Friday, January 29, 2016

Ruts, Routines, and Writer's Block

By Art Taylor

Like my co-panelist Tracy Kiely earlier this week, I tend to conflate this week's question—"It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?"—with questions about writer's block, though I know these may fundamentally be too different things. 

In each case, however, I think a change of perspective is key—whether that shift in perspective is taking place on the page (or screen) or away from the keyboard or pen or pencil entirely. 

Yesterday, Alan Orloff mentioned that the seemingly endless blizzard clean-up helped to get him out of a rut, and while he may have been half-joking, I usually find that if I'm getting no traction with my writing (carrying through on some snow imagery, the idea of a rut, etc.), then stepping away from the computer helps to free the mental processes a little, loosen the imagination, provide new ways of looking at some problem on the page, new ways to push ahead. A walk, a drive, a shower, or really anything more physical than mental helps in that regard. 

But both Alan and Tracy speak to the more distinctive connotations of a "rut" as well—when you're traveling the same path routinely without variation. To that end, I like Tracy's suggestion of exercises in style and Alan's approach of varying genre from project to project. As a short story writer primarily, I'm often starting fresh with each new project—in terms character and plot and tone and sometimes even style—and while that poses its own challenges, it also helps to avoid overworking the same moves.

One of the nicest comments I've gotten about my book On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories concerns the structure of the book—a series of stories that are each distinct in many ways but that cohere as a longer story, ultimately as a novel with a larger narrative arc threading through the individual adventures of the title characters. The comment that I get focuses on the various tones in each of the individual parts of that whole: a screwball tone here, a more somber tone there, for example; or a caper tale at one point and a whodunit at another. All of that is by design, of course—my own desire to sample a variety of tones and approaches and even (as Alan said) subgenres under that larger umbrella of crime fiction.

I'm certainly not advocating that all writers should hopscotch through styles and structures and stories in an effort to keep things new, but I do think that those exercises like Tracy mentioned and an awareness of what we're doing generally help to keep the mind and the imagination well-tuned and well-focused.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

’Snow Rut Here

by Alan

It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?

Here’s what I did to break out of that “rut” over this past weekend:

On Friday, I swept the light snow off the driveway with a pushbroom for an hour or so.

On Saturday, I shoveled snow in a blizzard for an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon.

On Sunday, I shoveled snow for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.

On Monday, I shoveled snow for two and a half hours in the morning. (I took the afternoon off to rest my aching muscles.)

On Tuesday, I shoveled snow for two hours in the morning.

During that time, I broke two broom handles and one snow shovel. But my back held up!

When I was finished, I was no longer in a rut. So, to recap, the best way to get out of a rut is to do hours upon hours of something more unpleasant, like shoveling eight tons of snow. Simple!

In all seriousness, I don’t usually find myself mired in writing ruts (Of course, my readers might feel differently!). Maybe it’s because when I start to feel things getting stale, I switch genres. I’ve written mysteries, thrillers, horror, YA, and YA horror. And short stories. Some with more success than others, but I never really feel confined or stuck in a rut.

My next project will be a horror story about a guy who goes mad after spending too much time shoveling snow.

It’s autobiographical.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Writing Out Of A Rut

By Tracy Kiely

To be honest, I’ve always confused “being in a rut” with “suffering from writer’s block.” I know there’s a difference, but it’s hard to explain that difference when you’re staring at a blank computer screen with a deadline looming. And when you are in that situation, you really don’t give a rat’s ass what the technical term is; you just want it to stop.
It’s kind of like being asked, “Is it a sharp pain or a dull pain?” Um…it’s pain. And I’d like it to stop. Now.
I once read a quote by Roy Blount, Jr. that said, “I think writer's block is simply the dread that you are going to write something horrible. But as a writer, I believe that if you sit down at the keys long enough, sooner or later something will come out."
Thanks, Roy. That’s very helpful. But, somehow, I don’t think Old Ray shares a home with three kids, two large excitable dogs, one permanently peeved cat, and an ever-growing pile of laundry. I’d like to see Roy sit for hours on end waiting for “something to come out.” Something will come out – but I doubt an obscenity-laced rant – even if it is woven in an artistic-like tapestry – is going to do the trick.
So, what does one do? Well, here’s the thing. I don’t really know. I’ve found taking the dogs for a long walk helps somewhat. Mainly because the Gods are cruel and they feed my brain all sorts of lovely ideas when I am away from paper and pen.
Writing something very different from your usual style can help too. Read something, perhaps a set of instructions. Now, write it as if you were, say Hemmingway.

