Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

05 May 2017

First Signing like a First Kiss


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the seventh in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by O'Neil De Noux


Like a first kiss - there has been nothing as good as my first signing. GRIM REAPER was released in 1988, and a local bookstore (back when local bookstores carried my books) had a signing for me. My publisher, Zebra Books coughed up some money (money I later discovered came out of my royalties) and I brought food and drink. My father brought beer of course.

We hoped to sell 30 books and the bookstore (part of a small chain) had 300 shipped in. The big surprise came quickly. A lot of my friends and my family showed up. I come from a big family - my father was one of 12 and my mother was one of 12. At that time, I had 95 first cousins and most of them had kids.


My brother is the tall one in this picture. The one non-family member is the third from the right. She was a retired nun. She was the principal at my grammar school, Our Lady of The Holy Rosary. She sent a note after reading the book, wondering who taught me to curse like that. I blamed it on the Christian Brothers at Archbishop Rummel (where I went to high school). Gotta love a Catholic education. I spent two years at a Jesuit university.


These are some of my aunts, a cousin and one of my sisters. They got all dressed up for this. My Aunt Earline (in red) lived to be 99. My Aunt Bess (second from the right) got married again when she was 80 years old.


My 2-year old son pitched in.

Well, we ran out of books. Sold 300 paperbacks. Never happened again, although my family continued to come to my signings through the 1990s. They don't come anymore. My books are too hardboiled and they haven't given the historicals a chance. You can only read so many curse words, I guess. Such is life.

But I'll always remember that first kiss.

PS: I did not write the promo on the flyer. Vendetta of blood?

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

23 April 2017

International Good Books • Great Writers Series


Last month, I talked about Alice and how buying from International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) donates to a humanitarian cause. From the land of Stephen Ross, the New Zealand Oxfam charity has created two other ads, one I’d seen before and another recommended by a reader (thanks ABA), I wasn’t aware of.
Whereas Alice was surreal, one of the others defines racy and the other esoteric noir. Let’s start with the dark esoteric and save the sexy one to wrap up.

Metamorphosis

This way lies madness…


An advanced education gone horribly wrong.

Havana Heat

This way lays… well…


Once your panting subsides, you know where to order your books.

Go ask Alice.

12 March 2017

International GoodBooks


by Leigh Lundin

I love Looking Glass Alice and good books and well-done animation and charitable causes. When they come together, that's Wonderland. Check out this lovely Alice clip from the land of Stephen Ross— New Zealand.


The good folks at International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) can apparently deliver pretty much anything worldwide through Amazon channels. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you use their portal rather than Amazon’s, purchases are supposed to work the same but they get credit.

Brilliant, both the sentiment and the advert. Let me know how you make out.

For fans of the surreal Alice like me, Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland is delightful and much better than the 2016 Through the Looking Glass follow-up. I also admired the computer game America McGee’s Alice for its brilliant music and surrealism.

Before leaving New Zealand and the phantasmagorical, check out this 1967 NZ classic by House of Nimrod, Slightly-Delic. (Page includes a free download.)

09 January 2017

Books for Writers


Well, 2017's a week old, but this is my first chance to wish everyone a Happy New Year dripping optimism and good intentions. Those good intentions show up in the resolutions we make and--sorry, but it's true--often break. Many writers vow to read more books, review more, attend more workshops, or improve their writing in some way, and I'm no different. Especially when I look back at how far I've come...and how much further I still need to go.
I tell people in my workshops that if you can read something you wrote more than two years ago without wincing, you have stopped growing as a writer. The only upside to low standards is they make you harder to disappoint.

In the 1970s, I wrote five deservedly unpublished novels. When retirement loomed in the new millennium, I knew I wanted to make at least one of those novels better and vowed to learn the craft, which I'd never bothered to do before. As an English teacher I knew how to write a decent sentence or paragraph, but I'd never learned how to tell a story. Once I retired, I attended workshops, joined writing groups, and read dozens of books on writing. I'd always read writing texts for the classroom, but now I had a different focus. It was the start of a much more arduous journey.

Since I began teaching, I have probably read over 1000 books on writing or how to teach writing, and it's a sad paradox that most of them are poorly written. English teachers worry more about formal correctness than style, and most creative writing classes are too big to give people individual attention. Writing is a personal thing and everyone does it or learns it differently, which is why composition classes have such mixed results. You need to do most of the work yourself.

And here's how. The following list is for potential fiction writers, not necessarily of mystery/crime, but slanted that way. These are the books that have helped me, which doesn't mean they will help you, too, but give them a shot.

PLOTTING:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby                        This is geared toward screenwriting, but it covers premise, plot, character, setting, dialogue, and how to blend them into a cohesive whole better than any other book I've found.




Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt          This expands Georges Polti's over-praised The 36 Dramatic Plot Situations from a century ago. Schmidt, also a screenwriter, is clear, concrete, practical and demanding. The offers many questions that will help you generate your own ideas in a lot of different forms.

Story by Robert McGee                   This has been considered the book for some time, and I think it gets a little more abstract and philosophical than it has to. I prefer Truby, but it's a matter of taste.

Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham                  Bickham's prose is dry but his discussion is crucial. Many later books refer to this one, which is appropriate because nobody else has explained the mechanics as well or as thoroughly.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler            One of many books on the Jungian/Campbell hero model, but more readable than most of the others. Like Schmidt, Vogler is a script doctor.

CHARACTER:

I've found more good books on character than on any other fact of fiction, and here are my faves.

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress
Character, Emotion and Viewpoint  also by Nancy Kress                     These two books repeat a little material, but Kress's discussion is concrete and practical. The first book includes a huge worksheet for developing a character that may be overkill but demonstrates how much there is to consider. It also has an excellent discussion different ways to handle internal monologue.

Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon              There are several dictionaries of baby names and the like, but this one cross-references by nationality, meaning, and gender. It also has common surnames and explains how the language or culture developed those names.

45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt                Same author as the plot book. She uses mythology and Jung to sort the characters into types and has a concrete discussion of how various character complement each other to develop a deeper plot.

SPECIALIZED TECHNIQUES:

Dialogue by Gloria Kempton            There are few books on dialogue, and most of the others are terrible, including those geared toward play-writing. The belief seems to be that either you can write it or you can't (mostly the latter), but this book give you solid techniques and exercises that generate plot or character, too. It's cheaper than taking my workshop, too. ;-)

Hooked by Les Edgerton              Supposedly about openings, it covers several other aspects of fiction and ties them together well.

