft ivory of the page behind the black ink. I like being able to easily see if I'm half way. I like the weight of a hardcover, and the feel of a paperback. I just like books.

Although if someone wants to perform for me an interpretative dance of Catriona McPherson's latest book, A Deadly Measure of Brimstone that would be fine too. (It's out now, so go and buy it!):

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Dirty Little Secret

Question of the Week: "Have you switched to reading mostly ebooks or do you still hanker for the feel of a bound book in your hands? How would you prefer to have your books published?"

My Answer:

I browse on Amazon and buy in real life.

I've heard bookstore workers complain, time and again, about shoppers who will happily walk into a small independent bookstore, chat for ages with a book-loving bookseller, then thank the bookseller for their time and announce that they now know what they'll buy on Amazon. Because it's so much cheaper.

I'm not against Amazon. I know they're corporate bullies, but they've also done great things for authors—like help level the playing field so even a small press author's books are accessible to a wide potential readership. And I do sometimes buy things from them—it's particularly convenient for ordering a book that I can't find in the store, or for ordering a gift for my nephew in Toronto, since its delivery fees are so reasonable. (Free, if you spend enough money.)

But here's how I buy my books, in 5 easy steps: 

    Add caption
  1. I hear about a book that intrigues me.
  2. I download the free Kindle sample and start reading on my phone.
  3. About 95% of the time, that's as far as I go with a book. Most books don't hook most readers, and I'm not willing to spend time in a book where I'm not compulsively driven to turn the page.
  4. If I want the book, I browse local bookstores to see if it's in stock. If I find it, I buy it. If it's not, and I'm just THAT hooked on the sample, I order from the evil empire. (I'm not willing to pay the store to order the book for me if it's not in stock, for two reasons: 1. It's a pain to have to add one more errand, to go back to that shop when the book comes in. 2. I'd be paying them a 40% premium to do something I can do myself: order the book online.)
  5. I also buy books at launches and book parties from whichever bookseller has made the effort to come out and sell. My most recent purchase (from Vancouver's Dead Write Books) is Owen Laukkanen's Kill Fee. Amazing book so far. It's coming out in paperback soon, but I bought the hardcover because after hearing him read, I just couldn't wait.

So basically, I USE Amazon to help me BUY from independents.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Help! Need feedback!

Q: As a reader, e-books or print? As an author, e-books or print?

-from Susan

Both and both.

Even though my first two Dani mysteries were already out in e-book form, I hadn’t succumbed to a digital reader until I began to plan for my recent trip to France. My dear American friend living in Burgundy had begged me to schlep a handful of books she couldn’t get there and I realized there was no room for my own necessary quota of reading material in the one small suitcase I was determined to limit myself to. To offset the cold, hard feel and look of the device, I bought a leather-like, embossed cover. I had no problem reading off the screen – I bought a Kindle “paperwhite,” which I can even read in bright light.

But, I find I don’t use the e-reader much unless I’m traveling. It can never take the place of books if only because the walls in my house are already lined with hundreds (thousands?) of books still begging to be read. I enjoy real book covers, I relish the feeling that each book is a gift waiting to be opened.

As a writer, this is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. My first Dani mystery, Murder in the Abstract, came out first as a hard cover. My friends were pleased for me, but it’s harder to sell a $24 book than a trade or mass paper edition, both versions of which followed a year or so later. My second Dani mystery, The King’s Jar, came out as a trade paper but also as an e-book simultaneously, and the e-book sales were quicker and more robust, in part because the distribution system my publisher used was weak. The paper version was $14 and the e-book less.

My third Dani mystery, Mixed Up with Murder, is in production now and I have asked my publisher to release it only as an e-book, at least for a first edition. My take on the pros is that people can decide instantly, that they’ll try reasonably-priced books with instant downloads, that online e-book promotions are pretty successful (see BookBub), and that libraries now buy e-books too. Since the other books in the series are also available electronically, readers who like one can easily download the others. The cons: no professional reviews (I got wonderful ones for the second Dani), fewer blog reviews, no in-store readings and book tours, nothing to sign when people do buy it. I’ll miss the interactions with readers, the best part of this whole process. It’s a gamble and I’m not at all sure what will happen, but I am pleased my publisher is willing to try it, and to do a print edition later if we decide it’s a good (read, profitable for them) strategy.

