13 January 2016

Seven Killings

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS, by the Jamaican writer Marlon James, came out in 2014, and won the Man Booker the following year. It isn't a mystery or a thriller, not exactly, but then again, neither is THE GREAT GATSBY. What it is, is a dark meditation, lit from below.

First off, we're talking about Kingston, which is of course one tough town, and we start by going back more than forty years, to December 1976 and the attempted murder of Bob Marley. In this telling, it's very much political, a war between two Kingston ganglords who've been bought off by each of the major parties, and a proxy fight over the next election. Marley's headlining a free concert, advertised as a peace overture, but widely seen as support for the government in power, and that this is a spoils system goes without saying. The police are corrupt, everybody feeds at the trough, devil take the hindmost.

"This is the first mistake God make. Time. God was a fool to create time. It's the one thing that even he run out of." SEVEN KILLINGS covers quite a lot of time, actually, but there's a disquieting sense that time is static, and inertia (or entropy) is the only gravitational force. This in spite of the attrition rate, and the turnover in senior management, with gangs cranking up the firepower, and killing each other off. It's not like we notice measurable improvement in the quality of life.

The story's told in many voices, most of them Jamaican, but a couple of outliers - the local CIA station chief, a rock groupie from Rolling Stone. One device is to have somebody speaking to us from beyond the grave, but that doesn't necessarily make them any the wiser. Each of these voices is individual, none of them are omniscient, Everybody takes it personally and nobody pulls back from the tight close-up, which is claustrophobic. Then again, it's total immersion. Like traffic slowing for an accident scene, you can't look away.

The use of dialect is supposedly a deal-breaker. So is using real people or actual historic situations in a fictional medium. The argument being that it removes a barrier, and the author's own voice intrudes, which spoils the illusion. You're being shown the mechanics, the levers and pulleys, you're made aware that the narrative isn't seamless, that in fact it's been constructed, built out of air. Both reader and writer agree to a pretense that the story has a life apart, and if the reader stubs his or her toe on the writer's building materials, it shakes their confidence. I see the point, but I don't entirely agree. It depends what kind of story you're telling. In the case of SEVEN KILLINGS, it's not so much that it depends on suspension of disbelief as that you're persuaded by the last voice you hear, and you soon realize that all the narrators are unreliable - which could mean the author's voice, as well. This is quite the tightrope walk. How the guy keeps his balance is what creates surface tension.

One other note. This isn't a novel that 'transcends' genre, whatever that's supposed to mean. It's a book that uses generic conventions in vigorous and unsettling ways. I've never really subscribed to the idea of low culture or high - most basically literate people know the difference between good stuff and crap, what Chesterton calls "printed matter." That being said, SEVEN KILLINGS is violent and coarse. There's nothing shy about the language. Women are manhandled with disturbingly commonplace contempt. The context is Darwinian. It adds up to a familiar noir world, although one which happens not to be invented. At least not for dramatic purposes, or a convenient shorthand. It's a world of brute force. If not the world most of us would choose to live in, it is the world many people have no choice but to live in. It isn't metaphor, or literary convention. There's no agreement to keep faith, or suspend disbelief. Human voices wake us.

12 January 2016

Made to be Broken

Well, it’s January 12th. If you haven’t already broken your New Year’s resolutions you’re running late. So get to it. Start by eating that Snickers bar or cutting back your daily jog from twelve miles to a quick walk to the corner store...to buy that Snickers bar.
A couple of years ago Writer’s Digest put out 5 resolutions for writers (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/5-new-years-resolutions-for-writers ). I’d like to comment on them.

1. Resolve to make time for writing: This would seem pretty obvious. We all have busy lives, but are they really any more busy than when we had to till the ground working from dawn till dusk, before there were dishwashers and washing machines to do our dishes and clothes? Generally speaking we are as busy as we want to be. True, there are things that have to get done like work and dealing with kids or critters, but if one wants to write they will find the time. I hear a lot of people who claim they want to be writers. They have great ideas for the next best-seller or Academy Award-winning screenplay. They want to share them with you, have you write them while they take half the credit...and money. But they never write a word. So, apropos of Resolution five below, are they writers?

2. Resolve to embrace your personal writing style: The WD piece talks about embracing your style of being a pantster or an outliner. But I would look at this differently. When I first saw their resolution I thought they were talking about “writing style,” as in your voice, not how you go about your writing. And I would say, find your own voice. We all borrow from things we’ve read but you have to make it your own. The “worst” part about finding your voice is when some editor or someone else wants to water it down. That’s why I never use grammar checkers. They’re way too didactic, and some editors are too. They often want you to change your style to fit some mold or template that they like, which may be fine. But it’s not you. So you have to resolve to stick to your tone, your voice. Your style.

3. Resolve to self-edit as you write: They’re talking about “revising as you write in order to produce a cleaner manuscript that requires less revision on the back end.” I couldn’t disagree more. I’m not saying one shouldn’t do a little minor editing as you go along, but that often turns into major editing and going over the same ground ad infinitum. The best piece of writing advice I ever got was not to rewrite as you go along. If you do rewrite as you go you’ll just get mired in that quicksand and often never move ahead, or move ahead so slowly that it hardly seems like progress.

4. Resolve to step outside your comfort zone: Here the folks at Writer’s Digest suggest we branch out from whatever genre we mostly work in to other things outside of our comfort zones. For example, if you write fiction, try freelance articles, if you write cozy try hardboiled. Like that. I don’t have a real problem with this one...except to say who has the time to branch out? I have several “branch out” works in progress, but I rarely have time to work on them, much as I want to. And why not just try to break out of your comfort zone within your own genre/sub-genre? Sometimes the best novels are the ones that change the genre and stretch the boundaries of that genre. They also mention reading books you normally wouldn’t read. Fine. I like reading a variety of things anyway. As they say, variety is the spice of life, one just needs the time to enjoy those spices while trying to meet deadlines, earn a living, etc.