Description by Monica Wood                 A masterpiece about the technique everyone loves to overuse...badly. This book shows how description can strengthen theme, tone, character, setting, and everything else.

The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

Setting by Jack Bickham                  Again, dry prose but a deep and thoughtful discussion of all aspects of how and why your location can make or break your plot and your characters.

REVISION AND EDITING:

Don't Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden               If you don't already have this book, buy two copies, one as a spare for when you wear the first one out. Roerden is a former reader for a major publisher and also a ghost-writer. Here, she offers helpful--and often hilarious--examples of how to ruin your writing and how to fix it.

Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell                This covers all the crucial issues above: plot, character, pacing, dialogue, tone, point of view, and gives helpful examples and exercises. Even though it's only one chapter, his discussion of dialogue is second only to Kempton's.

Story Fix by Larry Brooks                 Brooks offers a long discussion on the importance of a solid concept and premise, which few other books even mention. He makes a strong argument for tweaking that idea until it can support the mechanics of plot and character and shows how to strengthen your structure.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King                 This has been around for quite awhile, mostly because it's very good.

Sin & Syntax by Constance Hale                 Discussing how to build a style and voice is both difficult and dangerous, but this book does it well. Again, many excellent and funny examples.

Alone With All That Could Happen by David Jauss                             This is a collection of essays on various aspects of writing fiction. Jauss's discussion of point of view leaves everyone else back on the wagon train, and his analysis of present tense is only slightly less brilliant.

You'll probably notice a few omissions. Yes, The Elements of Style is a crucial text, but it's better for exposition than it is for fiction. Writing narration as Strunk and White suggest can lead to a more clipped and impersonal voice than you might want for stories. That said, it's the be-all and end-all for crafting strong prose. I've also left off grammar books and dictionaries because I'm an old-fashioned grump.  If you don't know grammar, spelling, and punctuation already, why the hell do you think you should be a writer?

What are your favorite books that I've missed?

26 December 2016

The Name Game: Titles


Titles matter. What would have become of the Dr. Seuss Christmas classic if he'd called it "The Tale of the Green Monkey-like Creature Who Decided to Be Mean and Steal Presents from a Small Village"? Obviously, we'll never know, but is there anyone under the age of five who hasn't seen or read How The Grinch Stole Christmas?
I'm still amazed that one of the major plays of the 1960s, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, ever reached the stage, mostly because the title was too long to fit on theater marquees. Most people can't give you the full title, but theater groupies call it Marat/Sade, which does fit on most posters. Not that anyone performs the play anymore.

So, what is a good title and how do you come up with it?

A good title catches the reader's eye and tells her something about the story. If the book is part of a series, the title should announce that, too. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series used designer colors: copper, azure, crimson. The early Ellery Queen mysteries featured a nationality: The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery and so on. Sue Grafton's alphabet titles are approaching "Z" and Janet Evanovich is up to number twenty-three. A letter means Kinsey Milhone, and a number tells us Stephanie Plum is back.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's Charlie McNally novels all use a monosyllable followed by "Time." Drive Time, Face Time, etc. Lynne Heitman's books about former airline executive Alex Shanahan are Hard Landing, Tarmac, and First Class Killing. Karin Slaughter often uses one-word titles that suggest violence: Fractured, Criminal, Fallen, Broken, Undone.

Early on, my cover designer told me short is better, not just because it's punchier, but because it's easier to fit the words around other artwork.

Simple, huh?

But what if you don't have a series yet? OK, what's a major event or object in your story? Use it. That's how we got Rear Window, Mystic River and The Maltese Falcon. Maybe you can refer to a character, as Carol O'Connell does in Mallory's Oracle and The Judas Child. Thomas Perry does it with The Butcher's Boy, and Elmore Leonard gave us Up in Heidi's Room and Get Shorty. Using a character for the title goes clear back to the Greek tragic poets Oedipus the King, Electra), and Shakespeare named many of his plays after characters (extra credit question: name all twenty-seven of them).

If you don't want to use a character, how about a literary allusion? For centuries, authors have looked to the Bible or mythology for ideas. The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, Tree of Smoke and Lilies of the Field are among zillions of them. Later writers referred to earlier writers: Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"), Thackery's Vanity Fair (Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ("Battle Hymn of the Republic") and thousands of Shakespeare quotes. At one time, I could assign my classes fourteen different works with titles that came from Macbeth, including Frost's "Out, Out--," Anne Sexton's All My Pretty Ones, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Robert Penn Warren, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jonathan Kellerman are among those who tape into children's rhymes: All The King's Men, All Through the House, Along Came a Spider...

Many contemporary writers use song or movie titles because they carry emotional links for people of their own generation (Who were you killing when this was Number One?). The late Ed Gorman used oldies, such as Wake Up Little Susie,
and Sandra Scoppetone uses twists on big band tunes, including Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey. Evan Lewis pays homage to earlier mystery writers with a play on Dashiell Hammett: "The Continental Opposite."

My wife hated the original title of my first novel, and she must have been right because every agent this side of the Asteroid Belt turned it down. She finally convinced me to change it, and we agreed on Who Wrote the Book of Death? The play on the song title suggests violence and the story involves writers using pseudonyms. I liked the first title, too, but maybe nobody else remembers Vaughn Monroe.

What was that title? Ghost Writers in the Sky.

When I got the idea for a novel that involved rock and roll, I began a still-growing list of song titles as starting points. Most of my stories use songs that suggest the story line, including "Running On Empty," about a couple discussing their crumbling marriage while driving, and "Stranglehold," about a guitar player who is accused of throttling a singer with a guitar string. The first rock and roll mystery became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan LP in the 70s, and the PI eventually became Chris "Woody" Guthrie.

The sequel was going to be Hot Rod Lincoln. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen recorded the song in Detroit, where the story took place, so I thought it was perfect. But the car thief in question became a minor character in the revisions and my cover designer and I struggled for the flip side. We tried most of the other car songs we could think of: Spring Little Cobra, Little GTO, Little Red Corvette (Why are they always little?) and they just got worse and worse. Pink Cadillac? Neh. My designer suggested Hyundai Bloody Hyundai, which we loved even though we knew it was only a place-holder.

At the last minute, my wife--the brains of the outfit if you haven't guessed already--came up with the winner: Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz. The caper involves a car thief, a stolen Mercedes, an embezzled fortune, and a pregnant stripper, so the title captures everything we needed. As the Three Stooges would say, Poifect!
My genius cover designer put up with a nine-word title because he could arrange the short words around the strong graphic he'd already chosen.

