Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Being original

Is it better to be original or to give ‘em what they want? And, would you do it for free?

by Dietrich Kalteis

You give them what they want by being yourself. Writing’s the process of expressing ideas, a unique expression, different for each of us. Turning mental images into words, and how each of us approach it is different every step. And so is finding the best way to be productive and translating those mental images to words and getting them on the page. In the end we have something original, something in our own voice. And we hope that’s what they want.

Pouring ideas into a first draft, then taking out whatever doesn’t work, revising it, making it flow, making it work. Some writers call the process painful, others see it joy-filled. Plot or don’t plot. Edit as you go or edit at the end. Write standing up. Write sitting down. Nobody does it the same way, and nobody should.

If I tried to guess what the next best seller looked like, and if I tried to write it, I’m pretty sure it would be a disaster. What I write can be summed up as the kind of story I’d want to read myself. Writing a novel is a long journey, so I need to be just as jazzed about it when I start as when I’m at the end. It’s the only way I could stick with it. 

I get inspired by what I read, the films I watch, the music I listen to, surrounding myself with what I think is great. And I draw ideas from all of it. 

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”Jim Jarmusch

Would I do it for free? Well, if a writer aims to be rich, he or she could in for some bumpy road. I don’t believe an artist needs to starve to achieve something. And I like money as much as the next guy, and like the next guy, I need some to get by. But, I also need to write. So, a little money. A lot of money. There’s a joy in writing so I’ll keep doing it, and the rest of it will just have to take care of itself.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”— E.B. White

You have to start somewhere, and some of my literary heroes have proven that. Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist writing on the Kentucky Derby when gonzo journalism was born. He wrote a piece on his turbulent time watching the race, fueled by alcohol and drugs, rather than writing about the event itself. Stephen King once worked as a janitor. Harper Lee was a reservation clerk at Eastern Airlines. Raymond Carver was a hospital janitor. J.D. Salinger was an entertainment director on a Swedish luxury liner. Agatha Christie worked in a coffee shop. William S. Burroughs was an exterminator. John Steinbeck worked in a warehouse. Jack Kerouac pumped gas. Kurt Vonnegut managed a Saab dealership. Ken Kesey volunteered for CIA psych tests. And Edgar Allen Poe earned nine bucks for his poem The Raven. All of them originals.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Art or Money?

Terry Shames weighs in on this week’s topic: Is it better to be original or to give 'em what they want? And would you do it for free?
I’ll answer the last question first: I’m tempted to say that I practically do it for free anyway, but that would be an exaggeration. I do make money from my writing—just about enough to pay for my conference attendance and book tours. Which are fun and rewarding. But if I had to live on the money I make from writing, I’d have to be very creative with housing and transportation and be frugal with my spending. Come to think of it, that might be a real solution to my problem of losing weight.


But, I’ve already answered the question of whether I would do it for free. I wrote for years before I got published—to be precise, seven complete novels and ragged versions of others. Plus, short stories that were published in publications that paid in copies only. I always loved the writing, even though the “not finding a publisher” part was difficult.
As for the question of being original or giving “them” what they want, the answer is layered. Once you get a contract, you have an obligation to your publisher that is spelled out in the contract. It may stipulate a certain number of pages, perhaps a story based on a synopsis, or maybe a subject mutually agreed upon. Once you get a fan base, you have an obligation to the fans to produce the best story you can produce, something you know they will enjoy. That’s even more true when you are writing a series. Your fans know your characters and come to expect them to behave in certain ways.
That said, though, you aren’t obligated to feed either the publisher or your fans the same old, same old. You have the ability—even the obligation—to explore the limits of what you are writing. The most famous example I know is when Elizabeth George killed off one of her most popular characters. I asked her what her thinking was and she replied that the book was at a “happily ever after” dead end, and something major had to happen to shake up the story line and send it in a different direction.

In my latest book, A Reckoning in the Back Country, I realized that I wasn’t happy with my main character, Samuel Craddock’s, lady love. I thought Ellen was boring. My solution was to send in a new love interest. She practically forced herself into the book and I immediately adored her. Some of my readers loved the change, some of them were wistful for the old relationship—and one woman warned me not to marry Samuel off because she wanted him for herself! The fun part for me came when I discovered that Ellen, the “old” love interest, had a secret that she had been keeping from Samuel. That’s the kind of originality that can’t be stifled by an obligation to “give ‘em what they want.”
In the end, discovery is what makes writing worthwhile. Even if you have obligations outside your own creative impulses, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the process of discovery that happens within those boundaries. And of course, you can always take off and write something you don’t have a contract for, or even something you don’t plan to publish. We writers live in worlds of our own making—which is why I would do it for free!

