Showing posts with label Melodie Campbell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Melodie Campbell. Show all posts

27 November 2021

How Much Violence Against Women can YOU Read in your Fiction?


This is a difficult post.

The Globe and Mail newspaper this morning mentioned that Stig Larson died on this day in 2004. I mentioned this to a man I know who is a reader - a man I like and respect - and he said, "I really liked his books."  This brought about a discussion that has gotten me thinking.

Now, as you may recall, the writing community was quite split on Larson's book 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' when it first came out.  Most authors I know, at the time, thought it needed severe editing.  But others were more concerned with aspects of the content.

I remember being at the bar of the Drake Hotel in Toronto, a notorious hangout for crime writers like ourselves, and hearing the following from a well-known male crime writer sitting beside me.  "Stig Larson was one sick puppy."

I asked him to elaborate.  After all, he was a male thriller writer of some note.  Here's what he said:

"That graphic torture scene of a young woman?  We all know how long it takes to write a book.  He would have been weeks writing that chapter.  What kind of sicko could spend that much time devising ways to describe that kind of horrific torture?"

His words really hit home with a lot of us, all of whom were published crime authors.  

Another male author at the table said, "He glorifies violence against women."

I write mainly heists and capers.  My Goddaughter series is about a mob crime family, so I'm not exactly a cozy writer.  In my short stories, I can go quite dark, but never to the point of torture.  I can't write grim novels - I simply can't spend day after day in a dark world.  It affects me mentally.

Violence is absolutely at the core of a lot of crime fiction.  It's not the topic of violence that was at issue here.  What my male author friends at The Drake were commenting on was the stunning increase in graphic description of heinous acts in fiction. It's not offstage in any way, in these books.  But I think what bothered me today is the following:  my fellow reader friend didn't even remember the torture scene that has haunted me for years.  ( I won't go into details here.)  His memory of the series was that of a woman getting her own back.  Fair enough.

So I asked him:  "Would you be able to read a scene in which a child is tortured in that way?"

He said:  "No, definitely not.  I'd have to put it down."

Telling, isn't it?  And that of course is the issue that haunts me today.  Those books of Stig Larson - and some like it that are extremely graphic in their abuse and murder of women - have done well.  Readers seem to accept it as a means to advance a plot in which - hopefully - justice will be done in the end.  (One could argue that if you are a woman killed in a horrible way, there is no justice, but that's a topic for another post.)

The end justifies the means now, so to speak.  Or is it deeper than that?  Does this reflect a deeper societal desensitization, nonchalance, or fatigue when it comes to the topic of violence against women?

My friend is not the only one.  At some point, and I think it took off with the publishing of the Stig Larson books, the fiction reading society moved to embrace a more graphic description of violence against women as entertainment.  And I have to admit, this bothers me.

Comments welcome.  I'm struggling with this one and could use others' insights.

Melodie Campbell writes about the mob in Hamilton Ontario, with tongue firmly in cheek.  You can get her books at all the usual suspects.

23 October 2021

Wanna Be A Paperback Writer? The Truth about Author Incomes


 My last post on leaving my day job behind to become a full-time author with a traditional publishing house garnered a lot of comments to my social media feeds.  The question most frequently asked (besides ways in which to kill your agent, editor, reviewers, and not get caught) is - can the average author really make a living writing fiction?


We're talking average author with a traditional house here.  Not someone like Linwood Barclay or
Stephen King, or Janet Evanvich (who Library Journal once compare me to. They didn't look at our bank accounts, obviously.)  These people make the big advances we all dream of.

I'm still dreaming.  By average author, I'm talking about someone like me, with sixteen books published, and ten awards you might recognize.  Someone who occasionally hits the Amazon top 100 list of all books with a new release, and then drops out of sight after a couple of weeks.  We used to be called 'mid-list' authors. I kind of like that term, so you'll hear it again today.

I'm here to tell you the truth.  Some of it hurts, and some of it may be encouraging - you can judge.

Really, I'd be more comfortable giving you my bra size than spilling the financial numbers (38 Long is a hard size to find, by the way) but here goes.

In my last post, I quoted the UK, where recent reports say the average income of a paperback writer (note how I use the Beatles here and in the title) has dropped from 8000 pounds a year (maybe 15000 Canadian dollars) to 4000 pounds a year (more like 7000 Canadian dollars.)  Point is, the average fiction novelist is earning way less than 15 years ago.

Our Canadian stats measure pretty closely.  I do better than that - or have until now - probably because I have a backlist of fifteen books, several from series.  If someone picks up the latest book in The Goddaughter series, they may go back and pick up all five books that came before (bless their little hearts.)  That's how I've managed to sort of make a living - on royalties from backlist books.

But back to the stats.  Hold on as I try to be honest:

In my best year, I made 33,000 from my books.  If you add in teaching writing courses at college, and workshops at libraries and conferences, plus author appearances, I made about 50,000 in total.