Fellow Minds, what do you think? Readers, are you aboard the e-book ride? I welcome your feedback. The book industry is shifting under our feet and the pathways are not always clear.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Isn't Anyone Who Might Read This at Bouchercon Right Now?

By Art Taylor

As I write this, I'm struggling frantically to get things done before catching a plane Thursday morning for the West Coast for this year's Bouchercon—and I know I need to write this now because I'll hardly get a chance once everything gets underway in Long Beach. (More on that in a moment.)

This week's question—"How would you characterize the kind of mystery you like to write and why did you chose this sub genre?"—is one that I wish I could answer more definitively. As another of our Criminal Minds panelists, R.J. Harlick, mentioned earlier this week, a lot of us would rather resist the kinds of labeling and pigeonholing that's expected by publishers, publicists, booksellers, and reviewers, and I'll admit that as a short story writer, I particularly love the options I have to try out a lot of different subgenres, styles, and structures. My fellow short story writer Brendan DuBois explained this far better than I ever could in his post for Ellery Queen's blog Something Is Going to Happen when he explained his revelation: "With short stories, practically anything is possible."

I can try a little bit of David Goodis-inspired noir with a story such as "The Odds Are Against Us" in a recent issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (November 2014) or I could experiment with the thriller formula (and with second person narration) in "Premonition," which was just published in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, the latest anthology from the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. And my novel-in-stories On The Road With Del and Louise, due out next September from Henery Press, finds itself somewhere in the mix of cozy mystery and screwball comedy and buddy movie—with an edge or two (or three) along the way.

But while it's fun to range through a number of subgenres like that from one story to the next, that diversity also poses a challenge in an era when branding and marketing seem to be a key part of any author's success. "What do you write?" and "Would I like it?" become much more difficult questions to answer in casual conversation—or when trying to pitch your own work either to a fan or to an editor or agent.

My friend E.A. Aymar, author of I'll Sleep When You're Dead, asked me about this very dilemma in an interview he posted on his blog—and the question hit me pretty hard at the time, something I'll admit I'd (foolishly) never thought about in the midst of just following each new story in whichever direction it seemed to go. Here's our exchange there:

Aymar: Your fiction tends to change its identity according to the story, but many crime fiction writers do the opposite, and work in a recognizable or distinctive prose. Do you think your approach could potentially delay building an audience, considering it plays outside of standard genre conventions?
Taylor: A good question. Yes, I've thought about that myself. I like playing with different voices, different tones, different subgenres, so my stories range from pretty dark noir to much lighter fare. I've been very lucky to have had attention for my stories in terms of honors and awards, and I've had a couple of publishers approach me about a story collection, but I have serious concerns that my stories so far wouldn't entirely be cohesive enough to gather into a collection—troubling to say the least. And in terms of writing a novel someday… well, I know in today's publishing climate, brand means almost everything.
Here's a telling anecdote: I spoke with an editor at a major publishing house last year about several ideas for novels, and she said that I really needed to think about not just one book but a series, projecting ahead into the future—no big surprise there. But here's what's telling: When I mentioned the idea of working in various directions as I've done with my stories—and hearkened back to a writer like Donald Westlake, who wrote some of the funniest mystery novels ever as well as some of the coldest and bleakest—the editor said that she felt certain those choices had compromised his career (read: "sales") tremendously. I'm not likening myself to Westlake, of course—that was never my point—but the conversation was sobering, and a little intimidating. And I'm not sure what any of that means for the way that I've been approaching my career here. Perhaps not good news.

I'm still not sure what it all means. Comments here certainly welcome....

And in the meantime, I'll hope to see lots of folks in Long Beach. By the time this appears, my panel presentation ("Short But Mighty: The Power and Freedom of the Short Story" with Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Robert Lopresti, and Paul D. Marks, and moderated by Travis Richardson) will already have taken place, and we'll know whether or not my story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants" earned the Macavity this year—fingers crossed! (Update: WON! Can hardly believe it.....) Beyond that, I'm looking forward to Saturday night's presentation of the Anthony Awards (fingers crossed again), and to seeing lots of folks at other events and panels—and in and around the bar too, of course.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Down With Cubbyholes

by Alan

As we know, there are many different sub genres for crime novels, from cozy and amateur sleuth through to police procedurals and noir. How would you characterize the kind of mystery you like to write and why did you chose this sub genre?

