Monday, June 29, 2015

When the Words Don't Come

Q: We all hit writers’ block at some point in time. What do you do to get out of it and move the story forward?

- Susan

I’ve become much less candid about admitting to those moments (days? weeks?) when I seem to bang up against the same wall instead of moving forward. It seems to be fashionable for writing teachers and some well-known writers to scoff and say something along the lines of “Pfffahhh…whining about writers’ block is dishonest. If you are stuck, either bulldoze your way through it like a man/woman, or admit you’re lazy and weak.” Or something like that, usually delivered with a swelling chest and a curled lip. Some of these people are doubtless wonderful to their pets, and sell millions of books.

There’s another contingent that is more practical, represented by a quote attributed to William Faulkner insisting that inspiration is a silly concept, or, as he supposedly said, “I only write when I’m inspired, but fortunately I’m inspired every day at nine o’clock.” 

In other words, just sit down and start, and treat it like the job it is. Fair enough. The resulting prose may be so bad that you are driven to the gin bottle earlier and earlier every day, but at least you have put words on paper.

Then there are writers like Douglas Adams, dear to my heart, who wrote, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” 

Lots of famous writers suffered from writers block, giants like Virginia Woolf and Gustave Flaubert, and they came out all right, or at least their masterpieces did.

What do I do when my fingers either stall over the keys or plunk slower and slower as I see a brick wall rising inexorably on the page? Jump up, fly to the kitchen, and eat chocolate. Tell myself there’s no such thing as writers’ block, promise myself it won’t hurt at all to go back upstairs and delete the 2,500 truly stupid words that I wrote over the last two days, eat more chocolate, kick the cat. (No, no, of course I don’t do the latter.)

I have no easy, sure answers for myself or other writers. Writing is hard work, leavened by moments of excitement or grace, but also fraught with messy, confounding challenges and periods of pure slog. Maybe my fellow Minds are wiser than I and I’ll learn some new coping methods this week. But there is one thing I know for sure: You must, must finish the book, even if you’re privately convinced it’s dreck. Nothing is as inspiring as writing “The end” in the first draft and knowing you now have the scaffold on which to build a really good book.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Sex, Lies and Character Traits

by Paul D. Marks

Those in the writing know often suggest that writers prepare character profiles for each of their major characters. If you follow this approach, what do you tend to highlight? And if not, how do you keep track of your characters as the story progresses?

Before I respond to the question, from the Official Department of BSP:

Macavity logo d2

This blog post was done a couple days ago, ready to be scheduled. So I’m happy I waited on that since I have to add something additional to it: Macavity Award finalists were announced yesterday. I’m thrilled and honored that my short story, “Howling at the Moon,” from Ellery Queen, is one of the nominees in the short story category. And honored to be in the company of Craig Faustus Buck, Barb Goffman, Travis Richardson and our own Art Taylor. Yea, Art!  But the good news doesn’t stop there, fellow Criminal Mind Catriona McPherson’s novel “A Deadly Measure of Brimstone” is nominated in the Best Historical Novel category and she’s also nominated in the Best Mystery Novel category for “The Day She Died”. Yea, Catriona!

I want to thank Janet Rudolph and everyone who voted. I hope you’ll all read all the nominated stories and books. I believe most of the short stories are online. Here’s a link to the Anthony Award short story nominees, of which four, Art, Craig, Barb and I are also nominated. So if you scroll down to the short story awards, there will be links to our four stories that are also Macavity finalists:  And you can find Travis’ story in ThugLit issue #13.

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And now to the question at hand:

Mostly I just try to keep it in my head these days. So, of course, my head is about ready to explode.

When I first started writing, I often made a character profile chart. It had all the usual stuff, background, eye color, favorite foods, cars, etc. And I would diligently fill it out. But these days I really do keep most of it in my head. I might make a few notes about the various characters, either in a computer file or on a piece of paper, but I don’t fill out any forms anymore.

By the time I sit down to write, I’ve usually been thinking about the characters and major plot points in my head for some time. And since many of my characters are, at least in part (composites), based on people I know or know of, it’s sort of easy to keep it together. The problem is when you’re working on more than one thing at a time they can all run together.

