24 October 2011

What's Up Doc?

by Jan Grape

It only recently occurred to me that the more I learn about this business of writing, the less I know. Okay, I guess that's not exactly earth-shattering and I think I've even concluded that before, but this time maybe it's really sticking in my mind.

Most likely, if anyone ask, I usually say I've been writing all my life. But I was a senior in high school before anything I wrote would be published. It was an essay on "What Christmas Means To Me." My English teacher published it in the high school newspaper and after class one day, a bunch of kids ran up to me telling me that my essay had been published. I don't remember what I wrote and my copy of the paper has long been lost, but I'm sure it was a grand and wonderful essay. (ha)

I wrote for my eyes only for a number of years and then when my children grew up and left home I decided I'd pursue my life-long dream of getting a book published. My favorite reads for years were mystery novels and specifically the private eye novel. When I was twelve or thirteen my dad handed my a copy of a Mickey Spillane book and I fell in love with Mike Hammer. Tough, no nonsense, bigger than life heroic guy and my fantacy was to be beautiful and voluptous like Velma. I browsed through my dad's paperbacks and read Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, which I liked, but liked Donald Lam and Bertha Cool, private eyes even better. I devoured Richard Prather's Shell Scott books. Next came John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. I wanted to live on the Busted Flush boat with him.

No wonder then that I chose a female private eye character for my first novel, April Anger, featuring Jenny Gordan. By the end of that book Jenny had picked up a side-kick, a beautiful black woman, ex-cop, named Cinnamon Jemima "C.J." Gunn. My good friend for over forty years was Choicie Green and it was she who picked C.J.'s name. AA was never published, it came close a couple of times, but, it truly wasn't good enough. There have been about a dozen short stories with these two. I wanted to show that a deep siserhood and friendship could exist between these two women from different ancestry and backgrounds.

With the passage of time I wrote a number of short stories and articles and non-fiction about mystery and always I learned more and more about how to write. My writing improved the more I wrote. For me, a good opening is mandatory. I work hard to get my opening right and even when I go on with the story, I may rework and tweak that opening.

On of the best opening lines I've ever read is: "The last camel collapsed at noon." How can you not want to know more than that? And just look at everything that one short sentence tells you. First you're in the desert someplace because you're riding a camel. It's noon and bound to be 129 degrees in the shade and the last camel just died. What is going on? Who is telling this story and what in the heck is going to happen next? (The Key To Rebecca by Ken Follett if you want to read it.) Then Elizabeth Peters titled one of her Amelia Peabody books, The Last Camel Died At Noon

But my writing also improved the more I read other writers. Good and bad. Learning the good helped me be a better writer and the bad helped me learn what not to do. I've been priviledged to read books and stories for the Edgar Awards (given by Mystery Writers of America) and for the Shamus award (given by Private-Eye Writers of America) where I learned about good books and great books. I've also read entries for contests and I've been in critique classes where besides being critiqued, I also would critique other writers. Boy, can you learn a lot then.

Most importantly for me, I want a book that grabs me immediately. The opening sentence, paragraph or page gets my attention and I dive in hoping to keep being entertained. I'll give a new book/author about fifty to seventy-five pages to catch me and that's about it. But that's not what a reader will give you.

My late husband and I owned Mysteries and More bookstore in Austin, TX for nine years and time after time we saw customers come in and pick up a book. Usually they'd look at the back of the jacket or the inside flap of a jacket and if that intrigued them enough, they'd turn to the first page. Invaribly if they weren't hooked by then, they'd put the book down and that was it. Now I'll admit the cozy mystery usually leads you into a character or a set of characters, a location or setting, a mood or something besides an action scene, but there must be something that grabs you.

A good title often helps to sell a book and a good front jacket cover does wonders. Yet when that part is satisfied and maybe reading a synopsis or what others say about the book satisfies you, then the opening of the book should make you want to read the next page, the next chapter, until you finish the book.

So I work hard to come up with a good opening line and I find I'm more critical of myself and I keep hoping I'll find that special one that grabs my readers by the throat and doesn't let go until the end.

6 comments:

John Floyd said...

To this day I remember sitting in an airport with The Key to Rebecca and reading that great first line by Follett. I agree that it did a good job of setting the hook.

Fran Rizer said...

Jan, glad to see you here this morning. I'd forgotten about my first article in the high school newspaper and in The Crucible, USC's literary publication. You also brought back memories of my absolute favorite detective from my early years--Shell Scott. My friends and I used to wait eagerly for another Shell Scott to be published. After school, we gathered at my house because my mom worked, so we'd have privacy. I'd read Shell Scott out loud to them while they did my chores! Mike Hammer was another crush of my youth, and I did get to know Mickey Spillane during his later years here in SC. He was much more of a gentleman than Mike Hammer!

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

I began with Mickey Spillane, too. I've never recovered.

Robert Lopresti said...

I began with Rex Stout. Jan, that is a great first line. Some Monday maybe you could regale us with some of yours.

Velma said...

>my fantasy was to be beautiful and voluptous like Velma.

Oh, I understand perfectly! (sly smirk)

Jeff Baker said...

I started with Robert Arthur's Three Investigators books and Dorothy Gillman's Mrs. Polifax novels. I didn't start reading mysteries in earnest untill I was in my 30's.