Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

24 June 2022

The Sound Of Music


Music can be a powerful motivator for a writer. Years ago, I heard Annie Lennox's cover of Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." The image of a dead man lying at the side of a highway as semis (or "lorries," as Young puts it in his lyrics) at sunrise crystalized a series of unconnected scenes. Years later, after putting it on the shelf and dusting it off again, that project became Holland Bay.

Of course, you hope a song exploding in your brain like that pays off sooner. Holland Bay took so long to write that I spun up an entire trilogy and adjacent arcs of novellas by the time I sent it to Down & Out Books. In fact, I had no idea I would be getting back into science fiction when I started.

In the early days, when I wrote about PI Nick Kepler, I wanted a series of prompts to keep short stories flowing. In my misspent youth, I had an obsession with, along with Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, heavy metal gods Deep Purple. I decided I wanted a short story named for a song title from each of their (ever-growing) list of studio albums. That was a start. But "Hush," which spawned a short story about hush money, became "Just Like Suicide," as the hush money involved a murder made to look like suicide. The obscure "Chasing Shadows" involved a witch and a graveyard (the former making a return appearance in the novel Bad Religion) became "Full Moon Boogie," another obscure song by a later iteration of the Jeff Beck Group. So music led to music. But some were obvious.

Deep Purple's second hit, an instrumental called "Wring That Neck," has a title that calls to mind chickens meeting an untimely demise before ending up in a bucket with eleven herbs and spices. Nick Kepler was a creature of Cleveland and its suburbs. However, I had lived briefly in what I now dub Amish Mafia territory, specifically Holmes County, Ohio, where my parents spent their final years. I remember I was culture shocked being fifty miles from anywhere. So Nick went looking for a Romeo and Juliet couple who run off to more rural than rural Ohio. It ends a bit better than Willy Shakes' tragic tale, but Nick is a fish out of water, even slipping in chicken poop at one point. He is less than charitable to his client after that.

Then there's "Flight of the Rat," written about two years after 9/11. Many of us struggled to deal with that event without hitting the reader over the head with it. The song, from Purple's In Rock album, gave me an obvious title. Nick chases a bail jumper into Cleveland's Hopkins Airport on 9/11 and gets away with things he would not be able to do twenty-four hours later. That one, I played the source song over and over while writing it.

Lately, one song came up on Tidal, my streaming service of choice. "Last Plane Out" by one-off band Toy Matinee has shown up several times on Daily Discovery. While inspired by Yes, UK, and, to some extent, Asia, the band featured Guy Pratt, aka Roger Waters' replacement in Pink Floyd. The song, however, has more in common with Radiohead and Coldplay but doesn't take itself nearly as seriously. "Last Plane Out" begins with the line "Welcome to Sodom. How we wish you were here." It goes on to tell the tale of someone living in a land of decadence and vice but hoping for a seat on the titular last plane out. Edge of the apocalypse stuff.

The song is quite catchy, but the lyrics suggest the second season of Jack Ryan, as Ryan and Greer seek to navigate a fictionalized Venezuela. Currently, I'm pondering either going with a thriller and accessing my inner Lee Child or making this a second outing for my science fiction space spy Eric Yuwono, who may return to the land of sin and vice already in a pending novel. "Welcome to Sodom," the Biblical land of violent hedonism, seems an irresistible jumping off point for either a present-day character or a futuristic spy finding himself on a planet about to implode under the weight of its own over-indulgence.

These aren't the only examples. Our own Brian Thornton edited two anthologies inspired by the music of Steely Dan while the same publisher just released one based on Warren Zevon's. (How can you not do crime fiction with a title like Lawyers, Guns, and Money?) And music is all through Stephen King's books, quoted, as themes, and even in the meta fiction. (The Dark Half's main character wrote a literary novel called Purple Haze that may or may not have had an intrusion by his violent dead twin pseudonym, but clearly channeled Hendrix in its tone.)

And why wouldn't music weave its way through our writing? Some writers listen to specific music to set the mood for a scene. Others want a wall of sound to keep the world out so they can concentrate. And sometimes, it just helps you think.

18 March 2022

Out of The Zone


There's a lesson in here. I think.

In October 2017, I posted an article about a writer writing in The Zone in which a writer's narrow focus on a novel or story is sustained through the interruptions of working a full time job and other distractions. It's like being on another plane.

After retiring, I've been able to work nearly 10 hours a day on writing and remained in The Zone – focused like a laser beam – writing in a near trance – characters interrupting meals with their conversations. Scenes interrupting sleep.

In March 2021, during the pandemic, The Zone became elusive. Fear of family, friends, of my wife and myself going into a hospital and never returning. I narrowed my focus and managed to write but not as much.

Now, in March 2022, I feel out of The Zone and must work hard to focus. The lesson here for writers is to keep pushing, keep writing, even if it is only for a short time each day, even if you only get one sentence down. Stay with it and it will come. Over the last year the short stories and novel I wrote crawled out of my computer, but they came and came better than I thought they would going into each. Maybe I'm on automatic. Maybe a writer who has been writing for nearly forty years has developed an inner focus that gets me through.

