09 March 2016

Gen. Hayden Comes Out


A lot of stuff happened on Michael Hayden's watch - or watches. 40-year career military, he retired with four stars. He served as Director of the National Security Agency (DIRNSA) from 1999 to 2005, Deputy Director of National Intelligence (DDNI), 2005 to 2006, and Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), 2006 to 2009.


The last ten years of Hayden's career are, um, interesting, a period that was a particular challenge for the American intelligence community - and for Hayden personally, a time when he became a senior placeholder and the brand label for an emerging subset of spycraft, the Information Domain.

Hayden commanded the Air Intelligence Agency before moving up to NSA. This is one of the three military cryptologic units (each of the major branches have one), and in fact it's my old outfit, the USAF Security Service, dressed up in new clothes and renamed. the basic mission is much the same, but as the electronic battlefield has gotten more sophisticated and elusive, the targeting and analysis strategies have kept pace. Hayden's assignment to AIA was a bellwether of his later tenure as DIRNSA. Although he seems to have miraculously few serious enemies in and around the Beltway, he's known to take no prisoners.

Air Intelligence apparently became something of a test case, both for Hayden and the secret world at large. It's a commonplace that generals fight the last war, and it's just as true of the secret intelligence community. Hayden brought a different mindset to AIA. The enemy was no longer state-sponsored. The environment was target-rich, but suddenly diffuse, amorphous and unfocused. Hayden didn't invent the concept of metadata, but he understood how it could be a useful tool. The problem wasn't too little intercept, it was too muchYou needed a way to shape the raw material, to give it context and collateral, and put the dirty bits in boldface.

Otherwise, your 'product,' in the jargon, turned lumpy and indigestible, like a cake that's fallen in the oven, and your consumers would spit it out. You're only as good as your box office. Hayden understood the relationship was market-driven.

Let's cut to the chase. There's a cloud over Hayden's job performance as DIRNSA, and then as DCI. The complaint is that he was, in effect, a Good German - that he turned a blind eye to excesses. Now that Hayden's published a  memoir, PLAYING TO THE EDGE: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror, he gets to tell his side of the story, or at least blow some smoke our way.


Let me 'splain something here, Lucy. Spook memoirs are a mixed bag, a specialized genre like the campaign biography, with peculiar ground rules. There are the outright fabrications, like Kim Philby's MY SILENT WAR, which was ghostwritten by his KGB handlers. On the other hand, some are entirely reticent. Dick Helms' A LOOK OVER MY SHOULDER is so dry you wonder if the guy even has a pulse, until he gets to Nixon and Watergate, and his fury boils over. They usually split the difference, between a poison-pen letter and a sanitized employment application. It helps if you're familiar with the background landscape, and the supporting cast, which of the stories have been told before, from which perspective, and who's gone into Witness Protection. Valerie Plame Wilson and Scooter Libby are going to have two very different recollections of similar events, let's face it, and the possibility of active disinformation is never far from mind. You have to sort it out, and separate the self-serving from the malicious, or purely deceptive.

'Frank' isn't a word that trips immediately off the tongue when you consider Michael Hayden, but the book is revealing in ways he maybe isn't aware of. It surely displays the quality of his mind, and it also betrays an impatience with fools, which is no bad thing. I was put off, though, by a certain rigidity of temperament, or even spirit. Hayden doesn't seem to entertain much self-doubt. He's not a second-guesser. He weighs the arguments, he calls heads or tails, and then the tablets are written in stone.

A case in point is PRISM, the eavesdropping program I've described previously. Hayden refers to it as STELLARWIND, which is how the product was labeled, and although he admits there were some privacy concerns, it was simple necessity to use it. Okay, take his word for it. Then let's talk about Enhanced Interrogation. Opinions vary, but a lot of professional interrogators say torture doesn't get the needed results. Hayden says different. Again, is this philosophical, or metaphysical? Depends whose ox is being gored. If you're the guy on the operating table with water running out your nose, you're in no position to argue. We could also get into the nuts and bolts of the drone program and how targets for elimination are selected.


The larger question here, aside from specific issues, is transparency. Hayden's read on this is spectacularly tone deaf. When he took the helm at NSA, he made an effort to drag them kicking and screaming into the daylight. This was simply good public relations, to position the agency as a visible presence, and sitting with the grown-ups. He'd also inherited a recalcitrant and ungainly command and reporting structure, so Hayden's reorganization went some way toward establishing his own independent power base. What didn't happen, though, was any change in his baseline metabolism. The habit of security, circling the wagons, is ingrained, it becomes second nature.

Hayden falls back on the Honorable Men defense. This is the title of William Colby's memoir of his years as DCI - and comes, in fact, from his testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee. We work in secret, Colby's train of thought goes, and the American public has to trust us to be honorable men, that we know right from wrong. Or, as Mike Hayden puts it, quoting an unexpected source, "To live outside the law, you must be honest."

Stop me if you've heard this. It sounds much the same, set to new music, and sung in the key of Tuned Out.

08 March 2016

Interview with Medical Thriller Author John Burley


by Melissa Yi

Scene: book signing at Left Coast Crime 2016. Melissa Yi and Kenneth Wishnia are fighting off hordes of Jewish Noir fans. Suddenly, a six-foot-one man eases his way to the front of the line.

John Burley: I’d like to introduce myself. My name is John Burley. I’m an emergency doctor and a writer.

Melissa Yi: Are you serious? So am I. You’re the first one I’ve ever met. I’ve met other doctor-writers, but not emergency doctor-writers.

JB: Likewise.

John and Melissa size each other up and shake hands.

Kenneth Wishnia: I want to know about that thing where you take a pen and stab someone in the neck so that they can breathe.

MY: The cricothyroidotomy.

KW: Where do you do it?

MY: Between the thyroid and cricoid cartilage.

JB: Just below the Adam’s apple. You feel it?

KW nods.

MY, to JB: You ever done one?

JB: I’ve done five.

MY: Are you serious?

JB: Yes. The last one was the most challenging, because of congenital malformations and previous tracheal surgery.

MY: Holy crap. That’s crazy. [To Ken] We talk more about crics than we actually do them. So, John, tell me about your latest book. 

JB: My latest novel is titled The Forgetting Place. It's a dark psychological suspense thriller that's told from the perspective of a female psychiatrist who works at a correctional hospital for patients who've committed heinous crimes but have been deemed not guilty by reason of insanity. But there's more to this place than she suspects. At Menaker State Hospital, no one is safe for long. 