5. Resolve to call yourself a writer: Writers write. If you write you’re a writer. You may not be a professional writer, but you are a writer. Go for it. I’ve seen various arguments here and there as to who is and isn’t a “writer”. But why rain on someone’s parade? If they write, if you write, you’re a writer. Just do it. Learn as you go. Trial and error. We’re all at various stages of learning to write and we’re all still learning as we go. I come from a screenwriting background. Making the switch to prose writing had various learning curves, particularly in description and transitions. In screenplays/movies description is sparse at best. A beach is a beach. No glorious crimson sunsets dancing on the edge of a knife (well, you know what I mean...). And transitions are usually cuts from one scene to the next. The audience can figure out what’s happening. In prose writing one needs smoother transitions and more “transcendent” descriptions. In some quarters there’s a certain snobbery as to who’s a writer and who isn’t. But mostly I’d say you’re a writer when you put the words on the page, keep writing despite setbacks of one kind or another, including “endless” rejections. When you persevere and believe in yourself, then you are a writer.

6. And now a resolution of my own: Resolve to watch more shows on the Murder Channel, Discovery ID: like Homicide Hunter (Lt. Joe Kenda), Momsters: When Moms Go Bad (w/ Roseanne Barr), Wives with Knives, Web of Lies, Evil Kin, Vanity Fair Confidential, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones, On the Case with Paula Zahn. In fact, I plan to do nothing but watch murder shows on Discovery ID 24/7 to escape the horrid realities of everyday life.

7. And one more resolution of my own: Resolve not to do much BSP in the coming year: But wait, it’s time to break all those resolutions, so please check out Vortex, my noir-thriller novella (which means it’s short—you can finish it quickly!). And if you’re eligible to vote for the Lefty Awards from Left Coast Crime, I hope you’ll consider it for—here it comes and it’s a mouthful: “Best mystery novel set in the Left Coast Crime Geographic Region (Mountain Time Zone and all time zones westward to Hawaii)”. Vortex definitely fits the bill. Set in L.A., Venice, CA, Hollywood, the Salton Sea and on/at the Shakespeare Bridge in Los Feliz/L.A. Ballots are due by January 15th. And right now the book is still on sale at Amazon/Kindle for a mere 99 cents, which means it’s cheap—it won’t break the bank. Hell, you probably have 99 cents in change in your pants or purse or on the dresser right now that you just don’t know what to do with. I know what you can do with it—Vortex calls.

And Happy New Year to all ye merry SleuthSayers and our Cherished readers.

Hour glass credit: photo credit: Grains via photopin (license) 

11 January 2016

You Just Murdered Who?

Jan Grape
by Jan Grape

I kept thinking recently about killing off an unseen, unknown person at the other end of the telephone line where I spent a good fifty-five minutes trying to understand what this supposedly technical help person was trying to tell me. English was NOT his first or probably not even his third or fourth language. I'm a pretty good listener, and I've never had major trouble understanding someone with an accent.

For instance, when my late husband and I were in England many years ago, (1985 I think) we rode a boat down the River Thames to Greenwich to visit the Royal Observatory there. After standing on the Meridian Line and perusing the Museum and gift shop we went back down to the dock to await our boat ride back and met an older gentleman working the dock who started taking to us. He had a very thick accent. I was able to pick up about every third word he said and could converse with him. Elmer who had a hearing problem couldn't understand a word. I know that was around thirty years ago and I'm thirty years older but honestly don't think my ears have deteriorated that much.

On that day with this computer expert, I was having to ask him to repeat everything he said. The worst thing was he kept saying he could help me get my computer straightened out but when it all came out in the end, he could do it for three hundred and some dollars, I hung up. After all that I wanted to kill him. Not in reality but to take that feeling and transfer it to feelings a person might have if they want to murder someone.

Several years ago I knew a woman who wrote children's books. She had a very overbearing mother-in-law who drove her crazy. However, she was able to make that woman into a villain in several of her books. She didn't kill her off but sent her to prison or off the planet or just any place out of her life. The MIL loved the little books and never ever realized that she was the bad "thing" in the book, although many of her personality traits of the bad character were known to the author.

That's one of the fun things about being a writer. You can play "god" and see to it that certain people get their comeuppance anytime. I'll bet most of you have killed off someone who annoyed you, bullied you or just drove you to grab a fictional blaster and blast away. It's such a satisfying feeling.
Like most of us say at one time or the other, we hear voices in our head all the time. But instead of being put in a strait jacket we can sit down and write or type away until the voices quieten down. Then if we find a publisher who likes reading about the adventurers in our head, we might even get published and paid and go around sighing autographs when people buy our books.

It doesn't get more fun than that, class. Happy New Year and all the best for many sales. Until next time, don't kill anyone unless it's fictionally.

IN MEMORY: Some of you may have heard of the recent passing of author Jim Ingraham. He was in his nineties and still writing and selling stories to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I never met Jim but we exchanged a few e-mails as my co-editor, R. Barri Flowers and I chose one of Jim's stories, "A Small Town In Maine" for the American Crime Writers League anthology, Murder Here, Murder There. I knew Jim had also published a couple of novels but his bio listed five. If any of you knew Jim and want to honor him or his work, his family said Jim requested donations to Hope Hospice, Development Office, 9470 Health Park Circle, Ft. Meyers, FL 30908.

10 January 2016

Shout at the Devil

© DreamsTime
© DreamsTime
by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been wrestling with a story. I know the plot, I know where I want it to go. But the characters are fighting back and they’re dirty combatants.

The first draft– too funny. Humor is difficult to craft, tricky to get right. Here I’m striving to craft a serious mystery, one with a dark twist ending, and it comes out… amusing, comical. Funny doesn’t work with dark, deathly endings.