Face it, writing is hard. I'm talking about the composition, putting fingers to keys and creating a story. Don't give up on a story and especially a novel. If it seems to die on you, let it sit and go back to it but never give it up.

I have always found the solution and if a little old guy like me can, any of you can.

It's not the inspiration but the work put in to get from the opening line to THE END. Others have said it more eloquently, but that's the way it is.

That's all for now.

ONeil DeNoux
www.ONeilDeNoux.com

08 March 2022

Writing Lessons from Top Chef


I recently became addicted to Top Chef, a cooking competition program that airs on Bravo, and I’ve been binge-watching the program during the past several weeks. I started watching with episode one of season one when I found reruns of the series on Hulu, and I’ve almost reached the end of season eleven. (Bravo recently began airing season nineteen, so, please, no spoilers.)

The season begins with twelve to nineteen chefs competing to be the last chef standing and to be named the “Top Chef.” Sometimes the chefs compete singly and sometimes they compete in teams, and each episode typically features two competitions: a Quickfire Challenge and an Elimination Challenge. The winner of a Quickfire Challenge is often granted immunity in the Elimination Challenge and may win a prize. Though the winner of the Elimination Challenge may also win a prize, the loser of the Elimination Challenge must leave the show.

Much like publication editors, the host (Padma Lakshmi ) and judges (Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and a rotating cast of guest judges) issue a “call for submissions” in the form of a challenge. They provide the competing chefs with a description of what they want, the parameters of the task, and a deadline.

A Quickfire Challenge is much like a flash fiction call for submissions: Create an appetizer using a Milky Way, a prawn, and a kumquat, and do it in twenty-seven minutes. The judges then taste the food, tell the chefs who prepared the worst dishes, who prepared the best dishes, and who won the challenge.

The Elimination Challenges are more complex. The competing chefs must prepare one or more dishes, often to a theme, and often for a crowd of diners. At some point during the season, the chefs are encouraged, or specifically instructed, to “tell a story” with their food.

HOW THIS RELATES TO WRITING

At some point during the first few episodes of season eleven I began to see a parallel to what we encounter as writers. Editors provide us with guidelines that define what genre of stories they want to see, what elements the stories must have, and how many words we’re allowed to use to tell the stories. Sometimes the guidelines are quite specific, and other times they are vague or even nonsensical.

But the parallels become even more apparent when watching what happens at the Judges’ Table after the Elimination Challenges, both the conversations among the judges and their conversations with the competitors when trying to determine which chef gets the boot.

The chefs’ dishes are judged for adherence to the parameters of the challenge, creativity, and technical proficiency. Editors—though the debates are more often internal than among a group of editors sitting around a table—judge submissions much the same way. Does a particular submission meet the guidelines? While adhering to those guidelines, how creative is the final product? And, has the author displayed technical proficiency through proper spelling, punctuation, formatting, and so on?

And one dilemma that the chefs often face when a challenge involves preparing food for several hundred diners: Should they cook for the crowd or should they cook for the judges? During the seasons I’ve watched, food that seemed well-liked by diners has scored poorly with the judges. The lesson, repeated often through the seasons, is that pleasing the judges is critical to winning, just like pleasing editors is critical to getting published.

IT’S JUST A REALITY SHOW

Top Chef is a reality show, so we know the stories told over the course of each episode and over the course of each season must be taken with a large grain of salt. How much is real, how much is staged, and how much of what we see has been manipulated to feed viewers particular story lines? Does it matter?

Maybe not.

But what does matter is something Tom Colicciho says, in one form or another, at least once each season: “We can only judge by what’s on the plate.”

Editors make publishing decisions much the same way. They can only judge your work by what’s on the page.

Ensure that it’s appetizing.


Black Cat Mystery Magazine 11 was released at the tail-end of February, and it contains new stories by Mike Adamson, Lis Angus, Marlin Bressi, Mark Bruce, Leone Ciporin, Veronica Leigh, Anita Murphy, David Rudd, Max Devoe Talley, and fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti, O’Neil De Noux, and Elizabeth Zelvin. It also contains a classic reprint by Richard S. Prather.

28 February 2022

Rolling With The Punches


 by Steve Liskow

The last two years have shown the wisdom of not asking "How can things get even worse?" Fortunately, most of us are learning to deal with social distancing and spending time alone, never a challenge for writers anyway. But Life can throw you a high hard one when you dig in.

At the beginning of this month, I went to the hospital for outpatient treatment I've had twice before in the last eight months. I'm usually in and out in six hours with no after effects. I can eat and exercise normally. The day before I went in, I was working on two stories, one a solid second draft I had backed up, and the other a first draft about 3/4 complete. I thought I knew the villain and ending, so I expected to finish that draft when I returned home, maybe even that day.

Barb drove me to the hospital and planned to pick me up again after lunch. Since I only expected to be there a few hours, I left everything at home except my driver's license and Vax card. No biggie.

During that routine procedure, my blood pressure cratered and my temperature soared from my normal 97.7 to 102.8. When I could finally process what was going on ten hours after being dropped off, I was in intensive care with so many lines coming out of my arms that I felt like a motherboard. Needles in both arms, my stomach, and my neck (more about that in a minute) delivered three antibiotics, two blood pressure medications, and two steroids into my system. I also wore a blood pressure cuff and a heart monitor. The doctors knew why and how it happened (and I suspected something less specific), but I spent the next four days in ICU before they discharged me on the eighth day. 

