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

27 June 2020

What Went Wrong – (and pass the Scotch)


My friend and colleague John Floyd has inspired me many times, but this time for a singularly bizarre post:  Things that go wrong in the life of an author.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Publisher Version

1.  The publication that never was.  John, you mentioned in your recent post Strange but True, that you have received acceptance letters from publishers who then realized they sent them to the wrong person.  I can do you one better (if you really want to call it that.)

This year, I received a very public congratulations from the Ontario Library Association for being a finalist for their YA award.  I was thrilled!  It was my first YA crime book, after 16 adult ones, and they don't usually give awards to crime books.  I basked in glory and excitement for about five minutes until I realized the title of the book they mentioned was not the book I had written.  There ensued a very public retraction.  Everywhere.  And apology.  I am not sure there is anything more embarrassing than receiving a very public apology for an honour snatched back from you.

2.  It isn't often a publisher buys ads for your book and we all celebrate when they do.  The publisher of Rowena and the Dark Lord was out to create gold.  The first book in the series was a bestseller.  So they decided to throw money at book 2, advertising it at more than two dozen places.  And throw money, they did.  Throw it away, that is.  Unfortunately, the ad company misspelled the title of the book in all the ads.  ROWENA AND THE DARK LARD might be popular in cooking circles, but it didn't make a splash with the epic fantasy audience to which it was targeted.

3.  Back in the mid 90s, I was making it, or so I thought.  Had some stories with STAR magazine.  Broke into Hitchcock.  And later, big time, with Moxie magazine.  Remember Moxie?  Up there with Good Housekeeping and Cosmo? No, perhaps you don't.  I was really pleased when they offered me a 50% kill fee of $750.  Not that I wanted to collect it, but it was a status symbol back then to get offered kill fees in your short story contract.  Unfortunately, if you story is killed because the magazine goes under, ain't nothing left for a kill fee.  Big time becomes no time.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Event Version

1.  It's always tough when you are shortlisted for a prize and you don't win.  It's even tougher when you are actually at the gala event, and all your friends are waiting for you to be named the winner.  Tougher still, when you are shortlisted in TWO categories, and you don't win either.

But that doesn't touch the case when you are the actual Emcee for the event, you've just finished doing an opening stand-up routine to great applause, you have media there and a full house, you are shortlisted in two categories, and you don't win a sausage.  And still have to run the rest of the event from the stage.

This is why they invented scotch.

WHAT WENT WRONG:  The Agent Version

1.  No fewer than THREE big production companies have approached my agent about optioning The Goddaughter series for TV.  This has gone on for four years, and included hours of negotiating.  "Really excited - back to you on Friday!" said the last one.  That was last summer.  I'm still waiting to see any money.

2.  My first agent was a respected older gent from New York.  Sort of a father figure, very classy.  Like some - okay many - agents, he wasn't the best at getting back to us in a timely manner, particularly by email.  We kind of got used to it.  So it was with some shock that I got a phone call from another author, who had discovered that the reason we hadn't heard back from J is because he had died two months before.  Nobody had gotten around to telling us.

I have a really good agent now. She's still alive, which I've found is a huge advantage in an agent.

Here's the book that was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award last year, along with that short story that also didn't win (pass the scotch):



Remember the A-Team?  We're not them.  
But if you've been the victim of a scam, give us a call.  
We deal in justice, not the law.  We're the B-Team.
At all the usual suspects including....

26 June 2020

How a Story or Novel is Written


Spent the last two hours going through all the posts I put up here on SleuthSayers to see if there was something about writing I had not posted. I came up with this piece of information from respected editor, writer, historian, poet, and literary critic Malcolm Cowley who explained the four stages in the composition of a piece of fiction.

Cowley explained how a story or novel is written by most writers. It went this way –

1. The Germ of the Story

The writer comes up with an idea for a story. It could be something the writer has experienced, witnessed, felt, heard about, or read about. An inspiration strikes the writer and the process begins.

2. The Conscious Meditation

The writer's imagination takes over and the writer meditates. A mix of conscious and unconscious thoughts perk in the writer's mind. The writer thinks of a way to present the story. Who are the characters? Where is the story set? When? What happens in the story?

Many writers compose an outline, some detailed, some sketchy. The outlines is often revised as the story is written.

3. The First Draft

Written quickly, it is an expansion of the outline. Remember – get it written, then get it right.

4. The Rewrite(s)

After the first draft, the writer takes the time to edit or rewrite the story, often more than once, to polish it until it sparkles.

This sounds simplistic and it may not apply to all. I know Harlan Ellison often skipped #4. He wrote one draft and that was it.

Writing a novel is like construction a building and revision is turning the building into a house a human can live in.

Good luck to everyone in the middle of this pandemic. It ain't easy.

That's all for now.
  
 www.oneildenoux.com


29 May 2020

Zero Dark Thirty


I have a confession to make.

Eleven weeks into our weird safe-at-home reality, and I've barely scratched the surface of my (admittedly) ambitious quarantine To Do list. Way back in mid-March, I had such grand plans with all the extra time on my hands.
   ~ Finish revising my WIP novel.
   ~ Draft a short story for an upcoming anthology
   ~ Read the TBR books that threatens to overtake my nightstand.
You may even remember my debut SleuthSayers post <here> wherein I suggested several productive writerly activities.

Did I listen to myself?  Nope.

As March blended into April, my day job commitments dwindled along with the tanking economy. I found myself with even more unstructured time available for writing.

Did I tick anything off my To Do list?  Double-nope.

Processing the pandemic seemed all-consuming. Instead of revising, I devoured a constant stream of COVID-10 news updates. I watched in horror as New York hospitals overflowed with patients. Instead of writing, I sewed masks to donate to frontline staff who were desperate for PPE. Instead of reading, I helped my kiddos with their online schooling.  Don't even get me started on Zoom-fatigue or strategizing about our family's once-per-week stealth grocery shopping adventures.

Honestly, I didn't think fiction--even the dark kind we crime-hounds write about--could get any weirder than our post-apocalyptic reality.

Then came the murder hornets.

Something weighed heavily on me, beyond the underlying anxiety from our crazy new normal. About a month into our quarantine, I had an ah-ha moment.

I missed writing.

For me, not only has writing always been my link to sanity, but it can be an escape from my day-to-day worries. Without it, I felt a little lost. But since my quarantine time seemed to be occupied from sunrise to way past sunset, how would I carve out a routine dedicated to writing?

The answer hit me in the form of my good ol' writerly friends at #5amWritersClub (a.k.a. my writing tribe).

In case you're not familiar with #5amWritersClub, it's an informal support group of early-riser writers on Twitter. If these pre-dawn writers could be stereotyped, I'd say they tend to be self-deprecating coffee-aholics who cheer each other on through missed alarm clocks, writers block, life's hiccups,and of course, chasing words.