            “Nick picked up the wrench. It was a good wrench. It was heavy and made well. Nick felt the weight of it in his hand. He drank his martini and thought, 'This is a damn good wrench. There was a God. All was right in the world.' After a while he thought of her. He walked home alone in the rain.”

            Now, does this do anything? Hell if I know. But, it will get your brain working a bit differently. It might spark an idea. Or it just might make you want a martini. I can’t say for sure. But, after staring at a blank screen for three hours, both are acceptable outcomes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Taking my writing to the next step.

By R.J. Harlick

It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?

This question is particularly apt for me as a writer of a series. With each new book it can be so tempting to fall into a routine and take the easy path, the one Ive followed in previous Meg Harris books. But this becomes boring not only for the reader but also for me, so with each new book I strive to travel down new paths. In every other book, I take Meg away from Three Deer Point, her Quebec home, to a different part of Canada. This gives her the protagonist, you the reader and me the writer an opportunity to explore the uniqueness of this new wilderness setting and the stories and culture of the people who live in it. In each new book I also like to explore different social issues, often tricky ones, particularly as they pertain to First Nations.

In the writing of A Cold White Fear, the latest and seventh book in the series, I set myself a significant challenge. The previous six books are murder mysteries, where the major storyline is Meg solving a murder as an amateur sleuth, although there are usually plenty of other storylines contributing to the main one. I decided to make this book a thriller and put Meg in a life or death situation and see if she can get out of it unscathed.

I also added to the challenge by limiting the setting to Megs rambling Victorian cottage, Three Deer Point, while it is being bombarded by a major blizzard. I plunged her into darkness with a power outage. Not only does she have to deal with no light and no heat as the temperature plunges, but also with no communications to the outside world, for her phone link has been cut off. This while there are strangers in her house, menacing strangers I should add, who emerged out of the pummeling snow.

I also limited the time to less than a day.

I found that I couldnt rely on action to be the main story driver. I had to rely on my characters to bring it to its climactic end. And so A Cold White Fear became more character driven than the previous books, although my characters usually have a big say on where the story is going in all my books.

The biggest challenge, though, was having Meg endure something that even in the writing of these words makes me cringe. After seven books, she has become a very close friend. I so didnt want this to happen to her, but I knew it had to. It took me three revisions of the scene to take it as far as it needed to go. But in its writing I felt that I had grown that much further along my journey of being a writer.

With A Cold White Fear now in bookstores, I am well into the writing of the next Meg Harris mystery. Though I have a title, Im not yet ready to share it. But I can tell you that the colour will be purple. This time the challenge I have set for me and Meg is to fly Canadas Far North to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and to get to know the Dene who have inhabited this unique wilderness for thousands of years. Megs particular challenge is to prove her husband Erics innocence for he has been arrested for murder.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Getting unstuck

It’s so easy to get into a ‘same old, same old’ rut with your writing. What do you do to break out of it?

by Meredith Cole

There is always a time in every book (usually the great black hole of the middle) where my original idea/plan/outline goes piffle. Or doesn't work. Or is dull. And I get stuck. So after wandering around the house aimlessly cleaning everything and doing other chores that I usually avoid (which just goes to show how desperate I am), I usually turn to books about writing.

Here are three techniques that I've tried that have been somewhat successful at getting me unstuck and trying a new approach to a book:

Mind map the characters

Get a poster board or a giant piece of paper. Write your protagonist's name in the middle and then write your other characters names like they are planets circling your main character.  Draw lines between characters that are connected and write how they are connected (mother, college room mate, etc.). Think about other ways that characters are connected. Imagine new scenes between them. Are all the characters working as hard as they can to make your story exciting?

I remember this generating a couple of ideas for my first book and giving me a few more ideas on who to kill next (always a bonus in a mystery).  
Warning: It takes a long time and you'll need to dedicate a portion of your wall to the map (challenging for apartment livers and for people whose spouses prefer, um, art on the wall).

Visually scramble your scenes

After writing a first draft, I was a bit stuck on how to fix the flow. I went through and "re-outlined" my story (typing what actually happened after I wrote it in each scene/chapter). Then I printed it out (with spaces between each scene) and cut each scene into a strip. I laid out the scenes on the floor and played with scrambling them up and trying to decide what had to go where. I also wrote up new scenes to insert on pieces of paper and asked questions like, "is my story starting in the right place," "is it dragging anywhere," and "are there places where my protagonist isn't doing enough or is 'absent' from the action too long"?