But that was my best year.  I won The Derringer that year, and the Crime Writers of Canada Award of Excellence.  I also won the Hamilton Reads award (the city I border on.)  USA Today featured one of my books, and that shot me to the Amazon Top 100 list between Nora Roberts and Tom Clancy for a few weeks.

Thing is, that isn't a typical year.

My advances usually run about 5000 a book.  If I'm lucky, I get two contracts a year and write two books a year.  That's $10,000.

I have to 'sell through' those advances before I see any royalties.  Since my books sell for 10 bucks, and I get a dollar a book, that means I have to sell 5000 books of each before I get any royalties.  That's considered a best-seller in Canada.

So advances of 10,000 a year, in a good year.  And maybe royalties of a little less than that.  In a good year.  Add in teaching - another 6000. A few short story sales - (I can hear you laughing from here.)

Last year I made 21,000 from my books.  A lot less than my best year.

Covid has definitely played a part.  My last book came out the week of first lockdown. Every event and book tour was cancelled.  It'll be a while before I earn back that advance!  How do you promote a book if you can't get out there?  And when every other writer on the planet is anxiously spamming social media?

My point through this exercise today has been to lay bare the financial realities of a mid-list author as I have experienced them.  It sobers me sometimes to think that the assistant to the assistant at a publishing house makes more than the writer does.

This month, I signed for a new series with my third publishing house.  This one is bigger and more prestigious than the previous two, so I'm on a high.  I'm also scared to death.  The stakes are higher now, the expectations greater.  I'll let you know next fall if the financial rewards match my dreams <wink>

Melodie Campbell is a paperback writer of  multiple genres, south of Toronto.  You'll find her books at all the usual suspects.

Last Goddaughter book...(crime)


 

Her last book...(Rom-Com)




 




25 September 2021

Ditching the Day Job: When Your Hobby Becomes Your Work, What Then?


Like many young writers, I had a dream…

Ditch the day-job and become a pro!  Write fiction novels that make enough money to support my simple lifestyle without needing a second income from another job.

As a dream, it was a big one.  The stats on writers' incomes are scary across the globe: I read that in England, the average fiction novelist with a traditional publisher makes less than 4000 pounds a year, down dramatically from the 1990s.  That translates to approximately $8000 a year Canadian, which might cover the costs of your nosh for a year, if it isn't too posh.  But forget living in your car for shelter, because you won't be able to afford the parking.

It took me twenty years of writing to be able to ditch my day job and live the dream.  That was several years ago now, and as I look forward to the release of my seventeenth novel, I want to talk about a curious issue that never occurred to me when I was yearning for the life of a professional author.

When your hobby becomes your work, what do you do for fun?

It's great to do something you love for your work. But in doing so, you lose that hobby that consumed you for so many years.   

In past decades, I wrote for pleasure.  I wrote when I wanted to, and when I was inspired to.  It was the ultimate escape.

Now, life is very different.  The deadlines loom.  You end up having to write when you don't feel like it, and when you aren't writing particularly well.  Which is what work is all about.   

And I've discovered, no matter what you do for a living, no matter how much you like it, we all need a break from work.  More so, we need something to take our minds off the novel in progress. 

So a colleague suggests to me:  why not relive the excitement of those early writing days?

You could write something else for a hobby.

I loved writing short stories.  And I still write at least one a year.  But that can't be my hobby. 

Like so many people in late middle age (stop laughing,) if I am on the computer eight hours a day writing mystery novels, and responding to all the promotional requirements of being an author, the last thing I want to do is spend more time on computers.  My fingers hurt.  My eyes are dry and achy.

Also important:  this hobby is needed to take my mind off my work.  Doing more of the same (creating fiction) doesn't cut it.  

That's the problem I am facing.  For most of my working life, I had stressful jobs in health care.  For relief from that, I turned to writing.  And writing was a fabulous hobby.  

But now that writing books is my work, I am without a hobby.  And I find it hard to find a new interest to obsess me so late in life.  Yes, I read, knit a bit, bake.  But none of those are obsessions the way writing was.

 The search for a hobby.

My LIL (live in lover) also known as the Emergency Contact, is a fanatic golfer.  He tells me that all the pro golfers work on their game every day like the full time job it is.  But that's their work, and they do other things for fun.  Some fish, for example.

Fellow Canadian Linwood Barclay makes the bestseller lists everywhere.  In his downtime, he has a world-class model railway system in his home that gives him pleasure and satisfaction outside of our frantic author world.

Friend and colleague Vicki Delany does jigsaw puzzles. And I mean billion-piece, gorgeous puzzles that should be framed and displayed as art.  She says: 

"It clears my mind completely. I find that I never think about my books or my writing when I'm working on one."

That's what I'm missing now.  A hobby that will take me out of my work, so that I can return refreshed and invigorated.  Something besides eating (at which, granted, I am simply world-class.)

Trickier than I thought.  It's sort of like when you try to find a new best friend later in life.  Most people have had their best friend for decades, just as they've had their beloved hobbies.