When people ask me what I write, I usually say novels. When pressed further, I’ll often say I’m a mystery writer. I find that it’s a whole lot easier than offering some intricate, convoluted explanation about the characteristics of various sub-genres and where I feel my work falls within those amorphous boundaries. After all,Agatha_Christie most people know what a mystery is—they’ve read them or seen mysteries on television. They’ve heard of Agatha Christie, even though they may never have read any of her work.

Which is fine with me. I certainly don’t mind being known as a mystery writer (I’ve been called worse things).

The truth is, I try not to pay much attention to genres, sub or otherwise. As a kid, when I’d go to the library, I wasn’t looking for any specific type of book. I was simply looking for a good book. A compelling, captivating, page-turner with great characters and a memorable plot. I know, not much to ask for, right?

It was only when I started writing, and then querying agents, that I found I had to place my work into a specific cubbyhole. The book will have to go on a bookseller’s shelf, I was told, and they need to know which shelf it will be. The publisher will need to market the book, I was told, and the marketing types need to know which readers to target. Certain reviewers will need to be contacted, certain conferences attended, certain awards aimed for, I was told, and all of that is genre-dependent.

I never set out to write a mystery; I was just trying to write a good book.

Ideas pop into my head and I run with them, not paying too much attention to the shelves they may eventually sit upon. Now, it so happens that my brain feels most at home wallowing in the word of crime (draw your own conclusions). I guess it’s not surprising, then, that most of my ideas revolve around bad (and illegal) things happening to my beleaguered protagonists.

However, I haven’t written exclusively in the crime realm. I wrote a horror novel (bad things happened to my protagonist in that one, too). And I wrote a YA coming-of-age novel. But pretty much everything else I’ve written could be classified as a crime novel.

So I guess, technically, I’m a crime writer. But if you ask me what kind of crime writer I am, I’ll probably just shrug and start mumbling something about simply trying to write a good book.


If you haven’t had a chance to read the excerpt from my novel in the Kindle Scout program, there’s still time!  Check out RUNNING FROM THE PAST here. If you like it, I’d love a nomination! Thanks!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

To Pigeonhole or not...

By R.J. Harlick

As we know, there are many different sub genres for crime novels, from cozy and amateur sleuth through to police procedurals and noir. How would you characterize the kind of mystery you like to write and why did you chose this sub genre?

I’ve never been a big fan of pigeonholing and prefer to think that I write stories that just happened to be mysteries.   When I started out on this writing adventure, I only wanted to write a good mystery novel that captured the imagination of my readers and kept them guessing whodunit until the very end. I didn’t think of the kind of sub genre I should write. In fact, it was only after I was caught up in the world of the mystery genre that I discovered there were many labels for the many different types of mysteries. And now I find when I register for conferences or talk to booksellers, even readers, I’m asked to give Meg a label.

When I started out it seemed natural to write in the voice of Meg Harris. Sure she wasn’t a cop, but I didn’t feel comfortable writing from a cop’s point of view. I knew nothing about policing techniques or how cops think.  Besides I felt my protagonist would have more freedom, if she wasn’t limited to the constraints of police procedures. Though, Meg will draw on their expertise as the need arises. So I suppose Meg could be called an amateur sleuth, but that doesn’t mean that she sets out to solve the murder like a detective. Rather she is more intent on trying to help a friend or family member and fight an injustice.

Though Meg has a life and friends that go beyond solving murder, I wouldn’t call the series a cozy.  I delve into issues, sometimes raw and visceral, that would never be called cozy. My readers often comment on the edge-of-seat suspense of the stories, something not usually associated with a cozy.  And there is lots of adventure and lots of wilderness. I suppose one could call it a suspense adventure wilderness series.

But having said I didn’t chose a particular sub genre to write in, I’m afraid with my next book, the 7th Meg Harris mystery, I set out to do something different. I wanted to put Meg in dangerous situation and see how she handled it. So A Cold White Fear is a thriller. And I tell you, I have had great fun writing it.