If you don’t believe me, check out Shout at the Devil, Wilbur Smith’s novel or Peter Hunt’s movie. Setting: German East Africa. British aristocrat Roger Moore falls in love with Barbara Parkins, daughter of hard-drinking, hard-fighting poacher Lee Marvin. Those two bear a daughter. They enjoy tweaking the noses of the humorless and relentless Germans colonizing Tanganyika. Fun and games. Very droll, slapstick. Then World War I breaks out and the wicked German commander sinks their dhow, burns their house, and his nasty Schutztruppen kills Moore’s and Parkins’ daughter– Lee Marvin’s granddaughter.

Within a page, the story jettisons its humor and turns 270°. The light comedy: gone. In its place: death, destruction, misery, heartbreak, revenge.

No! No! It’s like digging into a lovely dessert and there, under the chantilly lies sauerkraut. Give me cabbage or give me cake, but not both at once, please.

Back to the writing board. Literally from scratch, I start again. The characters behave seriously at first. A woman wronged is designated my protagonist, kind of an anti-heroine. But then a guy steps in and, if you know men, they can’t resist heroically saving a damsel in distress– it’s coded in their DNA. But now it’s interfering with the plot where my anti-heroine is supposed to find her own resolution. Just like a guy, huh?

And then two characters decide to fall in love. That’s a tribulation because guys with their defective DNA can’t get hints. Despite her best efforts at subtlety and suggestions, the lad can’t decide if she’s interested in him or it’s strictly business. He’s petrified she might think sexual harassment, ruining a friendship and career.

While I haven’t started from zero again, I’m negotiating with my characters, wanting my anti-heroine to get through the plot. I’m willing to put the aforementioned relationship on the table and let the oversexed pair have their way with one another, but so far the greedy sods want everything their own way. They’re pretty certain they’ll win.

© Booker Prize

09 January 2016

Of Lords and Eggs

Mystery short stories offer us many pleasures, including the opportunity to enjoy, briefly, the company of protagonists who might drive us crazy if we tried to stick with them through an entire novel. I was reminded of this truth recently when I reread a Dorothy L. Sayers story featuring Montague Egg, a traveling salesman who deals in wines and spirits. Most Sayers mysteries, of course, center on another protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey. As almost all mystery readers know, Lord Peter is highly intelligent, unusually observant, and adept at figuring out how scattered scraps of information come together to point to a conclusion. Montague Egg fits that description, too. Both characters are engaging and articulate, both have exemplary manners, and both sprinkle their statements with lively quotations. More important, both Lord Peter and Montague Egg abide by codes of honor, and both are devoted to the cause of justice, to identifying the guilty and exonerating the innocent. And Sayers evidently found both protagonists charming: She kept returning to them for years, writing twenty-one short stories about Lord Peter, eleven about Montague Egg.

Dorothy L. Sayers: The Complete Stories
But while Sayers also wrote eleven novels about Lord Peter, she didn't write a single one about Montague Egg. I don't know if she ever explained why she wrote only short stories about him--I checked two biographies and didn't find anything, but there might be an explanation somewhere. In any case, it's tempting to speculate about what her reasons might have been.She might have thought Egg lacks the depth of character needed in the protagonist of a novel. That's true enough, but she could always have developed his character further, given him more backstory. She did that with Lord Peter, who's a far more complex, tormented soul in Gaudy Night and Busman's Honeymoon than he is in Whose Body? Or perhaps she thought all the little quirks that make Montague Egg such an amusing, distinctive short story protagonist would make him hard to take if his adventures were stretched out into a novel. Yes, Lord Peter has his little quirks, too, but I think his are qualitatively different. For example, while Lord peter tends to quote works of English literature in delightfully surprising contexts, Montague Egg sticks to quoting maxims from the fictional Salesman's Handbook, such as "Whether you're wrong or whether you're right, it's always better to be polite." Three or four of these common-sense rhymes add humor to a quick short story. Dozens of them might leave readers wincing long before a novel ends.

I did plenty of wincing when I decided, not long ago, to read Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (not a mystery, but protagonist Lorelei Lee does go on trial for shooting Mr. Jennings, so I figure I can sneak it in as an example). For the first thirty pages or so, I relished it, laughing out loud at Lorelei's uninhibited voice, at the absurd situations, at the appalling but flat-out funny inversions of anything resembling real values. Before long, however, I was flipping to the back of this short book to see how many more pages I had to read before I could declare myself done. Lorelei's voice, which had been so entertaining at first, had started to get on my nerves, and her delusions and her shallowness were becoming hard to take. I couldn't understand why this book had been so wildly popular until I found out it had originally been a series of short stories in Harper's Bazaar. Well, sure. A small dose of Lorelei once in a while can be enjoyable, but spending hours with her is like getting stuck talking to the most self-centered, superficial guest at a party. If you ever decide to read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, I recommend reading it one chapter at a time, and taking at least a week off in between.
There could be all sorts of reasons that a protagonist might be right for short stories but wrong for novels. I wrote a series of stories (for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine) about dim-witted Lieutenant Walt Johnson and overly modest Sergeant Gordon Bolt. Everyone--including Bolt--sees Walt as a genius who cracks case after difficult case. In fact, Walt consistently misunderstands all the evidence, and it's Bolt who solves the cases by reading deep meanings into Walt's clueless remarks. A number of readers urged me to write a novel about this detective team. (And yes, you're right--most of these readers are members of my immediate family. They still count as readers.)

Despite my fondness for Walt and Bolt, though, I never even considered writing a novel about them. I think they're two of the most likable, amusing characters I've ever created. But Walt is too dense, too anxious, and too cowardly to sustain a novel. How long can readers be expected to put up with a detective who's always confused but never scrapes up the courage to admit it, no matter how guilty he feels about taking credit for Bolt's deductions? And while I find Bolt's self-effacing admiration for Walt sweet and endearing, I think readers would get fed up with his blindness before reaching the end of Chapter Two.