MY: And why do you feel the need to write? Isn’t it enough, to be an emergency doctor?

JB: I write for the same reason that most of us do: there's something inside of us that we have to get out. Being an emergency doctor creates more grist for the mill. There's a physical and emotional intensity to the job that shouldn't be bottled up for too long.

MY: I’ll ask you the question everyone asks me: how do you find the time?

JB: It's like anything that you love, I guess -- like any obsession you can't live without. You make time for it, make sacrifices along the way. Everything has its price. 
MY: And would you ever quit medicine, if the writing took off?

JB: I don't think so. Not completely, anyway. Being a writer is an isolated and often lonely profession. Medically speaking, emergency medicine is the antidote. I look forward to my shifts in the ER. It's a chance to help people, to use a different skill set. Also, it gets me out of my own head for a while. For the sake of maintaining one's sanity, I think that's pretty important. 
MY: Did you do any other work before emergency medicine?

JB: Yes. I was a firefighter and a paramedic. Being a firefighter was the best job I ever had. It was like something every little boy dreams about. Hanging out with my friends, racing with lights and sirens to the scene of an emergency, crawling around in burning buildings, using hydraulic tools to free people who are trapped in the wreckage of a crumpled car. Swooping in and saving the day. In terms of job satisfaction, it doesn't get any better than that.  
MY: Okay, you’re officially a superhero. Wait, some fans want to ask you some questions.

Fan #1: Are you ever going to write a series?

JB: When I finish a book, I feel like I’m kind of done with that world for a while. It’s possible, but I like doing new things with every novel.

Fan #2: Are you ever going to set a book entirely in the emergency room?

JB: It’s hard to set a 400-page book in the emergency department. I've set scenes in the ER before, but not a whole book. Besides, I spend enough time there already.

MY: Any final words you want to share with your present and future readers?

JB: Thanks for your love of books, for lending us your imaginations and joining us in the worlds we've created. You make it all worthwhile, and we love hearing from you. Without readers, it would all fall apart. Nothing else in this business would matter.

MY: There you have it, folks. The fans are craving more series, more emergency room carnage, and more John Burley. Can’t exactly blame them. If you’re super lucky, maybe you can go to a conference and have sushi with him. (In Phoenix, I recommend Harumi Sushi.) In the meantime, you can check out his books and the latest happenings at www.john-burley.com.

07 March 2016

Nothing Much Here


The hour to post my blog draws nearer and I honestly don't have a topic or even an idea of what to write. I had read a blog written by a friend this week and sent her a message asking if I could repost on my blog. I haven't heard back from her and I'm sure it's because she's busy or else she's been goofing off but not on Face Book.

It was a subject I've talked about before but hers has a new take. Dealing with gaining a deeper understanding of your characters. She mentions something she uses in her writing classes and I've used it also.

Take your character on a field trip to the grocery story or perhaps a WalMart. The way your character responds can tell you a lot. Do they make out a list or do they just go up and down the aisle picking up what happens to catch their eye.

Does your character not only make out a grocery list? If the character is very organized, she may even plan a week or two of meals, that could make the list quite long.

Then how does the character dress? Just in typical jeans and t-shirt or sweats? Or does he or she dress in what might be called crazy laid-back attire? I've seen women in stores in long dresses and high heels as if they were going to a big party after leaving the store. To top it off, one lady wore her hair in rollers because she had to do the comb out in the car as she heads to the party. Okay, maybe you can believe her if she's buying a party tray or dip and chips. If not, then not so much.

Or how about the guy in pajamas? Flannel pajamas with very loose elastic at the waist so that the bottoms sag and you can see his butt crack. Do you feel like you need eye bleach?

Then there is the items your character buys. All junk food? Or all fruits and veggies? Perhaps it's a busty, fussy looking lady who buys Redi-Whip and when you turn the corner to the next aisle and there she is squirting the whipped cream in her mouth.

How about when he or she gets to the Express check-out line. Perhaps your character only has three items and is in a big hurry,  he agitatedly sighs and you can tell he has a short temper on an equally short fuse. You just know he's going to explode any minute. There's a young mother in from of him with a ten month old baby in the baby seat of the grocery basket. The baby looks up at the man and lets out a huge laugh. It's the kind of laugh that no one can ignore.

The demeanor of the man changes immediately. A baby looked up laughed. Somehow the time frame slows and the man can't help smiling back. Now the baby is chuckling and so is the man who now looks at the person behind him in line. It's a older man with a bouquet of yellow roses. Obviously he's bought them to take home to his wife. Maybe it's their anniversary or her birthday. Your character smiles at the older gentleman and they both laugh at the baby again. At that moment, you know your character is actually a likable person although you originally thought he was a horrible stinker.

A little shopping trip with your character constantly in your mind can make a world of difference. It adds depth to your character and to your writing. No editor will come back at you and say your characters are two dimensional or wooden.

Okay class, that's all for today. Use if you need for your own work or as an aid in your role as a writing teacher.



Am sure you all have hear about the death of Nancy Reagan. I'm sure that now she can Rest In Peace.

06 March 2016

WiTchcraFt


by Leigh Lundin

So Tuesday, friends invited me to celebrate a birthday with dining and a movie. Our birthday girl selected a film applauded at Sundance, a ‘Christian horror’ flick that supposedly “terrified” Stephen King– she chose The Witch.

The Witch
Critics praised it with adjectives– thought-provoking, visually compelling, deeply unsettling, intelligent, meticulously researched, historically accurate, carefully crafted, detailed, brooding, numinous, magnificent, smart, artful, gut-wrenching, creepy, atmospheric, beautifully crafted– an immense atmosphere, a little gem.

And yet, friends and I literally struggled to stay awake.

Movie audiences often regard films more positively than reviewers, or rather they side with critics who give higher ratings, but are more reluctant to agree when professionals pan movies. Rotten Tomatoes calculated an 89% approval from 160 reviewers. It’s especially beloved by the Satanic Temple, which endorsed The Witch and hosted screenings. Meanwhile, only half of 22 000 audience members liked it.

Stirring the Pot

Is The Crucible still required reading in high school? We not only read Arthur Miller’s play, we studied the history of Salem witch trials. My girlfriend lived a short oxcart ride from Plimoth Plantation, where the story begins. She suggested a tour of Salem and the nearby cemetery with its slate headstones. I entered the movie theatre looking forward to the story and its history.

