Posts Tagged With: mystery writing blog

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

The Art of Editing Vol. 3 – Ground down to a tiny nubbin.

Right. Yeah. I promised a blog about editing. So here it is. Frankly, i don’t really feel like it because i have been at it all day and my eyes are about to fall out of my head. Okay… that’s a lie. I HAVE been at it all day but i have also been goofing off in a huge proportion to the actual work getting done and THEN i hit a snag.

Right now i’m in the final phase. Proofreading. So that’s something you’ll need to figure on and put in your toolbox. It’s a bit of an annoying process. Really, it’s the easiest bit of editing because by now you should have smoothed out all the really rough edges to your work and are just on the verge of publishing the bad boy and getting out of the proverbial house. It’s all grown up and mouthing off and it wants to take your keys and go to The Who concert and it considers you a huge embarrassment.

I’ve had a proofreader go through it and i’ve gone through it myself. The Proof Copy looks like it should be good and dead with all of the scars all over it. But it isn’t. It’s breathing. It’s more alive than it’s ever been actually and i am just plinking away at patching the tiny things – putting bandaids on all the cruel cuts my red pen has made.

This should go fairly quickly, but it isn’t. I’ve hit a snag. There’s a three paragraph chunk that i somehow missed in the overall close editing that needs to be radically fixed in order for things to work. This sort of sucks, as you might imagine, because i’ve already had this thing out to Createspace and i’m working from a fully formatted Proof Copy, which means i REALLY want to keep the length as close to the original document as i possibly can or risk having to redo things that i don’t want to redo.

No big deal. I’ve got this. Tighten the language a little, kill off the massive run on sentence that i missed, smooth it out.

How do i do this you might ask in stunned and appreciative amazement? Well… it’s complicated. But basically, i stare at it until it starts changing. Is that a cop out answer? Yep. It sure is. But it’s also the truth. I roll the thing around in my head for a little while, try and figure what it is i’m trying to show the reader in that moment and let the sentences and paragraph reform themselves a little to bring that out.

Like i said – the bones are there. By this stage, if you have big changes, they’ve been done. If you are proofing, the finish line is in sight and you are stretching out for it. You’re constrained by knowing there isn’t much you CAN do short of scrapping huge chunks and rewinding yourself way back to a different stage in the editing process and you probably don’t want to do that. You’re sick of your story raiding your fridge and eating all of your food. You’ve bought it a Pinto and it’s already run it into a lake.

So yeah. Just relax. You’ve got this. Stare at that paragraph and let your wise training take over. Be the ball, Danny. I don’t want to hold you in suspense but i will say it didn’t take all that long to fix the paragraphs. There was one hefty run on that had some terrific imagery in it that actually worked better if i carved it into different sentences. It was a bit like straightening the poor guys tie before prom. Then there was the next paragraph that was far too witty for it’s own good. Cut that down to size a little and rearrange here and there, snip the silly rat tail off it’s head and make sure it has a comb in it’s pocket. Now off you go.

These things might come up in proofing. It’s important not to let it get to you. If you let it get to you, that little bastard is never leaving the house, you’re cutting up it’s drivers license and sending him back to sixth grade and you definitely don’t want to do that. You’re almost done. Just make the little fixes you need to make. Remember – we’re talking bandaids and not surgery at this point as long as i feel like mixing metaphors. Which i do. Cuz it’s my blog and i’ll mix if i want to.

If you have an open wound, stitch it up and slap a bandage on and get it out the door. That’s the lesson for the day. I know it’s nothing earth shattering but it may just save you some serious heartache.

Post Script:

Today i was completely schooled on a grammatical foible i have been committing – unwittingly – since time immemorial. The terrible error of my ways has been pointed out and i shall not err again. Lesson learned. But there you go kids, the minute you think you know everything – you don’t. And that’s a good thing.

Categories: Fiction, Uncategorized, 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.

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An Experiment in Self-Publishing: pt. 2

No. You don’t get a fricking drawing or a picture of any kind. Nuh uh. Why? Because 135 people have ‘viewed’ my story Cuhlyn’s Tale on Payhip and of them I have sold 6 copies. SIX!!! And 2 of those were to the same people. So they bought it TWICE! Which must mean it’s awesome, right? Guess that shows you. You could have been on the ground floor of something amazing but nooooooo…. YOU chose to sit on the sidelines and see how it all plays out. Didn’t you? Didn’t YOU?

Naw… Just kidding. Sort of. It’s no big deal. It’s a little story anyway. Not something I was looking for – just something that happened along one fine day. So I wrote it. NOW GO BUY IT!

Truth be told the experiment isn’t working all that well. I’ve had a friend in Scotland have some issues with the Payhip site, there was some trouble in the very beginning with Paypal (my fault), and it needed some editing. It has now been edited. Again and resubmitted. According to the site, if you purchase a copy you get it as a Doc file or a epub file. Or both. It’s a little hard to tell. Personally, I really don’t understand the doc file thing. That really shouldn’t even be an option should it? That would enable anyone to purchase, download, alter the heck out of it and resubmit it under their own auspices. Hmmm… I think I’ll have to pull that doc file down before someone with more marketing understanding rips me off.

