Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

28 September 2019

Being a Goddess Sucks When your Characters Won’t Behave… (warning: more silly stuff from Bad Girl)


by Melodie Campbell

(Dave, are you smiling down on me? My comedy is back)

Recently, my characters have become more mouthy.

I like to think of myself as their creator. Goddess material. Without me, they wouldn’t have a life on the page, or anywhere, for that matter. This should buy me a certain amount of respect, I figure. Sort of like you might give a minor deity. After all, I have created five series for them to live in.

Unfortunately, my characters haven’t bought into that. Worse, they seem to have cast me into the role of mother. That’s me: a necessary embarrassment for the perpetuation of their lives. And like all kids, they squabble. They fight with each other for attention. I liken it to sibling jealousy.

To wit: “You haven’t written about me lately,” says Rowena, star of Rowena Through the Wall.

I try to ignore the petulance in her voice.

“Been busy,” I mumble. “Gina (The Goddaughter) had to get married in Vegas. And Del, a relative of hers, started a vigilante group.”

“I don’t care if she started a rock group. You’re supposed to be writing MY story.”

I turn away from the keyboard and frown at her. “Listen, toots. You wouldn’t have any stories at ALL if it weren’t for me. You’ve had three books of adventures with men. A normal gal would be exhausted. So please be patient and wait your turn. Jennie had to suck it up for Worst Date Ever. Del and The B-Team were next in line. You can be after that, maybe.”

Maybe. I wasn’t going to tell her about the 6th Goddaughter book currently in the works.

“It’s not fair. I came first! Before all those silly mob comedies,” Row whines. “Don’t forget! I was the one who got you bestseller status.” She points at her ample chest.

“Hey!” says Gina, fresh from cannoli central. “And which book won the Derringer and the Arthur Ellis? Not some trashy old fantasy novel.”
“Who are YOU calling trashy?” says Rowena, balling her hands into fists. “Just because my bodice rips in every scene…”

“Like THAT isn’t a plot device,” chides Gina.

“Oh, PLEASE don’t fight,” says Jennie, the plucky romance heroine of Worst Date Ever. “I just want everyone to have a Happy Ever After. Can’t you do that for us all, Mom? Er…Melodie?”

I look at Del, from The B-Team. “What do you think?”

Del shrugs. “Sounds sucky. What kind of crap story would that be? Bugger, is that the time? I got a second story job that needs doing. Cover for me, will you? And this time, let me know if the cops start sniffing around.”
“Cops?” says Gina. “Crap! I’m outta here.”

“Cops?” says Rowena. “There’s that little matter of a dead body in book 2…” She vanishes.

“Cops?” says Jennie, hopefully. “OH! Is one of them single?”






Book 15 is now out! THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS

(Don't tell Rowena…)

23 March 2019

But Do You Have a Plot? Bad Girl whittles Popular Fiction Bootcamp down to 10 minutes…


By Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl) 

Last month, I wrote about Endings, and reader expectations for each of the main genres.  The response was positive, and some people have asked that I bring more stuff from class onto these pages.  So here are some notes from the very beginning, class 1, hour 1.

People often ask what comes first: character or plot?

Do you start with a character?  Or do you start with a plot?
This is too simplistic.

Here’s what you need for a novel:
A main character
With a problem or goal
Obstacles to that goal, which are resolved by the end.


PLOT is essential for all novels.  It’s not as easy as just sitting down and just starting to write 80,000 words.  Ask yourself:
What does your main character want?  Why can’t he get it?

Your character wants something.  It could be safety, money, love, revenge…

There are obstacles in the way of her getting what she wants.  THAT PROVIDES CONFLICT.

So…you need a character, with a problem or goal, and obstacles to reaching that goal.  Believable obstacles that matter.  Even in a literary novel.

There must be RISK.  Your character must stand to lose a lot, if they don’t overcome those obstacles.  In crime books, it’s usually their life.