Puritans were singularly unpleasant people. The English could not abide them; the Puritans could barely tolerate themselves. They detested other brands of Christians. Once, they hanged two Quaker women– as inoffensive humans as ever one might encounter– passers-by in the wrong place at the wrong time. To take them in, the local Indians must have been saints.

The film commences in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. For context, the Salem witch trials wouldn’t come until much later, 1692.

Family Portrait

The Witch features surprisingly few Indians… zero, by my count. Instead, the film focuses on one family: husband William, wife Katherine, baby Samuel, Katzenjammer-like twins Mercy and Jonas, coming-of-age son Caleb, and beautiful, ethereal daughter Thomasin. These are the children all parents want.

Caleb follows his father, learning how to build, plant, hunt, and the work that makes a man. Sexual awakenings confuse him. He shares with his older sister a protectiveness toward the baby in the family.


 Witch language: Enochian.

The focus soon shifts to gentle Thomasin and the remainder of the story plays out through her eyes. She seems too delicate for hardscrabble pioneering, yet she works uncomplainingly.

The characters are portrayed well enough, although growing to like people only to see them destroyed is always difficult.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

Plimoth Plantation
Plimoth Plantation
What was wrong with the movie?

Our David Dean knows something about Christian horror as evidenced by his novel, The Thirteenth Child. That atmosphere builds, mystifies, intimidates and terrifies. In comparison, The Witch merely disappoints.

To writer-director Robert Eggers’ credit, he didn’t belabor the portrayal of witches, wisely choosing to understate. Unfortunately, his deft hand lacked in other ways. My overwhelming feeling was sadness for a likeable, struggling family unraveling through little fault of their own except, you know, they weren’t Puritan enough. Sadness and boredom… and I usually admire historical detail.

Eggers would have been well-served to study writings of New England horror by H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft especially turned environment into atmosphere, forged words into weapons, nay, gnashing teeth that rend a reader’s imagination and devour hope.

Cauldron of Crises

The movie’s far bigger problem is a lack of plot. The family leaves the religious colony to homestead on their own. They face calamities in feeding themselves as crops, livestock, and hunting fail, and later, crises of conscience. William represents Job in the New World. If something goes wrong, it must be God’s will.

This isn’t a plot, it’s a premise, a series of vignettes maybe caused by witches, maybe not, barely threaded on the same spool. Worse, it’s an audience waster for anyone other than film students.

In the hands of M. Night Shyamalan, the production would likely feature a darkly intricate plot, more mystery, less ambivalence. Everyone has to start somewhere and this is Robert Eggers’s first film. But time and money are precious, and whereas we ponder the harsh lives of the Puritans, I suspect future generations will wonder why The Witch received an 89% rating.

05 March 2016

Writing No-No's and When to Use Them


For those of you who don't know him, Herschel Cozine's work has appeared not only in many of the national children's magazines but also in AHMMEQMM, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and Woman's World. Additionally, he is the author of many stories in Orchard Press MysteriesMouth Full of BulletsUntreed ReadsGreat Mystery and SuspenseMysterical-E, and others. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award, and he has a story in the upcoming Dark House anthology Black Coffee, due for release in May. Thanks, Herschel! -- The SleuthSayers team


(Caveat: The following is for your amusement only. Anyone who survived Creative Writing 101 will find nothing new in this piece.)

Recently I had the good fortune to have a couple of stories published in Woman's World (or, as it is otherwise known, "John Floyd's journal"). I was taken to task by some readers because they had to suspend disbelief when they read it. Under the circumstances it was a legitimate criticism. But at the same time, I felt it was unwarranted.

In this particular instance I had my protagonist, a police detective, discussing an ongoing case with a member of the family. This is, of course, not allowed in real life. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. I have seen defense attorneys and prosecutors discussing open cases on talk shows. Granted, they are not participants in the case. But often the cases they are discussing have not yet come to trial. So they are influencing potential jurors. Do you suppose for one instant that similar conversations do not take place among family members?

Suspension of disbelief in performing arts and literature has been around since Shakespeare. If a woman can don a hat and put on men's clothing and fool her husband of twenty years (as is done in Shakespeare), the poor sap is either completely bereft of any intelligence, or the audience has to suspend disbelief.  In this case, both.

I was a huge fan of the TV program Columbo. Peter Falk had developed a character, an outwardly bumbling police lieutenant who fumbled his way through murder investigations, while in reality he was a keen and competent investigator. But his methods, if tried in the real world, should have had him dismissed from the force. Carrying crucial evidence around in a paper bag, accosting the suspect at work and home and at all hours of the day and night. Discussing key issues of the investigation in public places. You get the point. Did one have to suspend disbelief? Absolutely. Was this a problem? Evidently not. The program was a huge success and ran for several seasons.

I will not bore you with the many instances that occur with regularity on this subject. (Relax, Jessica Fletcher.) And it isn't just happening with poor writing. It is, to my way of thinking, a literary tool that is used to get information to the reader or to create a situation in an interesting manner that is critical to the story. If one stops to think about it, they wouldn't want it any other way. Without the privilege of using it, many stories would become dull dissertations that readers would quit reading by the end of the first chapter.

Another common complaint is that of coincidence. This is not to be used in writing. It is a copout. It is sloppy writing by a writer who is too lazy or too inept to come up with an alternative.

Again I say "Poppycock." Coincidences occur all the time in real life, and nobody pooh poohs them. Some pretty wild coincidences have happened to me, and I'm sure to all of you as well. Could I use them in a story and get anyone to believe it? Doubtful. But it convinces me that coincidence in storytelling is not much different from life itself.

When Ilsa walked into Rick's place in Casablanca, that was a coincidence of the highest order. By an even bigger coincidence, Rick held the documents she and Laszlo needed to escape Casablanca. If she had shown up a few days earlier she would have been dealing with Ugarte. So instead of Bogart/Bergman chemistry we have Bergman/Lorre. Not even the beautiful and talented Ingrid could pull this off. Thank God for coincidence. Without it we would be denied one of the great movies of all time.

And what is all the fuss about the use of adverbs? I suspect this came about with the advent of the Tom Swift books. (I also suspect the sin of opening a story with a weather report was caused by Lytton). In both cases, the hue and cry is deserved. But why should these isolated cases cause a wholesale banishment of legitimate tools?