So all you out there who think you'd like to make the move from part-time to full time, think about it carefully before you make the jump.  At the very least, go into it with clearer eyes than I did.

Do I regret it?  Not a whistle!  This is what I was meant to do, and finally, I'm doing it.  

But damn, I'd love to add something fun to my life to take the place of the glorious hobby I once had.

Anybody else facing the same dilemma?  I'd love to hear from other plotters on this!

Melodie's latest book, The Merry Widow Murders, will be out in May 2022.  If you've read the mob caper series starting with The Goddaughter, you'll get a kick out of meeting Gina Gallo's great-grandmother in this new series!

23 July 2021

The Incredible Brain of a Mystery Writer


 Mike (Emergency Contact sitting in the Swedish recliner opposite me, reading my latest manuscript) said something today that really got me thinking:

"I am absolutely amazed by your mind.  How you create all these characters, make them all different, and keep them straight is beyond me."

So - being Author person first in the list of my personas, I said the obvious thing all writers would say given the circumstance: "But the thing is, YOU can keep them straight when reading that manuscript, right?"

"Oh sure," he said, to my relief.  "I'm just wowed by your imagination."



I think what he really meant was memory.  And I have to admit, I've been thinking about that a lot lately.

Writing a mystery is hard work.  I don't want to say it is harder work than most of the genres - I've written in most of the genres and each has its challenges.  But writing a mystery has specific requirements that make me wonder how long I will be able to measure up.

In fact, it requires an incredible memory.

In mystery writing, you need a large cast of characters.  

First off, you need a victim.  Check.  Probably two.  And if you're writing a Brit Mystery a la Midsommer, you probably need three.  (Emergency Contact and I joke about who will be the third person murdered in each episode of Midsommer, Brokenwood, Death in Paradise, etc etc).  This victim (or three) must be a fully drawn character.  He must have a past.  There must be a *reason* he is a victim in the first place, and that means drilling down to a life before the murder.

But we said there could be three victims.  Three characters.  Check.

We talk often about the need for five good suspects - three at the very least.  I personally try for three darn good suspects with lots of supporting material, and a couple more perhaps less drawn out.  

So five good suspects, all with believable motivation.  All with *different* motivation on why they would be the killer and take a whack at the victim for gain.  

That's eight characters so far, check.

You need a protagonist, almost always the sleuth.  And a sidekick for the sleuth.  Maybe even a love interest for the sleuth, who could be a local cop.  Three more characters.

That's eleven.

Probably there will be more than one named cop. A constable to search the grounds. Probably there will be a secondary character or two, to run the Inn, serve at the table. You know the drill.

So that's at least twelve unique characters, all with individual motivation, and personalities.  All looking different, with different histories.  All in selected places at the important times for the sleuth to keep track.

Not only the sleuth.  You - the author - has to keep it all straight.

Writing a mystery is an incredible feat of memory.  We intertwine the lives of more than a dozen people, and work them around the novel like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  I don't know any other kind of writing that requires such complex thinking and as I start my second book in the latest series (The Merry Widow Murders) I am truly shaking in my go-go boots.  Will I be up to it once more?  Will the task of keeping everything straight, creating a dynamic, exciting plot that MAKES SENSE but isn't easily solved, be once more in my grasp?

It's daunting.  And I haven't even talked about the fact that I've already used up eighty plots.  But just keeping the whole thing in motion in my mind is something I know won't be possible forever.

This year, I think I can do it.  The plot I have outlined excites me, and my agent is keen.  Next year?  Meet you back on these pages next summer for a recap.

Melodie Campbell always has a mob angle in her novels, and usually they can't shoot straight.  "Impossible not to laugh" says Library Journal about THE GODDAUGHTER.  "The Canadian Literary Heir to Donald Westlake" says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  The Goddaughter series and The B-Team sold in all the usual suspects.

26 June 2021

How to Create a Great Villain


Ah, those students of mine.  Here I was, doing the lecture thing about motivation, how ALL your characters need to have believable motivation for what they are doing.  Especially, doncha know, your antagonist (villain, if you prefer.)  "No Cardboard Villains!" I profoundly announced.


And then the question...

"So, how DO you create a great villain?" he asked.

Bless his little heart.

"Em...." I said with scholarly conviction.  "Just what I'm going to cover next week!"

Next day, prof frantically writes a brand new handout, here presented.  With thanks to my beloved students for keeping me on my toes....

 HOW TO CREATE A GREAT VILLAIN

Let's go back to basics.  How many characters do you need for a novel?

Melodie says:  a minimum of three  (and yes, there are always exceptions.)

Your Protagonist.  This is your main character, your main viewpoint character.  We will be experiencing the story through her eyes throughout.

Sidekick.  Your protagonist (and your story) will likely benefit from having a sidekick, some friendly soul to share the journey with.  If you don't give your main character a sidekick, then she will be spending pages and pages talking to herself, which is boring for the read.  

