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

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.

03 September 2019

Negotiating Writing Contracts


by Paul D. Marks and Jacqueline Seewald

A couple of months ago I read a blog post by Jacqueline Seewald that I really liked and thought contained a lot of good advice. So I asked Jacqueline if I could re-post it here at SleuthSayers as I thought our readers would also find it interesting and useful. She updated it a bit and gave me permission to share it.

A little about Jacqueline:


picture of author, Jacqueline Seewald
Jacqueline Seewald
Multiple award-winning author, Jacqueline Seewald, has taught creative, expository and technical writing at Rutgers University as well as high school English. She also worked as both an academic librarian and an educational media specialist. Nineteen of her books of fiction have been published to critical praise including books for adults, teens and children. Her most recent novels are Death Promise and Witch Wish. Her short stories, poems, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in hundreds of diverse publications and numerous anthologies such as: The Writer, L.A. Times, Reader’s Digest, Pedestal, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Over My Dead Body!, Gumshoe Review, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Her writer’s blog can be found at: http://jacquelineseewald.blogspot.com

Take it away, Jacqueline:


How to Negotiate Writing Contracts

Recently I signed contracts with two different publishers for two separate novels, one a mystery novel in the continuing Kim Reynolds series, the other a stand-alone historical romance set during the American Revolution. Each contract involved negotiations resulting in compromises from both myself and the publishers. I was reminded that I might have some ideas that could be helpful to other authors who also don’t work with agent representation. I hope what I share with you will prove helpful.

Let us say you have written and rewritten until you’ve finally completed the best work of which you are capable. At last, you find a publisher who appears to recognize your accomplishment and achievement. And now you are offered a contract. There are perhaps a few things that you should understand about contracts.

First of all, publishers use contracts to protect their own interests. Writers need to be savvy enough to do the same. Even if you have the benefit of being represented by a literary agent, you should not be ignorant in this regard. Let's say you've been offered a contract for a work of writing you've created. What should you expect to be included?

If you can afford it, I would recommend that you have an attorney look over your contract. But let's assume that the publication is a small one and the amount of money offered is less than impressive. Obviously, it will cost you more than you would earn to have an attorney examine your contract. Also, it’s not likely that an agent will want to bother with it either.

When you need to act as your own attorney and agent, the best thing to do is read up on contracts for writers before you sign. Here's where books like Writer's Market can be helpful. Writer's magazines often carry helpful articles. Writer's organizations like: The Author's Guild (www.authorsguild.org), National Writer's Union (www.nwu.org), American Society of Journalists and Authors (www.asja.org), Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (http://www.sfwa.org/contracts/) all carry valuable information.

In regard to newspapers and magazines, there are a wide variety of agreements. Some editors work by verbal agreement (the proverbial handshake) while others insist on detailed written contracts. I’ve had both types of contracts work out well--but sometimes not so well. It all depends on the integrity of the publisher.

Writers are usually asked to sell first serial rights or one time rights. This is preferred by authors. If you sell "all rights" to a specific work then you will be unable to sell reprint rights later. And many smaller publications are quite happy to purchase reprints. At times I’ve sold reprint rights to short fiction and novels for more money than I received for selling first rights. So avoid selling “all rights” if at all possible. Of course, you can request that reprint rights are returned to you at a later date, but be aware that the publisher is not obligated to return them. My suggestion: always negotiate. I have turned down several well-paying publications for both nonfiction and fiction because I refused to sell all rights. I don’t regret it.

Payment should be specified and agreed upon. It shouldn’t be left vague. Request payment on acceptance. You might not get it, but it's best to ask. Getting paid upon publication can lead to all sorts of problems. Not every publisher is honest or has integrity. Remember that contracts are negotiable. There's nothing wrong with asking for changes that benefit you.

Ideally, a kill fee should be specified. This means that if the publication does not use your work, it still has to pay you a percentage of the original fee.

If you do have a written contract—and that’s always best—request that a specific date for publication be included. Some publishers will hold your work indefinitely otherwise. And yes, this has happened to me as well.