Warning: Not good for homes that use heat blowers or air conditioners or open window (you can lose all your work in an instant!). Also, must have adequate floor space for this one. And no pets.

Cast your book

If you're having trouble really seeing your characters, you can try "casting" your book like a movie. I tried this with one book and found photos of actors on Google to represent each character and photos of locations. This works best when you have a few actors in mind, or else you'll end up looking for hours and get depressed about how few character actors there are in Hollywood.

Warning: This was not very useful for me since I didn't feel like it helped me go in any new directions. I was just reinforcing what I already knew, and looking for actors that fulfilled my existing vision. And it took a long time.

What other ways have you used to get unstuck? I'm always looking for ideas that will help!

Friday, January 22, 2016

To Suffer the Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune...or Misfortune...of Having Gotten This Question

Is there a well-regarded classic mystery that you’ve read and didn’t see what all the fuss was about? Why not?

by Paul D. Marks

I want to thank Cathy Ace for citing Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd as a classic mystery she had issues with. As every graph of this post except this one was written prior to her piece you’ll see why I owe her a debt of gratitude to be the first to publicly take the Christie heat. Though I guess my not seeing the fuss in Christie goes way deeper than hers. So I’m ready to start shaking in my hobnail boots.

As Susan said on Monday “This week’s question is perfectly designed to get us all on the wrong foot with readers, writers, and obsessive fans.” Well, I like a good fight as much as the next person. And I like a classic mystery as much as the next person. And I’m going to assume that when we say “classic” here we’re talking dead writers. ’Cause we sure don’t want to piss off anyone who’s still living, do we?

And instead of focusing on one book, how about one author, so get your slings and arrows ready: I don’t like reading Agatha Christie. Now, it’s been a long time since I have but I clearly don’t feel the need to go back to her. It’s not that I don’t like her stories, I do. But the style of writing is not one that I enjoy reading.

I hate to be like the person who won’t watch black and white movies because they’re old and look dated or funny to them. I love black and white movies as a whole. But there’s something about Christie’s style of writing that I just don’t spark to though, as I say, I do love her stories. And I like the movie versions of many of her stories, especially And Then There Were None (1945 and despite some changes from the novel), based on Ten Little Indians and its earlier title, which I won’t repeat here.

But, instead of dwelling on the negative and turning an army of Christie fans into haters who will then have to feel horribly guilty, go to a shrink, spend tons of money, and still feel guilty, how about I mention some classic books that I do like and end the week on a more positive note. The style I prefer is more hardboiled, gritty and urban. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s where I’d go first.

Here are some choices, all of which have been turned into movies for good or ill. And even though you might have seen the movies, maybe check out the books too or vice versa. My purpose here isn’t to analyze each novel, just to give a shout out to some I like, so if you haven’t read them you might want to give them a shot, since I know you have nothing but time on your hands and no TBR pile next to your bed:

Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player) (1956), David Goodis’ magnum opus. I’m a huge Goodis fan. Came to him through the movies, the Bogart-Bacall film, Dark Passage, based on Goodis’ book of the same name. Geoffrey O’Brien said of him, “David Goodis is the mystery man of hardboiled fiction. ... He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and smalltime thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own. ... He was a poet of the losers. ... If Jack Kerouac had written crime novels, they might have sounded a bit like this.” And I would agree. So if you’re just feeling too bubbly and happy one day, read a Goodis book. That’ll bring you down a notch. On the other hand, it might also make you appreciate all the good things in your life more. And by-the-by, I think the novel of Down There/Shoot the Piano Player is much better than the Truffaut movie based on it.

Black Money (1966). Ross MacDonald is one of my favorite mystery writers. And Black Money is one of my favorite books of his. Right now it appears that the Coen Brothers (of Blood Simple and Fargo fame) are set to write and direct an adaptation of the book. I’m not sure if I love or hate this idea, but it’ll be interesting to see the final result. You betcha. 

The Grifters (1963) by Jim Thompson. Thompson wrote a series of hard-assed noir novels and even a handful of screenplays, including The Killing and Paths of Glory for Stanley Kubrick—there’s a match made in someone’s idea of heaven. And he led one hell of an interesting life. This one’s a nice mother and son story, just the kind of family story that warms the heart and the barrel of a gun.

Double Indemnity (1936). James M. Cain practically invents noir with this book and the film that followed. Unfaithful femme fatale, shady insurance guy, trains, crutches, murder and anklets. What more could you ask for?