Examples:  Sherlock Holmes and Watson.  In my Rowena Through the Wall series, Rowena and Kendra.  In The Goddaughter series, Gina and her loopy cousin Nico.

Antagonist.  Yes, usually you need someone to provide the conflict.  We might call them a villain.  Your protagonist wants something that isn't easy to get and often there will be a villain standing in his way.

 KILL OFF CARDBOARD VILLAINS

So many times, villains seem cardboard.  This is because the author hasn't spent time building them into believable characters.  Sure, your villain can be a psychopath who is simply insane, but that gets pretty boring for readers.  

The most interesting villains are those who have desires that we can relate to.

Have you ever wished someone harm?  Villains do so as well.  Why do they act on those desires when we would hold back?  THAT's what makes them interesting.

Checklist for creating a Great Villain:

1.  KNOW HOW A VILLAIN THINKS - The number one thing to keep in mind when creating your antagonist?  Villains never think they are villains.  To them, their actions are justified and rational.  They are acting in their own self-interest.  Others simply stand in the way of what they want and deserve.

Get that last word:  deserve. Often, villain feel they have been cheated of what they rightly deserve.

2.  BELIEVABLE MOTIVATION - Make sure your antagonist has adequate motivation.  Don't neglect this!  Why is he doing what he's doing?  What does he want?  Why is he taking the risk?  In many countries and past ages, murder comes with the death penalty.  What is so important to him that he would take that risk?

Motivations for villains:  Revenge for past wrongs, safety, monetary gain, business or professional gain, power of overs, sexual desire (particularly for the protagonist.)  All the traditional motivations for murders:  Revenge, sex and money.

3.  GIVE HIM BACKGROUND - Your villain didn't get the way he is out of nowhere.  He didn't start out a villain.  Make him three-dimensional, and for goodness sake, avoid using trite over-used dialogue ("Now I have you in my clutches...")  I advise doing a character sketch for your villain as well as your protagonist.

4.  A LIKEABLE VILLAIN?  Can you make your antagonist likeable?  Of course you can!  Soren, in Rowena and the Viking Warlord, is a demon summoned from Hell.  Old religions knew him as Baal.  He is scary as all get-out, when first introduced to the reader.  But as you get to know him more and learn his motivations, you might even start to like him.  He's not ALL bad.  Let me repeat that. Not all bad.  Think about that, when creating your villain.

5.  MAKE IT PERSONAL - Finally, when possible, give your villain a history with the protagonist.  Yes, you can write about a psychopath who picks victims at random.  But isn't if far more interesting if the antagonist has a history with the protagonist?  The bad-boy past boyfriend who returns suddenly to your heroine's life and puts it in turmoil?  The girl you hated in high school who is now the defense attorney standing in the way of your solving the crime... Past unresolved emotions can add more power to your manuscript.

Remember:  Your villain is there to provide CONFLICT in your novel.  Will your protagonist get what they want?  Readers keep turning pages to find out, so make sure you maintain that conflict until the very end.

Melodie Campbell has written several series in many genres, but you can always count on them being funny.  Books available at all the usual suspects.  www.melodiecampbell.com


 

 


 

4.      


22 May 2021

Money Laundering and other Taxing Services (Bad Girl Returns...)


 Apparently, I have been too serious on here lately.  There have been complaints.  In an effort to address this, I present the following:  Money Laundering and Other Taxing Services.


So this really isn't a blog about money laundering in the classical sense (meaning Uncle Vince and those three restaurants in the east side of The Hammer...but I digress.)  However, I do somewhat come round to money and bathing, or perhaps authors being taken to the cleaners (sic) in the penultimate paragraph.

In fact, this post is more about the plight of poor authors doing their fiendish taxes, and how the banking industry has become a playground for disciples of Satan.  (Not Santa.  He remains a relatively good guy, although I've learned not to sit on his lap.)

I was doing my taxes the other day, and it made me think about how great things were in the good ole days.  Remember how simple life used to be?  Someone would mail you a little carbon slip to let you know how much money you made.  All you had to do - as a law-abiding citizen - was run your finger along a little line in the tax guide, and you'd know how much tax you had to pay.  You'd write a cheque for that amount, then go drink yourself blind or shoot yourself in the head, whichever was most expedient.  Things were simple back then.

 Now, figuring out your taxes is a profession in itself.  Actually, it's several professions; taxes now have their own accountants and lawyers, the lucky little things.  Soon they may have their own psychiatrists.

Which brings me to banking (and other taxing services.)  I remember when you'd take your paycheck and give it to the bank for a little while.  Then you'd go back a few weeks later to take out cash for certain life essentials like beer and pharmaceuticals.  All the money would still be there plus some extra cash you made on your money, called interest.  Things have changed radically since then.  Interest is passe.  Sort of like digital watches...

