Showing posts with label readers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label readers. Show all posts

23 February 2019

ENDINGS: You Must Satisfy the Reader!


By Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

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

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

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

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

ENDING EXPECTATIONS IN THE GENRES:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On AMAZON



06 August 2018

Show Time!


by Steve Liskow

About a month ago, I joined eighteen other writers from Sisters in Crime (two others were men, too--we've learned not to call ourselves "male members") at the University of Connecticut branch of Barnes & Noble.

I've been trying to crack Barnes & Noble's resistance to self-published authors for several years, so I would have joined this event in any case, but there were a few planning glitches, probably because this particular store is quite new and the staff probably hasn't done anything of this scale before.

Obviously, getting 19 writers from three states together demands a weekend slot, but with a perfect beach day and thousands of people protesting the current administration's immigration policy only blocks away, I'm not sure we saw a dozen patrons in the three hours we were there. The store wanted us to introduce ourselves and read from our works, taking fifteen minutes each. That's 45 minutes longer than the event was scheduled to run. We convinced the store that five minutes each was better, and I cut my own slot to three minutes by explaining where I got the idea for my newest book, reading the cover blurb, and sitting down. I sold two books that day, and I'm not sure anyone sold more than that.

Everyone either learned or confirmed something from the experience.

I participate in three types of author events.

The mass author bash like the one above is my least favorite. If you put a lot of genre writers together, they nullify each other and nobody sells much. The readers have trouble keeping the writers straight, too, so they don't really connect with anyone, and that's the whole reason I do any event: to make friends with my potential readers.

When the day turns into a carnival, it's hard to remember that you're selling yourself more than you're selling your books. If people like you, they're more apt to buy your books, so I chat with as many  as I can. I bring lots of flyers, bookmarks, and business cards to plug my editing and workshops and make sure my roller ball has a fresh blue cartridge for signing copies. Swag is advertising, the sales pitch I don't have to make out loud.

In two weeks, I'll join four other Connecticut writers on a panel, but we represent cozy, historical, PI, and suspense stories so we don't get in each others' way. The library is beautiful and the staff is worth their weight in uncut cocaine. Unless we get a cloudburst (which happened two years ago), we'll have an enthusiastic audience full of thoughtful questions. We may even sell a few books on the spot. We'll certainly sell some in the aftermath.

Next month, I'll do a local author fair as a fund-raiser for another local library, and they do it up big. They charge a solid admission fee so the people are already prepared to spend money. The evening event features catering from an excellent local restaurant so patrons (and authors) get fed. They also have a cash bar, which seems to stimulate sales (heh-heh-heh). Two years ago, I shared a table with a former student who had a self-help book for sale, and we traded war stories between chats with friends of the library. Best writer's fair I've attended.

The second type of event, which I like marginally more, is the single-author appearance. Sinclair Lewis said that audiences attend events like this to see if the author is funnier in person than he is to read. After 35 years of teaching and community theater, I can do stand-up, but no matter how clearly (or not) the venue promotes you, half the people are upset to discover that you don't write poetry, history, memoir, romance, or cook books, or whatever their favorite happens to be.

I don't like reading from my books either, brilliant as they are and scintillating as I am in person. I prepare passages of about five minutes each, cutting as much description and exposition as I can so they're heavy on action and dialogue, but reading puts the pages between you and your audience. I'd rather take lots of questions and turn the event into a big conversation. Naturally, I bring all the Fabulous Parting Gifts to these events, too.

Workshops rock. They satisfy my teaching jones, they give me money whether I sell books or not, and people tend to talk them up to their aspiring writer friends...and come back for more.

I used to conduct workshops in several libraries around central Connecticut, but library budgets have been slashed over the last few years, so now I do smaller venues that support writing groups. Instead of a flat fee, the venue charges an admission price to each participant and we split. The groups are smaller, but that means everyone gets a chance to ask questions.

