Posts Tagged With: blogs about mystery writing

The Calm Before The Storm – Nano Prep pt. 3

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Listen. Shhhh….

Do you hear that? The Quiet? It’s eerie isn’t it? The cold wind whistles. A crow cries in the distance. A tumbleweed blows by carrying the poems of dashed dreams tied in its desiccated branches. Quiet. Deadly quiet.

I have no pictures of Scapple to share today. No images of the Scrivener set up. My eyes are scanning the distant horizon for that hazy lurking figure. I’m crouched in my trenches. Waiting, Taking deep breaths, hauling in gallons of coffee and dried meat. I’ve got a little fire burning to keep the chill off but there’s a chill buried deeper in my bones that I can’t shake. Will I make it or will that thing stomp me to dust. There’s nothing to do but wait.

Which, of course, isn’t true at all. There’s a ton of shit to do. You’ve got to wave a fond farewell to friends and family. You’ve got to make sure the barricades are well stocked. You’ve got to check your prep again and, seeing as there is still a week to go, you can still prep a lot more. Me? I’m just chilling for now. Tomorrow I do a bit more prep, check the fence and the razor wire but I’m feeling pretty good about my chances because I finished the novel I was working on last week. It’s these little bits of confidence builders that boost the energy for the long haul. Do more of these throughout the year and you’ll be fine. Today I worked on a ton of editing for the other work in progress. Ain’t no moss growing on this rolling stone.

NaNo is just a month of writing, folks. I’ve been going on about what a noble battle it is but the truth is that it’s like Christmas for writers. We throw caution to the wind and dive in feet first. It is the time to be mad. It’s the time for a literary bacchanalia. In the last month I’ve chatted with pantsers who haven’t a clue what they’re going to do. I’ve talked with plotters who have their whole thing laid out to the very last detail. And every variety of literary lunatic in between – some are planning on doing the whole 50,000 in 24 hours, other’s are planning 2 novels of 50,000 and still others are hoping to work through 5 short stories of 10,000 each. It doesn’t matter how you get there. Just get there. Join the party. Throw caution to the wind. Don’t panic. And whatever you do – don’t worry. This isn’t really an epic battle unless it’s an epic battle with yourself and your own torpor or your own resurgent wishes and desires.

Burning Man Car

NaNo is the festival. It’s the burning man of writing. Come one come all. Put that lampshade on your head and sing sea shanty’s. Dress up like a pirate while you work. And if you find yourself stuck, frustrated, confused, or reaching the end of your rope with whatever you’re working on, take a deep breath and find some way to make it FUN. Has the plot gone completely off the rails? Throw in a gang of super intelligent baboons. Is you’re MC pissing you off with his insufferable judgements about people and things? Stomp him to death with Godzilla. Murder him with a troupe of Bulgarian clowns. Why? Because you CAN! Don’t take it seriously if it doesn’t help you. Don’t set unrealistic goals. Don’t think for a second that you will be writing the next nobel prize-winning novel in 30 days of literary abandon. If you do you’re going to miss out while the rest of us are holding hands in the back yard singing sea shanty’s around the burning pyre of our ambition.

Just write.

Be free and howl at the moon. For 50,000 words you can purchase your freedom from everything. That’s all it takes. 50,000. And really that’s nothing. 1700 a day. You can do that in your sleep. Now I sound like a late night advertisement, but seriously. Or not. It’s true. Oh the places you’ll go – moons to visit, space dragons, faeries with a penchant for playing marbles in the back alleys of Manhattan. Freedom. For just 1700 words a day. burningman Car

But you, dear quivering hopeful writer, must make the choice. Are you going to let that poor shriveled thing inside you starve or are you going to give it one hours worth of sustenance a day? That’s all it takes and you too can have your very own set of banjo minnows, or a new moon, or a fleet of interstellar battleships screaming their way to certain doom.

Save yourself, write a book.

Give in to the howling quiet in your brain. Let it feed you. Be a great god and join us  – the weary and the willing – in one more years worth of the valiant stand against the gloom of all there is. Prepare (or don’t. It makes no bother with me) for we – in one week – shall sally forth and do something pretty damned awesome.

(All purchases of soul freedom are non-refundable. Offer not valid on some systems. Please check with your doctor if Soul Freedom is right for you. May cause bouts of giddiness and in some patients, moments of quiet rage, depression, goofiness, insanity, hysteria. Rare side effects include publication and possible fame and fortune)

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Plot Thinkens – NaNo Prep pt 2

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Let’s make this quick shall we? I’ve been at this damned computer ALL DAY again. That’s what unemployment will do to you. But you stay busy and that’s what I’ve been doing. Staying busy. Actually, way too busy. I have no idea how I accomplished anything when I actually had a job to be honest. I mean, srsly folks – I’ve been working harder in the last month than I think I ever have in my life. At anything. And let me tell you something else. It feels GREAT!

Anyway. Last week you saw the beginnings of the panic of the impending NaNo. I managed to calm myself down and look into its steely cold dead eyes and give it what’s for but you will recall that there still wasn’t much. It was a wing and a prayer at best. Better than a broken wing and a tattered couple of letters that once belonged to a prayer but still. Well this week we’re building up steam. We’re filling the ditches of the entrenchments with poisonous snakes (dangerous to handle – don’t try that at home) We’re mounding up the vicious snowballs for our defense.

