Thursday, October 31, 2019

Light, Bright and Sparkling

They say it’s all in the details. When you’re writing a scene, how much needs to be told?
by Catriona

Funny you should ask that. I only just gave a class on "setting" last month, for the first time. Preparing for it, I thought more about how much of what goes where than I ever have in all my years of writing. (When you're an extreme pantser, you only think about how to write when you've agreed to teach a class. It was the same with "clues". I was as surprised as anyone about what came out.) If it's okay with you, I'm going to mine that workshop for this blog, because I'm flat out, pre-Bouchercon, and pre-book launch.

Agreed? Thank you.

So. Susan, Frank and Cathy have said everything there is to say on how much detail and what kind. I'm going to concentrate on where the details go.

There’s a case to be made for an honest to God paragraph, or even page, of description. If it’s done well and if there’s a little something extra in there - some humour, or some tension, or some light on character – why not? 

Well, one reason why not is that there’s a case to be made for slipping details in on the fly. You build up a rich picture just the same and you don't wreck the pace e.g. of a thriller.

But I don't think it matters anyway. When the reader turns the last page, she or he won’t be able to remember how it was done, if it was well done. She or he will only remember the immersion in a fully-realised world. (I wanted to use Renee James’ Seven Suspects as an example of fantastic setting – Chicago, the working of an upscale hairdressing salon, and the world of young homeless people – but when I went back to the book, I found that she does it so subtly I couldn’t pick out an example. (That’s some of my favourite kind of writing: where you can’t catch them at it!))

In short, I'd say by all means spread a blanket and lay that detail down. And by all means do it in pinches. But there’s one thing I don’t think you should do, and that’s sneak in details where they don’t belong. 

Where's that? I'm glad you asked.

If you say “The house was cold.” you're admitting that you’re describing the setting. You’re taking a whole sentence to do it. It’s honest writing. But if you try to shoe-horn a bit of description into a sentence that’s doing something else, it can go wrong.

"There were ten rooms in the cold house." is weird.
"It was cold in the ten-roomed house." is worse.
 At some point we need to decide whether we're writing a story or selling real estate.

This "house brochure" writing is especially horrible in action scenes. (All of this is imho, by the way.) The following two examples are from real, published novels:
“A thundering iron gate fell nearby .... The parquet floor shook”
“Her blood gushed out in gouts that stained the tufted carpeting”

How terrible are those two sentences? Who cares whether the carpet is tufted when someone's blood is gushing out in gouts? What is it with floors?

I'm going to end with one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite writers. Jane Austen, tongue firmly in cheek, had this to say about putting things where they belong. She was writing to her sister, and responding to some sour reviews of Pride and Prejudice, written by some mightily ruffled and extremely displeased male (don't roll your eyes: it's just a fact) reviewers who thought she was getting too much praise.

"The work is rather too light, bright and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, with solemn, specious nonsense about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique of Walter Scott, or anything that would form a contrast..."

And to think some later critics seriously reported that she regretted the tone of her masterpiece. They probably think Robert Frost is a big fence fan too.

And while you're here . . . No they're not updating the Matrix, I really do have another book coming out next week after that one that came out last week. A STEP SO GRAVE (Dandy Gilver No.13) is out in the US on Tuesday.  You can order it here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Can you smell it? by Cathy Ace

They say it’s all in the details. When you’re writing a scene, how much needs to be told?

Hmmm…it all depends on the scene…

Overall, I think less is more when it comes to description within a scene, and that can also apply to setting the scene in the first place. Which doesn’t mean I don’t describe settings, or people…but I do try to do as little of that as possible. When it comes to action, that’s a different thing, though I don’t think it means you need an unbroken stream of constant action which – even when it’s well written – suggests to the reader that they can skip to the end to see what the outcome is, rather than living through the experience with the characters. Better to break the experience into a series of smaller actions, so the reader works through them with the characters, I think.