During that time, I forgot the ending for that WIP. I was home five days (and still on an antibiotic Barb and I administered through a Mid-line) before I could focus enough to look at it again. Five days later, I thought I remembered the ending, but it was too weak. Maybe I didn't really remember it. At this point, who knows?

Now the good news. Both nurses in intensive care were terrific. One, who moved from Chicago to take that job in Hartford only weeks before, is an avid reader. She was amazed to learn she was standing only two miles from the Mark Twain house, and she now plans to visit, maybe even taking one of the tours my wife leads. She also downloaded one of my books. 

Better still, she explained what the various tubes and drugs were doing. The line through my neck was threaded into a vein to convey a drug that shrinks veins and helps increase blood pressure. She told me they have to be careful because if they move the line too close to an extremity, it can close down the capillaries and cause tissue death.

"That sounds a lot like gangrene," I said. 

"It is gangrene," she said. "That is why we watch you so closely. It is not just because you are so handsome."

When the hospital discharged me four days later, they gave me a printout of everything they had done, including all the meds. On page seven, I found the name of that drug and remember the symptoms.  I have never written a medical mystery, but now I have a good new way to kill someone.

The other upside is that when Barb finally brought in my phone and I posted about the whole nightmare, I got lots of support from friends. Over 40 reactions came from former students.

Because of all the needles and tubes, my hands are still stiff and sore. I picked up a guitar for the first time in three weeks yesterday. Piano is still on hold. Typing feels like someone is stomping on my fingers.

The time off showed me again how much I love writing. I didn't write a word for over two weeks and it was like going through withdrawal. This blog is about 700 words, and it's the most writing-actually most of the writing--I have done since February first. It feels like being let out of prison.

Now I can hardly wait to look at that story with the weak ending again. 

18 February 2022

You Should Write...


My brother-in-law started writing. Pushing sixty, he's taken to it with a zeal I had in my twenties. At least he knows what he's writing. I dabbled in someone else's sandbox before sending out the first Nick Kepler short around the time we worried Y2K would end the world. Good times!

Since then, I've discovered I can write crime at a reasonable pace expected by traditional publishers. Holland Bay is done. It's sequel is off to the first reader, and I'm outlining the third in the series. One a year? We can do that. I also found I can spin out scifi pretty much in my sleep. It probably comes from that sandbox I played in during the 90s. The serial numbers are even original, not filed off, though I might rightfully be accused of my one protag aiming to misbehave. (If you've read my stuff and got that reference, you know those two characters would not get along at all.)

So while I've worked in relative obscurity for the past 20 years, I've had a decent output. This inevitably leads to that conversation. I'm not successful enough to get the "Hey, I have an idea. You write it. We split the profits" conversation. I have been in earshot of that conversation, and I cringe every time I hear it. The writer is usually well-known. If I know the person well enough, I can rescue them with, "Hey, [insert writer's name here], Ken Bruen's holding court over at the back table. Let's see if we can figure out who in Ireland he doesn't know." Sidenote: When I was temporarily single and at a mixers event, I rescued a woman who turned out to be a neighbor from a rather obnoxious suitor this way, pretending to be her date instead of using another writer's party as an escape hatch. Five minutes later, I was her date. Who says skills learned as a writer don't apply to real life?

 The version of the conversation I now get when someone looks at the combined output of Jim Winter and TS Hottle is, "You should write..."

Uh huh. Holland Bay took forever to write. And I spent quarantine dictating what is now called the Suicide Arc - 9 books, people. Add to that writing a scene that let me get into the heads of two characters, and last week's output - which was supposed to be a crime short - fell only 2000 words shy of a novella. And yet...

My brother-in-law started text bombing me one night about a character named Mitsuko. Mitsuko plays with swords and automatic weapons and hangs out with space marines. She is a supporting character in the two novels currently out and the star of a novella called Flight Blade. And BIL is a fan.

A huge fan.

I appreciate that. If I had the time to talk up my characters and stories in person, I'd probably sell a lot more books. But BIL took it one step further.

"Hey, I got an idea. You should do a whole series about Mitsuko's kids!"

Um... She's not married at this point or even looking to have kids.

"What if [other character] and her hookup?"

One, they'd kill each other, and two, both would say, "Ew!" at that idea.

It went on like this for about twenty minutes. I had to explain I had the entire arc in the can already, and the stories, including one needing a total rewrite, are pretty much etched in stone. I also explained that Down & Out is expecting a final draft of a novel this spring, and I would like to get a follow-up sliding across the keyboard by then.

And anyway, don't you have a novel to finish, too?

He's not the only one, and part of his enthusiasm comes from discovering writing only last year. It helped him forget a recent health scare, and it's also as addictive as I've found it. Maybe he'll start writing under two names, too. (I hope not. If I weren't married to a woman who's good at refocusing my attention, I'd have no life.)