Sure, there's some prep involved. I load my workshops with hand-outs and make sure the venue has an easel or dry marker board (I can bring one if necessary). I make a point of including an unsigned evaluation form in the handouts so the participants can turn it in to the venue. That way, I get recommendations and ideas for improvements...or even new programs.

I never sell books directly. I sell myself. If people like me, they're more apt to buy a book, and they're even more likely to buy if they receive something in return (writing instruction). Generally, I sell more books at workshops than at a panel or reading (the fund-raiser I mentioned above is an exception). It used to be that I'd sell a book for every six people at a reading or panel and one
for every three people at a workshop. Both those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, but I seem to sell more eBooks in the few weeks after an event than before.

How do you feel about events? Are your results different from mine?

19 June 2018

Yesterday and Today


by Paul D. Marks

Yesterday was Paul McCartney’s birthday and I was going to do a post related to the Beatles, writing and me. But when I found out that the next three days will be posts from the three editors at Dell Magazines,  Janet Hutchings, Linda Landrigan and Jackie Sherbow (in alphabetical order) I thought I’d do a little lead into that. I’ve met all three on various occasions and broken bread with them and they’re all terrific. So, I hope no one minds that I revisit our trip to NYC in April, 2017 where we got to hang with them.

Amy and I got to meet Janet and Linda at Bouchercons in Raleigh and Long Beach. And when we went to NYC last year we got to meet up with them again and also meet Jackie Sherbow in person. So, in honor of these editors’ posts coming up, I hope you don’t mind if I rerun my post from a little over a year ago. Hey, the TV networks do it. So here’s a revisit to that wonderful trip.

From L to R around the table: Janet Hutchings, me, Eve Allyn, Doug Allyn, Jackie Sherbow, Linda Landrigan

***

New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town. The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down. Or is it the other way around? Amy (the wife) and I recently spent a week in New York City and I’m still not sure.  (Well, I am, but it plays better the other way.) And now the legally required disclaimer: I wrote about this trip for another blog a few weeks ago as my last slot for SleuthSayers was the family blog post that Amy did. So I didn’t have a chance to talk about our trip here. But it was writing-related and so great and so much fun I wanted to share a slightly revised version with SleuthSayers too.

Grand Central Terminal and the Chrysler Building
The trip came up very unexpectedly when I got an e-mail from Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, telling me that my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill had won the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll and inviting us to come to the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards ceremony, as well as to be their guests at the Edgar Awards. I think I was in disbelief for several days, so we made no plans to head to New York…until the wonderful reality actually sunk in and we headed off to The Big Apple from The Big Sour, I mean, Big Orange.

We booked out on Jet Blue because we heard about their great on-time record. We got lucky—they were late both coming and going. I guess someone has to be the exception to the rule.

The week was a whirlwind of adventures and some sightseeing, much of it filled up with literary events. We arrived Monday night and since the hotel is next door to Grand Central Terminal we decided to check it out and have dinner at the famous Oyster Bar. Talk about a cool place. Then we walked around the neighborhood near the hotel late into the night.

On Tuesday we went to the Ellery Queen offices for tea with Janet and Linda Landrigan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and Jackie Sherbow, senior assistant editor for both EQMM and AHMM. Also there were Doug Allyn and his wife, Eve. Doug’s stories came in #2 and 3 in this year’s poll. But he’s been #1 11 times. I think it will be a long time before anyone can top that!

From L to R: Jackie Sherbow, Doug Allyn, Linda Landrigan,
Janet Hutchings, me

Everyone was very gracious. And it was good to talk with Janet again and Linda, who I’d met briefly before. And to meet Jackie for the first time in person, but who I’ve had a lot of correspondence with.
Me and Jackie Sherbow
After the afternoon tea, Jackie very graciously offered to be our guide on the subway, something I really wanted to do. So we subwayed to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop for a gathering of Edgar nominees, authors, publishers and more (I think we fell into the “more” category, though now that I think about it I guess I’m an author too). It was crowded, it was fun. It was great to see the famous bookstore. And to meet Otto Penzler himself. And to see some people I know, including Edgar nominee Jim Ziskin and many others. And Doug Allyn was kind enough to introduce me to several people.