I have quite often reached the third or fourth reading of a manuscript before I realize I have given absolutely no physical description of a character at all, and I have to address that; I might be able to see them as I allow them to speak/act, but I feel I have to give my reader at least a sketch of them so they can fill in the blanks for themselves and see their version of the person they are “listening” to.

“Show, don’t tell” is an adage that’s hard to understand, until you realize that the smell is what makes us (even some vegetarians, I understand) want to eat the bacon. Maybe that’s why I seem to have a lot of smells in my books…because (as a psychologist) I know that smell is the sense used to help those suffering from “recollective disorders” to remember. Freshly cut grass, bread baking in the oven, brewing coffee, woodsmoke on the night air…further description of the smell is unnecessary – it’s held so firmly in the grip of our memory we don’t need more than its name to allow recollection to begin.

If you’d like to find out exactly how much I show vs how much I tell, you could check out my books by CLICKING HERE.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Where the Devil Lives

They say it’s all in the details. When you’re writing a scene, how much needs to be told?

-From Frank

Ah, a perfect question for the day before I depart for Bouchercon! A craft-related, insider baseball question, for sure. 

You're getting my second draft of this post. In the first, I filled an entire page with an analogy about details in a scene being akin to nudity in film. I think the analogy worked, but it wasn't family friendly. And comparing a police procedural to detail porn felt like I was taking a swipe at myself and anyone who writes procedurals, so I dumped the entire post.

The central point, though, remains. There is a delicate line of balance in including enough detail to inform the reader but not too much that it overwhelms her, instead keeping her engaged or even intrigued.

There's an argument to be made that the subgenre plays heavily into this. When I am writing a River City procedural, there is often significantly more detail of police procedure in the telling of the tale. This is what readers want and expect from the subgenre - a lot of details around the how of the story. How do the police try to solve the mystery? 

In any scene, though, the delicate line of balance exists. Where it lies on the spectrum may shift due to subgenre, but you're still trying to inform, engage, and intrigue the reader, right? 

Outside of the police procedural elements, I tend to believe that the right place for me to be on the equation is giving the reader just enough description of a location or a person that she can have a picture in her mind of the scene I'm writing about. The human mind is a wonderful thing and most readers will fill in their own take on anything that is missing, as long as you give them enough of a template to start with. Other writers I know are very detailed, and some readers prefer that approach. So in addition to subgenre expectations, you've got varying desires from different readers to contend with.

I think every writer finds the answer to this in his/her own way. For me, it is generally this:  A broad, general description for context, with a splash or two of very specific details to give it the right flavor.

For example, one of my central characters in the River City series is Officer Tom Chisolm. Chisolm is a grizzled veteran of both war and policing. He bears a significant scar on his face from his time in the military, and he's been a cop for fourteen years at the outset of the series, so we can guess he's probably hit the big four-oh (while being part of the five-oh!). Aside from that, I don't know that I've ever given the reader any more specific physical description of Thomas Chisolm, outside of some that are implied (he works out, so he's probably not fat, etc.).

Officer Katie MacLeod, who is the core of the series (at least for me) gets even less physical description. No hair color, no body type, no distinguishing marks. I mean, I have a picture of her in my mind, but the reader may have a very different one, because even though I'm working on book #6 right now, I don't believe I've ever directly described how she looks -- again, outside of what is implied by her actions or others' reactions to her.

But both Chisolm and MacLeod are very real, evolved characters. The details I've chosen to accentuate involve their thoughts and actions. The reader gets to know them both very well based upon those details, and to be honest, I think that those are the most important ones. I don't mind if someone sees Chisolm as a beefy linebacker or a wiry gunfighter, as long as they know who he is as a person, and what he values. Likewise, the reader is free to envision Katie as blonde-haired and curvy or dark-haired and stocky, as long as she knows who Katie is - her courage,  her strength and her vulnerabilities.

Those are the details that matter most, at least to me. They inform, engage, and hopefully intrigue the reader about what is most important. So my answer is -- put enough of those details into the scene (with an eye toward subgenre) to accomplish that task.