Also, the same friend in Scotland has mentioned difficulty with the ‘sharing/liking’ of it on FB. She’s not even getting those options on her browser. This is a problem as I have it set right now so that you (yes YOU!!!) get a discount if you share or like it. This amounts to 50% off if you share it. Which seems to work backwards if you ask me. It’s a great idea but maybe the discount should be paid forward? If you buy something and like it enough to recommend it, you can click share or like from the main page and have a discount applied to your next purchase. I mean, who really want’s to go BACK and like something after you’ve read it? Okay. Wait. I do that all the time.

I have to say, though, one thing i do like about it (and dislike about it) is that there is no place to leave comments or reviews. Payhip, as a whole, is very stripped down and no frills. There are no pushes, no marketing slams of ‘if you liked this story, you might like this one that someone with more money has had professionally promoted’. It’s nice because the review thing has become a game. You see it all the time – people begging on the cobbled streets like Dickensian paupers: ‘Please, sir – would you kindly review my vampire novel? I promise it will be no trouble. There’s only one werewolf in it. Honest, sir…’ I know reviews matter. I know i have none. I read reviews all the time, but – as a writer – i tend to review the reviews if you know what i mean. Too many spelling mistakes in a review, loose language use, colloquialisms and it’s as good as a bad review in my opinion. In any case, there is no place to put a review on Payhip, even if you wanted to. There’s no rating system, no genre searching, Really, i’m not sure how you’re supposed to find anything on there.

That said, their percentages are really good. Definitely worth it. And i hope they keep that in place should they choose to expand. They’re also really easy to upload to and the sharing/liking features (when they work) are really easy to use, but as i said i have had at least one friend have difficulty getting them to work.

In any case, the experiment continues. If you would like a short little tale about a barbarian trying to save his little village from slaughter you can find it here. If not, that’s cool too – just leave me tips and pointers on how better to market stories, because i still suck at it.

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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.

Gordon-Ramsay-007

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

A Few Unkind Words About Beta Reading…

Statler-and-Waldorf-ShoppingUp to a few months ago I’d never heard the term ‘Beta- reader’ and honestly I kind of hate it. I’m not kidding. I get the relationship between it and the whole computer program, game-playing culture and I’ll freely admit that it fits but ugh. It sucks. But it still fits so we’ll run with it until something a little more poetic comes by. Anyone? Please? Come up with something better. It grates on me. So fix it people! Please your weird blogger.

Anyway. For the time being we’re going to run with it.

I get the concept. You have a few select readers – or victims – peruse your erstwhile completely untested and frequently quite unfinished manuscript to work out the kinks. Sort of like sending the babe off to kindergarten – if kindergarten was Lord of the Flies. Which it sort of is isn’t it? Writers need this sort of thing. Nothing flies when it first tests its little wings. You have to give it some time, some encouragement, let the people you trust shower some advice and attention on the little feller and get some air under its wings. That’s what it’s all about. In theory at least.

UNFORTUNATELY…

Many folks seem to think that beta reading is a nice way to sharpen their critical teeth on someone else’s work. You get the input back and within the first sentence you can practically envision that reader furrowing their brow as they slip on the tweed jacket they’ve reserved JUST for this purpose. They clamp the pipe they don’t smoke between those sharpened teeth and then they bite. Hard. Right into your little bird that hasn’t done a thing to them except peep hopefully at them. They seem to think that this is their chance to show their chops (choppers) at VALID LITERARY CRITICISM. Like that’s actually a thing. Like that’s exactly what they should be doing.

Well stop it. If that’s you… close your salivating mouth. Save it for the book review published to much imagined praise in the anals of the New Yorker. (Yes… that is what I meant.) Here’s a tip: YOU ARE NOT HAROLD BLOOM. And even if you are Harold Bloom this is not the time for it. Your basic job, that you have been entrusted with, is to be helpful. No matter how godawful the thing you’re reading actually is you are NOT permitted to say things like ‘why are you wasting my time’ or ‘didactic’ or ‘good lord, you should really think of doing something else.’ You may think these things and that is perfectly fine but your job is to be helpful. You are reading for concept, flow, tension, character. You are reading for compassion. Act that way. Be critically brilliant somewhere else on your own time.

Now I’m sure we’ve all sat in some tiny room at one point or another around a table at which we are being fed piecemeal to the class and masticated by a professor whose own books didn’t sell well enough to avoid having to teach. How did that feel? Good? Nah. I’m guessing it sucked. Was it actually helpful? In my case I can say all it did was puff up my own writerly ego and made it don armor against such stuff. You know how it goes: first it’s “good lord that hurt like lemon juice on a bee sting.” Then it’s like “oh yeah? what the hell do you know you little turd. Wait till I get a chance to review YOUR stupid story…”