Remember, you can't copyright a title, so you could call your book David Copperfield or The Great Gatsby if you wanted to--although I wouldn't recommend it. Ditto Gotterdammerung. And you can uses a working title while you hammer out your first draft and change it when you discover what the story is really about. Most of my works are out there in at least their second title, and some their third or fourth. My most recent novel, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here (a line from Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues"), may be the only book that kept the same title from the very beginning.

Who knows? Maybe I'm finally learning how to do it.

Now, how do YOU pick your titles?

13 December 2016

Wrestling the Book Monster



“I’ve heard other writers say this: eventually you’ll struggle with a book. The plot will unravel, the characters will elude you, the theme will mishmash….
I just turned in my fourth novel, and I’m so happy to be rid of the Book Monster.”—Kate Moretti, author of The Vanishing Year

When I read Kate’s words on Writer Unboxed, my heart dropped in recognition.
Yes. I have spent over a year wrestling with one.
I never fully related to writer’s block. It’s not like I couldn’t physically write. The imagery of a single block didn’t appeal to me.
But a Book Monster? Some unknown, dripping thing rising from the depths of my subconscious swamp, its ichor and poisons hewn by my enemies, fearsome and loathsome, multi-tentacled and growing every-stronger?
Kate pointed out character and plot and author doubt problems in her excellent article. Now that I’ve finally vanquished the first draft of Human Remains, I’m going to share a few Book Monster symptoms with you, and see if any of you can relate.
How do you recognize a book monster?
How did mine get so out of control?

1. Plot? Where, where?
My plot popped and locked and waacked all over the place. I had lots of ideas, so I’d write 10,000 words with that murderer or 20,000 words with that subplot, only to change my mind the next week or seven.
I’ve always been a panster (“flying by the seat of my pants” kind of writer), because if I already know what’s going to happen, I won’t bother to write it.
After months of this, I considered plotting the book out properly instead. I also went to the Agatha Christie exhibit in Montreal and considered adhering to a strict formula like she did in And Then There Were None. Anything to stop the madness.
What finally happened was that I decided on a murderer and started writing toward that. If my mind said, Wait! Try this other murderer instead! Or Hey, you shouldn’t—, I ignored it and kept writing. No more changes. Well, some changes. But an inexorable overall structure.
Nanowrimo helped as well as hindered. I wrote 16,000 words before I stopped myself and said, No, Mel, no more words! Figure out what you’re doing with them first. But I enjoyed the feeling that the writers of the world were uniting to finish their manifestos, and it’s not a coincidence that I buckled down and finished on the last day of November.

2. No joy
Writers talk about suffering for their art.
As Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith said, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
But I used to like writing, or at least like having written. Most of the time, I still did—except when I’d stop and look at my latest manuscript chunk and say, “Wait a minute. How does that fit anywhere?” And, because I hate waste, writing over 250,000 words and knowing I was going to toss 75 percent was torture that I felt helpless to stop.
It made me not want to write. It made me want to read about Brad and Angelina instead of pounding out the words that were just going to get incinerated anyway.

3. Too much self-pressure
CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter chose Stockholm Syndrome as one of the best crime novels of the season.
I’d go to work and a nurse would say, “Where’s your next one?”
Mysterical-E published an excerpt of Stockholm Syndrome and interviewed me for their latest issue here: http://mystericale.com/current-issue/
I love it. But I also worried.
I’d strived to make every book in the series better than the last. But what if I couldn’t do it? I could already feel the Amazon reviewers filleting me and roasting me.
I felt relieved to hear Elizabeth Gilbert quote her mom as saying, “Done is better than good.” Because more and more, this Book Monster had to be done.

4. A symptom of a greater problem
One year ago, I battled back pneumonia during the book launch of Stockholm Syndrome. In retrospect, I’d never gotten physically sick for more than a few days. My body couldn’t heal up while I spent sleepless nights trying to work and write and publicize simultaneously.
Yep, I’m that doctor who was a terrible patient.
So finally I stopped and slept, and woke up and wrote. Because that is what I do. Only it came out in inefficient, convoluted bursts., so I wrote a back pain book instead. Then came back to my Book Monster, and which I called a Creative Drought at the time.
Looking back, I wonder what might have happened if I’d taken a break from my writing, the way I did from the emergency department. I’m good at powering through, don’t stop, don’t give in to fatigue or sadness or temptation. But sometimes it’s more efficient to take a rest and come back.
The trick is figuring out how to do that.

If you have a book monster, I’d like to hear about it!
’Cause misery adores company.

And also, because I have to do the second draft. But first, I’m taking a break! Partly because I just worked hideous hours in the emergency department, but also because maybe I’m learning something. Not only about writing, but about life.

19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down


While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials…

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

08 July 2016

I'm Thinking of Endings


A few weeks back on his BOLO Books blog, my friend Kristopher Zgorski reviewed Iain Reid's debut novel, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, and I found myself drawn in immediately both by Kristopher's description of the book and by his own enthusiasm for it. As his review noted, the book is highly original, tough to classify cleanly with its mix of genre elements and literariness, and though little seems to happen in terms of how you might summarize the action here—a young couple talking during a car ride, a meet-the-parents family dinner, a visit to a Dairy Queen and then a stop by a local high school on the way out of town—the novel bristles start to finish with tension. As that tension picks up even more momentum, I found myself barreling through the pages, but Kristopher is spot-on too when he says the book deserves to be read more slowly; much of the conversation between that young couple centers on questions about relationships and identity with a mix of sharp insight and provocative questions that shouldn't be rushed past.

I'll admit that part of my continuing interest in the novel, at least while reading the first half of it, became loosely self-referential. Like my own book On the Road with Del & Louisethough with an entirely different tone—I'm Thinking of Ending Things is partly structured around two people on a journey and talking/reflecting about the state of their relationship, their past, their future. This novel had enough small echoes with my own that I enjoyed seeing where some artistic choices resonated, where others went in a different direction, the flexibility of storytelling in terms of style, structure, and more.

But I was also fascinated by other craft questions too—specifically one that Kristopher zeroed in on himself in his review:

When readers begin I’m Thinking of Ending Things it only take a few pages before a feeling of unease settles over the proceedings. Crime fiction fans are used to this, but typically it is possible to point to the reason for the disquieting feeling. With I’m Thinking of Ending Things, readers will have a harder time pinpointing the reason they feel that danger looms, but the impression is real and unstoppable. This sense of menace only increases as the pages are turned.