Book contracts are much more complicated to negotiate. If possible, once you are offered a book contract, obtain the services of an agent or attorney. True you will be giving away a percentage of your earnings on a contract you have gotten for yourself. However, if a good agent will now agree to represent your future work, then you are doing quite well. An agent can often get concessions from a publisher that you cannot. Here are a few examples: a higher advance, higher percentage of royalties, more free advance review copies and/or final copies of your book. Also, a good agent can deal with the publicity department of the publishing house on your behalf. Well-connected agents can get your work seen by top editors at the major publishing houses. They network and know what particular editors are buying at a given time.

 Assuming you are offered too little of a payment to make this practical and interest a first-rate agent, then you should read up on contracts for authors before you make a decision to sign on the dotted line.

What should you insist be included in your book contract? You ought to insist on an advance. The advance is based on a formula that projects the book's first year profits. Many small or independent publishers claim they do not and cannot offer authors advances against royalties. However, the publisher hopefully can be made to see that an advance, even a small one, is viewed as "good faith" money by the author. If no advance whatever is offered, this is a sign that the publisher does not expect the book to sell well or doesn't plan to put much or any money in marketing and publicizing your work once the book is published. A nonrefundable advance is what the author should be requesting. As to royalties, request that they be based on the retail price or gross and not the net proceeds which often turn out to be quite small. Publishers generally want only to give you a net percentage which ends up as very little, especially when they claim that there are “returns” of your book. Creative accounting by publishers is quite a common practice and hard to prove. Hiring a forensic accountant simply isn’t practical for a majority of writers.

Publishers generally ask for every kind of rights possible. You may want, for instance, to insist that movie and theatrical rights be removed. Publishers often include option clauses in their contracts insisting that they be offered first rights to your next book. This can be a problem if your work is successful but you are still offered the payment terms of the previous contract. Worse still is the publisher's right to last refusal.

A time range for publication should also be included in the contract. Two years is acceptable; past that, all rights should revert to the author.

Another matter of importance: find out in advance if the publisher will be sending your book out for reviews. If possible, have this specified in the contract. Without reviews from major publications the majority of readers will not know your book exists. Your sales will be highly limited.

Above all else, accept no contract in which you are expected to pay for anything. I cannot emphasize this enough! Any request for fees is a clear indication of a disreputable publisher. Alarm bells should go off. Run, don't walk away! Be suspicious, because there are plenty of scam artists around. Check out writing scams via the internet. There are lists of so-called agents and publishers to avoid on many of the legitimate writer's sites. Check out, for instance, SFWA's Writer Beware: http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware. This website offers valuable information.

My advice is to be patient. Take your time and consider your options carefully. Respect yourself and the integrity of your hard work. And don’t settle for less from a publisher.

If you disagree on some of what I’ve written or can offer your own helpful advice and information, please do so. Your comments most welcome to be shared!

***

Thanks for joining us at SleuthSayers and for the great advice, Jacqueline.


~.~.~

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

26 August 2019

Mojo Lost


by Travis Richardson

There was a time when I was writing 700 words a day before work 5 days a week and then another 1500-2000 each weekend day. I tracked everything on a spreadsheet and pushed myself to hit and exceed goals. Those days weren’t too long ago, somewhere between 2010 to early 2016. I had this weird magical drive where I wrote those 700 words every morning before work. In the peak period, I even did a sun salutation yoga routine before writing. I produced several near finished/unpublished novels and short stories that I never took the time to edit because I had fresher ideas to write that were even better than the older material. 

Then things changed. Not suddenly, but gradually until it seemed that I was barely writing anything at all. The biggest change was having a child. The awesome responsibility of caring for another human cannot be understated enough. My heart and attention focused on her. I altered my schedule to drop her off at daycare then to go to work, taking away some of the morning writing time. I started making up for it by writing during my lunch break. In the early part of my daughter’s life I was mostly able to make the goals, but not with ease. Then parts of my daytime job started to shift. I was pushed out of my office and into a general bullpen area, which deflated my ego and interrupted my workflow. Then my boss retired and his job split into two. My workload doubled for a while and I was skipping lunch breaks for weeks at a time. I wasn’t writing much at all. Somewhere in November 2016, depression started to hover over me. I’d have writing streaks now and again, but nothing with a sustained output like I had had.