So…you may think you have a nice story of a man and woman meeting and falling in love, and deciding to make a commitment.  Awfully nice for the man and woman, but dead boring for the reader.  Even in a romance, there must be obstacles to the man and woman getting together.  If you don’t have obstacles, you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a plot, and you don’t have a novel.

Put another way:
When X happens, Y must do Z, otherwise ABCD will happen.
That’s what you need for a novel.

GIVE YOUR CHARACTER GOALS

1. Readers must know what each character’s goals are so they can keep score.

2. Goals must be clearly defined, and they must be evident from the beginning.

3. There must be opposition, which creates the possibility of losing.
   >>this conflict makes up your plot<<
4. Will the character achieve his goal?  Readers will keep turning pages to find out.

If you don’t provide goals, readers will get bored. 
They won’t know the significance of the ‘actions’ the hero takes.

To Conclude:
Until we know what your character wants, we don’t know what the story is about.
Until we know what’s at stake, we don’t care.

Melodie Campbell writes fast-moving crime fiction that leans toward zany.  If you like capers like the Pink Panther and Oceans 11, check out her many series at www.melodiecampbell.com

Lastest up:








23 February 2019

ENDINGS: You Must Satisfy the Reader!


By Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

“Your first page sells the book.  Your last page sells the next book.”  Mickey Spillane

In all my classes and workshops, we talk about satisfying the reader.  As authors we make a ‘promise to the reader’.  We establish this promise in the first few pages and chapters.  Who will this story be about?  What genre?  Is it romance, mystery, thriller, western or one of the others?  Readers are attached to different genres, whether we authors like it or not.  We have to be aware that when we promise something, we need to fulfill it.

As an example: a thing that drives me crazy is when books are promoted as mysteries, and they are really thrillers.  I like murder mysteries; my favourite book is an intelligent whodunit, with diabolically clever plotting.  In a thriller, the plot usually centres on a character in jeopardy.  Not the same. 

As authors, we want to satisfy the reader, and that is exactly what Mickey Spillane was getting at in the quote above.  To do this, we need to know what the reader expects.  Here’s the handout I use in class to explain the different expectations in the main genres of fiction.  (Note: there are always exceptions.)

ENDING EXPECTATIONS IN THE GENRES:

ROMANCE:  The man and woman will come together to have a HEA (happy ever after) after surmounting great obstacles. 

MYSTERY/Suspense:  In a whodunit, the ending will reveal the killer.  In a thriller, the protagonist will escape the danger.  All loose ends will be tied up.  Justice will be seen to be done in some manner.  (This does not mean that the law will be satisfied.  We’re all about justice here, and the most interesting stories often have characters acting outside the law to achieve justice.  In mystery/suspense books you probably have the most opportunity for gray.)

FANTASY/Sci-Fi:  The battle will be won for now, but the war may continue in future books.  You should give your characters a HFN (happy for now) – at least a short amount of time to enjoy their
victory.

WESTERN:  The good guy will win.  Simple as that.

ACTION-ADVENTURE:  The Bond-clone will survive and triumph.  Sometimes the bad guy will get away to allow for a future story.

HORROR:  Usually, the protagonist will survive.  If not, he will usually die heroically saving others. Hope is key.  If readers have lost hope, they will stop reading.

LITERARY:  Again, the reader must be satisfied by the end of the story.  The protagonist will grow from the challenge.  He/she will probably be faced with difficult choices, and by the end of the story, the choice will be made.  In other stories, it may be that by the end of the story the protagonist discovers something she has been seeking: i.e. The Progress of Love by Alice Munro

ENDINGS – The argument against using real life for your plot. (Why things that really happened to you don’t make good novels.)

       “I am always telling my writing students that the anecdotes that make up their own lives, no matter how heart-wrenching they may have been for their subjects, are not in themselves stories.  Stories have endings.  Endings are contrived.  In order to come up with a great ending, you’re probably going to have to make something up, something that didn’t actually happen.  Autobiographical fiction can never do these things, because our lives contain few endings or even resolutions of any kind.”   Russell Smith

Remember what we do: Fiction authors write about things that never happened and people who don’t exist.  Remember what fiction writers must provide:  The ending must satisfy the reader.