Someone always thinks I'm the perfect vehicle for their political viewpoint. (Don't do that. It doesn't matter your politics. I hate pundits and will likely hurt your feelings.) Or they really do have an idea but don't want to do the work. Or they don't understand how writing works. It took a month to write Suicide Run but three to write next year's The Dogs of Beaumont Heights. Both burned a lot of brain cycles to create. Plus I'm trying to get back into short stories.

Plus, the way publishing works, were I to get enough traction under either or both names, a Baen, a St. Martin's, a Tor, or a Random House is going to want me to send something completely original. At some point, I have to build a new sandbox to play in, maybe two. I have a couple of ideas on the crime side that can go to the next level, maybe allow me to finish Branson's story eventually. Scifi may prove a tad more difficult. I can't seem to extract myself from my sprawling universe. Maybe I won't, just change characters.

But, reader or writer, we've heard that horror story about someone accosting a writer with "I've got this great idea, and you should write it." Many of them back off when they realize that's not how it happens. Others are a bit disheartened when they realize the idea is not what's copyrighted or what the publisher or readers pay for. It's the execution. My next scifi novel will owe a lot to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse: Now. Unlike Copolla, though, I finished mine. But aside from a real piece of work named Kurz and a bunch of soldiers sailing upriver, the novel will bear little resemblance to either Joseph Conrad's novel or the movie. For starters, I seriously doubt either Conrad's gone-native madman nor Marlon Brando's incoherent colonel had cause to say, "And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids." 

There are stories that come from headlines, from those documentaries on A&E and Netflix, and from stories I hear driving Uber that give me story germs of my own. Many who don't do what we do, and even quite a few who do, think that writing is typing. You can write 1000 words an hour, so you should have a novel in two weeks.

I wish it did work like that. For every Road Rules, though, which I wrote in 13 days, there's a Holland Bay, which I started in 2007, rewrote multiple times over the next 12 years, and finally published in November. Those are extremes. Road Rules was a clearly defined story written on a dare. Holland Bay needed a couple of drafts just to finish the world building. Yes, even crime stories need world building.

The stock answer, which has the answer of usually being genuine, is "Why don't you write it?" Sometimes, they take the bait, and off they go down the rabbit hole.

Like my brother-in-law did. He's on Book 2 and is still revising Book 1. Took me a few years to learn that.

12 February 2022

What a Decade of Story Writing Does to You


You should write something.

Probably every writer heard that whisper in their head. Come on. Do it. Write something. After all, how hard can it be?

I'd heard that butt-in-chair siren song. In 2010, I answered finally the call. I wrote something. It stank. I wrote something else. It also stank. The stinking continued a while, but I am a dedicated learner. 2012 brought my first story acceptance, from an obscure Canadian lit journal that folded soon after. A good journal, though, and I felt a million miles tall.

10 candles, y'all
Some ways I've changed since that first acceptance:

#1: I've met the best people.

Most folks probably have friends or family trying their hands at fiction writing. I didn't, back when. Not one. I didn't personally know another living soul who was writing fiction. Non-fiction authors, yes, and everyone's English professor has a chapbook or like that. I've even lived next door to incredibly successful songwriters. But I didn't travel in fiction circles.

So--once my introvert side relented--I started showing up places: meet-up groups, local events, writing conferences, Sisters in Crime. Like everybody who sticks with it, I've since come into dear friends from all walks of life and with a wide variety of publishing goals. I'm happier about that than any publications.

And a special shout-out to crime authors. You would think that people intent on plotting murders and heists would be trouble. You would be wrong. I've never moved in a community more top-to-bottom generous than crime writers. All that plotting must purge negative impulses. 

#2 -- Travel is a whole new world. 

Camargue, 2018 -- We ride after lunch
It's no accident I put my butt in the writing chair soon after I began traveling more adventurously. These days, travel can give me something or somewhere to write about. And to write about a place honestly, I have to travel better. Immerse myself deeper into a place's vibe and culture, into what they eat and drink, the hours they keep.

A quick count shows 12 of my 38 accepted stories emerged from an overseas experience. Museum exhibits (first AHMM sale!), rainforest hikes, wine cave tours. Once, I walked myself to mush in Montparnasse. Had to. I needed to understand the neighborhood feel and how a stranger would take it in if I was pulling off a story idea. Much of that walkathon detail was cut from the accepted version, but that vibe and character perception survived.

Side note: I also kissed the Blarney Stone in 2010. The story ideas began improving soon after. I; not saying coincidence is causality, but I'm not not saying it, either.

#3 -- I have become a Tottenham Hotspur fan.

It's true. A main character in my great shelf novel was British and a devout football supporter. He needed an English team to support. Now, I was an okay soccer player until everyone else got a bunch larger and faster. As a fan and semi-informed person myself, I went through the various big clubs and decided Tottenham Hotspur was the most fun to say. Go on. Say "Tottenham Hotspur." You just had fun, didn't you? Unless you're an Arsenal supporter.

A character can't just claim to back Spurs. He had to rattle off club history, past great players, the few high years and their lowest lows. I researched it. I watched their games. And kept watching. That manuscript is many years abandoned, but I'm still watching Tottenham's few highs and sudden lows.

 #4 -- Reading is harder. Except when it isn't.