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Name Game

How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

by Paul D. Marks

For names I simply call up Ye Olde Name Generator (see pic). A complicated machine of many parts. I feed in the alphabet and it spits out glorious and diverse names, usually something like “Joe”.
Or I might play the name game, you know, “Shirley! Shirley, Shirley, Bo-ber-ley, bo-na-na fanna, Fo-fer-ley. fee fi mo-mer-ley, Shirley!” – Is anyone even named Shirley anymore? If I was setting something in the 1950s it might be the perfect name.

But seriously, he said in the deepest old-fashioned DJ voice he could muster, in the olden days I would look through baby naming books, at least for first names of both boys and girls. Today I look on the internet. There’s all kinds of resources there for names of various ethnicities, what names were popular in a certain year, etc., so if you have a story with a character of a certain age you can see what names were popular for boys and girls the year that character was born. Sometimes I’ll look at movie credits of different eras to get an idea as to names for various time frames.

And yes, names can sometimes change multiple times before a story is done, which is what makes the computer global change function so wonderful. Often a name will change at least once. Frequently, I don’t even have a name for a character when I start so use placeholder names. Often movie stars’ names. In a story I’m working on I used the name Joan Crawford for a character until I could come up with an appropriate name for that character. I don’t want to be slowed down by trying to think of names too early in the process.

Also, sometimes I might like a name so much I decide to hold it back for another work where I can give the character with that name more “screen time.” That also happened in the story I’m working on. I have a character and gave him a name I like a lot. It’s also a name that says a lot. Then I decided I liked the name so much I didn’t want this character to have it because he’s such a minor character who gets killed off before we really even get to know him. But because I like the name so much I’m going to change it in this story and save it for something else, where he’ll have more scenery to chew on.

I also have a character named after a real person in a real case in this same story. That name will also change before the story sees the light of day.

Some naming rules:

They shouldn’t be too hard to pronounce – you don’t want readers stumbling over them.

Don’t try too hard to be unique  – like soap opera characters that always have names like Raven Snow or Chastity Chamberfield, unless going for humor or irony.

Names can be symbolic, foreshadow things or can be ironic. In my story 51-50, the cop character, Cleaver, is purposely named after Ward Cleaver, the all-American father on Leave it to Beaver. I wanted to play against that all-American image of Ward Cleaver with a tough cop about to lose his sanity.

Names can be revenge for someone you don’t like – but be careful when doing this and disguise it well.

Names can be an homage.  In my short story Free Fall, the femme fatale is named Gloria, after film noir icon and femme fatale Gloria Grahame. In Broken Windows, the sequel to White Heat (not yet published), there is a character named Chandler – a woman cop – but we all know who that name pays homage to.  And in my story L.A. Late @ Night and my noir story Born Under a Bad Sign, there is a cop named Larry Darrell – which pays homage to Somerset Maugham’s character in The Razor’s Edge (my favorite book of all).  Not that he’s much like Maugham’s Larry Darrell, but still.

Names can give insight into the character – who they are and where they’re from – sometimes the story behind the name can give you a little extra info about the character – for example Michael Connelly’s Harry “Hieronymus” Bosch – a unique name with an interesting story behind it.

Sometimes names should break stereo types: In White Heat there is an African-American character named Warren. Someone who read the book said Warren isn’t a black name. But I named the character after a black Marine friend I’d had. Just because a character is black or Hispanic, or any other ethnicity, doesn’t mean they have to have an ethnic-sounding name.

Titles are pretty much the same. Sometimes an appropriate title just pops into my head out of the air. Sometimes it’s an overheard snatch of conversation, a well-known phrase or song title. Sometimes I just have to think about it. But again I don’t halt progress to worry about it. If I come up with titles that I think will be good for a specific project I’ll list them at the head of the story’s file. And keep adding to that list till the right one sticks. I have a file of story titles that’s something like 30 pages long. Sometimes I look at it, often I don’t have to.

I don’t have a file of character names, though I do have a handful of those jotted down in a file or two somewhere, but not as methodically organized as my title file. I tend to wing it more with character names.

Whether titles or names, as Shakespeare said, Joe Shakespeare from Queens, “Rosie Tamborello by any other name would smell just as sweet as baked ziti.”