I think these two are amusing short-story characters precisely because they're locked into patterns of foolish behavior. As Henri Bergson says in Laughter, repetition is often a fundamental element in comedy. But this sort of comedy would, I think, get frustrating in a novel. Readers expect the protagonists in novels to learn, to change, to grow. Walt and Bolt can't learn, change, or grow without betraying the premise for the series. So I confined them to twelve short stories, spread out between 1988 and 2014. In the story that completed the dozen, I brought the series to an end, doing my best to orchestrate a finale that would leave both characters and readers happy--a promotion to an administrative job for Walt, so he can stop pretending he's capable of detecting anything, and a long-awaited wedding and an adventure-filled retirement for Bolt. I truly love these characters. But I'd never trust them with a novel.

Other short-story protagonists, though, do have what it takes to be protagonists in novels, too. Lord Peter Wimsey is one example--in fact, most readers would probably agree that, delightful as most of the stories about him are, the novels are even better. Sherlock Holmes is another example--four novels, fifty-six short stories, and I think it's fair to say he shines in both genres. I considered one of my own short-story protagonists so promising that I decided to build a novel around her. Before I could do that, though, I had to make some major changes in her character.

American Sign Language interpreter Jane Ciardi first appeared in a December, 2010 Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine story, now republished as a Kindle story called "Silent Witness." Positive responses to the story--including a Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society--encouraged me to think I might be able to do more with the character. It also helped that one of my daughters is an ASL interpreter who can scrutinize drafts and provide insights into deaf culture and the ethical dilemmas interpreters face. And I like Jane. She's smart, she's observant, she has acute insights into human nature, and she has a strong sense of right and wrong. In "Silent Witness," when she interprets at the trial of a deaf man accused of murdering his employer, she wants the truth to come out. She definitely doesn't want to see an innocent man go to prison.

Image result for b k stevens silent witnessBut the Jane Ciardi of "Silent Witness" is mostly passive. She's sharp enough to figure out the truth and to realize what she should do, but she lacks the courage to follow through. Her final action in the story is to fail to act, to sit when she should stand, to convince herself justice will probably be done even if she remains silent. I think all that makes Jane an interesting, believable protagonist in a short story that raises questions it doesn't quite answer.

I don't think it's enough to make her a fully satisfying protagonist in a novel--at least, not in a traditional mystery novel. In what's often called a literary novel, the Jane of "Silent Witness" might do fine--another protagonist paralyzed by doubt, agonizing endlessly about right and wrong but never taking decisive action. The protagonists of traditional mysteries should be made of sterner stuff. So in Interpretation of Murder, I made Jane regret and learn from the mistakes she'd made in "Silent Witness." We find out she did her best to correct them, even though it hurt her professionally. And when she's drawn into another murder case, she works actively to uncover the truth, she comes up with inventive ways of gathering evidence, and she speaks out about what she's discovered even when situations get dangerous. I can't be objective about Jane--others will have to decide if these changes were enough to make her an effective protagonist for Interpretation of Murder. But I'm pretty sure mystery readers would find the Jane of "Silent Witness" a disappointing companion if they had to read an entire novel about her.

Have you encountered mystery characters who are effective protagonists in short stories but not in novels--or, perhaps, in novels but not in short stories? If you're a writer, have you decided some of your protagonists work well in one genre but not in the other? If you've used the same protagonist in both stories and novels, have you had to make adjustments? I'd love to hear your comments.

08 January 2016

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

By Art Taylor

The start of a new year always spurs me (and others, of course) both toward looking back and toward looking ahead—reflecting on what the last year has offered in terms of successes, failures, lessons, etc. and steeling myself to renew, refresh, or revise both my goals and my routines for the immediate future.

One of my constant goals is to "Write FIRST!!!"—a perennial resolution, though I'm lucky most days if I get to work on my own writing at all. But as I've struggled to keep that resolution and adhere to a writing routine, another routine has fallen into place. Whenever I do find time to work on my own fiction, I start out by reading a short something about writing—some little essay on craft, or another author's brief reflection on a published work or work-in-progress, or simply a glimpse into the writing life. Reading about writing, thinking about writing, somehow helps to set the gears in motion.

A book that I discovered last year and that has become a cherished companion in this regard is Rules of Thumb: 73 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Fixations, edited by Michael Martone and Susan Neville (Writer's Digest Books, 2006—now out of print, but worth seeking out used). It's taken me much longer than 73 days to read the essays here (testament to my irregular writing schedule), and in truth, I'm still a few essays away from finishing the full collection, but even as I push toward the end, I find myself still valuing the book immensely, whether or not "rules" offered are ones I'd ultimately apply fully to my own work. Just this week, for example, I read how short story writer Wendy Rawlings and her husband each write on desks made from unfinished doors (I like my own desk fine, thank you very much) and how she values "energetic disarray" as a means of getting work done—listing the books and objects on that desk and charting the ways in which they push her onward, something I can fully understand. (The essay is titled "Bricoleur's Mishmash.")

Rules of Thumb is not, I should point out, a craft guide in the narrowest sense of the term. While various authors might touch on craft at times (construction of character, shape of plot, point of view, adverbs), the approach is more generally idiosyncratic—ultimately less process-oriented than simply personal. And yet, over the time I've been reading it, I've flagged several passages with post-it bookmarks—passages that must have struck me as important enough to return to eventually, to ponder over again.

So, in the spirit of that looking back, looking ahead as the old year turns toward the new, I decided to page back through the book and revisit those passages for the first time. For better or worse, here are five that stood out:

From Peter Turchi's "Make It More Complex"
I remind myself to make a story more complex when it seems one-dimensional, single-minded, predictable, familiar, or thoroughly understandable. Often the first draft of a story will feel flat, its options limited; I've allowed the events, dialogue, and characters' lives to become too narrowly focused. Make it more complex is my reminder to cultivate another aspect of the main character's life, a secondary character, a secondary line of investigation, a tertiary line of investigation, a pattern of images—something intriguing that is not (yet, apparently) directly related to whatever has become the story's whirlpool, its enormous, powerful, potentially reductive vortex.