Things bottomed out around the beginning of 2018. I worked things out with my wife so that either on a Saturday or Sunday, she takes my daughter out for the day and I get to write. I started a new writing spreadsheet with a modest 200 words a day goals. It worked great for a while. But then stupid things like Chrome not working on my desktop stopped me from tracking word count which meant I pushed myself less (even though I could look on a laptop, the desktop is sort of the writing hub…and I still haven’t fixed the problem.) 

Even with my family out, I’m not always hitting those 2000 words a weekend like I used to. My attention gets too scattered and that zone where my fingers try to keep up with my thoughts and I forget about time and food doesn’t happen as much. At times, I feel like a former high school athlete dwelling on the glory days that will never happen again because of age and bad knees. 

But that is BS. 

Writing is a craft that one can continue to improve on regardless of how old you are. I look at authors like the recently departed Robert S. Levinson who wrote into his 90s, keeping a constant creative output all the way through the end. (RIP Bob.) 

And while having a full-time job and kid is a partial excuse, is not the ultimate excuse. Writers such as Rob Hart, Angel Luis Colon, S.W. Lauden, Eric Beetner, and Matt Phillips have jobs, children, and tremendous output. So what is my problem?

I’m not sure. 

I’m not the same person I was five years ago and I wonder if my desire has lessened. I remember when I started going to MWA and Sisters in Crime meetings and listening to midlist authors complaining about the publishing industry, and I wished that I could be in a position like that to complain someday. I never made it that far, but I feel cynical at times and I hate it. I’m still dreaming the impossible dream, for better or worse. I need to believe in it again on a more intense scale. 
In July, I changed jobs, and now I have a bit of a longer commute (on foot) with an earlier start time. I’m trying to get to work a little early and write for a few minutes before the workday begins. That has worked for a few paragraphs, but not pages. I write on most of my lunch breaks too, but that has also been a limited chunks. And I haven’t opened my spreadsheet in months.  

Perhaps I might need to re-transform myself into the night writer I used to be in the unpublished 90s and early 2000s. The problem is that I’m so tired and stupid by 9-10pmish when my daughter falls asleep that I feel I can’t write anything coherent. 

I might also go back to an early carrot trick when I used to reward myself anytime I got a story published. I stopped after a while because I had a decent amount of publications and it seemed indulgent… but maybe it’s worth looking at it again.
Reward 1
Reward 2

In some ways, I feel bad for everybody at Sleuthsayers. You got me at low period. I’m not as interactive as I’d like to be and while I’d like to write a poignant blog that would shake up the writing community (in a good way), I can’t seem to knock that ball out of the infield.

On the positive front, next month I’m going to a writing retreat and I’m hoping that besides creating some output, I’ll have renewed energy to take me through the rest of 2019 and into the upcoming twenties. 

Have you had/have any writing productivity issues? For those who got past it, what did you do to overcome it?

Thanks for reading this!


Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at www.tsrichardson.com

                                                                              

13 August 2019

Strange Impersonation


by Paul D. Marks

I was looking for a movie to watch and Strange Impersonation, directed by Anthony Mann, sounded interesting, so I put it on.

And since I’m going to use this movie to make a larger point I’m going to give away various plot elements. I could use other, better-known movies, but as this is less-known and will work just as well illustrating the point, I figure it’s better to give the store away here. I’m using this movie to make a point about most, if not all, movies that do this.

SPOILERS AHEAD:

Here’s the basic plot as told by Bruce Eder on All Movie: “Nora Goodrich (Brenda Marshall) is a dedicated research scientist who is very close to a breakthrough in her field of anesthetics. She allows herself to be used as the subject of an experiment, and becomes the victim of sabotage by her jealous assistant (Hillary Brooke), who is her rival for the affections of the same man (William Gargan). Nora is scarred by the accident, but fate takes a hand when a vicious blackmailer (Ruth Ford), part of an extortion scam that was being worked on her, breaks in to her apartment. In the ensuing struggle, the lady grifter is killed and then mistaken for Nora, while the real Nora goes into hiding. Taking the identity of the dead woman, she realizes how she has been betrayed and maimed and plots an elaborate revenge, undergoing reconstructive surgery that changes her whole appearance. She then reintroduces herself into the lives of her former associates, in her new guise, and begins her revenge. Before her plans can be concluded, however, her masquerade backfires on her, when she finds herself accused by the police -- of the murder of Nora Goodrich” (https://www.allmovie.com/movie/strange-impersonation-v111934#ASyuCJD6Q4IVUJxw.99)


Okay, it sounds pretty convoluted, but just go with it, ’cause that’s not the point of this post.