The main concern with characters is to be consistent. What’s important is to keep track of what you’ve actually said in a work or series so the characters remain true to themselves/consistent. On a very simplistic level if a character likes chocolate at the beginning and hates it at the end, people will be taken out of the moment, out of the “reality” of your story. Unless that’s your character arc, how and why he comes to hate chocolate by the end.

Remember, too, that you don’t have to use every bit of background in your character profile. It’s good for the writer to know all these things, because these traits will make the character act or react in various situations. But maybe it’s not necessary for the reader to know everything – just enough to buy any actions on the part of the character.

Character Profiles collage

That said, when I occasionally teach a writing seminar or class, I do tell the students about character profiles and even hand one out. I think it’s a good thing for people who are starting out because it does make you think about these things.

Another good tool is Proust’s Questionnaire. Change ‘you’ in the questions to your character’s name and it will really get you thinking about who your character is.

Proust’s Questionnaire:
1.    What is your idea of perfect happiness?
2.    What is your greatest fear?
3.    What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
4.    What is the trait you most deplore in others?
5.    Which living person do you most admire?
6.    What is your greatest extravagance?
7.    What is your current state of mind?
8.    What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
9.    On what occasion do you lie?
10.    What do you most dislike about your appearance?
11.    Which living person do you most despise?
12.    What is the quality you most like in a man?
13.    What is the quality you most like in a woman?
14.    Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
15.    What or who is the greatest love of your life?
16.    When and where were you happiest?
17.    Which talent would you most like to have?
18.    If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
19.    What do you consider your greatest achievement?
20.    If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
21.    Where would you most like to live?
22.    What is your most treasured possession?
23.    What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
24.    What is your favorite occupation?
25.    What is your most marked characteristic?
26.    What do you most value in your friends?
27.    Who are your favorite writers?
28.    Who is your hero of fiction?
29.    Which historical figure do you most identify with?
30.    Who are your heroes in real life?
31.    What are your favorite names?
32.    What is it that you most dislike?
33.    What is your greatest regret?
34.    How would you like to die?
35.    What is your motto?

Some of these questions hit on a deeper level than what’s your character’s favorite food which, no doubt, you can find on Facebook, as they post one pic after another of their daily cuisine.

For those who are interested, there are many variations of character profile forms online. Just search “character profile”.

There are more things one can ask about their character or put in their character’s “profile”, but I think this is a good start.

More great news:

My story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” was just picked up by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Not sure when it will be published yet. Set on today’s Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, not that other one back East. But the ghosts of Chandler, Fante and Cain are there in force.

And my noir mystery-thriller novella, Vortex, will be out soon. Advance Reader Copies are available if anyone’s interested. Hardcopy. E-version, stone tablets, hieroglyphics, Cuneiform, written on sand, any format. Choose your poison. Contact me at if you’re interested.

And please join me on Facebook: and check out my updated website  

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Other Donald

By Catriona

I'm not a massive fan of character bibles. You know how the book you haven't written yet is perfect and wonderful? And then you get cracking and it gets worse and worse and more and more hopeless until there's nothing for it but to finish it and move on to the next one that's still perfect(ly unwritten)?

Basically every decision you make while you write is slamming closed a door on all the possibilities you didn't choose and so for me a character bible would mean starting the book with quite lot of doors already slammed. Where's the fun in that?

There are still some things about Dandy Gilver I don't know after ten books. In fact, more than not knowing, there are things I'm determined not to find out, because I want to be able to decide when the right moment comes.

And that brings me to my Donald Rumsfeld system of what you do and don't need to know about characters.

I never understood why people gave him a hard time about the (un)known (un)knowns. It struck me as perfectly sensible. Here's how it works for character development.

1. Known knowns. You need to decide pretty early on what your character's name, age, race, gender etc are (unless . . . see 2)

2. Known unknowns. The things you know you don't know and so you don't talk about them. Perhaps very deliberately. For example, the protagonist of Rebecca is nameless. And perhaps because you want to leave breathing room for later developments. Like me with Dandy Gilver.