From Scott Russell Sanders' "Pay Attention"
Write by ear, not by rules. To do that well, your ear must be trained, which means you should listen carefully to language in conversation and stories and songs, as well as on the page. If you've forgotten how sensuous language is, how captivating, how musical, spend time with a toddler who's learning to speak. Linger where people talk vividly—a job site, farmers market, courtroom, coffee house, union hall—and write down what you hear.

From Steve Almond's "The Busy Attributive: A Case of Said" (which I'm certain I marked to pass along to students in my own workshops)

The attributive clause (otherwise known as that thing that comes after the quotation marks) is not a place where writers should feel free to dump plot information, character sketches, or authorial asides. It has only one basic job: to help convey how a particular piece of dialogue has been spoken.

And even this role, by the way, is limited. Because a good piece of dialogue should—by virtue of word choice, rhythm, and syntax—convey tone.

From Deb Olin Unferth's "Don't Tell It Like It Is"
The external world is not like fiction. In real life we repeat ourselves—day in and out, year upon year. We sit beside our lovers and say the same endearments or curses, make the same confessions, tell the same stories whether the face before us changes or not. We walk down hallways, make phone calls, answer them, saying, hello, hello, hello, how are you, how are you, you wouldn't believe what happened yesterday, this morning, last night.... We walk the same streets, visit the same desks or others like them. Our clocks, our steps, our very heartbeats follow the same pattern. In fiction such repetitions would be disastrous, like a gibbering idiot's scrawl, the same sentences over and over and over.
Finally, from Dan Barden's "Upholsterer's Block"

My friend Michael Stephens...told me that he could finish a novel on a half-hour a day, but he could not finish a novel on six hours every Saturday. I wrote a letter to Walker Percy shortly before he died, and he responded within the week. He shared with me the prayer he said before work each day: "I am starting from nothing. Help me."

I found three principles that are the bedrock of my writing discipline.

1. Writing can be defined as "not doing anything else besides writing." I don't write: I provide the space for writing to happen.

2. Regularity is much more important than duration.

3. If I knew what I wanted to say, I wouldn't have to write, I could just say it.

07 January 2016

Another Editor's Take on Working With Emerging Authors

by Brian Thornton

In our last go-round we spoke with freelance editor Jim Thomsen about emerging authors, the mistakes they make most commonly, and got some great advice about what to do to avoid these pitfalls if you're one of these first-time authors. If you'd like to revisit Jim's interview questions and responses, you can find it here. 

This time we speak with another accomplished freelancer, Stacy Robinson of Next Chapter Writing.

Writer/editor Stacy Robinson operates The Next Chapter, a full-service company that provides a range of editorial and writing services for every type, size and stage of manuscript. Whether you are simply looking for a fresh eye to conduct a review and provide some general feedback or you’re in need of a more detailed evaluation (one that tackles every facet from plot development to word choice), The Next Chapter promises a comprehensive experience tailor-made to you and your writing.  To find out more or to contact Stacy, feel free to take a look at her website.

What sorts of editing jobs do you perform, and how do they differ?

Since hanging my shingle as an independent editor, I’ve engaged with a variety of manuscript types, jobs that were in every stage of development from concept to publication. While I offer five distinct levels of edit service to prospective clients (developmental, substantive, line, copy and proofing), I would say that there are elements of all five within each level. What matters most to me, as an editor, reader, and prospective buyer, is that the story being told resonates with the author’s targeted audience on a deeper, more meaningful level. That the characters and spaces created with a writer’s words are communicated in such a way that the reader is transported through time and space, and given the gift of seeing the world (whichever world that may be) through the eyes of the players on the page. 

If I were forced to signify the stage in which I am most effective, I’d say as a developmental editor (where my role is to help the author bring the story along from the start) or during the substantive editing phase, where a manuscript is really nothing more than a large mass of clay, ready to be molded and smoothed into perfection. With this level of editing, the manuscript is evaluated in its entirety and any issues that crop up with structure, scene order, coherence, character development and consistency are identified and corrected. Substantive editing about fine-tuning the "big picture" elements, things like plot lines, pacing, tension, character development, and scene setting. With my background in English Literature and Communication, with Marketing and Theatre experience backing it up, I’m able to recognize inconsistent character behavior or speech, adjust language use to really connect with the preferred audience, and assure that your story has believable dialogue and a plausible plotline. The collaboration and connection this type of hands-on editing affords me with my clients really serves to enhance the partnership, as both editor and writer form a sort of synchronicity that allows the most highly-tuned and polished prose to develop and shine through. 

That being said, there have often been manuscripts I’ve been asked to work on where the author believes it is nearly complete and needs only that “final polish”, a basic proofread. As an editor, it is quite difficult to tell a prospective client that their work, their baby, isn’t as quite ready to meet the world as they want to believe. However, as the main function of this job description is to improve and enhance the work you’re presented, it is inevitable that we will tell our fair share of clients they need to head back to the drawing board and start again. While never an easy conversation to have, this type of real communication and honesty between editor and writer can lead to incredible results. If you have faith in the editor you’ve chosen to review your work, and have faith that the end result (no matter how difficult or painful it is to achieve) will be the most potent and carefully-crafted version of your story possible, then you’ve truly found the sweet spot of authorship.  

You deal with a lot of first-time authors in your line of work. What sorts of mistakes do you see popping up over and over again in their writing?