Blatant Self Promotion Brought To You By Me

Another reminder that my newest release, At Their Own Game, was just released from Down and Out Books a couple weeks ago. 

This novel is the first in my SpoCompton series, which focuses on telling stories from the perspective of those on the wrong side of the thin blue line -- the criminals. The second, In the Cut, comes out in January 2020.

At Their Own Game features Jake Stankovic, a former cop turned fence, who runs a two-man crew. He's doing great until he breaks his own rules and gets in over his head on a deal. Now he has to deal with a pissed off drug dealer, a pissed off police detective, a worried and possibly treacherous crew, as well as a dangerous woman from his past....and he has to find a way to beat them all, at their own game.  

Monday, October 28, 2019

Details make the scene

Q: They say it’s all in the details. When you’re writing a scene, how much needs to be told?

-from Susan

Readers need to know enough to sense it, to vicariously experience it. But if there’s too much telling, they won’t stay in the scene, they’ll be watching it from the distance on the page. So, enough description of place so they can visualize the physical setting: a gleaming kitchen or a rundown porch, city street or suburban lawn, abandoned quarry or wood-paneled courtroom, quiet interior of a car or noisy bar.
The details that pull the reader deeper into the scene are conveyed through the senses. Does that kitchen smell like just-baked cookies or disinfectant? Is the city street well lighted or disturbingly dark? Is the quarry landscape warm and sunny and can the characters hear birds singing in the trees? Is the courtroom overly chilled by air-conditioning that makes the protagonist shiver? Are the characters sitting in a new Mercedes convertible or 1992 Honda sedan?  The best stories don’t tell the reader these things, they make the reader feel them along with the characters in the scene. 

Some details let us nestle into the story, make us feel good: The juicy watermelon on a picnic table, the soothing sounds of ocean waves, salsa music on the radio, elegant furniture in an English manor. Other details are unsettling: the smell of rubber tires burning, the taste of cheap booze, the flickering candlelight showing in the window of an otherwise dark house. 

And, of course, the right details are critical to the story. That suburban lawn, before dawn, is covered with dew that has been disturbed by footprints. Those tires aren’t the only thing burning. The quarry is down a hill, hidden behind scrubby trees, and is filled with water that absorbs the light and could swallow a teenager pushed into it. (That quarry is the site of the climactic scene in LOVE & DEATH IN BURGUNDY, by the way.)

One last thought: never use the kinds and amounts of detail that become, essentially, a travelogue.
I just read a book that, sadly, bored me because the story and characters were drowned in details about a place the author obviously loved – history, culture, geography, politics. Much of it could have been told within the action, but the author pulled it out time and again to wave it at the reader as if it were a travel brochure.

Ultimately, the answer is use enough detail to bring the story to life, to whet the reader’s imagination, and to seduce the reader to step into the scene you’ve created with all of her senses engaged. 


And now the BSP: Critics have praised the sense of place, the feeling of being in the French countryside with my characters, which pleases me greatly since that was my goal:

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Plot Thickens

By Abir

What draws you in as a reader?

For me, the answer was always plot – the ability of a supremely talented author at the top of their game, to draw us so completely into their story, that we become engrossed turning the pages and racing to the end.

I remember the time I read Lee Child’s first novel, “Killing Floor”. I was amazed by how simply it seemed to be written. Only much later did I realise that it takes a great deal of skill to write as simply as Mr Child does. But what hooked me was the plot. The story. And of course, the hugely satisfying reveal at the end – so simple, yet so clever. It was done in such a way that it made me want to write.

When I came to writing though, I think I forgot this. For the first draft of my first novel, I was too focussed on the theme of the book, the big issue I wanted to explore – that of how a moral, Christian people justifies the oppression of another race – and at times, I think that took precedence over the pace, tension and intrigue of my plot. Of course, my editor rightly pointed out that no one would bother to read my great exposition on cultural oppression and the fallacy of moral superiority if I didn’t give them a damn good story too, and so I rewrote it, focussing as much on the story as on the theme.