So:  Don’t tell a publisher that your book/short story is based on real life.  The publisher doesn’t care. They are only looking for a good story.

Melodie Campbell is the author of the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series.  Book 6, The Goddaughter Does Vegas, is now available at all the usual suspects.


On AMAZON



09 February 2019

True Lies


by Stephen Ross

I've been thinking lately about what I do for fun (and a little bit of profit). I like to make stuff up. I routinely write about people and events, conflicts and conundrums, and barely a word of it is true. My stories are mostly cut from the whole cloth of my imagination.

And that said, people read what I write and believe every word.

Bless them. Note: Believe is a fluid term.

I'm no exception. Every writer of FICTION is granted this privilege. And it's a privilege we work with carefully, because if we stretch our fiction too much, too far, or too absurdly, it'll break. The reader will snort with derision and hurl our writing across the room at the wall; or worse, into the publishing house's rejection receptacle.

When people pick up a work of fiction, 99% of them will read and accept it, happily allowing for its inherent falseness; and as long as the writer plays more-or-less by the rules (of whatever field, genre he/she is writing in), everything will be fine.

But, of course, there is that 1% of folk who will pick up a book and actually believe the whole thing is a true story, i.e., not made up.

My percentages are also fiction, but based on a reasonable assumption. People really do send death threats to actors who play nasty villains on TV and in movies. And to pluck an excellent example from history; people really did cry when (PLOT SPOILER!) Little Nell died at the end of of Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. In fact, it's been said that readers in New York stormed the docks (in 1841) when the ship arrived bearing the last installment, shouting to the sailors, "Is Little Nell alive?"

Alive?

"Little Nell" perhaps better demonstrates the power of a good story, rather than complete acceptance of a work of fiction in blind faith. But, you know, there really are people out there who totally, utterly, unquestioningly, believe there's a school in Scotland called Hogwarts. Right now, I have at least one friend who's saying, What the hell are you talking about, Stephen?!? You know who you are.

Liking a good story is why we will happily suspend our disbelief. We are consciously aware it's made up, but we allow for that. In fact, the more we like a story, the greater is our ability to suspend our disbelief, regardless of how ludicrous the story might be.

(I am very tempted to segue into politics at this point, but I will not.)

Liking a good story is part of human nature. We've been liking a good story since man could talk and could string enough sentences together to say something interesting. And let's face it, there wasn't much else to do of an evening in prehistoric times, when sitting around the fire, after having swallowed the last mouthful of woolly mammoth. There was nowhere to plug in the TV, to start with, and the wi-fi was lousy.


There is something innate in the human mind that can easily latch onto, like, and believe in a good set of characters and reasonable plot. Were there not, books, plays, movies, and so on, would not be a thing. We'd still be sitting around the fire. Counting the stars.

Speaking as a writer, there's something nice about being able to send made-up ideas into the heads of other people. To make them see things that don't exist. To make them feel. And to keep doing that, possibly forever, or until the stars burn out. Think about it, every time someone picks up one of Dickens' books, the ideas of a man who's been dead for nearly 150 years come through clearly into the reader's head. Natürliche, you need to be someone as good as Dickens to achieve that kind of longevity.

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, talked about this. From memory, I think he referred to it as a form of telepathy—transmitting ideas from the writer's mind into that of the reader's, with, some times, years apart between the writing and the reading.

Nice.

Anyway, back to the next chapter, and making up more stuff.


Thanks to @nubikini for the photo!




stephenross.live/

facebook.com/stephen.ross.writer.etc/

instagram.com/__stephenross/

22 December 2018

Why I could never be a Modern Fiction Novel Heroine
(back to humour for Bad Girl. Tis the season for frivolity, after all)



by Melodie Campbell

Let’s call her Tiffany.  Nah, too twee.  How about Jen.  Meet our fiction heroine, Jen.  She’s a modern girl. Has her own condo. Drives a car. Lives in the city. Has a meaningful job.  All in all, a typical    
modern heroine of a fiction novel.

