Posts Tagged With: crime fiction

The Plot Thickens (if you add some flour)

What do you need to create a plot? That’s the big question isn’t it? Well, here’s your answer: stuff. You need stuff. That was simple. End of blog. You can go about your business now. Wait wait wait… no. That’s cheating. Sorry. Okay. Alright. Someone on the facebook page just said it’s Goal, Motivation, Conflict. Okay. I can agree with that. It’s got a good beat. You can at least shuffle like an injured zombie to it. But is that enough?

I have decreed that it is Plot week on the Nanowrimo group page. Not the official page, mind you. The big unofficial one. The facebook one. So this is mostly for those folks, should they find their way here. If you’re not from the group, though, that’s okay too. Hope you enjoy it. It’s bound to be a rambling incoherent mess.

Okay. Just to start with, i remember when i was a young lad my mom got me a book for my birthday. Not exactly a unique occurrence. But this one was really good. It was The Fiction Writers Handbook, by Hallie and Whit Burnett. I was…. probably 12. It had a section on plot and it started thusly: The king dies. Then the queen dies. Now, according to Hallie and Whit, this right here is the essence of plot. This happened, then that happened. Is the happening the result of the first thing happening? Could be. But either way, everything between those two happenings (whatever you figure out) is your plot.

So you can say Goal, Motivation, Conflict and those certainly help. But, to me, that’s more of the order of character. Your character needs the goal, the motivation, the conflict. The Plot is the media in which those ingredients thicken and become a stew. I mean…. what’s my goal? To not die a horrible flaming death at the hands of the big damned dragon. What’s my motivation? Not dying is pretty good. What’s the conflict? Those big nasty teeth and, you know, the gouts of flame that are scorching my eyebrows off. Yeah. That’s good. But how the hell did i get into the damned dragons lair anyway? What am i doing here? That’s your plot.

Plot is simple. Really. It’s the barest of all possible bones in a story. It’s like a femur or something. And all plots are fairly alike… Mystery: Find the how and the who and bring them to justice. Fantasy: Recover the MacGuffin for the good guys. Sci Fi…. could be anything. Romance: Girl and guy hook up – happily ever after or no? Lit fic: Discover the X within yourself (or don’t and live as an educating wretch) It’s all pretty simple. So why bother?

Well… that’s the BIG BIG BIG damned question. The why bother is the thing that YOU bring to the table. The why is the thing that keeps you moving forward.

So you want to tell a story about dragons. Cool. Everybody loves dragons. Why not? But why you? What is it – inside you – that causes you to want to write about dragons? Find that. It can be almost anything. It can even be ‘dude. i just think dragons are wicked cool.’ That’s fine. But what is it about them that makes them wicked cool to YOU? Let’s take superheros for example: now it’s common knowledge that the superhero is an active character battling for justice in an inactive and occasionally subverted world, right? But what made someone write them to begin with? Probably a feeling of powerlessness in the face of powerful forces that seemed insurmountable. In short. I want Captain America to kick Hitler’s ass because my big brother Jimmy is over there and i’m scared shitless i’m never going to see him again and if Cap does it, Jimmy can come home. X-Men – racially mixed teens expunged from a society that hates and fears them, battle the forces of intolerance.

See? Simple but really damned powerful motivations.

Start from the small bones. The King dies then the queen dies. Then figure out why you care and put the muscle on those bones. In all probability you will start with your own motivation – what things are YOU trying to deal with? The king dies then the queen dies. Is it grief? Are you dealing with grief? Now you might say… i just want to write a really great story with lots of derring do and heroics. Who cares about all that thinky psychologizing stuff. Thousands of books are written just to sell a quick buck. Why can’t i just write one of those. Well, you can. But believe it or not, not caring is way harder than writing something you actually give a shit about. If you give a shit, you will want to know how the story ends. You will want to overcome the obstacles you set out for your Main Character. Because they’re YOUR obstacles too.

So. move forward from the basics and put the bones together with the idea of overcoming those things you need to get past, deal with, overcome. Hell, maybe you can’t. But you can create someone who can and when you do… well that’s the whole point. That’s the writing getting to the next level. That’s giving people the chance to say ‘you know what? I read your book, and the way you got Bobby over the hump of dealing with the death of the king so that he could then go and slay the evil queen? It saved my shit. No lie. I was in a bad place and i read that and i was like ‘i can get off my ass. If little Bobby Peachtree could do it. I can.’

