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

15 April 2017

So Mysterious: a Q&A With Gerald So


Gerald So is a name that's familiar to most of us who write short mystery fiction. In fact Gerald is a past president (2008-10) and past vice-president (2012-14) of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, as well as an author, editor, and publisher. Since 2008, he has published crime-themed poetry, first in The Lineup chapbook series, co-edited with Patrick Shawn Bagley, Reed Farrel Coleman, Sarah Cortez, Richie Narvaez, and Anthony Rainone, and now at The Five-Two weekly website.

I e-met Gerald long ago, and although we've never crossed paths in person, I feel I know him well through our many emails and his many projects. We also share a love of crime poetry. (I've sold more than 300 poems, believe it or not--many of them in the mystery category--to Writer's Digest, EQMM, Grit, Farm & Ranch Living, etc.). Gerald reminded me recently of one of my poems called "Tinseltown," which appeared in The Five-Two several years ago.  (Here's a link.)

Okay, that's my warm-up act. Here's the main event: a brief interview with the crime-poetry king himself, Gerald So.


JF: Gerald, it's great to have you with us at SleuthSayers. Let's start with a clarification: What would you say is the difference between crime fiction and crime poetry?

GS: Mainly, unlike fiction, poetry isn't necessarily narrative. Poetry doesn't have to stick to procedural aspects of genre conventions. It can, for example, depict the aftermath of crime as an emotional moment, before the tendency toward story sets in. Poets have the freedom to approach crime from angles you might not see in fiction. I need occasional breaks from reading and writing crime fiction while poetry has held my interest all along.


JF: How did you get started writing poetry, and especially crime-themed poetry?

GS: I started writing bad poetry in high school. By college, I'd decided fiction was safer ground, but while teaching at Hofstra University I befriended poet Robert Plath, and handled the technical side of the faculty poetry website he edited. In reading the material to be posted on the website, I began to form opinions about it, and then seriously write my own poetry. I broke into print with poetry, not fiction, and decided I wouldn't give it up.

I think the theme of crime worked its way in naturally because powerful inciting events, such as crimes, are what hook and keep me reading anything.


JF: I agree. As I mentioned earlier, you started out publishing The Lineup crime poetry chapbooks. Now that you've published via a website, would you ever consider adding a Five-Two paper format?

GS: Yes, but I'd need more resources and help to make it happen. The advantage of maintaining a poetry blog and ebooks is I'm the only one who has to work on them to see them published. That said, a longterm goal of the site and ebooks is to keep crime poetry in the public eye, to grow interest in the concept until things like print or audio releases, and anything else you might imagine, are within reach.


JF: Can you tell us more about The Lineup series?

GS: The Lineup was a print-on-demand chapbook published once a year from 2008 to 2011. An acquaintance, author Alex Echevarria Roman, suggested the idea of a crime-themed poetry journal, and I ran with it, recruiting friends as co-editors. The Lineup had four editors per issue, each reading and rating all the poems submitted. It was a unique but complicated process, and as my friends turned to bigger projects, The Lineup couldn't be sustained. All four published volumes are still available here, though, on Lulu.com.


JF: The Five-Two, which I've heard you call a "crime poetry weekly," is a great site. Who are some of the authors you've featured in The Five-Two?

GS: Thriller author J.T. Ellison is one of the volunteer audio performers. There have been poems by your fellow Derringer Award winner Joseph D'Agnese and by novelist Peter Swanson. Other frequently featured poets include Robert Cooperman, Jennifer Lagier, Charles Rammelkamp, and Nancy Scott.


JF: What other kinds of writing do you do?

GS: I've written book, TV, and film reviews for Crimespree Magazine, a regular TV/film column for Mysterical-E, and a handful of short stories in various journals. I'm waiting on the status of two shorts whose titles I'm not allowed to mention.


JF: In closing, what are some other current markets for crime-themed poetry?

GS: I don't know many other markets that seek crime poetry specifically as The Five-Two does, but there are always markets for poetry with powerful inciting events, of which crime is just one. Some are Midnight Lane Boutique, Nerve Cowboy, Red Fez, Silver Birch Press, and Yellow Mama.


JF: Which is my hint to try some of these latest markets, and for our readers (hopefully) to try their hand at crime poetry also. Many thanks, Gerald, for joining us today. Keep up the good work!




And thanks to all of you as well. I'll be back next Saturday with my regular SleuthSayers column, and some observations of my own . .  . but I hope you'll tune in anyway.

28 January 2017

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


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

16 January 2017

Stranger Than Fiction


Image may contain: 1 person, smiling People wonder where writers get their ideas for their stories. We've all discussed this here many times but when news comes up like things happened this week, I can only be reminded that we have to only be aware of the daily news because there are stories every day to give fiction writers ideas.

A baby girl kidnapped eighteen years ago in Florida has been found and reunited with her biological mother and father.  The woman who kidnapped the baby who was only five hours old has been jailed.

If you watch, there will be books and stories written with a kidnapped baby at the center of the story. I probably would have written one myself, but my thought is to let this information percolate on the back burner for a time and see what rises out of the news this week.

The story goes that the woman who abducted the baby had posed as a nurse and moved to South Carolina. The biological mother was sixteen at the time and the biological father was in jail for having sex with the young mother. But the couple never gave up. The mother made pleas for her baby's return. The mother also had a birthday cake every year for her missing daughter and saved a piece and froze it every year. The husband of the woman who kidnapped the baby thought the little girl was his and he loves her dearly. He hopes he can still be someone in her life.

The young baby grew up and became interested in seeing pictures of missing and exploited children. Something made her suspect she was a missing child. Haven't heard yet what made her suspicious but as of this time has been reunited with her parents and grandmother.