And now for the usual BSP:

There’s a fun and interesting article on Alfred Hitchcock in the Washington Post (and other places) from Associated Press writer Hillel Italie: Alfred Hitchcock Remains an Influence on Crime Writers. It includes quotes from Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mike Mallory, SJ Rozan, A.J. Finn, Otto Penzler.......and even me! Enjoy!

Also, my Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down and Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. Here is the new cover reveal:

Check out my website:


Thursday, February 22, 2018

Just Add Elvis.

"How do you come up with titles? Do they change during the writing process?'

By Catriona.

Like Cathy yesterday, I'm sticking to titles because the process of naming characters is so different from the process of naming books. A character name comes while I'm writing, like the fourth name of the cat, from profound meditation and rapt contemplation. (see T.S.  Eliot's "The naming of cats" here).

The name of a book, in contrast, comes once the book's written. And it comes in various ways.

A: from a message exchange between me and Terri Bischoff (Midnight Ink) that goes like this:

C: Hang My Hat okay?
Terri: Sales don't love it. What else you got?
C: Lexy, Last Ditch, Last Ditch for Lexy, Caledonia Dreamin', Lexy and The Last Ditch.
Terri: Nah.
C: I dunno. A pun?
Terri: Likes of plaid, tartan? Are you serious about the Jimmy Wig? Even with no hat in the title?  I like the woman floating in the pool.
C: I do love a drunk woman in a duct-taped inflatable. Oh! Oh! Oh! Loch Ness Monster inflatable!
T: LMAO. What's the title.
C: Oh yeah. Scot Free? Forget I said that.
C: No way. I was just thinking aloud.
T: I love it.
C: Oh God.

B. A short text exchange between me and Krystyna Green (Little,Brown) that goes like this:

K: House.Tree.Person is the worst title I've ever heard. It's just three random words. Can you give me something better in twenty minutes?
C: Ha!
C: (twenty minutes later) Angels Unaware, The Dance of Angels, The Weight of Angels.
K: Weight of Angels! Ta.

C: (emails Terri Bischoff): London is calling HTP The Weight of Angels. Waddaya think?
T: Won't work in the US market. Buyers will think it's real angels.
C: Real angels?
T: Inspirational Christian fiction.
C: Oh, jeez. It's really not.
T: House.Tree.Person is a great title.

C: Phone call with Francine Toon (Hodder & Stoughton)

F: Dandy word, crimey word, plotty word.
C: Dandy word, crimey word, plotty word.
F: Dandy Gilver and a Dandy word . . .
C: And a crimey word . . .
F: Dandy Gilver and  . . . unseemly, appalling, dreadful, distressing.
C: fearful, frightful, rather.
F: corpse, death, body, murder, crime, clue. And a plotty word.
C: Nun, convent, orphan, habit.
F: Ooooh, habit!
C: Dandy Gilver and The Rather Unseemy Habit?
F: But church people with bad habits? And an orphanage?
C: OMG. No way. That's dreadful. So not unseemly, or distressing, appalling and all that if it's habit.
F: Mysterious.
C: Misleading.

(Note: this book has been called The Nuns in every email since that day. )

The only one I still pine for was my working title on a book that ended up being called Growing Up Again. It was a time-travel caper - think Forrest Gump joins Friends Reunited on Groundhog Day - and I called it SAVE ELVIS. which is job one for a time traveller. Well, the publisher wasn't having it. I tried. I even handed out questionnaires to the core demographic readership asking which title they preferred. (They preferred Save Elvis.) But the publisher thought Elvis was a forgotten and,  even if remembered, then a sad, old, dead man. No good for a caper.

When Growing Up Again was published there had just been a self-help book out called Growing Up Again: parenting our children, parenting ourselves. Deeply caper-free. And at the launch event, the bookshop staff - in all innocence - set me up in front of a display for a new Elvis biography. Oy. God bless my mum for her sense of humour too. She always bakes a book cake. Here's the cake for Growing Up Again:

I'm still glad it happened, though, because no title change since then has had the power to hurt me. Whether it's a skoosh like the upcoming Go To My Grave. which was my working title and is a go in the UK and US, or a struggle like Lexy Campbell Bk 2 (watch this space) it rolls off me like split mayo.

Scot Free: 8th April (US only) Midnight Ink
Go To My Grave: 23rd October Minotaur (US) Little,Brown (UK)
The new Dandy? We're still having Dandy word, crimey word, plotty word phone calls.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

CASES about CORPSES and a CALENDAR! by Cathy Ace

Q: How do you come up with titles and character names? Do they change during the writing process?

