Showing posts with label Stephen King. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen King. Show all posts

02 November 2019

A Pair of Kings





For many years, one of my favorite writers has been Stephen King. I started with The Stand, which I still consider to be his best novel (next best: 11/22/63), and recently finished his latest, The Institute. Looking up now at my shelves, I count 71 of his books, including a couple that are nonfiction and several that are collaborations. I liked 'em all.

Even though he's prolific, to say the least, King still can't write novels and stories fast enough to suit me, so imagine how pleased I was to learn, several years ago, that his son Joe--pen name Joe Hill--was cranking out fiction as well. I also own all of Hill's books (my favorite: The Fireman), and a few days ago I finished reading his latest, a collection of short stories called Full Throttle.

I won't try to summarize every story in this collection, but I'll mention some that stood out, for me:


"All I Care About Is You" -- A story about the future, and about relationships between humans and machines. I think this is one of the two best stories in the book, and one of several that brought tears to my eyes. Science fiction at its finest.

"Throttle" -- A plot that Hill says was inspired by Richard Matheson's short story "Duel" (and its screen adaptation), this is a story about a group of bikers who are targeted and terrorized by a monster truck and its faceless driver. One of two stories in this book co-written with Stephen King.

"Late Returns" -- In this story a librarian takes a job driving an antique Bookmobile, and finds that some of the customers who visit him on his route have been dead for fifty years or more. An emotional and satisfying story, otherworldly but not horrific.

"Faun" -- Another tale inspired by a late author and one of his masterpieces--in this case Ray Bradbury and his short story "A Sound of Thunder." Here, a team of big-game hunters travels through a magical door in a New England farmhouse to a fantasy-world forest of orcs and fauns and centaurs.

"In the Tall Grass" -- One of the scariest and weirdest of the stories featured here. A young man and woman driving across the country make an unscheduled stop in rural Kansas when they hear a child's voice calling to them from a field of eight-foot-tall grass beside the road. The good Samaritans enter the tall grass to try to find him and find unspeakable horror instead. I didn't like this quite as much as I figured I would, but it's still good, and I thought it was better than the Netflix Original adaptation I watched the other night.

"By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain" -- To me, the best story in the book. The plot involves two  children who discover the dead body of a Nellie-like dinosaur at the water's edge, and what happens afterward. A fantastic short story, soon to be an episode of the streaming series Creepshow.


Have any of you read Full Throttle yet? If so, what did you think? Has anyone read Joe Hill?

I'm already looking forward to his next book.



19 June 2019

It's So Crazy It Might Just... Be Crazy


The author (R) with lampshade.
by Robert Lopresti

I have been a fan of The Blacklist through all of its long and somewhat checkered career.  Today I was watching an episode which attempted to explain some of the convoluted conspiracy which is supposedly at the heart of what has gone on for the past six years.  At one point a character said: "That is absurd."

And my reaction was: "Wow.  Nice piece of lampshade-hanging."

I discussed this concept in passing once before.  It refers to a method of coping with a particular authorial dilemma.

Let's say your story involves a plot twist or coincidence so outlandish you are afraid the readers will roll their eyes and throw the book across the room.  That happens.  If you can't change the plot, how can you change the reader's reaction to it?

Well, one method is to "hang a lampshade on it."  This means that, instead of trying to draw attention away from the problem, you actually have a character point it out.  This seems counter-intuitive, but it often works.  Maybe you are indicating to the readers that you know how smart they are.

As the wonderful website TV Tropes points out, the ol' Bard of Avon could hang a lampshade as neatly as any pulp magazine hack:  Fabian: If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction. (Twelfth Night)

A related method is known as So Crazy It Just Might Work.  Do I have to explain what that means?  You've read it/seen it in a thousand action movies.  It is practically Captain James Kirk's middle name.*

But I would suggest you can divide SCIJMW into two types: Physics and People.  One is better than the other, I think.

Physics: "There's no way the ship's engines can pull us out of the Interplanetary Squid Forest, so let's go full speed ahead straight in! It's so crazy etc."

People: "They have hundreds of armed guards hunting for us everywhere. The one thing they'll never expect us to do is walk up to the prison and sign in as visitors.  It's so crazy etc."

Both are crazy (although not as crazy as an Interplanetary Squid Forest) but the second one seems more reasonable to me because it is based on reverse psychology.  And hey, that sometimes works in real life. Remember the event that was the basis for the movie Argo? Who would expect the CIA to sneak people out of the country by setting them up as a film crew?

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Another way of grappling with an improbable plot point is foreshadowing.   I think it was Lawrence Block who pointed out my favorite example of that technique.  In The Dead Zone Stephen King has a lightning rod salesman show up at a bar and try to convince the owner to buy, pointing out the building's location makes it a perfect target for boom.  The owner turns him down and the salesman drives off, his service to literature complete.  When lightning strikes the bar at the very moment the plot requires it the reader, instead of saying "How unlikely!", says "Ha!  The salesman was right!"

 Of course, foreshadowing can be used for different purposes.
In the brilliant TV series I, Claudius there is a scene where a seer witnesses what appears to be an omen.  He interprets it to mean  that young Claudius will grow up to be the rescuer of Rome.  Claudius's sister Livilla scornfully says that she hopes she will be dead before that happens.  Their mother says "Wicked girl!  Go to bed without your supper."  Guess when and how Livilla dies?

So if you are a writer how do you deal with an attacks of the Unlikelies?  And if you are a reader (and I know you all are) which types bother you the most?

* Yes, I know Captain Kirk's middle name is Tiberius.  Now go over there and sit down. 

10 December 2018

The Fast First Draft


by Steve Liskow

Between about 9 and 10 am Thursday morning, I wrote 1534 words on my current WIP. I'm not bragging because (1) I'm sure everyone else who blogs here can do the same and (2) I'll probably revise everything except the proper nouns over the next nine or ten months. That's my normal approach. But it's worth noting because while it takes me two or three months to assemble my scene list--my version of a storyboard or outline--I expect to write a scene a day, normally in less than two hours. In most of my books, the scenes average around 1500 words. For contrast, in my senior year of high school, my honors English teacher gave us eight weeks to produce a research paper of 1000 words. If we taught children to walk the way we teach students to write, the human race would crawl on all fours.

Years ago, Graham Greene produced 300 words a day. Books were shorter then. Now, the average thriller clocks in at 100,000 words or more. My own books average 83K. I plan on eight weeks (or more) to create the outline, then another six to eight for the first draft. I revise the entire text four or five times with at least a month between drafts, so my novels usually take me about 15 months.

Jodi Picault says that a writer has to learn to write on demand. When you sit down at the keyboard, desk, legal pad or clay tablet, you job is to produce words. Stephen King and Lee Child expect to produce 2000 a day. None of those authors mentions how many of those words change, but that's a separate issue.

How can writers write so quickly?

Well, part of it is being able to type or write quickly, of course. The other part is easy once you know about it. Alas, pretty much everything you learned in school gets in your way.

Back in the mid-80s, I stumbled on a few books that completely changed my way of teaching writing. We had a copy of Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers in our English department bookshelf, but I don't know if any of my colleagues read it. I didn't until about 1990, and I had to blow dust off it. It was a landmark book that few people appreciated when it appeared.

The book I did appreciate (All the books I mention here are available on Amazon) was Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. She introduced me to clustering or webbing, a quick way of connecting apparently random and disparate ideas for writing. She also pushed free-writing (Elbow's idea first). She offered a series of techniques and writing prompts students could grasp and apply quickly. I was struggling with kids who read five or six years below grade level, hated grammar, and were terrified at putting anything more than their name on paper. For years, they'd known they were stupid because their teachers and their grades told them so.

The following September, I stared using Rico's exercises. By the end of the first semester, many of the kids wouldn't admit it, but they wrote more clearly, more creatively, and with more pleasure and less fear. Rico encouraged them not to worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. I spent the first month of classes encouraging them to write fast for five or ten minutes without worrying about making sense or being correct. If they got something down on paper, we could fix it later.

Remember, a first draft is like the block of marble before you sculpt an elephant. That first few minutes is chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. Rico does that. So does Elbow. The beauty of free-writing is that the only wrong way to do it is to think about it. Just write. If you go fast enough to outrun the constraints, an idea will present itself. That was the hardest sell for my students, but they finally discovered it was true.

Henriette A. Klauser's Writing on Both Sides of the Brain uses many of the same techniques. The left side of our brain is sequential, literal, and organized. It also judges. The right side works in patterns, sounds, and images. It's creative without judging. We're trained from day one to be correct, but we don't learn to let go. Those books showed me how to help my students let go.

Years later, I discovered Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird with her priceless advice on the value of the "shitty first draft." Don't think about spelling, grammar, punctuation or making sense. Just push yourself. If you don't know what you want to say, the cluster or web will help you. If you do know what you want to say, don't worry about how to start. Jump in and listen to the words. Maybe even say them out loud. But turn off the editor.
A character web for my WIP. Over half the names have already changed.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I checked the spelling) published Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience around the same time as the other books, and James L Adams gave us The Care and Feeding of Ideas with the same message. Their findings work for almost any field you can name. Athletes call it being in the zone and musicians talk about finding the groove. Time stands still because you focus ONLY on the task at hand, whether it's shooting the free throw, following the chord changes or staying in the moment without worrying about the result...yet. Very Zen, yes?

For me, once I know what should happen in a scene, I write a first sentence (usually telling where or when it's happening) and keep going. Maybe it's a great sentence, but more likely it's junk. It doesn't matter because I can fix it later. I no longer listen to music when I write (I used to like Baroque Largos because the slow tempo helps concentration) because I have to hear the words. Sometimes I even say them out loud and the scene becomes a dialogue or group discussion. I can type about 85 words a minute and I don't worry about typos or grammar. That's what the next five or six drafts are for. If I get lost, I type whatever comes to me and cut it or move it later. A few years ago, I wrote a scene


that had a half-page of "where the hell am I?" over and over until I found it again.

It's energizing and it's productive. The hardest part is letting go of everything you were taught to worry about in school.



20 August 2018

Blues and Clues


by Steve Liskow

In 1963, folklorists took a closer look at the lyrics to an obscure 1928 Okeh recording called "Avalon Blues" and used them to track down long-forgotten guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, still alive and well in the town he described in the song. Hurt came out of retirement to become a headliner at folk festivals and coffee houses. His lyrical finger-picking became an inspiration for such upcoming musicians as John Sebastian, Happy Traum, Stefan Grossman and Chris Smither.  All because of an old record.

We talk about clues in mysteries all the time, but other genres use them, too. They may call them "plot points" or "turning points" or something else, but a clue is simply something that moves the character closer to his goal: solving the mystery, finding true love, uncovering the cure for that lethal virus. OR it may send the character or the entire story off in a new direction.

Thanks to TV, we're attuned to discussing fingerprints, ballistics and blood spatter. We know about documentary evidence, too (Like the Hurt lyrics), and those are in our sights even more now because of the Mueller investigation. Both Conan Doyle ("The Adventure of the Dancing Men") and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Gold Bug") have stories that resolve because a character could decipher a coded message, and even the Hardy Boys carried on the tradition in The Mystery of Cabin Island.
Sometimes, though, a clue is less concrete, which gives us a chance to play a little and maybe sneak one past our readers. My favorite NON-clue is in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," which Holmes solved by paying attention to the dog that did NOT bark. A similar idea shows up in my current WIP.

Stephen King turns forensic evidence on its head in The Outsider, his recent novel which Rob discussed a few days ago. We have a man accused of murdering a child, and the DNA samples are undoubtedly his. That's fairly standard. But witness and photographs place him hundreds of miles away when the crime was committed. When the forensics and documentary evidence collide, the cops find themselves in Plan B and the book shifts from a typical police procedural into King's more familiar domain, the Twilight Zone. He does the what's-wrong-with-this-picture stuff as well as anyone else in the business.

Anyone here old enough to remember the TV show Hong Kong? It only ran for one season, starting in September 1960. Rod Taylor played a journalist, and in one episode, he narrowly escaped being run down by a taxi. Soon after that, a man he was talking to was shot. Everyone believed Taylor was the real target and the shooter had bad aim, but later in the show, Taylor tracked down the taxi driver, who told him that he had been paid to MISS Taylor with his cab. That showed that the dead man was the intended victim after all and the fake attempt on Taylor was to conceal the real motive.

My own Blood on the Tracks has Woody Guthrie trying to find a stolen tape of a forgotten rock band, and nobody can understand why anyone cares about the tape. Eventually, Guthrie learns that something may have been recorded OVER some of the tape and that the bad guys are after something besides the musical performance. Which means a different set of people might want it...

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie spends most of the book thinking Mr. Darcy is an insufferable snot and dislikes him for how he has treated her older sister Jane. Eventually, she discovers that he is trying to help her younger sister Lydia, who has run off with a wastrel and is in danger of ruining her own reputation (not to mention her life) and that of her entire family. When Lizzie finds that Darcy is buying the blackguard off, it makes her see him more clearly...and paves the way to their own happy ending.

Some of my favorite plot reversals (call them clues, too) appear in science fiction. Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" offers a manuscript from another planet that those beings give to earthlings as a sign of good faith. It's also a clue. When someone translates the entire text, they discover it's a cookbook and the double meaning of the word "serve" becomes important. The story became an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962, and many people cite it as one of their favorites.

Pierre Boulle's novel became the basis for the first Planet of the Apes film, and who can forget that closing shot of Charleton Heston looking at the mostly buried Statue of Liberty and understanding for the first time that he's not on a distant planet? The primates have become the dominant species on earth after a nuclear war destroyed civilization. Oops.

How about you? How do you give your readers the clue that moves the story off the tracks?


15 August 2018

Time Warp


by Robert Lopresti

Stephen King has a new novel out, which will no doubt make a lot of people happy, and probably terrify them as well.  But what inspired this column was a review of the book by Karin Slaughter in the Washington Post.

She liked the book a lot but she spoke of "the underlying fugue of displacement.  Readers should take warning: The characters in the mirror are younger than they appear."

What she means is that King's people, although by no means old, never text and don't seem to realize that their phones have cameras.  "A woman in her early 40s wonders whether John Lennon, who was murdered 38 years ago, was still alive when she started living with her husband."

It is an easy trap for writers to fall into: Making characters of different ages think/speak/act like people you are familiar with, rather than people they would be familiar with.

And it's more than just whatever age the writer happens to be.  It has to do with the time period the writer thinks is his.  John Knowles wrote in his novel A Separate Peace: "Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person 'the world today' or 'life' or 'reality' he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever."

Quick!  Answer this off the top of your head: Twenty-five years ago was what year?

If you had the right answer, good for you.  But many of us would guess further back, lost between the present and the moment "that belongs particularly to" us.

Back in the eighties a friend told me about a woman in her writing group whose contemporary novel-in-progress featured a young veteran just back from Vietnam.  In the 1980s.  I suspect that she had been thinking about the plot for a decade and hadn't remembered that the real world had drifted by while her soldier boy hadn't aged a day.

When I created my character Shanks I was 40 and he was 50.  I am some 20 years older but through the Miracle of Author's Convenience, Shanks remains in his early fifties.  The problem is that in some ways his attitudes are those of a man born in the forties instead of the sixties.  I have to fight that but how much can I change such things without changing the character?

It is a constant fight to stay out of the sweet land of anachronism... 

25 June 2018

Editors, Teachers and Writers (a restrained rant)


by Steve Liskow

A few days ago, I took umbrage at the following post on the SMFS site:

Content editors--book doctors, developmental editors, or whatever else practitioners of this trade call themselves nowadays--are an unjustified expenditure for most aspiring writers. They commonly charge well into four figures and won't guarantee to make your book any better at all. They claim to be able to help with ethereal things like plot development, imagery, pace, and other nonquantifiable elements, but they won't guarantee those things will be any better whatsoever once they're done because they can't. The only thing a freelance story editor or a like contractor working with a tiny indie press can guarantee to authors is to separate them from a lot of their money with no provable advantage for them.

Bull.

Before I continue, let me say that the only published work I find for this writer on Amazon is a grammar, punctuation and STYLE guide that looks too expensive for its length. I didn't read it, but whether it's good or bad, the mention of style in the title makes the entire statement above eat its tail.

Many agents and publishers now encourage an "aspiring writer" to get a professional edit before submitting their work. They seem to think that an expert can someone's plot development, character arc, or pace, all of which are both quantifiable and qualifiable elements of writing. They're in a position to know, aren't they?

There's a law in physics that says conditions equalize because something (heat, cold, pressure, etc.) flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration. Education is based on a similar idea: that people with more knowledge or expertise can pass it on to students who have less of those things. That's why schools and colleges exist. We require American students to study English (including writing or composition) for their entire career. Centuries of experience prove the subject matter can be taught and learned. Those are different sides of the coin and there are good and poor teachers, just as there are good or poor students, mechanics, doctors, painters, plumbers, mechanics, cooks, photographers, drivers, critics or anything else you can name.

Since I started teaching and switched over to writing, I have read at least a thousand books about writing or teaching writing. A depressingly high percentage of them are poor, but even those usually taught me something.
 If you don't think you can improve your craft or help others improve theirs, you shouldn't sit at the table. When Stephen King accepted the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he said, "I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack."

I quote King because, like anyone who stays around, he's a much better writer than he was when he wrote Carrie, and that was a heck of a book. Now he does character backstory and depth as well as anyone out there and he writes much better female characters than he used to. He uses throwaways and irony, too. In other words, he's learned to throw more than a fast ball. I'm about 3/4 of the way through his newest book, The Outsider, probably the best book I have read so far this year.

Writers use critique groups and beta readers, both cheap forms of editing. Some groups and readers are great and some are not, but you can learn a lot from people who do something better than you do, and maybe as much from people who love the work even if they don't do it (Writers need readers, if nobody ever mentioned that before). Feedback is a form of learning and teaching. Schools and colleges offer creative writing classes. Those enterprises are aimed at making writers better at the qualifiable and quantifiable elements mentioned above. Of course those teachers and institutions ask for money. Living isn't free, and nobody who is very good at something should have to do it for free, either. If you don't believe that, try comparison shopping for knee replacements.

At the first writing conference I attended, I signed up for a critique and sent 25 pages of my MS in advance. Kate Flora, an excellent writer and teacher, spent about twenty minutes with me, and I learned more in that conversation than in the last year of struggling through several how-to books. I didn't follow every suggestion Kate offered, but I considered them. Years later, when I sold my first novel (a different one), Kate blurbed it. She also edited my first few short stories. All of those stories were measurably better because of her work on them.

I am a freelance editor now, and I taught English in an urban high school and a community college for thirty-three years. I know or have worked with several other fiction editors--many of whom I met through MWA, SinC, or both, and they include Barb Goffman (also here on Sleuthsayers), Jill Fletcher, Chris Roerden, Lynne Heitman, Leslie Wainger and Ramona DeFelice Long.

Every one of them will make a manuscript better. They can all explain how and why it's better, too. But only a fool would guarantee that editing will result in a sale. Taste is a personal thing; connecting it to quality is like juxtaposing apples and snow tires.

As I write this, I'm also reading reports that Koko, a 46-year-old gorilla, has passed away. Koko revealed aspects of primates we'd never suspected before, showing maternal love for kittens and other small animals, and telling her handlers she wanted to be a mother. She told her handlers through the more than one thousand words she learned in sign language. People taught a gorilla a larger vocabulary than the average politician.

Think what she could have done with a word processor and a good agent...to go along with those teachers.

06 January 2018

Three Kings




by John M. Floyd



In my SleuthSayers post last Saturday I mentioned that I'd read some good novels last year. I did, and some good collections and nonfiction too. Some books I've especially enjoyed in the past three months are Don't Let Go (Harlan Coben), The Midnight Line (Lee Child), Uncommon Type (Tom Hanks), Fierce Kingdom, (Gin Phillips), The Last Castle (Denise Kiernan), Goldeline (Jimmy Cajoleas), The Lost City of Z (David Gramm), Artemis (Andy Weir), Hank and Jim (Scott Eyman), The Cuban Affair (Nelson DeMille), Trigger Mortis (Anthony Horowitz), The Rooster Bar (John Grisham), and We'll Always Have Casablanca (Noah Isenberg).

And two more: Sleeping Beauties (Stephen King and Owen King) and Strange Weather (Joe Hill). It's those I want to focus on, today.

Owen King is of course Stephen's son, and so is Joe Hill. Before Sleeping Beauties, I had not read anything written or co-written by Owen before, but I own every novel, novella, short story, and nonfiction book his father has done, and every book by Joe Hill as well: The FiremanNOS4A2Horns20th-Century Ghosts, and Heart-Shaped Box. (I was especially impressed by The Fireman.)

These two latest books were as well written, I thought, as any of the King products in a long time. Sleeping Beauties is a novel, and a long one--720 pages--and features more than 70 named characters. It's otherworldly, of course, and is set in an Appalachian town (most likely in West Virginia, although it never says for sure) and its nearby women's prison. The premise is fascinating: something is causing all the women in town to go to sleep, and when they go to sleep they don't wake up. The villain isn't really the sleeping-sickness; the villains are the men--at least some of them--and all kinds of timely themes are explored here.

One more reason you can't go wrong with this book: Stephen King writes good prison fiction. His novel The Green Mile and novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (from Different Seasons) are among his best works. And I should also mention that I can't see much difference in the style of writing between King's other books and this collaboration with his son. I truly enjoyed it.

The Joe Hill book is Strange Weather, a collection of four novellas that reminded me a bit of Different Seasons, from 35 years ago. In this case the common theme is the weather: violent electrical storms, wind-fueled wildfires, innocent-looking but sinister cloud formations, and downpours of nails and needles.

A quick overview: In the first of the four novellas, Snapshot, an overweight and outcast teenager is threatened by a tattooed killer with a supernatural Polaroid camera; Loaded is a dark story of gun mania and depression and violence in a small town; Aloft (the best of the four, I thought) features a first-time skydiver who falls into a cloud that turns out not to be a cloud at all; and Rain shows us what can happen when thunderstorms produce deadly falling hardware instead of water. Like Sleeping Beauties, these four tales manage to tackle a number of social concerns: racial prejudice, police brutality, gun control, bullying, LGBT issues, etc., etc.

I won't say more. Part of the fun of both these books, and all five of these adventures, is the constant surprises they offer to the reader. But I will say that I'm pleased to find that both of SK's sons seem to have inherited a rare gift. The literary apple didn't fall far from the tree.

Are any of you familiar with the work of either Joe Hill or Owen King--or of their mother Tabitha? If so, what do you think? And how many of you are fans of their father's fiction? At my own booksignings, the comments I receive about Stephen King are always either hot or cold, never lukewarm. It's either I don't read Stephen King at all or I absolutely love his books. I suspect that many of the naysayers have never bothered to read more than a few of his early works, and don't realize his range or his talent.

I've met the elder King only once, at the Edgars (he won, I lost), and I was so awestruck I did little more than shake his hand and babble. I think he's one of the best storytellers of our age, and as long as he keeps writing, I'll keep buying.

That goes for his sons as well.






31 October 2016

At Last


By Fran Rizer

Today is October 31, 2016--Halloween.  Also known as Allhalloween, All Hallows Eve, and All Saints Eve, Halloween begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembrance of the dead.

To most of us, Halloween is a holiday characterized by the dispensing of candy to costumed young people who threaten, "Trick or treat."  Other traditions include costume contests and parades.  When I taught elementary school, teachers and parents worked together to hold Halloween carnivals for students.  Before my retirement, these changed to Fall Festivals, and scary costumes (such as vampires, werewolves, skeletons, zombies, and this year--clowns) were forbidden because some people felt that Halloween was a celebration of witchcraft.

The traditions of Halloween include decorations such as black cats and pumpkins carved into jack-o-lanterns as well as activities like apple bobbing, pranks,  bonfires, and divination games.  In some parts of the world, Christian observances include church services and lighting candles on graves.

What accounts for the popularity of the non-religious aspects of Halloween? I believe it's because humans like to be scared--so long as what frightens us isn't real.  We might think that fall and Halloween would amplify the appeal of spookiness, but horror is a genre that transcends season.

How does the title "At Last" relate to Halloween and the horror genre?  Recently I've been doing a lot of writers' workshops in South Carolina libraries.  One of my most popular is entitled "A Late Start." The topic is writing as a second career after my retirement including disadvantages of waiting so long to begin writing fiction as well as the obvious advantages of greater maturity and vaster experiences. The workshops include tips on speeding up the process of successful writing and publishing.  The story of my first horror book proves that I don't always follow my own advice when it comes to fast writing and quick publication.

"At Last" would work as well if this blog referred to my first novel in 2007 as it does now to my tenth book released this month, but Leigh Lundin didn't invite me to return to SleuthSayers to summarize the workshop.  I'm here to tell you about my newest book and why "At Last" is a perfect title for this column.

The HORROR of JULIE BATES began several years ago as A Midnight Dreary and morphed into Something to Fear.  Both David Dean and Dixon Hill critiqued the manuscript during one of those phases, and I incorporated several of their suggestions. After numerous rewrites, my agent accepted it, but held back a year before pitching it.  Berkley was interested and made two suggestions.  Pardon my unladylike expression, but I busted my butt to work out the changes and dashed it off back to my agent in two weeks.  I didn't hear anything.

Sure, I wanted to push for a response, but we all know that it's not a good idea to put pressure on agents or editors.  After months and months, I asked the agent to touch base with the interested editor at Berkley.  I almost had another heart attack when I received an apology from my agent because he had forgotten to send her the manuscript revised to her requests.

Meanwhile, there had been major changes in the publishing world. To make a long story short (literally in this case), it was too late.

I began querying new agents and received some requests for the complete manuscript, but when Darren Foster at Odyssey South Publishing said, "Let us have it," I jumped at the chance.  And so, ladies and gentlemen, at last, my first horror novel is now available.  Here's the back copy:

                                 Who knew Columbia, South Carolina, could be so scary?

Julie Bates discovers a corpse in front of the Assembly Street post office.  Arson destroys her home the same day, but Julie's story is not a mystery.  It's horror--southern style.  Police officer Nate Adams thinks the killer who raped and murdered Julie's mother the year before is stalking Julie, but Julie's tormentor is not human.  The well-known ghosts of South Carolina barely skim the surface of the evil that awaits Julie Bates.  Move over, Amityville.  Columbia, South Carolina, is right there with you on the scale of terror.

How does a writer transition from cozyesque to horror? The preface explains:

When a red-haired woman approached me at a book-signing, I expected her to ask me to autograph one of my own cozy mysteries.  Instead, she asked me to write a book for her.  I went into my usual spiel that she could do a better job of putting her story on paper than I, but we agreed to meet in the coffee shop after the signing.  Writers are frequently approached to write or co-write someone else's story. Most of the time, we decline politely, but there was something about this mysterious stranger that made me hesitate to dismiss her so quickly,

The HORROR of JULIE BATES is that woman's story.  I spent many, many hours recording Julie Bates' tale and many more days and nights scaring myself as I wrote her story from her point of view, changing only names. The occasional third-person chapters were added after I was fortunate enough to obtain Richard Arthur's journal.

I have already received several emails questioning, "Did you make up this story or did a red-haired woman really tell it to you?"  I can honestly say the story came from a red-haired woman.

Long-time SleuthSayer readers know that I've jumped genre from cozies in the past when I wrote the thriller KUDZU RIVER.  I have no idea where I'll land next, but in the meantime,

Until we meet again, take care of . . .  you!
                                                                     

23 April 2016

Where have all the Readers gone? (in which our Bad Girl gets serious for a change...)


Read interesting stats today from Kobo.
Apparently, 75% of ebook readers are women.

(Back in the days when I first started teaching about writing, the early 90s, the stat was 60%. That is, 60% of readers were women .)

Back to the Kobo study:
Of that 75% of readers who are women, 77% are 45 and older.

The largest single group (30%) are 55-64 years old.  (I now fit in that age group. Curses.)

The reports states that the typical prolific reader (that would be me) buys on average 16 print books a year and 60 ebooks.

For all you math types, that's a total of 76 books.

Back up to my college class two weeks ago.  I ran a quick poll.  "How many books do you read in a year?"  I asked.

The poll was confidential.  I ripped up pieces of paper and had them write down their total.  They dropped the anonymous slips on a table on the way out.

The results were shocking.  Let me state first that this is a college credit continuing education class, so we have students of all ages in it.  Crafting a Novel is at the top end of the Creative Writing Certificate - most people take it last, because it is rigorous.  (You have to write a full synopsis and many chapters of your novel by the end.)  So these aspiring novel writers would be avid readers, right?

Books Read in a Year:

Most number of books read:  26
Average number of books read:  7
Least number of books read:  1

Yes, in a writing class of 20, only one person reads 2 books a month.
And one fellow manages to read one book a year.  But he wants to write a novel.

By now, if you are a writer, you should be hitting your head against your desk.

So who is reading books out there?
Women
Aged 55-64

And what are they reading?
Romance
General Fiction (whatever that is)
Mystery
(But twice the number of romance books as the other two categories.)

I have 20 students in my Crafting a Novel class.
No one is writing romance.
No one is writing mystery.
Almost everyone is writing a Hunger Games clone.  (Not the exact title. You know what I mean.)

Stephen King said it best.  "If you want to be a writer, you have to do two things: read a lot and write a lot."

If you are an established writer, reading is part of your professional development.  Every published novelist I know reads several books a month.  I read an average of two books a week.  That's over 100 books a year.  (One hour a night, people.  That's seven hours a week.  Not unreasonable.)

I weep.  I weep for the waste of time, effort and paper.  Can somebody please tell me why anyone would set out to write a novel when they don't read and read and read as a hobby?

(Bad Girl isn't usually this grumpy.  But it's marking time.  I may just kill someone.  I may kill myself...)

www.melodiecampbell.com







02 January 2016

A Bizarre Bazaar





by John M. Floyd




In the introduction to his latest short story collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King has a few things to say about short fiction in general. At one point, after confessing that he is a novelist by nature, he says, "But there is something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience. It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a stranger you will ever see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale laid out on a cheap blanket at a street bazaar."

I think the stories he lays out for sale here are among the best he's written--and a surprising number of them don't even have any otherworldly elements. (After all, his two most recent novels are more mystery/crime tales than supernatural, and one of them--Mr. Mercedes--won the 2015 Edgar Award, presented by Mystery Writers of America.) In this collection, I liked all the stories, creepy or not--but a few are exceptional. Of the 19 stories featured, here are my top ten, in order of appearance:


"Mile 81" -- The opening story features something familiar to all of us--the exit ramp to an interstate rest area--mixed with something terrifying. It's a little Christine-like, and doesn't end with quite the bang of some of the other stories here, but its cast of characters make it one of the best entries in the book.

"Batman and Robin Have an Altercation" -- A heartwarming and totally satisfying tale of a man and his elderly father, and their relationship. One of several stories here that feature nothing otherworldly or horrific.

"The Dune" -- Maybe the most memorable in this collection. King says, in his notes about the story, that it has his favorite ending.

"A Death" -- A heartwrenching story about hardship and justice and bigotry set in the Dakota Territory. This isn't typical Stephen King, but it works.

"Afterlife" -- A lighthearted and carefree look at what happens after we check out. Great fun.

"Ur" -- This, the longest story of the collection, deals with glimpses into the future via news reports accessed on a one-of-a-kind Kindle. It also (like King's novel 11/22/63) features a great love story, and has (for me) the best ending in the book.

"Blockade Billy" -- This borderline-novella was published standalone a few years ago, and it's worth another read. A tribute to King's love of baseball.

"Obit" -- A journalist discovers he can cause deaths by writing about them. Not a new idea, but in King's hands it makes for a great tale. One of those long short-stories that doesn't seem long at all.

"The Little Green God of Agony" -- Here's the Stephen King we've come to know and love. Dark, weird, and terrifying. Nothing lighthearted about this little tale.

"Summer Thunder" -- The story that ends the collection is, appropriately, a story about the End of the World. It could have been--and I expected it to be--creepy and brooding; instead it's a beautiful and uplifting account of an old-timer's love of life.


King also states, in his intro, that "short stories require a kind of artisan's skill." I agree: good ones do. And that skill is in abundance in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. If you've read it, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If you haven't . . . get thyself to a bookstore, or an Amazonian shopping-cart. And in case you've not read the Kingster's previous collections of shorts and novellas, here they are:

Night Shift (1978)
Different Seasons (1982)
Skeleton Crew (1985)
Four Past Midnight (1990)
Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993)
Hearts in Atlantis (1999)
Everything's Eventual (2002)
Just After Sunset (2008)
Full Dark, No Stars (2010)

NOTE: Among Four Past Midnight's four novellas are The Body (which was adapted into Stand By Me) and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (which became The Shawshank Redemption).

SK might be best known as a novelist, but he's the king of the short stuff as well.



13 November 2015

"Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery"


By Art Taylor

As you might be able to tell from this post and my previous ones here, my teaching at George Mason University is dominating my mind these days—and lately it's not only the semester I'm enmeshed in but next semester as well that's occupying a lot of my mental energy.

In the spring 2016 semester, I'll be teaching a graduate-level course for the first time: "Crossing Genres: The Literary Mystery." That's not my title, I should stress, and I have some issues with the idea of what's meant by the "the literary mystery"—a phrase that could go in a number of directions: mysteries that have books or bookish folks at the core of them maybe? But as intended primarily for aspiring writers in the MFA program here at Mason, I think the goals of the course are potentially a good one: an exploration of genre fiction, a look at the places where these persistent classifications of genre fiction and literary fiction blur, and a study of what so-called "literary writers" can learn from genre writers. To put all this in context, back when I was in the MFA program at Mason myself, I had a fellow writer tell me he'd finally read a Stephen King book and was surprised that it was actually good!

Stephen King
More context: I remember at panel on genre fiction at an AWP conference several years ago, where a writer/professor in another MFA program talked about the difference between his students interested in writing genre fiction and his students interested in writing literary fiction: If a he told students writing fantasy that they might want to read Gilgamesh or The Aeneid or any of a number of "high literary" works, they'd have it read by the next week, whereas if he suggested to literary-minded students that they should read a thriller or a sci-fi novel, they'd drag their heels.

There's lots of room to learn, clearly, from lots of different writers and lots of different kinds of writing—and I've often been fascinated, often written myself about, these delineations between kinds of books, the prejudices and biases at the core of such attitudes, and the continuing evolution of writers attitudes toward genre, how those writers might be informed by formal traditions on the one hand and how they might challenge them on another.

Much more to say on all this, but I mostly wanted to share some of the books I'm considering teaching—and invite others to chime in with books I might add to the reading list, whether one for the syllabus itself or a supplemental list for students to explore on their own.

The course will start out with a selection of short stories surveying both the foundational history of the genre (Poe and Conan Doyle there, among others) and also various subgenres within the larger world of crime fiction: the traditional mystery, the hard-boiled tale, the noir story, domestic suspense, the police procedural, true crime writing, etc. etc. But once that foundation is laid in the first few weeks, here's the list of full novels—and one feature film!—that have risen to the top so far (in no particular order yet but all, purposefully, pointedly, from 2000 onward):

  • A Rule Against Murder, Louise Penny
  • Little Scarlet, Walter Mosley
  • In the Woods, Tana French
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  • The End of Everything, Megan Abbott
  • Country Hardball, Steve Weddle
  • Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan 
  • The City & the City, China Mi√©ville
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
Thoughts? Additions?

I have a second list of strong contenders too that will be on a growing supplemental list, so.... Thanks in advance for suggestions and additions!

09 November 2015

Notes on Writing


by Jan Grape

I've been reading a couple of books on writing to see if something I read can motivate me. One that honestly touched me is what Stephen King wrote after he was injured so severely when he was hit by a van while he was taking a walk. 

Mr. King had undergone surgeries and was still doing rehab and still in a wheelchair when he thought he might get back to writing. He wasn't really able to sit up much more than forty minutes at any one time without hurting. He states that he wasn't exactly raring to get back to writing, due to his pain level and incapacitation but a little voice in the back of his head kept telling him it was time.

Actually, writing had helped him through tough situations in the past. He wife, Tabby, was the deciding vote. She rigged up a writing area for him in the hall outside the pantry. Told him there were several electrical plug ins there, for his printer, MacBook and a fan. Since it was summer, even in Maine there was a need for a fan.

Tabitha rolled him to his little nest, kissed him on the forehead and left him to his work. That first session lasted an hour and forty minutes. The longest he'd been upright since his accident with Mr. Smith's van. Steve said he was sweaty and tired but happy too because he'd been productive. Thank goodness he realized he needed to keep writing to keep sane. Think of all the great books we would have missed if he had given up then.

Another book I read portions of was How To Write A Mystery by Larry Beinhart. I read a chapter on plotting. My books are usually character driven rather than plot driven. Mr. Beinhart did give me a better understanding of a plot. He divided plots into two categories. The first is as "The Contest" and the second as "The Journey." Yet he says that's not entirely true, because variations, exceptions, shadings, etc. can be involved. 

The Journey is simple enough. The hero has a problem and he keeps plugging away until he comes up with a solution. The Contest is between two opponents...good verses evil. A variation can add other people going after the same prize. 

I enjoy reading books about writing. Maybe they fail to motivate me as I hope but I almost always learn something from them. Sometimes reading fiction can help motivate me.

Have to mention reading our own Melissa Yi's upcoming book, Stockholm Syndrome. Melissa is an Emergency Room Physician in Montreal, Canada. The book is a tension filled medical thriller of two doctors, one crazed gunman and one lady in the late stages labor. Ms Yi's description of the background and the action ring true to me. I'm a retired diagnostic and radiation therapy technician and have watched several live births. The book is due out on December 1st and I highly recommend it.

27 January 2015

What's In a Place


by Jim Winter

If you've been following along at home, you know I'm fascinating by setting, particularly fictional cities. Done right, a place that never existed can be as real as where the reader is sitting and have just as much history.

Often, when cities are created for a story, you're almost hit over the head with it. DC Comics had a long time, though, to flesh out Metropolis and Gotham City. Notice that the show is called Gotham, and they seldom use the name "Gotham City" in dialog. But what makes two cities full of superheroes and costumed psychopaths as real as, say, New York or Peoria, Illinois or even Redding, California, up in the redwoods?

There's a sense of place and identity about those fictitious towns. Gotham, for instance, has a geography. Some river empties out into another river or a lake or the Atlantic, forming "The Narrows." Bruce Wayne probably lives in a place north of the city that looks suspiciously like Atlanta's Buckheads. And there are nightclubs, restaraunts, and city landmarks that get recycled and repurposed with every incarnation of Batman and its spin-offs. Thanks to Christopher Nolan's films and the new TV series, Gotham looks a lot like a place you can go to.

Contrast that with the typical comic book or movie device of hitting you over the head with a city's unreality. It's always something-"City." Very few large urban centers are actually called that.

"But, Jim, what about Mexico City?"

Glad you asked that. It's an Americanism. We call it either Mexico City or Ciudad de Mejico because, English or Spanish, it's hard to differentiate between the city of Mexico (and that's all actual Mexicans call it) and the country.

There are exceptions, of course. But often, when I hear something like "Bay City" or, pulling from the soaps, "Genoa City" (Really, Young and the Restless writers? You couldn't just call it "Genoa"?), I hear "Fake." It worked on Battlestar Galactica because, like Mexico, the city of Caprica needs to be differentiated from the planet Caprica if you don't live there. Genoa City sounds like lazy writing. (And in the soaps' defense, they do have to crank out at least 260 scripts a year.)

But what really makes these places real?

Well, let's look at my personal favorite nonexistent town, Isola, a borough of... McBain spares us a lame name for his City. It's just The City, just like every urban center you've ever been to. From the first 87th Precinct onward, you get a sense of the city's geography (including the only two rivers in America that flow west into the Atlantic), history (often lifted from New York's own), and landmarks. Grover Park is not Central Park. Diamondback is the roughest neighborhood in Isola. You have to take a ferry to Bethtown. And I'm still not sure where the Alexander Hamilton Bridge goes.

McBain sprinkled just enough of these little details into the series to make Isola and its fellow "sections" real to you. You can almost picture the drive upstate to Castleview Prison.

But even better at making a town real is Stephen King. I've been to those little stores in Castle Rock and played in a place that looks a lot like Derry's Barrens. And then there are the backstories. If you lived in small towns dependent on a nearby city for its media (like I did living near Cleveland as a kid), you know the ebb and flow. You know certain places are going to get mentioned in the news and in conversation. You remember a sheriff very much like Alan Pangborn, and you know what happened at your high school happened in Derry. King takes the common experiences we all have, good and bad, and creates a Maine that does not exist but looks so much like the real one that you can't miss it. Oh, and there's a monster in there somewhere, like a clown that eats children or aliens messing with your head or something. The horror is almost secondary. Almost.

And finally, the history is often important. Street names and neighborhoods and landmarks take their names from people you don't remember. Here in Cincinnati, there is a William Howard Taft Road, named for the city's most famous president, and a lot of things called Hudepohl and St. Clair. Until the stadiums were built, a Pete Rose Way ran from Sawyer Point to the grungy barge docks that begin the city's West Side. Many streets are named for Civil War heroes who came from here, for meat-packing moguls like Buddig and Morrell, Procter & Gamble executives long dead before the current management was born, and sometimes, just somebody who helped layout the town.

McBain and King include these things, and I think it's the most important aspect of creating a fictional town. If you know a little about its history, you get an idea what to name things and where to put them.

It helps the reader live there with you, even if it's in both your heads.

13 October 2014

"Rules" and Comments


by Fran Rizer 

In 2010, a bargain-loving friend of mine found Stephen King's memoir/writing guide On Writing in a clearance bin at a dollar store. She bought every one of them and sent them all to me.  The problem was  that there were over twenty-five copies.  I sent one to almost every writer I knew personally.