Now when you put your money in the bank (which of course you don't...you put it in a cute little automatic teller machine where it mixes with everyone else's little packets of money in terribly immoral ways) - (or even worse, you simply transfer it to whatever account you like with absolutely no regard whatsoever for its feelings and preferences or - Gawd help me - gender.  Which reminds me: did you see the New York University survey where they now give you a selection of 35 different gender choices?  I personally wanted to identify as a SA {smart ass} but was told PETA might get involved.)

Back to the point.  The point is, that when you go back to draw it out again, you find less than the amount you deposited.  Most of your money is there, but so is something else called a Service Charge.

I must admit I'm baffled by this need for a service charge.  I mean, exactly what services did these people feel it necessary to perform for my money?  Did they give it a bath and take it on field trips?  (ahem...note the reference to money 'laundering')

 Frankly, I'm getting fed up.  If they are going to take my money out on the town and show it a good time, the least they can do is teach it how to reproduce...

Melodie Campbell writes seriously silly stuff and even gets paid for it.  She writes about the mob in Hamilton, Ontario, just in case you thought Canadians were all nice guys.  (However, we are extremely polite before we kill you.)  Check out her books at all the usual suspects:


 


24 April 2021

Arrest that Cow! Warning: Canadian Humour


 It's a crime about Covid.  (Ha! I knew I could make this a crime column.)  But truly, The News is so completely obsessed with Covid, that other world events are hardly getting a glance.


For instance, I bet you didn't know that during the Trump reign, a near rebellion took place mere hours north of Toronto.  Sure, this didn't have the scope of the January 6 attack on the White House.  But we do things a little smaller in Canada.  And perhaps with a certain style.  And then, there's our high-school-good-looks Prime Minister, who may or may not have a stream of PR bungles behind him.

So in the interests of fair play (because we always feel a little second fiddle to you Yanks) here's my take on how this might have gone down in the True North.  (Yes, this event actually happened.  Mine is simply a creative nonfiction play by play.  Apologies in advance for any in-jokes.  Heck, for the whole thing.)

 The Independent State of Penetang

09:36, Parliament Building East Wing, Ottawa

"This is weird," says Mark, flipping through screens.

"Hmmmm?"

"It says here that Penetang has declared independence."

The other civil servant head looks up.  "Where is that?  In Africa?"

"Northern Ontario.  Somewhere north of Orillia, I think.  Or maybe Parry Sound.  I'm looking it up."

The older man frowns.  "You mean the county of Penetang?"

"Seems like it.  They've blocked the roads, it says here.  Just a sec."  He scrolls further.  "They're using tractors and farm equipment.  And cows."

A gasp.  "They're sacrificing cows?"

"Nope.  Herding live ones.  The cars can't get by."

"Merde.  We need to inform the Prime Minister."


11:00, Live from Penetang

"This is Mandy Flambeau, reporting from rebellion headquarters, at the Puckyew community hockey rink in downtown Penetang.  It's sort of quiet here, Len.  Maybe they're all out on the protest lines?  Oh wait -- I see somebody!  Sir, sir...over here.  Can you tell us what this rebellion is really about?"

"Taxes. Sick an' tired of those federal freeloaders takin' our taxes and spending them in the city.  Want our tax money spent here.  Not on subways and free daycare for city folk."

Gasp.  "Daycare? You're against daycare?"

"You see any kids around here?  No young people in Penetang anymore.  No jobs for them.  Only seniors now."

"So you want free daycare for seniors?"


13:43,  The Prime Minister's office

"Mr. Prime Minister, we have a situation."

(groan)  "Not another Tweet from the Twit."

"This is local, sir.  I need to brief you on the rebellion in Penetang.  PETA have moved in.  Because of the cows."

"Say what?"

"The rebels in Penetang have blocked the roads with cows.  And now PETA has established protest lines to protect the animals."

"Hmmm... Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Sir, I think we have an opportunity here."

"A photo op?  Oh goodie!  What do they wear in Penetang?"

"Uh...overalls and flannel shirts?"

"Awesome.  Get Holt Renfrew and Nordstrom on the line.  We want these Canadian made."

"Yes sir.  Will you be leaving immediately?"

"I'm texting Sophie and the kids.  Maybe we can make a vacation out of it.  Does the Aga Khan have a place up there?"


14:00, Back at the East Wing

Mark puts down the phone.  "Is it even possible to charge cows with sedition?"

The other civil servant head looks up.  "Mark, are you from farm country?"

"Nope.  Born and bred in Ottawa."

"There may be a fault in their plan.  The cows."

"What about them?"

"They're Jerseys.  They'll simply go home at five to be milked."


Melodie Campbell knows a thing or two about sedition-er-cows.  She also gets paid to write very silly comedy for unsuspecting publishers.  You can find The Goddaughter series at all the usual suspects.


 

 

 

27 March 2021

Three Good Suspects: The Five Things you need for a Mystery Novel


~~~Three Good Suspects~~~ (as opposed to the usual suspects...)

Many of you know that in addition to being a writer of mob heist novels, I'm also the past Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. (For my sins. Of which I've lost count...) I'm just coming up for air after serving as a judge for the Crime Writers of Canada Awards of Excellence.  So this post is timely.  It is also cathartic...which may prevent the consumption of too much scotch.  (I know, I know.  There can never be too much scotch.)

In the crime fiction world, most books fall into two categories:  mysteries or thrillers.  (Note that in decades gone by, we used to call thrillers 'suspense novels'. Same thing.)  I write both and find them very different to write.  I'm not alone.  Lots of readers who have a preference for one or the other tell me they wonder why mysteries and thrillers are shelved together in libraries and bookstores.

So to start, let me offer one commonly held description of each, as accepted by Crime Writers of Canada, via many publishers.  Like so many things in life, it has to do with goals.  (And of course, we'll add the usual disclaimer that there may be exceptions.)

Mystery fiction is a puzzle story.  It starts with a murder (or crime) and the goal is the solving of the crime.  The protagonist's job is to discover who committed the crime and why.

In contrast, suspense fiction is driven by a character in jeopardy.  A suspense novel or thriller is one in which the main action (crime or murder) has not yet taken place, and in most cases, the goal of the protagonist is to prevent it from happening.  The emphasis is on the tension built by the anticipation of the outcome.

Of course, there will always be suspense in a mystery novel too.  I don't want to discount that.  But let's focus on the puzzle that a mystery novel presents.

In many ways, mystery novels are like chess games.  They are to some extent a cerebral experience.  I would argue that no other type of novel invites the reader to engage in such an involved way with the protagonist.  

Why? Mystery readers like to pit themselves against the fictional detective to uncover who committed the crime.  The reader and the detective both receive the same information at the same time (anything else is not playing fair.)  

In a great mystery novel, you will hopefully come to the same conclusion as the protagonist, at the same time.  It's the challenge that intrigues us, the joy of the intellectual chase, which leads to a supreme high when you compile all the puzzle pieces together in your mind in such a way as to unveil the antagonist. In fact, the ultimate letdown in a mystery novel is when the killer is easily detected before the half way point in a book.

So why do I occasionally find murder stories where there is only one suspect?

Jeeze Louise, people!  A mystery must be a mystery!  If you go light on your suspects, what challenge is that?  

Thirty years, seventeen novels, fifty short stories, three agents, and six publishers have taught me the essentials of writing mysteries.  I'd like to pass this list on to several entrants to the awards this year, who seemed to have missed the memo.  But as anonymity is our credo (always good to remain mysterious) I will present them here instead.

1.  Three good suspects.

Every mystery novel needs at least three good suspects that you can't dismiss out of hand.  Three suspects with good motives (more on that below.)  Five is even better, particularly for a full length novel.  Make it a challenge for the reader!  That's what we're looking for.

2.  A believable motive for each suspect

A suspect must have a motive for murder.  Yes, really.  Serial killers aside (and even some would argue them too) people don't murder each other for no reason.  The motive for each suspect must be believable.  So many times, I have read books (and particularly, watched television shows) where the motive for murder is simply too trite.

There's an expression we use in romance writing:  TSTL.  This translates to Too Stupid to Live, and refers to that particularly daft female protagonist who get herself into predicaments so stupid that a chimp could have figured out how to avoid it.  The ditz factor is simply off the charts.  This is how books get thrown against walls.

Murder is risky.  If caught, you'll go to prison for years and in some countries, lose your life.  With a mystery novel, the reader must believe that the murder is worth the risk.  Don't slack on this!  Make your motive so rock hard that no one will question it.

 3.  A believable motive for the protagonist

Most amateur detective series start with a personal reason for the protagonist to become the detective in the first book.  Either she is a suspect wishing to clear herself, or a possible 'next victim' - but some reason why it is imperative the main character become involved in the solving of the crime.  Of course, if your book is a police procedural, or PI subgenre, the detection is part of their job and requires no explanation.

But if your amateur detective has no stake in the outcome, why the heck would they chance going head to head with someone who has already murdered?  Silly, if not stupid to put yourself at that risk.

This is what becomes unbelievable in many cozy mystery series.  The gal who runs the bakery shop solves the first murder, and then goes on to solve many more, for no reason other than it becomes a hobby.

I demand more than that, of my mysteries!  There must a valid motive for the protagonist to become involved.  Give her a good motive each and every time.

 4.  Risk for the protagonist

Remember I mentioned putting oneself at risk in the above point? Here's what I'm talking about.

You know that crazy device in so many television shows where the two leads are in a deserted warehouse, and one says to the other, "You go that way, and I'll go this way, and we'll save time" … and you, the viewer at home are going, "NO!!!!  Don't be so stupid - you need to stick together!"

Well, there's a reason for doing that.

In my "Nine Steps for Writing Suspense," step seven talks about 'Isolating the protagonist.' Because even in a mystery novel, we need to put the protagonist at risk.  The climax of your book should be accompanied by a black moment, where all seems to be lost, where the protagonist isn't going to get what she wants (safety, money, love, the identity of the killer…)

Any mystery that doesn't put the protagonist at risk in the end is a bit ho hum, in my books (sic).  Go hard on your protagonist.  Make it risky for them to search for the killer.  Make it do or die at the end.  And hopefully not die.  Which leads to point 5.

5.  A Clear Resolution

Don't kill your protagonist in a mystery novel.  Please don't.  Countless readers have told me that they absolutely HATE to read for four hours, and then discover that their beloved protagonist kicks the bucket in the end.  Readers want the protagonist to win, in a mystery novel.  They want justice to prevail.

At the same time, we also need a clear resolution to the story.  Nothing will get people storming your publisher's website than an ending to a mystery novel that isn't an ending.  We don't know whodunnit in the end.  

That doesn't mean you can't have the bad guy escape to play another day.  Even Arthur Conan Doyle did that regularly.  My point is: we need to know Whodunnit by the end of a mystery.

WE NEED THE MYSTERY SOLVED.

It will be possible to find novels billed as mysteries that don't play by the rules above.  They may even be bestsellers.  So I'll leave by saying, here are some clear guidelines I offer to help writers tackle their first mystery book and look like a pro.

With any luck, readers will also mine gold in the above, as we've demonstrated how much thought must go into creating a really good mystery story.

Melodie Campbell writes mob heists as well as mysteries.  Crime Club is her latest mystery.  The pug is not a suspect. www.melodiecampbell.com

27 February 2021

Writing is Hard


 A long time ago, back when video stores were kind of a cool new thing, I was whooping it up in the Toronto Press Club with some eminently more famous Toronto columnists and reporters.  One of them, Scottish he was, asked me this:  "Tell me, lass.  You have a syndicated humour column, you've written comedy, you've had over two dozen short stories published...so why aren't you writing a novel?"

After much deliberation, my exceedingly clever answer was:  

"Because they might want me to write
another one?"

That got a round of applause (actually make that a round of scotch) from the somewhat sozzled guys at the bar.

No really.  Even then, I knew that writing a novel would be a rat-poop load of work.  It wasn't that I was allergic to work.  I had honed the art of writing 650-800 words every week, and making them passably funny.  But writing 80,000 words for one project?

That was 1995, I think.  Since then, I've written 17 novels, and 50 more short stories.  And let me tell you.

Writing is WORK.   Holy hell, is it work.  It is a freaking black hole of work and time and bloodletting.  Time suck, soul suck, give your life over to the keyboard for MONTHS.

I've heard other authors say they can't wait to sit down to write the first page of a new novel.  That they get so excited when they start something new.

That isn't me.  After 17 books, I know what's coming.  Months of hunkering over the keyboard, doubting myself, loving, then hating my characters (Jesus Murphy, WHY is she such a whiny nincompoop?)  Finding the Black Moment.  BECOMING the black moment.

So to illustrate, my starts are more like this:

Me:  "Sob!" (hits head against desk)  "I don't want to.  Don't make me.  I can't do it again..."  (reaches for scotch with head still on desk)

Working-class Muse, possibly from Jersey, the wrong side:  "Listen sister.  Sit your fat bippie down and get a move-on.  These things don't write themselves."

Me:  "But it's so HARD."  (slurping puddle of scotch sideways through a straw.)

Muse:  "You think THIS is hard?  Remember before you were published?  Remember all those rejection letters from publishers?  We insulated the walls of the cottage with them."

Me (sniveling):  "Too bad the place caught fire."

Muse:  "Maybe if you hadn't written BURN IN HELL on all of them..."

At about this time in the ritual, W-C Muse says the magic motivation words:  "Sit up sister.  YOU GOT A CONTRACT."

Me:  "Oh right. Move over, and pass the scotch."

And so it goes.

I'm at that stage right now.  staring the page in the face, knowing I have to start book 2 in a new series, thinking I'd rather jump out this picture window into the lake below (even though I'm 4 stories up and about 50 feet from shore.  So it would be quite a leap.)

I started life as a columnist, so I know I should wrap up on positive note.

Writing is hard.  But it's my life, and I suspect it's yours too.


Melodie Campbell has won ten awards, including the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis, the Hamilton Reads Award, and a city of Toronto award for best children’s book in high school, which is probably as far away from The Goddaughter mob caper series as you can get.  

 

 



 


23 January 2021

How to Write a True Italian Character (and not get taken out by the Family...)


Apparently, I have been too serious on here lately. There have been complaints.  So in an effort to lighten things up, I'm settling into a literary pet peeve.

Too often in popular fiction, I find Italian characters who don't make the grade. They seem a little cartoonish, as their creators probably aren't Italian, and don't have a true insight into the Italian nature.  So I'm here as a public service, to rectify that.  (Okay, because my Uncle Vince told me to.)

