Showing posts with label Tess Gerritsen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tess Gerritsen. Show all posts

02 July 2019

Tess Gerritsen: What Makes Books Fail?

by Paul D. Marks


In my last post for SleuthSayers I briefly mentioned Tess Gerritsen and her keynote speech at the California Crime Writers Conference. Leigh asked if I could talk a little more about what she said, so here goes:

I really enjoyed her speech, it was funny and relatively short—about twenty minutes. And it kept my interest. Much of what I say here is quoted or paraphrased closely from her speech. But I think I misstated her premise in my last piece, saying she talked about What Not to Do. More accurately her speech was about What Makes Books Fail. She started with some anecdotes and wound her way around to that topic.

She opened talking about how happy she was to be in sunny SoCal. Though it hasn’t been as sunny here as it normally is. But I guess coming from Maine anything above 50 is sunny.

She segued into Delia Owens and her phenomenal success with Where the Crawdads Sing. She also talked about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece  Annie Barrows which spent many weeks on the NY Times best seller list. Delia Owens was 70 when her debut novel came out. Shaffer, author of Potato Peel was 74 …and died before it came out. The point was it doesn’t matter how old you are or what you look like. You just have to do it. And you don’t even have to be alive to be a debut novelist!

Delia Owens
Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows
She moved on to talk about something we can all relate to. One day, while in her local grocery store, the butcher smiled at her over the meat counter. Then came running out after her—hopefully not with a butcher knife raised over his head.

“I knew you’d be in here eventually,” he said. “I want to give you this.”

Three guesses as to what he wanted to give her. Okay, time’s up.

He brandished a manuscript—what else? She took it. And to cut to the chase it never got published, at least not traditionally.

Another time she was in a restaurant. A man across from her jumped out of his chair, dashing out of the restaurant. He returned 20 minutes later with a briefcase…holding, well, you know what it was holding.

And then she talked about love, at least Shakespeare in Love. But rather than try to retell what she said, this, from her website, pretty much covers it:

“Young Shakespeare writes ‘Romeo and Juliet’, falls in love, and tries to stay one step ahead of the Queen’s guard. The scene that had me laughing hardest? When a ferryman finds out that Shakespeare’s a writer and asks him, ‘Will you read my manuscript?’”

Do you notice a theme here?

But the real theme of her talk was why some novels get published and others don’t. Why didn’t the butcher’s novel get published? The real theme was:


What Makes Books Fail

Ms. Gerritsen said that there are certain mistakes that are made often that keep one from breaking out or getting a traditional contract. By way of illustration, she talked about Uncle Harry. We all have one, right?

Uncle Harry and Aunt Maude both experienced the same earth shattering event. Harry will talk your ear off, telling you everything that happened, blow by blow, and bore you to death. Maude will tell you the same story and keep you on the edge of your seat. What’s the difference? Maude gives you the high points of the story.

Tess says we need to identify where the emotional high points are. It’s not that Harry isn’t intelligent, but he needs to get a sense of the dramatic. That’s why Maude’s version is better.

She told the story of Michael Palmer’s agent taking him on, even though the agent didn’t like the book, because they thought he had a sense of the dramatic. And when she and Palmer, both doctors, taught a course in writing for other docs who wanted to be novelists, they discovered that most of them, intelligent as they are, and as understanding of all the tech aspects, couldn’t tell a good story because they didn’t have that sense of the dramatic.

Tess Gerritsen at the 2019 California Crime Writers Conference
And her heart dropped when an attorney-friend of hers wrote a book and wanted to talk to her about it. But, she thought, he does interesting stuff so maybe it would be okay, and agreed to meet for lunch. And this is what she said:

“His book was about a man who comes of age in the turbulent 60s and moves to Maine. ‘And what happens,’ I asked. ‘It’s about self-discovery, about the journey, about coming to grips with life,’ he said. ‘But what happens,’ I said, ‘where’s the conflict? Where’s the struggle?’ And he said, ‘life is a/the struggle.’ And I thought okay, we’re in trouble. So the more I pressed him on the plot and the characters, the more I heard about actualization and personal journeys and maximizing relationships. And in a fit of frustration, I finally just said, ‘you’re thinking too hard. You should be feeling the story,’ and that’s what I’ve come to conclude, is that what makes most stories fail is that people are thinking too hard and they’re not feeling their way. In a nutshell, writers really shouldn’t be cerebral, shouldn’t be logical. We should be thinking about the dramatic points in our lives, the emotional centers in our lives.”

And one more example: Another man wrote a scene about a family preparing a BBQ. He wrote it in great detail, the cooking, the salads, every little thing. And then his grown child telling the dad that “we’re going to have a baby.” That’s great, the dying dad says, congratulations, and they go in and have dinner. But the author didn’t let the characters chew on that. Didn’t play off the emotional core of the scene, the dying man becoming a grandfather. It was just glossed over.