Sounds reasonable, but I couldn’t be her.  I’m all for ‘suspension of disbelief’ in fantasy, but my world requires more human elements.  To wit:

THINGS THAT BUG ME ABOUT MODERN FICTIONAL HEROINES

1.  They look great all the time.
By this I mean: she gets up in the morning, perfect coiffed.  (Not quaffed. Except maybe in my loopy Goddaughter books.)  She dons clothes for her work day.  Maybe goes for a jog.  And spends absolutely no time in front of the mirror swabbing on makeup or doing her hair.  Did you ever notice fiction novel heroines look great in the morning without doing anything?  They may have a shit-load of angst about their personal lives, but apparently, they have Barbie doll hair.

As of immediately, name of heroine is changed to Barbie.

2.  They never eat.
Oh, they got out to dinner a lot.  You may even hear them order food.  But when it comes, do they ever eat it?  No! Barbie is far too busy arguing with her dinner companion, and then getting upset.

So many books, so many meals where our intrepid plucky heroine says, “oh my, I’m so upset, I couldn’t eat a thing.”

What is it with these feeble women who can’t eat?  Who the hell are they?  What do they exist on? 
When I’m upset, I eat, dammit.  Gotta fuel up for the famine that’s going to come sometime in the next 400 years.

If I hear another TSTL (too stupid to live) heroine say she’s too upset to eat, I’m going to shove the virtual dinner in her vapid virtual face and watch her choke to death.  Oh.  But then someone would have to rescue her.

EAT THE DAMN MEAL.

3.  They never go to the bathroom.
Twenty-four hours a day, we’re with this dame.  Does she ever go to the loo?  I mean, for other than a quick swipe of lipstick and a gabfest with friends?

Do none of these women have periods?
Do they not have to offload some by-products?  EVER?

Oh right.  Barbie is always too upset to eat a thing.  Therefore, nothing to offload. What was I thinking?


4.  They run into the haunted house.

“Oh, a haunted house!” says our plucky heroine. (Note use of the word ‘plucky’ to demonstrate she’s not a chicken <sic>)  “I’ll just pop in there and see what the fuss is all about, shall I?”
WHOMP
(Plucky heroines taste good with ketchup, in my parodies.)

Listen up, modern day heroines! Do NOT be so stupid as to walk into an abandoned place where you know someone was murdered, or even stupider, confront the murderer, all by your little selves! 

Let it be known: when I am pretty sure I know who the killer is, I do NOT confront him all on my own in an isolated location.  Instead, I pretty much run like hell in the opposite direction.  ‘Cause experience has taught me (apparently, I do this a lot) that if someone has killed once, they won’t hesitate to bop my bean.  Even Barbie with half a brain can figure out it ain’t a smart move. 

Modern day heroines, rise up! Rebel against these tired tropes!  Fight back against the lazy mucks who make you appear as dumb as dough.

GO ON STRIKE AGAINST YOUR AUTHORS!  Or alternatively, strike your authors.
I’ll leave now.

Author disclosure:  Just so you know, Gina Gallo of The Goddaughter series loves her food.  You’ll see her eat it.  She sneaks off to the bathroom (offstage, so don’t freak.)  She looks like shit in the morning. Just like me.  Even Rowena of my fantasy books goes to the outhouse and enjoys her meals.  (Not at the same time.)

HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!

27 October 2018

Just in Time for Hallowe'en! Books I will Never Write Part 1: Dino Porn


By Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Apparently, I have been sounding too normal these days.  There have been complaints. The following is an attempt to rectify that.

People pay money for the weirdest reads.  Don't believe me?

DINOSAUR PORN

Yes, you heard that right.  This is a 'thing.'  No, I don't mean porn that randy male dinosaurs might read, involving somewhat sassy females of the same species who like a good time.  Last I checked, dinosaurs couldn't read.  Not even the urban ones.