If you recall, when we left off last week the anti NaNo defense looked a bit like this: MB7 scapple pic

Pretty fricking sad. But it was something. Scapple is my new friend. I took that little sad-looking blankness and thought to my self ‘self, how the hell are we going to make a go of that map of horrors. It’s truly awful and if I go into a scrap with that ‘ol NaNo will breathe fire and brimstone straight down my throat.’ Well… Self answered. Self thought long and hard about that and stared like the gray-bearded general he is and came up with this: MB7 Scap1

It’s better but it’s still not great. The thing is Scapple lets you see and ponder your elements in a zen way that makes things pop. You know you need to connect the things in there somehow and it lets you look at all of them in one spot and just…ponder, man. Really ponder. And soon enough things are building, you’re making those connections, you’re adding things. But the more you add the more your scrivener project starts taking shape. Like this:MB7 Scriv1

Now doesn’t that look better? Ahhh… breathing a sigh of relief. Lets see what do we have here? Oh look – I’ve got a whole opening sequence laid out. I’ve got note cards. If you were able to look in the characters info you would see the pictures from my past series that I just moved straight in here with no muss and no fuss. I’ve even added a few new ones.

Now I’d show you the progress I’ve done in Aeon Timeline too but frankly my brain is fried. But that’s the great thing about doing work that you love. You put in a good days work and the fried brain is a sign of a job well done. It’s satisfying. And that is what NaNo is all about. It’s about working your silly writing ass off and giving you permission to feel like a dedicated professional even if you’re an unemployed bum.

So for all you folks still prepping out there: Prep (or don’t). Prep like the wind. Gird your loinchops. Get ready. It’s coming. Your apotheosis. In November you shall rise from your pathetic cubicle torpor and become GODS! GODS I SAY! Beasts shall rise, mountains shall fall, oceans shall boil, kittens shall destroy a thousand words in one errant paw on your keyboard and you shall sigh and say ‘Foolish kitten! I care not for a thousand words for i shall write 50,000 before i am through! The NaNo MUST and WILL be defeated to slink it’s hoary way back to the depths for another year. To rest. To be soothed by the cool waters of editing. Yes, ye gods. RISE!

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scapple, Aeon Timeline, The NaNo Approacheth and Horror Ensues

Oh dear god here it comes again. You can just see it in the distant haze, shambling along. It’d coming. It lumbers like thunder. It is The NaNo and it comes to destroy time, patience, habitats, and sanity. You’d better run. You’d better hide. Snatch a quick glimpse at its impossibly huge form in the distance. Can you see the sudden bursts of flame erupting from where it’s mouth might be? Run.

November.

It’s not the prospect of November’s weather that sends the chill through me. It’s the gibbering wreck that I’ll become as it approaches and I begin to realize i still don’t have a plot for Meg Brown Number 7. “Oh, just adopt a plot.” they’ll say. Right. That’s like borrowing a rusted fork to battle a dragon. ‘Oh don’t worry. Something will come.’ Oh will it? You’re sure about that?

MB7 scapple pic

So that’s what I’ve got so far. LOOK AT IT! That’s from Scapple. It’s not exactly a new program from the folks over at Literature and Latte – I’ve had it for a while now but I gather it’s new to those poor souls who have a windows based system. The basic idea of it is sort of like a mind map but you can connect anything to anything else and it’s nicely free form. It can also be exported as notes into your Scrivener project. Which is terrific. If I had anything there which, clearly, I don’t. Ideally, there would be lines connecting many of those ideas and things would rapidly spiral out of control as I find connections between everything and everything else. In this case all I have is disconnected elements.

That’s not good.

It should look something like this:

MB6

And even that is just so I have some place to throw stuff when I’m busy losing my mind. As you can see, this is much nicer. You can throw a lasso around a bunch of elements and shift them all around and it will preserve the links you’ve established. You can add things to your heart’s content – well… it is finite and it does expand to the point where everything in your scapple doc is so tiny it looks like a hairball but you can zoom in and scroll around so it all works out.

Of course that helps not at all if you have no story or plot to connect anything to. Which, as you can see up there, I do not. The Great Beast NaNo shambles one awful step forward.

Next we’ll take a look at the project from the perspective of Aeon Timeline where.. I think… I have even less.

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Timeline will… when I have more strength and intelligence… provide a formidable bulwark against the terrible onslaught of the mighty NaNo. right now, on the other hand, it’s like a fence made of toothpicks. There is nothing there. I have even less assembled than I do in Scapple so I’m in real trouble here. That big bastard is coming closer. I’m starting to feel its hot breath wilting the toothpicks of my barricades.

So what do I do? I scratch my head. I think of things I want to talk about – things that are pissing me off and I need to address. This is where the pantsing of writing might happen but it might provide a few pointed sticks of planning, firmly implanted in the mud in front of the barricade.

It goes a little like this: I am unemployed. Hmm… well.. the process of finding a job pisses me off a lot. I hate resumes. Is there something I can do with that? Any way I can make that into a plot? Hmm… Well the frustration of resume sending and the like can make me practically homicidal. Is there a ‘what if’ that pops up when I think of this? Where does that Vampire Character fit in? Do I need to worry about that idiot? Hmmm…

So the salad ingredients are slowly… ever so slowly… getting mixed up into very lethal bombs. When cooked properly i can make them into land mines to slow the assault of the great beast.

What else have I got? I’ve got two victims. Tameka and Eric. Where do they fit in? Does Eric die right away? Does he die before the story starts? Is that how my Minneapolis detectives end up in Los Angeles? Could be. That sort of works. We can live with that. I’ve also got Big Deans Oceanfront Cafe, The Santa Monica Pier, Chez Jays, and well.. it’s freaking hollywood ain’t it? How many weirdos, actors, cops, movers and shakers can I throw in there? Is this a fish out of water story? Or an underdog story or some combination of the above?

Anyway. Whatever is happening here you can see how this stuff is growing the more i am talking about it. The Shambling Beast NaNo is looking just a little worried. It’s thunderous steps are just a little more hesitant as it glares at me with its volkswagon sized, coal-black eyes as I frantically prep my November Defense. I’m still on shaky ground. There’s a lot of work to do. But it’s only 50,000 words. That’s a little less than 2,000 a day. It’s going to be a big fight but I’ve done it before. I know how to handle this.

I ain’t scared ‘a you, NaNo. Bring it, you big ugly bastard.

(Note – if you want to know the sort of horror that NaNo is check out the Don Kenn Gallery – some pretty incredible art work there. Go Buy Some.)

Categories: Mystery, Uncategorized, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Few Unkind Words About Beta Receiving (for writers)

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Have you ever watched one of those Gordon Ramsey cooking shows or any one of the dozen or so ‘fix this whatever’ shows they have on TV these days? You know the ones: A troubled business is falling flat on its face and needs outside help in the form of some Uber-genius in the field to help them straighten their shit out? Have you noticed the first thing said ‘expert’ sets out to do is pull the owner/manager/whatever’s head out of their ass? Have you noticed, as viewers, that the problem is almost always right there, staring you in the face while the owner/manager/whatever is completely oblivious to it? If you are a writer I can absolutely guaranty that you have been that Owner/manager/whatever at least once – so convinced of your own work that everyone else must be wrong. But you’ve done at least one thing right – you’ve gotten outside help. Now don’t screw it all up by assuming that person is an idiot.

Last week I yapped extensively about the evils of Beta Reading. I can’t remember what I said but I think it was along the lines of ‘be kind’. Which shouldn’t be too hard to understand, really. At least i don’t think so.   After all of the feedback it got on the NaNoWriMo FB page I figured I had to write a little bit of a follow-up on how to RECEIVE a beta read and it goes a little like this:

Be Kinder.

So a Beta reader just tore you a new asshole. So they think it all sucks. So they think your character is a one-diminsional piece of library microfiche. So what? Does it make you feel bad? Do you feel like someone just punched you repeatedly in places that hurt? Probably. So what are you gonna do about it, punk? Well… You’re going to be kind. Not to whoever read it, because really they don’t need your kindness. You aren’t going to turn around and beat them with rolled up, tacked together copies of your manuscript. You might want to, particularly if they are the sort of readers I mentioned in last weeks post, but you probably won’t. Nah. You’re going to be kind to yourself.

It’s a draft for starters. If it were perfect you wouldn’t have hunted for those Beta Readers, would you? You would have submitted it. So some part of you knew that it wasn’t quite ready for publication or query letters or whatever. Some part of you was hoping that your Beta would be wise and just and wonderful and noble enough to hold you by the hand and tell you what you needed to hear. The other part, of course, is bound and determined to not listen. But you will won’t you? Because this little hunk of words is your baby and you know it needs help to fly. It needs to be fed. And it needs to fail.

The other part is your ego that likes to protect the whole chunk of you and everything you survey – even the nasty and totally wrong parts.

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The truth, as I like to think about it, is that birds fly by learning how to fall really well. You’ve got to trip a few times before those wings learn what they’re for. That’s what Beta’s are for. Sure. Some of them are for turning you into a weeping puddle on the floor. If they do that (as I already mentioned) they are dirty, bad, Beta’s and you can feel free to pummel them into submission with the aforementioned rolled up manuscript. But know that you’re the one attaching your ego to your work and it’s your ego that’s fueling that sniffling.

Quit sniffling and get to work.

Consider what they said. Did they completely misunderstand something? It’s possible. Not every reader is going to ‘get it’ and not every one who ‘get’s it’ is going to like it. There isn’t much to do with things like that except move on or compare their comments to another Beta and see where they agree or where they disagree. Do they have a point? Can you see what they are saying or what they’re getting at with their comments? Yes? Great! Now you’re on your way to doing something about it. No? Well… try it again or figure out if they are wrong or off point. It happens. Beta’s are people and they can often get things wrong particularly when they are being deliberately obtuse or socratic in their methods.

Whatever happens, be kind. Mainly to yourself. You did the best you could. If you could have done better you would have, right? Someone is telling you which feathers are out-of-place, maybe that the wing angle is all wrong, maybe that the heights you’re trying to jump off of is suicide. It isn’t personal. (Unless it is – see above) It’s suggestion and you can do with it what you like. Have a dialog with your reader if you think they’re wrong or didn’t understand something. Maybe there is something they missed. Maybe they had it on the nose but whatever it is the process isn’t finished when they give you the full report and sit back in their comfy chair waiting for the fireworks to start.

Oh and cancel the fireworks. Cancel the drama. Step down from the battlements of your defense. That’s your ego talking and chances are pretty good that it’s full of shit. Ego’s are like that. If you find yourself getting all tight in the shoulders and wanting to fire back at someone – don’t. Take a deep breath. Relax.

And get back to work.

There’s a fine line between ‘being defensive’ and ‘explaining’ and you’re the only one who can see it. A reader may think you’re being defensive and it might piss them off. Which you don’t want to do. On the other hand you may be trying to help them ‘see’ what direction you were heading, your flight plan. That’s okay. But again, perception is everything and if they think you’re being an ungrateful little shit then you’re back in the nest looking down. Figure out where and what triggers your defenses and… this is going to sound stupid but it’s true: deactivate them. They aren’t going to help you with what you need to do. Keep your eye on the goal – you want your little birdy to fly into the world all noble like a fucking eagle. What happens when no one helps and tells you what’s wrong? Well… ahem. You might end up a smashing financial success (not naming any names) but a seriously flawed and migraine producing writer.

Please please please don’t do that. Becoming a smashing financial success is the surest way to insulate your idiotic ego under layers of equally stupid justification and puffery all while flying like a drunken skunk in a leaking dirigible filled with other people’s hot air.

Be kind. Most particularly to yourself. The world isn’t going to end because someone doesn’t like your book. Your book is not you. It’s a product of you. I know that sounds like ‘well, DUH.’ but I can’t tell you how many artists. writers, musicians I’ve met (mostly in my younger days) who LOVE to make that mistake and associate their work as some living embodiment of themselves. That’s a sure way to lose your marbles because I guaranty that people won’t like it. They will attack it. If you’re that close to it you’re going to be in a lot of trouble, psychologically speaking. And frankly why would you want to? This is supposed to be fun, remember?