In the subway: L to R me, Eve Allyn,
Doug Allyn and Amy

After the party at the Mysterious Bookshop, Jackie was once again our subway guide, taking us to a real New York pizza place that she likes. So she, Doug and Eve, and Amy and I, braved the rain to get to the subway and then the pizza place. And in a scene that could have been out of a Woody Allen movie, we stepped just inside a local market to get out of the rain for a few minutes. I was waiting for the “nasty” New Yorkers to kick us out, but nobody was nasty and nobody kicked us out. Eve grabbed some plastic bags from the produce section to cover our heads and we ventured back out into the rain. We still got soaked by the time we made it to the pizza place. But the pizza was good and it was all worth it. After dinner, Jackie headed home. Doug and Eve, Amy and I took a cab back to the hotel. And this was the one loquacious cabby we had the whole time we were in New York and he was a riot. When we were just about at the hotel he nudged through a crosswalk and some guy in the walk started yelling at him, challenging him to a fight. Now we felt like we were in New York.

Jackie guiding us through the subway.
Wednesday we had a free day, so we played tourists (which we were). Lots of other tourists all around us. We did a tour of Grand Central Terminal, which was right next to the Grand Hyatt Hotel where we were staying and where the Edgars would be held the following evening. (On the other side of the hotel was the Chrysler Building, which we had a view of from our window. Now that’s pretty cool to be sandwiched between the Chrysler Building and Grand Central. During our tour we had another “New York” experience when some jerk called the tour guide a “dirty scumbag” and neither she nor any of us on the tour could figure out why or what she’d done. But despite that, most everyone was really friendly and nice and we had no problems with anyone.


Grand Central Terminal
After our tour of Grand Central we followed Clint Eastwood’s “Speed Zoo” example from the movie True Crime, where he jams his kid through the zoo at the speed of sound, and did “Speed New York.” We bought tickets for the hop on-hop off buses—buses where you can get on at one location and off at the next, hang out, then get back on and go to the next location. This way we saw a lot of the city in one day. Everything from the Empire State Building to the Flat Iron and various neighborhoods. We also hopped onto the Staten Island Ferry. From there we could see the Statue of Liberty. We ended the day in Rockefeller Center and then Times Square and dinner in a pretty good Italian restaurant off Times Square. Our meal was served family style—and being only 2 people we ended up with enough left over to feed everyone in Times Square.

The next day was the Ellery Queen cocktail party and awards, held at a specialized library not too far from the hotel. And it was a truly terrific experience. But the best part (besides picking up the award of course 😉) was being able to meet people in person that I know online but hadn’t met for one reason or another. Fellow SleuthSayer David Dean. Tom Savage. Dave Zeltserman, who published some of my stories early on in his HardLuck Stories magazine, and whose Small Crimes was just made into a movie on Netflix that released recently, so check it out. Besides hanging with Janet, Linda and Jackie, we also got to hang with Doug and Eve Allyn again, both of whom were great to hang with.
Me and Doug Allyn at the Ellery Queen cocktail party.

And, of course, it was more than a thrill to win the award!

Me receiving the Award.
And then it was off to the Edgars that evening. Very exciting. And all was going well, I even liked the food (and who likes the food at these things?), until the Master of Ceremonies, Jeffrey Deaver, stumbled and then fainted on the stage while doing some introductions. That was scary. Luckily he was okay, though whisked off to the hospital to make sure it was nothing serious. I believe tests showed that it wasn’t—hope so.

That’s the litany, now for the real deal: While we loved New York and all of the events, the best part of anything like this, Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, etc., is the people. The community of mystery writers is a very warm, very supportive group. And, as I’ve mentioned, it was great to see old friends and also meet new people. We saw Jim Ziskin and Catriona McPherson, and had a nice chat with both of them. Met Otto Penzler. And it was good to meet Sam Reaves, Dave Zeltserman and too many others to name here. And great to spend time with Janet, Linda and Jackie.