The other big story to me is the "news" about the mysterious saga of D.B. Cooper. The man who high jacked a commercial airline in 1971, demanded a ransom of $200,000, and parachutes in return for releasing the passengers and jumping from the airplane and disappearing. It's been forty-five years and no trace of the man or his money has been found. Okay, money was found at one point, $5800, the serial numbers matching the ransom recorded by the FBI. But no other money has ever been spent or located.

The man who jumped from the place has actually not been identified. A nicely dressed man in a suit, white shirt and tie and who said his name was Dan Cooper paid cash in Reno for a ticket to Seattle. Back then, no ID was required. Once on board, at the back of the place, the man ordered and paid for a drink. One account even said he smoked a cigarette, which you could also do on planes back then. He then handed one of the attendants a note, with his demands and showed her what looked like a bomb in his briefcase.

The pilot followed the man's instructions getting the ransom money and the parachutes. And Mr. Cooper allowed the passengers and part of the crew to get off at Seattle Sea-Tac Airport. The man gave instructions for the speed, direction and altitude of the plane heading to Mexico. The one female attendant left on board saw the man strapping something around his body. Shortly afterward the rear staircase on the plane opened and the man jumped out. Many reports say the night was rainy, stormy and the plane was flying over a big wooded area.

A few months ago, the FBI formally closed the case of D.B. Cooper also known as NORJAK, Northwest High-jacking. However, recently some new evidence has been discovered by one of the Citizen's Sleuth Groups who have been investigating the case for a number of years.  The J.C. Penney tie that Mr. Cooper was wearing and left on the plane when he jumped has turned up some 100,000 particles that officials believe could hold clues. Particles detected by one of the new powerful microscopes include Strontium, Sulfide, Cerium and titanium. The thinking is that the man could have worked at Boeing. He could have been an engineer or manager at one of the plants. There is hope these particles can lead to someone who remembers an employee who disappear around this time.

There is so much mystery and intrigue still about this mysterious man and the missing ransom money. I can imagine any number of new books being written with this material. Feel free to research and work out your own story.

Although the FBI officially closed the investigation if any new evidence comes to light, they will certainly will devote time and energy to solving the case.

Robert Lopresti, I'm sure you have great background information on D.B. Cooper, right?

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 November 2016

Want Street Cred? Write for Magazines!


Many readers here know I teach Crafting a Novel at Sheridan College in Suburban Toronto.  (I started teaching fiction writing there before the wheel was invented.  We had to push cars uphill both ways to get them to campus...okay, I'll stop now.)


Students often ask me how to get a novel published.  I say: "Walk out of this classroom right now and become a media personality."

Everyone in the class laughs.  But it's no laughing matter, really.  Most of the bestselling crime authors in Canada were media personalities first.  It's no coincidence.  Being a newspaper or television 'name' gives one a huge visibility advantage.  You leap the slush pile.  And chances are, you know someone who knows someone in publishing.

But launching a new career doesn't work for all of us, particularly if we are mid-career or soon to qualify for senior's discounts.  (Of course, you could still murder someone and become a celebrity.  I have a few names handy, if you are looking for a media-worthy victim...)

In order for a publisher to buy your book, they have to read it first.  I know at least one publishing house that receives 10,000 manuscripts a month.  How in Hellsville can you possibly get noticed in that slush pile?

Here's how:  Develop street cred by publishing with magazines!

How I got my start:

In 1989, at the tender age of twenty plus n, I won a Canadian Living Magazine fiction contest.  (Canadian Living is one of the two notable women's magazines in Canada. Big circulation.)  After that, I pitched to Star Magazine (yup, the tabloid) listing the Canadian Living credit in my cover letter.  They said, "Oh look.  A Canadian.  How quaint.  See how she spells humour."  (I'm paraphrasing.)  Anyways, Star published several of my short shorts in the 90s.  The Canadian Living credit got me in the door.

With several Star Mag credits under my belt (weird term, that - I mean, think of what is under your belt) I went to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.  They liked the Star credits and published some of my stories.  Then I got a several-story contract with ComputorEdge.

So ten years ago, when I had a novel to flog, I already had 24 short story publications in commercial magazines.  That set me apart from everyone else clawing to get in the door.

Writing for magazines worked to launch my author career.  I'm now with two traditional publishers and my 11th book (The Bootlegger's Goddaughter - phew! Got that in) comes out in February.

Writing for magazines tells a publisher several things:

1.  You write commercially salable stories.  This is important for book publishers.  If you have published in commercial magazines, it tells a publisher that someone else has already paid you for your fiction.  They deemed your obviously brilliant stores worthy of a wide enough audience to justify putting their money into publishing them.  It's much like the concept of 'peer review' in the academic world.

2.  You accept editing.  A magazine writer (fiction or nonfiction) is used to an editor making changes to their work.  It's part of the game.  If you have been published many times in magazines, then a novel publisher knows you are probably going to be cool with editing.  (Okay, maybe not cool, but you've learned how to hold back rage-fueled comments such as "Gob-sucking fecking idiot! It was perfect before you mucked with it."

3.  You work to deadline.  Magazines and newspapers have tight deadlines.  Miss your deadline, and you're toast.  Novel publishers are similarly addicted to deadlines.  Something to do with having booked a print run long in advance, for one thing.  So they want authors who will get their damned manuscripts in on time.

Here's something to watch out for if you are going to write for magazines:

Kill Fee
If you are publishing with a major magazine, negotiate a 'kill fee.'  (This doesn't mean you get to kill the publisher if they don't print your story.)  A kill fee is something you get if the mag sends you a contract to publish your story or article, and then doesn't publish it.  Usually a kill fee is about half the amount you would be paid if they had printed it.

Why wouldn't they print your story after they agree to buy it?  Sometimes a publisher or editorial big wig leaves and the new big wig taking over will have a different vision for the mag.  Sometimes a mag will go under before they actually print the issue with your story.  That happened to me with a fairly well-known women's mag.  I got the kill fee, and the rights back. I was able to sell the story to another magazine.