When I was learning the rules of grammar and was tasked with parsing sentences, I learned about nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc. At no time was I told that I couldn't or shouldn't use adverbs. They are legitimate words. They are a part of the language. Why are they there if we aren't supposed to use them?

I recently read one of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories. Among the comments on the blurb page was a quote by Elmore Leonard, the "rules of writing" man, praising McBain's storytelling skills. By the end of the first chapter, McBain had used adverbs on several occasions. Shocking! How could this possibly happen?

I--and I am confident that some or all of you--have used adverbs from time to time. Consider this: A laugh can mean many things. If one of my characters laughs he can be doing so because he is amused, disdainful, disbelieving, or a host of other reasons. It can be loud, soft, and so on. It is important for the reader to know how he laughed.

"He gave a disdainful laugh." Or, "he laughed disdainfully."

My preference would be the latter. It uses fewer words, and it is a smoother read. But what about the adverb? Ah, yes, We must do something about that. It is not allowed. "He laughed a disdainful laugh." "His laugh was disdainful." Oh, the hell with it. "He laughed disdainfully." There. I said it and I'm glad.

Then there is the rule one learns in Writing 101: Show, don't tell. I won't insult your intelligence by defining this. I just mention it because it is so basic to writing that I had to include it. Again I ask, inviolate?

Evidently Sinclair Lewis didn't think so.

"Elmer Gantry was drunk."

To my way of thinking, a perfect opening line. Succinct. Defining. Efficient.

To sum it up, the use of coincidence and the suspension of disbelief in writing are--warning: adverb ahead--perfectly acceptable. So, too, is the use of adverbs. They must be used (OMG, more adverbs!) sparingly, intelligently, and in such a way as to not get in the way of the story. So, too, may one "tell" and not "show" when the occasion calls for it. I will suffer the slings and arrows of irate readers while continuing to use these tools of the trade. "To thine own self be true."

(I am well aware that the split infinitive in the above paragraph is a writing sin of epic proportions. I make no apologies.)

If there is an inviolate rule in writing, especially for mystery writers, it is this: Play fair with your readers. That may be good advice for our fearless, upright congressmen as well.

Now, about these adjectives.

Thanks, John, for this opportunity.




04 March 2016

(Book) Club Hopping


Even though we're still more than two weeks from the official start of spring, this coming week is our Spring Break at George Mason University, where I teach. Even though I'm often lugging a pile of grading into our week "off" and using other big chunks of break to get a head start on reading for the classes just beyond, my wife and I usually plan some long weekend getaway in between things. This year, however, the week's schedule is marked by several events I'm pleased to be a part of.
On Saturday afternoon, March 5, I'll be the featured speaker at a Book Club Conference hosted by the Loudoun County Public Library—offering tips and tactics about how to run a successful book club and talking about Gabrielle Zevin's delightful novel The Stories Life of A.J. Fikry (a book I'll very likely talk about in another direction here at a later date—stay tuned!).

Mid-week, I'm grateful to have been invited to join in a chat with a local book club that's recently been reading my own novel, On the Road with Del & Louise—and keeping my fingers crossed that they all liked the book!

Then on Thursday, I'm joining Laura Ellen Scott and Steve Weddle—two writers who've been categorized on opposite sides of the literary/genre divide but whose writing in each case is "crime-inclined" (to use Laura's own phrase)—for a writing and publishing panel at the Burke Centre Library that will look at questions of genre and form and the slipperiness in defining and categorizing anything clearly these days.

I mention all this not simply as a shout-out about some upcoming events but also to explain why book clubs and book talks have been on my mind lately.

I don't want to preview here all those tips and tactics—my Powerpoint is proprietary! I don't to spoil the surprise! attendance is mandatory!—but I do want to share some anecdotes about my own experiences with some of the book clubs I've been involved in, each of them distinctive in their own way. And as you'll see, I use that phrase "book club" a little loosely.

The first and then the most recent book clubs I've been a part of have been more traditional in many ways—regularly scheduled meetings, formed by a loose mix of co-workers, acquaintances and friends, and equal parts book discussion and drinking/eating. That most recent book club was focused exclusively on contemporary fiction—very contemporary, in fact, since they tried to stay on top of the titles that were getting buzz, getting rave reviews, winning awards. The first one, however, organized back in the late ’90s by fellow staff members at the North Carolina Museum of Art, was more of a mishmash of titles and deliberately so. Each member was responsible for selecting one book in the rotation—a chance for each of us to have input and an opportunity for all of us to read books we might not have picked up ourselves, a system which has many benefits. I remember that the first book we read was Oral History by Lee Smith, an author local to us, and that we had our first meeting at a sushi restaurant that Lee and her husband Hal Crowther had opened over in Carrboro. I don't remember all of the books that we covered, but my own selection for the club was S├ębastian Japrisot's The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, mainly because I hadn't read anything by him and I liked the title (fun book, not a very good discussion). I also remember Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True, mainly because of the heft of the book and because of the conversations with other club members about having to slog through it and because of the friend who dutifully stayed up all night to finish it before our meeting—and then because the woman who selected it in the first place didn't come to the meeting because she hadn't had time to read it herself.

That was the end of that book club.

My other two book clubs weren't traditional ones at all. The first was actually a writer's group whose members briefly turned away from talking about our own writing—not because we weren't writing but because each of us was working on longer projects and didn't yet feel comfortable sharing small parts of early drafts (dangerous to get feedback too early sometimes). But we did want to keep meeting, so we started talking about other people's books, studying them specifically with an eye toward craft—and in one case with a focus on first chapters, each of us bringing in the first chapter of a book we really admired so we could all try to analyze what made it work.

Later, my wife and I set up our own two-person "book club"—reading and chatting about some novels that each of us felt like we should have read but had never gotten around to, like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. (How did we miss that one in high school, right?) Eventually, this book club morphed into something different; we still read books together for discussion, but now I read them aloud, as I've talked about elsewhere.

While these experiences have been varied and variously rewarding, this coming week will be the first time that I've taken part in a book club as the focus of the discussion. I'll have to report back how that goes—if I survive!

How about everyone else? Any stories from your own book clubs—successes or stumbles? I'd love to hear—and can add to my PowerPoint presentation as needed, of course!


03 March 2016

A Sorry State of Affairs...


All right, I admit it, I'm running late on this blog, but I've been spending the last two weeks e-mailing my state legislators and governor over a variety of bills that seem to come straight out of the minds of ALEC. (Look it up.  Also, here:  SD Legislators with ALEC ties.) You see, we only have a 2-month legislature, that only sits 38 working days, so if I don't express my opinions now, I won't have time later on. Seriously - the session is going to end March 11. (Veto Day is March 29.)

First off, South Dakota is still officially missing $120 million dollars in EB-5 fees and investments, $14 million dollars spent (somewhere) of Gear Up! federal money, 7 people dead, cell phones wiped by the managing company the morning after an arson/murders/suicide (maybe), and a safe that had legs like a dog and walked out the door in the middle of the night. So, what's on our legislature's minds? Transgender potties and single women.



There's also House Joint Resolution 1002, which wants a new Constitutional Convention to propose “amendments to the Constitution of the United States that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and members of Congress.” That'll fly.

Meanwhile, we're last in the nation for teacher pay, and our legislature is trying desperately, DESPERATELY to not put into action Governor Daugaard's proposal to increase sales tax by 1/2 of a cent to pay for increases. My favorite excuses are (1) that they haven't had time to read the bill and (2) that they haven't had time to come up with an alternate funding proposal. They've known about this since December. This is called kicking the can so far down the road that maybe it will disappear. At one point the House rejected it. Finally, though, late yesterday, through sheer shaming by most of us citizenry, it passed. We will no longer be 50th.

Wild Bill Janklow
There was also HB 1161, which would preemptively render useless an intiative that we the people are planning on voting on in November to rein in payday loans. South Dakota is, in case you don't know it, the usury capital of the country, thanks to the 1978 SCOTUS ruling in Marquette Nat. Bank of Minneapolis v. First of Omaha Service Corp, which (summed up) says that your individual state anti-usury laws cannot be enforced against nationally chartered banks located out of state. Our then governor, "Wild Bill" Janklow, heard that and persuaded the legislature to pass a bill that repealed South Dakota's cap on interest rates. And so Citibank, Wells Fargo, and other institutions moved here and life is sweet.

My favorite bill was HB 1107, which was "to ensure government nondiscrimination in matters of religious beliefs and moral convictions," as long as their religious beliefs and moral convictions were the following:
The Compound, West River in Pringle, South Dakota
  1. Marriage is or should only be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
  2. Sexual relations are properly reserved to marriage; or
  3. The terms male or man and female or woman refer to distinct and immutable biological sexes that are determined by anatomy and genetics by the time of birth.
(I have yet to determine why we apparently have religious beliefs and moral convictions about sex: what about usury? war? violence? lying? greed?)

Anyway, one of the great ironies of this bill is that at least one of the sponsors was an unmarried man who posted pictures of himself and his hot girlfriend all over social media. (It's a small state: you can find these things out.) I wrote many of my legislators about this bill, but my first question wasn't the obvious, "And were you a virgin on your wedding night?" Instead, it was, "Does this mean you guys are finally going to take on the polygamous sects living in compounds out West River?" (No one answered that question.) I also pointed out that birth anatomy and birth genetics can be entirely different (I used to work at Medical Genetics - see my blog post here (Medical Genetics). Everyone assured me that this was a non-discriminatory bill, to which I replied, politely, "Bull hockey." This bill has been - thankfully - tabled. Hopefully it will stay that way.
NEWS FLASH: The feds have actually taken on the polygamous sect led by Warren Jeffs' brother Seth in Pringle, South Dakota over food stamp fraud! Huzzah! Federal Probe Shows Details of Polygamous Sect. BTW, to those who don't know, the way these polygamous sects get around the laws against polygamy is by having "spiritual" marriages, which are not registered anywhere. The women - usually child brides, with no power of refusal - are then registered for food stamps, etc., as single mothers. Sadly, most of their sons are booted out of the compound as soon as they get to puberty, because there aren't enough brides to go around, since the old men are marrying all the daughters as soon as they hit puberty. Now you know why I asked about that...
But the one that's taken up most of my writing time is the transgender potty bill, which would would prohibit public school students from using a bathroom or locker room for a sex other than theirs at birth. (We really made the national news with that one. Sigh.) It passed the House, it passed the Senate, and now it's on Governor Daugaard's desk. I've been writing him almost every day, with at least one of the following arguments:
  1. Transgender people don't want to do anything but use the bathroom safely. A boy who is transgendering to a girl doesn't want to assault girls, he wants to become one. A girl who is transgendering to a boy doesn't want to assault boys, she wants to become one.
  2. Every student I've talked to doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. They all know some transgender students and have no problem with them using whichever bathroom they're comfortable in. (Bathrooms have stalls, with doors that lock.)
  3. Gender is something that is not obvious, and is not always determined at birth. (See my Medical Genetics article link above.)
  4. There is one bathroom which everyone uses - old and young, straight and gay, male and female, adults and children - and no one is worried about assault or trauma or shock: it's the one in your home. You go in, and shut the door.


The latest one - and I'm about to start writing my legislators on as soon as I finish this blog - is SB 159, which gives insurance companies credits on their premium and annuity taxes for granting “scholarships” for private K-12 school tuition to low-income students. The fun part of this is that the legislator who sponsored this bill is married to (who'd a thunk it?) the founder and owner since 1972 of an insurance company, and was past president of the Sioux Falls Catholic Schools Foundation, and past chairman of Advanced Gifts for the O’Gorman High School Building Funding Drive. Great joy in the morning, who could possibly think there was any conflict of interest?

What's especially irritating about all of this is that we're a relatively poor state; we are, as I said, ranked last in the nation for teacher pay. Governor Daugaard just refused to expand Medicaid again, after he said he would ONLY if the feds will move all Native American healthcare to their dime. Well, the feds did, and now Daugaard announced today that South Dakota still "can't afford" to expand Medicaid - keep kicking that can. Our infrastructure and roads are constantly crumbling (we have hard winters), and, as I said, we have over $120 million missing in taxpayer funds on scandals and corruption. But, rather than deal with any of these problems, our legislature keeps trying to pass bills that will only lead to lawsuits. Apparently, we have plenty of money for those. Not for investigating things that are really and truly affecting us right now.

Anyway, that's the latest update from South Dakota, were we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.



