Thursday, November 30, 2017

Get thee behind me, sort of.

Scientists have invented a robot that can do your writing for you. You give it the basic plot and characters and it does the rest. Would you use it? Why or why not?

by Catriona

This is a bad day to ask me. Ordinarily, I wouldn't entertain the notion. However, right now I'm trying to edit a book to give to my agent for her to read on the plane to Tokyo on the 23rd of December. I know the story is there somewhere, as are the characters. I know I can tighten the plot and fix the pace because I've done it before. I know which bits of  the prose need attention because I have a sense of smell and they stink. I can do it. I will do it. (I can't be responsible for my beloved agent getting stuck on a fifteen hour flight with a bad book.)

If I could just hand it over to the Plot-o-Bot, though? And, instead, spend the next three weeks responding to the editor's notes on a different book, which happened to land on my desk today? So that was done by the end of the year? And I could start next year with a clear desk? Tempting.

If I didn't like what the Editron did, I could always fix it in the next edit, couldn't I?

I'd never let a Myster-a-matic write a first draft, or a final draft, or even check page proofs. But I've got to tell you: if I could farm out tasks like "spread this sub-plot back through the early chapters" and "sharpen this relationship; it's boring" and "merge these two minor characters into one" [groan], I might well.

And I'd definitely let it write the synopsis. I'd let my blender write synopses if its typing was better. Wouldn't you?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Danger, Will Cathy Ace

Scientists have invented a robot that can do your writing for you. You give it the basic plot and characters and it does the rest. Would you use it? Why or why not?

Okay – so this is going to be a short one from me today, because my answer is simple...but read on, because there's some NEWS at the end of this blog you won't want to miss...

“No, thank you. I’m delighted you think you’ve invented a robot you believe can breathe life into the most basic elements of storytelling, but I have a question for you, ‘What have you been reading to even think this might be possible?’” 

I mean, seriously? Take the plot and characters of each Shakespeare comedy or tragedy and you have a ‘blueprint’ – give them to the Master, and you have wondrous works that speak to us today as they spoke to those who first saw them performed almost 500 years ago. That’s the human touch. 

Take the plots and characters of Agatha Christie’s works and give them to a thing and see what you get…a type of pastiche, lacking the human touch. Same goes for the works of any author. 

The human touch is what sets apart the basics of plot and character. The style of the author, their individual voice, beyond those of their characters. 

No. Nope. Not for me. Thank you. 

But if you could invent something that could do all my chores and errands for me, so there's more writing time available, I'd take it in a heartbeat! 

Cathy Ace is the Bony Blithe Award-winning author of The Cait Morgan Mysteries and The WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries.  You can find out more about Cathy, her work and her characters at her website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter with news, updates and special offers:

Available NOW for pre-order...coming December 11th...find out how Cait Morgan met Bud Anderson, how the WISE Women set up in business together...and more. 8 novellas, 4 short stories...a ton of murderous fun!Click here to connect!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

I’m Thankful

From Jim

If you could choose between being incredibly popular, prolific and commercial like James Patterson or being a revered, admired writer who will go down in history as a classic which would you choose and why?

Short answer: Both. Who wouldn’t want to achieve financial and critical success?

Long answer: I’m thankful but motivated.

(Photo removed)

On the subject of financial success, I’m fond of quoting Mr. Bernstein, Charles Foster Kane’s business manager in Citizen Kane. “Well, it's no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money.” That may be true. I can’t say for sure because I haven’t tried it. While I’d love to make a lot of money, I’ve always wanted more than just that. That’s why I wouldn’t steal to acquire wealth, for one thing. Or work for Donald Trump, for another. And that’s why I wouldn’t write and try to sell something I don’t believe in. 

(Photo removed)

When vampire books were all the rage, I didn’t jump on that bandwagon and try to write one because they didn’t really appeal to me. I’m not criticizing vampire novels. I’m only saying I’m not interested enough to write one myself. The same way I’m not interested (or qualified) enough to write a physics textbook or a legal brief.