Late in the book, Reid himself inserts a bit of commentary about this very topic. The narrator—the unnamed girlfriend traveling with her new boyfriend Jake—occasionally offers small glimpses into her life before meeting Jake, and at one point she relates "the scariest thing that ever happened to me." I won't give away what that thing is—it's surprising in about equal measure to any conventional scariness—but I do want to quote the narrator's preface to the story:

Most people I tell don't find this story scary. They seem bored, almost disappointed when I get to the end. My story is not like a movie, I'll say. It's not heart-stopping or intense of blood-curdling or graphic or violent. No jump scares. To me these qualities aren't usually scary. Something that disorients, the unsettles what's taken for granted, something that disturbs and disrupts reality—that's scary.

This passage begins to describe what makes I'm Thinking of Ending Things so effective in creating unease and discomfort. While many of the reflections and conversations along the couple's road trip might seem perfectly normal—assessments about the state of the relationship, questions about meeting the parents ahead—abrupt deviations from what's expected, those disturbances or disruptions of reality, ripple with a sense of menace. (In many ways, I'm reminded here of some of the cocktail conversation in the early sections of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Under Water, where sudden sharp turns in the conversation, ominous turns, are met so calmly by others—an underwhelmed response that ratchets up the sense that everything has suddenly shifted off-center here, everything is perilously close to toppling over completely, everyone is in danger.)

The beauty of I'm Thinking of Ending Things lies in that brilliant balance of the mundane and the menacing—and then by the questions that are raised every step of the way: What is really going on here? What are we glimpsing right there beneath the surface and when is it all going to come fully into focus? And then as the oddities begin to mount: Is the author really going to be able to pull this together? pull it off? Can he explain what seems increasingly inexplicable?

Reid seems aware of this too in that quote above, comments that resonate on the larger story being told: "Most people...seem bored, almost disappointed when I get to the end." (And maybe there's something prescient in that comment? There are nearly as many 1-star reviews as 5-star reviews for the book on Amazon, with the detractors almost uniformly focusing on the novel's payoff—or lack thereof.)

Endings are difficult, of course—as both readers and writers know. Several times lately, my wife has found herself engrossed in and amazed by books and then utterly let-down by the ending: Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, Marisha Pessl's Night Film, Christopher J. Yates' Black Chalk. Some responsibility for that may rest on faults in the author's performance, but I think there's also something about the interplay between anticipation and resolution that gives priority to the former; maybe all endings, explaining things, closing things down, inherently risk greater disappointment. (At a fireworks display earlier in the week, our four-year-old son was nearly giddy asking about the "grand finale" we'd mentioned, that final bursting bursting bursting of so many fireworks at the end of the performance, but when it actually happened, his response was like, "That's it?")

I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending of I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Half of me immediately dismissed it as gimmicky—OK, more than half—especially with the author's own not-so-subtle nudge that we readers go back and reread the book again. And yet sitting here writing this, I find myself revisiting some of those earlier scenes with the knowledge of the trick here—and admiring anew those scenes through the lens of that knowledge.

Suffice it to say that the novel is 75% terrific in my estimation—heck, maybe 90%—with the balance let's-talk-about-it-when-you're-done-reading-it.

Even there, however, the fact that there's so much to talk about may provide testament to another aspect of the book's success.

I'm passing my copy along to my wife now—nudging her ahead, looking forward to her response.


01 April 2016

Brick by Brick (Some Disassembly Required)


By Art Taylor

Over the last year, my four-year-old son Dashiell and I have been bonding over Lego sets: race cars and motorcycles, a fire station, a police station, a ferry boat, a camper—even the Mystery Machine, complete with Fred, Shaggy, and Scooby, which was a little snow day project that quickly became one of the prides of our growing collection.



While we build these together, my job is technically to supervise, since he's already become a pro at following the directions, finding the right pieces, clicking them together, checking his work, moving ahead. Some of the smaller pieces have indeed proven a challenge for him—a precision he's trying to master—but I'm there to step in as needed. And I'll admit I'm enjoying all of it myself, revisiting one of my own favorite childhood loves and savoring brief getaways from work on the computer, from reading and grading for classes, from the constant struggling against one deadline or another. My wife Tara and some other friends have really gotten into the adult coloring book trend—many benefits to that, I know—but this seems a better fit for me. For my birthday middle of March, Tara and Dash got me a set of my own: the Lego Detective Agency—more than 2200 pieces!—and all of us have slowly been constructing that one together. "Only one level left!" Dash told the teachers at his school, who've been eager to see the finished product, three stories in all, including a pool hall, barber shop, and the detective office itself. Here are a couple of glimpses at highlights so far:





The sets are terrific, not only because of the great attention to detail but also because of the learning opportunities for Dash: those directions I mentioned, but also reinforcement on counting and shapes and sizes and then the longer-term lessons on patience and investment and payoff. But it's also great to see Dash build something out of his own imagination—diving into one of my own old tubs of Lego pieces, stacking up towers or gathering rough walls for a house or just stringing together some bricks, adding a few mismatched sets of wheels, and calling it a racecar.

That car of his own construction may never have the precision of those professionally designed packages, but I think he's just as proud of it—and I know I'm even more proud in many ways of seeing him conjure up something on his own. I wish I had a picture of one of those creations to share here, but I don't. Once we've finished assembling one of the kits we've been collection, it's COMPLETE—not a new project but a new toy and not likely something that he'll ever disassemble. But those made-from-nothing projects are ephemeral, endlessly worked and reworked, taken apart, made new, destroyed, refigured, again and again.

Lego pieces could surely lend themselves to a quick metaphor for writing: "Brick by brick" in the same way many of us repeat Anne Lamott's now-ubiquitous mantra "bird by bird." But I found myself thinking of Lego sets and pieces and writing in a different way while on a panel with Donna Andrews, Jack Bunker, and Meredith Cole during the Virginia Festival of the Book a couple of weekends back. During the q&a section of the panel, another writer friend, Anne DeMarsay, asked a question about what to do when your writing group says that some part of your work-in-progress simply isn't working and, try as you might, you don't know how to fix it (I'm paraphrasing, but that was essentially the question as I took it). My own first response wasn't very helpful, I realize in retrospect—something about keeping at it, about bull-headed determination, about banging your head against the wall until some dent is made (in the wall part of that metaphor, not in the head, I clarified). Donna offered better advice—which was to step away, quite literally, from the troubles; even a short time away from the computer can help to open up the imagination (a walk, a drive, a shower) and longer stretches might offer greater perspectives: I myself have put aside half-finished stories for years before coming back to them with fresh clarity, fresh perspective, forward progress.