NOTE: Huzzah! Daugaard vetoed the transgender potty bill!

02 March 2016

Taxonomy Lesson


Hey folks...  the Short Mystery Fiction Society announced the finalists for the 2016 Derringer Awards yesterday and fully 25% of the stories are by SleuthSayers!  John Floyd scored in two categories.  Barb Goffman, Elizabeth Zelvin, and I settled for one each.  Congratulations to all the finalists!

Back in November I had the chance to speak at the university where I work about my novel Greenfellas. The good folks there have put a video of my talk on the web, which reminded me of something I wanted to discuss about it.

I guessed correctly that a lot of people in the audience would not be mystery fans and since this is an educational institution, I figured I should educate them a little on the field.  When you ask someone not familiar with the genre to think about mysteries they tend to conjure up Agatha-Christie style whodunits so I explained that there are also hardboiled, police procedurals, inverted detective stories, noir, caper, and so on.

All of which is fine and dandy.  But in the Q&A someone asked me what types of mysteries I particularly enjoyed.  I happened to mention Elmore Leonard - and then I was stumped as the thought ran through my head:  What type of mystery did Elmore Leonard write?

Well, you could say, he wrote Elmore Leonard novels.  That's not as silly as it sounds.  He wrote a novel called Touch, about a man who acquired the ability to heal people by touching them.  At first publishers didn't want it because it was not a crime novel, but by 1987 they were willing to take a chance on it because it was an Elmore Leonard novel, and readers knew what that meant.

The subject was also on my mind because I had recently read Ace Atkins novel The Redeemers, which struck me as being very much in Leonard's territory.  (That's a compliment to Atkins, by the way.) And I can't exactly say he is writing Elmore Leonard novels.

So, what am I talking about?  A third person narration story from multiple points of view, and most of those characters are criminals, each of whom has a nefarious scheme going.  The main character might be a good guy or just a slightly-less-bad guy.

You know I love quotations, so here is one from Mr. Leonard: "I don’t think of my bad guys as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank."

Is there a name for this category of book?  Crime novel is useless.  Suspense doesn't really cut it.

You could argue that my book Greenfellas falls into that category, but I don't think it does.  First of all, it's a comic crime novel.  It's an organized crime novel, about the Mafia.  (Leonard's characters tend to be disorganized crime.)  And - I have harder time explaining this one - to me it's a criminal's Pilgrim's Progress, concentrating on one bad guy as he goes through a life-changing crisis.

So that's three category names for my novel.  But I'm still thinking about Leonard's.



01 March 2016

Leap Dog on a Leap Day


The dog ate my homework. It's a well known expression, supposedly used by children because it's so easy. No worries if you didn't do the assignment. Blame it on the dog.

Alas, this week, I really am blaming it on the dog. I have no words of wisdom about writing for you today. No editorial insights. I'm stressed because I have a project I expected to finish today (Leap Day, as I write this post) and I'm behind schedule because of ... you guessed it ... the dog.

Pay attention to me now!
This is my dog, Jingle. He's probably part beagle and part dachshund. He's one hundred percent escape artist.

I have a large backyard for him to run in. He loves it. It backs up to woods filled with foxes, deer, squirrels, and other enemies that he loves to chase. The yard is surrounded by a split-rail fence covered with wire built into the ground. The fence is probably around five feet tall. Jingle is probably one foot tall. Yet he escapes the yard repeatedly.

I've seen him walking the perimeter, pushing at the wire, looking for weak spots he can exploit. He must have once crawled under the gate, because when a neighbor found him, his front paws were covered in dirt. And lately, he has figured out how to jump on an old stump, jump on the top of the fence like an acrobat on a high wire (I kid you not--I saw him standing on a rail with my own eyes), and jump to the other side.

Making himself taller
When he creates weak spots, I get them fixed or blocked. When he crawled under the gate, I had it lowered so he couldn't fit through the hole again. When he started using the stump as a springboard, I had a friend bring over a thick, tall, and heavy tree slab to sit on the stump, assuming the stump's new height with the slab would deter Jingle.

Nope. Somehow my twenty-five-pound dog pushed the slab off the stump and has continued his wily ways.

Panting after too much running
In fact, coincidentally, as I was writing this blog, Jingle ran away. I looked up and saw him in the woods behind the house. I stopped writing the prior paragraph, ran outside, called for him repeatedly, saw him run across the cul de sac toward a neighbor's house, got in my car, drove around calling for him, and finally found him running into a neighbor's garage. If this were a novel I was editing, I'd tell my client to cut the coincidence--no one would believe the dog escaped the yard while you were writing about him escaping the yard. But as we all know, truth can be stranger than fiction.

This little incident took twenty minutes of my time, and I've had many of them over the last few months. So that is why I'm behind schedule on my client work and didn't have time to come up with any writing wisdom for you today. But if there was any day for Jingle to leap over the fence, it was today, Leap Day. So that kind of makes it okay, right?
It's a good thing he's so cute.

I hope your Leap Day yesterday was less eventful than mine. And if you have any dog escape stories you'd like to share, please do. We can commiserate together.

BREAKING NEWS: A little Tuesday morning addition: Congratulations to my fellow SleuthSayers for being named finalists this morning for the Derringer Award given out by the Short Mystery Fiction Society. In the Long Story category, John Floyd, Robert Lopresti, and former SleuthSayer Elizabeth Zelvin all have nominated stories. John is also a finalist in the Novelette category--a twofer. Very cool. I'm so happy for you all. And, I'm happy to add, I'm a finalist in the Flash category for my story "The Wrong Girl" from the anthology Flash and Bang. This is my first Derringer Award nomination, and I'm thrilled.

29 February 2016

Rules?


While teaching classes over the years on how to write a mystery, I've come across other people's rules for how to and how not to write. And there are some fine rules out there. But, let's face it, as writers we are already dancing to the beat of a different drummer. Is it okay to bend some of these rules? Break one or two? Or totally ignore them? To screw up a wonderful quote, “Rules? We don't need no stinky rules!”

Now a man named Resnicow wrote some charming rules on how to write a mystery. He didn't specify – but I must – that these rules are only for the classics, or cozies, or drawing room mysteries.

Number one I agree with, unless you're writing under the name of Carolyn Keene:

1. You're writing a mystery: so kill someone.” That's mostly a keeper.

2. All clues should be presented clearly and preferably more than once.” Unless you're writing a police procedural, hard-boiled, or suspense.

3. The information given the reader must be accurate. Do your research.” Okay, another keeper.

4. All questions must be answered, all loose ends tied up.” Unless, of course, the book is going to have a sequel, or the whole point of the story is unanswered questions.

 That's just some of Mr. Resnicow's rules. But he's not the only one with a list. Back in the day, I found an interesting publication by a group of sci-fi writers out of Houston. They called their opus “The Turkey City Lexicon,” and they divided their rules into groups: Words, Sentences and Paragraphs, Background, and Plot. I'll just recount some of my favorites.

From Words:

“Said” Bookism: Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” or the all time favorite, “he ejaculated.”
And on that subject, my own pet peeve, no identifiers in a discussion involving more than two people. For God's sake, it's two extra words, people! (Now putting soap box away.)

 Tom Swifty: Similar compulsion to follow the word “said” with an adverb. As in, “We'd better hurry,” said Tom swiftly.” Remember, the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. (I love that last line!)

“Burly Detective” Syndrome: Fear of proper names. This is when you can't call Mike Shayne “Shayne,” but substitute “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” It comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence.
From Sentences and Paragraphs:
Laugh-track: Characters giving cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.
Hand Waving: Distracting readers with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw.
Fuzz: Element of motivation the author is too lazy to supply. The word “somehow” is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story: “Somehow she forgot to bring her gun.”
Background:
 
Info Dump: large chunks of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper of “Encyclopedia Glactia” articles inserted in the test, or covert, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.
As you Know, Bob: A form of info dump in which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.
I've Suffered for My Art And Now It's Your turn: Research dump.
I call this my personal favorite because, if I do the research, by damn, I'm gonna use it! Okay, half the time I have to go back and delete the boring stuff I learned, but please, ask me about it! I'll give you all the details!
 
And my favorite under Plots:
 
God-in-the-Box: Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. “Look, the Martians all caught cold and died!”
Like I mentioned earlier, rules are meant to be used, edited, adapted or broken, but sometimes it's fun to see what other people think good writing is all about.

28 February 2016

Harper Lee and Alabama


Sign in front of the Harper Lee Museum, Monroeville, Alabama 
(From FiveThirtyEight; attributed to Andrea Mabry, AP)
Fleetingly we will skirt Georgia before our southerly run continues down the State of Alabama, through Birmingham, and then just east of Monroeville, where Harper Lee still resides.
                         Me                                                                      SleuthSayers
                         January 31, 2016
You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it. 
Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
                                                                 Harper Lee 
                                                                 To Kill a Mockingbird 

       One month ago I drove south through the State of Alabama, and as always I thought of Harper Lee when we passed just east of Monroeville, her Alabama refuge for most of her life and the model for the Alabama town of Maycomb, in which To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman take place. It was while I was in Alabama last year that it was announced that Go Set a Watchman, a book that took most of us completely by surprise, would be published. And now this year, during our annual month in Alabama, Harper Lee has passed.  Tomorrow we leave.  But again this year I have spent a lot of time here thinking about Harper Lee, her two books, and what they teach us about Alabama.

       Harper Lee rarely gave interviews. But in one of the few that she did give she had this to say back in 1964:
I would like . . . to do one thing, and I’ve never spoken much about it because it’s such a personal thing. I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world.
All told Harper Lee left us only two novels -- To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. Publication of the latter volume was the catalyst for a lot of criticism. That criticism, both literary and ad hominem, is familiar to most readers and need not be regurgitated here. But I would argue (in fact, I have argued) that the two volumes, comprising virtually all of Harper Lee’s literary output, tell us a lot about Harper Lee’s Alabama, and much of what she tells us remains true today. 

       For most of my life I never set foot in Alabama. But in each of the last five years my wife and I have spent the month of February in the State, hunkered down in a rented condominium in Gulf Shores overlooking the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. We first made this trip at the urging of my wife’s sisters, who had already discovered Gulf Shores, which is convenient to their Midwest homes. They were hardly alone in this discovery -- the stretch of South Alabama has become a flocking ground for so-called “snowbirds,” since it offers a very reasonable retreat from the weather extremes that roll across the nation several hundred miles to the north. This small strip of Alabama shoreline is not as warm as Florida, but is more reasonably priced, enticing us northerners to trade a few degrees of warmth for several dollars of savings. 

       So, what’s not to like?  Well, there is that little problem of history and its imprints.

       The United States has a large footprint, and its many regions have spawned many sub cultures, some of which tend to divide us. So I will admit that when my wife and I first considered re-locating here for the month of February I approached the possibility with a significant degree of historical trepidation. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, which certainly is not the liberal bastion of my present home in Washington, D.C. But even in St. Louis, in the 1950s and 1960s of my childhood, Alabama was a place we looked at uncomprehendingly and, well, a bit aghast. From afar we watched the civil rights marches and riots on our television news.  We watched George Wallace’s defiant confrontation with Federal marshals as he attempted to block the doorway to the registrar’s office on the steps of the University of Alabama. 

       All of this had an effect. It was easy -- very easy -- to conclude that while we were far from perfect, these angry folks digging in their heels against racial equality were still uncomfortably different from us. We couldn't figure them out and, indeed, we really did not want to.  My father, I remember, vowed never to set foot in the state. Mississippi either. But today we are talking Alabama. 

      All of this was pretty deeply ingrained in me that first time, five years ago, that I drove south to Alabama. But just as life presents many faces, so, too, does Alabama. Driving south down Interstate 65 the occasional Confederate flag flying by the side of the highway was, in each case, both a confirmation of what I already expected and also off-putting. In contrast, the people we encountered were uniformly charming, gracious and inviting. Alabama’s stories, like all of ours, are complex.

       Here are two. 

       On our first trip to Gulf Shores I wandered into a liquor store on West Beach Boulevard to purchase some scotch. There were no large bottles of Dewars, my favorite brand, on display and I asked the manager if he had any in the back. Shaking his head he apologized, telling me that their stock was a bit low since February was still off season. Then, smiling, he told me to just pick up two smaller bottles and he would knock a few bucks off. Wow, I thought. Never had that happen before. When I brought the two bottles up to checkout the manager pulled a bottle of single malt scotch from under the counter. “This is my favorite,” he said. He then produced two glasses, poured a finger in each, and handed one to me. I picked up the proffered glass and, at 10:30 in the morning we sipped scotch together and talked about the weather and good places to purchase seafood. When I finally got back to the car my wife, waiting patiently inside, asked where I had been for such a long time. “Drinking scotch with my new best friend,” I replied. 