3. Unknown knowns. These are the things about your character that you get without being able to define. For instance, Shakespeare wrote the gloriously neurotic character Hamlet a hundred and fifty years before neurosis was named. I think you need access to the output of a character but you don't necessarily need to be able to pin it down.
4. Unknown unknowns. These are bad. These are really not good. The technical term for them is  . . . mistakes. The things you don't know you don't know about your character will make them do and say things they'd never do or say.
The most common example of an unknown unknown is when you try to write a character who comes from somewhere you don't. Unless you get it checked out, you're on a shoogly peg. (A shoogly peg is Scottish for thin ice.) You're fine as long as the book is read by other people who don't know but Blimey O'Reilly it clangs when someone who does know gets eyes on it. (Blimey O'Reilly is British for Boy Howdy.)
This is right at the front of my mind just now because I've written a Japanese character (in Scotland, speaking English) in COME TO HARM and although I bugged Japanese friends endlessly, asking questions, I'm waiting to hear what I got wrong. So that's known unknown unknowns, I suppose. Suspected ones, anyway.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Best of Both Worlds

Which is more important, to tell a story that compels readers to turn pages, regardless of writing craft technique OR to spend time on each sentence, on each word, to fine tune your writing so that your prose is admired by critics and scholars?

by Paul D. Marks

I think Susan and Robin really hit the nail on the head in response to this question on Monday and Tuesday. (And since I’m writing this on Tuesday I haven’t yet read the other two Crim Minds, but I’m sure they will too). But I’ll see what I might be able to add to what they said.
There are really two kinds of writers…story tellers and writers.

If you look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – the go-to book for this kind of question – you’d have to assume that good writing doesn’t much matter. Great idea, not so great execution. Did it matter? No. He’s a great story teller, but not a great writer. And poor Mr. Brown, ’cause I know I’m not the only one who uses him as an example. And there’s plenty of others who we could mention here, too. But we all know the story.

Gravitys_rainbow_coverClearly we want readers turning pages. Without that we have nothing. Let’s face it, we’re writing genre fiction. We’re not writing Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest or other literary works. We want our stories to be entertaining and breezy, with intriguing characters and fast-paced, exciting plots. But what’s wrong with trying to give them a little extra polish in terms of the writing?

We all want our work to be recognized and there’s always that fine line between art and a pure entertainment. But why not go for the best of both worlds?

I find that a lot of the very popular best-selling authors have great stories, but I’m often disappointed because story isn’t everything. Sometimes the writing is flat or other elements like characterization, dialogue and plot are obvious and unoriginal. But they’ve hit on a sort of formula of storytelling that works, but is predictable and boring. And sometimes they might even have good characters and dialog and an exciting plot, but nothing that ‘stirs the soul,’ so to speak. When a book really knocks my socks off, it’s because it has all the elements, great writing, descriptions, dialog, characters and a compelling story and the soul stirring stuff.

James Ellroy seems to have hit that mark of compelling stories as well as being someone who critics like. He developed a distinctive, energetic style in the latter two books of the LA Quartet, LA Confidential and White Jazz. But then he went overboard with that staccato, short-sentence writing to the point where I couldn’t read him anymore. Though I have picked up his latest, Perfidia, and it seems that, while he’s still using that style, he’s toned it down a bit, so hopefully I can start enjoying him again. And if I’ve mentioned this before about Ellroy, sorry if I’m repeating myself.

For my Show and Tell visual example, think of the flat lighting of many TV shows and movies made for TV vs. the more sculptured lighting of theatrical movies. The lighting adds to the atmosphere and in some ways can be a character in itself – just look at any classic film noir from the 1940s.

Double Indemnity TV vs Feature collage

Well-crafted writing is like the lighting that makes big-screen movies stand out from made-for-TV-movies. Sometimes the same story can seem more magical and rich when produced for the movie theater. Take a look at the original theatrical version of Double Indemnity vs. the TV remake. The latter is flat in lighting and everything else. The lighting creates a mood, just as good writing does.9993856_orig

For myself, I hope my writing is a compelling read and well written. I start off writing a mess of a draft. And in the second draft I start the pruning and adding and fleshing out. That continues for the next couple of drafts. But the later drafts focus more on the fine tuning, where I do try to make sure that the sentences flow and come alive. And that I use the right word. Like Mark Twain said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

The bottom line is that a marriage of storytelling and craft is the best of both worlds.