A fairly common error I see fledgling writers making is something I think even veterans are guilty of – attachment to a particular plot line, underlying theme or character/trait that simply does not work within the overall framework of the story. This is perfectly understandable (and entirely relatable), but letting go of the excess, the misfits, the problem-makers, you really free yourself and your prose from concepts and approaches that just bog the writing down and complicate an already intricate process. This is especially where a good, honest editor comes in handy, as they can tell you in non-emotional and objective terms where things are flowing and where they come to an absolute (and often confusing) halt. Once these problems are resolved, the manuscript naturally moves into a more polished and refined state, where the last passes can be made before publication. Though it can be tough to let go, dissolving attachments to things that distract your reader from your most meaningful prose will lead to best possible reception from your audience. 

Another mistake new authors often make is “telling” what they should be “showing”. While the temptation to explain to your readers all that motivates and drives a character is justifiably high, demonstrating their traits and tendencies through action, dialogue, diction, body language, etc. provides a much more effective and pleasurable experience for the reader. For instance, if your protagonist had a difficult childhood and is now nearly estranged from her father, you should exhibit these elements of her character through the tense and awkward content of their phone conversation rather than listing all the reasons for their unease. Show your readers the constructs of their relationship through the halting pace of her speech, the things they discuss (and more importantly, what they don’t), the way he sighs in the spaces between their words. This method is much more likely to provide your audience with a rich and visceral experience they can really sink into, and one they won’t easily forget.   

What sort of manuscript makes you glad you took the gig? And why?

The thing that really lights me up is when an author hands me a manuscript that has a solid plotline, plausible and electric tension, and most especially, is driven by the strength and intricacy of its characters. In my opinion, there isn’t a story so imaginative, so “out there”, that good, solid characters can’t tell it, and tell it well. Any tale, no matter the setting or the time period or the plot, can be relatable and engaging if the characters driving the action are genuine and honest. When you start out with well-developed and complex characters, building a story around them becomes a more organic and linear process.   

Any last bits of advice? 

Stay positive, listen to your inner voice, and write from the gut. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re the only one who has ever wondered if an idea is a good one or if your words are effective. We all have those doubts. Just remember, whatever needs fixing, a good editor can make all the difference in the final product. 

06 January 2016

Mixed Feelings, Copyright Edition

by Robert Lopresti

"There are so many grey areas in Copyright Law that the publishing industry looks like a lint trap." -Peter Berryman

I had better start this thing by saying that I am neither a lawyer nor a copyright expert, although I know more about copyright than the man on the street. (I also know it's dangerous to be on the street. Get up on the sidewalk, man!)

Where was I? Oh, yes.

It happened that I was telling a friend of mine about a story I wrote many years ago, and I wanted to email her a copy. However, it turned out I had no electronic copy (it having been born several computer systems ago). Instead of digging up a paper copy to scan for her I thought I would try to find it on the web.

That may sound odd, but it happens that the original publisher (I will call them BuyerCo) purchased it specifically to run it on the web. I hadn't seen it on their website in years, but you never know.

Well, it wasn't at BuyerCo's page, but it was up on the web. Specifically I found it on the site of a middle school English teacher in another country. She had a unit about mysteries and she had chosen my story as an example.

Talk about mixed feelings. I was honored to have been selected, and pleased that students were reading my story, but had she put it up without permission? What exactly was that teaching the students?

The more I pondered the more entangled I got. After all, I couldn't exactly complain because my story was on the web. I had sold it specifically for that purpose! Maybe BuyerCo had a legitimate complaint against her (although I don't know what the fair use rules are for educators in her country), but they weren't paying me to patrol the web, were they?

After a long thinking session I sent a note that read pretty much like this:


I was surprised yesterday to find my story, "Title," on your website. While I am gratified to see students reading it, I am wondering who gave you permission to put it up for the public? I don't recall doing so. Perhaps it was BuyerCo, who has the right to publish it online?

In case you are interested, here is another story of mine, one that is available with no rights issues.

Best wishes,

The link connects to "Shanks Holds The Line," a story I had given Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine permission to put on their website Trace Evidence.

I received a reply the next day. The teacher explained that she had retired three years earlier and had had no idea the webpage was still up at all. A colleague had sent her a copy of the story for use in her unit on mystery and she had no idea how/where the colleague had acquired it. She told me she had just spent an hour figuring out how to get into the software, found her password, and taken down the page. And she thanked me for offering a different story to use.

I sent her a thanks for her service to all those students.

And so the story has vanished from the web once again, which brings up three questions:
  1. Am I better off because the story has returned to obscurity?

  2. Is BuyerCo better off because their property, which they have not used in years as far as I know, is once again hidden?

  3. And isn't copyright interesting?

05 January 2016

Promote or write?

Dear SleuthSayers,

My medical thriller, Stockholm Syndrome, hit the shelves December first. I slammed the promotion hard for three weeks before the holidays and managed to rise to #12 on the Kobo bestseller list. My question for you is, do I stop now?

I burned myself out last month. At least two people reminded me of the metaphor of a candle burning at both ends, and I replied, “Up ’til now, I’ve had enough candle!” But it was a good reminder that no one’s candle is infinite.
However, I have hardly made a dent in Amazon, which is troubling. Amazon gives you a month on its Hot New Releases list and then you drop into obscurity.
What I really want is to cut into the national (for me, Canadian), American, and international market. To do that, I can’t keep bugging my 700 Facebook friends. I need to get more sales outside as well as within my area. And for that, I need more exposure. Because when there are 2 million books on the Kindle, it’s hard to get readers to notice you. Discoverability—everybody wants some, but it’s hard to find.

Some writers go the organic route. Write good books, publish them often, and your readers will find you. Trust the algorithm. Spend your time writing, not shilling yourself on ads and shows that may or may not pan out.
Pro: you write a lot more books this way. I pretty much stopped writing in December, which is unheard-of for me, but it’s hard to promote full-tilt and write full-tilt and work and look after kids at the same time—hence the burn-out.
Con: It’s possible that no significant number of readers will find you and you’ll die with just a handful of fans.