It started going along pretty well. Nothing great, but I didn’t turn it off either.

So, after the ‘accident,’ and after the blackmailer dies and is mistaken for the scientist, the scientist leaves her fiancé and her life behind. She heads out west. Has plastic surgery to look like the woman who was blackmailing her. She then returns to the city as that person and begins on a course of revenge against her former assistant. She insinuates herself back into her former fiancé’s life, trying to steal him back from his new lover, her former assistant. Before she can pull it all together, everything backfires on her and she finds herself accused of murder—the murder of herself (though really, as we know, the blackmailer).


Okay, still convoluted, but interesting.

EXCEPT…

…that all of the revenge part of the plot turns out to be a dream. Everything after the explosion/‘accident’ didn’t really happen. It was all a dream in the scientist’s head after the accident. So all the emotion and excitement and concern that we invested in the character/s was for nothing. Because none of it was real. There were no real consequences. The assistant didn’t really make an explosive compound that disfigured the scientist. The scientist didn’t really get plastic surgery, return to exact her revenge, which was thwarted before should could finish it and she wasn’t really arrested for the murder of…………herself.

None of it happened. Because it was a dream.

And because it was a dream it’s a cheat. And it makes me angry and it makes me feel like I wasted 68 minutes of my life. I don’t like movies where major plot elements turn out to be dreams. I’ve invested myself, I’ve given over my suspension of disbelief. And then none of it matters.

I won’t name other movies or TV shows where things have turned out to be dreams, because I don’t want to give them away for those who haven’t seen them (with a couple exceptions below). But I can’t think of one that I like once I learn the events that took place were just a dream and didn’t really happen. There are, however, a couple of exceptions: one film noir that I like fairly well where much of it turns out to be a dream, but even that one which, if there is an exception to the rule is it, disappoints me in the end because again, there was no real jeopardy. There were no real consequences. So what did it all amount to? Nothing. The other exception is The Wizard of Oz, but that whole story is a fantasy. We’re not supposed to buy it as a real story as we are with other movies.

(Just as a side note here: I’m not talking about movies like Spellbound, where dreams are used to analyze a character and figure them out. That’s fine. I’m talking about movies where we learn that much of the action was a dream and thus didn’t really take place within the context of the story.)

Freud might have loved dreams and found them useful in psychoanalyzing people. But in my opinion, in a movie they’re nothing but a cheap cheat.

What do you think? Do you find movies based on dreams a cheat? Do you feel deceived after you’ve seen them? Let us know.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.



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

23 July 2019

The Future of Writing


by Paul D. Marks


Many of us have nostalgic, warm feelings of curling up with a book in the rain. For a lot of us here at SleuthSayers it’s more than likely a mystery or a thriller, though I’m sure we all read many different kinds of books, mainstream fiction, non-fiction, a little of everything.

But how many of our kids have that warm feeling? How many of our kids enjoy reading just for the pleasure of it? How many people read paper books anymore? And are young people reading these days? They do seem to read YA books, maybe on Kindle and iPad but not often in paperback. But they are reading less than previous generations and spending more time playing games on their phones, texting and watching movies instead of reading. More distractions and shorter attention spans. They’ve grown up with everything being faster and getting instant gratification. Do they ever read classics or history or something that’s a stretch for them? And how many never read anything longer than a  Facebook post or Tweet?


My wife, Amy, who takes the train to work, says, “I notice on the train a lot of people staring at their phones. Some are reading, but the really serious readers have paperbacks or Kindles and don’t read on their phones. Most are texting or playing games. And it’s time that could be spent reading but they don’t. And that’s scary. I understand wanting to do something mindless and entertaining for a little while, but we also need to exercise and stretch our brains and imaginations sometimes, too.”