Amy and Jackie at the Edgars.
New York has a bad rep in some ways and people who know me thought I’d hate it (as I haven’t been there in years…decades). I loved it. I loved the crowds. I loved the energy. I loved the writing community. I loved this whole unexpected trip. And I’m more than appreciative to Janet Hutchings for publishing Ghosts of Bunker Hill and taking a chance on my first story for Ellery Queen, Howling at the Moon (which, by the way, made it to #7 in the Ellery Queen Readers Poll). And to Linda Landrigan for publishing my story Twelve Angry Days in the current (May/June 2017) issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. And to Jackie for everything she does to keep the wheels turning. And last but certainly not least to the people who voted for Ghosts of Bunker Hill and made it #1.

***



Look for Past is Prologue and Fade Out on Bunker Hill (a Howard Hamm story) in upcoming issues of AHMM and EQMM, respectively.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

And some good news: My story “Windward,” from Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer & me) is nominated for a Macavity Award for Best Short Story. Our own Art Taylor’s story, “A Necessary Ingredient,” and Matt Coyle’s story, “The #2 Pencil,” also from Coast to Coast are also nominated. Congratulations Art and Matt! And I’m truly thrilled at how much recognition our little anthology is receiving. It’s very rewarding. And thanks to all who contributed and everyone who voted for these stories!




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

06 May 2017

Two out of Fifteen–So Far


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eight in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by John M. Floyd

I've enjoyed reading, over the past week, about the families of my fellow SleuthSayers, and especially about the talent (and love of) writing that exists among their family members.

As for my own crew, here's some background. Our immediate family has now grown to 15, not counting my mother, and it's a number that doesn't sound all that big until we all get together (usually every June for a summer outing and every Christmas for a one-to-two-week gathering at our home in Mississippi). Then it's quickly obvious how much larger and younger and louder our group has become.


For anyone who's interested, my wife Carolyn and I have three grown kids and seven blue-eyed grandchildren. Our son Michael is a chemical engineer with DuPont in Parkersburg, West Virginia; he and his wife Jennifer (also a chem. e. and currently a stay-at-home mom) have three children: Lily (11), Anna (9), and Gabriel (6). David, our second son, is a physician at St. Dominic's Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi; he and his wife Jamie (also a doctor, and currently a stay-at-home mother and aerobics instructor) have two kids: Charlie (9) and Susannah (7). Karen, our youngest child, is also a stay-at-home mom, and a former music teacher at a local elementary school; she and her husband Collin Berger (a computer technician) live in Pearl, Mississippi, and have two kiddos: Richard (4) and Julia (1). My wife and I feel extremely fortunate that we have two of our three children and four of our seven grandkids living nearby and that we're able to have all fifteen of our family together at least twice a year. (We're also thankful for FaceTime--as we used to be for Skype.)

I'm always reminded, any time I think of family, of two old sayings. One is "The offspring done sprung higher than them they sprung off of" (which in my case is certainly true) and the other is "By the time the rich man has enough money to afford children, the fool has enough kids to support him." I especially like that second one. Now, if they'll only support me . . .

As for writers and writing--so far, although several of our brood have done some technical and professional writing, only one (besides me) has shown much interest in creating fiction. That's our granddaughter Susannah--on the left in the photo below, taken last Christmas--who'll be eight years old next month. She's an avid reader, especially of series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and likes to write fantasy stories and tales that involve animals of any kind. (Her people-doctor parents already suspect that they might be raising a veterinarian.) Currently Susannah is collaborating with a school friend, and together they've written several stories that I think have turned out really well. At that age I was probably still trying to learn how to tie my shoes.


So that's it, for the Floyds. One final point: although not many of us are writers, I'm very pleased to say that all of us--even my mom, who's 90--are readers.

That's the important thing. Right?

27 February 2017

Lockhart Texas Book Club


by Jan Grape

This past Friday, the 24th I was invited by my Sister-in Crimes friend, of over 20 years Janet Christian, to be the guest of honor at the Irving Book Club in Lockhart, Texas. The Irving Book Club, named after Washington Irving is the second oldest according to the Federation of Women's clubs, formed in 1896.  Lockhart is known as the BBQ capitol of TX but, that is disputed by several other Texas towns. Lockhart is also one of Austin's bedroom communities, thirty miles south and slightly east. Since I live 45 miles west and slightly north, it was a 78 mile drive one-way. (I know that's 3 miles short but I'm going by map mileage here and not actual driven miles.)

The book club meets in the Dr. Eugene Clark Library which has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating library in the state, founded in 1899. The members of the club brought finger foods including desserts, everything homemade. Many of the members wear hats and you are immediately reminded of the hats on display at the Kentucky derby. I have a Cowgirl hat and a black and a red hat that are sort of fedoras, Private-Eye style but, the weather was too hot for any of those.  I searched my closet shelves and found a lovely hat box with three hats inside that I had forgotten about. The hatbox and the hats I had inherited from my bonus mom and the one I picked was a black mini-pill box hat with a veil. It more or less sits right on the top of your head. You can pull the veil down but that didn't work for me. I pulled the veil to the back and only a small part shows on front and side.

I had fun talking about how I first starting writing and sold my first short story for $100 and how I'm so glad I didn't quit my day job because I didn't sell anything else for 5 years. Also how I was writing a female private-eye novel that never sold but, I sold probably 12-15 short stories with the characters, Jenny Gordon and C.J. Gunn and likely made more with those that I ever would have with the novel.

Also told about how I took Citizen's Police Academy Training that was offered by the Austin Police Department which was set up to help folks who were interested in being part of the Neighborhood Watch Program. I applied for the program and was accepted. It was set up once a week for three hours, meeting for ten weeks and you learned a lot about each department of APD. Homicide, Robbery, Fraud, Firearms, and we got to ride along for a full shift in a patrol car with an officer. That's when I realized that every single call the police answered could turn-out to be dangerous. This was in the early 90s when police officers weren't being slain very often...at least not in Austin.

One fun thing after the ten weeks training we could join the Alumni Association and we could go out to the academy where the cadets were training and got to role-play and be a bad guy. Once I played a lady who had a warrant out for her arrest. The training officer who was watching the role-play had told me when the female cadet arrested me he wanted me to be rude to her, call her names and try do things to make her angry. The idea being that each cadet needed to learn to deal with a belligerent public and he wanted to see how she'd react. So when the cadet put the handcuffs on me, I cursed her up one side and down the other. I called her every name in the book. The only time in my life I got to cuss out a cop and get away with it. Then I told her the handcuffs were too tight. She finally loosened them one notch. Then put me in the squad car. I have small hand and wrists so I was able to slip the cuffs off. When they came to let me out of the police car I handed the cuffs to them. The cadets were not supposed to talk to each other but they did. All the remainder of the day, cadets put the handcuffs on so tight that everyone would have been mad at me if they had known it was my fault.

My next story was how while I was taking the Citizen's Police Academy training this woman named Zoe Barrow started talking to me in my head. Voices in my head happens to me all the time and the astonishing thing is no one calls the men in the little white coats to come after me. Zoe (rhymes with Joe) turned out to be an Austin Police woman and is the main character in my first book, Austin City Blue. In my second novel, Dark Blue Death the first chapter is almost word for word of a role-play scene out at the Academy. I was in a vehicle with a Training Officer and two cadets were out side. One on the driver's side and one on the passenger side...my side. They both stood back a bit from the vehicle. I could see the driver side cadet in the rear view mirror. When the training officer was asked for her name and phone number, she gave her name and then her phone number as 1-800-GOODSEX.  I could see the cadet trying to contain his laughter and almost choking.

The training officer had suggested I get out of the car and see what the cadet on my side would do. I opened the door and started to get out, the cadet says, "Ma'am, please stop. Police get back in the car. Please ma'am." I said, "I have to go to the bathroom." She said, "Ma'am, you must get back into the car." I said, "I'm pregnant. If you don't let me go now, I'll pee all over this car seat." Like I said, the ladies of the Book Club were so attentive and laughed in all the right places. They asked interesting questions and everyone told me afterward how much they enjoyed my talk.