Recently I introduced a young sci fi writer to the realm of Stephen King--not the movie or television version, but the world found in his written words.  As my friend read It, I wished I had one more copy of On Writing to share with him what King said about writing and the story about the baby sitter. I bought one for him, but I was also fortunate enough to locate a list of King's "rules" on writing.

I grew up a rebel child who hated "rules," so I'll call these suggestions. You've probably seen most of them before along with those that overlap Elmore Leonard's, but I found these gentle reminders worthwhile. I couldn't resist the color red for my comments though I graded papers in purple when I taught school. (Some of you may recall that I did, however, write "Dear John, go to hell" letters in red.)

Today, I share twenty suggestions from Stephen King.


1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story,you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”  My next two books are a thriller in January and a horror in June, 2015.  I think I'm writing for myself these days and I have no idea what story is going to insist on being told next.

2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” And for heaven's sake, learn what the passive voice is.  I've dealt with too many young writers who think linking verbs are passive voice.  No comment on the timid lovers.

3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.” I add "most of the time" to this or maybe "usually" is a better choice.

4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”  See number three.

5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.” I always told students they needed to learn the rules as well as when to break them.  Sometimes those grammar rules are necessary.



6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  Here I differ with Mr. King.  Years ago, when I attended a large writers' group, we encountered several truly horrendous writers who positively knew they were fantastic and tried to justify why they shouldn't follow any suggestions.  It's not surprising that those folks still aren't published.

7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Amen!

8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”  I'm struggling with this right now.

9. Turn off the TV. “TV really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”  Why do we need television when we have shows in our minds?

10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”  This is no problem for me since the Callie books averaged six weeks for the first drafts, but I don't see how King does it with some books over a thousand pages.  How about you?  How long does it take to get that first draft written or do you have some that "wrote themselves" in a short time and some that take forever?  

11. There are two secrets to success. “I stayed physically healthy, and I stayed married.”  Too late for me to accomplish either of those.

12. Write one word at a time. “Whether it’s a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ the work is always accomplished one word at a time.”  I would add that commercial success is accomplished one reader at a time.

13. Eliminate distraction. “There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.” There should also be no family members who constantly interrupt writing with insignificant questions and comments having nothing to do with the story (unless they are grandchildren).

14. Stick to your own style. “One cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.”  "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," but does flattery have any place in creative writing?

15. Dig. “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.  I like King's reference to the writer's toolbox.  The goal is to fill that toolbox with all possible skills and ideas and then develop the craft of knowing what to use where.

16. Take a break. “You’ll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.” And sometimes, going back and reading it after a layoff enables a writer to think, "Dang!  That's pretty good!"  (Okay, I know Elmore said no exclamation marks, but I love them so long as there aren't more than two per page. I began this by mentioning my dislike of rules from a young age.  What really p-o's me is when participants aren't given the rules until they are reprimanded for breaking them.) Back to the subject:  Sometimes after that six-week rest of a manuscript, a writer goes back, reads it, and says, "Oh, s- -t.  I can't believe I wrote that."

17. Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. “(kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.)” Writing is also an excellent way to kill some people who are not your darlings.

18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story.“Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”  I try to avoid this in writing and hate big info dump/back stories when I'm reading.  I don't like to read fiction that is obviously an effort to teach me a skill or history. (Janice Law provides an excellent example of writing historical novels that don't shove lessons down the reader's throat.)

19. You become a writer simply by reading and writing.“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”  I once knew a poet who refused to read other poets' works because he didn't want his "talent to be influenced by others."  He gave me a sincerely blank look when I mentioned "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," and the last time I saw him, he was coming out of a local pawn shop.  

20. Writing is about getting happy. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”  How about you?  I personally get a lot of happiness and pleasure from "falling into the page," but greater commercial success would take me closer to a happy ending.


See a fuller exposition of King’s writing wisdom at Barnes & Noble’s blog.




Your task for today is to let me know if you have a favorite among these twenty or if you have a suggestion you'd add to the list or if you flat out disagree with one of King's suggestions.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

29 September 2014

Genre-Jump


By Fran Rizer

Back in the '60s (when I was young, dumb, and having fun), youth of America followed Holden Caulfield's early '50s search for life's meaning and found themselves in fields of flowers and hippies. Now that I'm in a different kind of '60s, I seem to be seeking myself in other ways.

Some of you (hopefully most of you) are familiar with my six Callie Parrish cozeysque novels.  Fewer people have read my first two books.  Aeden's Two Homes is a children's picture book, and Familiar Faces & Curious Characters is a collection of dramatic monologues for intermediate-age drama students.  Both are out-of-print, but a new regional publisher has agreed to take a look at them.

What does this have to do with my search for self now that I'm entitled to the senior citizen discount where I shop?   I'm changing genres. (Not genders, genres!) I will now reference a few of the many others who have done this:

Lawrence Block - Crime fiction author, including Matt Scudder novels and the Bernie Rhodenbarr novels.  Quite successful in this genre, but back in the '60s and '70s, he wrote more than a hundred books of soft-core erotica, including seven "sensitive evocations of lesbianism" written as Jill Emerson.

Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (aka Willie Wonka), Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The BFG (Stephen Spielberg is filming this favorite of mine for release in 2015.) are examples of his fantastically successful children's books.  "Lamb to the Slaughter" (woman beats her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb, then cooks the murder weapon and serves it to the policemen who investigate the killing) is an example of his classic crime stories.  Macabre stories in Kiss, Kiss and salacious ones in Switch Bitch and the novel My Uncle Oswald (about "the greatest fornicator of all time") illustrate Dahl's versatility and comfort in many genres.

Ian Fleming - Author of both the James Bond spy series and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang - nothing else needs to be said.

Stephen King - Best known as a writer of horror and sci fi, King's recognition as MWA's Grandmaster in 2007 was based on his crime fiction, including "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" and The Green Mile.

A. A. Milne - Creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, he also wrote The Red House Mystery, proclaimed by critic Alexander Woolcott as "one of the three best mystery stories of all time."  This classic English country house "locked room" tale of murder has been in print continuously since its first publication.

Philip Roth - Portnoy's Complaint and two dozen other literary novels won him numerous awards. In 2004, he took his first stab at the branch of sci fi called "alternate history," about the fictional results of anti-Semitic American hero Charles Lindbergh being elected president.

E.B. White - Successful and memorable for an unusual combination:  Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web, both widely beloved children's books, and the classic reference work on the subject of clear writing - The Elements of Style.  Written by William Strunk, Jr., one of White's college professors, this style guide was edited and revised by White.  His publisher released it as by "Strunk and White."  E.B. White is as well known for this handbook of grammar and style as he is for that spider and pig.

Please note that I listed these gentlemen in alphabetical order. (I promise I'm not compulsive, but I tend to alphabetize all lists except for groceries.  I think it's my way of not showing favoritism as well as a hold-over from my days in the classroom.) I am not comparing myself or my writing to any of those writers, but they do demonstrate that authors aren't limited to one genre, and I am using them as an introduction to my own genre-jump.