I don’t begrudge writers who reap wild financial rewards. Nor do I invoke Mr. Bernstein’s aphorism to describe their success. You can’t fool readers, at least not for long. If writers are finding success with their books, it’s probably because they’re doing something right. Something they believe in. We all have different interests and passions. That’s what makes a horse race. (By the way, the sixth Ellie Stone mystery, A STONE’S THROW, comes out June 5, 2018, and it’s about horse racing. Very exciting and there are horses! You don’t want to miss this one.) 

Excuse the BSP, but we were discussing horse racing, after all. Oh, right. We were talking about success and/or literary legacy.

Close parentheses.

The problem with achieving immortality in a pantheon of writers is that you’re no longer around to enjoy it. Kind of a hollow victory, isn’t it? Whereas money buys so many things, not least of which is a sense of accomplishment. 

So, for me, the ideal would be to achieve a balance between the two. A healthy dose of accolades and piles of cash. And both in this lifetime, please. But if that dream never comes true—if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose—I would have to go with what I’ve already got. That is I’m happy to be a writer. I’m thankful to have an agent, a publisher, readers, and some much appreciated recognition. Because it’s really all gravy, considering I’d be writing just the same even if I had none of that. Creating is the best part of writing, and I’ll never forget that.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Write what you know

by Dietrich Kalteis

If you could choose between being incredibly popular, prolific and commercial like James Patterson or being a revered, admired writer who will go down in history as a classic which would you choose and why?

Popular, prolific and commercial or revered and admired — rich or famous? We all want to be recognized and rewarded for what we do. Yes, it would be great to see a line snake down the block at my next book signing. And if there was a lot of money and a movie deal to go along with it, yoohoo, I wouldn’t rip up the checks. But let’s face it, writing fiction is the love of making stuff up and telling a good story.

It took time to find my voice and the right fit (genre) for it. Once I had that, it wasn’t about chasing a market down a rabbit hole or guessing at a best-seller; it was writing what I love to write about. There’s a passion to it, and that’s like writer’s rocket fuel. And it’s great when the words just flow on the page.

Storytelling is an art, and trying to force myself to write something I don’t have my heart in would never work. It would feel like work at best. And worse than that would be trying to sound like somebody else while I take a stab at the next best thing — a sure way to end up with a pile of crap. Being influenced and inspired is something different, and that’s why I read what I think are great books, to help elevate my own writing.  

Putting on blinders and tuning out the world, not thinking about whether I’ve got a hit or miss on my hands is how it’s going to get done. Just focusing on the work, not letting in distractions. I’m at my best when I turn off the phone, shut my door, turn up the music and refrain from social media and email, and go play with my imaginary friends.

Besides the voice and sticking to what I know, I think it’s important be able to edit my own work, to know when I’m taking a bad turn on a first draft, when to cut a scene from a second draft, and know when I should set down the third one and call it done.

Write what you know, they say. Well, I haven’t done most of the things my characters get into, but I suppose there’s a bit of me in there somewhere. Maybe I write what I do because I like seeing justice served, like when the antagonists get what’s coming to them. Or maybe I like the levity and irony that often creeps into the stories. Overall, I aim to write the kind of stories I would like to read myself. That’s the way it works for me, writing about something that sparks my interest, then finding that groove and letting the words flow. And in the end, if the book becomes a hit, then I say yoohoo, bring it on.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Can I have it All?

Today the question is, would you rather be rich or famous for all time.
Short answer: Why can't I have it all?
I was talking with a publisher recently, and he said, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re really doing well.” Although I was flattered, I was also puzzled. What did that mean, exactly? Yes, I have a good base of readers, but if I had to depend on the sales of my six books for a living, you could visit me in my trailer in Podunk, Tennessee, where I assume living expenses would be a lot less than in the Bay Area. I know a lot of reasonably well-known authors—those with a few awards, a couple of appearances on best-seller lists—who write good books, but are never going to be able to pay the rent on their sales.
Like a lot of authors, I’m puzzled about what it takes, once you’ve written a good book, to become one of those authors whose books get snapped up by millions of people the minute they are published. Several of my loyal readers have told me they like my books better than (insert name of any number of wildly successful writers). So how come I’m not rich and famous? And back to the question: which would I rather be; rich, or famous?