That lesson was rammed home to me again, shortly afterwards, by none other than that legend of crime fiction, Val McDermid. I was fortunate enough to be on a panel with her, where she reiterated that readers of crime and mystery fiction expect a sophisticated, engaging and enthralling plot. And it’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart in my writing.

Having said all that, since I became an author, my reading has evolved. I still read for pleasure, though my time is much more limited these days, and when I do, I tend to go for my favourite authors. Those whose plots and writing styles I so love. But more and more, I’m reading to learn and improve my craft. I find myself being drawn in by authors whose command of language and style of writing take my breath away. In this category I’d place the likes of Martin Amis, whose crime novel, London Fields, I found refreshingly original, and Denise Mina, who has a way of observing and detailing human nature in the most beautiful language and which makes me think I have no business even picking up a pen.

So there we go. That’s me sitting on the fence as usual. For enjoyment and escapism, for me it’s all about plot. But as a writer trying to hone his craft, then it’s down to style and language.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Judging a book by its cover.

"What draws you in, as a reader?"

By Catriona

I'm here instead of Jim today because it's publication week for STRANGERS AT THE GATE. And, quite shamelessly, I'm going to use this question to show off everything I love about the book (that I'm not responsible for), and then just a tiny wee bit of the opening (that I am).

Whether we admit it or nor, and despite the homily, don't we all respond to the jacket first of all? I know I do. And I love love love the US jacket of the new book:

I'd wear the colours; the background and foreground image are a perfect distillation of the setting and the opening of the story; that quarter turn of the head is right on the cusp between "What was that?" and "Should I really walk away?" . . . My God, cover designers are clever.

For me, after the cover comes the title. Some of my favourites are Witches on the Road Tonight, Enduring Love, Started Early, Took My Dog, and Donna Andrews' We'll Always Have Parrots. That makes me laugh every time I think of it.  I'm rubbish at thinking up titles of my own, mind you. Thank you once again, April Osborn, for this one!

Do you read the quotes and review excerpts on the covers of books? I do. And that helps a bit when it comes to asking famous, busy, scary authors if they'll read my book and say something nice if they like what they find.  How I hate writing that email. My second worst job ever was cleaning pub toilets. My worst was being a university lecturer. I'd rather do either for the day than ever write "Dear Harlan" again*.

But when it works . . . oh, when it works! Here's a quote I got yesterday (14th Oct):

'I love McPherson's books - the clear and effortless prose, the entirely credible characters, and the wonderfully twisty plots - and Strangers at the Gate is one of her best.' ANN CLEEVES
Wow, right?  

The trade press has been kind. Kirkus called the book "another unsettling and cleverly-plotted winner, and called me "enormously talented". Publishers Weekly mentioned Daphne du Maurier. I'll take all of that and call it a resounding win.

The next thing I, my editor, the sales, marketing and publicity people have to get right is a tag line. Now, I've got to admit that my boxobooks hasn't turned up yet and I can't remember what tag line we went for in the end. It might be "They know the truth. They're coming for you." On the other hand, it might be "Where do you turn when everyone's a stranger and you can't believe what your own eyes see?" It might even be "For the best possible reason, she made the worst decision of her life." In any case, someone's having a bad day. And the reader knows exactly which bit of the mystery fiction forest we're tramping through.

If the tag line (whatever it is) does what tag lines are meant to, our eyes should next be drawn to the teaser synopsis AKA cover blurb (in the UK, although confusingly enough "blurb" means "quote" in the US). I have a hand in this. Sometimes I take first swing and my editors polish it. Sometimes one of them sends me a rough draft and I, with the other editor, do the polishing, but between us, eventually, we get two of the hardest paragraphs of writing anywhere in or on the whole damn 100K word novel beaten into submission.  This time we came up with:

"Finnie Doyle and Paddy Lamb are leaving city life behind them and moving to the little town of Simmerton. Paddy's been made partner at the law firm in town, and Finnie has snagged a job as a church deacon. Their rented cottage is quaint; their new colleagues are charming; they can't believe their luck.