Joanne Fluke, author of more than twenty highly successful Hannah Swenson cozy mysteries about a lady baker, has had five suspense novels released by her publisher, which happens to be Kensington. I've long admired Ms. Fluke as having reached my idea of the height of accomplishment. Though I've had the pleasure of book talks, readings, and signings in Borders, BAM, B&N, and Indies as well as libraries and book clubs, Callie never achieved my goal.  Those Hannah Swenson books get displayed right there on the book racks I yearn to occupy:  Publix and BiLo.

When I bought Fluke's The Other Child, I found "A Letter from Joanne Fluke" explaining her venture into this new genre on the very first page. (My apologies for putting that heading in quotes but not printing it exactly as it is in the book:  All caps.)  At the risk of being called a copy cat (I've been called worse), I borrowed that idea, and the very first page of my soon-to-be-released new book appears below:


A Note from Fran Rizer

A very  special thanks to all the readers of my previous books, the Callie Parrish mysteries, which are cozyesque---not quite cozies, but no overt sex, profanity, or described brutality.  For this reason, Callie has had some youthful readers, whom I appreciate.

KUDZU  RIVER is different.

It’s a much grittier book about three women whose lives become entangled as a serial killer leaves a trail of murdered teachers up and down the coast of South Carolina.  At times the writing goes beyond gritty to raw. It is not meant for children.  This is a tale that could not be told in cozy style, but it’s a story that I feel compelled to share.

I cannot think of better words to describe the differences between  Callie’s books and KUDZU RIVER than these:

KUDZU RIVER is to cozies what a great white shark is to a guppy.
                                                         -------Richard D. Laudenslager
                                                                      Author of Wounded


I'll be back in two weeks and tell you more about KUDZU RIVER. Meanwhile, if you have the time and are interested in reading and reviewing this for SSers, email me.

Until we meet again, take care of … you.

26 August 2014

The Long of the Short of It


by Stephen Ross

 "It was a dark and stormy night..."
"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."
"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills." 
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." 
"Call me Stephen."

The above might give you the impression this little piece is about opening sentences in books. Nope, it was just a nice way to start. This is about book beginnings, but it's only about the beginning of one book: my book. Like many writers of short stories, I too am working on a long story. I've been working on it for several years, and part of the reason I've been working on it all that time is because it started life as a short story.

I wrote a nice little story back in 2005: a thriller/mystery. It clocked in at about 6000 words, and I sent it out to the usual suspects. There was no sale. After nine rejections, I moved the story into a new folder on my PC labeled THINK, and there it sat (for several years). I wasn't concerned, I knew it would be a hard sell, but more importantly, I had the feeling there was a better story that could be had from it. This has actually become my preferred working method: Think up an idea, get some way into plotting or writing it, and then put it to one side for cogitation. And to be honest, most of the time an idea gets put to one side is because it's hit a roadblock. But that's another story altogether.

I returned to the short story several times and made improvements. I widened the plot and added a new main character (previously it had been shared between three). I rewrote the story in first person. I twice changed the main character's occupation. I tried different settings and time periods (the original had been set in New Zealand in 1969). I rewrote it set in Germany in 1950. I then went back to third person and tried it out in England in the 1930s. For three months, I thought of adapting what I had as a screenplay for a locally-set TV drama. For three months after that I thought it might make for a decent novella. Then, finally, I slammed my head into my desk and surrendered. What I had was a novel.
I had been thinking that all along, but I had kept putting it off for the fear of commitment. Writing a novel is a serious undertaking. It's like joining the Foreign Legion for a tour of duty, or flying to Mars. Once you sign on for the ride, it's you and the devil, baby.

I spent the summer of 2012-13 mapping out the novel's plot (Summers in New Zealand are over Xmas/New Year). I moved the story back to 1969 and its setting to California. I then tweaked that by bringing the story into the present day. Despite the story's original setting and time period, for the bigger story that had evolved, it was a perfect fit. And frankly, there are commercial considerations here. I'm not writing this book to print it out on my dot matrix to pass it around friends. I'd like to sell it, and I want to give it the best chance it has in the marketplace.

Books set in foreign countries are fine, but in my experience, trying to sell a book (to a publisher) in the US, that isn't set in the US, is like trying to climb the Chrysler Building in nothing more than flippers and a bunny rabbit onesie. Short stories, by contrast, can be set anywhere, as long as you know the setting and can bring it to life for the reader.

So, I devised a decent plot for the book a year and a half ago, why haven't I now finished writing it..? Because I've been working on the book's opening.
Stephen's Writing Flowchart

I define "opening" as a book's first quarter. For me, it's the most important part of the book, as everything that occurs in the following three quarters must have its roots back in the first. Shotgun over the fireplace in the first quarter -- someone pulls its trigger in the last quarter. To most writers, this is a no-brainer. I'm a slow learner.

I've written the book's opening about six times. I say about, because I've lost count. And with every new draft, I had the sense I had finally gotten it right. However, a little voice inside me kept saying: "No" (like that "little man" inside Edward G Robinson in the movie Double Indemnity).

The first problem was the story's origin as a short story -- it took me a long time to break free of it. The first draft of the book retained it almost entirely intact, with scenes simply added in and around it.

Little voice said: "No."

I expanded the beginning and wrote a new, and what I considered to be a perfect, first chapter. The three people who read it remarked the same thing: That's a nice first chapter, Stephen. But it still didn't work. And despite my knowing it didn't, I hung onto it like the pair of us were hooked up to mutual life support.

Little voice said: "No."

The chapter didn't work because it was a prologue. It described events that happened thirty years before the rest of the story. Subsequently, chapter two felt like the book was starting all over again. A brick wall for many readers. Eventually, I incorporated the events of the prologue into later chapters, where they were actually relevant to the progressing story.

Another problem I had was that I was holding too much back from the reader about the main character. It was as though I didn't want anyone to know anything about him. He's the MAIN character; we should know something about him! We should know his thoughts!

Little voice said (with a hint of weariness): "No."

A rereading of Stephen King's On Writing kicked me back on course on this one. To paraphrase King: Don't keep secrets from your readers. As a side note, I've read a pile of books about the craft of writing, and King's book is the one I keep coming back to. So, after another restart, my main character is now more engaging -- he actually does things, and we get inside his head -- the book flows a lot more smoothly as a result.

Today (late August 2014), I'm about two weeks out from finishing the book's first quarter, and almost everything in the first quarter of the book now takes place before the events in the short story, with almost none of the short story (as it was originally written) making it into the book.

I've learnt a couple of valuable lessons in the last year and a half. Be ruthless with your writing. Kill your darlings. Give them a pair of cement slippers and row them out into the harbor at midnight. And don't write a book in denial of the truth, especially when the truth is right under your nose. So, when will this book be finished? Now that my writing pocket watch has come off glacier time, hopefully within the next year. I have a rough draft already for most of the rest of it (I didn't spend all of that year and a half entirely on the first 20,000 words).

Little voice says: "Och, we'll see about that, laddie!" (my little man is a Scotsman).

On my tombstone will be engraved either Tenacious, or Fool. Or as a friend cheerfully suggested: Both.

Be seeing you!

Bonus Quiz: Can you name the books each of the opening sentences (at the top of this piece) are taken from?