But I'm not here to talk about that.  I'm not even going to talk about the weirdness of someone wanting to *write* about sexual relations between a human of today and a creature that might possibly have become extinct during an ice storm back in the good old days.  All writers are weird.  Some are more weird than others (thank you, George Orwell.)

Nope.  I'm here to talk about the blatant inequality in the dinosaur porn field.  Not only that, in ALL areas of human/not-even-remotely-human erotica.

Don't believe me?  Have you noticed that all these erotic books that star humans and some other race like Vampires or Werewolves or Aliens or Ducks (hey - has it been done?) always feature a girl with the Vampire or Werewolf?  Or in our case, a girl with the T-Rex?

Why is it always that way around?  Never do you see a young man being pursued by, say, a randy female dino.  I have to assume female dinos are more discriminating.

So in the interests of fair play, just in time for Hallowe'en, I offer my version of Dino porn.

It might go like this:

"La, la, lalalala, la, lala, la la..." <innocent young female stegosaurus frolics among the Precambrian (whatever) wild-flowers, unaware that she is about to be approached from behind>

"Hey hey," says health male homo sapien, who obviously time-traveled here from another era.  "You on Tinder, babe?"

"Tinder?" says Steggy-gal, unfamiliar with the vernacular.  "Isn't this a grassland?"


"How about I just show you my equipment?" says creepy guy, who might possibly be blind.  "I'll just take it out here...oops, no.  That's my phone."

"Oh! There's a butterfly!" says Steggy-gal, easily distracted.

"HA," says creep, lining up to do the dirty.  "Bet ya never had it like THIS before!"

"Gee, these flies are a nuisance," says Steggy, batting the annoyance away with her spiked tale.  "Why do they always hang around THAT end..."

"YEOOOOOOOW"

Okay, enough pastiche-ing around.  It's discimination, pure and simple.  Okay, maybe not pure.  And possibly more complicated than simple.  All those extra bits.  Which reminds me.  Girl with a Squid comes out in 2019.

Melodie Campbell writes some pretty wild comedy.  She even gets paid to do it, by poor unsuspecting publishers.  Check out her many series at www.melodiecampbell.com


03 August 2018

Support Your Local Fiction Writer


by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking lately about the human passion for stories, about need to convert the messy realities of the world into tidy narratives. Lately, it has gotten us into difficulties, what with tall stories seeded by reckless bloviators, Russian agents, and conspiracy theorists, not to mention loose charges of fakery whenever news displeases the powerful.

But the passion for stories doesn’t stop with lies for fun and profit. Consider sports broadcasts. Younger readers may be surprised to learn that before TV and the tell-all Jumbotron, broadcasters delivered a call of the game – interspersed admittedly with ads for beer and cigarettes – without relying on the Story Line. Many broadcasters also managed to do a complete baseball or football game or call a tennis or boxing match without the help of the now obligatory “color” commentators.

Well, times have changed. With video omnipresent, commentators with hours to fill now rely heavily on The Storyline. Often this is a story of Redemption, a word they are almost as fond of as preachers, or Triumphant Comeback, preferably from some dire illness – although legal troubles will do in a pinch.

Within these favorite narratives, we have personal rivalries – often carefully cultivated and promoted by the media – and heroic top players who are idolized until they start losing, whereupon they can be repurposed into a tale of Redemption. Unless, of course, the idol is a top coach. These gents are never in need of Redemption because they simply more on to another over the top salary or graduate to the commentary booth.

Is it any wonder that the younger generation seems more inclined to play video games?

What to do about these threats to national games and national politics? Return to truth in labeling and the people who tell stories for an honest ( and usually modest) living: your fiction writers. I can speak only for that subset, the mystery writer, but these are folks who tell stories that are clearly labeled Fiction. They don’t try to add a veneer to events without doing the hard work to turn the stuff of this world into a short story, a script, or a novel.

