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

21 February 2020

More about Opening Lines


More about Opening Lines

I feel the opening line of a short story or novel is the most important line in the piece. First impressions are the strongest, especially for a beginning writer who wants an editor to read beyond the first page of a manuscript.

"The first page sells your book being read, the last page sells the one you're writing." – Mickey Spillane."

The same goes for short stories, maybe more so.

Over the years, I put together information given by writers and editors. As I've said so many times before, there is no one way to write anything and what follows are just suggestions.

The opening of a novel or short story could capture the attention of the reader with an original hook.

1. THE OPENING SHOULD PROMISE ... SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN

How?
a. By presenting compelling events
b. By presenting an unusual character
c. By presenting a vivid setting
d. By using striking language or dialogue
e. By an unusual presentation of ideas

It should arouse expectation with a promise of more to come.

It should let the reader in on WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, or WHY.

In your opening scene(s) you may want to establish:

a. Who is the main character?
b. What is the situation (the problem)?
c. Where is the story taking place (setting)?
d. When is the story taking place (time frame)?
e. Why did this situation happen?
f. How did the situation happen?

You may want to include a cliffhanger that makes the reader want to read on.

You opening should set the tone of the story.

The strongest type of opening usually hooks the read with action (physical or psychological).

The story does not generally open at the beginning of a situation. It usually opens at the high point of action.

EXAMPLES:

Character Opening – If you are writing a character-driven piece.
Atmosphere Opening –Take your reader to a unique setting.
Action Opening – Start in mid-scene.
Dialogue Opening – Promises the reader there is a emphasis on communication between characters.
Philosophical Opening – Prepares the reader this may be a reflective piece.
Emotion Opening – Promises emotional conflict.

In a 2013 interview, Stephen King stated, "... an opening line should invite the reader to begin the story ... it should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

King went on with, "For me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about 'voice' a lot, when I think they just mean 'style'. People come to books looking ... for the voice. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection – a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing."

Award-winning short story writer John Floyd gives us, "I've always heard that ideal openings should (1) introduce you lead character and/or (2) establish the setting (time, place) and/or (3) introduce conflict. A fourth goal is to make the reader curious about what might happen."

Important Note:
A good opening line is like the opening move in a battle. If you do not follow up a good opening, you could lose the battle.

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Editor Janet Hutchings gives us, "Some writers have told me they have an attention-getting opening line as the seed for the story. That's fine. But from a reader/editor's perspective what makes the opening good or bad is how it serves everything that follows in the story."

Writing novels and short stories is a trade. A profession. Not a philosophical exercise.

OK – we have all read excellent novels and short stories which did not have a good opening line, which proves again there is no one way to write. In the epigraph in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury quotes Juan Ramón Jiménez – "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way."

Hey Paul,
Here is Charley. Gone but never forgotten.



Thats all for now –
http://www.oneildenoux.com

17 January 2020

The Chet Baker Conspiracy


Chet Baker in Bruce Weber's Let's Get Lost.
Rumors that jazz legend Chet Baker was murdered started shortly after his death.

Filmmaker Bruce Weber was still in post production on his Chet Baker documentary Lets' Get Lost when he got the news that the jazz trumpeter had fallen to his death from a hotel window in Amsterdam. "...it wasn't really Chet's style to jump," Weber told the Los Angeles Times in 1988, seventh months after Baker's death. "He was always getting into trouble with drug dealers. He called me a month-and-a-half before his death and said, 'Something might happen. This cocaine dealer is after me.'"

If drug dealers were after Chet Baker, it wouldn't be the first time.  According to John Wooley in "What Happened, Man," Chet Baker was attacked in 1966 by multiple assailants outside a San Francisco jazz club. "Whatever its motivation," Wooley writes, "it had cost Baker several teeth." Wooley guesses it was drug related. Jeroen De Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music affirms this, describing five thugs sent by a drug dealer to beat Chet.  Born to Be Blue, starring Ethan Hawke as Baker, chronicles the same beating, and how the damage knocked Chet, along with his teeth, out of the jazz game.

Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker.
Drummer Artt Frank, who started playing with Baker in the '60s, writes about Chet's attempted comeback in his 2013 memoir  Chet Baker: The Missing Years.  Frank discussed his book in a radio interview with James Paris, and he made some provocative statements about Baker's end. He claimed that Baker contacted him before he died and said he was being followed. Frank said that Chet's widow also believed her wayward hubby was murdered. Speaking for Chet's widow is mere hearsay. Claiming Baker told him he was being followed the night before his death, especially since it echoes Bruce Webers statement, is more convincing

Robert Budreau, the director of Born to Be Blue, also made The Deaths of Chet Baker, a short film about Baker's final moments.  It depicts a drug dealer knocking a very high Baker out the hotel window. It's total conjecture. There's a brilliant three second moment that captures Chet right after doing heroin as he experiences the highest of highs. I was inclined to believe that Budreau got us as close as we'll get to the truth of Chet Baker's end. Case closed. Cue up the album Playboys (made with fellow hardcore junkie Art Pepper) and lament the days when smooth was in and distortion was seen as a mistake.