The opposite route: pimp yourself non-stop and never write another book.
Pro: people will hear about you.
Con: they will get sick of you, you don’t have enough product to attract repeat readers, and you can impoverish and humiliate yourself while braying about your one accomplishment.

So what’s a girl to do? I see both sides. I wrote in obscurity for years, so I’ve amped up my stage presence over the past year or so. But I know that in the big scheme of things, I’ve captured only the most minuscule crumb out of the pie. Stockholm Syndrome is a seriously good book. I don’t want it to disappear after a hundred people read it.
On the other hand, I feel stupid talking about one book over and over. I like creating new things, and my brain will stagnate if I dwell on one item.
Here are some potential marketing choices/goals.
  1. Hire a publicist.
  2. Try to get more radio interviews.
  3. Try to get more television coverage.
  4. Try to cut into the Ottawa/Montreal market, which is pretty much untouched right now, for me, let alone national/international markets.
  5. Get some blog reviews--unlocked yesterday! Murder in Common's June Lorraine says, "A page turner....Dr. Hope Sze is a resident at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Montreal. She is on-call when the labour and delivery unit is turned into a danger zone.…An introspective thriller…A shaky, claustrophobic and menacing situation [with] reflective humour as chaos whirls around her."
  6. Get some print reviews.
  7. Get some awards.
Alternatively, here are some writing choices/goals.
Look carefully
and you'll spot my
EQ card at the top right.
  1. Write the next Hope Sze novel.
  2. Write related short stories. On Crimefiction.fm, Stephen Campbell and I talked about how a short story is the perfect ad for your work: the magazine or reader pays *you*, you get pages of exposure to your ideal reader, and Ellery Queen even sends you an annual Christmas card afterward.
  3. I’m also working on a collection of mystery short stories, called Reckless Homicide, at the request of a reader.
  4. Write something completely unrelated. This month, I aim to publish The Emergency Doctor’s Guide to a Pain-Free Back.
  5. Write something that has a high chance of getting published. In my case, the Medical Post has been very, very good to me, and I need to submit more columns.
  6. Write unrelated short stories/novels for fun.
  7. Market stories already written--something that has fallen off my radar with the time crunch, but I should be more aggressive about this.

So what do you think, SleuthSayers? I’m at a crossroads.

What would you do? What have you done, what have you learned, and which way do you lean? Do you write or promote?

Either way, Happy New Year, happy writing, and happy reading,
Melissa Yi

03 January 2016

Darkness and Light

by Leigh Lundin

On the 1st of January, two seminal and opposing books entered the public domain. One of these books transmuted the world. The other, which came about as an indirect result of the first, transfigured it.

Mein Kampf
When Self-Publishing Goes Horribly Wrong

Mein Kampf was actually published by private press, Franz Eher Nachfolger GmbH, purchased in December 1920 by the fledgling Nazi party. Hitler’s original title, Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampfes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit, or, Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice… You begin to see the problem of a book written by an angry, poorly educated man. Publisher Max Amann quickly shortened the title to Mein Kampf (My Struggle), but it would take subsequent editions to correct the many grammatical and spelling errors.

Hardly a runaway best seller, Nazi party members were its intended audience. As Hitler gained power and prominence, sales increased and during the Third Reich, the book was often given as awards and gifts. The government gave special boxed editions to wedding couples.

Hitler expressed later regret, saying he’d never have written the thing if he’d known he’d actually ascend to supreme leadership in Germany. Part of that regret was that he’d too clearly spelled out his plans for what he considered Germany’s historical enemy, France, and his intentions for Russia, Poland, Britain, the Jews and the Slavs.

Few Germans actually read the book and even Mussolini admitted he hadn’t been able to wade through it. Foreign translations were deliberately softened. Houghton-Mifflin offered an ‘official’ abridged English translation that omitted Hitler's most anti-Semitic and militaristic statements. When a small Pennsylvania publisher, Stackpole and Sons, released a complete translation by William Soskin on that same day, Houghton-Mifflin sued and won, claiming exclusive rights.

An alarmed American UPI reporter in Germany took action of his own. A young Alan Cranston (yes, THAT Alan Cranston, later to become Senator Cranston of California), issued his own translation, the parts Houghton-Mifflin left out, that more accurately reflected Hitler’s horrific vision. Again Hitler’s publishers sued in American courts and won– but not before Cranston managed to get a half-million copies into readers’ hands.

From the end of WW-II until now, the state of Bavaria has held the copyright and refused to allow re-release of Mein Kampf in Germany, although with millions in print during the war years, copies were readily available. Now that copyright has expired. Bavaria will authorize annotated editions, printings that contain critical assessments.

A corollary to Godwin’s Law says that mention of Hitler or Nazis brings discussion to an end, but better is to come.

Diary of Anne Frank
The Girl Who Would Be Famous

For her bat mitzvah, Dutch schoolgirl Annelies Frank received a red-and-white plaid diary, one that would become known around the world. For two years, Anne bared her soul about her feelings and thoughts of those around her and the outside world. Her dream was to become a famous writer and journalist. And so she did.

It turns out the edition of Anne Frank’s Diary students read in school from the 1950s through the 1970s was edited to remove criticism of Anne’s mother and observations about her own, growing sexuality. A few parents (usually without sullying their minds by reading the text), have attempted to ban the book from American schools as recently as 2010 and again in 2013, calling the writings ‘pornographic’.

In fact, multiple editions are known to exist, at least two in Anne’s handwriting. In March 1944, Gerrit Bolkestein, a minister of the Dutch government in exile, announced on the underground Radio Oranje that diaries would be collected after the war to memorialize the suffering of the Dutch people. Upon hearing that, Anne began to rewrite her diary on loose-leaf sheets.

In August 1944, an unknown party betrayed the Frank family to the occupying Nazis. Six months later, Anne and her sister Margot died in Bergen-Belsen weeks before the camp was liberated by Allied troops.