Did William Shakespeare, arguably the most famous writer of all time,  make money commensurate with the admiration that endures for him? (Since nobody knows much about him, it’s hard to say). Did Charles Dickens make money in his time? He paid the bills. How about Jane Austen? Or Anthony Trollope? Or moving to the last century, how about Virginia Woolf? Earnest Hemingway? William Styron? E.L. Doctorow? Toni Morrison? All those authors are household names. Did they make the kind of money James Patterson does?
These days, books of literary genius are often successful monetarily as well. The opposite, not so much. Nobody thinks James Patterson’s books are going to be read in 100 years as masterpieces. I’ll bet he sobs about that every time he checks his bank account. Does the wildly popular Louise Penny make buckets of money? How about Sue Grafton? Michael Connelly? Craig Johnson? Don Winslow? The answer is probably yes, they do pretty well.
Will any of those be read 100 years from now with appreciation for their fine writing? Maybe. Craig Johnson puts together a damned fine sentence. Louise Penny writes beautifully. John LeCarre is likely. But do they write any better than any number of mid-list (meaning “the rest of us”) authors? That’s where the question comes in.
The answer is: who knows what will stand the test of time in the crime writing field? So given that answer, I want to make money on my books now. Let time be the arbiter of whether they last. I’ll be long-gone, and won’t know the answer anyway. So if anybody knows how to be one of those authors who is doing not just “well,” but making money hand over fist, I’m all ears.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Rules Are Made to be Broken

Grammar – everyone’s gotta do it. How important is grammar and what resources do you use to make sure you’re on top of it. And when do you break grammar rules?

by Paul D. Marks

Grammar is important, obviously. Look at some books and how poorly they’re written. The whole point of grammar is to be able to write sentences that others will understand. That said, sometimes we can break the rules and people will still get the point we’re trying to make. After all, we’re not writing term papers, we’re writing fiction. And we’re not writing fiction in the 19th century, so we write more casually, break more rules. That said, we still need to be able to communicate.

I have a friend who wants to be a writer more than anything in the world. And she constantly shows me her work. But it’s so hard to get through it, partly because of grammar issues, that I end up giving up and not finishing it. You have to have more than a desire to write. Writing is both a craft and an art and you have to get the craft down. And part of the craft is knowing grammar.

Grammar provides the backbone or the foundation for your writing. You have to know it before you can start breaking the rules. And if you break the rules, you have to know what rules you’re breaking and why, for what effect.

You can, indeed, break the rules to create a certain “voice” or style of writing. Or in dialogue to have people talk like real people. I often break the rules of pacing, style, cadence and repetition for emphasis, to create that voice. To that end, I often write in sentence fragments. But I have to go back over everything to make sure I’m not overdoing it or doing it to the point of distraction. One of my favorite writers is James Ellroy, probably most famous for his LA Quartet which includes the book LA Confidential, that many of us know from the movie if not the book itself. As the LA Quartet series of books progressed, Ellroy’s style become more abbreviated. More staccato. At first I liked it. But by the time of White Jazz, the last book in the series, it had gotten to be a little much. And in some books that came after the series it was unbearable, at least for me. So I skipped a couple of his books. Though with his latest, Perfidia, he seems back on track. My point is, you can have too much of a good thing.

The main thing is that you want to have clarity of thought. You want people to be able to understand what you’re saying. To get it. You also want your story to read smoothly, even if it’s written in a staccato style. It shouldn’t be so overwhelming that people stumble through it.

One place where grammar rules don’t necessarily apply is in dialogue, because people don’t necessarily talk in complete, grammatically correct sentences. But dialogue is one of the places where I think people mess up. I see some very well-known writers whose characters often don’t use contractions. But most people do. And when I come across that kind of dialogue it just sounds so formal and takes me out of the story. It makes the characters sound stiff and as if they’re not native English speakers. And this always throws me out of the moment.

So sometimes it’s better to be more nimble than correct. Better not to miss the forest for the trees. In this case the trees are correct grammar but they block our view of the forest as a whole. And maybe it’s best to remember what Mark Twain said about this: “Great books are weighted and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar.”

But then there’s Dan Brown, whose writing is atrocious and whose sales are through the roof. So who knows? Throw caution to the wind and the Chicago Manual in the fire.