These events are a lot of fun for me and you get inspired because people who love to read are there listening to you. I LOVE READERS  


02 November 2016

Things I Did Not Say To My Taxi Driver At Five A.M.


by Robert Lopresti

When he found out that I was headed to the airport to fly to a librarian's conference the taxi driver informed me: "I haven't read a book all the way through since Hedy Lamarr when I was fifteen."

What I didn't reply:

"I pity you."

"There's a lot of good books out there."

"Not even Kant's Critique of Pure Reason?"

"Maybe you should give another one a shot.  Some people write better than Hedy Lamarr."

"You must be so proud."

"Personally, I only read the entrails of sacrificed goats."


"To each their own, I guess."

"The books haven't missed you at all."

"I'll be back in a week.  Drop by my house and I'll give you a free copy of one of my novels."

"So, how about that local sports team?"

"You like DVDs?  The public library lends them for free.  Music CDs too."

"Stop the car.  I'll walk."

"Did you know Hedy Lamarr was an inventor and one of her patents made the cell phone possible?  I read that in a book."

"So, who are you voting for?"

"There are dirtier memoirs by newer actresses, you know."

"No tip for you, bucko."

"You like any movies that are based on books?  A lot of the time the books are better."

"Do you think you're bragging?"

"I've been reading a book about not patronizing people."

"To each their own, I guess."

"Hey, that Hedy Lamarr was some broad, wasn't she?"

What I actually said to him:

Nothing.  Nothing at all.

14 June 2014

Evolution of a Reader


by Elizabeth Zelvin

The older I get, the pickier I get as a reader. Life is too short, and I'm too experienced a reader to waste my time on books I'm not enjoying. I admit that as a reader, I take full advantage of the lower prices of e-books. I still buy hardcovers of the few cherished authors I hope will keep their series going forever and the even fewer I trust to write a new series I'll love almost as much as the last. And if I attend a friend's book launch party, I buy the book. Otherwise, if I lose interest or get annoyed, that's it for me. I'll close the book, toss it in a box to be given away, or in rare instances, throw it across the room.

I can remember only one book that I actually chucked into the garbage. It was a battered paperback of a Robert Heinlein science fiction novel I'd never read before and picked up for 25 cents at the outdoor bargain table of a library in the Hamptons. I'll spare you the title, because I don't want anybody else to read it if they can possibly help it. It was written in 1982, so there's no excuse for the scene that made me dump it in with the chicken bones and coffee grounds: where the genetically engineered superwoman protagonist runs into one of the guys who gang-raped her earlier in the book, forgives him when he explains he only participated because he found her so sexy, and invites him to be part of her group marriage.

One aspect of my long experience as a mystery writer is that I can now see plot twists coming and unidentified villains lurking a mile away. This doesn't necessarily mean I'd be a good detective in real life. But I know crime fiction conventions, and as they say, there are only seven original plots. The unreliable narrator, the cross-dresser or transsexual, the dissociated identity because the character was molested as a child are all familiar ploys. When the detective, amateur or professional, mulls over the motives of every possible suspect but one, I know that one will turn out to be the killer.

Spotting the solution does not make me stop reading. It just makes me feel kind of clever. However, bad writing, flat characterization, and insipid dialogue do. I've found these in debut novels and highly touted bestsellers alike, just as I've found delightful characters and what a couple of my own reviewers, bless them, have called deft prose, all along the spectrum. I'm also looking for intelligent plotting, whether it's plausible detection in a puzzle or police procedural or actual suspense in a novel of suspense.

Nowadays I still read quite a bit of crime fiction, though a lot less than I used to. I read a little SF and fantasy, a very little literary fiction (I was a college English major and have done my time with those and the classics), and an occasional book that would qualify as romance. More and more of my reading in all these genres is historical fiction, which I've always liked, and which naturally interests me more since I started writing it myself. Whatever I read, the writing has to be top-notch and the stories character driven.