       But then there is this:  On that same trip one evening we went to dinner at DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, a Gulf Shores restaurant popular for its southern charm and local fare. As we ate our dinner we became aware of a woman seated at a nearby table.  Indeed, she couldn't be ignored.  In a voice loud enough to make clear that her words were intended to reach beyond her immediate dinner party we (and many others) heard the following harangue:  “Things have gotten so bad,” she hectored, for all to hear, “that in Washington they went and passed a secret Constitutional amendment making it legal for a black man from Kenya to be president.” 

       Each of these stories is Alabama. 

       For years now I have enjoyed the warmth of the sun and of the people here in Gulf Shores. Everyone is uniformly friendly. Smiles abound. But just as Sherlock Holmes famously observed in the context of the dog that did not bark in the night, we need to pay attention to what is present and also to what may be absent.  I never noticed this at first, but it eventually struck me that in all of the restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies, fish markets, liquor stores and souvenir shops that I have visited in and around Gulf Shores over the years all of the employees that I recall encountering have been Caucasian. Just like in that Sherlock Holmes story, when you recognize the absence, well, it can tell you a lot.  And that is yet another Alabama story.

       As noted at the outset of this piece, Harper Lee was subjected to a good deal of criticism last year when Go Tell a Watchman was published. Many critics could not abide the contrasting portrayals of Atticus Finch that Lee’s two books offered up. How can we square the paragon of Mockingbird with the segregationist of Watchman? Like Alabama, the answer to that question is complex. 

     The two Harper Lee passages at the top of this piece illustrate the dual, and at times conflicting perspectives that the author brought to her life view and to her writing. She balanced the competing tasks of understanding those around her while at the same time judging those characters, and herself, by her own conscience. While some have been critical of Watchman, and its portrayal of Atticus, it seems to me that we need both books to understand Harper Lee and her complicated verdict on Alabama.

       It is Mockingbird that allows us to understand the conscience of Atticus, what Harper Lee identified as “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule.” But it is Watchman that reminds us that for all of this Atticus was still a son of Alabama. As Harper Lee explained, you cannot understand anyone, even Atticus, “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Climbing into that skin is Watchman. Abiding by your own conscience is To Kill a Mockingbird. Both are Atticus and both are Alabama. Harper Lee could understand, and love without condoning.

       In the wake of Harper Lee's death the statistical website FiveThirtyEight posted an article this week summarizing the historical demographics of Harper Lee’s town, Monroeville.  The article concluded that little there has really changed over the years.  The 1930s, when Mockingbird was set, appears to be not all that different from the the 1960s, when the novel was published, and not all that different from today. I have never visited Monroeville.  But this sure sounds like Alabama. History leaves footprints, and they sometimes wash away very slowly. 

       Just after the prophet Isaiah uttered the words “go set a watchman” he continued with these: “Let him declare what he seeth.” That is what Harper Lee did when she wrote about Alabama.  And that is what she said she would do in that 1964 interview.

27 February 2016

That Astounding Teaching Moment: The Bechdel Test


by Melodie Campbell

In which we address the question:  Will your book appeal to both men and women?

As part of my Crafting a Novel course, which I teach at Sheridan College, I introduce the concept of The Bechdel Test:  that is, does your book (or screenplay) have more than one woman in it with a speaking part; if so, do those two women talk to each other; if so, do they talk about more than a man?

I teach this from the point of view of marketing.  Sixty percent of book purchasers are female.  If you want a female audience as well as male, it’s smart to have a likeable female character that girls or women readers can relate to.  (To contrast, can you imagine many men wanting to read endless books where there was only one male in the book, and he turned out to be a rotter?)

At this point in the last class, one of my thirty-something male students looked down at his own work, in which the only female character turns out to be bad, and is killed before the end.  He then looked up, stunned, and said, “I can’t believe it.  White male privilege – I pride myself in thinking I am especially sensitive to this, and yet, here I am, guilty of it in my own novel. Without even realizing it.”

It was an astounding teaching moment.

Of my current class of ten, four out of five men were indeed writing books that failed the Bechdel test.  They hadn’t even realized it.  They certainly didn’t intend this.  And they all plan to revise their manuscripts to address it.

Which brings me to the second point of this post: sometimes the teacher can be the student.

I love when this happens. 

A few weeks ago, I asked another student of mine why she liked to read genre romance books.  I am not a romance reader, so I am always curious about what compels other women to read the genre.  She said, “Because they’re about women.”

Huh? That shocked me. I responded, “Well, really they are about the growing romance between a two people and overcoming obstacles to being together.”  We had covered this in depth, during our breakdown of the genres.  Did she miss that class?

My student said, “But they are written from the point of view of a woman.  And the woman always has friends.  Ever since I stopped reading YA, I’ve had problems finding strong female characters in novels, or sometimes any at all. That’s what was so good about YA.  There were always female characters I could relate to.”

Which got me thinking.  Many fantasy books are published, including both sword and sorcery, and dystopian.  But I bet when you think of recent bestsellers (meaning 21st century) you think of Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games.  Okay, and maybe Twilight.  Did the soaring success of these have a lot to do with the fact that there were strong female characters in significant roles? 

Damn straight. Hermione is a delight.  What a role model for young female readers.  The female star of The Hunger Games is a very different sort of heroine, but also wonderful.  One might even say, unique.

Like many, many readers, when I read a book, the experience is all the better if I can find a character to relate to.  Let me go further:  I like to sit on the shoulder of this character, and even imagine I have become the character for the duration of the story.  That’s magic for me.

And it’s magic for many readers. 

This term, while my students learned about The Bechtel Test, I discovered, or perhaps relearned, another important lesson from my romance-reading student:

Write for readers.  Anyone can write for themselves.  That’s easy.  Writing for 10,000 readers - that's much harder.

If you are a professional, you are writing for others, as well as yourself. 
Always keep your reader in mind.

Melodie Campbell's award-winning mob Goddaughter series passes the Bechdel test for both men and women.   The latest has just been released:  THE GODDAUGHTER CAPER
You can buy it most places.
on Amazon