Which brings me to a final point:  Note the rights you are selling.  Many mags here want "First North American Serial Rights."  This means they have the right to publish the story for the first time in North America, in all versions of their magazine.  (For instance, some magazines in Canada publish both English and French versions.)  But what happens after that?  When do rights return to you?  Two years after publication? (Very common.)  Or never?  Are they buying 'All Rights?"  It's good to get rights back, because then you can have the story reprinted in an anthology someday.  Make sure your contract stipulates which rights they are buying.

Of course, I always say, if they pay me enough, they can keep all rights, dress them in furs and jewelry, and walk them down Main Street.  I have the same attitude re film companies that might want to swoop up my novels for movies.

Melodie Campbell writes the multi-award-winning Goddaughter series of mob comedies, starting with The Goddaughter.  It features a different kind of 'kill fee.'

 On Amazon

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.

10 September 2016

A Question of Empathy: The Social Scientists, The Poet, and the Mystery Reader


Two scholars at the New School for Social Research published an article about literature and empathy last month, full of bad news for mystery readers. If you belong to Sisters in Crime and saw the most recent SinC Links, you may have noticed the references to "Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity with Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing." The authors, David Kidd and Emanuelle Castano, say people who read novels by authors such as Alice Walker and Vladimir Nabakov excel on a test of "theory of mind," indicating they have superior abilities "to infer and understand others' thoughts and feelings." Such readers are likely to be characterized by "empathy, pro-social behavior, and coordination in groups." Readers of mysteries and other genre fiction don't do as well on the test. So apparently we're an obtuse, hardhearted, selfish bunch, and we don't play well with others.

This is grim stuff. And maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. I made myself read the whole study--and let me tell you, the experience didn't do wonders for my levels of empathy. Kidd and Castano don't actually say genre readers suffer from all those problems. In fact, they speculate that reading any kind of fiction may do some good. But they definitely think reading literary fiction does more good than reading genre fiction does. Literary fiction, they say, has complex, round characters, and that "prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters' mental states." Genre fiction relies on flat, stock characters and therefore doesn't encourage readers to develop comparable levels of mental agility and emotional insight. The authors discuss other differences, too--for example, they say literary fiction features "multiple plot lines" and challenges "routine or rigid ways of thinking," while genre fiction is characterized by "formulaic plots" and encourages "conventional thinking." I won't try to summarize all their arguments. It would take too long, and it would get too depressing.

I will say a little--only a little--about their research methods. To distinguish between literary readers and genre readers, Kidd and Castano put together a long list of names--some literary authors, some genre authors, some non-authors--and asked participants to check off the names with which they were familiar. People who checked off more names of literary authors were classified as readers of literary fiction, and--well, you get the idea. To determine levels of empathy and other good things, Kidd and Castano had participants take the "reading the mind in the eyes" test: Participants looked at pictures that showed only people's eyes, looked at four adjectives (for example, "scared," "anxious," "encouraging," and "skeptical"), and chose the adjective that best described the expression in the pictured eyes. Participants identified as readers of literary fiction did a better job of matching eyes with adjectives. Therefore, they're more empathetic and perceptive than readers of genre fiction.

It's not hard to spot problems with these research methods. Scottish crime writer Val McDermid does a shrewd, funny job of that in a piece also mentioned in SinC Links. (Among other things, Val says she took the "reading the eyes in the mind" test and got thirty-three out of thirty-six right, beating the average score of twenty-four. Just for fun, I took the test, too, and scored thirty-four. That may prove I'm one point more empathetic than Val. Or it may prove the test is silly.) And of course decisions about which authors are "literary" and which are "genre" can be subjective. Kidd and Castano talk about how they wavered about the right category for Herman Wouk. The Caine Mutiny won a Pulitzer Prize, so maybe Wouk's a literary author. On the other hand, some critics accuse Mutiny of "upholding conventional ideas and values," so maybe he's merely genre. (Kidd and Castano never consider the question of whether a knee-jerk rejection of all ideas and values currently judged "conventional" might sometimes reflect a lack of insight and empathy. Is sympathy for people who devote their lives to military service automatically shallow and nasty? Is portraying an intellectual as a fraud never justified?)


As for their method of classifying participants as either "literary readers" or "genre readers," I recognized the names of almost all the authors on both lists. I've heard of James Patterson--most people have--but I've never read a book of his; I don't think I've sampled a single page. With many other authors (both "literary" and "genre"), I've read a few pages, a few chapters, or a single story, and then I've put the book  aside and never picked it up again. Recognizing an author's name isn't evidence of a preference for a certain kind of fiction. For heaven's sake, how many people make it through middle school without reading To Kill a Mockingbird? So how does checking off Harper Lee's name on a list indicate a preference for literary fiction? (For that matter, some might argue To Kill a Mockingbird is crime fiction, and Lee therefore belongs on the genre list. It could be that Kidd and Castano consider crime fiction that's well written literary. If so, that's sort of stacking the deck against genre--if a work of genre fiction is really good, it no longer counts as genre.)

It may be--and I'm certainly not the first person to suggest this--that social science's methods aren't ideally suited to analyzing literature, or to determining its effects on our minds and souls. Social science, by its nature, seeks to quantify things in exact terms. Maybe literature and its effects can't be quantified. Maybe attempts to measure some things exactly are more likely to lead us astray than to enlighten us. As Aristotle says in Book I of the Ethics, "it is the mark of an educated [person] to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

If social scientists can't help us understand the connection between literature and empathy, who can? Perhaps a poet. In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "A Defense of Poetry" in response to a friend's largely playful charge that poetry is useless and fails to promote morality. I think we can apply what Shelley says about poetry to fiction, including genre fiction. After all, Shelley declares that "the distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error," and he considers Plato, Francis Bacon, and "all the authors of revolutions in opinion" poets. So why not Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammet?