And then I thought about my son, building, tearing down, rebuilding—none of it in frustration, but simply letting his imagination play.

Lego, I've recently discovered, comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means "play well." And the sense of "play" is something that's easy to forget about writing, which too often feels more like "work" to me and clearly to others. It is work, of course; whether we're writing as our full-time profession or on the edges of day jobs and other responsibilities, most of us who'd call ourselves writers are thinking of it as a career, often one with deadlines real or self-imposed, sometimes one with pay (and never enough). Writing is a business. But from a craft standpoint, in terms of the imaginative work that goes into it, writing should be play—indulgent, liberating, fun....even in those moments when it's tearing things down instead of building things up.

I recognize—no doubt—that there's a difference between a toddler dismantling a Lego tower (timber!) and a writer short on time ripping apart a scene or a story or a chapter that he or she has been toiling on. But the more I think about this as a metaphor, the more I find myself liking it or at least the perspectives it encourages: tearing something down isn't an act of destruction or loss; it's merely the next step toward bringing your vision into reality—and maybe the best approach is just to remind yourself to have fun with it all.

To shift metaphors here at the end: Not only is there light at the end of that tunnel, but maybe even a lighthouse—and an ice cream shop too.






23 January 2016

Star Ratings and what they Mean (in which we get serious for a short while...)


When my first novel was published, my mentor told me: “Don’t look at your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.  Particularly Goodreads.  No, really.  Don’t.  If your book continues to sell, then you know it is good.  If your publisher buys your next book, then you know it is good.  Don’t  torture yourself by reading the criticism of non-writers.”

I found it next to impossible to follow his advice.  The lure of reviews on your work is pretty strong.

It took ten books – all published by traditional publishers – before I really felt I had a handle on ‘the dreaded review star rating.’  Here’s my list. (My opinion only, everyone. You may have a different interpretation.)

Anatomy of Star ratings

Five stars:  Just one word: Joy!
Bless them, every one.  A million thanks to reviewers who take the time to tell you they loved your book.

Four stars:  Okay, they really liked it. Maybe even loved it.  But even if they loved it, some people  reserve five stars for their very favourite authors, and the masters, like Jane Austen.  And literary writers.  A genre novel is...well…a genre novel.  Not quite as worthy (in some eyes).  But they really enjoyed it.

Three stars:  These are the ones that make me sad.  A reader is telling me that the book was okay.  I want them to think it was great!  Sometimes, this can be a reader who loved your books in another genre, and decided to try this book that is in a different genre, one they don’t normally read.  Often, they will give you that clue in the review (“I don’t normally read scifi”). 

For instance, I have enjoyed Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series very much.  Recently, I tried one of her romantic comedies (classified under the Romance genre.)  I am not a romance reader, and not surprisingly, I found this book lacking in the type of fast-paced plot I enjoy.  I would probably give it a 3 rating, where no doubt a seasoned romance reader would give it a 4 or 5.

Two stars:  These are often people who wandered into your book by mistake.  They thought it sounded interesting, so they bought it thinking it was one thing, and it wasn’t.  They’re mad at having spent money on something that isn’t their thing.  It’s not a happy event when you get these, but understand that these people aren’t your market.

One star:  These are simply people who enjoy hurting others.  Ignore them.  I do.

Here’s my advice, if you find that reviews haunt you, and keep you from writing:

1.  Stop reading them.  Really.  

2.  Never comment on a review.  Never.

3.   If you can, employ a personal assistant to read your reviews as they come in, and forward you the good ones only.  (This is my dream.  One day.)

One more thing: When you give away a book for free, there is a downside: you often get people picking it up who wouldn't normally spend money on that type of book.  Not surprisingly, they might not like it, as they are not your market.  Always expect some poor reviews, if you give a book away.  There are still many good reasons to do so.  Just be prepared.

Just out!
Book 4 in the award-winning Goddaughter screwball mob caper series ("Hilarious" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine)

The Goddaughter Caper
Available pretty much everywhere, but here's the link to Amazon

04 November 2015

Bouchercon 2: I whine, others talk


by Robert Lopresti   Updated 11/4/ 7PM PST.

UPdated
photo (at Bcon) by Peter Rozovsky


When I wrote recently about the World Science Fiction Convention I talked about the controversy over the Hugo Award.  What follows could be considered my attempt to gin up a kerfuffle at Bouchercon.  But I think it is worth mentioning.

Ready for the controversy?  They gave away too many free books.

Yeah, I know.  Too many free books sounds like a contradiction.  But hear me out.

Those of us who write books are supposedly trying to sell the damned things.  If everyone is handing them out for free like campaign brochures, who's going to buy them?

Every registrant found six or so books in their bag.  The several hundred people who attended the librarian's tea each collected seven more.  And Sisters In Crime Smashwords - (see the Comments below) gave everyone a flash drive with - seriously - over 400 free books on it.  I suspect a lot of those were stories or novellas, but when the total is over 400 that hardly matters, does it?  No one is likely to buy books if they have hundreds of freebies on a stick, even though when they get home they may find that most of them are ones they have already read, or don't care to try.


Full disclosure: I had books on consignment with one of the dealers in the book room, and none sold, so you can call this sour grapes.  But really I am most concerned about the dealers themselves, some of whom traveled thousands of miles for the privilege of competing with people handing out free copies of the same books they were trying to sell.

At some point, enough is too much, and the Tragedy of the Commons takes over.  I understand that the people working on next year's Bouchercon in New Orleans are already thinking about this issue.  I wish them luck.

Finally, and if you read this blog at all you knew it was coming, here it is:  my quotation file from Bouchercon.  All of these were jotted down on the fly so apologies for any misattributions or misquotations.  And as for context, sorry.  I left it in my other suit.

"If I could write one book in first person it would be The Big Sleep." -Bill Crider

"The amateur sleuth restores the social order."  -Leslie Butewitz

"You are everybody in your book."  -Don Bruns

"I'm the most Jewish atheist you'll ever meet."  -Reed Farrel Coleman

"I dream about Philip Marlowe.  That's really embarrassing, which is why I'm telling this large group of people."   -Megan Abbott

"The best experience for someone who wants to write is not reading the masters but reading works by amateur, inferior writers."  -Lawrence Block

"I don't like Harry Potter.  I wouldn't have minded if  Voldemort got him on page three."  - Chantelle Aimee Osman.

"If I have one skill as a writer it is that I am really good at thinking of bad stuff."  Diane Chamberlain.