Build My Gallows High (1946) by Geoffrey Homes (a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring) is the basis for one of the all-time great film noirs, Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer as the most alluring of all femme fatales. The screenplay had an uncredited assist from one James M. Cain, among others—something I know oh so much about...

And just about everything by Raymond Chandler and Hammett.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Free me before I lose the Will to live and run away to live on a Croft

Did you crack the code?

I'm sorry and I know we all owe respect to the writers who formed our genre and carved out a home for it in the literary landscape. I especially owe a debt to golden-age authors who give readers an appetite for exactly the kind of puzzle-plot books I write (some of the time).


The works of Freeman Wills Croft make me want to weep. He never researched a train (or a timetable for a train) that he didn't share with his readers. To be fair, he was a railway engineer. He also loved a code. And he truly is the man who put the procedure into police procedurals.

Gorgeous covers, though.

It's hard to describe to US readers why it's funny that he lived in Guildford and then retired to Worthing. But it's a bit like saying someone lived in Chesapeake for a while until they fled the razzamatazz.

Long story short: he's not that gonzo. However, if you enjoy a meticulous depiction of the method an inspector would use to prove beyond doubt that the most likely suspect is indeed guilty, then he might be just your cup of tea.

There is another golden-age writer who has also used timetable alibis, secret codes, and painstaking detail and yet I adore her. But she's Dorothy L Sayers so, as well as the procedure, she has wit, passion, lovable/loathable characters, and a twist to everything she writes. When it comes to twists, I suspect FWC employs a plumb-line.

And when DLS gets the bug for a particular subject  - landscape painting, campanology, the advertising business - as the backdrop to a story, she brings it alive in a way that FWC never has (for me).

But then I've had conversations about DLS with friends who rend their garments and gnash their teeth about "all the bell-ringing", and "a hundred and fifty thousand colours of oil-paint" and "seventeen pages of decrypting a substitution code".

They were both members of the Detection Club Cathy talked about yesterday. In my imagination, FWC was in charge of the pencils and had a protocol to ensure regular sharperning. DLS was in charge of whisky and pranks.

I'll close by apologising to any FWC fans who might read this. And I'll offer up my devotion to O.Douglas - John Buchan's sister - who wrote novels with all the quiet calm of an FWC book and no plots to speak of at all. There's truly no accounting for taste.

Cue angry fans...? by Cathy Ace

Is there a well-regarded classic mystery that you’ve read and didn’t see what all the fuss was about?

I’ve struggled with this question for several reasons…most of which I’m sure you can deduce. Being disappointed by a book isn’t necessarily the fault of the author: maybe it’s just not my cup of tea; maybe the hype would have been impossible to live up to; maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood for that book, that day/week/month. Many factors can contribute. But I’m going to answer this week’s question in any case, and my answer might shock you. It shocked me!

The classic I read and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the book enormously at first reading, and still do now (though the nature of the twist in the tale makes for less impactful, though nonetheless informative, subsequent readings) but I wasn’t as blown away by the ending as my Christie-mad mother had hoped I would be.

I couldn’t understand why Mum kept asking me – it seemed like every two minutes – how I was enjoying the book. It was clear this specific book was special to her. For a while she’d encouraged me to wait before reading it; I’d merrily chomped my way through most of her Marsh and Christie collection before my teens. Then, when I finally picked it off the shelf, she couldn’t wait to find out what I thought of it. When I finished it, I told her I’d found it satisfying and I’d really enjoyed it. We talked about how clever (and annoying) I thought it was, but I could tell she was disappointed that I hadn’t liked it more.

The problem? Not the book – me. You see, I didn’t know about “The Rules”. The rules Christie helped write when she belonged to The Detection Club. The rules she went on to break. (That must have been such fun!) Maybe if I’d known what they were, I would have been more impressed by the spectacular way in which Christie used them, and broke them, to make the book work. Mum knew about the rules and was thrilled by the unexpected reveal. Christie cheated, and it worked. So, yes, while I loved the book then, and can still learn from it now, it certainly didn’t deliver the knock-out punch it could have done for me if only I’d known what “wasn’t allowed”. Christie broke a rule and did it well, drawing down upon herself the ire of many fans who’d never been tricked that way before. A triumph for the mold-maker and -breaker, Christie, and a book I still love, in spite of Mum’s initial disappointment.
Here comes the plug: The second of the WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery series, THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER, is published in the US and Canada on February 1st. Pre-ordering at libraries and bookstores everywhere NOW!