Yes, I'm Italian.  Yes, I've been a Goddaughter, like the heroine of THE GODDAUGHTER.  Okay, maybe not exactly like.  But close enough that I can easily imagine what it would be like to be a mob goddaughter.  The Christmas presents would be pretty decent, for one thing. Not to mention, I can get my salami and mortadella wholesale in any deli in the Hammer (Hamilton.)

So as I turn in my 17th novel which may or may not feature the Italian mob, I offer this help to all authors everywhere.

Melodia's rules on how to write an Italian Character:

  1. She absolutely cannot talk with her hands held down.  Okay, not entirely true.  She can scream if they try to hold down her hands.  And kick.
  2. He has at least 2 cousins named Tony.  And one uncle.
  3. She considers Pasta a vegetable.  (It's good for you!  Really.  Ask any Italian grandmother.)
  4. He can listen to five conversations at once, in at least two languages, and answer back.
  5. She has four first names (Melodie Lynn Theresa Anne…)
  6. For the Pros. Your Italian character should:

  7. Cry when Pavorotti sings the FIFA soccer anthem.
  8. Ask for Brio and Orangina in restaurants. Gasp loudly if they don't have it.
  9. Kiss everybody all the time.  Left cheek, right cheek (THEIR left cheek, right cheek.)
  10. Always wear designer shoes.  Especially when shopping for shoes.  If you don't have a special wardrobe just for shopping, you are not Italian.
  11. And finally:

  12. Long hair only, ladies.  At least until sixty.
  13. Wine is a major food group.  Like cannoli.
  14. Okay, it gets a little tougher now, but weaving in background is important.  So to really give your character some punch, add the following:

  15. She regularly faked a long penance after confession just so the boys would think she was way hot.  (I hardly ever did this.)
  16. His family does not consider a 'heater' something you turn on in winter.

I hate to end a list at 13.  We Sicilians are suspicious.  So here's one last way you can tell if a character is really Italian:

Bling.  Lots of it.  Last trip back from Rome, the plane nearly came down with the weight of newly purchased gold my aunts were wearing.  Heard in all lines at Customs:  "What, this old thing?"

Melodie Campbell writes mob comedies and other loopy books while avoiding family somewhere south of Toronto.  THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS, finalist for the Canadian Crime Writing Awards of Excellence, is the latest in the series.  Standard warning:  Pee before you read it.

https://www.amazon.com/Goddaughter-Does-Vegas-Melodie-Campbell-ebook/dp/B07N8FBLJ4/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+goddaughter+does+vegas&qid=1610989262&sr=8-1

24 October 2020

Setting as Character...Really? Bad Girl Makes a Case (and gives an example)


What do we mean by "Setting as Character?"  Students always ask me that, and here's what I tell them:

Setting is important in helping to establish the mood of your story.  It should be treated with as much attention as you would give any other character.

In the 14 week Crafting a Novel course I teach at Sheridan College, we spend most of one class talking about setting.

One of the first things you must decide when writing your novel, is the reality of your setting.  Is it a real place that exists today, or that did exist in another time?  A place you can research?  Or is your setting completely from your imagination?

The trouble wtih many beginning writers is they set their novels in 'Anytown USA.'  Thus, no character, no unique feel to the place...the 'why it is different from everywhere else?' is missing.


For this reason, I usually opt for a real setting, even in fantasy novels.  No, you may not be able to go back to 4th century West Country in England (when WILL they come up with a time machine that works, already?  I'm waiting...)  But you can visit the area now, take in the beauty of the countryside, and particularly, visit the local museums to get more details on how people lived and how the land looked at the time.

That's what I did.  Here's how the location for my time-travel trilogy came about.

 All of our families have pasts.  Have you looked into yours to see if there might be inspiration there?  That's how I found my setting for Rowena Through the Wall.  In a corner of England called Shropshire, more known for sheep than people, there once stood a Norman castle of fantastic 'character.'

The original castle, erected after Harold fell to William in 1066, went to ruin in the early 1500s.  The new abode, Hawkstone Park, was built in 1556; it was forfeited in 1906 to pay off the gambling debts of my rakish relative.

My late cousin showed me around the countryside.  Tony Clegg-Hill was the previous Viscount of Shropshire and Shrewsbury.  I adored him.  He had that particular dry British wit that reminded me of David Niven.  It was his great-grandfather who lost the castle.

Tony would regale me with anecdotes about the family villains: the original Viscount Huel, who was basically a henchman for William the Conqueror.  More recent rogues like Sir Rowland Hill gambled away anything that could be taken as a stake.  It's a damning history, but a vibrant one.  But not all the family were black sheep.  One Lord Hill distinguished himself as the second in command to the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo.  When Wellington was made Prime Minister in 1924, Hill succeeded him as commander in chief of the British army.

So when it came to writing Rowena Through the Wall, I leaned back into the family history.  The original Normal castle with it's rounded turrets, crenellations and merlons had been waiting for a writer to bring it back to life.  Rowena walks through the wall to her ancestor's land, and she falls in love with it too.

"Outlander meets Sex and the City"
"Game of Thrones Lite"
Rowena Through the Wall was featured on USA Today, and was an Amazon Top 50 Bestseller (all books.)