"Second person narrator isn't modern.  It's radio."  - Bill Crider

"Getting a thesis on Agatha Christie past the people at Harvard is not simple."  -Julianne Holmes

"Always invite dead authors to dinner parties.  They have no allergies or other dietary problems."  -Lawrence Block

"The best characters could go good or bad depending on the circumstances."  -Rhys Bowen


"I still haven't finished reading Orlando, and a teacher in college is waiting for the assignment."  -Karin Slaughter

"In hardboiled fiction you have the psycho ex machina."  -Reed Farrel Coleman

"When I started writing all the southern books were southern gothics, and the pigs ate mama."  - Margaret Maron

"Don't steal the reader's crayons."- Chantelle Aimee Osman.

"It took me about five minutes to sell out."  - Bill Crider


"I'm reaching the age where I can read a book again for the first time." -Lawrence Block

"Diehard is an example you can use for almost anything in life."- Chantelle Aimee Osman.

"You might say I'm on a mission to show that not all Canadians are as polite as we're cracked up to be." -Rob Brunet

"Some short stories make the mistake of thinking a short story is just a novel, but shorter." -Sean Doolittle

"While writing my novel in the library I felt a strange kinship to the man at the next desk who was talking to fictional characters."  -John Hart

"What causes despair and desolation in an academic setting?  Accreditation."  -B.K. Stevens

"I got a letter a long time ago complaining that I put a period after the Dr in Dr Pepper."  - Bill Crider

"Mysteries are worried about the past.  Thrillers are worried about the future." -Alexandra Sokoloff

"Quebec is not in the south?  Maybe you can  draw me a little map."  -Hank Philippi Ryan

"The woman I interviewed called herself a sociopath, rather than a psychopath, because it sounded less stabby."  -Mark Pryor

"Three out of four readers of my first book did not know who done it after they finished." - Catriona MacPhrson

"I write fantasy because I like doing the research."- Karen McCullough

"The author who started creating antagonists as rich and colorful characters was Ian Fleming." - Don Bruns

"This is the third panel at this conference on pace.  Are we not writing fast enough for you?"  -Alexandra Sokoloff

"I usually have a dead body in my books, but they've usually been dead for a few thousand of years." - Elly Griffiths

"I'm trying to find a properly smart-ass way to answer that."  -Lawrence Block

15 August 2015

A Rainy Day at the Beach


Several weeks ago I attended a one-day writers' conference in Long Beach, Mississippi, called The Magic of Books. I conducted an afternoon workshop on writing and selling short stories--which are of course not books, but they asked me to do it anyway--and it was a fun session, at least for me. But the highlight of my day there (besides lunch) was the chance to hear a presentation by my friend and longtime mentor Carolyn Haines.

For those of you who don't know her, Carolyn is the author of more than seventy novels, including the "Bones" mysteries featuring Sarah Booth Delaney and set in the fictional Mississippi Delta town of Zinnia. (The latest in the series is Bone to be Wild--one of my favorite titles.) Carolyn is also a crazy and delightful lady who has been a tremendous help to my so-called writing career and who always makes me laugh. She has written under at least three pseudonyms and in a number of genres.

Vive la difference

Among the many words of wisdom she gave us that day, on the topic of "Writing in Multiple Genres," were the following:

- In mystery fiction, justice prevails

- In romance fiction, love prevails

- In historical fiction, the details must be accurate right down to the clothing and the dialect.

- In horror, fantasy, and historical fiction, setting is of primary importance.

- The key to POV is consistency.

- Thrillers must include some kind of ticking clock.

- In traditional mystery fiction, the protagonist knows more than the reader; in suspense/thriller fiction, the reader knows more than the protagonist.

- In thrillers, the antagonist must be the equal of the protagonist.

- Literary fiction requires deep character development and usually addresses social issues.

- SF is mainly plot-oriented and appeals mostly to male readers.

- In fantasy fiction, world-building is all-important.

- High fantasy involves elves, fairies, etc.

- Low fantasy involves vampires, werewolves, etc.

Not that it matters, but during much of Carolyn's presentation about mystery/noir fiction it was gloomy and raining outside, and it even thundered once or twice when she mentioned horror stories. The woman is so talented she can control the weather.

Elements, my dear Watson

Another of the things she talked about in her session was the "elements" of fiction. All of us think of different things when we hear that term. Personally, I think of plot, character, dialogue, POV, and possibly setting. Carolyn's take on it wasn't too far from mine: she said the elements consist of (1) plot, (2) character, (3) setting, and (4) theme. I think her point was that these are the ingredients of a story or novel--and she's right. But I think of the elements of fiction in a different way. I see them as the things you have to be good at in order to write it well.

Example: One of the elements Carolyn names is theme, and while I agree that theme is certainly a part of a story, I don't think theme is something I have to worry much about, as a writer. I once heard someone say that you should never try to come up with a theme beforehand, because there's no need to; you should just write your story, and if the story's a good one, it'll have a theme. Another way of phrasing that, I suppose, is if it doesn't have a theme, then it's not much of a story and it won't sell anyway.

I believe Carolyn's mention of theme, here, is tied to a couple of her pieces of advice that I listed earlier: in mysteries the theme (the overall point) is "justice prevails," and in romances it's "love prevails." I think she was saying the author must know these things and keep them in mind during the writing process--otherwise, the story or novel will fail. Or at least it will fail as a mystery or a romance.

Another place where our "elements" list varies is that I think things like dialogue and viewpoint are so vitally important they should probably be included. And yes, I know, dialogue isn't something that has to be a part of every story--I sold one to the Strand a couple years ago that had no dialogue at all--but when it IS a part of the story, it has to be nearly perfect in order to work. Bad dialogue is like a torpedo hit to the engine room; your project can't survive it. And POV, while it's not something to obsess over, is still one of those things that can badly hurt your story if it's misused.


The other difference in our definitions is setting. Carolyn includes it in her list; sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. I agree with her that it's a necessary ingredient in a piece of fiction--it obviously has to be there, or the characters would have no place to live and talk and make the story happen. But I find myself worrying less and less about setting, the more I write. I sort of feel that if the setting is truly important to your story--if, let's say, your characters are on a desert island, or in a hut on Mt. Everest, or at the bottom of a mine shaft, or in a nuclear testing facility, or in a lifeboat--then you'd certainly be wise to spend some time and a lot of words describing that setting and making it crystal clear to the reader. But if your story is such that it could possibly be told just as well using a different setting, if for example most of your story involves a conversation between two people sitting in a city park, or a restaurant, or an apartment or an office building or a suburban backyard, etc., maybe it's not that necessary to spell out a lot of detail about their surroundings. Especially if it's short fiction. That's my opinion only, by the way, and I welcome any thoughts you might have on this.