Your Beta is your mission control, your air traffic controller, sometimes even your flight engineer but in the end they can only draw up the plans, they can set the flight path or tell you that you’re nuts. If nuts is who you are and what you want to be then jump, little birdy and spread those wings. Pay no attention to that big brown and green thing rushing up at you because, gosh dern it, you’re flying! (if only for a few seconds.) If you want the advice, the guidance, the designs for the wings then listen. Really really listen. With your ears and not with your mouth. It’s still all up to you in the end and it ain’t going to kill you. I promise.

Whatever you do, the book or story or painting or jazz riff or whatever it is  fly’s on it’s own. Your part will be done eventually. You will hopefully learn how to be better than you thought possible. You will have learned how to take advice and criticism and not crumble. You’ll actually be a better person. But you won’t be there when it jumps out of the nest. You’ll watch from the sidelines, cringing, hoping, wondering, begging it to open up and fly like you know it can, but whatever happens it’s not you that’s doing it. You made the thing but where it goes from there you have no control over. Will it fly to the moon and back? Will it make it to your front porch? Will its amazing shadow inspire those below to look up in awe and wonderment? Who knows? It’s not up to you. All you can do is give it the best you’ve got and everything you know how – borrowing a little here and there from others – and see what it can do.

 

 

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Plot Thickens

Alright. Finally… At long last… My words of wisdom on Plot… Are you ready? Here it is. Listen up. Lean in close.

Forget about it.

No. Seriously. That’s it. What? You want more?

 I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

A strong enough situation renders the whole question of plot moot. The most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question – Stephen King, On Writing.

Yeah. I figure you’ve probably heard that one before and I’m not one to preach the King gospel but in this case i find it pretty helpful. It seems to me that a lot of writers I experience come up with a plot before anything else. Maybe they have a few characters that are jumping out at them. Maybe they just want to ‘get in the game’. Well I’m all for it but you must have a reason. This is sort of what I was talking about last week. Start with something. In King’s case it was a ‘what if’ and King isn’t the first place I’ve heard about that. I think I’d jump a little further than that though and say ‘why?’ Why do we care what happens to a bunch of trapped idiots in the cabin in the woods? Why do we give a damn about a fantasy kingdom that’s on the verge of being overrun by a horde of evil six-foot hamsters? Who cares? It’s fantasy!

For me, I’ve been starting with the why lately and it feels pretty right.

Plot is just the what happens of the story. Bob walks to the store to buy a stack of elf filters for his new TV. Along the way Bob meets Marion. She tries to bludgeon him with a fish. Bob defeats Marion. None of these things are necessarily in the right order but who cares anyway? Somewhere in Bob’s desire to buy Elf Filters is your answer. Figure out the why. The why of the story is the point of contact between the writer and the writing. Sometime’s it’s the only point of contact. You need to answer why the kingdom is important to you or no one else will care either and they won’t give a rats ass whether or not your pectorally endowed, sword-swinging, no neck bruiser can save it or not. They won’t care HOW the dude saves it either so you’ve just spent a great deal of time spinning a plot founded on nothing.

So start with what’s important to you. What pisses you off enough that you want to fight against it? What do you desperately want to save? Poetry does this very well. It snatches little moments from life and the mind and heart of the author and focuses on them, expands them and leaves the reader with them to play in the fields of the writers little moment of thought or experience. But how does it work in the life of a fiction writer? Well…

Lets’ take Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest:

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later i heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieve’s word for dictionary. A few years later i went to Personville and learned better.

It’s got to be one of the bleakest hero tales ever. Nothing in this festering rat hole of a town is worth saving. There is no earthly reason for the Op to do his job and ‘clean up the town’ and because no one cares if he does the reader shouldn’t either. But we do. Hammett creates a vacuous world of assholes who are in desperate need of getting their proverbial clocks cleaned, why? Because it is precisely their lack of humanity that we start to care about. They’re perfectly willing to destroy anything and everyone to lay complete claim to a place so worthless even the rats have abandoned it. The Op is our avenging angel. Sure, he ain’t grand, he ain’t pretty, and sure we might prefer the guy with the gleaming white teeth and the white hat but we know from the first page that if anyone can do the job it’s our guy. We also know that if we dropped a guy with brilliant white teeth and a fine white hat into Poisonville he’d be swiss cheese before his foot left the stirrups of his horse.

The plot, such as it is, is the complex way he gets the job done in this incredibly hostile and completely antagonistic environment. The why, really, is because such a place as Poisonville is an affront to the humanity in us. We can’t, in good conscience, suffer such a place to live. Isn’t it interesting how he starts it off with the REAL name of the town, Personville and instantly warps it to what it’s become – Poisonville. That’s the why. But, just to be a literary critic about it, let’s take that one step further and say that Hammett redeems Poisonville as a stand-in for the world Hammett himself lives in. He writes it because he needs his Op to save the world that no one in his own experience gives a crap about. He, like the Op, demands that someone steps to the plate and bring this crappy old world out of the dark, compassionless wasteland that it’s become.

Your plot will grow – organically – from the seed of the why. Find that seed and plant it. Everything else is sort of gravy. It becomes much easier. Honestly.

I mean that’s what Comic books have been from the beginning of time – and excuse to find power in a world way too big for us. Superman kicks the crap out of Hitler. Spiderman has superpowers in the face of a miserable high school life. The X-Men show that different ‘races’ can get along and when they do they’re sort of awesome, empowering.