Tess said she remembers the day she was told she was going to have her first grandchild. Her son, who has a flair for the dramatic, showed her a sonogram on the rim of the Grand Canyon. She and her husband started sobbing. She doesn’t remember the hike or how she got to the rim. She only remembers about the baby, now her five year old granddaughter. So, she told the man writing about the BBQ he shouldn’t pass over the emotional center so quickly and spend so much time on the steaks being medium rare. She couldn’t remember the trip to the Grand Canyon. Every bit about the salad or how the steaks were cooked wasn’t what was important.

How a book fails, she said, is that we fail to remember that we’re human beings. It’s all about emotions, not about telling. And a large part of our skill is choosing the scenes—which scene/s are you going to point out? What are the details that matter to you? And even though we sometimes have to deal with technical aspects of what’s happening, we still need to find the emotional things there.

She used her book Gravity as an example. She had to explain the technical aspects of a spacewalk. But she didn’t have the heart of her story until she read Into Thin Air, where one of the climbers, who knew he was doomed to die on the mountain, called his wife to say goodbye. That brought Tess to tears and gave her the spark for the emotional center for Gravity. What is your last goodbye going to be like? Make your story interesting by bringing in your emotions.

So, even when you do need to tell, as we sometimes do, you need to find the emotions of the scene. Show something from the point of view of what you and your characters are feeling.


The bottom line:

What she’s learned is: trust your heart. That’s where your story needs to be. Don’t tell, but show. Choose the scenes that have the highest amount of gravitas and angst, and maybe we’ll all be Delia Owens someday.
~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Also in this issue are fellow SleuthSayers Janice Law, R.T. Lawton and B.K. Stevens. Hope you'll check it out.



Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com

11 June 2019

A California Crime Weekend

by Paul D. Marks

A double header today. First up are some thoughts on the California Crime Writers Conference that happened this past weekend. Next up will be my Father’s Day reading recommendations. And from the truth in advertising department, I posted this (the book list part) previously on another site, so I hope you don’t mind the rerun.

The CCWC is held every other year in the L.A. area, Culver City. It’s a joint effort by the LA chapters of Sisters in Crime and MWA. It’s not as big as some other conventions but it makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity. And since time and money for conferences is always finite and this one is local for me it’s one I always try to go to.

There were two guests of honor: Tess Gerritsen and Catriona McPherson. Tess was the keynote speaker for lunch on Saturday. Her speech was short but pithy and to the point. She spoke about something that writer’s rarely talk about: what not to do. Later in the afternoon, Catriona McPherson gave a workshop called “Deep in a Bowl of Porridge” about how to plant clues.


Panels ranged from “Demystifying the Hallmark Mystery” and “Marketing without a Budget” to “Indie Publishing: New Frontiers” and “Adapting Your Novel to the Screen.” There was some emphasis on Hollywood because of the close proximity.


I was on the “Bringing the Past to Life” panel with Anne Louise Bannon, Jennifer Berg, Rosemary Lord, and Bonnie MacBird, and moderated by Amanya (“A.E.”) Wasserman. We discussed writing mysteries set in the past and how we do our research for them. Our panel covered the 1870’s to the 1990’s.



Plus there were workshops on Forensics, Interrogation Techniques, Suicide Bomber Indicators, Compassion Fatigue and Weaponry (although not all at once….).

Audio of the panels are available from www.vwtapes.com and you can see a list of them at https://ccwconference.org/panels/.

But the main reason I go to these things is to “commune” with fellow writers and see people I might not have seen in some time.

It’s such a good conference that Walter Mosely showed up as a regular attendee, not even as a featured guest. And this isn’t the first time.

Unfortunately, I could only be at the conference a limited time this year due to personal reasons. But I enjoyed the time I had there and look forward to the next one. Only two years off. So, if you can swing it when it comes around again in a couple of years you might want to check out this two day conference in LA LA Land.

***

And some Father’s Day Reading Suggestions:

There’s so damn many good mystery-crime books out there. This list just covers crime novels, some of which I may have mentioned before. And maybe some time I’ll do a list of my five non-crime novels. Anyway, here goes:

The Poet: Michael Connelly is probably best known for the Bosch books. And I’m among Bosch’s fans. But I’d have to say my favorite Connelly book is the stand-alone The Poet (1996), though Jack McEvoy, the main character does appear in other books. The story follows reporter McEvoy as he investigates a string of cop suicides, including his own brother’s and ends up going down a hellish spiral into a world of pedophiles. It also introduces FBI agent Rachel Walling, who shows up in other Connelly novels. The Poet is dark and unsettling, but I think the reason I like it so much is that it is so well plotted, with a lot of twists and turns, and that it really keeps you on edge the whole time. I think this story is for anyone who likes a good crime yarn, but it’s not for the squeamish.

Tapping the Source: These days Kem Nunn is arguably better known as the co-creator of the TV series John from Cincinnati, as well as a writer on Sons of Anarchy and Deadwood. But he’s also the author of, I believe, six novels. Tapping the Source (1984) is his first and is something special. If it’s not the novel that invented the “surf noir” genre it’s certainly an early and foundational entry. This is not the Beach Boys’ version of sun, sand, surf and surfer girls, but a much darker vision of life on SoCal’s storied beaches. Ike Tucker, an aimless young man, treks to Huntington Beach (a.k.a. ‘Surf City’) to find his missing and possibly dead sister. There he gets hooked up with bikers, sex and drugs. No Gidgets or Moondoggie’s here. And Ike will be lucky if he gets out alive. I like this one so much that I looked into acquiring the film rights. Unfortunately they were already taken. Now, if whoever has them these days would just make the damn movie already. Tapping is good for anyone who loves surf, sun and murder.