NOTE: I assure you that Carolyn knows more about all this than I do--after all, she's the mentor and I'm the mentee, she's Obi-Wan and I'm Luke. (Well, maybe I'm C3PO.) Let me ask you: If you had to make a list, what would you consider to be the "elements" of a novel or a story? I've heard that some writers include such things as symbolism and conflict--and, to me, conflict is a part of plot. Different folks, different strokes.

Noms de plume

Yet another good point she made during her session was Use a pseudonym if you feel your fans/audience might not like a new or different genre. This was, I assume, one of the reasons that Nora Roberts is also J. D. Robb, John Camp is John Sandford, J.K. Rowling is Robert Galbraith, and Evan Hunter was Ed McBain (actually, neither Hunter nor McBain was his real name). As for Carolyn, she has written as Carolyn Haines, R. B. Chesterton, Lizzie Hart, and Caroline Burnes, and believe me, all those incarnations do a darn good job of writing.

Have any of you taken this approach, and decided to use one or more pen names? If so, did you do it because of a genre switch? Or did you choose to keep your own name (as Larry McMurtry and James Patterson have done) regardless of genre? Have any of you chosen a pseudonym for other reasons? This is a subject I find fascinating, probably because--even though I consider myself fairly imaginative--I doubt I would ever be able to come up with a suitable alias no matter how hard I tried. As the intoxicated writer once answered when asked for his pen name, I just say, "Bic."

And that's my pitch, for today. May all your trips to the seashore be sunny, not rainy; may all of us make progress toward mastering the elements of fiction no matter how they're defined; and if you've not read Carolyn Haines, under her own name or any other, I hope you will. There is much to be learned from her novels and short stories. Here's her web site. Prepare to be entertained!




BY THE WAY: Two weeks ago at this blog, when I wrote about my story that appears in the current print issue (July/August) of The Saturday Evening Post, I said I would include a link to it when it appeared online. That story, "Saving Grace," was finally posted on August 7. Also, I was asked awhile back to write a piece for EQMM's blog, Something Is Going to Happen, and that post, called "From Page to Screen," went live last week as well. If you have time to read either (or both), I hope you enjoy it (or them). See you on the 29th! 





06 June 2015

Proper Care and Feeding of Authors – in which our writer tries to be serious for a few minutes…


(Bad, bad girl!)

Here’s part one of the series (reprinted with permission):

What NOT to ask an author… (especially a Crime Writer who knows at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught)

There is nothing I love better than meeting readers, both those who already know my writing, and those who are new to my books. But recently, I was asked to talk about those things that are touchy for an author.  So here goes…a short list of No-Nos!

1.  Do not ask an author how many books she has sold.

Trust me, don’t ask this.
Really, you don’t want to.  It wouldn’t help you anyway.
Because honestly, I’ll lie.

I’m amazed that complete strangers regularly ask this.  Would you ask a lawyer how much money he makes?

Because here’s the bottom line: most of us with traditional publishers make about a buck for every book sold, whether paperback, trade paperback or ebook.  Sometimes, it’s less than that.  (Yes, we were shocked too, when we found out.)  So by asking how many books we’ve sold, you can pretty well figure out our income.  And frankly, I don’t want you to.  You see, I write comedies, and it would depress both of us.

Also:  our royalty statements are at least six months behind (at least mine are.)  We don’t KNOW how many books we’ve sold to date on new releases.  Which is probably a good thing for our egos, if we want to keep writing.

Dare I say it?  The supreme irony is: the only ones likely to make a living in the writing biz are those on the business end.  The agents, and those editors and others employed by publishers, booksellers and libraries.  Sadly, you can't expect to make a living in the arts if you are a creator.

2.  Do not ask an author to read your manuscript and critique it for free.

So many times, I’ve been asked to do this, in a public place, with people overhearing.  Sometimes, by people who don’t even have the decency to buy a single book of mine first. 

Why this is bad:

First: I am in a place that has been booked for me to sell my books and meet with readers. That’s what I’m there for.  You are taking precious time away from me and my readers.  Believe me, my publisher won’t be happy about this.  Ditto, the bookseller!

Second: Every hour I spend critiquing an aspiring author’s book is an hour I can’t spend working on my own books and marketing them.  Like most novelists, I have a day job.  That means every hour I have to work on my fiction is precious.  Most of us do critique – for a fee.  And many of us teach fiction writing at colleges. 

I’m happy to critique my college students’ work.  I’m getting paid (mind you, meagerly) to do so.  And that’s what I always recommend:  take a college course in writing.  You’ll get great info on how to become a better writer, and also valuable critiquing of your own work.

3.  Do not ask an author to introduce you to her publisher or agent.

Want to see me cringe?

Similar to number 2 above, this puts the author in a very awkward position.  You are in fact asking for an endorsement.  If the author hasn’t read your book, she cannot possibly give it (an honest endorsement.)

Second: You are asking the author to put HER reputation on the line for you.  Do you have the sort of close relationship that makes this worthwhile for her?

4.  Do not ask an author: where do you get your ideas?

Okay, be honest.  You thought I was going to lead with this one.
Actually, you can ask me this.  I’ll probably answer something fun and ridiculous, like:
From Ebay. 
Or: From my magic idea jar.
Or: They come to me on the toilet.  You should spend more time there.

Because the truth is, we don’t know exactly.  After teaching over 1000 fiction writing students at Sheridan College, I have discovered something: some students are bubbling over with ideas.  Others – the ones who won’t make it – have to struggle for plots.  It seems to be a gift and a curse, to have the sort of brain that constantly makes up things.

I’ve been doing it since I was four.  My parents called it lying.  That was so short-sighted of them.



Opening to THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE (Orca Books) winner of the 2014 Derringer (US) and Arthur Ellis (Canada)

    Okay, I admit it. I would rather be the proud possessor of a rare gemstone than a lakefront condo with parking. Yes, I know this makes me weird. Young women today are supposed to crave the security of owning their own home
     But I say this. Real estate, shmeel estate. You can’t hold an address in your hand. It doesn’t flash and sparkle with the intensity of a thousand night stars, or lure you away from the straight and narrow like a siren from some Greek odyssey.
     Let’s face it. Nobody has ever gone to jail for smuggling a one bedroom plus den out of the country.
     However, make that a 10-carat cyan blue topaz with a past as long as your arm, and I’d do almost anything to possess it.
    But don’t tell the police.
 