I’m not saying you need to throw the plot out. Maybe it was brilliant and you had all these really cool set-pieces lined up. That’s great. Cheers. But think about it this way: in all probability King started conceiving of a great ghost story – The Shining. We know he stayed in the haunted Stanley Hotel and that was the inspiration. He probably heard tales of the Donner Party and probably saw all the markers along the road to the hotel where unlucky snow plow drivers lost their lives. He probably saw the roadway carved into a deep trench where the snow was still deep – even in April. All of these things are great inspirations to shuddering horror and will, by themselves, form the basic elements to what will become one of the scariest books and movies ever. But what really makes this sing is the relationship between Danny and his Father. Child abuse. But it’s not that simple, of course. King could have made Jack an irredeemable monster but isn’t it more horrifying that he ISN’T? That he decays, that he’s literally out of control and that we get to be inside his head as he spirals out of control. In some sick way King makes us want him to be redeemed.

But he’s a friggin’ Child Abusing Asshole!

The power of why.

Do you see how the ‘what if’ can grow out of the why? Why am I writing this? Because I care about child abuse and I want to see the little kid win. But what if the father – the abuser – isn’t a terrifically obvious monster? What if I sort of make him like-able? What if the kid is a little creepy? What if the mom, who only wants to protect her boy, is the one on the outside of the relationship? Now what if I stick them all in a haunted hotel in the winter? Bam. Just looking at that gives me shivers. And what happens? In the end, of course, Jack redeems himself and saves his son by… gulp…refusing to kill him. Ick. Wow. That’s some sick shit right there. But there’s your plot in a nutshell, isn’t it? With that little nugget of why at the center.

So forget about plot. Don’t even worry about it. If you don’t have a reason to write the story to begin with you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Right writing

You’ve probably popped in here to get my long-awaited words of wisdom on plot. Yeah, sorry to disappoint but that post has been delayed yet again. Just think how insightful it will be when I actually do get around to it though! Nope. This one is about getting it right. That’s pretty much the be-all-end-all of what you’re writing. Write right. Hemingway once said something about it. His idea when he sat down to his little moleskine notebooks was to write one true sentence. Tim O’Brien took that theme a little further in his section on war stories in The Things They Carried. Buddhism has hammered it into maxims that I am constantly forgetting: right speech, right thought, and then I lose track.

Write right.

I know what you’re probably going to say: “But, dude. I write about vampires and stuff.” I don’t care. Get it right. You can’t possibly tell me that your four hundred year old bloodsucker is perfectly fine with taking his senior year over again for the three hundredth time. That’s the trick.

Now here’s the extra crispy corollary to that trick: You Will Fail. Actually You Must Fail. One of the most charming and amazing thing about reading Hemingway, to me anyway, was how his characters failed so beautifully. If you’ve read A Moveable Feast it isn’t too hard to see how Hem himself failed gloriously. It takes an amazing amount of talent to wrap your most painful failure between two covers and publish it posthumously. What a jerk. Failure, after all, is its own amazing truth. It’s right, in other words.

Now, not content to stick completely to one topic I’ll tell you why this is so important. See, I spent a good long time farting around with my writing: plonking out little stories where and when they’d strike me. I was sort of aimless. Y’know? Just putting words on the page, whipping up some characters with some stuff and throwing them in a blender and seeing what came out. It wasn’t a lot of fun, actually, but it was writing and that enabled me to call myself A Writer. Yes. In caps. Just like that. A Writer can scribble away for hours in coffee shops. A Writer has an opinion on books that you must listen to because he’s A Writer.

Uh huh.

The thing is, I kind of cracked my mind a few years ago and after that just cranking out any old story wasn’t good enough. I wanted to write the stories that I actually felt and frankly I wasn’t really feeling any of them. I could make it look like I did and – just to polish my own beret – some of them were pretty good. So once I got my head back together I started working on stuff again. At first it was simple little stuff. The Short Man. Just a little story about a detective trying to find a killer. But it fit. And it fit well. It might not have been terrific but it fit well. And it was a hint of something that was… yep you guessed it. Right.

Now I’m not saying that it was true. In fact, I really didn’t know shit about writing mysteries. Truth be told I still don’t. I really don’t think anybody does. Mysteries are messy, which is why writers are constantly reinventing them and why defense attorneys are still so mighty popular. You put a guy on the floor with holes in him. How did he get that way? Yep. Sounds simple enough and for some writers that’s where it stops. Intrepid hero finds the bad guy and saves the day. But it’s never that simple as any attorney – prosecuting or defense will tell you. Heck it’s not that simple for a detective. Stand yourself in front of a witness who has every reason in the world to tell you what happened to the dead guy and have them lie to you. You know they’re lying. Why in god’s name are they lying? And that’s just one aspect of an investigation, right?

Well that’s what I mean by getting it right.

After a while with my detective I realized that I could make this thing sing. Maybe you don’t see it if you’ve read them, but – again being honest here – I don’t care. I feel it. I can see the potential and I want to get it better, why? Well it’s simple. But before I get to that let me hop back one more little step to explain something else about me.

I tend to yell at the tv a lot. And the radio in my car. Which I foolishly keep on the news. That should tell you something about the dire state of musical radio in Milwaukee that I’d rather listen to the news. One of the things I yell most often (a running theme of my rants of which my cats are avid listeners) is that none of it is actually helpful. In fact, it’s the opposite of helpful. Which is hurtful. Thanks. I know. I’m getting to that. And lately I’ve been feeling that way about fiction and TV too. I grew up in a time where… well… they created characters like Magnum, Indiana Jones, Han Solo. We were outside until dark when we could be and hated rainy days because it meant being forced to play boardgames with your brother or *Gasp* share your toys with them. Which meant sharing your world. Yikes. The Horror. I know you’ve heard all this claptrap halcyon days shit before. I won’t bore you with it. But my point is that it was – hell – it is good to look at guys like Magnum, who always tried to do the right thing, and want to be that guy some day.

We now live in a world that loves to believe its much more complicated. Somehow we’ve come to believe that we’re deeper, wiser, more intricate. Fact is, it’s the same world but we’re sorely lacking in folks to help guide us through it. That, I believe, is what makes us think it’s a lot more complicated. It makes us feel better that our problems are bigger than us. We’re helpless little waifs in a dangerous, wolf infested world. But it’s really a damned lie. It’s the same world only more people are out there shouting wolf all over the place and keeping our heads spinning. Yes. There are wolves. There always are but it’s getting a little hard these days to tell a wolf from a poodle and while you’re waiting for some gibbering head to tell you which is which your sheep are all gone.

And that’s where I pull this long segue back to writing. I figured I could do it right. Right by me and right by the world I wanted to help make by writing. I wanted good people. I wanted people who worked hard to be good, honest, right, true. Sure Meg’s a smarmy wise-cracking detective but I know there is some part of her that believes in the good she’s doing. But that’s not to say she’s a starry-eyed upholder of the red white and blue. No, she’s seen far too much for that, and so have we, but that doesn’t give us the permission to be exhausted by it. That’s what I mean about right. Write right. Write true and keep in mind the world you want to create, a world you may feel is slipping by the wayside. Meg’s my avatar to hold back the crap i yell at on the TV.

So that’s what I’m doing and some folks are going to say ‘that’s not realistic. Realistic is gritty, dirty, putting a jaundiced eye on the ugly things in the world and not flinching.’ I say that’s bullshit. People flinch. They should flinch. They should turn away from the awful things in the world. Witness doesn’t mean staring vacantly at the terrible. It means being human – being affected. It means you didn’t want to see but you did and now you’re just a little bit haunted by it. I’m not interested in being presented with the realistic on a silver platter. What sort of horrible platter is that anyway? ‘here folks, it’s a yummy four course dinner of pain and suffering, get used to it because tomorrow you get more of the same until you insist it’s steak tartar.’ Screw that. Resist the awful. But be right and true.

Now I’m not saying ‘go forth, minion writers and create an army of captain america’s to fight the demons that plague us.’ Nope. I guess I mean: unless you’re ready and able to stand over a slaughterhouse without batting an eyelash don’t pretend that the slaughter is just okey-dokey, or that ‘hey, this is really going to be an awesome motivator for my main character’. Unless you’re willing to chat with the devil and shake his hand don’t pretend you are. Write what you feel and make it true. If it pisses you off enough to yell at your television, put that into your characters, your plot, your settings but work really hard to be true to them too. Seek that authenticity if you can. If you write about firefighters get out there and talk to some. If you write about soldiers, find some. If you write about housewives, etc. Take whatever they tell you and put it through your own experiences. How do YOU feel about this or that. That’s what I’ve been preaching about with the seminar’s I’ve written about and the TV Shows i bitch about.

Think about why you’re writing. Ooh. There’s another eightfold path thing! Right action. If you’re motivated by adoring fans and people being dazzled by your riches and awesomeness please try to think deeper about what you’re doing. You are creating worlds. You’re creating readers. You’re creating the taste by which you’ll be enjoyed. Someone famous said that. Byron maybe?

Shelley once said ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. Sad thing about that is we’re doing about a good a job of it as the actual legislators of the world.

If you ask yourself the question ‘why am I writing this’ and the answer is ‘cuz buff dudes with swords are cool’. Try again. You can still have fun but make it matter. Trust me: its way better when it actually matters. It’s even more fun.

Oh yeah, and Fail – but make it worth failing at.

Categories: Deep Thoughts, Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quick post about something potentially awesome

So, in lieu of my regular thursday post, I played a lot of Civilization V. This is what writers do when the great idea they had for a blog post two days ago wasn’t written down properly and the brain went on its merry way. I’m sure you’ll all be very pleased to note that I managed to get the Empire of Boudicca into the industrial age and she’s currently wiping the floor (culturally and economically) of all the other poser empires.

But I started to feel guilty. It happens. AND I managed to recover a few of the thoughts I had for the actual subject of this blog. No… I’m not going to write about them now but I think the upcoming REAL mystery blog will deal with the subject of Plot (namely my specific thoughts on plot or why I don’t much like it.) But for the moment – and I hope it’s not too late – I have some news.

I received in my email this morning an invitation to a webinar held by Derek Pacifico, who gives the terrific and oft mentioned Mystery Writers Workshops all over the country. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you haven’t taken one of these weekend classes, do. They’re fantastic and I owe much of my writing to his insights and knowledge.

This particular webinar is being held by the International Screenwriters Association and it’s entitled Signs of Death, Wounds and Autopsies for Crime Writers. The registration fee is 55 and I’m guessing it’s worth every penny. You’d better believe I’d be taking the webinar if I wasn’t already obligated to attend my cousin’s 40th Birthday Party. Obligation sounds little harsh. I’m honored to go. It’ll be fun. What’s not to like? The Great Lake Michigan, boats, birthdays. I’d say Beer and Brats but both are pretty much off-limits for me these days.

Anyway. If this section of the seminar is anything like what I took in the workshop it’s definitely worth it and will help you hammer out or at least think about those autopsy scenes you know you’re going to have to write at some point. So check it out and stop back here and tell me all about it because I’d love to know.

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Mired. Stuck. and other unpleasant writing realities.

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Yep. I’m stuck. You might have noticed that I didn’t write anything at my regularly scheduled time last week. The fact is I haven’t been writing much of anything lately. I have two novels and two screenplays I could be working on. Nice, good, solid ideas with wings and legs. Sort of like flamingos. But these flamingos landed in some hip deep mud or something and it may require a crane to get them out. By crane I mean the metal type, not the bird type.