How does one join #5amWritersClub?
Fortunately, it's easier than hitting snooze when your alarm
goes off.  This informal group works on a drop-in-when-you-can basis. Over the years, I've participated when my daily writing time vanished, usually when my kids' schools were on summer or winter breaks.  Here's how:

  1. Join Twitter. Have an account?  If yes, then you're all set to roll.  No? Just go ahead and setup your free account and Twitter handle. Don't forget to upload a profile photo.  Need help? Step-by-step instructions can be found <here>
  2. Tweet. Sometime between 5am and 6am in your time zone, Tweet a check-in note.  You can wish people good morning, mention your project, something motivational, or even complain about accidentally sleeping through your third alarm.  No pressure, just be sure to include the hashtag #5amWritersClub in the Tweet so other group members can find you.  Bonus points - add a humorous or coffee-related gif video clip to your Tweet.
  3. Write. Log those words. This is your golden hour.
  4. Like. Once or twice during the hour, hop back on Twitter to like other #5amWritersClub Tweets from that morning.  Pro tip -- if you're new to Twitter, this is how you will find lots of other writers to follow.
  5. Friday donuts. The group's tradition is to celebrate T.G.I.F. by sharing virtual donuts. Since the pandemic started, some members have even met virtually on Zoom on an occasional Friday.
  6. Done At the end of your hour, there's no need to report back or check out, but fee free to like a few more #5amWritersClub Tweets to support others in your same trenches.  And don't forget, the next time zone to the West's members will be checking in behind you.
Since rejoining #5amWritersClub, I've gotten my writing mojo back.

With even a few new words on the page each day, endorphins would rush through my psyche in a feel-good wave. In a world that was getting weirder by the day, writing was something I could control. I was creating again.

I've even checked off one of my To Do items, drafting the new short story.

Progress on several fronts!


What have you been doing in our New Normal to bolster your writing?


PS - Let's be social:

23 May 2020

The Oh-So-Glam and Very Public Life of an Author
(aka Park your Ego at the Door)


John Floyd inspired this column with his recent post Strange but True, describing the things that have happened to him as an author.   I probably have another column of zany experiences to tell, but we'll start with this post.  Raising a glass to you, John!  (Amarone, in my case.  And a case of that would be welcome.) 





The Good:

“Sixty-two people signed up!” said the perky librarian. “We’ll have to move rooms. It’s a record.”

That was last February, at a branch of the Toronto Public Library. I was on stage talking about crime writing and my seventeen books, with Joan, another writer gal-pal. We’re both college teachers, so we know how to hold an audience. And we write humorous books, so we had the audience rockin’.

Photos went up on Facebook; 59 people chimed in with comments. And the most common comment was – Wow! That’s a terrific turnout. How did you do it?

Frankly, I have no idea. Yes, there were several Goddaughter series followers there. But it’s a mystery (sic) to me why some events fill up and others flop like a long-dead lake trout. And believe me, I’ve been in that pond too.

I’ve had events where only three readers show up. Where the number in the audience matches the number on stage. And where you don’t sell a single book.

The Eh…

Yes, well, about book sales on Wednesday night. Here’s the irony. The library brought in over 30 of my books for attendees to check out. I laughed when I saw the table. Everyone picked up the library books. I think I sold two.

Was it worth it? We do get paid in Canada for our books in libraries. So yes, it’s important to keep my books there, and keep people checking them out. But also, meeting my audience is hugely important for inspiring me to keep going.

But glamorous? Just remind me to park my ego at the door. Here’s why:

If you are an author, your life becomes somewhat public. People feel they have the right to comment on your looks, your age, your weight, your clothing, as well as your books. I began to realize last year that people believe celebrities – even terribly minor ones like mid-list authors – belong to them in some strange way.

The Bad:

I’ve had events where audience members come up after the event and thrust their virgin manuscripts into my hands and tell me to read it “for free.” I’m supposed to be grateful. And if I like it, which I definitely will, could I show it to my agent. Plus, I inevitably notice that they don’t buy even one of my books, or even admit to having read one.

That part is funny and frustrating, but it’s not all fun and games. Sometimes it’s even scary.

I’ve had a stalker, who couldn’t tell me apart from Rowena and Gina Gallo (the protagonists in my two series. You would think he would be disappointed upon meeting me. I’m almost 30 years older than my sexy protagonists!) Age didn’t turn him off. I felt hunted and haunted. It got to the point where whenever I was teaching at night or speaking in public, I would make sure to be accompanied by a male escort (not the hired kind. Although that would make for a better story…)

The Ugly:

I’ve had an ex-con confront me at a public event to write his ‘story’. I tried to explain that I was a fiction writer, not a true crime writer. Didn’t convince him. He followed up with angry emails. Things got tense. What DID convince him was explaining who I was related to, and why they wouldn’t be at all pleased to see me writing true crime. (He knew of The Family. That convinced him. He vamoosed.)

The Funny:

We started off this post with a good news event. But those are balanced by the ones that simply devastate the already fragile ego.

I was invited by a downtown Hamilton library branch to come on out for a Monday afternoon to speak about my bestselling fantasy series, Rowena Through the Wall. The event was open to the public, but the main audience would be a very keen grade twelve creative writing class from the local high school. Fantasy rocked with them, apparently.

Now, it just so happened that this Monday, the teachers were in contract talks, and they went work-to-rule. That meant no field trips. Librarian calls me with this news, but says “Don’t worry. Come anyway. I’m sure people will attend.”

When I arrived, instead of 34 eager students, there were exactly six elderly women, all with walkers.
But we’re troopers, right? We perform even if there is an audience of one. So I started reading. And half way through my five minute reading, at the most exciting part, one old dear yelled out, “When does the movie start?”’

And such is the glamorous life of this author.


That sketchy gal, and her friend Joan O'Callaghan, in Feb.
Hey - a candid photo that doesn't make me want to kill myself!

THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS is a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award, sponsored by CRIME WRITERS OF CANADA!  You can pick it up at all the usual places.  Of course, Gina - the protagonist - would probably steal it...

09 May 2020

You Know More Than You Think You Do


Beach, Relax, Chair, Umbrella, Ocean
Pixabay
I’m taking a break from the Coronavirus news and trying to write more than I usually do every day. I live in Corpus Christi, Texas, where there are lots and lots of sandy beaches. There’s more than one bay beach between the city and Port Aransas and North Padre Island. We’re near Oso Bay. We often drive on a causeway over the Laguna Madre to North Padre Island to get to Port Aransas and drive on the thirteen-mile beach and maybe stop for a meal.
Obviously we like to go to the beach. They were all open for Spring Break. Breakers come from San Antonio, Austin, and as far away as the Dallas/Fort Worth area and even from Minnesota and other states way up north. We don’t go to the beach when the kids are here. Traffic is horrific.