Early on, experienced writers warned that I might never read fiction the same way again. Truer words. Once I understood the base mechanics of fiction--and that fiction must have those mechanics--my reading turned over-focused on a given author's tactical choices. Dialogue tag spacing, word patterns, sentence construction. Nothing kills joy like analysis. 

So I stopped analyzing. I learned to turn off critical thinking and be a reader who digs reading. 

But informed analysis is also a new life skill. Life's too short to read stuff you can't drop into or, better still, wallow next-level in extraordinary work. Last year, I (finally) read Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan. I marveled as Vonnegut alternately nailed and broke conventions and at how he made the sum of those breezy-seeming choices into a beautiful gut punch. It wouldn't have resonated unless I had developed that sort of eye.

#5 -- New York City will never be the same. In a good way.

My first crime story acceptance was to the MWA Cold War anthology, Ice Cold (accepted 2013, published 2014). MWA does anthologies right, with name authors as editor--Jeffrey Deaver and Raymond Benson for this one--and as headliner contributors. The launch party was set for Mysterious Books, and I would've sold a kidney to get there. As it was, I'd had to negotiate a new job offer to include immediate time off for a New York City trip. Smash cut: I made NYC with best wishes and two kidneys, and I sat at the signing table with far more seasoned authors and wondered how the hell I'd made it there. That will always be my first NYC memory. 

#6 -- I had an empathy switcheroo.

Personality assessments over the years said I abound with empathy. I guess so. True, I can step outside myself and sense how others feel about what's going on around us. That's limited by my own experience, but I am not without experience. We're all three-dimensional folks, neither entirely angelic nor irredeemably bad in all things. We all have our own cocktail of ambitions, fears, disappointments, hidden injuries. My sympathy tank is drier than it was ten years ago, but good old empathy is hanging around. 

Writers need a high dose of empathy. It's part and parcel with building characters and forging reader connections. What's happened, though, is the act of writing has become a two-way pipeline. That hard work of empathizing for the page channels understanding back my way. Now my psyche expects the exchange--and I'm disjointed when it doesn't happen. I'm more easily frustrated. Staying in a writing routine gives me more sunshine. Can't explain it, but there it is.  

You should write something. 

Well, I did. If the first decade taught anything, answering that call brings one heck of a journey worth taking.


29 January 2022

MacGuffins


  

MacGuffin, according to Wikipedia, is "an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrevelant in itself."

I like that definition, and I like MacGuffins. I like them so much I used them as the basis for my story "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart," which appears in the current (January/February 2022) issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The original name for this story, in fact, was "MacGuffins." And by the way, this is the only story, of the two dozen I've sold to AHMM, that involved a title change. Editor Linda Landrigan sent me an email in October asking if I'd mind changing it from "MacGuffins" to "Mayhem at the Mini-Mart" because they wanted to use it for the cover of the Jan/Feb issue and the other title could be more easily used in the cover art. I of course said that'd be fine with me, and it was--but MacGuffins are still the heart of the tale.


Here's a quick summary of the story. Two brothers in the deep south who run a web-design business and love movies are taking a one-day break from work to go fishing together. On their way to the lake they amuse themselves in the car with a game in which one of the two describes a MacGuffin and the other tries to name the movie that features it. When they stop at a filling-station/convenience-store to gas up and grab some snacks, they interrupt a robbery-in-progress by a man who, according to what they heard earlier on their car radio, has already robbed and murdered an attendant at another mini-mart nor far away. And, as it turns out, the movie guessing-game they've been playing is the way they save themselves, and save the day.

At 2300 words, it's a fairly short story--a lot shorter than most of those I've sold to AHMM--and the first half is almost entirely dialogue between the two brothers. That, and the movie theme, made it great fun to write. As for its sale to AH, I suspect it didn't hurt that the term "MacGuffins," although it originated with a film guy named Angus McPhail, was adopted by Alfred Hitchcock and became a common plot device in storytelling. 

With regard to the definition, Wikipedia also describes a MacGuffin as something that is revealed in the first act, then declines in importance, and might reappear at the end of the story. One of the things I like most about the technique is that a MacGuffin serves as a way to link the entire story together, and is sometimes so important to the characters that it drives the plot. Examples: the One Ring in Tolkien's trilogy, the magical suitcase in Fantastic Beasts, the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders.

Anyhow . . . to steal from the text of my story and to include a few other movies I also remember fondly, here's a list of some MacGuffins and the films that used them.


Letters of transit -- Casablanca

The body of a boy hit by a train -- Stand By Me

A giant emerald -- Romancing the Stone

Microfilm of secret government documents -- North by Northwest

A glowing briefcase -- Pulp Fiction

A tattooed map to Dry Land -- Waterworld

A clause from a secret peace treaty -- Foreign Correspondent

Rosebud -- Citizen Kane

A Persian rug -- The Big Lebowski

A WWII soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action -- Saving Private Ryan