But witnessing the bloody aftermath of a brutal murder changes everything. They've each been keeping secrets, and they both know their precious new start won't survive a scandal. Together, for the best of reasons, they make the worst decision of their lives.

And that's only the beginning. The deep, deep valley where Simmerton sits is unlike anywhere Finn and Paddy have been before. They are not the only ones hiding in its shadows and very soon they've lost control of the game they decided to play..."

That's it. With any luck the jacket image, title, quotes, reviews, tagline and synopsis will work together to make someone open the book and read the first page:

"Looking back, it's tempting to say I knew from the start, as soon as Paddy said the word for the first time. I can nearly convince myself I shivered at the sound of it. Simmerton."

I hope so. Sending a poor defenceless wee book out into the big world is always a tense moment. (But at least I'm not a university professor any more. Yay!)

*Other scary, busy famous authors are available.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Story or style?

What draws you in as a reader?

by Dietrich

Well, I’ve got to say style before story, but style won’t go very far on its own. I want to keep turning the pages, and for that there has to be a story, a sense of where it’s all going. In fact, along with story and style, all the elements need to be strong. We’ve recently talked about the importance of first lines and openings. Sure, it’s the hook, but a story needs interesting subplots, believable characters and settings, possibly some surprises and unexpected turnabouts for the magic to happen.
Style is the author’s voice, the personality coming through the narrative, and the tone or attitude in the telling. And it’s a writers style that truly sets them apart, and whether it’s good is subjective to the reader’s opinion. Something for everybody. And I’m a little fickle that way, sometimes I’m in the mood for the schemes of lowlifes, other times I might kick back with Proust.

I love the writing styles of James Lee Burke, Patti Smith, Elmore Leonard, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, and many other greats. So, regardless of genre, modern or classic, a powerful writing style draws me in. A couple of examples:

“Hallucinations are bad enough. But after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing. But nobody can handle that other trip—the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into Circus Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his mind. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted. 
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

“Baby Suggs didn't even raise her head. From her sickbed she heard them go but that wasn't the reason she lay still. It was a wonder to her that her grandsons had taken so long to realize that every house wasn't like the one on Bluestone Road. Suspended between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, she couldn't get interested in leaving life or living it, let alone the fright of two creeping-off boys. Her past had been like her present--intolerable--and since she knew death was anything but forgetfulness, she used the little energy left her for pondering color.
"Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t." 
– Toni Morrison, Beloved

George V. Higgins wrote entire stories in just dialogue, and as the saying goes character is who we are when no one’s looking. And he could show readers some amazing insights through his characters’ speech. And Cormac McCarthy’s signature style is a rolling rhythm that’s sometimes haunting, sometimes fiery, always confident and stripped down to the bare-bones of punctuation.

For me, reading the works of the greats is not only inspiring, it also influences and helps shape my own work. Plus, not much beats reading a good book.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Story or Style

I recently saw a list of great first sentences for crime novels. The received wisdom is that the reader needs to be drawn in immediately. Maybe, maybe not. If I’m reading an author I’ve never read before, that’s at least partly true.

But there’s no either/or for what draws me in. A whole concatenation of elements can go into moving me forward in a story.

Earlier this summer I finally broke down and read The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowlings). I read the first paragraph, and then read it again…and again. It’s a perfect example of a writer pulling me in. The language. The action. The story that beckons. It’s all there.

That doesn’t mean that every book has to have all those elements to draw me in. I can be intrigued by an interesting turn of phrase, a well-drawn image, a quirky personality, a fine description, or an opening image that promises an intriguing plot. (The fact that Galbraith managed all those in one damn paragraph is rare).