On Amazon

03 June 2015

There's a contract out on me


by Robert Lopresti

I did something unusual this week.  I signed a publisher's contract.

Well, technically I have signed a lot of such agreements over the years.  Mostly for short stories, a few times for books.  But this one feels different.

First of all, it's for nonfiction, a book related to my day job, not to the world of mysteries.  But that's not the important difference.

You see, every contract I have signed in the past has been an agreement that a publisher would put out something I had written.  This time I am agreeing to write something.  In other words, I am committing myself to have a book that meets certain specification finished by a certain date.

That's right.  I have a deadline.

I wrote a rather cranky piece many years ago about fellow authors who complain about the tyranny of deadlines.  My point was that some of us would be thrilled if an editor was waiting for us
to write THE END.  When you are having a bad day at what Rex Stout called the alphabet piano it is depressing to realize that no one but you gives a damn whether you keep pounding away or go outside and fly a kite.

Be careful what you wish for, because there is now a big publishing house at the other end of the country where, I like to imagine, an editor is standing with his arms folded, one foot tapping, watching the calendar pages slowly turn, and waiting for my masterpiece to arrive.

So, excuse me if I keep today's missive short.  I have fifteen months to crank out 110,000 words.  Wish me luck.

07 April 2015

Because Something is Happening Here But You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Mister Jones?


by Paul D. Marks

One of the things that scares me most as a writer is an illiterate society. Not only illiterate in the sense of people being unable to read and write. But “illiterate” in the sense that, as a society, we have touchstones that everyone or at least most people are familiar with. Or I thought we did at one time. I’m not so sure anymore.

Let’s start with plain literacy on a personal and anecdotal level.

When my wife and I were looking for the house prior to our current house we noticed something odd, at least odd to us. We’d go in various houses in different parts of Los Angeles. But, unlike some of the shows on HGTV, you could still see the real people’s stuff in their houses. Their junk, ugly sofa, hideous drapes and kids’ toys strewn all over, laundry baskets, cluttered closets, etc. One thing we didn’t see much of were books. Sure, a house here or there had them, but the majority didn’t. And if they did they had a coffee table book or two of some artist they thought would make them look chic or intelligent or maybe a book of aerial views of L.A. One place we expected to see lots of books was in kids’ rooms or a potboiler on their parents’ nightstands. But, alas, the “cupboards” were bare.
This was twenty or so years ago, so well before smart phones, Kindles and e-readers. So, it’s not like all their multitudinous libraries were in e-form. No, there just weren’t many books to be seen.
We found this odd, as we have books stuffed to the rafters, as do most of our friends. Here, there and everywhere, in the living room or the dining room, library, the hallway, and even shelves upon shelves in the garage.

Flash forward: Cultural Literacy

29291When we went hunting for our current house, about ten years ago it was more of the same. By then there might have been some e-books and the like but the real revolution still hadn’t hit full bore yet.

Again this seemed odd. But more than odd, it’s scary. Especially for a writer. Because a writer needs readers. And if people aren’t reading, I’m out of a job, and maybe likely so are you. Even scarier though is the fact that, imho, we are becoming a post-literate society. And we are losing our shared background, some of which is gotten through books. Aside from the greater implications of that in terms of the country, it makes it harder as a writer because when we write we assume some shared cultural background. And we make literary or historical allusions to those ends. We mention composers or songs or symphonies. Books, authors, “famous” or “well-known” quotes that we assume most readers will be familiar with, some foreign phrases, even biblical references. Hemingway and even Bob Dylan songs (and I’m talking those from the 60s before he found religion in the 70s), as well as other writers, are filled with them. But often these days readers are not familiar with these references, so they miss the richness of the writing. So then we begin to question whether or not to include these references and sometimes end up writing to the lower common denominator. And that diminishes our works and our society, even if it sounds pompous to say that.

Maybe people won’t know who Rudy Vallee is, and that's understandable, but many also don’t know who Shakespeare is in any meaningful way.

743625500929_p0_v1_s600When I would go to pitch meetings in Hollywood I would often have to dumb down my presentation. I would try to leave out any historical or literary allusions. Hell, I’d even leave out film allusions because while these people may have heard of Hitchcock, few had seen his movies. And they were mostly from Ivy League type schools, but they didn’t have much of a cultural background. So when you have to explain basic things to them, you’ve lost them. They don’t like to feel stupid. And sometimes they’d ask me to explain something to them about another script they were reading by someone else. One development VP asked me to explain to her who fought on which sides in World War II, because she was reading a WWII script someone had submitted. The writer of that script already had points against him or her since the development VP didn’t even know the basics of the subject matter. And I would have thought before that incident that just about everybody knew who fought on which side in WWII. And this is just one example. I have many, many more experiences like this.

After college, the stats show that many people never—or very rarely—read another book. Literacy rates in the US are down. A lot of young people aren’t reading, but they think they’re smart because they look things up on Google. But looking something up on Google isn’t the same as knowing, though it’s better than nothing, assuming people do look things up. See: http://www.salon.com/2014/10/12/google_makes_us_all_dumber_the_neuroscience_of_search_engines/
Hw-shakespeare2
I’ve seen several authors, some very well known, ask on Facebook if they should include X, Y or Z in a novel because their editor says no one will get the references, even though the references aren’t that obscure. But even if they are, what’s wrong with using them and having people (hopefully) look them up. Isn’t that how we expand our knowledge? But nobody wants to challenge anyone in that way anymore. We’re dealing with generations now that have been told how wonderful they are without having earned it. So when we unintentionally make them feel stupid by using references they’re not familiar with, they turn off. Is it just me or does our society seem to have no intellectual curiosity, no interests or hobbies other than texting or watching the Kardashians? They don’t have the will to look further than the screens of their smart phones?

I know I’m generalizing and that there are pockets of intellectual curiosity (like the readers of this blog!), but I feel like we are becoming a minority.

And when you do a book signing or a library event, do you notice the average median age and hair color of the audience? More times than not they’re older and grayer. And where are the young people? That’s scary.

I wish more people would make New Year’s resolutions to improve their minds as well as their bodies, to exercise their brains as well as their muscles. So maybe we should do yoga for the brain as well as the body.

At this point I’d even settle for grownups reading comic books or graphic novels as long as there’s words in them.

All of this scares me, not just as a writer, who might not have an audience in the future. But for society as a whole. We need to have a shared background, a common knowledge, a literate society of people who are engaged. Not everybody can know everything, of course. But there should be some common background that we can all relate to.



Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg#/media/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg
Blonde on blonde album cover: "Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg#/media/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg