19 July 2017

Five Red Herrings 8

by Robert Lopresti


1. Maybe I've been here before.  Five years ago in this space (wow, we've been doing this a long time, haven't we?) I wrote a piece about incidental music in movies and TV, (and by incidental I mean it wasn't written for  that show and is not being performed by a character).  The inspiration was Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" showing up in yet another TV show.  I wrote: "It was about five years ago that I concluded that the FCC had passed a new rule requiring every TV show to feature 'Hallelujah.'" I now have evidence that I was right (not about the FCC, but about the frequency of that song's appearances.)


I am reading The Holy or the Broken, a book by Alan Light that is entirely about you-know-which song.  It reports that the first appearance on TV was in Scrubs  in 2002.  There were five more visits in 2003 and seven in the year after.  Each performance pays in the $50,000 range, with half going to the author (and his publisher) and half to the performer (and the record company).  Not bad.

By the way, the whole book is fascinating.  If a writer of fiction tried to make up the story of Cohen's "Hallelujah" she would have to sell it as fantasy or magic realism.  It involves two generations of singers dying young, an animated children's film, TV talent contests, the 9/11 attacks...


Meet the new boss
Blonde as  the old boss
2. Blonde on Blonde. Going even further back in my blogging past, in 2008 I commented on my affection for the British TV show New Tricks.  I noted that there seemed to be a rule that all shows about cops working on cold cases (New Tricks, Cold Squad, Cold Case) had to be led by a blonde woman. 

I recently discovered new episodes of New Tricks and all but one of the  characters had been replaced, including the leader.  And yes, the new one is a blonde woman.
from Gratisography


3.  Getcha pretty pictures right here.  Some of us here at SleuthSayers HQ find ourselves from time to time looking for illustrations that we can use without fearing the Long Arm of the Copyright.  The website Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes has a very helpful list of four websites with images free for the using. 


4. Steven on Sherlock.  The latest issue of Strand Magazine (February-May 2017) has a very interesting interview with Steven Moffat, co-producer and co-creator of Sherlock.  Even if you don't watch his show, Moffat's insights into the great original are interesting.  To those who complain about his making the characters young and modern he replies that when Doyle invented Holmes and Watson they were young and used the newest technology available.  They aged into period pieces as Doyle wrote about them for forty years.  He also points out that people don't complain about the James Bond movies yanking the character out of his time period, although Fleming's character was a World War II vet.  Definitely worth a read.


5.  Riding a trend?  But maybe the most interesting thing in the Strand (and my apologies to John Floyd and the other authors of fiction who appear therein) is a full-page ad for Ted Allbeury's novel The Twentieth Day of January.  There are plenty of ads in the magazine for books, but this one is almost forty years old.  So why bring it back now?  Perhaps the plot description holds a clue: 

"Seemingly out of nowhere, wealthy businessman Logan Powell has become President-elect.  But veteran intelligence agent James MacKay uncovers shocking evidence that suggest something might be terribly wrong with the election: is Powell actually a puppet of the Soviet Union?"

Timing is the key to success.







18 July 2017

Bestseller Metrics with Editor & Author Elaine Ash

by Paul D. Marks

Today I’d like to welcome Elaine Ash, editor, writer and friend. Elaine was born and grew up in eastern Canada, but calls L.A. home these days. Under the pen name “Anonymous-9,” Elaine’s crime fiction is included in numerous “Best of” lists every year. Anonymous-9 was invented as a blind for her hard-hitting, experimental short stories. Her work has been praised by T. Jefferson Parker, Ray Garton, Johnny Shaw, Douglas Lindsay, Josh Stallings, Robert Randisi and many others.

But Elaine also edits fiction writers, from established authors to emerging talent. As the former editor-at-large for Beat to a Pulp webzine, Elaine worked directly with writers of all genres to develop stories for publication. Some of those writers went on to fame and fortune such as recent Edgar nominee Patti Abbott (Polis), Jay Stringer (Thomas and Mercer), Chris F. Holm (Mulholland), S.W Lauden (Rare Bird), Kieran Shea (Titan), Hilary Davidson (Macmillan) Sophie Littlefield (Minotaur, Delacorte) and many more.

Today, she works with private clients, helping them shape manuscripts, acquire agents and land publishing deals. She also ghostwrites and edits for industry clients.

Elaine has a new book out called BESTSELLER METRICS. It’s a different approach to writing novels so I thought it might be of interest to people here and I asked her some questions about it:



Paul: What made you decide to write Bestseller Metrics?

Elaine: I saw that if writers could get novel structure right before hiring an editor, everybody would win. Well-structured stories attract bigger agents and land better publishing deals. That might sound like a sales pitch, but it’s the truth. 


How did you develop it and how did you figure out what it takes to have Bestseller Metrics?

I developed it over years of editing novel manuscripts. In my view, people who give hard-earned money for an editor’s opinion deserve proof that the changes will move them closer to publication. I had metrics in my head for many years before I wrote them down. The key here (that you may not know about) is based on my personality type. The Myers-Briggs personality scale reveals that I’m an INTJ, “Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging personality. There are 16 types and INTJ females make up 0.8% of the population. Males make up 2% of the population (https://www.16personalities.com). We are called “The Architects” and our brains never stop categorizing and creating systems out of information. For kicks. Really. Don’t I sound like a fun date? A colleague of yours and mine, the indubitable Dana King says I “put into words what’s been sitting in plain sight.” Metrics patterns have been showing up in books for a hundred years at least. Nobody was oddball enough to document them in terms of novel structure until I came along. 


I understand that you’ve trademarked your plan, what is so different about it that it deserves a trademark?

The system has registered patent pending status from the US Patent Office, which is different than a trademark. That may be changing, however, after my conversation with Dr. Gregory Benford, a physicist and professor at UC Irvine, also a Nebula Award winner for his science fiction. He told me about a genetics testing company that operated under trade-secret law. It’s nothing strange or new—the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe is a trade secret. So I came up with a plan. I’ve released the initial part of the system to the general public in the book, while other parts are being developed as publishing industry software that will operate as a business trade secret. It sounds great, but as Dr. Bentham said as he walked away from me, “Just remember, every mook with a gat thinks he’s a tough guy.” So we’ll see if the plan actually works in the real world. 


What one thing holds back most unpublished manuscripts?

Structure. There so little information for aspiring authors. For decades, I’ve seen manuscripts with sparkling prose, 3-D characters and great premise ideas fail solely on structure. It’s not because writers don’t want to learn—they’re paying for books, classes, conferences and workshops. They’re breaking their fingernails to get it right. But structure is rarely taught, or it’s taught in a way that is not accessible to large numbers of learners. My greatest wish is that educators will pick up this book and start teaching it. On my to-do list is to create teacher-support materials for use in classrooms. I’ll work with any teacher who contacts me.




You talk about “Imaginary Memory.” What is that and how does it affect writers and their writing.

The Imaginary Memory tricks a writer into thinking details are on the page that aren’t really there, or are only partly there. As an author reads his or her own writing, a parade of stored memories and images flood the mind, filling in missing plot points and smoothing over missing descriptions. A cold reader can tell something’s missing immediately, but the writer feels like everything’s complete. Imaginary Memory is a trickster. That’s why a writer can be convinced they’ve just turned in a tremendously vivid piece of work to a writers’ group, and reaction falls flat. I invented tests to help short-circuit IM and give the writer clear indicators of what’s missing.


How is Bestseller Metrics different from the average how-to book on writing fiction?

It’s a window on the creation of novels. It offers a series of tests for writers of every genre to find how close they are to the metrics of bestsellers. If you can count from 1 to 10 you know enough math to do the tests. The book has crystal-clear diagrams, cartoon line drawings, detailed analyses, and a sprinkling of humor and encouragement so it stays interesting and entertaining.


You talk a lot about numbers of characters in best-selling novelscan you tell us a little about that. Character countingwhat is that? And why is it important?

Too often, good manuscripts are flawed by a carousel of characters dropping into a chapter and then vanishing, never to be seen again. Too many characters create confusion and complicate the plot. Successful novels have basic and measurable numbers of characters that track from beginning to end. Key information a writer needs is, “What’s the right amount of characters?” I’m talking about average-sized novels around 100,000 words or less. Epics and sagas with huge word counts like A Game of Thrones have their own metrics, and there are separate chapters on that.

Leaving the literary leviathans aside, there is a predictable amount of characters that appear in the first quarter of the books I examined. The first quarter of a story is golden—it’s the time when readers get to know the main character and “the world.” Inside the books on my list, in every genre, between 25 and 53 characters appear in the first quarter, no matter if the book is 62,000 words (The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett) or  146,000 words (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn). Flip to the last quarter of each book and you’ll find a range between 4 and 22 characters that made it through to the climax and ending. Will you find novels that don’t match these metrics? Of course! Art isn’t set in stone. But for the beginning novelist, trying to craft a manuscript for sale, these guidelines are tried and true. They will help you create a story that works. Like I say in the book: “Learn the rules, land a publishing deal, and then break all the rules you want.” 



You talk about discovering the secrets of best-selling books like— 

Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding, The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler, Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn, The Color of Magic - Terry Pratchett, Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice, A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin, Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling, A Confederacy of Dunces -John Kennedy Toole, The Shining - Stephen King, Lady Chatterley’s Lover - D. H. Lawrence, The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins, The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger, The Lincoln Lawyer -Michael Connelly, Monster Hunter International -Larry Correia, The Other Side of Midnight - Sydney Sheldon, Kill Shot - Vince Flynn 

—what are those secrets?

I examine each cast of characters and their relationships to one another. I provide simplified outlines for some books and point out the major plot elements. Nailing the first and second act plot twists can be tricky, and as far as I know, no book has distilled this information before. Hollywood does these breakdowns for films all day long, but nobody’s done it for novels. This is the kind of information I longed for and searched everywhere for as a first-time writer. A career novelist email me yesterday and said, “If I’d had this book 20 years ago, I could have saved a lot of time.” That was a pretty big compliment.


Anything else that you’d like to say?

Friend me on Facebook and ask any questions you like. Visit me at bestsellermetrics.com. You can email me there, too. Look inside the book at https://www.amazon.com/Bestseller-Metrics-Novel-Writing-Structure/dp/1546524886. FYI, there is no e-book and there likely won’t be one. This is a full-size workbook meant to be written in.

Thank you for joining us, Elaine.

***


And now for the usual BSP:

My short story “Blood Moon” will be coming out in Day of the Dark (Stories of the Eclipse). Edited by Kaye George. Releasing July 21, 2017, one month before the big solar eclipse on August 21st. From Wildside Press. Available for Pre-Order on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073YDGSL5


www.PaulDMarks.com

17 July 2017

Cats and Gats

by Steve Liskow   

Last Friday, my wife Barbara and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary.
For 31 of those years, we've had from one to three cats, and knowing that Ernie and Jewel will probably be our last pets is disconcerting, especially since both are developing health issues at a much younger age than we expected. Jewel has been on steroids (forfeiting her football scholarship) for nearly two years to fight her asthma (yes, cats get asthma!) and she's beginning to exhibit some of the side effects that the drug can cause.

Ernie has developed stage two kidney disease. So far, he loves his diet food--he has always eaten like a teen-aged boy--and is responding well to the blood pressure meds he takes because of the kidney problem. But both cats are only nine years old, and they've been together almost from Ernie's birth.

Barb and I met at a theater audition not long after I'd adopted a cat from someone who couldn't keep her. Many of out theater friends pointed out that cats fend for themselves more easily than dogs--which we both grew up with--if their servants have a schedule that involves late rehearsals or travel.

Cats are better teachers, too. They can demonstrate everything an actor needs to know about concentration, and they help me with my writing now because they give me a sense of proportion. Dogs may pretend they like a chapter because they want you to feed them. Cats don't care. If you don't feed them, they'll go out and kill something...or tear up the couch and stare at you so you understand it was your own damn fault.

A character in Jodi Picoult's House Rules claims that all cats have Asperger's syndrome, and it may be true. If you have a cat, you know it's always about them. Cats are narcissists at heart, and that fits well with some of the great villains in literature: Moriarty, Goldfinger, Hannibal Lector, or Edmund in King Lear. When cats stalk their prey, they model a focus that can be truly frightening, but the also convey a calculation that works with either villains or sleuths.

Cats can help you depict character quickly in other ways, too. What does it show you if a person doesn't like animals--or, better yet, if animals don't like him? Fran Rizer's Callie Parrish has a Great Dane. Robert Crais gave Elvis Cole a feral cat. He's just called "Cat," which says it all, doesn't it? Linda Barnes's PI Carlotta Carlyle has a cat, too. Megan Traine, the female protagonist of my Chris "Woody" Guthrie novels, has two cats. She named the tuxedo with double paws Clydesdale (usually "Clyde"), and calls his calico sister Bonnie.

Remember the Disney film That Darn Cat (I know I'm dating myself here)? Dean Jones's character was allergic to cats, and it helped deepen his character. Clint Eastwood played a New Orleans detective with two children in 1984's Tightrope, and a crucial scene shows the family dog stuffed into a clothes drier. What does that tell us about the bad guy? Don't worry, he gets what's coming to him.

Many publishers and contests stipulate that an animal can't be killed or tortured in the story, and that just shows ho much most of us value pets. Watch the memes and petitions on Facebook if someone mistreats an animal. Some of my neighbors complain when a rabbit or raccoon gets into their garden, but sometimes I think I'd rather have a raccoon, rabbit, skunk, fox or coyote living across the street instead. We wouldn't talk politics and they take care of their space.

16 July 2017

Short Shorts

by Leigh Lundin

Like short stories, film shorts concentrate a lot into a little because the best are short stories, not merely vignettes.

Let’s start with writers…



And readers… This little girl has her own ideas about the arts.



You wouldn’t expect a reading public to be a cause for concern, but it might come as a surprise to learn Adolph Hitler’s barely readable Mein Kampf ranks high in non-fiction sales. Chairman Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book also sells respectably in the capitalist world. Some concern can be mitigated by the fact that both of these books are often studied to better understand mania, madness, and mass followings.



The lovely mother of one of our long-time readers died a few hours ago. I’m not free to mention the name, but blessed be. This is for Mama-san…


15 July 2017

Nick Mason: A New Kind of Hero


by John M. Floyd




Back when Leigh, Rob, Janice, and I were writing weekly columns for the Criminal Brief blog, I did a post about mystery writer Steve Hamilton (here's a link). I had met Steve at a writers' conference a couple of years earlier and shortly afterward became hooked on his series about reluctant private investigator Alex McKnight.


That blog piece was eight years ago. At that time Steve had written seven McKnights and one standalone novel, Night Work. He has since produced three more McKnight novels, a second standalone called The Lock Artist, and the first two books in a series about ex-con Nick Mason.

Backstory

One reason I was so intrigued by Steve Hamilton when I met him is that he was (at that time) an employee of IBM--and so was I, for thirty years. I'm not saying there aren't a lot of IBM folks running around out there, but there aren't a lot of them who are also mystery writers. Anyhow, Steve showed several of us at the conference a short film that had just been adapted from one of his stories, and I've been a devoted fan ever since. I've now read all ten of the McKnight novels--which are set, by the way, in the real town of Paradise, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula--and also both of his standalone books. And a few weeks ago I finished the second novel in his new series. The main thing to report, about that, is that Steve Hamilton's fiction is every bit as strong now as it was in his very first book (A Cold Day in Paradise, which won the Edgar Award). Keeping up that kind of quality, as we all know, is not always the case. Most authors--especially crime novelists, for some reason--can't continue to entertain/captivate their audience, or at least not at the same level, after a dozen books or so.

Another thing about Steve: he's a genuinely nice guy, friendly and down-to-earth and helpful to other writers. He's certainly been kind to me.

The new series

I've already mentioned the fact that I liked all the McKnight installments and the two non-series books, Night Work and The Lock Artist (the latter won Steve yet another Edgar). But I'm really excited about his latest two novels, The Second Life of Nick Mason and Exit Strategy. Both are set in Chicago, and feature the most interesting protagonist I've seen in a long time.

Nick Mason (no, he's not a brickmason, and no relation to Perry) is a career criminal. An ex-convict, in fact, who gets out of prison on a fluke and finds himself in a position almost bad as the one he left. On the one hand, he's now a free man, but on the other, he belongs to the guy who arranged his release. "Mobility," in his benefactor's own words, "is not freedom." Nick is still in a prison of sorts, and lives at the beck and call of someone who, if not strictly and promptly obeyed, will kill not only Nick but his wife and daughter as well.

This "second life" that Nick Mason has been granted (seldom has there been a more appropriate title for a novel) is what drives this series. The first book introduces the character and his dilemma, and the next one--Exit Strategy--continues the nightmare but puts forth the slim hope that Nick can somehow get out of the impossible situation Fate has handed him. Both novels feature fascinating characters, pulse-pounding action, and plenty of plot twists.

In the words of others . . .

Here are some excerpts from recent reviews of The Second Life of Nick Mason:

"A fine premise, a vibrant setting, a charismatic anti-hero . . . It's a tight, gripping book about a man hellbent on reinventing himself against long odds."--The New York Times

"Whatever he writes, I'll read. Steve Hamilton's that good."--Lee Child

"Steve Hamilton amazes me. Every time I think he's going to zig, he zags."--Michael Connelly

"The novel more than lives up to its hype."--The Chicago Tribune

"Trust Stephen King. This book is the real deal."--Stephen King

A killer like Keller

Maybe the most surprising thing about this series is that Steve Hamilton--like Lawrence Block, in his Keller novels--somehow makes the reader care about an extremely unlikely hero. Nick Mason has a good heart, but he's still a hired assassin. And here we are, cheering him on. I plan to do the same with future installments in this series.

Breaking news: The first of the Nick Mason novels will be a major movie soon, and a recent podcast featuring an interview with Steve can be found at Wrong Place, Right Crime.  (Click on July 3: Steve Hamilton. Hint, hint: I'll be featured there on July 17, so tune in for that one too.)

That's my pitch for today. Again, the novels are The Second Life of Nick Mason and Exit Strategy. I hope you'll read them, and the Alex McKnight series as well. In other words, spend a few cold days in Paradise.

And to Steve, if you read this . . . keep up the good work.




14 July 2017

We're all Liars

by
O'Neil De Noux

"I'm a professional liar, folks," Harlan Ellison once said. "I write fiction for a living. I make up this weird crap and people pay me for it."

Harlan Ellison at Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival

My kids used to warn people, "Watch out. My Dad makes up stuff."

They discovered it early when I read books to them. My daughter especially. She noticed how the book I just read to her was different from what I read to her earlier because I made up different versions of the story each time I looked at the drawings. "That's not the way the book was last time."

Made it difficult when the historian in me would tell them real stories and they'd wait until I finished before asking, "Was that true or did you make it up?"

No, I told them, there really was a man named Dracula.

Which brings me to my newest book SAINT LOLITA, a book where homicide detctive-turned private eye LaStanza, the main character of my longest running series, leaves New Orleans for most of the book. He goes to a Caribbean isle to locate and recover le Cerise, the largest red diamond in the world (which I made up. Not the world but the diamond. Well, when I think about it I made up LaStanza's world back in the 1980s when I created him).

I was going to set the story on the island of Saint Lucia. I've never been there and the research became so intense, I knew I'd never get it right and I love strong, accurate settings. So I made up an island and named her Saint Lolita - which opened so many subtle nuances in the story. There is even a Caribbean Saint Lolita Festival where women dress up as Lolitas, parade around in skimpy clothing. I got to put LaStanza in a pith helmet.

Cover art @2017 Dana De Noux

Yep, I've been making up crap for years. All fiction writers do.

I said earlier, I like a strong, accurate setting. I get most things right, especially in my New Orleans pieces because I go back to each setting to recheck and make sure I got it right.

Final note (and I hope I haven't put this in an earlier blog) comes from Tennessee Williams. After the Broadway success of his Pulitzer's Prize winning A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (which he wrote while living at 632 Saint Peter Street, New Orleans), Mr. Williams was an event here in the city where an uptown dilletante scolded him about his play. She told him if Blanche DuBois took the streetcar the way Tennessee described the route, she would not have ended up on Elysian Fields Avenue.

"The streetcars don't run that way."

He replied, "Well, they should."


Photo of Tennessee Williams by Evening Standard - Getty Images, uploaded by answers.com.

That's all for now, folks.

13 July 2017

The Black Orchid Award and the Rebirth of the Novella

by Brian Thornton


Rob Lopresti & Friend
So, come to find out that not one, but two of my fellow Sleuthsayers have not only successfully
written and sold novellas, they are both winners of the prestigious Black Orchid Award handed out annually for one lucky novella writer by the official Nero Wolfe fan club, The Wolfepack. These intrepid Sleuthsayers, Rob Lopresti and Steve Liskow.

Now, who better to ask about their process for writing novellas than successful, award-winning novella-ists?

Read on for the first part of the interview, conducted completely by email, and tune back in for round two in two weeks!

First off, why a novella?

Rob: The Wolfe Pack and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine co-sponsor the Black Orchid Novella Contest, which intends to promote the form in which Rex Stout wrote so many Nero Wolfe tales.  My friend James Lincoln Warren asked me to be a first reader for his entry which I was happy to do.  He won.  It’s tempting to go for an easy joke and say “So I decided anybody could do it,” but I knew better. I had never written anything in that length, and besides, James is beaucoup talented.

I should say that Rex Stout is one of my favorite mystery writers (the other being Don Westlake) but – dirty little secret – I have never cared for most of his novellas, which feel like ghostly imitations of his novels.  But I certainly know his plot structure and I decided to give it  a try.  And I won.

Steve Liskow
Steve: I've only tried two novellas and they both won the Black Orchid award, but they came from opposite directions. Novellas used to be popular, and they're slowing coming back, maybe for a number of reasons and advantages.

First, they demand less time to write than a full novel. You're looking somewhere between 20 and 40 K words, and my novels are usually low 80K, so there's less time to plan, write, and revise. Second, since people are often on the go, they like a story they can read in a shorter time, such as on the plane trip for business round trip. And with the advent of eBooks, you can sell a shorter separate work without the production costs that would make unit pricing a problem in the old days. A friend of mine has published six or seven eBooks, all novellas between 120 and 160 pages over the last three years. They're about five bucks each and if she published them on Create Space (I don't know if she did), she's making 70% royalties. That's a nice return for a lesser effort. I know Rex Stout used to produce books with two or three novellas and maybe a short story for a standard-length book. They're a problem for magazines because they mean fewer other stories have room, but the advantages are becoming more evident to more people. And someone pointed out on Sleuthsayers a few days ago (maybe John Floyd?) that there are now a few publishers producing novellas.

(Interviewer's note: That was me. And I interviewed one of those publishers a couple of weeks back. You can find that interview here.)

Did you initially set out to write a novella full-on, or did you decide to expand a short?

Rob: As I suggested above, I set out to write something for the Novella contest.  The hard part was: what did I know enough about to write a long story about?  Libraries?  Not interesting enough.  Archaeology?  Love it but I don’t know enough.  Folk music? I already wrote a novel about that, set in Greenwich Village in 1963 and- hey!

I had my idea.  Go back a few years in Greenwich Village history.  Create a beat poet who solves crimes for pay.  And – this was the part that sold me on it – in the inevitable Wolfean gathering-of-the-suspects at the end – my hero would do his revelation in improvised free verse.  “The Red Envelope” won the BONA and was published in Hitchcock’s.

Notice that title, by the way.  It is a hat-tip to Rex Stout’s The Red Box.  I hope to write more
novellas about Delgardo the poet, and my plan is to name each one after a different Wolfe novel or novella.  Chronologically I  want to move ahead one month each time.  “The Red Box” is set in October 1958.  The next one, which is most of the way through a first draft, involves something that really happened that November.

Steve: Neither of my novellas started that way. "Stranglehold" was a 6800 word short story that didn't quite work. There were too many characters at the beginning for readers to keep track of. When I tried to cut some of them (and the word count), the story fell apart. The story was longer than a lot of markets would take (this was about 2007-8), so when they turned it down, I had a story I couldn't sell anywhere. Then in 2008, I heard about the Black Orchid Novella Award. I'd read a lot of Rex Stout because he was one of my mother's faves, and remembered liking the voice and tone, so I wondered if I could expand the story and introduce the characters more gradually. I only added a couple of scenes and expanded everything else, and it worked. In fact, I remember adding 9000 words in less than a week because the whole thing seemed to be a novella waiting for me to recognize it. Once I added the length, I didn't do much other revision. By then, the earlier version had gone through about 20 drafts so I knew pretty clearly what needed to be there and what could go away. The more I look at my novellas, the more I understand how much Stout's and Archie Goodwin's voice influenced me. I grew up in the Midwest (Michigan), and if I remember correctly, Archie supposedly did too. Maybe that's why the form felt comfortable when I tried it.


"Look What They've Done To My Song, Mom" came from the other direction. "Stranglehold" was supposed to be a short story continuing the adventures of Chris/Woody and Meg, who had already shown up in at least two unsold novels (I later self-pubbed one and changed the other to the Zach Barnes Connecticut series, where it worked much better), and I was actually trying to come up with a novel as a sequel for the winning novella. I had the possible plagiarism plot but was stuck on subplots that really interested me. Valerie the ex-stripper/receptionist would have had a bigger role, but I wasn't sure exactly how or why. The vague idea sat around in my files for about three years, and then Alfred Hitchcock published one of my other stories and I received my author's copy within days of receiving a rejection from them for something else. I was really hoping they'd take the story, so I was pretty disappointed. BUT I saw the announcement of the Black Orchid again and thought to myself, "well, I've got a sequel to a winner I haven't been able to flesh out, so maybe I can do it as another novella."  I think I wrote the first draft in about a week and only did about three or four more drafts--very few for me. Something I'm beginning to understand about novellas is that you can work with about one subplot instead of several, and if you have five or six rich scenes with a lot going on, you're pretty much there. My theater experience working on low budgets meant I was drawn to plays with few set/scene changes (director, producer, frequent sound design, rare light design). That helps a lot when you're trying to be concise because it shows you how many or how few locations you really need. And I still write cheap: cut the locations, cut the props, cut the extra characters. Get to the end, then go back and figure out what's missing that people will ask about.

See you in two weeks!

12 July 2017

Potemkin Villages

David Edgerley Gates


I ran across an article by Katherine Cross in the Daily Beast that used the expression "Potemkin morality," which struck me as an interesting phrase. Her piece is about the alt-Right troll campaign against CNN, with its echoes of GamerGate. (GamerGate is itself a complicated story, with a subtext of women-hating and a foretext of anti-Semitism and agitprop, essentially tone-deaf to facts and reasoning, or shame.)
http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-anti-cnn-harassment-campaign-is-using-the-gamergate-playbook
She uses the Potemkin reference to mean something akin to crocodile tears, or bare-faced hypocrisy, to make the truth uncertain and proofs negotiable.

Prince Grigory Potemkin was an 18th-century Russian, a favored minister of Catherine the Great. Governor-general of Novorossiya - the southern Dnieper watershed and the Black Sea from Odessa to the Donbass, including Crimea - he famously hosted Catherine on a trip downriver from Kiev in the summer of 1787. Along the banks, he allegedly built colorful villages that were basically stage sets, and peopled them with thousands of smiling, waving peasants. The empress graciously acknowledged her happy subjects from a suitably royal remove.

The story is by all accounts exaggerated, but hence the term Potemkin Village. More than a false front, or a false-fronted building, it's a false narrative, a belief system, but constructed out of whole cloth. From what we know, Catherine might not have been fooled, or she may have chosen to turn a blind eye to the deception. You can turn this back to front yourself, of course, depending on POV. Usually, it's seen as a cautionary tale, about vanity. Or a courtier's flattery, telling your queen what you think she wants to hear. Catherine, we suspect, would have been better served by honesty, but that's a toughie. What if the unwelcome truth cost you your place near the throne, or your own head? Gifts and favors can be withdrawn.

In the event, however, Potemkin's village is an empty shell, a facade, a ghost town. The empress graces it with her glance, and it drifts astern. Its purpose has been served, to distract attention from broken walls and failed crops, sickly livestock and barefoot tenants. Misdirection is one way of putting it.

'Active disinformation' is another possibility - borrowing the vocabulary of the modern security apparat - and I think this is the sense Katherine Cross intends. She means Potemkin, the modifier, to indicate something not simply staged, a puppet show, but a more sinister design than that, calculated disregard. None of your moral relativism, either, Complete abandonment. No baseline whatsoever. Prince Potemkin's fiction is inflated to metaphorical extremes. But it was always a metaphor about surfaces, and hollow figures, empty air.

In the context of the Daily Beast article, we're talking about vigilantes on social media, and the practice of doxing [dox = docs = documents], exposing somebody's personal information on the Internet for revenge. This isn't a tactic exclusive to the alt-Right, but the politics of bullying are familiar enough. It's old wine in new bottles. Even if the delivery changes, the message stays the same, and it's curious how the clothes of righteousness still seem to be one size fits all. (It is a little disconcerting how many of these people are neo-Nazis or Aryan Nations or white supremacists, in or out of uniform.) Oh, but of course they themselves wear masks, this being the Internet and all. You can't disguise your handwriting, though. It gives the game away.

We know to mistrust absolutes, orthodoxy, the received wisdom. Too often it's an alibi for cruelty, or flat-out extermination. But aren't there basic norms? We accept certain conventions, like driving on the right (or the left, in some countries), just to make it safely through the day. And we accept certain others, simply because they seem part of civility, or common decency. You don't have to subscribe to any particular party line. Most of us, for the most part, agree a few courtesies are necessary.

There are always the ones who think rules are for suckers. A lot of them are criminals. Not all of them get caught. What they share is a sense of entitlement. They're the dispossessed, they've been cheated. Trolls, lurking in the virtual undergrowth. Parasites, by any other name.

It comes down to something outside our own convenience, a fundamental respect for other people. The lesson of Prince Potemkin's reconstruction is that it's theater, a dress rehearsal. You don't rehearse morality. You don't wear it as a costume, and take it off when the lights go dark.  


11 July 2017

Criminal success: Success and/or Challenges You've Faced in Writing Crime


Kris Nelscott: I’m amazed at how easy it is to find information that I shouldn't be able to find. In my Smokey Dalton series, the books are set in the late 1960s. One book, The War At Home, deals with bomb-making. I found, in a memoir by a former member of the Weathermen, the recipe for their bombs. I used a part of it, but left out several ingredients on purpose. My NY copy editor added them back in. No, nope. No. I'm not going to give anyone a roadmap into bomb-making. Or other crimes, for that matter.

Rebecca Cantrell: I love meeting readers, although I once had a reader come up to me and say: "Your mystery is so good! I bet you could even write a real book!"

Annie Reed: The challenges for me pretty much all stem from having to step inside the head of a truly bad person in order to write from their point of view. Basically putting myself inside the head of a psychopath to write from that person's perspective.  Oogy stuff. The successes come from writing something that forces me to write outside my normal comfort zone.

O’Neil de Noux: The greatest challenge was learning my craft. No one can teach you how to write. You can learn the basics, the ‘how to’, but you have to do it yourself to get it done.
Successes are few. Sales have never been big. A little recognition in the media at the start of my career was nice. The awards are certainly nice. Being recognized by my peers. My writing has been awarded a SHAMUS Award, a DERRINGER Award, the UNITED KINGDOM SHORT STORY PRIZE. Two of my mystery stories have appeared in the BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES and my novel JOHN RAVEN BEAU was named Police Book of the Year by police-writers.com.

Dean Wesley Smith: I suppose that at first I thought it would be too complex for me to figure out. Turns out, for me and how my mind works with puzzles, they are the easiest books to write.

Melissa YiMy definition of success keeps changing.

First, I desperately wanted a professional publication, because it meant that I was a “real writer” in my mind. I was good enough that someone wanted to pay me for my words.

Then I was anxious to sell repeatedly, for more money, in more magazines. 

My next skill leap was jumping from short stories to novels. I had to talk myself into it by saying, “Look, novels are just connected short stories … “

So then the next rung was selling my novels and making some money.

In 2010, my collection of light-hearted medical essays, The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World and Other True Tales From the Emergency Room, hit the Amazon bestseller lists. For the first time in my life, I was reaching lots of readers, and money hit so quickly that I ended up with a bunch of cheques in British pounds that I didn’t even have a bank account to accommodate.

Now I was ringing the money bell, certainly not to the tune of six figures a month, the way some writers seemed to, but way beyond anything I’d accomplished before or since. But it didn’t make me as happy as I thought it would. My fiction wasn’t getting the same audience, and I got a lot of blowback in the form of hate mail and vigorous one-star reviews. So I made up a new definition of success: Writing connects me with people, places, and things that excite me.

You can see my evolving definition of success here, which is sort of a writing bucket list. When I look back at it, I realize that in 2010, writing was giving me money, but no fun. Once the critics came out with their knives, I froze up a bit at writing non-fiction. 

Since then, I’ve made a point of having fun. Or at least trying new things. Probably the most bizarre thing I did was a two-day Ido Portal handstand workshop when I’ve got minimal upper body strength and rarely hang out upside down. But I also went to Los Angeles twice as a finalist for the Roswell Award, and I headed down to New York and Boston for the Jewish Noir book tour. All awesome.

However, now that I’ve had some fun and can no longer crack Amazon’s algorithms, I’d like to make a living with my writing. Or, as I put it on my bucket list, I want to be able to say, I could quit my day job and write full-time, whether or not I choose to do this.

 Click here if you want a link to all platforms.And for success, I’m thrilled to report that Canada’s national book show, CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter, chose Human Remains as one of the great summer must-reads of 2017!

(If you’d like to join the Human Remains party, the e-book's only $3.99 on all platforms. You can download it for free on Kobo with the code HRemains. This code only works on Kobo, not Amazon, and will only last until July 31st.)

Looking at my fellow writers' opinions, I see that a lot of my writing goals and dreams are very external. I don’t have a lot of control over which editors publish my work, how much money flows to me every year, or how my books are reviewed. 

I should set some writing goals that I can control, like how many words I write per week, or how many stories I submit to magazines, or craft goals, like improving my setting.

What about you? How do you define writing success and/or challenges?

10 July 2017

Just Sitting Around

by Jan Grape

The other day I was just sitting around thinking about what to write for this blog. Nothing much came to mind immediately. But as luck would have it, sitting here finally gave me an idea. I'd ask some writers where they write. Do they have an office? Do they write at the dinning room table? Do they go to an actual office they rent in order to give themselves the atmosphere and the feel of a business. They need the business work place to feel the magic happen.

Through the magic of Facebook, I was able to find out how and where some writers work.

Fran Rizer, one of our Sleuthsayer family and writer the Callie Parrish books says: While I don't have an actual office, I do have a designated small room. I don't own a desk either. My computer and printer sit on an ornately carved Chinese table with a marble top. It came with a matching chair, but I use a standard roll-around office chair with arms, The table is beautiful when you can see it, which isn't often because it's usually cluttered with print-outs for proofing.

Bill Crider, who writes book in every genre but, probably best known for his Clearview, Texas Sheriff Dan Rhodes, (and for the 3 VBKs [very bad kittens] he rescued from a storm drain a little over a year ago and who have a huge following on Facebook and who were never really bad just little kittens.) Bill's upcoming Sheriff is titled, Dead To Begin With, due out in August, from Minotaur Books.
Yes, I have a office. When Judy was alive, she kept the door shut so visitors couldn't see inside. I keep it shut now because I don't want the cats to wander in and disappear. That gives you some idea of its condition. It was designed to be a small fourth bedroom, and it now holds bookshelves on three walls, some of them floor to ceiling crammed with thousands of old paperbacks. I have two computers, a printer, two scanners, an old TV set, a desk and various other items. There's not a lot of room to move around. Naturally, I love it.
Manning Wolfe, an Austin, Texas lawyer, and author of Dollar Signs, a legal mystery set in Austin says: Interesting you should ask about my office because I just re-did my space. We had Bill's mother's 1920's art deco dining room table in storage that I now use for my desk. I use both a desk top and a laptop. My picture window faces out to the patio and into the woods, I love it.

Manning desk Manning rose

I also heard from Harlan Coben,  New York Times Best-selling Author of thirty mysteries and thrillers. Most recent out is Home and upcoming is Don't Let Go, due in late September from Dutton.
He says he doesn't have a work space, that he writes where ever he happens to be sitting. Outside, at the kitchen table, on an airplane, in a hotel room.

Brendan DuBois writes: Once at Bouchceron, I heard Sue Grafton say something to the effect that she's most happiest in her office. The same is true for me. It's my time machine, my dream machine, my own place where I can write, dream, and curse. I write on trips, I write on planes and trains, but my office is my special place. It has books, mementoes, and lots of memories. Oh, and lots of clutter! In its previous life, it was a teenage girl's bedroom before me and the missus moved in. We repainted it and now it's mine, with desk, filing cabinet, and lots of books and book cases.

Brendan DuBois Brendan DuBois

Myself: I have an office, with a desk and a roll-around office chair with arms. Much like Fran described. However, I just couldn't be comfortable in there so I write sitting in my living room sofa using my laptop.

Now I'd like to hear from all of you. Tell me where and how the magic happens at your house or do you have to leave and go to an office?