A rabbit's foot -- Mission Impossible III

Secret plans for the Death Star -- Star Wars

A black statuette -- The Maltese Falcon

A harmonica -- Once Upon a Time in the West

A coded message in a piece of music -- The Lady Vanishes

Walley World -- National Lampoon's Vacation

An audiotape of a summit-meeting speech -- Escape from New York

A silver necklace with a blue heart -- Titanic

A necklace with a gold-and-red heart -- Vertigo

Radioactive uranium in wine bottles -- Notorious

A red stapler -- Office Space

A consignment of diamonds from a jewelry shop -- Reservoir Dogs

An empty Coke bottle -- The Gods Must Be Crazy

A boy who'll save the world in the far-distant future -- Terminator 2

A baseball bat carved from the wood of a tree -- The Natural

Plans for an aircraft engine -- The 39 Steps

The Holy Grail -- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (among others)

Project Genesis -- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

A pocket watch that plays chimes -- For a Few Dollars More

A child's doll stuffed with heroin -- Wait Until Dark


Do you agree with these? (MacGuffins can sometimes be vague.) Can you think of others? Have you ever used MacGuffins in your own fiction? There's a chance you probably have and didn't realize it--I know I've done that.

One last point: I've heard that the key part of the word MacGuffin is "guff," which means utter nonsense. And maybe that's true.

But it works.


24 January 2022

Seven Steps


Nancy Pickard is a U.S. crime novelist. She has won five Macavity Awards, four Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, and a Shamus Award. She is the only author to win all four awards. She also served on the board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

I don't remember exactly when I met Nancy Picard, sometime in the early 90's is my guess. That was when I began to first be published and Elmer & I opened our mystery bookstore in Austin in 1990. I remember she & both were very early members of Sisters in Crime and Nancy is a past National President of S-in-C. I do know I've always admired her mystery novels. Reading Nancy's books are like peeling an onion back to  add to the story and destroy your early guesses. Naturally, you must keep turning pages and peeling layers until you get to the end & the solution. 

When I read this article about Nancy's book: Seven Steps on a Writer's Path, I knew I wanted to share this information with all of you. Her book is available in both Paperback & Kindle formats. Page numbers refer to the trade paperback edition.                                                                                                                — Jan Grape

As Nancy Pickard looked back over her own career and that of her many writer friends, she saw herself and most of them struggling through stages of unhappiness, of wanting, of commitment, of wavering, of letting go, of immersion, and of fulfillment. It looked very much like a path to her, and it felt true, in the way only actual lived experience does feel.

"And thus was born the Seven Steps on the Writer's Path. At first it was a workshop given   by me, then it was a retreat presented by Lynn, and now it is a book written by both of us." p. xii

SEVEN STEPS

by Nancy Pickard

Starting Out

"Writing is a path as full of darkness as it is of light, and so the way ahead is hard to see. There are so many ominous shadows, unpredictable gusts of wind, unexpected blinding shafts of sunlight. It’s easy to get lost, to trip over our own hidden roots, or plunge unaware into unexplored caverns in our psyche. As writers, we hardly ever know where we’re going. The only thing most of us know how to do is to keep putting one foot after the other in the darkness and trust that eventually we’ll get there." p. 1

When Lynn and I each started our own writing careers, we didn’t even know there was a path, much less that there are steps along it. We hope that knowing these things will give you an advantage that writers who came before you didn’t have.

Step One: Unhappiness

"Call this step in the creative process what you will, according to your own experience of it. Name it the 'creative urge,' if you like. Call it an 'itch' or 'creative tension' or 'restlessness' or 'discontent.' Regardless of what label any of us gives this step, it’s a common state and the first step for all of us.

"Unhappiness, to one degree or another, is where all creativity begins." p. 9

What a way to start a book, with unhappiness! But we had to, because that’s where the writing starts… or the drawing… or the music… or any other form of creativity. We discovered early on that the steps in this book apply to any creative person, not just to writers.

Step Two: Wanting

"It sounds so simple. All you have to do is want. But it must not be that simple in real life, or else why wouldn't more people be writing what, where, when, as much, and as well as they want to? Instead, they're still languishing in a state of unsatisfied desire. They're stuck back in step one, Unhappiness, and they can't seem to get out of it, no matter how bravely they face it or how honestly they acknowledge what they want from writing.

"The trouble may be that most of us tend to assume that wanting is only about feeling. Certainly, depth of desire is part of the answer, but what we're missing when we stop there is the second part of wanting, the action part…" pp. 38-39

This chapter required Lynn and me to be excruciatingly honest with ourselves and our readers about what we really want in our lives and our writing. It was good for us. It'll be good for you, too.

Step Three: Commitment

"Some people might joke that writers need to be committed, rather than to have commitment, and sometimes we feel as if we can only agree with them. It’s probably true that we're all at least a little bit crazy. But then, truly committed people usually look a little-or very–crazy to the outside world. If you don't look just a little bit nuts, you’re probably not committed enough. Writers like L. Frank Baum -- whose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was rejected dozens of times -- who keep sending their manuscripts to publishers look like crazy fools to people who will be only too glad to tell them so." p. 70

Step Four: Wavering

"Wavering tends to arrive when it’s least expected and least welcome. Certainly, you'd never willingly invite it, but surprise, here it is. Such as when you're forty pages into a book and you thought it was going to be smooth sailing from here on out, but now you’re stuck. Or like when you’ve submitted your poems to magazines and you're feeling really good and hopeful about them–and the rejection letters start coming in. Or like when you've arranged to write for a couple of hours every day, and then other responsibilities crop up, just when you thought you had them beat down." p. 103

This is one of those steps where it's truly wonderful to know that you have lots of company. You're not alone. You're not the only crazy one. I'm there with you many days. So is Lynn. So is every writer we know and all of the ones we don’t know. We all waver. We all hate it. We all get through it, one way or another, and having each other's hands to hold is a big help and comfort.