I'm going to quote several sentences from "A Defense of Poetry," and I'm not going to make Shelley's choice of nouns and pronouns politically correct. I tinkered with Aristotle's words a bit--it's a translation, so tinkering felt more permissible. But I'll give you Shelley's words (and his punctuation) without amendment:
The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. . . . The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . . Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
As far as I know, Shelley compiled no lists, administered no tests, and analyzed no statistics. Even so, there may be more wisdom in these few sentences than in any number of studies churned out by the New School for Social Research, at least when it comes to wisdom about literature.

For Shelley, literature's crucial moral task is to take us out of ourselves. Most of us spend much of our time focusing on our own problems and feelings. When we read, we get caught up in a character's problems and feelings for a while, seeing things through that character's eyes and sharing his or her emotions. This vicarious experience is temporary, but Shelley says it does us lasting good. I like his comparison of reading and physical exercise. Working out at a gym makes our muscles stronger, and that means we're better able to handle any physical tasks and challenges we may encounter. Reading gives our imaginations a workout and makes them stronger. If we feel the humanity in the characters we read about, we're more likely to recognize the humanity in the people we meet. Will we therefore be kinder to them and try harder to make sure they're treated justly? Shelley thinks so.

But won't literary fiction, with all its round, complex characters, give our imaginations a more vigorous workout than genre fiction will? To agree to that, we'd have to agree to Kidd and Castano's generalizations about literary and genre fiction, and I think many of us would hesitate to do so. Yes, the characters in many mysteries are pretty flat, but couldn't the same be said of the characters in many works of literary fiction? Val McDermid challenges some of Kidd and Castano's central assumptions about literary and genre fiction, and I think she makes some persuasive arguments. I won't repeat those here, or get into the question of to what extent current distinctions between "literary" and "genre" have lasting validity, and to what extent they reflect merely contemporary and perhaps somewhat elitist preferences. (Would Fielding, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, and other still-admired authors be considered "literary" if they hadn't been lucky enough to die before the current classifications slammed into place? Would they be consigned to the junk heap of genre if they were writing today? But I said I wouldn't get into that. I'll stop.)

I'll raise just one question. Shelley says that to be "greatly good," we must imagine not only "intensely" but also "comprehensively," identifying with "many others." If he's right, fiction that introduces us to a wide variety of characters and encourages us to identify with them may exercise our imaginations more effectively than fiction that limits its sympathies to a narrower range of characters.

Generalizations are dangerous, and I'm neither bold enough nor well read enough to propose even tentative generalizations about literary and genre fiction. (And when I say "genre," I really mean "mystery," because I know almost nothing about other types of fiction currently classified as "genre"--though I've read and admired some impressive urban fantasy lately.) All I'll say is that I'm not sure all contemporary literary fiction encourages readers to empathize with many different sorts of characters. Most of the recent literary fiction I've read seems to limit sympathy to intellectual characters with the right tastes and the right opinions. Even if the central character is a concierge from a lower-class background (probably, many of you will recognize the novel I'm talking about), she has to be an autodidact who's managed to develop tastes for classical music, Russian literature, and Eastern art, who turns her television on only to trick her bourgeois employers into thinking she fits their stereotypes. Two other characters who are portrayed in a positive way, a troubled adolescent girl and a wealthy Japanese gentleman, are in many respects variations on the concierge, with similar tastes and opinions; most of the other characters in the novel invite our disdain rather than our sympathy. How often does contemporary literary fiction encourage us to empathize with characters such as a concierge who actually enjoys television, reads romances, and adores Garth Brooks and Thomas Kinkade? George Eliot could have portrayed that sort of character in a genuinely empathetic way. I don't know if many authors of recent literary fiction would have much interest in doingso.

I think some--not all, certainly, but some--genre fiction encourages us to extend our sympathies further. I think many mysteries, for example, introduce us to a variety of characters, including characters who aren't necessarily intellectuals, flawed characters we might be tempted to shun in our day-to-day lives. Mysteries can help us identify with people who have made bad choices and taken wrong turns, with victims, with people caught in the middle, with people determined to set things right, with people who feel overwhelmed by circumstances. I can't cite any studies to support my suggestions, but I think the best mysteries, by portraying a wide range of characters and nudging us to participate in their lives, might give our imaginations a robust workout and help us become more empathetic.

Mysteries can even help us empathize with criminals. That's ironic, in a way, because some social science studies argue criminals are marked by an inability to empathize. Then again, other social science studies challenge those studies, and still other studies--but maybe we shouldn't get into all that. Maybe we should just pick up a favorite mystery and start reading. I bet it'll do us good.


Next week at this time, many of us will be at Bouchercon. Just briefly, I'll mention some SleuthSayers nominated for Anthony awards. Art Taylor's On the Road with Del and Louise, a remarkable example of a mystery that encourages us to empathize with a wide variety of characters, is a finalist for Best First Novel. Art also edited Murder under the Oaks, a finalist for Best Anthology or Collection; both Rob Lopresti and I are lucky enough to have stories in that one. And my Fighting Chance is a finalist for Best Young Adult Novel. If you're so inclined, you can read the first chapter here. Hope to see you in New Orleans!


27 July 2016

Giving Up The Ghost


I happened on a thriller writer named Chris Morgan Jones, who has three books under his belt, all of them about a private security outfit that takes on corporate espionage - which generally means Follow The Money. I liked what I read, and checked out his website, where he lists a few of his influences, along with how and why. This then prompted me to send him a letter, as follows:

Dear Chris,

   I'm very much in agreement with your listed influences - although I might have chosen OUR MUTUAL FRIEND over BLEAK HOUSE - but I was brought up a little short by HARLOT'S GHOST. I have to say, with all due respect, that I think the novel strikes a false note from beginning to end.  It's only fair that I explain.

   This is awhile back, mind, but I lived in Provincetown at the same time as Norman Mailer, and we knew each other very slightly, friends of friends. The guy I knew better was Peter Manso, who was working on a Mailer biography, and had Mailer's confidence. (They had a bitter falling-out later on, but this was then.) Mailer asked Peter if he knew anybody who could recommend some reliable source material on CIA, and Peter said he did, meaning me. I suggested Thomas Powers' THE MAN WHO KEPT THE SECRETS, which is still the best go-to, and somewhat mischievously, Edward Jay Epstein's LEGEND, a speculation about whether Lee Oswald was ever under KGB discipline. As it happens, the Epstein book is fascinating, but you have to be pretty drenched in the literature to benefit, and it ain't for the fevered brow.

   The eventual result was HARLOT'S GHOST. There was a later Oswald book, but the point here is that Mailer simply didn't absorb the basics of what Powers and Epstein had to say, particularly about the character of the intelligence community. Mailer went off on his usual belligerent conceits, the voices in his head drowning out anything he might have learned from listening to someone else. I'm not pissed off that he didn't take my advice - strictly speaking, I didn't give him any - but it's aggravating that he paid no attention at all. His notions were too firmly fixed. CIA people, the received wisdom has it, can only be hollow men, without inner gravity. Spare me.

All the best,
DEG

*

A few years ago (and a few years later than the events above), I went to a reunion in San Antonio. It was personnel who'd been stationed in Berlin at the 6912th, my former outfit, but not necessarily all at the same time, so it was a grab-bag. Different ages, although mostly in their fifties and sixties. Probably a hundred or so people. By and large, they'd gone career military, a twenty-year hitch, and then quite a few of them had transitioned over to NSA, as intelligence analysts or instructors, for another twenty, so we're talking about a lifetime in the spook trade. Which got me thinking. Why a book about the morally exhausted, cynical and world-weary? Done to death. Why not a story about commitment, a duty to something larger than ourselves, pride of ownership?

During the reunion, we took a field trip out to Lackland AFB to watch a graduation ceremony, new recruits trooping the colors after completing Basic, and then we went to a less publicly-traveled part of the base, where ISR is housed - Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which is what they call the USAF Security Service nowadays. The event was a memorial. The commanding officer read a list of names - going back to the beginning, in 1948 - the officers and enlisted killed in the line of duty. There are more than you might think, but most of them flight status, killed in aircraft shoot-downs, the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Sea of Japan, off Vladivostok or Sakhalin Island, the coast of Viet Nam. Their families wouldn't have been told about the classified missions they were flying, or that they'd come under attack by Russian pilots. Too sensitive, at the time.

It was sunny and hot, noonish, but early October, so it isn't stifling. The air was still. Quiet corner of the base, not a lot of ambient noise. You can hear a couple of jets taking off from Kelly, the runways a mile or so away. The names are read, we have a moment of silence. The bagpipes start up, "Amazing Grace." And then, right overhead and coming in low, a formation of four fighters in a diamond pattern, the same planes we'd heard taking off. Just as they go over, the plane in the tail position does a flip-up, pulling sudden G's, out of the formation. This maneuver is called The Missing Man, signifying a flyer lost in action, and I'm not the only one starting to get weepy.

The experience reinforced something I already knew, which is that choosing to go career military is like it or not about duty, pride in the mission, accepting a larger responsibility. It's a concept that may have fallen out of fashion in some quarters, and of course it always smacked of self-aggrandizement or suspect sentimentality, if you happened to voice it aloud. I've never know a single lifer who'd own up to this, at least not without a knowing half-smile, and a degree of irony. That said, when I wrote THE BONE HARVEST, it turned out to be very much about the lifer community. Not in the same way as a novel like Sarah Bird's YOKOTA OFFICERS CLUB, but maybe its second cousin.

THE BONE HARVEST takes place in the early months of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, beginning on Christmas Day 1979, and the book is about mounting an intelligence operation in hostile territory. It's an educated guess that such an operation was in fact mounted on the ground in Pakistan, but I'd be very surprised if I'd guessed wrong. more than this, the book might be considered kind of a course correction to all the egregious eyewash that gets written about the spy biz. Not the James Bond stuff - there's nothing wrong with derring-do, even if it borders on the fantastical, and Bond after all isn't a spy, he's a hit man - but the tired drivel that keeps being trotted out as received wisdom, the opportunistic cubicle rats with no moral compass, or misguided zealots bent on jihad, field agents burned or corrupted or gone rogue, assets abandoned, the whole a Darwinian lottery, predator and prey.

It makes for good theater, no argument, but it's lazy. I wanted to come up with something more original, or maybe more retro - John Buchan, say - but with contemporary hardware, state-of-the-art for that period in the Cold War. On the other hand, you can't be a total gear freak. How much is enough, giving it the right feel, and how much is too much, when people's eyes start to glaze over? That one telling detail is often all you need.

I've quoted le CarrĂ© before, to the effect that it doesn'd have to be authentic, it has to be convincing. My point here isn't to disrespect anybody, my point is that far too often I'm left unconvinced. For me that's the kiss of death, getting something wrong that's easy to get right, or simply being wrong-headed. I could care less about your politics, or whether you set the table with the salad fork on the outside, but there's one inflexible rule. Don't play fast and loose with the reader's confidence. Once you lose it, you'll never win it back.



I began with Chris Morgan Jones, and took the long way around to get where I was going, so let me wrap this up by saying I enjoyed THE SEARCHER enormously, and have now gone back to read the first of his three novels, THE SILENT OLIGARCH, which came out in 2012. It's always a pleasure to happen on a new writer - or at least somebody new to us. This guy delivers. 
http://www.chrismorganjones.com/

25 June 2016

Damn Right, there's ME in my Characters!


Several times a year we do these reading and signing events.  And people ask you a pile of questions about your books.  Most are repeat queries that you’ve heard a dozen times before.  So you get pretty good at answering them.

Lately, I was asked a question that I didn’t have a pat answer to.  In fact, it really made me think.

“Do you make up all your characters, or do you put some of yourself in them?”

I’d like to say that every character I write comes completely from my imagination.  For the most part, they do.  I can honestly say that I have never seen a real person who matches the physical description of any of my characters.  (Not that I would mind meeting Pete.  But I digress…)

Back to the question:  are there bits of myself in my protagonists? 

PROOF NO. 1 (others will follow in later posts)

“I am SO not a salad girl.”

Some people say this is one of the funniest lines in my screwball mob comedy, THE GODDAUGHTER.  It is spoken by Gina Galla, goddaughter to the mob boss in Hamilton, the industrial city in Canada near Buffalo, also known as The Hammer.  Gina is a curvy girl.  She says this line to her new guy Pete, as a kind of warning.   And then she proceeds to tell him she wants a steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and a side of mushrooms.

Apparently, that’s me.  So say my kids, spouse, and everyone else in the family.

Eat a meal of salad?  Are you kidding me?  When there is pasta, fresh panno and cannoli about?  (I’ve come to the conclusion that women who remain slim past the age of fifty must actually like salad.  Yes, it’s an astonishing fact.  For some people, eating raw green weeds is not a punishment. )

Not me.  I’m Italian, just like my protagonist.  We know our food.  Ever been to an Italian wedding?  First, you load up with appetizers and wine, or Campari with Orange Juice if you’re lucky.  When you are too stuffed to stand  up anymore (why did you wear three inch heals?  Honestly you do this every time…) you sit down, kerplunk.  Bring on the antipasto.  Meat, olives, marinated veggies, breadsticks, yum.  Melon with prosciutto.  Bread with olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip.  White wine.   

Then comes the pasta al olio.  Sublime.  Carbs are important fuel, right?  And I’m gonna need that fuel to get through the main course, because it’s going to be roast chicken, veal parmesan, osso buco, risotto, polenta, stuffed artichokes (yum), more bread, red wine.

Ever notice that salad is served after the main course in an Italian meal?  Good reason for that.  We aren’t stupid.  Hopefully, you will have no room left for it.

So yes, my protagonist Gina shares an important trait with me.  She likes meat, dammit.

So you can be a bunny and eat salad all you like.  Bunnies are cute and harmless.

But Gina and I are more like frontier wolves.   Try making us live on salad, and see how harmless we will be.

Which is what you might expect from a mob goddaughter from The Hammer.

Do you find bits of yourself sneaking into your fiction?  Tell us here, in the comments.

Melodie Campbell writes the award-winning Goddaughter mob comedy series, starting with The Goddaughter which happens to be on sale now for $2.50.  Buy it.  It's an offer you can't refuse. 
P.S.  My maiden name was 'Offer.'  No joke.  Although I've heard a few in my time.

13 April 2016

Nights in Berlin


NIGHTS IN BERLIN is the fourth of Janice Law's period mysteries featuring the painter Francis Bacon. The first book takes place during the Second World War, and the next two follow chronologically, but NIGHTS IN BERLIN takes us back to Weimar Germany in the 1920's, when Francis is only a teenager - although far from innocent - some years before he begins his art career.
Berlin, in the Weimar era, has a reputation for being wide open. "Life is a cabaret, old chum - " and you better believe it. Francis is sent off in the care of his uncle Lastings, in hopes Lastings will make a man of him, Francis being more than a little gay, but uncle favors a bit of rough, himself. He's also a scoundrel, working the black market, with a sideline as an informer, which turns out to be the part that proves dicey. Lastings is selling secrets to the highest bidder.  

In the event, uncle takes it on the lam and leaves Francis to his own devices. Playing fast and louche, Francis lands a job as a hatcheck girl at a drag bar. It's good cover when British Intelligence recruits him - blackmails him, in point of fact - because Uncle Lastings was freelancing for them. Berlin is in political ferment, with Bolsheviks, Freikorps thugs, SA brownshirts (Goebbels just arrived as Nazi party gauleiter), Prussian reactionaries, all stalking each other with violent and criminal results.

Francis is an entertaining guide to these wilder nooks and crannies, his voice alternating between the knowing aside and his native provincialism. There's something to the story of a Boy's Own Adventure, reminiscent of John Buchan, say, or Erskine Childers' RIDDLE OF THE SANDS. I think partly this is the age between the wars, revanchist, tribal hatreds boiling to the surface, but no real sense of the cataclysm about to swallow the Old World entire. It's also a function of our hero's age. Francis is old and wiser, and sadder, in the first three books of the series, whether London or Tangier or the Cote d'Azur, whereas turning the clock back, we see a previous, vanished Berlin, and through a younger pair of eyes. What contributes further to this is an avoidance of historical ironies. Hitler doesn't get a walk-on, or Sally Bowles, either. NIGHTS IN BERLIN is very much of the moment, as Francis inhabits it, and that lends it a sort of wandering air, the kid a little too much in pursuit of sensation for his own good.

The politics are really a side issue. The story is how the experience imprints on Francis. What did he learn? he writes to ask his former nanny. That the most unlikely people can teach us odd and useful things. And with this in mind, he's off to Paris at the end of the book. Both enterprising and alarmingly fey, in some respects, Francis seems like something of a blank slate, yet to be written on. In other words, we're still in the opening pages. The rest are empty. Francis will grow into himself. As the world itself will, passing into the savage 1930's, and then the war years. Pages yet to be written.





I jumped at the chance to read NIGHTS IN BERLIN. Janice had me at the title. I'm crazy about the premise, and the period, of course. I've lived in Berlin, I've read up on it quite a lot, I've written about it myself. I also recently discovered Philip Kerr's fabulous series of historicals, with the wartime German homicide cop Bernie Gunther. There's something endlessly fascinating to me about the city in the past century, with its many changes of clothing, Weimar, the Nazis, Occupation and the Cold War. I think if Berlin didn't actually exist, we'd have to invent it, as a metaphor, and for the purposes of fiction.


26 March 2016

What to Eat When You Read (They let me off my leash again...)


I like to get in the mood, when I’m reading. Here’s my list of how to pair your nosh to your book:
Westerns
Riders of the Purple Sage. Cow country. This would suggest a certain menu. Steak, medium rare. Tempting, but hard to cut a steak while simultaneously holding a book and turning pages. Really, Mel Brooks had the right idea. Beans, and plenty of them. Make sure you’re NOT reading in public.

Chick-lit
Slipping into the realm of the unknown here. Chicks are slim young things, right? They would eat salad. I hate salad. Ergo…hand me a western.

Action-Adventure
The trouble with Bond-clone movies and books is you’re apt to spill your martini with all that racing around in the plot. Things blow up a lot in the action-adventure genre. This might suggest popcorn. But make sure you pop it before you eat it. Keep the explosions to your book. (Or switch to westerns.)

Horror
This is obvious. Ribs. Dripping with BBQ sauce.
Herself's personal additions: Cilantro and goat cheese <<shivers>>

Romance
Chocolate.

CanLit (Literature, for all you American types.)
It will be unusual, expensive, and unpalatable. You won’t “understand” why others think it is so good. Your palate has not been suitably developed to appreciate such fineness. Caviar. Escargot (it always sounds so much better in French.) Duck liver (you can look up the French spelling.) If you get beyond the first bite (er…page one,) Yay for you. Hard to read – hard to eat.

Mystery
Should be obvious, right? Chinese food! Get someone else to order it for you, so the mystery deepens.

Fantasy
Try to find Ambrosia. They really dig it on Olympia. If you can’t find that, substitute ice cream. (I know. You thought I was going to say wine. But my fantasy is ice cream with a suitably delicious Greek God-ling. Okay, he doesn’t have to be a God yet. Just young and Greek. Okay, this is slipping into erotica…

Erotica
Forget the oysters, artichokes, or other silly vegetable-type aphrodisiacs. (Fish is almost a vegetable. Trust me.) The answer is more chocolate. (Silly. That’s the answer to almost anything.)

Sci-fi
KIND nut bars. Okay, is the metaphor too obvious?

What to Eat if you’re a Writer:
Coffee.
And humble pie.

Melodie Campbell’s latest mob comedy, TheGoddaughter Caper, has just been released. It’s an offer you can’t refuse. Available at all the usual suspects.

05 February 2016

Confessions


The landmark anthology Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories includes Lucas Cooper's extraordinary "Class Notes," a piece of flash fiction which originally appeared in 1984 in the North American Review. As the title suggests, the story is presented as one of those class updates that you find in the back of college alumni magazines, and it all begins in just that tone of chatty news: "Ted Mecham may be the first member of the class of ’66 to retire." But these particular class notes quickly take some unexpected turns: "Richard Endergel phoned a few weeks ago from Houston, under arrest for possession of cocaine" is one tidbit, for example, and further along, "Violence is no stranger to Bill Nast. His wife turned up in terrible shape at Detroit General Hospital two months ago, the victim of Bill's hot temper," and then further along, "Sue Zimmerman was a 1978 Penthouse Pet." While many of the items indulge some dark sensationalism, toward the story's end the briefs begin to linger over quieter, more private moments, glimpses into troubled inner lives: "Frederick Mandell weeps uncontrollably in his crowded apartment in Miami Beach. Joel Reede lives in self-destructive anger in Rye, New York.... Odell Masters cries out in his dreams for love of his wife and children."

On the one hand, the story can be read as a playful poke at the relentless pride and hearty optimism of class notes as a genre—and I've seen similar things done with the genre of the annual Christmas letter. But on the other hand, the story strikes me as much deeper and with a rich awareness of the human condition. To my mind, the effect is both beautiful and heartbreaking.

I thought about this story in the wake of a couple of recent events—the first of them a Facebook status update in which a friend discussed her awareness of "the curated nature of our Facebook posts," followed by an admission that some aspects of her life were, right then, pretty crappy.

It's likely not a surprise to anyone who's social-media literate that what people post on Facebook or elsewhere is at best just a glimpse—and likely a "curated" glimpse, to use my friend's word—into a much more complex life. The genre of the Facebook post may, to some degree, demand something performative of us—and it's easy for FB posters simply foreground the good news and bury the bad. (I recognize that exact opposite may also be true for other Facebook users—a type of Eeyore-ness about those online lives.) From the side of the reader scrolling through updates about selfless spouses, brilliant careers, and exotic vacations, the response might be anything from irritation at how one's fellow friends and acquaintances cross the line between "sharing" and "boasting" (see this letter in the Miss Manners column) to actual depression about how their own real lives compare to their friends' and colleagues' online ones (see this from the Harvard Business Review and this from a University of Missouri study). Facebook doesn't cause depression, no, but there's a pretty definite link between the two, via "social comparison," according to the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (cited here in Forbes). And going back to the class notes situation above, I'll admit to catching myself at times browsing through my own college alumni magazine and wondering, "How do I compare to...?" and "Why haven't I...?" and "Oh, I wish...."

The second incident that had me thinking about "Class Notes" was the announcement, earlier this week, of this year's finalists for the Agatha Awards, a time of great celebration in the mystery world and, as it turns out, right here in our immediate SleuthSayers family. It was such a thrill to see my fellow  bloggers Barb Goffman and B.K. Stevens represented on the slate: Barb for her short story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Bonnie in two categories, with the short story "A Joy Forever," also from Alfred Hitchcock, and with her YA novel Fighting Chance: A Martial Arts Mystery. I was pleased to be among the finalists myself with my first book, On the Road with Del & Louise, as a contender in the Best First Novel category. As you can imagine and some may have seen firsthand, Facebook and Twitter and various other virtual communities were abuzz with the news, with announcements and congratulations and conversations—and I'll add a congratulations again to the finalists not only here in our SleuthSayers family but across the board!

Though I was grateful, of course—immensely grateful—both for the honor of having been named a finalist and for all the goodwill coming my own way, in the midst of it all I couldn't help but feel slightly self-conscious about the attention and undeserving in several ways, couldn't help but wonder at what point these types of posts risk crossing the line between "sharing" and "boasting" (to borrow that phrase from the Miss Manners letter) and, more to the point, I found myself fretting about the "curated nature" of the whole thing—though I was heartened immensely by a posting Barb Goffman herself made, which she's given me permission to reproduce here:

We writers often toil alone, wondering if what we write is any good, if anyone will read it, let alone like it. So receiving validation through an award nomination means the world. Thanks to everyone I've heard from today about my nomination for an Agatha Award in the short story category for my story "A Year Without Santa Claus?" Thanks to everyone who listed my story on your nomination ballot. Congratulations to all the finalists, especially my fellow finalists in the short-story category, Edith Maxwell, Terrie Moran, Harriette Wasserman Sackler, and B.K. Stevens. And I want to give a shout-out, too, to all the authors who had wonderful books and stories published this year whose names don't appear on the Agatha shortlist—being published is no small thing and is to be celebrated as well.

I couldn't agree more with Barb's comments—which speak of the best aspects of the mystery community in general: thoughtfulness, generosity and inclusiveness, with celebrations and recognition for us all. Those opening comments struck home, about writers wondering if what we write is good, if anyone will read it, if anyone will like it. And echoing that closing shout-out to other authors: Having twice judged the Edgar Awards, I know all too well how many fine books and stories are published each year, how few get to step into the spotlight, and how many others were equally deserving of that spotlight.

I've been about as fortunate as any writer could ask to be—something that I recognize and am grateful for every day—and I use that word fortunate specifically, with its echo of luck, a huge factor always. And I feel thrilled and humbled by the new honor this week and by the support I've received from fellow writers and readers. But in the spirit of how I've titled this blog, "Confessions," I want to admit that even as the celebrations were unfolding on social media and email, I confessed to a friend that the news came at a time when I've been struggling mightily with my writing for a variety of reasons—not just with finding time to write (always an issue) but with lack of direction, lack of confidence, poor productivity, and more.

These are things that I don't post on Facebook: anxiety, self-doubt, a recurrent fear of failure, and then real failures—the stories languishing on my computer because of rejection after rejection.

I recognize the potential dangers in admitting this—the danger that it might come across as whining from someone who really, truly has nothing to whine about. I've said before and I'll say again (and again) that I am blessed in many ways and couldn't/shouldn't ever ask for anything better. My point is never, not intentionally, to take on a woe-is-me attitude amidst an overabundance of riches.

But I do think it's important to pull back the curtain a little to reveal how much all of us may struggle, at whatever stage of our careers, at whatever level of success or seeming success. As Barb pointed out, we writers "toil alone"—a level of interiority is indeed central to our craft—and in the midst of that interiority, in that aloneness, sometimes as that aloneness verges into loneliness, it might prove seductive to wonder why the progress or the success that comes so easily to others is so difficult coming to us.

The friend I wrote to, confessing my own struggles, wrote back that she too has had a rough patch lately—over several years—a fine writer and former Agatha finalist herself. And then another writer I mentioned this to, a writer I've always perceived as immensely productive and invariably successful, admitted that she hadn't written anything in months, admitted to her frustrations about that and to the fear that there might simply not be any next plot coming. Other writers I know, some with long and acclaimed publishing success, have no trouble with craft but are struggling with sales and contracts and the various shifts in the publishing world. Closer to home: My wife, Tara Laskowski, has a book coming out in the spring and just earned some advance praise from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist—but in the midst of celebrating that boost, she's also been uneasy about troubles with her next project, the daunting task ahead of her, the fear that she's simply not writer enough to ever bring it off. (She is, I know she is, but right now she doesn't believe she is, and that's the point.)

Not all writers are like this, I recognize. Maybe I'm just the fretful sort, I tell myself, because I see those other writers who seem to know where they're going and get there without fail and make it seem so easy and.... But then that's just proving the point too. Not all writers are fretful, no, but at least based on my small anecdotal evidence, my small corner of the writing world, many of us likely are, perhaps more this way than the other—even those who don't look it on the outside...or on whatever social media platform they spend most of their time on.

As I've been working on this post, I've kept thinking that I need to find some way to bring it to a rousing close—some moral or message. Keep on writing! Everyone struggles, but the struggles will pay off! Or simply: You're not alone in the world! But ultimately too much of that seems pat and simplistic and maybe even condescending. It's also (updating this post here) unrealistic and maybe even empty; as one writer commented to me offline after this post went live, there are writers for whom the hard work might not pay off—writers who might ultimately give up because they haven't found that success or even publication. This happens, far more often than it should.

So maybe what I'm aiming for is something closer to the "Class Notes" story that I opened with and the comments on the "curated nature" of Facebook posts, the idea that what's flattened out in those respective genres may ultimately mask something more complex and more human in real life, part of some deeper struggles that we all sometimes experience, whoever or wherever we are.

In any case, I hope some of it might be not unuseful—and to bring all this from some over-lofty armchair philosophizing back to more practical matters, how about a question or two for the writers among us: Do you ever feel similar worries or crises? And if so, how do you deal with them?

Share if you can. We're all in this together, after all.