09 July 2017

The Thrill is Gone

by Leigh Lundin

John Grisham novels draw me in; I enjoy them immensely. The Firm especially appealed to me because it struck close to home, following my stumbling upon massive fraud within one of the largest Wall Street firms. In imaginative moments, I picture a dark, violent response turned into a Hollywood thriller. I could have found myself in a dastardly plot, on the run for my life with a miniskirted damsel as vice presidents and accounting drones dropped dead around me. Excited movie audiences would gasp between mouthfuls of popcorn, women would cry, and children would whisper, “He’s so bwave.”

Twists of tension hallmark a Grisham tale. Some of his novels are sensitive and many explore societal issues, but I most enjoy his thrillers, those with brain versus vicious brawn.

During the holiday, I sat down with The Whistler, which promised to be a thriller. Meh, not so much.

Not every book from a great author turns out brilliantly. S.S. Van Dine said writers should stop after six novels, because no author has more than six good mystery books in him. There’s truth in that and Van Dine went on to prove his own point. He wrote twelve novels, but critics felt the latter half dozen were decidedly inferior.

Problem Number 1

Grisham set his novel in Florida. Mere Mississippi madness can’t match Florida’s lunatic weirdness, no more than New York neurosis nor Indiana insanity can. Florida floats alone in its own sea of bizarre psychosis.

Take for example our governor… please. This man committed the largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid history… the most sizable medical corruption ever. The fines alone amounted to $1.7-billion, which left him plenty remaining to buy a Florida governorship. We, the real loonies who ignored his corruption, voted him into office not once but twice.

Rick Scott, largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid history
Florida Governor Rick Scott, largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid history © Miami Herald

Thus when Grisham’s novel promises the largest judicial fraud in the history of America, the bar is set historically high. The New York Times reviewer failed to grasp this, but the multi-millions discussed in the story don’t come close to real-life frauds, not by Florida standards. Cons and bunco-artists have long prospered in the Sunshine State where mere six and seven figures are pocket change. If Grisham hadn’t promised biggest, hugest, worstest fraud, then we Floridians might have more easily suspended our disbelief.

Problem Number 2

I wanted more characterization, particularly of its heroine, Lacy Stoltz. While the author shortchanged many characters, Grisham delivered better with her short-lived partner, Hugo Hatch. Grisham colorfully describes Greg Myers/Mix, a disbarred lawyer, but abandons him halfway through the book.

Characterization of minor characters shouldn’t come at the expense of major inhabitants, especially the criminal mastermind behind everything, barely fleshed out by the end of the novel. We also learn little about the whistle-blower who started it all.

As for corrupt Judge Claudia McDover, I award a C. The main issue comes from her worrying if a man she sent to death row was truly guilty. Listen, John, we in Florida love to send even innocents to Old Sparky and Gassy Gus and believe me, officials don’t fret about it, they brag about it. Get with the program, man.

I lost count at the number of bitter divorcĂ©es in the novel, five or possibly six. Male writers think the way to a woman’s heart is to capitalize on putative anger towards men. Whether this James Pattersonian model is correct, I leave to readers.

Of all the characters, Lacy’s obnoxious, protective brother comes across as the most real. He’s the one guy we can picture in a love/hate way. If all characters were constituted this well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Problem Number 3

Thrillers should feature thrills or at least suspense. At no time did I believe the heroine’s life was in danger. Her one brush with death came and went so suddenly, neither she nor we had time to fear for her.

Our disbarred lawyer Greg Myers disappears, presumed taken out by the bad guys. Then we’re told he might remain alive, sucking the air out of that danger. His girlfriend’s safety is more problematic, but that’s quickly resolved.

The tension ramps up a little regarding the whistle-blower. Thanks to the foresight of an alarm system and home security cameras, that risk proved minimal. It's no Pelican Brief.

The Firm set a high standard of suspense and tension. When people talk of an exciting Grisham novel, that’s the one that comes to mind. If The Whistler hadn’t been billed as a thriller and hadn’t overhyped superlatives of corruption and badness, it would fall comfortably in the drama arena. As it’s presently marketed, it’s a thriller absent of thrills.

The Grisham We Know and Love

But wait, all is not lost. It’s still an interesting read and Grisham gives us a little of the social commentary he’s noted for, particularly about Florida’s death penalty, which sounds much like my own writings.

Grisham briefly describes Florida’s Starke death row (there’s a self-descriptor!) where 400 men are warehoused in 6×9×9 un-air-conditioned cells, designed to make their remaining time on Earth as miserable as possible.
“Only California had more men on death row than Florida. Texas was a close third, but since it was more focused on keeping its numbers down, its population was around 330, give or take. California, which little interest in executing people, had 650. Florida longed to be another Texas, but its appellate courts kept getting in the way. Last year, 2010, only one man was lethally injected in Starke.”

“Total isolation leads to sensory deprivation and all sorts of mental problems. Corrections experts were just beginning to recognize this, and a movement to reform the practice of solitary confinement was struggling to gain momentum. Said movement had not made it to Florida.”
I’ve touched upon my AmerInd background and mentioned my parents’ disdain for the politically correct ‘Native American’ and ‘Indigenous American’ labels. Grisham is more comfortable writing about First Nation people than many writers. My family couldn’t have agreed more with his observation.
“The term ‘Native American’ is a politically correct creation of clueless white people who feel better using it, when in reality the Native Americans refer to themselves as Indians and snicker at those of us who don’t.”
I award The Whistler a 6.9.

Your View

Have you read The Whistler? What is your opinion?