I used to be among those who had to read all of a book that I started, with rare exceptions. Then I started thinking that after 100 pages, if  I hadn’t gotten in the groove, I’d give up. Then it was 50 pages. And now it can be anywhere from a page to ten pages. You could say that I’ve gotten lazy, but I actually think it’s that I’ve gotten more discerning. I figure by ten pages if an author hasn’t given me a reason to move forward, she isn’t doing her job.

But sometimes I find myself cutting an author a little more slack, and the reasons aren’t always clear. It may be because I’ve read the author’s previous work and trust that they’ll come through. Or it may be that the book was recommended by a reader I trust. Or, maybe it’s that indefinable “something,” that tells me that the book needs a little time to develop. That also depends on the writing, though. If it’s poor, I don’t care whether the story develops.

In particular, I can be turned off by grammatical errors, bad dialogue, too much description, clich├ęs, and purple prose. But I can also decide not to read a book because I realize the subject simply doesn’t interest me. For a while it seemed like every other book I picked up was about a dead sister. Enough! I’m not keen on books in which real, historical characters become detectives. If something is preposterous, the writing had better be good from the first word, or I’m done. And if you’re writing a thriller, please don’t give me an older spy who is so alluring that a 20-year-old, gorgeous woman can’t keep her hands off him. Not that it doesn't happen in real life, but the writing has to be beyond good for me to believe it.

Style is a tricky thing. Sometimes I pick up a book I know is “good,” but I can’t get into the rhythm of the writing. Case in particular: Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pyncheon’s masterpiece. I’ve read the first 35 pages about ten times, before I bogged down. I’ve read some of his other books with great pleasure, despite their density. But GR stymies me. On the other hand, I know that when I read Henry James, the prose may be dense, but it pulls me along. Enjoying a book also depends on timing. I picked up Annie Proux’s Shipping News, started reading, and thought it was stupid. But I had sense enough to know it might be me, not the book. Six months later I picked it up, and fell into it easily. And loved it.

I’ve also tried the trick of reading a page well into the book to decide if the style grabs me. If I hadn’t done that, I might not have read A Gentleman in Moscow. I’d love to know what other tricks people have for deciding whether a book is worth their time.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Style and Substance by Brenda

Story or style? What draws you in as a reader?

As both a reader and a writer, this question underpins the choice of books I select from the bookstore and the manuscripts I choose to write. Both story and style hold equal sway in drawing me in and holding my interest whether I’m reading someone else’s work or writing my own.

A book needs to have a plot line that drives forward with enough suspense to keep me turning the pages. Yet, if the writing doesn't hit the key notes: distinctive voice, evocative language, well-drawn, sympathetic characters, sense of place, then I'm likely to stop reading. It goes without saying that the writing skills must also be polished without grammar faults that I can't overlook. This goes for both literary and genre fiction.

I usually give a book several opportunities and seldom consciously decide that it's not working for me. However, I'll set the book down one too many times and will never get back to it even though I intend to keep reading. Instead, I'll inevitably pick up a different book and before long forget to go back to the first one. I know a book has me hooked when I think about its story most of the day and spend hours at a time engrossed its pages, especially as the book nears the end. 

So, I suppose the point I'm making is that style and story are so intertwined that if one isn't working neither will be enough. The books that I most enjoy match the plot with the style of storytelling and I can picture the story unfolding in my mind like a movie. 

In fact, I was watching a television movie this week and the plot was entertaining enough but the acting was so wooden that I lost interest and switched over to another channel. The execution didn't match up to the story. Life is too short and there is too much wonderful choice to waste time on something that doesn't connect with me on all levels.

As for my own writing, I'm excited to tell you that I've recently had my website redone with a focus on laying out my books each with a synopsis and review quotes. The new site appears to have resulted in the upcoming Closing Time hitting pre-sale, best seller status on Amazon so money well spent :-) You can reach me directly through the site to let me know your thoughts or to send along any comments or questions.

And now I'm off to read the final chapters of a book that's had me in its grip all week ...


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