Then they closed all the beaches for a few weeks, and now they’re open again with restrictions. We’ve stayed home, and so I have more time and inclination to write.

We used to own an RV lot in Port Aransas and usually parked there for a good part of the winter. We loved to walk over a boardwalk to the beach.

Then we sold the lot and our motorhome and moved into a “stick” house again. I’m writing more than I did when we traveled everywhere, but not as much as I am now.

So, I came up with this, and hope you find it helpful:

There’s an old adage about writing that is often given as a rule to new writers. The quote states, “Write what you know.”

I’m not here to argue that that’s bad or incorrect advice. I’m here to argue that you know a lot more than you think you do.

It’s implied by that statement that you should only write about what you know firsthand. For example, if you’re going to write about New York City, you should have lived there, or at least visited it. If you’re going to write about sailing a ship, you should have done so many times. And if you’re going to write about a crabby old man, you’d better be one.

Wait. That can’t be right. No, it means that you know enough about NYC by hearsay and researching to do a credible job writing about it. That you know a veteran sailor and can ask him to review what you’ve written for accuracy. And your uncle on your mother’s side (not saying which uncle) was a walking, talking human crab, and you can mimic him extraordinarily well  in your written opus.

If the advice were taken literally, no one could write a story. Writing about a woman, but you’re a man—can’t do it. Writing about a murderer—can’t do it unless you’ve murdered someone. Writing about the War of 1812—not unless you lived there and have come back from the dead or are a time traveler. This also, of course, rules out writing about zombies. Right?

Writers really do write about what they know. They start with certain knowledge, and then they let their imagination take off and carry them to different places, to meet different people, and to make up different situations to create a story. That’s what stories are, after all. They’re made up.

I personally know several men who write brilliantly in women’s points of view. I know other writers who can describe places they’ve never been better than I can, and I’ve been there. Others can spin a yarn that takes your breath away, made out of nothing, it seems. But all these writers are expert at one thing. Observation. The ones who write terrific characters have a great empathy and understanding of human nature. Those who do so well with descriptions have an artist’s eye and can translate what they see, either in real life, in a photo or canvas, or in their own imagination, onto the page. And those who can plot have observed life as a story unfolding before then, have probably read extensively, and learned the mechanics of plotting.

This means if you are determined enough, you can write anything your imagination comes up with and do an excellent job of making it come alive on the page and so believable that your readers can’t put the story down until they’re finished.

This means you can write anything at all, from children’s stories, to young adult stories, to romances, to fantasy, to science fiction, to mysteries, to horror, to suspense, to thrillers, to literary, or any of their subgenres, or make up a genre all your own.

This means you can write for audiences who are younger than six to over one hundred and six years of age. It wouldn’t hurt to read a few books in the genre you want to write in, and to read books in the age range you’re interested in.

So, don’t let the phrase, “write what you know” stop you. Write about what interests you. If you’re unsure about anything you’re written, after some good research, ask someone who knows all about it to read that part of the story, or the whole thing. Read the children’s book to a six-year old. Ask your grandmother to read the one about the “old lady bridge club murders.” Ask a police officer to take a look at the murder scene you’ve written for accuracy. But first, you have to get it written down. Then you can get it vetted by those who know more than you do.

And sure, gloss over what you’re not positive about if it won’t hurt the story. The story is everything. The “known” details give it veracity. Start with something you know. Then let your imagination fly.

Just as I’d love to fly my kite again on the beach. Instead, for a while, it will be my fingers flying over the keyboard to keep me amused and out of trouble.

Stay safe everyone.

Green Coconut Trees Near Body of Water
Pixabay



Writer of short stories (over 70 published), mystery novels (11 published) and non-fiction. Passionate about time management, personal organization, and writing of any kind. Check out my website for more info: www.JanChristensen.com and sign up for my newsletter there.

02 May 2020

Strange but True





My SleuthSayers colleague Melodie Campbell and I were swapping emails last week about how nice it is to receive a bit of good news and encouragement now and then, during these fearsome times. Melodie's writing news, in case you haven't heard, is that her novella The Goddaughter Does Vegas has been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award. (Congratulations again, Melodie!)

This got me to thinking about some of the surprises and unusual things, both good and bad, that have happened to me in my 26-year writing "career." Here are a few that come to mind:

Believe it or not . . .

- Four of the first five short stories I ever submitted to magazines were accepted and published. (Boy this is easy, I thought.) The next thirteen--thirteen in a row--were rejected.

- On two separate occasions, due to printing errors, my stories appeared in a national magazine under someone else's byline. After one of those I received an email from a confused reader asking if I also write under the name Elizabeth Hawn.

- I once gave a presentation at a rural library and 75 people showed up. Several months later I did a similar talk at another library and two people attended, besides me. Both of them were library employees.

- I have twice received acceptance letters for stories I didn't write. File that under Excitement and
Then Disappointment.

- I have on three occasions been paid for stories in advance (before they were written). I wish that happened more often.

- When our oldest son's wife and their children were bumping across Africa on a tour last year, they saw another passenger in their van reading one of my books. That was a happy (for me) piece of vacation news.

- A customer at a chain-store signing once asked me to sign one of my books for him but not to personalize it, because he said he might change his mind before he checked out.

- Another man at one of my signings told me he'd enjoyed several of my books, especially the first one: A Time to Kill. He was less than pleased when I informed him that he had the wrong John.

- Bad surprise: Long ago, a movie project based on one of my stories was suddenly cancelled two weeks before filming was to begin. Cast and crew and locations were ready, original music was written, etc.--and everything stopped. Good surprise: In January 2019, fifteen years later, a Hollywood producer contacted me via my website to express interest in another of my stories (which thankfully wound up getting optioned). I almost didn't see his email--it went to my spam folder.

- I once submitted a short story (electronically, to the UK) and received an acceptance three hours later. Two other stories (to Kansas and to Michigan) received acceptances almost three years later. Rejections--too many to remember--have ranged from two days to two years.

- My payment for one of my stories was a lifetime subscription to the magazine. (A mixed blessing.)

- The agent I acquired to market my novels has instead helped me sell several short stories and the film rights and foreign rights to other stories. My novels remain unsold.

- I once (only once) shared a literary short list with Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Doug Allyn, and Gillian Flynn. Flynn won.

- A friend once told me she takes my books with her when she drives, and reads the stories at stoplights. I asked her not to mention that in accident reports.

- My magazine credits include The Shantytown Anomaly, Appalling Limericks, Barbaric Yawp, and Volcano Quarterly.