Now that may seem more like thematics. Which i should talk about, but i won’t right now. Ideally you’ll be building your themes concurrent with the plot. But just remember the plot starts simple. Keep it simple. Little girl finds home. Detective finds the bad guy. Good overcomes bad. Then ask questions. Ask LOTS of questions. What is the good? What is the bad? How does good overcome? What is home? Who is the bad guy? How does the detective find him? What clues are left behind? Where do they lead? Plot is a series of this/then. That happens because this happened. Chain them all together and you have your plot.

 

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

Oh The Things You Don’t Know

I’m finally getting to the point where i’m ready to publish Meg Brown Mysteries #6 – Meg Beats Cancer. Finally. It’s taken ages – like a full year since i wrote the last word. Which is just ridiculous. You might ask ‘why did it take so freaking long?’ Well… I can tell you. It’s not the things you don’t know that will mess you up. It’s the things you don’t even know you don’t know. Things like cover design, page layout, formatting. E publishing is a piece of cake compared to getting something ready for Print on Demand.

I did the cover myself. It wasn’t bad. I liked it. Everything was in its place and everything had a point and it wasn’t easy. As the story begins, and leads up to one epic fight in a very literal sense, i figured the background should convey that. It’s not easy making your type face into something that looks like blood stains and spatter. Nor is it easy making a blank background with wreckage and cracks. It was a good cover. It is a good cover. It has meaning and flows with the story.

But that isn’t the hard part. The hard part was putting it together. I do not have a publishing program, nor do i particularly have the skills to use such a program if i had one. Given certain events, which i will not address here to protect the innocent and the awesome (neither of which is me, sadly) I did something i generally don’t do. I asked for help.

‘Why don’t i ask for help more often?’, you may say. Well… it’s complicated, but the long and short of it is i have found that help is often LONG in coming – as in REALLY long – as in many times i ask and get a promise of help and then wait… and wait…. AND wait. And then wait longer. And then do some more waiting. And finally resign myself to never hearing from my ‘helper’ again. This is why i tend to keep things in house. Not to mention, sometimes the help isn’t terrifically helpful. Sometimes it’s actually antagonistic. Most of the time it takes the form of ‘yeah… i remember i said i would help, but dude… i’m eating pizza right now and Survivor just started.’ Correction, most of the time ‘Help’ takes the form of complete radio silence.

It’s enough to make a guy get a little bitter.

It’s enough to make you learn your lesson not to ask for help.

I hate being disappointed with people. I like to like people. Consequently, i try to give myself as few opportunities as possible to be disappointed in them.

Anyway. now that really sounds gripey. The point is, i didn’t go to my friends. Well… i did… and got disappointed. So i went to a professional with the pieces of the cover. She did a terrific job. The cover got finished. But here’s where the ‘didn’t know what i didn’t know’ part comes in. The SPINE of the book. It seems obvious in retrospect that the thing keeping all the pages together would be variable in size and you would need to figure it out somehow. There is a calculation to be made. This calculation is itself dependent on the trim size of the book. (basically the size of the book… trim size is one of those publishy terms that tell you the dimensions. i don’t know why they don’t just say… y’know ‘dimension’.)

So i fixed the ‘dimensions’ in the master file of the book. I looked at it. It didn’t look like a book. It looked like pages of some epic poem. The problem was the margins. In a real book, the margins have to be offset – basically alternating off center because of the space at the edge where one page curves into the binding. Right? Makes sense. Well… i didn’t know that. And i had no idea how to format that in a document so that it worked out. Luckily, Createspace has a handy dandy little template you can use. After a little rejiggering and a huge cut and paste, i managed to get it straightened out, got a NEW page count, had my cover designer recalculate the pixel size of the spine, redid the spine (at the end of the day i redrew the spine 5 times) and i am finally, almost, off to the races.

If you’re wondering who my cover designer is because you’re looking for one, it’s Kat Mellon. She does great work. If you’re not inclined to take my route and do it yourself, i highly recommend her. She’s excellent.

Anyway. It’s done. There’s more, of course. The book is nearly ready. It will be ready probably this weekend. The cover is done. And that’s about all i’m going to say about it.