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Hope to you see at the California Crime Writers Conference
CCWC snip - better
( ). June 6th and 7th. I’ll be on the Thrills and Chills (Crafting the Thriller and Suspense Novel) panel, Saturday at 10:30am, along with Laurie Stevens (M), Doug Lyle, Diana Gould and Craig Buck.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Break out the Windex - I'm editing!

There is a certain literary novelist I'm not going to name (because he's alive and he might - you never know - have one of those Google alerts) who said he reads his thesaurus looking for more obscure words to use instead of the ones that popped into his head. Or, as he might say, "detonated within his cranium".

If anyone wants to rush out and buy his latest, email me and I'll fill you in.

Don't get me wrong; I use a thesaurus when I'm writing too. I use it when I know there's a word that's perfect and it's on the tip of my tongue and argh it means "plague" sort of, or "torment", but it sounds grungier than that and . . . Oh God, I can almost hear it.*

But I'm with Steven King, on this as on so many other things, who says that the first word you thought of is probably the best one.  In fact, nothing dumps me out of a story so completely as when a writer uses what's unmistakably the wrong word, and you wonder why and then you see the right word in the next line and you know they didn't want to repeat it. And then all I can think about is the writer sitting there working on the second draft saying:

"I attempted to imagine how hard they'd tried I tried to imagine how hard they'd worked I worked to imagine how hard they'd attempted . . . "

And I want to shout "Give it up! You need to change the whole sentence!"

In short, it's not that I don't care about the writing in my writing. My most frequent "stet" at the copy-editing stage is the one that goes "stet, please, for rhythm".

But I want my words to be a clear pane of plate glass that lets anyone who looks see the characters and the setting and follow what's going on. I don't want them to be - buckle up for more of this metaphor - a stained-glass monster that shows a saint getting martyred and stops anyone inside the church from knowing whether it's raining.

My favourite kind of writer is one who tells a compelling story in beautiful prose so squeaky clean that, although you're drunk on the language, when you try to pick out an impressive bit, you can't catch them at it. Ian McEwan is one of those. So is Dorothy Whipple. So I've got no examples.

So here's PG Wodehouse instead. It doesn't matter what book it is, the story is that someone's engaged, someone's not, they've stolen a priceless antique and the policeman is locked in the coalhole. And that pane of glass? He's breathed on it and written this in the steam: “he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life's gas-pipe with a lighted candle.” 

* scourge, by the way

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Question for Readers

"Which is more important, to tell a story that compels readers to turn pages, regardless of writing craft technique OR to spend time on each sentence, on each word, to fine tune your writing so that your prose is admired by critics and scholars?"

Hmmm, With all due respect, I think that’s a false dichotomy. My desire to tell a page-turning story in which each sentence is crafted may be part of the reason I’m not a prolific author. Many of my friends do much better at this, writing two or even three full novels a year. I can only hope I get better at it before I kick the bucket!

And, since when do scholars parse the words in genre fiction? I think the general feeling is we’re permitted into the waiting hall of the literary lounge because the best of us write in provocative, evocative language about things that really matter – crimes against the defenseless, the environment, civil societies, art, truth. If we’re admired by critics outside of the commercial fiction arena, so be it, but I haven’t met a crime fiction author yet who is waiting, hat in hand, to be dissected in an MFA program or in the New York Review of Books. Fifty years from now, a few contemporary crime writers will be elevated by the staying power of their books into the pantheon of the finest, transcending the genre because, in part, the genre itself will have changed, or the topics they wrote about will have become so critical to our understanding of the way the world works that the stories resonate widely. (Look at Robert Towne, who wrote the original screenplay for Chinatown, or Agatha Christie, who created two characters that simply will not die – in the literary sense.)

This is a question I’d love to hear readers respond to.

- from Susan