Former Hitler Youth, Nazis, neo-Nazis, right-wing extremists and holocaust deniers have repeatedly contended the book is a forgery. Multiple examinations, forensic tests, handwriting analysis, and court-directed studies have shown otherwise.

Now comes a disturbing claim from the Anne Frank Fund in Switzerland: In fighting off the loss of copyright (and loss of royalties), they now assert Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was co-author. They also argue that their copyright claims should start the clock in the 1980s, the first appearance of the unexpurgated version.

The foundation’s short-term greed threatens to dilute the message and meaning of those precious writings. Fortunately, courts have ruled that an editor is not a co-author. Nevertheless, the Swiss foundation continues to lay claims to copyrights.

Two historically significant documents that could hardly be more different, one born in darkness, the other forged with hope. Have you read either? Or both? Which do you recommend for school curricula?

02 January 2016

A Bizarre Bazaar

In the introduction to his latest short story collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King has a few things to say about short fiction in general. At one point, after confessing that he is a novelist by nature, he says, "But there is something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience. It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a stranger you will ever see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale laid out on a cheap blanket at a street bazaar."

I think the stories he lays out for sale here are among the best he's written--and a surprising number of them don't even have any otherworldly elements. (After all, his two most recent novels are more mystery/crime tales than supernatural, and one of them--Mr. Mercedes--won the 2015 Edgar Award, presented by Mystery Writers of America.) In this collection, I liked all the stories, creepy or not--but a few are exceptional. Of the 19 stories featured, here are my top ten, in order of appearance:

"Mile 81" -- The opening story features something familiar to all of us--the exit ramp to an interstate rest area--mixed with something terrifying. It's a little Christine-like, and doesn't end with quite the bang of some of the other stories here, but its cast of characters make it one of the best entries in the book.

"Batman and Robin Have an Altercation" -- A heartwarming and totally satisfying tale of a man and his elderly father, and their relationship. One of several stories here that feature nothing otherworldly or horrific.

"The Dune" -- Maybe the most memorable in this collection. King says, in his notes about the story, that it has his favorite ending.

"A Death" -- A heartwrenching story about hardship and justice and bigotry set in the Dakota Territory. This isn't typical Stephen King, but it works.

"Afterlife" -- A lighthearted and carefree look at what happens after we check out. Great fun.

"Ur" -- This, the longest story of the collection, deals with glimpses into the future via news reports accessed on a one-of-a-kind Kindle. It also (like King's novel 11/22/63) features a great love story, and has (for me) the best ending in the book.

"Blockade Billy" -- This borderline-novella was published standalone a few years ago, and it's worth another read. A tribute to King's love of baseball.

"Obit" -- A journalist discovers he can cause deaths by writing about them. Not a new idea, but in King's hands it makes for a great tale. One of those long short-stories that doesn't seem long at all.

"The Little Green God of Agony" -- Here's the Stephen King we've come to know and love. Dark, weird, and terrifying. Nothing lighthearted about this little tale.

"Summer Thunder" -- The story that ends the collection is, appropriately, a story about the End of the World. It could have been--and I expected it to be--creepy and brooding; instead it's a beautiful and uplifting account of an old-timer's love of life.

King also states, in his intro, that "short stories require a kind of artisan's skill." I agree: good ones do. And that skill is in abundance in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. If you've read it, I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If you haven't . . . get thyself to a bookstore, or an Amazonian shopping-cart. And in case you've not read the Kingster's previous collections of shorts and novellas, here they are:

Night Shift (1978)
Different Seasons (1982)
Skeleton Crew (1985)
Four Past Midnight (1990)
Nightmares and Dreamscapes (1993)
Hearts in Atlantis (1999)
Everything's Eventual (2002)
Just After Sunset (2008)
Full Dark, No Stars (2010)

NOTE: Among Four Past Midnight's four novellas are The Body (which was adapted into Stand By Me) and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (which became The Shawshank Redemption).

SK might be best known as a novelist, but he's the king of the short stuff as well.

01 January 2016

Happy New Year 2016!

By Dixon Hill

It occurs to me, as I'm writing this, that my blog post will probably hit the net about the same moment that the big ball in NYC hits bottom to ring in the new year.

If this is the first website you're reading in 2016, then permit me to wish you:

"Happy Electronic New Year!"

It's been an interesting year, hasn't it?  From terrorist strikes in the news, to the first-ever 1st Stage of a rocket landing on a pre-planned pad -- standing erect, no less!

Great troubles.  Great strides.

Much like any year, I suppose.

It's common to ask, "What does this new year, 2016, hold in store for us?" in essays such as this one. I'm not really the sort of person who tallies things by the 12-month package, however.

Well, I do tally certain things that way: my taxes for instance.  But, I don't usually sit around and look back over what I've accomplished this past year, or how things have improved or gotten worse around the world.

I leave all that to the talking heads at CNN and Fox News.  They can ramble and rail.  And, I can switch them off.  Imho: they're just trying to find something to fill all that airtime, anyway.  I get my news the old fashioned way: I read it.

Of course, I do my reading the NEWfashioned way: I read it online, usually at the NY Times site, sometimes at websites maintained by select other papers.

The point is, though, I READ my news, because I like well-thought-out reporting that skips the spin or hyperbole, unless I'm clearly warned with a phrase like: "News Analysis" or "Editorial."  With a paper -- on paper, or online -- I get to choose: I can read human interest stories if I want.  Or, I can just stick to hard news.

I like that option.

I enjoy reading our Sleuth Sayers blog here, too.

Since this is a New Year's post, I suppose I should mention that this year is a special one for my wife and me: our youngest child is now 13 (as of yesterday).  Our last teenager.  Now THAT is a milestone, to me.  I should probably also add that I hope to land more short story sales this year, along with an agent to represent my longer works.  And I invite readers to chime in with their thoughts on family, news, or what they hope to accomplish this year.

See you in two weeks!