It happens sometimes. I don’t really call it a writer’s block. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to deal with anything like a writer’s block. Nay. The ideas are there. The vision, the character, the scenes, it’s all right there. In the mud. With the flamingos. It might be quicksand. I’m a little worried. The flamingos, on the other hand, aren’t at all worried. They are just standing there looking at me and getting a little pissed off that I’m not working on trying to extricate them.

I’ve heard flamingos get violent when they get angry.

Maybe that’s geese.

Anyway. What do you do when you get stuck? Not jammed or blocked. Like I said: there’s no block here. Honestly. Seriously. I know what you’re thinking. Yes you. And you’re wrong. There is no block. In one novel I’ve got the set up to kill off a character (sort of) and in another I have to have my MC visit a witness. I know what I have to do. I just don’t want to do it. So instead I’ve been (as you know) ripping through Longmire books like they’re running out. Until I ran out of them. That’s right. I finished them.

So now what?

I guess I have to get to work.

I’ve heard lots of things about being stuck. I’ve heard more about blocks. You should write through your block. You should research. You should use writing prompts. Well here are a few gems from Mcsweeney’s. You’ll love them. They’re pretty much the bleak bowl of awesome my brain’s been in lately:

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/thirteen-writing-prompts

The truth is I’m on the NaNoWriMo Facebook page and I get TONS of stuff from them every day. Each missive is a cheerful, happy, little writing fairies delivering oodles of golden streams of writing wonderment. One part of me is enormously happy for them. Congrats to you winners of last months Camp NaNo! the other part of me just wants to bludgeon my writing desk with my head. But it’s more than that. I’ve been dealing with more health crap again. Gluten allergies are no joke. Food allergies of any kind are no joke. If you think it’s funny or a ‘fad’ I will gleefully dose your tea with ex-lax and see how you feel. Or maybe I’ll make you a peanut butter sandwich and choke you out while you eat it. Hey. How’s that for a writing prompt?

But here’s something I’m finally coming to realize: you’ve got to do it anyway. It’s true. And trust me – if you’re in my situation or any similar situation, i know it sucks. I hate it too. I think it’s a perfectly rational reaction to punch the next person in the head for saying ‘you’ve got to do it anyway.’ Just don’t punch me. It’s only dawning on me now that the mud isn’t going to free itself and suddenly, spontaneously shake loose from those long pink legs or the wings that should carry them aloft. I think i knew this already but my innate sense of incredible laziness was trying to convince me that somehow, magic would happen and everything will be fine. Well it isn’t. It’s not going to be fine. And still you have to work.

So I’m reading. I’m going to get back to writing. And I’m going to be on this blog a little more often than i have been. I have to be. My readership has sunk back to the doldrums again. How am i going to build interest in my work if I don’t work? Answer? I’m not. Duh.

So crack the whip. If it’s a slog then slog. There will still be moments of beauty in there. You just have to find them.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Longmire – The Cold Dish

ar124708363646529I know. I’ve already talked about this on an earlier Blog. But I’m getting close to finishing it and I honestly can’t wait to download or even buy the next one. First, let me let you in on a little secret: I’m not a downloadable books fan. Don’t all gasp at once. I know I publish on digital and all that but really, my big signal of ultimate triumph will be when I stop into the local bookstore (if there are such things in the future) and am able to pick up a copy of my own book. I’ve resigned myself to downloading because my bookshelves just can’t take anymore. I don’t have many bookshelves to begin with, and the ones I do have hate me. Thus, every once in a while I download a book rather than buying it.

That is, unless it’s something I really like.

The Cold Dish is one of those I wish I’d bought from the book store.

You might have seen the show. It’s a terrific show, really. The plot and the stories are something, the scenery is amazing, but the acting is terrific. You might have read the blog post I put up a while ago that had something to do with acting. I don’t want to rehash it. But basically you know when an actor has really slipped into the skin of someone else. You can see it. They know how to blink in character. Longmire is one of those shows where you really feel like they know their business and I’m hooked.

But that doesn’t tell you much about the book. The book is a different critter altogether. It’s the rare gift of a mystery/thriller that is as pretty to read as it is compelling. It’s exactly the sort of thing I’ve been searching for with the sort of scintillating paragraphs and sentences that make you believe that Genre can be art. Too often we resign ourselves to the mediocre and fun. Don’t get me wrong. It is fun. But it’s also very well written and delivered with the sort of attention to detail that makes me sing with envy. Craig Johnson knows his subject and just the right (write?) english to put on it to make it sound practically perfect:

He had opened the passenger-side door, and i was looking through the holes in the floorboards at the melting snow. Part of the dashboard was turquoise, part of it was white, and the large mic of an antiquated citizens’ band radio was bolted to the front edge over the shift lever. There was a shifter; a transfer-case lever; a worn, white steering wheel; and an unending number of chrome handles and knobs guaranteed to dislocate, jab, or stove anything that might come in contact. Most of the windows were cracked, and there were no seat belts. At the top of the antenna, even though there was no radio, perched a little, dirty-white Styrofoam ball that read CAPTAIN AMERICA. “It’s gonna break down.”

“It is not going to break down. Get in, I am getting cold.”

His breath was clouding inside of the glass, and i looked down at the heater box, which was taped together with duct tape. “As i recall, the heater in this thing, among other things, doesn’t work.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more gorgeous description of a truck on its last legs in my life. It’s the sort of thing that I take as a personal challenge and I love it. From a strictly writing perspective, it’s like slipping on an old, well-oiled, baseball glove and finding it still fits at the exact moment someone drops a battered baseball into it. See? It’s intoxicating. It makes you want to write, and write better. And that’s nothing compared to the description of the Cheyenne Haunted Death Gun: A Sharps rifle from a hundred years ago that is haunted and reappears a number of times throughout the book in just beautiful ways.

So.

You can sit there on the sofa and watch Longmire – and I recommend you do – or you can read the poetry of it. For me, the words are every bit as beautiful as the mythical landscape they inhabit; particularly considering the show is actually filmed in New Mexico and not Wyoming.