Here's the short list of authors by whom I don't want to miss a single book: At the top, Lois McMaster Bujold, Diana Gabaldon, Sharon Shinn, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Naomi Novik, Laurie R. King, Charlaine Harris, Michael Gruber. The late Reginald Hill was on that list as well. Second tier, Deborah Crombie, William Kent Krueger, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron. For their best-known series characters, I still read Marcia Muller, Dana Stabenow, and Nevada Barr. New to me in 2013, and good enough that I went back and got the earlier books and/or will definitely read the next one: Jane Casey, Linda Lee Peterson, and Anne Cleeland. Oh, and Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling: I can't wait for the sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling.

30 January 2012

Character Flaws


Jan Grapeby Jan Grape

How in the world can I make my characters believable? you ask. Well, maybe you didn't ask but I give you my thoughts anyway. Good believable characters have flaws. Okay, you already know that.  You've given your hero a chipped tooth and a crooked nose. That are some distinguishing characteristics that make him seem more human. But how about having him be emotionally flawed. (And I'm using the male pronoun here just so I want have to write he/she every time. This is only a matter of convenience...not to be gender specific.) He drinks or his wife died or he's about the lose his job. Something that many of us can relate to and feel as if we know that character.

You don't have to enumerate his good and bad points. Show that in your writing. If he drinks have him have too many drinks and fall down and mess up on what he needs to do.  Or show him trying to quit and going to AA meetings. If he's lost his wife surely he'll recall some good times with her or talk to her or visit her grave. Now losing his wife doesn't mean that's a character flaw but how he deals with that loss can show the flaws in him. Maybe he starts drinking because his wife died and he's about to lose his job because he drinks every night and comes to work hung over and messes up everything he tried to do.

Your imagination can be boundless here. How do you make that character come to life? Maybe you've had someone in your own family who drank and ruined their life. Maybe you used to drink yourself. Draw on whatever life experiences you can manage and if all else fails...go on a little research trip to your neighborhood bar and observe people. Surely you see or overhear someone who has had too much to drink.  Record in your mind how they act and then when you write about your character drinking you'll be able to lend an air of believability to those words.

Okay that was your hero.  How about your villain?  Well for one thing you don't want him to be a horrible, mean, hateful person.  Sure he's all set to be the killer in your book or story but everyone has good points as well as bad. He may seem on the outside to be a charming person liked by all. (I cringe when watching most TV crime/mystery shows because everyone close the victim who was murdered always says..."Everyone loved Mary. I know of no one who would want to kill her.) But your charming and probably good-looking villain is seething with greed or jealousy. Those are traits that you can show when he reacts with family or co-workers. Just a slight moment that gives you a clue to what could be inside his evil mind.

Even if your hero/heroine is flawed, you should somewhere along the line make them likable or endearing or your reader will decide it's not worth their time to read your book.  I have read books where the main character was harsh or spiteful and unlikable in the beginning, but I soon learned a reason why or something happened to make me understand them a little better and about half-way through the book, I realized I liked the character.

Personally, I sorta like to start out liking the main character. Whatever their plight or flaw I began to understand or relate to them quickly and that makes me want to keep reading about them. I think most readers feel like that too.

Be careful about trying to make your character too much like a real person. They might recognize themselves and get mad at you for showing their flaws. Characters must only be a product of your imagination.  They definitely may be a composite of several people you know.  It's just not smart to make your mother-in-law the wicked witch even if she is. Of course some people never see themselves as others see them and may not even recognize themselves, but you probably don't want to take a chance.

I may have told you this before so forgive me if I have, but instead of writing out a biography of your main characters. Write out the contents of their purse or billfold. This is just an exercise for you. Or write out a list of magazines they might have on the coffee table in their living room.  You'll be surprised how many little details you'll discover and hopefully you'll discover their secret flaws.  Once you know their secrets you'll be on your way to making your characters seem like "real" people. And that kids, is my lesson for the day.