Tom Schnabel's Rhythm Planet.
Then I read Tom Schnabel's article for KCRW's Music Notes, "How Chet Baker Really Died." Schnabel was the music director for KCRW (he's largely responsible for making Morning Becomes Eclectic a drive time juggernaut). Here's what Schnabel has to say about Chet's fall:

I got a call from a patron at Santa Monica's now-deceased music store, Hear Music, and was told that he knew what happened. He was there at Amsterdam at the same hotel. He said that Chet was chatting up a woman in the lobby, went upstairs to get some cigarettes or keys, and found he had locked himself out of his hotel room. The door to the room next door was open. He entered, went out onto the balcony and tried to get over to his own balcony. He lost his footing, fell and died. The caller told me, "Ask Little Jimmy Scott, he was there at the hotel and remembers."

Little Jimmy Scott
A few months after Schnabel spoke with the caller, he met with singer Little Jimmy Scott. Schnabel writes that the jazz vocalist "corroborated every detail the caller told me about Chet's accidental death."

Schnabel's version lacks intrigue, and if it wasn't for the tragic outcome, is really pretty silly. This only makes it more believable to me. Chet had drugs in his system when he died. Trying to cross from balcony to balcony like Errol Flynn seems like the impulsive move that someone high would pull. Especially if a hotel hook-up was at stake.

What's interesting is that the Chet Baker murder rumors lingered unabated after Schnabel's article was published in 2012. It was like it was written in a vacuum. Wikipedia didn't notice until 2019. The Chet Baker murder rumors live on to this day, though Schanbel's article should probably lay them to rest.

I think "How Chet Baker Really Died" proves two contradictory things about conspiracy theories.

First, it shows that sometimes the answer isn't some complicated plot or deep cover up. Sometimes things happen. It's hard to believe that someone revered, worshipped, viewed as special, out of the ordinary, could meet their end like the rest of us jokers.

Stephen King's  11/22/63:
 Time Traveller vs Lone Gunman
Take the Chet Baker murder rumors, multiply them by what ever number that the hopes and dreams of America equals, and you have the JFK conspiracy theories. Stephen King begins his 11.22.63, his tale of time travel and the JFK assassination, with this quote from Norman Mailer:

It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd.

Occam's Razor tells us that if there are two explanation for something, take the easiest one with the least assumptions. The Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone. Tom Schnabel proved that Chet Baker slipped and fell. It's an absurd world, folks. Don't make things more difficult than they need be.

Yet there is a second, and very different, conclusion to be drawn: Sometimes the truth is ignored. Or worse.

A series of fateful deaths that defy the odds.
You wouldn't think that the JFK assassination and the purported cover-up that followed would make good stand up material, but I saw Richard Belzer (standup veteran and TV's Detective John Munch) deliver a hilarious set on exactly that. He was at West Hollywood's Book Soup presenting Hit List:An In-Depth Investigation Into the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination. Maybe you had to be there. Anyway, I won't recite the litany of people who claimed to have special knowledge of the assassination and then died shortly after. To quote Belzer:

An actuary engaged by the London Times calculated the probability that at least eighteen witnesses would die of any cause within 3 years of the JFK assassination as 1 in 100,000 trillion.

I've heard people say that the assassination of a president is too big to cover up; if there was something there, it would've come out by now. Belzer argues that it did, and it was stepped on.

Schnabel's little essay for KCRW was ignored, but eventually it did change Chet Baker's Wiki page. If you hear the murder rumors now, all you have to do is check Wiki. We all do that. In a way, Schnabel got to rewrite the ending. Richard Belzer is just one in a long line of researchers and crusaders trying rewrite an ending, to reach the tipping point on another Wiki page. The truth is out there, the X-Files tells us. The implication is, you have to find it. 

I'm Lawrence Maddox.


My travels are taking me away from Sleuthsayers for a few months. If during that time you need your fix of Yours Truly, check out my novel Fast Bang Booze, available from DownAndOutBooks.Com.

Madxbooks@gmail.com.

Tweets are welcome: Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks

Cheers!




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


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)


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.






24 October 2017

Not Named


by Fran Rizer                                                                


"To Kill or Not to Kill" was the intended title of this column. The topic was how to end a series since I'd just launched the eighth Callie Parrish mystery. thinking it might be Callie's final adventure.


Ring Around the Rosie, A SKULL FULL
OF POSIES
is the eighth Callie Parrish
mystery, and I planned it to be the last.
Guests each received a new bookmark,
modeled on the right by a reader at the
the book signing.


















I took the long way home from the launch and something happened that changed my mind about what to write.  I passed a familiar house.

This house was flipped back in 2010, but it's changed hands frequently since then. How much do the current residents know about the place?  Property values are based on more than location and physical condition. Real estate can be stigmatized by such things as phenomena stigma, public stigma, and murder/suicide stigma. This house would be classified as stigmatized.

Phenomena stigma refers to property "known to be haunted."  One famous case about this is Stambovsky v. Ackley.  Stambovsky sued Ackley because he bought property without knowing it had been featured in magazines as haunted.  He claimed this decreased the value and made the sale fraudulent.  The final decision in that case didn't determine the validity of the haunting, but the court did void the contract and refund Stambovsky's down payment.

749 15th Street, Boulder, Colorado, was 755 until 2001 when
owners requested a change of address from how it was known
when Jon Bonet Ramsey died there in 1996. The house has
changed hands frequently since the six-year-old's murder.
Murder/suicide stigma refers to property with decreased value because a murder or suicide has occurred there.  Milliken v. Jacono dealt with Milliken paying full value to Jacono for a house Jacono had bought far below market value because it had been the scene of a gruesome murder/suicide.  Randall Bell, a consultant on this case, had been involved in marketing the condo where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were killed as well as the Ramsey home where Jon Bonet died.

Jacono claimed Milliken should have researched the property before he bought it.  Milliken claimed he'd been cheated.  The court determined it would be impossible to determine the degree of loss of value from a murder or suicide in a home. Would it be greater based on the degree of violence of the murder? Would an ax killing decrease value more than a poisoning? They ruled in favor of Jacono. essentially "buyer beware." Perhaps prospective buyers should have structures inspected for termites and call Ghost Busters. Since then, many states now have laws requiring sellers to reveal murder/suicide property stigmas.

Known as the "Amityville Horror" house, the street number of
this house was also changed by new owners, but the place is
too well known for a different address to matter. It also goes
up for sale frequently.
To me, the house on Long Island where a man killed his parents and four siblings claiming "voices in the house" told him to do it, would be a case of both phenomena stigma and murder stigma, but when the situation is so well-known, there's a special name for it: public stigma.  Made famous as the Amityville Horror, this house is the perfect example of public stigmatized property in which the stigma is widely known. Another example is the home of the Menendez brothers.

In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders says, "Crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract . . . to know that murder is possible, just not here." Flanders spends 555 pages telling how people in the 1800s satisfied their fascination with murder through serialized handbills, tours of murder sites (both real and simulated), and stage plays. That fascination remains.  It's evidenced in books, movies, and television shows from Murder She Wrote through How it Really Happened to Forensic Files (where insomniacs can watch murder after murder all night long.)

I've been reading murder mysteries since childhood, but in 2009 my lifelong best friend was brutally beaten to death during an in-home invasion.  Her death brought the harsh, painful realization that murder in reality is far different from fiction or even true crime books. I was asked after her death if I would write about her homicide. The answer was and remains an emphatic "NO!" When I discussed this SleuthSayers column with a friend, he asked, "Would you live in a stigmatized home?"

10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon near Beverly Hills,California, was so
stigmatized by the murders of Sharon Tate and four others by the Manson Family
in 1969 that it was completely demolished in 1994. Years later, David Oman
bought adjacent land and built a new house 150 feet from where this one had
been. He claimed the Manson victims haunted his new house and made a
movie about it in 2011.   
After my friend's death, I helped her daughter with the house.  That's when I learned that law enforcement officers don't tidy up after themselves.  I cleaned the black fingerprint powder off my friend's headboard and other furniture. Could I live in her house?  I wouldn't want to because it would be a constant reminder of the sadness of her loss.  Would I live in another stigmatized home?  I don't really know.

Thoughts of stigmatized property rose from passing my friend's house on the way home from my most recent launch.  Suddenly Callie popped into my mind with an idea for a ninth Callie Parrish mystery. It will involve stigmatized property but will not be about my friend or her home. I'll probably be back in a year or so to tell you about it.

How about you?  Would you live in a stigmatized house?

Until we meet again, please take care of … YOU!

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 Miéville
  • 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.