So, what do I use to make sure I’m on top of it: These days my go-to source is the internet. Various sources of grammar can be found there in abundance. But I still have hard copies of Strunk and White, the Chicago Manual of Style and others. And I do go to them on occasion. There’s also classics like The Transitive Vampire, Eats, Shoots & Leaves and so many others, too many to name.

What are your thoughts and recommendations on this?


And now for the usual BSP:

Please check out the interview Laura Brennan, writer, producer and consultant, did with me for her podcast, where we talk about everything from Raymond Chandler and John Fante to the time I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. Find it here:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Rant ahead: proceed at your own risk

"How important is grammar and when do you break grammar rules?"

Less important than story, character and pacing but a smidge more important that spelling and punctuation? At a guess. An editor can fix unintended grammar gaffs, but if a story is boring or all the characters are thin, you won't have an editor willing to take you on.

The word I want to home in on in that last paragraph is "unintended". If you're aiming at some particular English dialect - Standard US or 18th century Cockney . . . whatever - you don't want to miss.

Quite often, though, when people talk about "grammar", "correctness" and "rules", they're trying to impose some random hierarchy of prestige on the big glorious ragbag of the world's Englishes.

Yes, formal standard English from your home country has its place. It's a good idea to use it in a querying letter to agents and if your publisher's contract doesn't use it, you might be in trouble. If you dispense with all rules of grammar completely and just ramble on repeating a jumble of your favourite words in vaguely connected phrases, you'll never get anywhere.  Sorry, bad example. Where was I?

But the local formal standard is only one of the options. All the dialects, regional, racial and social, all the other standards around the world . . . What riches! What treasure! What bugs me about sticklers for grammar is how often they think (unthinkingly, surely) that their particular variety of English is maximally correct, expressive and elegant and all the others are lazy, degenerate and hard to understand.


Here then are my top three peeves about people with peeves about grammar. (I also don't suffer people who don't suffer fools gladly gladly.)

3. They're faking!

People who pretend not understand dialects are sometimes lying. When I was growing up, I heard many, many times that if I said "I int got none" I was really saying "I've got some" because two negatives make a positive. Nonsense. Wrong. I wasn't and they knew I wasn't. They understood the meaning perfectly well. They were faking. And for some bizarre reason, it was a matter of pride to pretend not to understand, as if dodgy comprehension skills were cool. "I ain't done nothing", "I haven't seen any" "We don't need no education" (naughty Pink Floyd) and "Je ne sais pas" have all got two negative bits in them. And they're still negative. To turn them positive you need to change both bits.

2. They don't get that all languages are orderly systems!

I've heard otherwise quite thoughtful people say, straight-faced, that the grammar of some dialect or other is just wrong. A mistake. Doesn't make sense. "My hair needs washed" is good Scottish English but that didn't stop this happening:

English Friend: "My hair needs washing" makes more sense. It needs you washing it. See?
Me: Okay. If we're allowed to add two words to explain why we're right . . . it needs to be washed.
EF: But then you could say "I'm washed my hair right now."
Me: No, I couldn't.
EF: Ha! Why not?
Me: Same reason you couldn't say "Last night, I washing my hair".
EF: Of course, I couldn't.
Me: And no one's allowed to say "mes cheveux ont besoin d'etres laves"?
EF: French people are.
Me: But doesn't it make more sense the way you say it?
EEF: Oh shut up.

1. They think they're the end-point of history. This is the one that really gets on my wick. Here's the argument in a nutshell:

8th Century English: the original and best.

     Hwæt! Ic swefna cystsecgan wylle,
hwæt me gemætteto midre nihte,
syðþan reordberendreste wunedon!
þuhte me þæt ic gesawesyllicre treow
14th century English: very different, still beautiful.

 A prentys whilom dwelled in oure citee,
 And of a craft of vitailliers was hee.
 Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe,
 Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe,
 With lokkes blake, ykembd ful fetisly.

18th century English: more change but no need to worry

IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

[grammar stickler happens to be born and learns to speak]

21st Century English: English is doomed and the sky is falling!

I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol
Foes that want ta make sure my casket's closed
Rap critics that say he's "Money Cash Hoes"
I'm from the hood, stupid? what type of facts are those?
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You'd celebrate the minute you was having dough

In conclusion: language changes. We'll be fine.

Rant over.