To end on a more somber note. Most of us have been affected by war in some way, have family members or friends who fought and possibly died in a war. My father spent two and a half years in a prisoner-of-war camp in WWII and my grandfather lost a leg in WWI. Let us today on this day of remembrance, at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month spend a moment of silence to remember those who sacrificed to fight for our way of life.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Where I Like to Play

by Rebecca Cantrell

First off, a big thank you for my writing friend Meredith Cole for inviting me back to 7 Criminal Minds to play! I’ve missed this place.

Genre? Subgenre? I don’t choose my genres, they choose me. I have an idea and then I follow it through the book. This used to drive my agents crazy, but I think they’ve resigned themselves to it now.

I started out in a clearly defined subgenre: historical mystery. My Hannah Vogel series is set in Berlin in the 1930s and it ticks off those boxes nicely. Ironically, I didn’t set out to write a mystery at all. I had this idea for a character, a gay cabaret singer in Berlin at the end of the Weimar Republic. He was clear in my head—strong, funny, immensely talented—and then someone killed him and I had to find out why. So, I wrote a murder mystery called A Trace of Smoke. Then another. Then two more.

I detoured into horror with my YA horror books (iDrakula and iFrankenstein) and then my grown up vampire books with James Rollins (The Blood Gospel, Innocent Blood, and Blood Infernal). I was playing with new ways to tell stories (iPhone app, anyone?) and writing (co-authoring with someone else) and the supernatural (vampires, sentient artificial intelligences, vampires again).

Now I’m working on a new mystery/thriller series. I was walking down into the subway one day and I had an idea about a character who couldn’t leave. I typed in a bunch of notes while hanging on to a pole with one hand and I knew I had to know who that guy was before I got to my stop. I rode around for a while after that, just watching the stations go by and thinking. By the time I got home, I knew that the guy underground was Joe Tesla—an agoraphobic software millionaire who can’t go outside and lives in the tunnels under New York City, with a home base in a Victorian house built a hundred feet under Grand Central Terminal for the original engineer’s family. It wasn’t long before he came across a man breaking open a brick wall underground with a sledgehammer and he looked inside and there were three skeletons—two human and one monkey. I had to find out what that was about and the result was The World Beneath.

Because, for me, reading is about losing myself to play in another world, and writing is about that, too. It’s about playing with the characters, with the worlds, with the readers. I don’t think about genre—I think about fascination, obsession, and fun. If I do land in a genre, I tend to play at the boundaries—the places where things are new and fun for me and, hopefully, for my readers.

What about you, where do you like to play? And why?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pick Your Poison: Short Stories, Series Novel or Standalone

Which do you prefer writing; short stories, standalone novels or series? Why?

by Paul D. Marks

Each form comes with its own set of challenges. But with each there’s the thrill of starting something new. And then with each you reach a point where you just wish it was done and you were on to the next thing.  It’s sort of like starting a project around the house. At first you’re all eager and pumped. You can’t wait to see the results. But about halfway through you wish you’d never started it and just want to be on the couch watching an old black and white movie like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past, eating pizza and wishing you could write something like that.

Short stories have the challenge of doing it all in a short time.  You have to weave everything together in a small amount of space.  And in some ways this is the most challenging thing to do. As a “pantster,” I find myself writing way too much and then spending most of my time editing and cutting out the fat. Short stories have to be pithy and get to the point without a lot of extraneous details. But at the same time you need to make the little details pack an extra punch, so you have to be meticulous in picking the right words, actions and characters.

Series novels present their own challenges. What comes to mind first is the task of keeping the series character/s interesting and growing.  In the first book you’re setting everything up and intro’ing everyone so everything is new and fresh to you, the writer, as well as the reader. But by book nine what do you do? Check out some of your favorite series where the plots and characters seem to have grown tired.  Or is it just the author who’s grown tired? And though I only have one novel published, I do have the sequel written (the reason that it hasn’t been published yet is a long, winding and torturous road, best left for another time).  But in the sequel it was a challenge to be consistent with what had taken place in the first novel. Sort of like being the continuity person on a movie set and having to make sure the vase of flowers is in the same position as before when you change camera angles in a scene. Plus you have to backfill a little on the plot and characters in the previous novel/s for people who missed earlier entries in the series. And there is an art to doing that without it reading like a laundry list or boring the reader with exposition.