When I wrote the first Cait Morgan Mystery I knew I wanted to use a title that would be relatively easy to adapt for a series. Katherine Hall Page’s “The Body in the….” series and MC Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth’s “Death of a…” series used a framework to good effect, I thought, and I wanted to avoid the alliteration or puns that tend to be associated with truly cozy mysteries, because I have never thought of the Cait Morgan Mysteries as cozy, but as “traditional”. I looked around at the various series titles in the marketplace and saw that the words DEATH, DEAD, BODY, MURDER and KILLING were quite popular, so decided to take a step aside and use CORPSE in my titles. 

Then, what to add? What defining factor/s might be used repetitively? Since the first book dealt with the murder of a man who managed to winkle people’s secrets out of them, I decided upon “THE CORPSE WITH THE SILVER TONGUE”, and, as I played with the proposals I was putting forward for seven more books in the series, I quickly realized all my victims worked award-winning vintner had a GOLDEN NOSE; an extremely green-thumbed plantswoman had an EMERALD THUMB; a woman whose personal style was stuck in the 1960s had PLATINUM HAIR; a Welsh choirmaster had SAPPHIRE EYES; a card-sharp died holding a DIAMOND HAND; a man had a large birthmark giving him a GARNET FACE, and a woman who wore vivid lipstick had RUBY LIPS.

I was thrilled, and made my proposals along these lines. They were accepted - YAY!

Then, when it came to my WISE Enquiries Agency books, what I wanted to write was a “casebook” series, rather than a series of “mysteries” (insofar as private investigators work on cases, which are not – necessarily – “mysteries" or even murders). However, my publisher had other ideas, so the tag “Mysteries” was added, and I was left to use the word “Case” in the title. These books are “cozy” in that they are village-based, with recurring characters and they are really quite gentle, so I was happy to work with alliteration at least. 

The main case (there are several in each book, sometimes linked) in the first book centered on a dowager duchess who might, or might not, be losing her marbles, so I proposed THE CASE OF THE DOTTY DOWAGER. For the second book the main case allowed for the title THE CASE OF THE MISSING MORRIS DANCER. However, for the third book, my publisher didn't like my proposed titles of THE CASE OF THE BEWILDERED BOOKSELLER, or THE CASE OF THE MURDERED MINIATURIST, or THE CASE OF THE ARROGANT ARTIST - all of which related to cases within the book - rather, he wanted to focus not on the “problem” but the client; hence the title became THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS COOK. I got quite a few emails from readers asking why the book was called that, as there wasn't a cook featured in any of the cases, so I wrote polite replies pointing out that one of the commissioning clients in the book had once been a TV cook - named The Curious Cook by BBC Wales - before she became the joint owner of a bookshop with her father...where the main case originated. 

For the fourth I convinced them to come back to the nature of the problem, rather than the client, and  they accepted THE CASE OF THE UNSUITABLE SUITOR. As you can see, there’s a play on words throughout this series which – I think – works well for the sub-genre.

I will add that each publisher only ever referred to “SILVER TONGUE” or “GOLDEN NOSE” dropping “THE CORPSE WITH THE...”, or to “DOTTY” or “COOK” for the WISE series in all our communications. I have to say I can cope with that – but have always felt it disrespectful of publishers (and/or authors) to simply refer to a book by its initials in public communications (eg: Facebook etc). 

“TCWTSN” means nothing to me, nor do I think it conveys to a reader the amount of love, care and attention I have put into the book, nor is respectful of the amount of time they have spent/will spend reading THE CORPSE WITH THE SILVER TONGUE.

Recently, I published “MURDER KEEPS NO CALENDAR” – an anthology of twelve short stories and novellas, one relating to each month of the year. When deciding upon a title for this book I knew it would end up as one of a pair, so the title had to be “adaptable” in some way. I liked the fact that the proverb/traditional saying of “Death keeps no calendar” was first formally recorded and encoded in a book published by Welshman George Herbert (born in Powys, where the WISE Agency is located!) in the early 17th century, but the use of the word “Death” sounded a bit too close to “horror”, rather than “murder mystery” to me, so I changed the first word to “Murder”. I've also decided that the second anthology will be called “MURDER KNOWS NO SEASON”…which I think works well with the short story collection (it’s an anthology of four novellas, each relating to one season of the year).

As for character names…I have to admit that’s a whole different (and maybe much longer blog post). Suffice to say, my own attitudes, lots of research into popular/unpopular names at the year of birth in the right country, and (importantly) in the correct social strata, via google (and the fear of potential lawsuits!) play a part.

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: