Showing posts with label genres. Show all posts
Showing posts with label genres. Show all posts

23 February 2019

ENDINGS: You Must Satisfy the Reader!


“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



26 May 2018

Top Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers


Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one.

I'm definitely on the kind side of the equation.  The last thing I want to be is a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated.  So when a colleague suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)

So here are my top ten peeves as a writing teacher:

THE OBVIOUS

1.  "I don't need no stinkin' genre" - aka Students who turn their noses up at the genres.

In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my Crafting a Novel course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, western, literary...) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those famous words:  "Your first page sells this book.  Your last page sells the next."

Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres.  Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.

Many students refuse to classify their work.  They feel it is 'selling out' to do so.  (Yes, I've heard this frequently.)  They don't want to conform or be associated with a genre that has a formula.  (One day, I hope to discover that formula.  I'll be rich.)

So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction,  even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they've actually read.  *pass the scotch*

2.  The memoir disguised as fiction.

These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is the story of their life.  (Ironically, many of these students are only twenty years old...sigh.)  But they know that memoirs of unknown people don't sell well, so they're going to write it as a novel.  Because then it will be a bestseller.

Here's what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life - no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you - usually doesn't make a good novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.

If you want to write your life story, go for it.  Take a memoir writing class.

3.  "My editor will fix this" - Students who think grammar and punctuation are not important.

Someone else will fix that.  They even expect me - the teacher - to copy edit their work.  Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking.  *hits head against desk*

I should really put this under the 'baffling' category.  If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words;  our most important tools are grammar, punctuation and diction.  How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?

4.  The Hunger Games clone.

I can't tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I'm picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.

What I'm really talking about here is  the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can't come up with a new way to say things.  Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven't seen before.

There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For me, it's the 'harvesting organs' plot.  Almost every class I've taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs.  It's been done, I tell them.  I can't think of a new angle that hasn't been done and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please, leave the poor organs where they are.

THE BAFFLING

5.  The Preachers:  Students who really want to teach other people lessons.

And that's all they want to do.  Akin to the memoir, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycle.  Or the evils of eating meat.

Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better.  She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and they being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself) it would get her message across.

All noble.  But the problem is:  people read fiction to be entertained.  They don't want to be lectured.  If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Maybe a PR one.  Or here's a novel <sic> idea: become a teacher.

6.  Literary Snowflakes - Students who ignore publisher guidelines.

"A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words?  Well my book is 150,000, and I don't need to worry about that because they will love it.  Too bad if it doesn't fit their print run and genre guidelines.  They'll make an exception for me."

I don't want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes - maybe I should come clean.  I come from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.  'Special' wasn't a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.

Thing is, these students don't believe me.  They simply don't believe that they can't write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I'm breaking their hearts when I tell them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.

7.  Students who set out to deliberately break the rules in order to become famous.

There are many ways to tell a story.  We have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don't want to break them.  The we discuss why you might WANT to break them.  Apparently this isn't enough.  *sobs into sleeve*

I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  "To hell with the readers.  I'll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen!  No one will have seen anything like it before.  They will think I'm brilliant."

Never mind that the prose is unreadable.  Or that we don't have a clear protagonist, and thus don't know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can't they?

8.  Students who come to class every week but don't write anything.

They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term.  Not only that, this isn't the first fiction writing class they've taken. They specialize in writers' workshops and retreats.

It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers.  They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work - hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be fun.  Especially when done in a social environment with other people.

THE 'I COULDN'T MAKE THIS UP'

9.  Other writing teachers who take our classes to steal material for their own classes and workshops. *removes gun from stocking*

Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean about this.  By class seven, he hadn't done any of the assignments and admitted he was collecting material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught.  I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

10.  Students who don't read.

This is the one that gets me the most.  Last term I did a survey.  I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn't have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here's the tally of number of books read:

Highest number by one person:  26

Lowest number by one person:  0-1

Average:  7

Yup, I'm still shaking my head over that low.  He couldn't remember if he'd actually read a book or not.  (How can you not KNOW?)

And these people want to be writers.  *collective groan*

To be clear here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before bed and have done so for years.  That's seven hours a week, assuming I don't sneak other time to read.  Two books a week.  And that doesn't include the hours I spend reading student manuscripts over three terms.


If reading isn't your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to??


FINAL THOUGHTS

Here's what I've learned:  Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college credit course.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.

There is no greater high.

Melodie Campbell writes capers in between marking assignments.  Or maybe to avoid marking.
The B-Team is her latest.  You can get it at all the usual suspects.

on AMAZON





28 April 2018

When is a Mystery not a Mystery?


Homeless. Not me, luckily. I still have four walls and a roof plus dog on the couch. But my kick-ass story, A Ship Called Pandora, that had a wonderful future and clear economic security is now homeless.

The genres are tricky things. If I write a mystery and set it in the past, it’s considered a historical mystery. So, if we are classifying it, we would call it a Mystery first, and then Historical, as a subgenre of mystery genre. Everyone’s happy.

But what if I set it in the future?

This is exactly what has happened to me recently. For the very first time, I was asked to write a crime story for an anthology, without going through the usual submission process. The anthology had the delightful premise: anything goes. That is, I could write any subgenre, and set it anywhere, anytime. *rubs hands in delight*

A particular story had been percolating in my brain for weeks, pounding to get out. My friends and readers know that I like writing from the other side of the crime spectrum. In The Goddaughter series, I write from the point of view of a mob Goddaughter who really doesn’t want to be one, but keeps having to pull off heists to bail out her family. The books are fun, and weirdly, justice is done by the end, regardless of her family connections.

So this new story was going to feature a kick-ass female marshal from the witness protection program. Her job is to arrange the ‘hide’ after someone has testified in court. Thing is, the transportation is by space travel, because the plot is set far in the future.

I sent it to the anthology editors. They loved it. One of my best twists ever, they said. They liked the fact that it was hard-edged – unusual for me. I breathed a sigh of relief. And then two months later, they came back. The publisher was having second thoughts. He thought the science fiction setting would not be a good fit for a mystery anthology. *author reaches for gun*

So they asked if they could reprint one of my award-winning stories instead. I gave them a favourite (Hook, Line and Sinker) that was also hard-edged. This is the one that had me sharing a literary shortlist with Margaret Atwood (Atwood won.) It would have a second life, which is always nice.
Meanwhile, I had this story on my hands, one that everyone loved, written especially for an anthology, that was now homeless. *pass the scotch*

This was the time of Bouchercon 2017 in Toronto. I was hanging with the AHMM gang, who were recording me reading my own work, Santa Baby, for a podcast to go up on their site. (It’s there now *does happy dance*) So I asked if they would be interested in reading it.

Sure, was the answer. Sometimes they publish stories set in the near future. I didn’t think this one would qualify. I was right.

They didn’t take it. But they did suggest sending it to their sister Dell mag, Asimov’s Science Fiction Mag.  I might. But I'd rather have a mystery market.

My point is this: Usually, we classify a story as a mystery if the plot is a mystery. The setting comes second. A historical mystery is still classified as a mystery. A mystery with a strong romance element is still a mystery if the plot is a mystery plot. But in the case of a future setting, it doesn’t matter what the plot is. The setting is key to the classification.

I probed a bit among my author contacts. One said that he had written a series billed as sci-fi mystery, and this was his baffling and witty conclusion: he managed to alienate the mystery readers, and confuse the sci-fi readers. Sales were a lot better when they reclassified the thing as sci-fi only

So to answer that initial question: When Is a Mystery not a Mystery? When it’s set in the future.

What about you? Have you come across this before? Any suggestions?

UPDATE:   The intrepid editors at Mystery Weekly Magazine say they love A Ship Called Pandora.  It comes out soon. 

CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
on AMAZON


Here's another fun scifi crossgenre book: CODE NAME: GYPSY MOTH
It isn't easy being a female barkeep in the final frontier… especially when you're also a spy!
(Good thing I had a traditional publisher for this one. Because I have NO IDEA where to promote this.)

28 November 2017

The Intersection of Plotting and Cursing
– Rated R for Language


"Oh fuck. I miscounted."
That was the essence of a text message I sent a few minutes ago, upon being reminded that my next SleuthSayers post was supposed to be uploaded in the next hour and forty-five minutes. I had thought I was scheduled for next Tuesday, not for tomorrow.

My cursing amused my dear friend Leigh, who had sent the friendly reminder. And it made me think a few things, first being how one phrase could be used in so many situations and as the starting point of so many stories:

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," Jessica said, holding up the positive pregnancy stick. This is the conflict from which a thriller is born in which Jessica goes on the run, determined to raise her child free from the murderous gang her boyfriend is a part of.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the attorney who put a decimal in the wrong place, and now had to notify a client that he screwed up some documents, costing the client millions. This is the conflict that results in the attorney realizing that if he's going to be disbarred and have his life ruined, he might as well make the best of it, so he steals all his clients' money and goes on the run. That's another thriller.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the hit man when he ran out of bullets. This is the conflict that prompts a thriller in which a hit man is sent after a hit man for failure to get the original job done right. (Wait, a hit man sent after another hit man who screwed up--that's the basis for Grosse Point Blank. Great movie. But I digress. ...)

These are all interesting premises, but they're also all thrillers. Couldn't the phrase be used in other types of crime novels? Especially if it's part of the story, not the source of the originating conflict? Let's see ...

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the thief to his partner, hoping the guy bought the story of why the bank job proceeds hadn't been split evenly.  Damn, that's another thriller.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the cop on the witness stand, revealing he screwed up his review of some evidence thus tanking the case, making the prosecutor wonder if the cop is on the take. This could be a legal thriller. Damn, there's the word thriller again. But it's a legal thriller, so it's a bit different.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the PI upon realizing he'd been videotaping the goings on in an apartment on the third floor of a building instead of the fourth all day, and as a result he'd missed the payoff he'd been hired to document. Okay, this is better. A PI novel isn't necessarily a thriller.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the burglar after he'd broken three fingers, two toes, and one tooth in his quest to steal an expensive ring, only to realize after he made it home that he'd grabbed the wrong ring and would have to do the job again. Now we're getting somewhere. This could be a caper.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the gray-haired grandma, explaining how she'd made eight salads for her house guests, seven with peanut dressing and one oil and vinegar, but had accidentally set the wrong salad down in front of the guest with the fatal allergy. Oops.  I'm tempted to say this could be a cozy, but the fuck throws the book into traditional mystery territory. Real-life grandmas might say fuck, but in cozy novels--nope. That's not gonna happen.

"Oh fuck. I miscounted," said the man when confronted with evidence of his bigamy, right before both his angry wives start kicking him in the ... I don't know what kind of book this is, but I know I want to read it.

Okay. That's nine solid plot ideas stemming from "Oh fuck. I miscounted." I wish I could come up with a tenth, but I have just a few minutes before I have to get this post uploaded, and I still have to figure out photos to go with it. Aaaah. So, what about you, dear reader? Can you come up with a solid tenth for me?  Bonus points if you can figure out how to work the phrase into a cozy.

07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds


We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

27 May 2017

If The Goddaughter moved to other Genres (a seriously non-serious post)


Last year at about this time, my publisher gave me a challenge.  “We want to try some women’s
fiction for the Rapid Reads line,” she said. "So I need a book from you by August."

Huh?  Me, the scribe of mob comedy, write Chicklit?  Romance?  Okay, can I make it funny, I asked?  Luckily they went thumbs up.  And so WORST DATE EVER comes out in September this year.

More on that later.  This column is about something else.

Point being, all this writing-out-of-genre got me thinking.  Crime has always been my thing.  I write about a mob goddaughter who doesn’t want to be one.  Her inept mob family never gets it right.   

What would happen if Gina Gallo, the original mob goddaughter, were to be dragged kicking and screaming out of crime, and plunked right down into another genre.  Or three.  So here goes.

Western:
(on a stage coach near you)

Gina:  “Please move over.  You’re taking up two seats.”

Bad guy Cowboy: “Hey little lady.  You can sit right here on my lap.  What’s a pretty little thing like you doing with that mighty big revolver, anyway?”

Gina (demonstrating):  <BLAM>

Cowboy drops to the floor.

Gothic Romance:
(in a seriously spooky old manor)

Fiendish male character, rubbing hands together:  “You’ll never escape me, my pretty.  Never!”

Gina (looking around): “Are you sure this isn’t a set for The Rocky Horror Picture Show?”

Fiend:  “Enough!  You’ll be my wife with or without the church.”

Gina (extracting knife beneath skirt): <THWOCK>

Fiend drops to the floor.

Literary:
(at a slam poetry evening)

Male Poet:  “Stop.Cry.Laugh.Love not war.Peace not profit.Climate change.Capitalists.Love crimes.War crimes.Killing oceans.Killing whales.Every other clich√© you can think of.Pain.I’m in pain.A pain so great.

Gina: <BLAM>

Poet is out of pain, and so is everyone else.

To be continued…(or not, if someone takes out the writer first)

Just released!  THE BOOTLEGGER’S GODDAUGHTER, book 5 in The Goddaughter series
“…the work of an author at the absolute top of her game” Don Graves, Canadian Mystery Reviews



On Amazon

23 March 2017

Cliffhangers


by Rob Lopresti

This appeared on a different blog seven years ago and was one of my most popular pieces.   I figured many of you haven't read it and the rest have forgotten it, so....

LOOK OUT!
 
Don’t you see that car fishtailing up the road, barely staying on the pavement? It’s heading straight to the cliff, zooming like the brakes have been cut, and it seems that in just a few seconds it will crash to certain doom. We may have just enough time to figure out what kind of a novel we are in …

If the driver is the local aristocrat that everyone in the village hates and has reason to kill, this is a cosy.

If the driver is a young punk who has just realized, too late, that the beautiful woman he slept with last night had no intention of sharing the dough with him, this is a noir.

But if that punk has in his pocket a compromising photo that implicates a millionaire’s daughter in a vicious murder, we’re in a hard-boiled.

If the driver and passenger are currently engaged in an activity that might feature in a compromising photo, this could be pornography. The Supreme Court will know it when they see it.

If the driver is in a mad rush to get Scruffy to the vet, and Scruffy will eventually have to drag his master out of the burning wreck with his two remaining teeth, this is a dog novel.

If the driver, nursing deep scratches on both arms, is steering with one hand while trying to stuff poor kidnapped Mitzi back into the carrier case, this is a cat mystery.

If the driver is attempting suicide because he just discovered (on the day he got his license!) that his sexy driver’s ed teacher was only pretending to like him to get the attention of the hateful football coach, this is a coming-of-age novel.

None of the above.
If the driver is scrabbling at the door handle, clawing at it with both hands in a desperate attempt to throw himself out before it’s too late, this is a suspense novel.

If he took the wrong road because he just heard his wife being interviewed on the radio, and he thought she died in South America ten years before, it is psychological suspense.

If the handsome young man races up in a jeep at the last moment to pull the beautiful driver out the car, it’s a romance.

But if she realizes that that handsome young man had been tinkering with the car just before she got in it and she has to decide right now whether she trusts him or not, this is romantic suspense.

If the only one who had the chance to tamper with the brakes was the handsome young man’s insane mother, it’s a gothic.

If the car is being chased by a crack squad of militant monks because the driver is in possession of the only extant copy of the Perth Amboy Codex, an ancient manuscript that claims St. Paul was a woman, this is a religious thriller.

If the car is being chased by a tank, it’s is a war novel.

But if the tank is full of Confederate soldiers, this is alternate history fiction.

And now the car is flying off the cliff…

If the driver, an elderly Byelorussian, uses his last strength to toss from the car a blurry photograph with the words “Storm Captain, Morocco” scribbled on the back, this is an espionage novel.

But if, on the other hand, the driver, a handsome man with a ruthless expression and an ironic smile, jumps out the window and, by pressing the right lapel on his tuxedo, turns his pocket handkerchief into a fully-functional parachute, then this is a spy novel.

If the car suddenly emits a pale green light and takes straight off into the sky, it’s science fiction.

If little Maisy in the back seat prays really hard and the car lands, unharmed, in a tree, this is inspirational fiction.

If the driver manages to scrabble out to safety but the car, weighted down by a trunkful of gold bullion, sinks forever into the swamp, it’s a caper novel.

If that same driver lands safely in a pile of pig manure, it’s a comic caper novel.

Attribution below.
After the crash …

If the brake cable was sliced exactly 17 centimeters from the pedal with an Entwhistle Model 22K cable cutter, which is sold only by three hardware stores in the northeast, this is a police procedural.

If the car crashed because of a design flaw which only one engineer in the whole world can detect, and he is a drunken has-been, living on hand-outs from the company that made the mistake in the first place, this is a legal thriller.

If the driver is found to have a temperature of 105 degrees, green splotches on his skin, and breath that smells like nutmeg and old firecrackers, we’re in a medical thriller, and I hope you had your shots.

If it turns out the driver, alone in the car with all doors locked and windows closed, was stabbed through the heart with a dagger which is not even in the car, this is a locked room mystery.

If it turns out the driver died for no reason and everyone spends the rest of the book feeling very, very sad about it, this is mainstream literature.

If the driver turns to ashes as the sun comes over the horizon, this is a vampire novel.

If the driver turns out to be the president’s best friend, who hasn’t been seen since the day after the election, it’s a political thriller.

If the driver’s sister discovers a tragic secret in the wreckage, and has to decide whether to share it with the family, this is women’s fiction.

If the driver got the heel of her Manolo Blahnik caught in the gas pedal, this is chick lit.

If there is no driver, it’s a ghost story.

If the trunk contained forty-seven jars of homemade jelly which were intended for a tasting at the new gourmet food store in town, this is a novel with an amateur detective.

If this is the fifth car to zoom over a cliff in the last two years, it’s a serial killer novel.

If the pulverized remains of the murdered driver meld with the shattered remnants of the ruined auto and together they go in search of vengeance, this is a horror novel.

If, on closer examination, the car turns out to be a Conestoga wagon pulled by a team of horses, this is a western.

If the Conestoga wagon was pulled by a team of llamas, this is a very badly researched western.

If the car bounces, it’s fantasy.

Did I miss any?

Photo: By Matchstik (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

30 January 2016

Short and Long, Light and Dark


The title of my column sounds like I'm talking about days, doesn't it--or maybe types of ribs or chicken. What I'm referring to are the stories we fiction writers dream up, put on paper, submit to markets, and (occasionally) get published. Their sizes vary from flash to novella-length, and their moods are everything from Walter Mitty to "The Lottery." For some reason, many of my writer friends these days (not necessarily my mystery-writer friends) seem to produce long and/or grim, somber stories--but others have focused on short, funny pieces. Still others bounce around from short to long and from easygoing to profound, dabbling a little in everything and specializing in nothing. I'm one of those people. As Joe Friday would say, deadpan of course, "That's my job."

Several days ago I received a pleasant surprise: I sold my 75th story to Woman's World. All the stories for that magazine--whether they're mysteries or romances--are both short and lighthearted. But the crazy thing is, most of the stories I've sold over the past few years have been neither short nor light. They're been longer, usually 4000 to 8000 words, and more serious. One of mine that's coming up this year in Akashic Books' Noir series is around ten thousand words, and heavy in mood as well as weight.

Why do I dream up stories that are so different from each other? I truly don't know. Maybe I suffer from the same thing as one of my old friends: he could never seem to hold a job, and his excuse was that he just never found one he was comfortable with. Maybe I'm still trying to figure out what I'm good at. (Besides ending half the sentences in my paragraphs with prepositions.)

Even crazier is the fact that I seem to get about the same enjoyment from writing/completing/selling a very short story and a very long story. The light/dark part is a little different--I like writing the occasional violent, gritty tale, but I absolutely LOVE writing humor. Even my longer, heavier fiction usually includes some comic, quirky elements because I can't seem to resist it.

Also, I think that fiddling around with different lengths and different subject matter keeps the whole writing process from becoming boring. I like knowing that I can finish a thousand-word, low-key, down-home, Aunt-Maude-and-Uncle-Billy kind of story one day, and the next day begin one about serial killers and mean streets and SWAT teams that might run fifty pages or more. It gives me a delicious sense of freedom.

When asked by the students in my classes, I usually say that I write in different genres. I also point out, though, that I've written far more mystery/crime/suspense stories than anything else. I think the reason is that I prefer reading that kind of story. But I also occasionally read Western or SF or horror or literary fiction, and I've written some of that as well. Once more, the variety makes it more fun for me, and keeps me from getting stuck (at least too deeply stuck) in a rut.


What I usually don't like is knowing that I have to write a particular kind of story. That mostly happens on the rare occasions when I'm fortunate enough to be invited to send a story to a genre-specific or themed anthology. Producing those kinds of stories isn't as easy for me as it seems to be for others. My ideas usually come unbidden, out of nowhere, and the resulting stories take shape on their own; they might result in a science fiction tale of 500 words or a Western of 2500 or a young-adult fantasy/adventure story of 5000 (which I just finished writing, and submitted yesterday). Plus, I'm not fond of externally-imposed deadlines--or, for that matter, deadlines of any kind. Don't get me wrong, though. When an opportunity presents itself, especially via a personal invitation from an editor, I'll do it. I'm always grateful, and I try to consider it a challenge rather than a chore, and I do my best to contribute a worthy entry.

The first of those "create-a-story-to-these-specs" projects happened to me ten years ago, and wound up being a lot of fun. An editor/publisher from Georgia named Tony Burton put together a 49-story antho called Seven by Seven, which consisted of seven different authors writing seven stories each about the Seven Deadly Sins. As I told Tony at the time, the only thing I remembered about the Seven Deadly Sins was the movie starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman--but I dutifully did my research and wrote my seven stories, as did the other six participants, one of whom was our own former SleuthSayer Deborah Elliott-Upton, and the book turned out well and sold well. Even if it hadn't, I would've been pleased, because I had a great time and met friends like Deborah and B.J. Bourg and Frank Zafiro and Gary Hoffman, friends I still keep in touch with. But--again--I'm usually more comfortable coming up with my own ideas for stories.

How do the rest of you feel, about this kind of thing? Do you gravitate toward shorter or longer pieces? Is your subject matter usually lighthearted or serious? Do you consciously inject a bit of humor into your fiction regardless of its length? Do you like to have some outside incentive to kick off your story ideas, or do they come to you quietly in the night? Do you regularly seek out "themed" anthologies to submit to? Do you write in one genre and stick to it, or branch out occasionally into others? Do you think it's better to specialize and develop a "brand"? Inquiring minds want to know.

Unfortunately, my SleuthSayers columns tend to run longer rather than shorter, so it's time to wrap this one up.

I wish you short workdays, long vacations, light hearts, dark chocolate, and good writing.

13 January 2016

Seven Killings


A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, by the Jamaican writer Marlon James, came out in 2014, and won the Man Booker the following year. It isn't a mystery or a thriller, not exactly, but then again, neither is THE GREAT GATSBY. What it is, is a dark meditation, lit from below.

First off, we're talking about Kingston, which is of course one tough town, and we start by going back more than forty years, to December 1976 and the attempted murder of Bob Marley. In this telling, it's very much political, a war between two Kingston ganglords who've been bought off by each of the major parties, and a proxy fight over the next election. Marley's headlining a free concert, advertised as a peace overture, but widely seen as support for the government in power, and that this is a spoils system goes without saying. The police are corrupt, everybody feeds at the trough, devil take the hindmost.



"This is the first mistake God make. Time. God was a fool to create time. It's the one thing that even he run out of." SEVEN KILLINGS covers quite a lot of time, actually, but there's a disquieting sense that time is static, and inertia (or entropy) is the only gravitational force. This in spite of the attrition rate, and the turnover in senior management, with gangs cranking up the firepower, and killing each other off. It's not like we notice measurable improvement in the quality of life.


The story's told in many voices, most of them Jamaican, but a couple of outliers - the local CIA station chief, a rock groupie from Rolling Stone. One device is to have somebody speaking to us from beyond the grave, but that doesn't necessarily make them any the wiser. Each of these voices is individual, none of them are omniscient, Everybody takes it personally and nobody pulls back from the tight close-up, which is claustrophobic. Then again, it's total immersion. Like traffic slowing for an accident scene, you can't look away.

The use of dialect is supposedly a deal-breaker. So is using real people or actual historic situations in a fictional medium. The argument being that it removes a barrier, and the author's own voice intrudes, which spoils the illusion. You're being shown the mechanics, the levers and pulleys, you're made aware that the narrative isn't seamless, that in fact it's been constructed, built out of air. Both reader and writer agree to a pretense that the story has a life apart, and if the reader stubs his or her toe on the writer's building materials, it shakes their confidence. I see the point, but I don't entirely agree. It depends what kind of story you're telling. In the case of SEVEN KILLINGS, it's not so much that it depends on suspension of disbelief as that you're persuaded by the last voice you hear, and you soon realize that all the narrators are unreliable - which could mean the author's voice, as well. This is quite the tightrope walk. How the guy keeps his balance is what creates surface tension.



One other note. This isn't a novel that 'transcends' genre, whatever that's supposed to mean. It's a book that uses generic conventions in vigorous and unsettling ways. I've never really subscribed to the idea of low culture or high - most basically literate people know the difference between good stuff and crap, what Chesterton calls "printed matter." That being said, SEVEN KILLINGS is violent and coarse. There's nothing shy about the language. Women are manhandled with disturbingly commonplace contempt. The context is Darwinian. It adds up to a familiar noir world, although one which happens not to be invented. At least not for dramatic purposes, or a convenient shorthand. It's a world of brute force. If not the world most of us would choose to live in, it is the world many people have no choice but to live in. It isn't metaphor, or literary convention. There's no agreement to keep faith, or suspend disbelief. Human voices wake us.