- Another booksigning incident: A lady who said we'd met long ago thanked me for using her as a character in one of my stories (although the character had a different name). I told her it was my pleasure. I had no idea who she was, so the whole thing was news to me.

- One of my stories was rejected two dozen times, and on the 25th try I sold it for $ 900. (Never give up!)



From Russia with royalties

Back to what Melodie and I were discussing the other day, which is the fact that bright spots often pop up during dark times . . .


The strangest and most surprising thing to happen to me lately came as a result of an email I received from a book publisher in Moscow last month. It came in via my website and (once again) landed in my spam folder, which--believe me--I have learned to check every day. Messages my computer thinks is junk sometimes turn out to be manna from Heaven.

This email informed me that the publishers had seen my short stories in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post and would like to reprint those stories in a bilingual collection. We signed the contracts about two weeks ago. The book, to be called Selected Stories by John M. Floyd, will be released in both print and electronic formats by Publishing House VKN Limited, later this year. I'm told that one of the markets for the book will be readers who want to learn English--the stories will be featured with the original English text side-by-side with the literal translation into Russian with grammatical, lexical, and phonetical commentary.

Several of my writing buddies, including my fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, have secured unexpected book deals with publishers overseas, and even though I've had a number of individual stories translated and published in foreign magazines, this particular kind of arrangement is new territory for me. I owe sincere thanks to the publisher for its interest, to my agent for handling all the details, and to The Saturday Evening Post for featuring these stories in the first place.




A reborn identity

Like Melodie's recent award nomination, news of my upcoming book of stories is especially gratifying because it's further recognition of work that is already out there and had already achieved its intended purpose. When something you've created and sold and was published goes on to take on new life afterward, it's a good feeling, and an inspiration to keep sowing those seeds. And there are plenty of opportunities for that. You never know when or if something you've written might be seen and selected for an award, a movie adaptation, a best-of anthology, or some other kind of unexpected bonus.

Some of those bolts-from-the-blue can not only earn you more money, they can reach a whole new audience. My first exposure to the fiction of Tom Franklin, Annie Proulx, Brendan DuBois, and others came not from their novels or magazine appearances but from reprints of their shorts that I found in annual anthologies like Best American Mystery Stories and Best American Short Stories.



Lockdown in the boondocks

My point is, all of us writers have highs and lows, some experiences that are happy and some that are miserable--but patience, like hard work, usually pays off, in both the literary world and the real world. If you wait long enough (and shelter-in-place long enough?) good things will eventually happen.

Be safe, everybody. Keep writing.



11 April 2020

First Thoughts about Writing a Story


Last Saturday, John Floyd talked about how he starts writing a new story. A very interesting post. Check it out if you missed it.

John said he usually starts with a plot.

I’m different. I usually start with a character, then fix on a setting, and finally decide on the inciting incident which often includes a crime. I never outline but simply start a story and keep writing most every day to finish it. If I do get stuck, I make a list of what could happen next, pick what I think is the best situation, and continue writing.

I think there are two reasons it’s so much easier for me than other writers to not plot. First is to read. A lot. Stephen King says we should read the same amount of time every day as we spend writing. Sounds about right to me. But I started reading early (with Nancy Drew—I’m a cliché!), and average two books a week, and have for years and years and years. I know there have to be terrific authors out there who do not read much. But if you are struggling, I suggest you read more in your genre to get a feel for how good writers do it. And maybe get some insight into why you consider some writers amateurish and not be that way yourself.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression (Second Edition) (Writers Helping Writers Series Book 1) by [Becca Puglisi, Angela Ackerman]
For some reason I am highly focused. You can even interrupt me when I’m writing, and I will get right back to where I was and continue on when you leave me alone. How do I do that? I SEE in my mind’s eye the setting and what’s happening. I HEAR what the characters say and how they say it. And I FEEL their emotions as I write about them. I even find myself making faces, which I can use for dialogue tags. But the seeing and hearing are the most important things. Because I’m THERE, when I get back to writing, I can continue with little trouble. If you “see” everything, you will prevent mistakes such as having someone sitting and a while later, standing without showing it happening. You can imagine the gestures the characters are making and use them to make tags. You can describe the setting the same way every time you need to mention a table or a chair.

So, it’s all a snap for me, right? Of course not. I have other problems. The first and worst is character names. I wish I had all the time back spent messing with them. For a novel, I average about five or six name changes. Thank goodness for Find and Replace in Word although that can be both amusing and frustrating. For my current work, I decided to change a character’s name from Slack to Novak. I forgot how many characters wore slacks. This is about a 75,000 word novel. My fear is that I haven’t corrected all of them because you can’t totally depend on Replace to work correctly. I can only hope my beta readers find any of my characters wearing Novaks. Then I changed Mark to Aaron, and there was Maker’s Aaron instead of Mark. <sigh>

I learned early to make a list of characters in a chart that can alphabetize rows. First and last names each receive their own rows, and I also have ones for age, car, and description and other details I need to remember. So, as soon as I have several names, I alphabetize them by first name, try to have others with a different first letter, then do the same with the surnames. When writing series, these are really handy to look back at when I forget a minor character’s name or description, age, or make of car.

Because I am more interested in characters than the actual plot and setting, I have a lot of dialogue and people’s reactions to what’s going on. I find myself repeating certain reactions. Each novel seems to generate it’s own particular reaction. The last one was “shrugged.” This one has too many folks gasping. Fortunately, I own a terrific book called THE EMOTION THESAURAS—A writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. They have a whole series of books like this one, but for me, this is the most useful. Pick any emotion, go to the index, and choose things like anxiety, denial, happiness, surprise (gasp), and so forth.

That’s not all. I sometimes put in characters that in the end do not add much or anything to the plot, so I have to kill them off. And sometimes I leave stuff out that needs to be there and it can be difficult to find a place to impart the information needed during edits. I might even have to add a character or two.

Each story is different, so of course, each one has its own idiosyncrasies and needed fixes. For some reason, I don’t hate editing like a lot of authors do. Which is a good thing. My average is about five passes for novels and sometimes even more for short stories because every detail in those needs to work extra hard.

All that said, I do pay a lot of attention to plot. I try to have interesting starts and finishes to each chapter and to the story as a whole. I enjoy making up twists and unusual situations. But for me, the characters drive the plot. They act and react. I need to put some hard or uncomfortable situations in front of them and see how they handle them.

Who else usually comes up with a character? I suspect it’s probably a tie between character and plot coming first, with setting coming in last. But if you choose setting first, I’d love to hear how that works for you. 

I hope everyone is doing okay staying inside most of the time and maybe getting lots of writing and reading done. I certainly am. Take care!