They are also up front about what they are doing – and they are pros. How often does the latest conspiracy theory fall flat over some preposterous premise? You needn’t worry about that with a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime or the Authors Guild.

Fed up with the familiar story lines and hackneyed phrases? Ditch the amateurs and start patronizing your local novelists, short story writers, and dramatists. These are folks who know their foreshadowing from their denoument and are well acquainted with the rising curve of suspense. They can handle multiple points of view, reliable and unreliable narrators, flashbacks and stream of consciousness. They can satisfy all your fiction needs.

So buy their books and subscribe to the magazines that still print real Fiction, not all the ersatz stuff that is around on the web and the tube. The legion of writers will thank you – and just maybe the body politic, too.

24 February 2018

How long should we write?
Bad Girl confronts the hard question


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Is there an age at which we should stop writing novels? Philip Roth thought so. In his late seventies, he stopped writing because he felt his best books were behind him, and any future writing would be inferior. (His word.)

A colleague, Barbara Fradkin, brought this to my attention the other day, and it started a heated discussion.

Many authors have written past their prime. I can name two (P.D. James and Mary Stewart) who were favourites of mine. But their last few books weren’t all that good, in my opinion. Perhaps too long, too ponderous; plots convoluted and not as well conceived…they lacked the magic I associated with those writers. I was disappointed. And somewhat embarrassed.

What an odd reaction. I was embarrassed for my literary heroes, that they had written past their best days. And I don’t want that to happen to me.

The thing is, how will we know?

One might argue that it’s easier to know in these days with the Internet. Amazon reviewers will tell us when our work isn’t up to par. Oh boy, will they tell us.

But I want to know before that last book is released. How will I tell?

The Idea-Well

I’ve had 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 14 books published. I’m working on number 15. That’s 55 fiction plots already used up. A lot more, if you count the comedy. How many original plot ideas can I hope to have in my lifetime? Some might argue that there are no original plot ideas, but I look at it differently. In the case of authors who are getting published in the traditional markets, every story we manage to sell is one the publisher hasn’t seen before, in that it takes a different spin. It may be we are reusing themes, but the route an author takes to send us on that journey – the roadmap – will be different.

One day, I expect my idea-well will dry up.

The Chess Game You Can’t Win

I’m paraphrasing my colleague here, but writing a mystery is particularly complex. It usually is a matter of extreme planning. Suspects, motives, red herrings, multiple clues…a good mystery novel is perhaps the most difficult type of book to write. I liken it to a chess game. You have so many pieces on the board, they all do different things, and you have to keep track of all of them.

It gets harder as you get older. I am not yet a senior citizen, but already I am finding the demands of my current book (a detective mystery) enormous. Usually I write capers, which are shorter but equally meticulously plotted. You just don’t sit down and write these things. You plan them for weeks, and re-examine them as you go. You need to be sharp. Your memory needs to be first-rate.

My memory needs a grade A mechanic and a complete overhaul.

The Pain, the Pain

Ouch. My back hurts. I’ve been here four hours with two breaks. Not sure how I’m going to get up. It will require two hands on the desk, and legs far apart. Then a brief stretch before I can loosen the back so as not to walk like an injured chimp.

My wrists are starting to act up. Decades at the computer have given me weird repetitive stress injuries. Not just the common ones. My eyes are blurry. And then there’s my neck.

Okay, I’ll stop now. If you look at my photo, you’ll see a smiling perky gal with still-thick auburn hair. That photo lies. I may *look* like that, but…

You get the picture <sic>.

Writing is work – hard work, mentally and physically. I’m getting ready to face the day when it becomes too much work. Maybe, as I find novels more difficult to write, I’ll switch back to shorter fiction, my original love. If these short stories continue to be published by the big magazines (how I love AHMM) then I assume the great abyss is still some steps away.

But it’s getting closer.

How about you? Do you plan to write until you reach that big computer room in the sky?



Just launched! The B-Team 

They do wrong for all the right reasons, and sometimes it even works!
Available at Chapters, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and all the usual online suspects.