It seems to me that, while there are still some places to buy books besides Amazon, and that people still read, I’m not sure how many people read or what they’re reading. So the question is, is fiction a dying art? And how does that affect our writing?

Many people, of all ages, would find Don Quixote slow to come to a boil. Nothing happens for too long. That’s the way it is with a lot of books from earlier times and not even all that earlier. Hemingway was known for his “streamlining” of the language, but many people these days find his books slow going.

The same applies to movies. Even movies made 20 or 30 years ago are too slow for many people today. And when they watch movies they often watch them on a phone with a screen that’s five inches wide. How exciting is that? And many movies today are of the comic book variety. I’m not saying no one should read comic books or enjoy comic book movies, but it seems sometimes like that’s all there is in the theatres.

And novels have become Hollywoodized. I like fast paced things as much as the next person, but I also like the depth a novel can provide that movies or TV series often don’t. And one of the things that I liked about the idea of writing novels was being able to take things slower, to explore characters’ thoughts and emotions.

In talking to many people, I often find there’s a lack of shared cultural touchstones that I think were carried over from generation to generation previously. That also affects our writing. Should we use literary allusions, historical allusions? If so, how much do we explain them? And how much do we trust our audience to maybe look them up? The same goes for big words.

Way back when, I was writing copy for a national radio show. Another writer and I got called on the carpet one time and dressed down by the host. Why? Because we were using words that were “too big,” too many syllables. Words that people would have to look up. So, we dumbed down our writing to keep getting our paychecks. But it grated on us.

But in writing my own books and short stories I pretty much write them the way I want to. I’m not saying I don’t stop and consider using this word instead of that. But I hate writing down to people. When I was younger I’d sit with a dictionary and scratch pad next to me as I read a book. If I came on a word I didn’t know I’d look it up and write the definition down. And I learned a lot of new words that way. Today, if one is reading on a Kindle or similar device, it’s even easier. You click on the word and the definition pops up. That’s one of the things I like about e-readers, even though I still prefer paper books. But I wonder how many younger people look up words or other things they’re not familiar with.

And what if one wants to use a foreign phrase? I had another book (see picture) for looking those up. But again, today we’re often told not to use those phrases. Not to make people stretch. I remember seeing well-known writers (several over time) posting on Facebook, asking if their friends thought it was okay to use this or that word or phrase or historical or literary allusion because their editors told them they shouldn’t. That scares me.

So all of this brings up a lot of questions in my mind: What is the future of writing? Are we only going to write things that can be read in ten minute bursts? And then will that be too long? What does all this mean for writers writing traditional novels? Will everything become a short story and then flash fiction?

In 100 years will people still be reading and writing novels? Or will they live in a VR world where everything is a game and they can hardly tell reality from fantasy?

So, what do you think of all of this?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.




Also, check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus Award-winning novel, White Heat.



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

17 July 2019

Because It Isn't There


by Robert Lopresti

I'm going to give in to peer pressure and follow Steve Liskow, Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, and O'Neil De Noux in addressing the question: Why write?

* When I was in second grade I brought a pencil and notebook to school determined that I would write a new Winnie-the-Pooh story.  I remember my shock in realizing that I had no idea how to do that.  Why did I want to write?  Because there were only two Pooh books and that clearly wasn't enough.

* In sixth grade our English teacher encouraged us to write short stories.  I wrote a few spy stories (in slavish devotion to The Man From Uncle)  and Mrs. Sonin, bless her heart, would let me read them to her after school while she graded papers.  I hope to heaven she didn't listen because they were uniformly awful.  Why did I write?  Because I loved to read and wanted to add more stories to the world.

* While living in a dorm at graduate school I found time to write a novel, which I had the good sense not to submit anywhere.  I still have the handwritten draft but, as Robert Benchley said about his diary, no one will see it as long as I have a bullet in my rifle. Why did I write? Because I wanted to be a writer and I needed something to do other than study cataloging.

* At the same time I started submitting terrible short stories to magazines.  Why?  Because I thought I might have a career as a writer.

* After three years of trying I sold a story to Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine. The rush I got from seeing my name in print gave me a reason to write for many years.

And other stuff happened, but that's enough.

Let's sum things up, shall we.  Why do I write?

As Thomas Berger said: "Because it isn't there."