Do not give a writer an excuse to grow a whopping ego. It’s pretty much the worst offense any writer can ever commit. They start thinking stupid things like ‘I am the author of the universe.’ or worse ‘I made that.’ If you are Beta Reading you first goal should be – really – to help said writer to put down that ego. The ego is the biggest impediment to decent writing there ever was. Which is amazing considering the best writers ever had MASSIVE egos. Maybe that’s why. They somehow managed to put it away while writing then looked upon their own works and thought ‘dang. I’m pretty awesome.’ and then they believed it. As Ricky Roma put it in Glengarry Glen Ross: “your job is to HELP US. Not FUCK US UP.” 61586534_640

To do that you need to have some compassion. Realize that the person behind the excremental piece of trash that you are slogging your way through is trying to do the best they can. They are doing the best they can. AND THEY CHOSE YOU to help make it better. Why? Yes. Because they kind of think you’re at least a little bit awesome. That’s called respect. What happens when you dance around on their blessedly ugly little bird? They stop thinking you’re in any way awesome and now think you’re a total turd out to kill the things they love. And why would they think that? Because you just did. Congrats. Douche.

So have some respect. You wouldn’t go up to a friend who just had a baby and say ‘Awww… Congratulations… but seriously, don’t you think it’s not too late to abort?’ If you are I’m guessing you don’t have too many friends and have gotten used to being punched in the face. And besides, I know you think you were a virgin birth that came borne fully on a sun-beam to the tune of angels but really you came out kinda tiny and gross just like the rest of us. Harold Bloom might be a titan of literary criticism but at one point he too was a geeky little book nerd and you still aren’t him. So have a little humility and appreciate when someone wants you to read. Take it seriously. If you don’t think you can reign in that penchant for critical brutality (or worse yet, think it’s somehow necessary to ‘toughen someone up’ – sadist) then DON’T AGREE TO DO IT. It’s that simple.

Categories: Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

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

More Longmire – or what i’ve been doing with myself for two weeks.

Well yes. You’re right. It’s been a while. Sorry about the lapse. Let me tell you something about gluten allergies that are undiagnosed: they will drive you absolutely crazy. I mean really. I’ve been losing my mind. Just a bundle of anxiety. In terms of standard neurosis, Woody Allen has nothing on me right now.

But that’s not the only reason for my absence. Here are a few of the choicest excuses for my laxity: Independence day. (truth be told i did NOTHING on independence day. I sat and read all day i think.) then LAST Thursday i was running to purchase a giant fluffy dolphin at the zoo. Not all day. My health is not great and if i tried such a feat i would actually be dead. Let’s see… there’s the ever popular Zombies ate my blog. Hmmm… rapid rabid rabbits ruined my rudder? 

Pick one. 

The fact of the matter is i’ve been on a Longmire kick. Remember my last blog about Craig Johnson’s Longmire series? Well… admittedly, it was a bit more of a contrasting the show with the books. Since then i’ve read three other Longmire book and am currently halfway through the fifth. I slowed down this week a little because i was having panic attacks. by all rights i should be finished with the fifth book and on to the sixth by now but i had to stop off and chat with you folks. 

Honestly, i can’t stop reading this stuff. It’s like crack. I remember finishing book three of Harry Potter and getting on my bike (lived in the city so i didn’t have a car at the time) and i biked my way to the book store that same night and was 200 pages in before i managed to finally turn out the light. Longmire is like that. But shorter. 

Like i’ve been saying (if you’ve been listening) Johnson does what many mystery writers don’t. He goes for the literary. The stories are driven entirely by the characters. He never uses ‘he said’. He hooks you with the dialog and it’s not just the dialog – read it close – each character has their own unique pattern of speech, their own unique and loving mannerisms that you come to and just sigh happily when they show up: Vic putting her boots up on the desk, Lucian’s ruthless butchering of ethnic names, Saizarbitoria’s affability, Henry’s inability to use a conjunction, Longmire’s random literary references. It’s a feast. A feast i tell you! For a guy whose bread now tastes like compressed sawdust, i am desperately in need of a feast.

On the downside to this feast, i curse Johnson every damned time his characters go into the Busy Bee for ‘the usual’. Johnson – you rotten bastard. Can you have Dorothy cook up some gluten free something? Just once? Maybe for Cady when she comes to visit? Please? 

If you’re a mystery fan… Nay. If you are a mystery fan who still loves Raymond Chandler as well as your Shakespeare, your Brontes, your Austen, your Hemingway, SPRINT to the bookstore and pick up the lot of them. 

Oh yeah. Hardcopy baby. I think i mentioned that in the last blog too. Well… i liked the first book so much i went back and purchased it in hardcover when i picked up the second book. It helped that my Mom had a battery accident with her ‘book’. It was excellent motivation. 

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, all this Longmire reading (not to mention the nearly constant worry over my own state of health) has put a damper on my own literary pursuits. But fear not, those of you who haven’t read my Meg Brown Stories. I am going to be back at it soon. I hit the doctors today and got a relatively clean bill of health (in spite of the gluten crap that is). Really, i just needed some peace of mind. Hey… that’s the title of one of the Meg Brown stories… No it wasn’t intentional. Yesitwas. 

That said i am a little stuck in the Meg story right now. I’ll get it cleared out once i can string a few days of writing together without losing my mind. It won’t be today though. It’s already late and this writer has to get back to his book readin. I’m on page 137 of The Dark Horse if you’re following along. 

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