28 January 2017

Hiding in the Garret: Seven Tips for Writing Novels when you are still gainfully employed...


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

It’s a sad fact of life. The gap between wanting to be an author, and actually becoming a published novelist is a huge crevice bridged by hard work and a lot of time. Writing is a solitary job with no shortcut. You become a writer by spending hours and hours alone in a room with your computer.

I wrote ten books in ten years, while working full time at an executive job. People often ask me how I did it. How? How did I find the time?

It’s simple. You have to make writing your hobby, your passion, and all you do in your spare time.

Anyone can do it. But it means making sacrifices. Like it or not, if you want to be a published writer, and you don’t have anyone to support you financially while you write, time is going to be an issue.

Writing takes time. If you are going to write, you are going to have to give up something. Probably several somethings.

Here’s my list:

1. No television. Those hours at night from 8-10 (or 10-12, if you have kids) are writing hours.

Okay, what do I truly mean by no television? I allow myself one hour a day. (Crime shows, of course!) That’s it, on weekends too. Sometimes I don’t take that hour. I write instead.

2. Forget the gym. I know exercise is good for you. But we have to make sacrifices, people! I cut out every extracurricular activity that didn’t relate directly to writing. No more hours at the gym.

3. Turn your cell phone OFF. Until this year, I didn’t have a smart phone. I had a dumb phone that just took calls. Even now, when I write, the smart phone is in my purse in the hall. Oh yeah – and I don’t pay for data on it. This means, when I’m in a doctor’s waiting room, or on transit, I don’t surf the net. I write.

4. Ignore those facebook alerts! Turn them ALL off. You can check your page at break time. You don’t need to be notified for every post.

5. Make your vacation a writing vacation. I cannot stress this enough. If you are serious about becoming an author, then the prospect of two weeks with nothing to do but write should fill you with delight. (If it fills you with anxiety, we have a problem.)
For me, there is no better vacation than going to a tiny villa in Arizona where there is fab weather but no resort distractions. Going out for every meal. And then coming back to sunny weather on the patio and writing. And writing. I get so much writing done on vacation. It starts on the airplane.

6. Get a dog. Yes, there is a tendency to overdo the author-recluse thing. Having a dog will make you get outside for short walkie breaks (your new exercise.) A dog will keep you company as you slog away at the computer. And a dog is an essential audience for when you read your work out loud to test it. My pooch thinks I’m talking/performing just for him. Win-win.

7. Finally – and most important – collect friends who are writers. As I look back on my writing career (27 years, 100 comedy credits, 12 novels, 40 short stories) I can see that my body of friends has changed over the years. Most of my friends are fellow authors. They encourage me. Inspire me. Rage with me. Drink with me. Most of all, they understand me. Author-friends are the magic that keeps me writing. God bless them.

Melodie Campbell writes crime capers and other comedy-infested work. Check out her comedy blog at www.melodiecampbell.com

09 January 2017

Books for Writers


by Steve Liskow

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?

07 November 2016

Fact or Fiction?


Sleuthsayers is delighted to welcome our newest member, Steve Liskow, an award-winning writer who has been a finalist for both the Shamus and the Edgar and has taken home the Black Orchid Prize. His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the MWA anthology edited by Lee Child, and in Level Best Books’ anthologies.

A retired high school English teacher, Steve experienced what he terms a “horrible experience” with a traditional house. “I bailed as soon as I could without a financial penalty,” Steve says.

In addition to his writing, Steve is a keen guitar player with a special passion for early blues. A number of his mystery titles reflect his musical enthusiasms, including his newest, featuring Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here and the earlier novels, The Kids Are All Right and Cherry Bomb.

In addition to writing, Steve does editing and conducts fiction workshops. Check out his fine web site, www.SteveLiskow.com and his October 1st appearance on the Jungle Red Writers blog site, where he writes about music and his writing.

Welcome aboard, Steve!