10 March 2020

Paperback Writer


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?
It took me years to write, will you take a look?
It's based on a novel by a man named Lear,
And I need a job,
So I wanna be a paperback writer…
            — John Lennon / Paul McCartney


I always wanted to send a query to an editor and start it off with those words. Probably would have worked better a while back when more people would have recognized it than today. It still seems like a fun thing to do.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today. I am, however, writing about the Beatles.

Most people who know me for more than five minutes or more than just on the surface know how much I love the Beatles. I could run on and on here about just how much. But the main point is that, even though they’re music and I’m a writer, they had (have) a great influence on me.


The main thing they gave me (along with many other things) is a desire to be the best. I do play some music and if I had my druthers, if I could ever figure out what the hell a druther is, I would have wanted to be a rock star. Who wouldn’t? But as much of an ego as I might have—or had cause it’s shrinking all the time…—I knew I didn’t have the chops to make it in music. I had some fun. I played in some bands. See the home made, or should I say artisanal, card here from our first band. It might be artisanal, but I’m almost embarrassed to show it—very DIY. Anyway, I knew enough to know I couldn’t be a professional musician.


So I had to figure out something else to do with my life. Hmm? Astrophysicist. Architect. Archeologist. Anthropologist. Astronomer. Astrologer. You see whatever it was it had to start with an “A”.  Well, actually one of those might be something I considered. It might have had something to do with designing buildings. But I never really pursued it.

My parents, of course, always wanted me to have a “real job” and something to fall back on. But being the rebellious sort I went my own way. And that way took a left turn at Hollywood and Vine, especially since I was born the proverbial hop, skip and jump from there. So maybe it was fate that I wanted to try my hand at writing.

It wasn’t an easy row to hoe. And without going into specifics, it took lots of persistence, many rejections, some chutzpah (and if that isn’t a Hollywood word I don’t know what is). But eventually I carved a niche for myself doing rewriting. And the day I got into the (screen) Writers Guild was one of the best days of my life. However, my father never really understood what I did because I got no screen credit and without something tangible like that he didn’t quite get it.

From there I branched out to writing short stories and novels. And again started with many rejections and lots of persistence. Each rejection made me angry. After all, wasn’t I the greatest writer since Charles Dickens, or in our field, Hammett and Chandler? These people who kept rejecting me clearly had no taste. But after my little tantrums I would go back to the drawing board and either rework the rejected story or work on something new. I wanted them to be good. I wanted them to be good enough to sell.

And the Beatles, because I love them so much, and because they were so good and always pushing the envelope and trying new things, made me want to be better every time out…like them. I’m not putting myself in the same rarified air as them, just saying that they inspired me. Of course, they weren’t the only thing that lit the fire in the belly, but they were certainly part of it.

The time I made a producer cry after leaving him a treatment because it touched him so much was a highpoint for me—to get that kind of reaction meant I was doing something right.

There’s a bit in the movie As Good As It Gets, where Jack Nicholson says to Helen Hunt:

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson): I've got a really great compliment for you, and it's true.

Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt): I'm so afraid you're about to say something awful.


Melvin: Don't be pessimistic, it's not your style. Okay. Here I go. Clearly a mistake.


(shifts in his seat uncomfortably)


Melvin: I've got this, what, ailment? My doctor, a shrink that I used to go to all the time, he says that in fifty or sixty percent of the cases, a pill really helps. I hate pills. Very dangerous thing, pills. Hate. I'm using the word "hate" here, about pills. Hate. My compliment is, that night when you came over and told me that you would never... all right, well, you were there, you know what you said. Well, my compliment to you is, the next morning, I started taking the pills.

Carol: I don't quite get how that's a compliment for me.


Melvin: You make me want to be a better man.


(pause)

Carol: (stunned) That's maybe the best compliment of my life.

And just as she made the Nicholson character want to be a better man, the Beatles (and others) made/make me want to be a better writer. A better paperback writer.

I’m not saying I’m the greatest writer in the world, far from it. But listening to the Beatles, and reading great mystery and fiction writers made me strive to be the best that I could be. And when I’d get rejections I’d be upset, but it would also make me try harder with an “I’ll show you” attitude. I’m still not where I want to be, but I keep working on it. And what I am saying is shoot for the stars and maybe get the moon or even just a mountain top. Shoot for nothing and you get nothing. But while you’re shooting for the stars, hone your craft.


And I’m writing this not to talk about myself per se but to share my experiences for others who may be on the same path and might need a little encouragement. I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Coming June 1st from Down & Out Books - The Blues Don't Care:

“There are all the essential elements for an engrossing read: good guys, bad guys, gangsters and crooked policemen, and through it all, an extremely well written sense of believable realism.”
            —Discovering Diamonds Reviews, Independent Reviews of the Best in Historical Fiction (https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/)



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

19 February 2020

Premises, Premises


I recently had an amazing insight into my own writing.  You might say: Well, after forty years it's about time.  To which I reply: Don't be obnoxious.

And the insight which, as I said, amazed me, may strike you as blindingly obvious.  Even tautological. That's a problem with great discoveries: like magician's tricks they can be boring when they're explained.  But let's give it a shot.

I have always said that I am strong at characters and premises, but weak at plot.  So, what's the difference between a premise and a plot?  Think of the premise as the elevator pitch for the story:

The Premise: An orphan boy discovers that he is a wizard and goes off to wizard school.

The Plot (greatly condensed): At the school he makes friends and enemies, learns about magic and his family history, and struggles with a sorcerer who is plotting to kill him.

Or, to move into our own field...

The Premise: A private detective seeks to find who murdered his partner.

The Plot (greatly condensed): He learns that their client is mixed up with an international gang searching for a priceless medieval artwork.

This reminds me of Donald E. Westlake's Drowned Hopes.  In the middle of a complicated caper (which almost kills him)  John Dortmunder bails out and refuses to participate.  His partner hopes one of the other members of the gang and take over:

May said, “Andy?  What about you?  You have millions of ideas.”
“I sure do,” Andy agreed.  “But one at a time.  And not connected with each other.  A plan, now, a plan is a bunch of ideas in a row, and, May, I’m sorry, I’ve never been good at that.”

I feel for you, Andy. As I said, I am pretty good at coming up with premises for stories, but working out the details of a plot is a struggle.  That may be why I have a whole notebook full of ideas that don't seem about to bloom into publishable woks any time soon.

Now, another fact: I tend to write shorter-than-average stories.  I currently have eight tales that have been purchased by magazine or anthologies but not yet published.  They average out to about 3,900 words.  The Derringer Awards separate their Short and Long Story categories at 4,000 words, so you can see where I fall.  (And my median is even lower: 3,600 words.)

So now we get to the blazing discovery I just made.  Ready?  The reason I write short is that in very short pieces the premise is the plot.  For example, consider my story "Why" which appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

The Premise:  A cop resigns because of a discovery he made while investigating the motive of a mass murderer.


The Plot (Not at all condensed): Same as the above.


See what I mean?  Now, I don't blame you if you're reaction to this shocking insight is: Well, duh.  But it was news to me.

I have to sit with this discovery for a while, and try to see if it helps me with my plotting problem.  Meanwhile, I hope some of those eight stories find their way into print in the coming year.  At least most of them won't take up too many pages.





09 February 2020

Another world: Writing a Mystery Book



I wrote a new book. Except it’s not new anymore. I wrote it 2 years ago. Edited. Reedited. and yes, did that multiple times. Sent it to an editor and then another. Reedited.

Now it sits in my computer and I have a problem.

It’s not the book that’s the problem: it is the mystery novel that wanted to write.

The main character was written as a rebellion against the need to have a woman detective who is either a drunk or who sleeps around because she’s deeply damaged. Because, you know, that makes her interesting. I wrote her as someone who has lived a life with troubles – because that’s what life brings - but is like the women I know and love. They may be damaged by life but are not busy damaging others in their life. Women who I’ve looked up to. Women who make me laugh. Women who force me to think.

I wrote the things I have learned from friends, patients and my own life. There’s domestic violence to racial profiling of Muslims. I tried to write it as others had lived it. I told the stories that I have heard - the ones that had made me hold my breath in fear of missing a word.

I’m on my final edit. The problem is me.

During the writing and editing, my dearest friend was ill and then died. My father was ill and then died. My mother is now ill. All this has required time and energy to help during their illness. Time to deal with the loss.

Here is the crux of the problem: when I write I do little else. I enter this world and disappear for hours on end. I live it, breathe it and reality pales in the face of the world I’ve created.

Now, my reality has jagged edges, and cuts into this world. Sawing into it until it disappears like morning mist in sunlight. When it’s gone, I can’t get it back.

My ability to concentrate - to enter other worlds - was how I’ve done everything of value. It was as natural as breathing. It’s how I studied medicine, how I spent long hours with patients and trained, it’s how I parented by disappearing in the world of my children.

All the best things in my life were dependent on not having a reality so jagged that it sawed through every thought.

So, my book and I are now on separate worlds. I have no idea how we will live on the same planet again.

Recently, I decided to research writers block, thinking there may be suggestions that help. Unfortunately I found none. Advice like ‘Find the right surroundings’ mean little to me. I can write and have written anywhere. ‘Silence your inner critic’? That’ll be a cold day in hell. I’ve met her and write anyway.

 I could go on.

Except I can’t.

With the book that is.

Here’s the next problem: I write in my head anyway. I’m always revising and thinking of the book. Except when I sit with my book. That is the worst - to write but not write. 

So, instead of my book I’m writing an article about writing my book, which is amusing but not even that coerces me enough to write.

The one thing that keeps me hoping is coffee. The night before I have a day with even one block of time, I go to sleep with visions of coffee and writing. It won’t be tomorrow because there is far too much to do.

Maybe Monday?

25 January 2020

The Most Important Trait for an Established Author


You wrote the book. You got the publisher. You’ve won the awards. Okay, you’ve even got seventeen books and five series behind you.

What’s the most important thing you need to remain in the biz?

A much admired colleague wrote an email to me recently, in which he said, “As a writer of your experience and calibre, you must (still) feel the need to have confirmation, at times." That made me think about what it takes to survive as an author these days. And I’m not talking about a nice advance or a working spouse.

I have a post coming up in which I talk about what it takes to *become* an author. The Three Things you Need to Become an Author. But today, I want to talk about the 4th.

It’s not something you hear about often. In fact, I wouldn’t have known it until this year.  But 30 years after I won my first short story award, 200 publications later, and thirty years in the business, it’s clear to me.

You need to be versatile.

I got my start writing standup.  Mostly, I wrote for other comedians, and sold through an agent.  Then I became a newspaper humour columnist.  After that (and in addition to) I started writing short stories.  Often, I got paid $1000 a gig.

Then the short story market crashed in the 90s.  Did you hear about that?  Magazines like Good Housekeeping used to feature short stories.  Then some bright ad exec figured out they could get fiction publishers to pay to have the first chapter of a novel featured in their magazine, as an enticement for readers to buy the book.  In one move, many magazines quit paying authors like me, and started making money from them.  I was axed.

Next I tried the men’s magazines.  And yes, I wrote some pretty racy stuff for Fox and others.  (Under a different name, natch.)  That got old pretty quick.

Someone said I should be writing novels.  I started writing novels.  First, I wrote fantasy, because fantasy as a genre accepts comedy really well.  Comedy R Us, after all.  A trilogy (Rowena Through the Wall) got me featured on USA Today.

Then my publisher showed signs of collapsing.

Enter Publisher no. 2.  Would I write crime novella length books for them?  Damn right I would.  I wrote six.  (The Goddaughter series.)  Then Publisher no. 2 says, “We need a romantic comedy for the line.  Can I have your outline by April and a book by Sept.?”

I wrote the outline.  And the book.  Me, writing romantic comedy.  People liked it.  Contract came for a second.  All the while, I’m whining, “I’m a crime writer!”

Are you seeing a pattern?

Two years ago, I was signing books in my publisher’s booth at the Ontario Library Association conference.  Two male teachers came up to me and said, “Did you know your Goddaughter books are popular with the teenage boys in our high school?  Why aren’t you writing YA?”

The YA publisher for Orca Books, who happened to be standing next to me in the booth, said, “Yeah. Why aren’t you writing for me?”

And so Crime Club, the book that came out in September, is young adult crime.  And I don’t hate it.  I actually enjoyed writing for an age group I’d never tried before.

I relished the challenge.
 

I have come to the conclusion that the most important trait you need to survive in this business is to be versatile.  Markets change.  Tastes change.  Publishers come and go.  Fads come and go (seriously, are we done with Vampires yet?)  Even average reading ages change.  The girls who read sweet romances have all grown up and are now into domestic noir. 

No, you don’t have to turn yourself into a pretzel.  You don’t have to write what you hate.  But if you want a thirty-year career as a writer, the best thing you can be is versatile.

Asked to write in a new genre?  Think of it as a plot twist.  And welcome to my very twisty writing career.

Here's that YA book!  "Scooby Doo meets the Sopranos" Canadian Mystery Reviews
CRIME CLUB - available at all the usual suspects.


26 November 2019

P.I. Nocturne


by Paul D. Marks

Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa
In a couple of recent SleuthSayers posts O’Neil and Leigh talked about pre-rock music. I’d like to take my cue from them and offer my nine cents’ worth (inflation) on the topic. Music infuses my life and because of that it also infuses much of my writing.

As I mentioned in my comment on O’Neil’s post, I think there’s a lot of good music before rock. I love baroque music and well, that’s a hell of a long time before rock. But mostly I’m talking here about the swing/big band music of the 1930s and 40s. I love a lot of that music.

I’m a rock n roller, love to sing it, play it, not saying I’m any good, just like to do it. I grew up on it. And when I was a kid and teen it was all I wanted to listen to. My dad liked classical music and swing and if we were in the car and he put those on I would gag. But somehow, as I got older I began to appreciate other genres of music besides rock. I think partially because I was exposed to it as a kid—very much against my will—and also because I like/d old movies from the 1930s and 40s and was exposed to that music in them as well.

Duke Ellington - Take the A Train

When I was a kid, I got to see Benny Goodman play. And I hated it. I didn’t appreciate it. I feel like an idiot saying that today, but it is what it is. That said, I can still say I saw him. These days, I love his music, especially Sing Sing Sing, and wish I could have seen him again as an adult.

Benny Goodman - Sing Sing Sing

A very long time ago, my friend Linda (who’s also into old movies, old music and old L.A., like me), and I would cruise around L.A. and see various swing bands and singers. It was long enough ago that we actually got to see some of the performers from the 30s and 40s, who were still around. We saw Tex Beneke leading the Glenn Miller Orchestra. We saw Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, who, when they were with the Jimmy Dorsey band (one of my favorite big bands), sing their hits Brazil and Tangerine. You might recall an instrumental version of the latter wafting in from down the street in Double Indemnity.

Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell - Tangerine

So, even though I loved—and still love—rock ‘n’ roll, my musical horizons expanded quite a bit as I got older. I found there was a lot of great and sinuous music pre-rock. Just listen to Sing Sing Sing, or Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train or Artie Shaw’s Frenesi and so much more.

There’s also been some great musical moments in film noirs:

Elisha Cook in Phantom Lady


Louis Armstrong in The Strip, and Mickey Rooney drumming his heart out in that.

And the jazz scene in the original D.O.A.

But the point I’m leading up to is that, as a writer, my story/novel titles are often inspired by music and songs. Mostly rock, because they’re mostly set in the rock era, but sometimes swing. The title of my upcoming novel, The Blues Don’t Care, is inspired by a Nat King Cole song. And a story I did many years ago, Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, takes its title both from the infamous Sleepy Lagoon incident in L.A. during World War II and the song of that name, which inspired the name of the lagoon in that incident. My story title Born Under a Bad Sign is inspired by the blues song of the same name that was originally recorded by Albert King and covered by Cream, so it hits two genres of music.

Nat King Cole - The Blues Don't Care

Some of my story titles inspired by music are: Endless Vacation (Ramones), Poison Heart (Ramones), Deserted Cities of the Heart (Cream), and more. In fact, I just finished a story called Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith) and another, Nowhere Man (the Beatles). Music is everywhere in my writing.

I sometimes write things set in the past. The Blues Don’t Care (coming out in 2020) is also set on the L.A. homefront during World War II. It’s largely set on Central Avenue, L.A.’s swing and big band center. And the music of that era wafts sensuously around and through the plot. Doing the research for that was so much fun that getting any writing done was difficult. (I’ll be talking more about this book closer to its release. But right now I’m just talking about the music.)


Many of my characters also listen to music, and sometimes play it, like Ray Hood, the lead character in Dead Man’s Curve, named after the Jan and Dean song. P.I. Duke Rogers (from my novel White Heat and its sequel Broken Windows, both set in the 1990’s), listens to a variety of new wave and alternative music, everything from k.d. lang to Portishead and even some Eric Clapton. His less open and less tolerant partner, Jack, only listens to classical and cowboy (not country) music, which he thinks are the only pure/legitimate forms of music (and I like those genres too). He calls Duke’s music “space case” music in Broken Windows. But the music isn’t there only to help define their characters. I use their musical tastes to highlight the difference between the two characters and their contrasting personalities.

Music is a big part of my writing, helping express character and mood, though sometimes music can be difficult to express in a “two-dimensional” medium. It’s a bummer we can’t have a soundtrack to our stories/novels, but I’m sure that’s coming with e-books, if it isn’t already here.

I often listen to music while I write and most often it’s the kind of music that can get me in the mood for what I’m writing. So if I’m writing something set during WWII I listen to big band, if I’m writing something more contemporary, I listen to one kind of rock or another. You get the idea.

Today I’m listening to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and who knows what stories they might inspire or how it will affect what I’m working on right now. That’s one of the great things about music, it can inspire you in so many ways and bring out emotions, thoughts and feelings that we sometimes stifle in our everyday lives—and it can do the same for our characters. And remember, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:


Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."



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

09 November 2019

My Rules of Mystery


Many writers have drafted up a set of "rules" for how to write and, specifically, how to write mysteries. I thought now would be a nice time to toss in my five cents on the matter. And the following list can equally apply to short stories or novels.


1.   First rule of mystery writing: There MUST be a mystery.

Readers KEEP reading, page after page, because they want to know the answer/solution/explanation of that mystery.

2.   Does a mystery always need a dead body?

No. But the "crime" needs to be significant, e.g., a serious physical assault, the robbery of a valuable jewel, a threat to kill.

An empty chocolate wrapper (and Who ate the candy?) is a children's mystery. A severed head is an adult mystery.

3.   The mystery must be solved at the END of the story.

Ask a question very near the beginning, e.g., Who murdered Roger Ackroyd? Answer this question very near the end.

If you don't answer the question, and the mystery remains a mystery, the reader will throw your book at the wall.

You could answer the question in the middle, but you better have another good question to ask at that point to lead the reader through to the end; and there needs to be a good, justifiable reason for doing this.

4.   There is a difference between mystery and suspense.

A bomb that brings down an aircraft is a mystery. A passenger on a plane thinking the guy two rows ahead may have a bomb in his overhead luggage is suspense.

5.   Be aware that “Mystery” is a broad church.

There are many sub categories (or genres) to mysteries, e.g., noir, cozy, police procedural, private eye, locked room. And feel free to mix these up.

6.   Genres have rules.

If you’re writing in one of the genres (99% likely), be aware there are conventions and reader expectations for each.

Unless you truly are one of the masters of literature, mess with reader expectations at your peril.

7.   You are unlikely to be one of the masters of literature.


8.   Write what you know. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t write a story about a private eye, or a kindergarten teacher, if you have no idea at all what is involved in those professions. Don't set a story in Latvia if you don't, at least, know the country's capitol or what language the people speak (Riga, Latvian/Russian). Don't write about Euclidean geometry, if you haven't any idea what that is. Don’t guess; research (libraries, Google, talk to people).

A good writer is a good researcher.

9.   Clichés

Avoid these like the plague.

There are countless websites that list clichés and common and overused tropes.

10.  Conflict is your friend.

Conflict, at its simplest, is the "disagreement" between a person and another (person, external force/creature). It's between protagonist and antagonist; or to put it another way:

Main Character vs. ________________

Every work of fiction (mystery, or other) that’s ever been sold to a publisher has had conflict in it (literary fiction excluded). Conflict invites drama; it is the fuel of a story. If your story has no conflict, there will be little to engage the reader.

A scene where a married couple eats dinner and discuss what color to paint their bathroom is not drama. If one of the diners suspects the other of sleeping around, you have conflict (and they can still be discussing what color to paint the bathroom (see next)).

11.  Subtext is your friend.

Subtext is not written, it is implied. It is the underneath; the feelings and intuition, the unspoken meaning.

Even a shopping list can have subtext.
  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Hammer
  • Shovel
  • Bag of quicklime
  • Bottle of champagne 
Subtext is one of the writer's tools of magic.

12.  Plants are your friends.

Don’t have the hero pull out a gun and shoot the bad guy on the last page, if there’s been no mention (or any kind of reasonable expectation) that the hero is carrying a gun. Plant it. Remember your Chekhov: Gun on wall in first act. Gun fired in third act.

And plants apply to everything, not just guns. Bad guy's sneeze gives away his position in the shadows; plant his allergy earlier. Hero must rescue cat from tree, but he can't; plant his fear of heights earlier.

Without planting, events and actions will appear implausible, and your book will meet the wall.

A good writer is a good gardener.

Note: Yes, I know I'm retooling Chekhov's meaning (he was more concerned with the relevance of things in a story, i.e., don't include something, if it isn't needed later).

13.  Red herrings vs. Playing fair

Feel free to mislead and misdirect your readers (let them reel in many red herrings), but always play fair. Give your readers some real "clues" as to what is going on; so, at the end of the story, they'll slap their heads and sigh, "Oh, but of course!" Give them enough clues so that they "almost" might be able to work out what is going on, before you yank the curtain back and startle the snot out of them.

Never try to "trick" your reader; your book will be thrown at the wall.

And if you end your story with: it was all just a dream, you'll hit the wall before your book does.

14.  MacGuffins are a thing.

Many mysteries make use of a MacGuffin. A microfilm that everyone wants, and will kill for, is a MacGuffin. The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin. The object of a quest: a diamond mine, an unknown Beethoven Symphony, the Holy Grail, can all be MacGuffins. MacGuffins give the characters something to do.

Wikipedia sums it up best: "In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself."

The shark in Jaws IS NOT a MacGuffin.

15.  Impose a deadline

Deadlines work well in suspense (We have to find the bomb, it explodes at midnight!!!), and they also work in mystery. A deadline focuses a story on its end/outcome and creates urgency. Think of a story as a tunnel. The deadline is the light at the end.

The detective on board the train must identify the killer before the train arrives at its destination and all the passengers disembark. An unknown man who smokes Gauloises has threatened to hijack a school bus, and it's two hours until school's out.

16.  Twists are good. (there be spoilers here)

A TWIST ENDING is not a prerequisite for a mystery, but if you can write an unexpected and satisfying twist into your story's end, it will certainly make it more memorable; it will add another layer of icing to the cake. A twist ending completely upends and rearranges the facts and events of what's come before it.

The Sixth Sense: The child psychologist IS one of the dead people the kid is seeing. Psycho: Norman Bates IS his mother.

Pro tip: Twist endings are never arbitrarily dreamed up at the end of writing a story. They are written in right from the very beginning. Robert Bloch knew on page one of Psycho that Norman Bates' mother was dead and that Norman was the killer, and Bloch carefully hid this in the fabric of the storytelling. He didn't let the reader in on the truth until the end.

PLOT TWISTS can appear anywhere in a story and are different to the "twist ending." Plot twists change something significant about the story and/or the characters, but don't rewrite the whole thing.

Star Wars: Luke, I am your father. The Shining: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

An excellent, legendary plot twist appears in Psycho, about one third of the way in. Mary Crane, the book's main character (the one we've been following and who we care about), is murdered. She's gone for good. Never comes back. Bloch was one of the masters of literature; he could get away with that kind of thing.

17.  Last rule of mystery writing: Ignore all the rules at your pleasure. Except for the first one.


So, do you have any "rules of mystery" that you live and write by?



stephenross.live/
Twitter: @_StephenRoss/

26 October 2019

Writing as Salvation (a serious post just to prove that Bad Girl isn't always flaky


This year has been a test of anyone's sanity. In the winter, my beloved husband died painfully of cancer. I want to roar like a bear in fury just thinking about it. He wasn't retirement age yet. This kick to our life plan put my own life at risk. Was it worth it? Was anything in this world worth living for now?

The first three months were like walking through a stage play, where everyone had a script but me. I was haunted by the way he had died and my helplessness to make much of a difference. Guilt can be tied to helplessness in a strange and not exactly rational way. I was alive, where he wasn't given the chance. And I didn't appreciate it, this life. I felt guilty for that.

My two grown-up daughters kept me going during this time.

About month four, I had a strange feeling. I'd been through this before. Not the exact situation. But the quite similar emotion of things being out of control, overwhelming, too much to handle.

When I was a young girl, my sweet little brother was sick. Or so we called it. Later, they gave it the label of autism. Our house was one of sadness, and at times, fear. I sought ways to escape. And the very best way, I found, was through creating stories.

The characters in my stories did what I said. I gave them wonderful adventures. But at the end of the day, they were under my control. That was it - pure, unfettered control, where in my own life, I had none.

As a kid, I started writing as a way to cope with an unstable home life. Could things be any more unstable than they were now?

I had no idea what to do with the rest of my life. No idea where to live. And with that, intense loneliness that had settled deep in my bones.

SALVATION: deliverance from harm, ruin or loss.

Writing - back then as now - has been my salvation. But not perhaps in the way that most people think. It's not that my prose allows me to reflect and write about my feelings as some form of therapy (although this does work in wondrous ways for some people.) Instead, it does the opposite. It takes me out of myself.

On those days where there doesn't seem to be much point to sticking around, this calling pokes at me. Get writing, it says. Write for other people - not yourself. Don't yield to the temptation to make this about you. Enough about you. Write for them.

I write humorous heists, epic fantasy and romantic comedy. Many of my books have been used in the ESL and literacy market, here and overseas. It took a long time, several months, for me to pull out of my grief to remember that. But the memories are starting to come back. In the back of my mind, a voice pokes through. That of a large man in his mid-thirties at a literacy event, saying to me, "If you hadn't written the Goddaughter books, I wouldn't be able to read now."

I'm making this year about him. Enough about me.

What about you, fellow writers and Sleuthsayers? Is writing crucial to maintaining sanity in difficult times?

No BSP this time. May we all touch someone with our writing.