Johnson’s characters are vivid and expertly wrought. Again, I just stagger at the skill in creating these beasts, men, indians, italian smart mouthed Philadelphia cops. I curse him for writing them so well. I study the pages. I soak it in like good poetry or the crisp warm air of the Montana fly stream I once fished on. Yeah. That’s right, Johnson. I curse you. I shake my fist. You bastard. You’ve got me hooked.

The literary Longmire is a much more wry, self-deprecating character than the tough old sod you see on the show and it’s better for it. Robert Taylor does a terrific job on the show – it’s in the eyes; the way they aren’t always certain, the way they try – and sometimes fail – at looking like the strong hardened law man. It’s his way at reaching through the script to the soft, somewhat floundering Longmire of the novel and I appreciate it. But I have to admit I love the interior thoughts of the literary character, dubious, skeptical, funny, and capable in spite of himself. He’s a modern western law man and Craig Johnson doesn’t skimp on the thing that I find irresistible in a Mystery: humor. If you’ve read any of the Meg stories you know I can’t really live without it and find it sorely lacking in way too much of it.

Katee Sackhoff (who I confess I loved as Starbuck in BSG) is a true gem here. I’ve got to say, in spite of the radical change in hair color – she nails Vic Moretti. Somehow, though, because her character is a little more in the background of this novel she makes even more of an impact. I could go on and on. I should stop somewhere. I don’t want to. I want to buy a copy of this book for every brave soul who’s weathered the storms of the blogosphere and made it this far. But I can’t. Cuz I’m poor. Buy more copies of my Meg series and maybe I’ll give out a free copy of Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish.

That’s it in a nutshell. Go read this book. Do what I did – pour yourself through the entire first season on Netflix and then read this book. Read it. Now. And then – when you’re all done – drive out west to the Beartooth mountains to a little place named Cameron, Montana. There you will find a bar. Leave five dollars on the bar and tell them i owe them. Head one more mile west, hang a Left and take the road till you get to the Lee Metcalf wilderness area. Head up the creek and don’t get eaten by a bear. Read the next book in the series there.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Great Mystery Writers Conference Hunt 2013

So, if you’re a writer and you’ve been at it a while – floundering about like a wounded fish in the desert – you’ve probably heard the bit about writers conferences. I know i have. It usually goes something like this: ‘oh yeah. Query letters by the dozens. Hundreds. But really what broke it for me was the (insert writers conference here) conference in (random city name). That’s where i met my agent and best friend and editor par excellence.’

Yep. I’ve heard that one a few times now and believe me, I’ve listened. It’s hard not to when all the writers you talk to are talking about how terrific Pitchfest was. I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t know. But it does sound like a blast doesn’t it? Like speed dating for desperate screenwriters. I’m really hoping to go some day. Naturally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for my friends to get great six figure deals and lift their hinterland dwelling comrade out of the muck and mire of southeastern Wisconsin. Don’t tell me to stop holding my breath. I will hold it until I pass out. Watch me.

So… what’s a writers conference?

I bet you were expecting me to tell you weren’t you?

Nope. I was actually asking. I’m curious. I have no idea. But I will, dagnabbit, because I’m going. It’s just a matter of where and when.

You see I want to take that next step. Self publishing is grand and all. It’s better, in my opinion, than not publishing at all. (That said I’ve met some very nice people who have opted not to publish and I give them all the props I can, whenever I can. It’s just that, for me, the opportunity to have more people enjoy the fruits of your labors is worth it.) The point is that it really is only going to carry you so far unless you are as fantastic at marketing as you are at writing. I don’t often find that’s the case though. There are some monster marketers out there. People I would hire in a second to write and promote my stuff. But just being honest here, I wouldn’t read their books. It’s nothing personal. There’s some things I’m into and some I’m not. But I appreciate what they do, the work that goes into it and I can certainly appreciate the mad skills they have at promo-ing their own work. (A skill that I seem to lack)

Everything I read and almost everyone I have met have all said the same thing: get thee to a writers conference. Query letters are great, but there is nothing better for your chances than meeting, greeting, being sociable. If you’ve ever had the miserable experience of sending out resume’s into the void you probably know what I mean. Don’t you just feel like if someone gave you that sit down chance you could knock them off their feet? I always do. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? The foot in the door. Give me one foot and I’ll take the lobby and once I take the lobby it’ll be like The Matrix (the original – not those godawful sequels that I try to pretend don’t exist)

Okay. I might be exaggerating. But basically that’s the idea. But really it’s more than that. I don’t think it’s really going to do you any good to be a perfect mercenary about the experience. Learn. That’s the big thing. It’s served me well in almost every situation and as writers it’s got to be tattooed on the inside of your eyelids. If you’re not learning you’re probably soaking in the steam bath of your own ego and that ain’t good.

So if you’re going to go to a writers conference, do me a favor and don’t go thinking your brilliance will radiate from you, blinding agents, fellow writers, publishers. Go thinking you’re going to learn something and see what you learn. Be a spy in the house of words. That’s what I’m going to do. When I go. I’m excited.

So then there’s still the issue of what is a writers conference. Well… when I find out you’ll know. Personally I sort of like to think of it like GenCon which i went to a lot as a young lad. I like to think it’s chock full of weirdos dressed – poorly – as their favorite authors and editors. I like to think of hallways crammed with bespectacled guys, maybe a little older than the old GenCon days, but still decked out in Metallica tee shirts, rolling saving throws vs Contract Negotiation Overload, plotting tactics on graph paper towards the treasure of a best seller list. No, you say? Wouldn’t it be fun though? Maybe GWAR would show up.

Hey. A guy can dream…

Tomorrow i’ll upload a bunch of links to potential conferences for all of you. It’s going to take a little while to research them which is why I’m not doing it now.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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