Down There (a.k.a. Shoot the Piano Player): David Goodis has been called the “poet of the losers” and his stories of people on the skids certainly bear that out. I came to Goodis through the movies, which is how I’ve come to several writers and/or novels. I’m a fan of the Bogie-Bacall movie Dark Passage, so after having seen it a couple of times I decided to check out the David Goodis novel it was based on. I liked it enough that I began to read pretty much anything of Goodis I could get my hands on, but this was before he came into vogue again so mostly I had to pick up very scarred paperbacks (many, though not all of his books were only published in paperback), and I devoured his whole oeuvre. And, though I liked pretty much everything to one degree or another, Down There (1956) really stood out for me. It’s the story of a World War II vet, a former member the elite Merrill’s Marauders who, for a variety of reasons, is down on his luck – way down. Francois Truffaut made the book into a movie called Shoot the Piano Player which, to be honest, I don’t like very much, but that’s why the title of the book was changed from Down There and is probably better known today as Shoot the Piano Player. I think it would be good for fans of classic noir, old movie buffs, and others.

Mallory’s Oracle: NYPD detective Kathy Mallory is a hard-as-nails cop and not just because of her bright red nail polish. Even her creator, Carol O’Connell, describes Mallory as a “sociopath”. Mallory’s Oracle (1994) is the first in the Mallory series and probably the best place to start. I’ve talked with people about Mallory and recommended the Mallory books to several people over the years. And it seems people either love or hate Mallory. I’m in the former category. I love her no-nonsense, doesn’t suffer BS approach to her job. Nothing, including the law, will stand in her way. Not that I’d necessarily like to be friends with her if she suddenly came alive and jumped off the page. I think the Mallory books would be good for someone who likes solid crime stories, strong female characters and doesn’t mind one that’s a sociopath…

Devil in a Blue Dress: Pretty much anyone who knows me knows I have a thing for L.A., past and present. LA history. LA culture. And novels and movies set in the City of the Angels. Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), the first Easy Rawlins novel, hits all those bullet points. And, much as I Iike Easy, I really dig his psychopath friend, Mouse. Not someone you want to get on the wrong side of but certainly someone you’d want to have your back when the you-know-what hits the fan. (I wonder how Mouse and Mallory would hit it off?) Devil in a Blue Dress, and the other Easy novels, would be good for LA history buffs, noir fans, general mystery fans.



The Big Nowhere: James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere (1988) is the second of his LA Quartet books [ the others are The Black Dahlia (1987), L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992) ]. All are good, but if I had to pick one as a fave it would be The Big Nowhere. To try to describe Ellroy’s fever dream style is an exercise in futility. The story is set in LA in the 50s right after WWII. In part, it follows Sheriff’s deputy Danny Upshaw through the investigation of a series of mutilation crimes and exposes corruption and hypocrisy amid the “red scare”. I used to go to many Ellroy book events and signings and he truly is the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. At one event he even had a band with him. He’s a trip. His writing is a trip. His books are a trip. They would be good for anyone who’s into new noir with a retro setting, LA history buffs and the usual suspects.

The Grifters: Jim Thompson’s The Grifters (1963) is a good book and an even better movie. If you like people living on the down low, if you like con artists, and if you like the grift, this is the book for you. It would be good for fans of Jim Thompson (how’s that for stating the obvious?), noir fans, hardboiled mystery readers.

Bonus Round #1: White Heat / Broken Windows / Vortex / L.A. Late @ Night (uh, all by me): Well, since I’m not above a little BSP I couldn’t very well leave out this trio. White Heat is a noir detective thriller set during the Rodney King riots. Broken Windows is the sequel to White Heat and follows P.I. Duke Rogers’ investigation of the death of an illegal immigrant in the turbulent 1990s L.A. Vortex is about a soldier returning from Afghanistan and finding more trouble in L.A. than in the war. LA Late @ Night is a collection of five of my previously published stories. And all four would be good for everyone! Well, anyone who likes hardboiled, noir and detective fiction.



Bonus Round #2: I didn’t mention Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald in my list above because to me they’re on a plane by themselves. And, as many of you know, I have a thing for both. I don’t think you could go wrong with any of Chandler’s or books – because he’s just such a damn good writer. And Macdonald blows me away with his explorations into the psychological aspects of crime and stories that boomerang back on the characters – the past always comes back to haunt them. I like pretty much everything by both of them, but if I had to pick I think I’d choose The Long Goodbye (1953) for Chandler and The Chill (1964 – a good year for the Beatles too!) or The Galton Case (1959) for Macdonald. These books would be good for pretty much anyone interested in mysteries and the crime fiction genre, but especially as an intro to a young or new reader of mysteries. And as an introduction to classic mystery and detective fiction.



What about you? What books would you recommend as gifts for the people in your life?



~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:


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