Step Five: Letting Go

"Letting go is the magic moment when you step off into space, trusting that you won't fall on your face. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, when we make a leap of faith, it is the actual act of stepping out that creates a bridge to see us safely to the other side." p. 137

This is my favorite step of all. I adore this step. This is where miracles happen. This step sometimes terrifies me. A lot of times in my life I have wanted, oh how I have wanted, to take this step, but I just couldn’t do it. And then sometimes I do take it, and oh, the joy of that!

Step Six: Immersion

"… be loyal to your writing. Be just as loyal as you are to your dearest friend or loved one. If your friend or your child really needed your attention, would you let your attention wander? Or would you ignore the telephone, put everything else on hold, and turn fully toward him or her? Your writing deserves that kind of loyalty and attention, too. If you can't or won't manage to show as much loyalty to your writing as you show to your friends and family, we guarantee that while you may experience moments of writing bliss, you'll never experience the satisfaction of going all the way.

"Be loyal." p. 177

It's hard for a lot of people, some women especially, I think, to be loyal to their writing, or even to think of it in that way. They let everything and everybody pull them away from it, as if they couldn't care less. But they do care, we know they do, and they suffer for it. If only they knew, their writing wants their love and attention, too!

Step Seven: Fulfillment

"So we have to ask you: where’s your cart, and where’s your horse?

"Here are some telltale things that writers say that alert us to improper horse/cart placement. You'll have to pardon us if our answers sound a bit jaded; we've heard these more times than you'd care to know: 'Should I copyright it first?' (You should write it first.) 'What if I send a query to several publishers and they all want it?' (You should only have such problems. Just worry about writing it.) 'What if somebody steals my ideas?' (Just write the damned thing. If you're worried about burglars, get a gun.) 'I've written three chapters of a novel. Should I start sending it out to agents now?' (No, you should write Chapter 4 now.) 'I was thinking of sending my poems out now and waiting to do my rewriting after I hear what the editors have to say.' (We're thinking you should rewrite them now, or you will never hear from any editors.)" p. 208

Dare to dream big, we say in this chapter, but keep dreaming small at the same time. Go ahead and visualize your name on a best-seller list, but also visualize yourself writing that next sentence, paragraph, and page.

08 July 2021

I've Got This Great Character In Search Of A Story


(Still on a deadline—in fact I'm behind. So I'm updating and reposting this blog post from 2014 about character, and how it's where you find it! Back in two weeks with all new content!) 

So I know this guy.

70 years old.

Recently retired elementary music teacher for the past two decades.

Married three decades. Father of two.

He is one of the most interesting characters I know.

Really.

Seriously.

He is.

Go back and re-read the thumbnail I just gave you.

Now let me elaborate.

All of the above AND...

Thirty years a professional musician (including opening for the Grass Roots at age 15 in 1965!).

So, these guys. And yes, the dude second from the left really is Creed Braxton from "The Office."

So of course I ask him, "What were they like?"

("They" being the aforementioned Grass Roots.)

He smiles and says, "They were dicks."

He doesn't dance. Ever.

When I ask him why not, he says, "I never had to."

"Why not?"

"I'm the drummer. I never needed to dance to get girls."

(Note: the guy's wife is a knockout and they have been happily and faithfully married for the above-referenced THREE DECADES)

He once took a gig in Guam for four weeks that wound up lasting six months.

He knows an uncle of mine who is the amazingly-not-yet-dead black sheep (and then some) of our family. Their paths crossed years before I got to know him, back during his playing days. I'll leave it to your imagination how he knows him.

(And you're RIGHT!)

I once referred to someone we both know as a "hot mess." His response?

"I played in a band called 'Hot Mess'..." followed by reminiscences about same.

(This has happened more than once and is always entertaining.)

He once hid out in Alaska for over a year. This after getting stranded in the Queen Charlotte Islands on the way there. I infer that there was a girl (or several) involved.

I convinced him to go to a Rush concert with me (I'm a HUGE fan). He is the only drummer I've ever known who attended a Rush concert and came away much more interested in what Alex Lifeson (the guitarist) was doing onstage than in what the then-world's greatest living rock drummer (Neal Peart) was doing behind his drum kit.

He's clean and sober now, and has been for years, if not always continuously.

He is one of the most painfully honest, most loyal and gentlest souls I have ever met.

I have seen him with blood in his eye and murder in his heart over the treatment of our society's most vulnerable members. I am hardly a conservative, and yet he makes me look like William F. Buckley.

And yet he lives on a golf course (It's a long story!) and sports a significant handicap.

All of the above is true.

I started this blog posting intending to wrap it up by saying that I had a great idea for a character based on this friend of mine, but no story in which to insert him. And then a funny thing happened.

I remembered a story he told me once about this woman he met, who turned out to be married, and....