The point of this blog is, there are ALWAYS things you don’t know that you don’t know somewhere out there waiting for you. Chances are pretty good that you’re going to sink knee deep in them at some point. They can be simple things that you just had no idea about and learning about them can be a grand experience, expanding your awareness. On the other hand there are the things that sap your strength, your will, your faith. There are things that clutch at your heart and snatch away the hope and joy you had if you let it. Trust yourself, gird yourself, take a deep breath. Do the best you can. And don’t give helpers the opportunity to disappoint you. If you can, and have the money (which i do not) hire the services of a professional and turn your book over to them to do all that stuff. It’s generally not worth the headache.

If you CHOOSE to follow my route – or are equally poor – well… that’s why i wrote this. So that you have a little foreknowledge of some of the things you do not yet know.

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

The Second Week Blues – Continuing Tales of the Ravaging NaNo.

PandaGood morning, NaNos. I’m sure by now you’ve collided with that invisible barrier – the two-week blues. You’ve been watching the unbelievable progress of your fellow nanos with a mixture of Hulk Rage and Sad Panda. By now you’ve had some time to get into the middle of your plot and realized it’s all mucky and full of weeds and you’re wondering why the hell I ever bothered with this stupid NaNo stuff. This is usually the point in your november when all seems lost. If you had a fainting couch you would throw yourself dramatically upon it at least once a day. Your hair is getting thin. Your characters suck and they hate you. And why can’t I write an action sequence has crept up and strangled you with its cold icy fingers.

Don’t despair, brave NaNos. It’s only week two. This is the hard part. The rest is easy.

Okay. That’s a lie. But this is the hard part. This is EXACTLY the reason you are doing NaNo.

Here’s the little secret about this giddy madness you’ve engaged in. It isn’t REALLY about writing a novel. It’s about getting over those internal hold ups in you that don’t let you finish your novel. It’s about persistence and grinding away. It’s about the reward of just winning. Sure it’s fun to have a brilliant novel that just rollicks off all over the place like a mining cart full of kittens playing big band music while it hurtles down the rollercoaster track ala Temple of Doom. But that’s not what writing is all about. It’s about work. And a mining cart full of kittens. It’s both. But it’s about getting through those moments and winning in spite of that little niggling voice telling you you can’t and that your ideas are all stupid.

So you’re in the two-week blues. Everybody gets them. Hell, I even got them recently after realizing that my characters have all spent more time in restaurants chatting about the case than actually DOING anything. So I skipped all that stuff and started working on a different part of the story. It is a part, I might add, that I didn’t even know WAS a part until I got desperate and tossed in a guy with a gun. Why? Why not? Voila! Unstuckitude. I know, I know. You want to take yourself seriously and preserve the integrity of your work. You feel the need to keep your plot cohesive. Giant lizards stomping on your city or playing parcheesi with each other while using buildings as seats and a table doesn’t really enter in to your concept for your story. You think i’m just being silly. But the thing is – it isn’t silly if it works. If it gets you putting words on the page – and most importantly – if it gets you to STOP TAKING YOURSELF SO BLASTED SERIOUSLY.

Look, YOU opened the door to the world of imagination. You’ve looked out upon its landscape and took the first steps. You may have laid out your story like a nice yellow brick road and are determined to walk it but just look out on that lovely grass. Look around. Do you have your tourist flyer for the land of imagination? THROW IT OUT! Get off the path. Take a hike. Get lost. Just down the hill over there are some alligators in top hats. What are they doing? You tell me. What kind of trees are those over in that misty valley – the ones with the purple on top that those weird birds keep fluttering around in singing old Morrissey tunes?

NaNo is for you. It’s not about creating an everlasting masterpiece of unbelievable brilliance. It’s about showing yourself that you can win a freaking marathon with your MIND. And it’s about learning how to play again – or maybe for the first time, maybe showing you just how brilliant the imagination can become when blended with the adult in you. Maybe it’s a boot camp for learning to think outside the box. Or maybe it’s the great awful dungeon from which you must escape but you’re the one that writes that story. No one can write it for you.

So what are you going to do, Panda? Are you going to pine at the iron bars of “i’m too far behind so why bother?” Are you going to stare at that massive wall of “My plot is totally boring so why should i keep going because i suck”? Or are you going to invent a troupe of freaking Ninjas to help you scale it? Will you find the bar-bending hulk roaming through your own dungeon? Will you help yourself release your own imagination from the trap of every day. Will YOU win the marathon – dragging yourself across the finish line in a heaving gasp but with a grin wide enough to swallow a bus?

It’s your call, writer.

 

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

It’s Here! It’s Here! The NaNo has arrived – Week One

For a few weeks now I’ve been building up to this NaNo thing, right? Telling you all about my prep or lack thereof – in lurid and exaggerated detail and all that stuff. I’m sure it was very amusing and stuff. But all that fun aside it is now upon us. Bam. Just like that. Did i panic? Did i lose my marbles and go screaming into the night? Did I hide under the covers? Nay! I did not. I stood tall and proud and joined the fray like a true damned hero.

Okay. So I may have peed my pants just a little.

NaNo launched at Midnight last thursday. If you were up at that hour you probably felt the furious tapping of hundreds of thousands of keyboards all over the world. It probably sounded like a herd of pygmy goats. I was up. One of those little tappings was my own. Mine. My precious. I did 2000 words that first night which is off to a pretty nifty start if i do say so myself. And yes i did panic just a wee bit in the small hours before kickoff. I got that little nervous jitter in my chest that niggled at me and filled me with self-doubt. But then it started and it was all like “you got this?” and the steely eyed missile man inside glared down and said in his best Clint Eastwood impression: “Yeah. I got this.”Clint

Three days later and I’ve crested the 10,000 mark and things are still going strong. I think. Honestly, I wouldn’t know as I’m terrified of looking back at what I’ve already written. It feels like its working pretty well but almost immediately something popped up in the story that I didn’t expect: Meg sorta fell for the Los Angeles Cop she met in the opening chapter. It had been in my mind that that might happen, but I figured ‘it’s Meg, we’re talking about. The chances of that are fairly slim.’ and then it happened. That’s characters for you. You never can quite tell what they’re going to do until they do it and Meg is particularly that way. I love her a lot but it’s a ride writing her. Most of the time i just feel like I’m following along.

And once again I’m struck with what a weird magical mystery writing is and that’s what NaNo is really all about in my opinion. If there is one thing I want all NaNo participants to find it’s that word count doesn’t matter. Yeah, it’s great to have goals. It’s a moment of great joy when you hit that 50,000 and kick on the Queen and go strutting around your minuscule monastic cell but that’s secondary to all the moments in between. LIke everything else in life the journey is the destination. Don’t forget the little things. Like when you’re just writing along, grinding away and suddenly the giant puzzle pieces drop out of the sky and fill the landscape and you have that first gasp that everything might actually work out. Or that moment when you suddenly see your scene so well that you can hear the seagulls in the air and feel the breeze. You might not be able to write it but you know it and you know it’s there when you need it.

Those are the great moments. That’s why this is a blast and why NaNo is so cool. Not everyone is going to have those moments. You can’t engineer or create them. They just happen. You can read every pro writer tip out there and soak in hundreds of hours worth of boring lectures and never have that moment. But then one day you’ll be writing along – maybe in the middle of a word sprint and BAM! Like you just ran into something with your face and liked it.

I’ve been hearing an awful lot lately about how hard writing is and how you need to respect it and how it’s hard work and it will twist you into knots and no true writer can say they are a true writer until they learn to hate it just a little. Personally I think that’s bullshit. You’ve caught someone trying to make themselves sound more respectable because ‘who doesn’t hate their job a little every now and then? I’d be an asshole if I said the truth – that this is the only damned thing I have ever wanted to do and when it’s working its like angels singing.’ Are there rough times? Sure. But whatever.

Let’s put it this way: I remember the playgrounds of my youth. I remember transforming a pile of old tires into a tank, or a horse out on the open plain, the swings were like flying, that weird collection of splintery beams and chains was a pirate ship, or the back of a dragon. I remember nothing being what it was. Everything changed dramatically with the power of invention and imagination. Writing is the playground. A piece of paper or a blank screen turning into forests, space dragons, the Santa Monica Pier, the bridge of a starship. It’s the place where your own personal memory meets the kid in the adult – your imagination makes alchemy happen and it’s magic. But in order to let that magic happen, in order for NaNo to really live up to its full potential – you need to get that ego out of the way and just learn to surf the resurgent wave that is that resurrected little kid fighting it’s way back into the adult.

Anyway. That’s Day three of Nano. Now i’m heading back at it. Rig and Meg are about to interview an elderly criminal. This is going to be fun.

Post Script – Last week i wrote a teleplay involving Castle working through NaNo while trying to solve a case. As soon as i figure out a way to share it here i will. In the mean time, drop a line and ask about it or share ideas on how i might be able to share it. Cuz i’ve got nothing.

 

 

 

Categories: Meg Brown Mysteries, Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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.

MB7timeline

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

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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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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