— Janice Law

by Steve Liskow

First of all, let me thank Rob, Leigh, Janice and everyone else for making me feel so welcome here. I hope I don't embarrass them too much.

When I'm conducting a writing workshop or a signing, people often ask me where I get my ideas. I often start with an idea generated by a real event, but I seldom stay with that. Laura Lippman cites real incidents as the seed for several of her novels, including What the Dead Know and After I'm Gone. She stresses that once the original idea occurs, practically everything else changes.

Alafair Burke's The Ex uses a back-story that reminds me of Adam Lanza, who invaded a Connecticut elementary school in 2012 and killed twenty-six teachers and first-graders. Many other writers have used similar starting points, and there's a cottage industry in stories involving fictionalized visions of Jack the Ripper. My own novel Run Straight Down was inspired by teaching in an inner-city high school when one of my students was killed by a rival gang. Nothing in that novel resembles the real story. I even changed the name of the town.

Why?

I don't like to remember that the boy was shot directly below my classroom window. Many other people who were involved are still alive, and examining the case would be a horrible intrusion into their lives, too. In fact, when I was still considering writing the novel, I met attorney-turned-novelist William Landay at a conference, and as soon as he knew that people involved in the case still lived in the area, he said, "Fictionalize it." End of discussion.

Most horrific crimes don't shed much light on the human condition anyway. By and large, the perpetrators are bad people who have been in trouble because of their won stupidity or addiction or some other pathology for most of their lives. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, had been identified as unstable for years and his parents had not heeded warnings. The killer in the Cheshire (CT) home invasion in 2007 were career criminals who had spent major portions of their lives in jail, rehab, or both. Six people died in the Donna Lee Bakery massacre (New Britain, CT, 1974) because the killers planned to rob a liquor store, but the owner felt ill and closed early. The bakery was next door. Again, through my teaching job, I had a two-degree connection to three of those six victims...and the owner of the liquor store was the father of one of my students.

The only case I know that became a major literary event involves Amy Archer-Gilligan, who ran a nursing home about twenty miles from where I live now. She poisoned several residents and was eventually acquitted of murder by reason of insanity. Her story became the basis of the famous play Arsenic and Old Lace, which keeps nothing of the original story except the arsenic.

The only other "true" stories I think about at all are Capote's In Cold Blood, which is as much fiction as fact but invented an entire genre all by itself, and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Larson's research is staggering, but his story-telling skills are even better.

Basically, the problem with writing "true crime" is similar to writing a biography. No matter how much research you do, you're still guessing. WHY did this person do this NOW? Why THIS victim? Why did Mozart produce such beautiful music while we consider Salieri a musical joke and someone else with a similar background can't even whistle? Why could Shakespeare write nearly forty plays, the worst of which is still worth reading, while better-educated people with more leisure time can't fill a page? We don't know.

Facts are messy and may not prove anything, but when we move them around and sand down rough edges, we can create the characters and events that develop a logical or emotional point. That's why mysteries or crime fiction or detective stories or whatever you want to call them will always be popular. We want an answer that works. Whether it's Sherlock Holmes or Harry Bosch solving the crime, we want to believe things happen for a reason and the world makes sense.

It's fun to take a real case and fictionalize it to she what "might" have been. The Bobby Fuller killing (Remember "I Fought the Law and the Law Won" in 1966?) is still open 49 years later, but it inspired the film Eddie and the Cruisers. My own novel Blood On the Tracks used a cold case about a dead rock singer, too. I didn't even realize I was channeling the case until one of my guitar-playing friends asked me about it.

So, if you want to talk to me about a "true story," just give me a sentence or two and get out of the way. No, I won't split the profits (Profits, ha-ha-ha) because you may not even recognize your story when I finish with it.

Shakespeare's histories are anything but history, and while Macbeth really existed, little of the story is accurate. King James claimed he was descended from Banquo in the play, but my research never turned up anyone by that name. Shakespeare wrote the play to flatter his king. He was one of the first people to show us that facts can get in the way of a good story.

It's a lesson most writers take to heart.