...oh, forget it.

Wouldn't want to give away the ending!

Characters can come to us from the strangest of places and by the most indirect of routes sometimes, can't they?

See you in two weeks!

18 June 2021

Still Writing in the Dark


In my April 2019 SleuthSayers’ posting, I mentioned how writers evolve. Most of this posting is a repeat of what was posted before.

When I began writing novels, I made detailed outlines and after completing the books, I saw I always deviated from the outline to make the story work. No problem. I also wrote a detailed synopsis of each book to satisfy agent/editor/publisher.

That was then. Now, I begin with a character with a problem. Add setting, time and a couple conflicts listed in sketchy notes so I don't forget. Sometimes the character walks off in another direction and the sketchy notes are ignored. I follow the character and write what he/she says and does.

Writing in the dark. I'm not alone in this. Better writers have been doing this for a while. Me, only recently. When it is time to get back to Lucien Caye, to rejoin his world, go back to 1951, I put him in motion and tag along. I miss him and that world so it is great to be back. Same with my other series characters.

I follow in the footsteps of James Sallis and Dean Wesley Smith and many other good writers.
James Sallis – DRIVE (made into a movie with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan out of this novel), the Lew Griffin New Orleans novels – THE LONG-LEGGED FLY, BLACK HORNET, MOTH, BLUE BOTTLE, EYE OF THE CRICKET, GHOST OF A FLEA – and many other novels, books of poetry, non-fiction books, and essays.

Sallis explains "After years of writing the well-made story," he became disaffected and bored and if he was bored, possible his readers would be bored. He sometimes goes back to Raymond Chandler's – when in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. He decided to challenge himself and improvise.

Sallis says, "I would start with a scene. I would start with a bit of conversation, with a plot point and would see where it took me. And I would try to surprise myself." He goes to to explain writers go every way with their writing, some have to have it all clocked out and some can't do that. There is a danger to all creative work. Sallis adds how writing this way can be like throwing yourself off a cliff.

LINK to Sallis interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuXCz2gv3pc

Dean Wesley Smith has over a hundred published novels and more than 17 million copies of his books in print. Dean wrote a book about this: WRITING INTO THE DARK: HOW TO WRITE A NOVEL WITHOUT AN OUTLINE.

LINK: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-into-Dark-without-Outline-ebook/dp/B00XIPANX8/

Dean says it will start with a scene or conversation and he sees where it takes him looking for a surprise. When addressing writing into the dark, he explains, "To be vital you have to change." He goes on to remind us, "You are the God of your book."

Here is a great interview of Dean Wesley Smith:
LINK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=zjl66ZnrC7g/

I still like starting with the story running and catching up with the characters. Endings can be a surprise and when it works, it is like the satisfaction a homicide detective gets when the killer looks you in the eye and confesses.

That's all for now.

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

11 June 2021

Writing Soundtrack


 I wrote a few weeks back about being on a jazz kick. It's what I listen to while I work in the morning, when I drive Uber, and sometimes when I write. In fact, on Sunday mornings, I have the Morning Jazz playlist on while everyone else is asleep. Yes, I'm that guy, the one who gets up early even on Sundays.

But what is good music for writing?

In all honesty, it depends on the writer. This came up on the Liminal Fiction scifi group about a week ago. What do we listen to when we write? The answers were all over the place. Some want absolutely no sound whatsoever. Others want ambient or classical, something unobtrusive. Jazz fits that bill when I also want something quiet and in the background. (And then my curated jazz playlist includes Herbie Hancock's "RockIt" and a couple of selections from Frank Zappa's Jazz from Hell. Not exactly quiet jazz.)

This being a primarily science fiction and fantasy group, it did not surprise me that many of those responding liked soundtracks. Not playlists of classic and obscure tunes like Cruella. More like Marvel, Star Trek, or Apollo 13. This is definitely mood music, a concept I truly understand. I wrote Second Hand Goods and Bad Religion with a lot of Metallica and Alice in Chains as Nick was a very angry man in those stories.

But when I wrote Northcoast Shakedown all those years ago, I channeled a lot of blues and blues rock. Some of this came from an author friend giving me two Rory Gallagher CD's. It was also a time when most of us in the crime community, even some cozy writers, fell head over heels for the music of Tom Waits. So, Northcoast and a lot of the short stories I wrote in the 2000 had an earthy feel to them, like someone was in the background playing wailing blues solos or wooden acoustic. 

These days, I write first thing in the morning. I have about two hours before I have to help my wife start her day and make my way downstairs to the office. I work at home. During breaks I give myself to write, I play jazz in the morning and vinyl in the afternoon. The vinyl ranges from Sinatra to the Beatles to AC/DC. 

For me, music is brain juice. I write well enough in silence, but a lot of that has to do with the two hours I spend at the beginning of the day. I also read then. But when full time in the office was a thing, I would go to Starbucks on my lunch break. It had music, coffee, and best of all, no coworkers. (Sorry, coworkers, I love ya, but I really need to put our shared day job aside and reboot.)

So what do you listen to when you write? Do you listen to anything? Anyone listening to the sounds of cicadas as they get words in? (Spoiler alert: I'm not. My ears hurt.)