Standalone novels can be fun because, unlike a short story, you have the freedom to develop plot and characters, the way you did with the first book in your series.  You’re inventing a new world from the ground up and that’s always exciting. Whereas in a series you sort of already have some things worked out for you – you know the character and the setting and you have a starting point (usually the end of the previous book) so you have something to work with.

As to which I prefer, basically whatever I’m working on at the moment...until I get tired of it and then I prefer what’s next at bat and start working it up in my head, and go after that one with all my enthusiasm...until...

*          *          *

And for a little BSP. I’ll be at Bouchercon next week. Here’s my sked:

Thursday: 4pm, Regency D. “Short But Mighty––The Power and Freedom of the Short Story.” With fellow Criminal Mind Art Taylor.  And Travis Richardson (M), Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Robert Lopresti.

Friday: 6:30pm: The Shamus Awards banquet, where I’ll be a presenter.

Saturday: 2:30-3:30, signing books for Down and Out Books in the book room.

Come by and say hello.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Boozier Style of Prose

Question of the Week: Which do you prefer writing; short stories, standalone novels or series? Why?

My Answer: Both.

Career-wise, I'm drawn to novel writing. Maybe because short stories are a marketing nightmare, and maybe because I like to read novels, so I'm naturally drawn to writing them.

But I've been having fun lately with short pieces to use for readings.

June, 2014
with ER Brown, Dietrich Kalteis,
Owen Laukkanen & Linda L. Richards
Many of you are likely familiar with an event called Noir at the Bar. I don't know who started it or where. The first one I attended was in St. Louis, I think, or maybe it was San Francisco. I've seen them advertised in New York and LA, and recently my friend Dietrich Kalteis has brought the event to Vancouver.

We do these readings in—you guessed it—the back room of a bar. A whiskey room, to be precise. (There's one tonight. If you're in Vancouver, come join us.) It's a funky space, dark and boozy, and these evenings are far too hip for the rehearsed readings I've done to death from my already published novels.

So I've been branching out. Reading from experimental new fiction. Writing shorter pieces, more contemporary, playing with my writerly voice and taking chances in this fun milieu.

Last time, I read this piece of fan fiction, written from the perspective of Toronto mayor Rob Ford. It's called High Times at City Hall.

Tonight, I'm reading the first chapter of my never-read, never-edited, not-even-finished-the-first-draft-so-no-clue-where-the-story's-going novel-in-progress.

For next time, I'm thinking of writing a dark environmental short, a dystopian prediction about what will happen if our current Canadian government keeps winning elections.

So yeah, I recognize that novels will likely be the only source of butter for my bread, long term. But short stories are a fun way to play with new writing styles, new voices, and new ideas that I haven't yet figured how to turn into full-length fiction.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Short Is Too Short for Me

"Which do you prefer writing; short stories, standalone novels or series? Why?"

- from Susan

Since I’ve written one short story and four novels, I’ll go with novels. I didn’t know my first novel would launch a series until I got an agent, although by then I’d fallen in love with my main characters, so it was a relief to hear I wasn’t alone in wanting them to blunder on for at least another book. I just finished my first standalone and it’s not a murder mystery. The topic came to me rather suddenly. I don’t know if I’ll get struck by that particular lightening again, but I hope so.

I mostly enjoy reading novels, which may be a holdover from childhood when I never wanted the book to end. But I recently read a lot of crime fiction short stories, 134 to be exact, for a competition, and I learned a few things about them:

  • -       “Short” is a relative term. These ranged from about 1,500 words to 50,000 and no one length had an aesthetic edge over another. Historicals tended to be longer and no wonder; there’s a lot of scene setting to do.

  • -       They use all of crime fiction’s sub-genres and a lot of the clich├ęs, perhaps because they have to move into action so quickly that shortcuts are useful.

  • -       The crimes were major, and felt particularly brutal, and I wondered if that was because there’s less space to hint, tease, lead the reader slowly into the darkest places in the story.

  • -       There was very little, almost no, humor in the submissions. They tended to be dark, twisty, and lacking the kinds of endings where justice is meted out.

I had thought, when I agreed to participate in the panel, that I might find myself inspired to write more short stories by reading so many. What I learned, though, is that writing good short stories is hard. Give me an 80,000-word book any day! We have some wonderful short story writers on the Minds panel, and I can't wait to hear how they pull it off.