Posts Tagged With: writing blog

Why Genre Writing Matters

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Yesterday i spent a long drive down to Burlington, Wisconsin to play a board game with some old friends. Now, by old, i mean we aren’t old. Older than we were, for sure. But time’s a funny thing. You don’t see it passing, it just does and one day you’re 40 and you haven’t seen those people you grew up with for 20 years or so, but even that time… weird though it is… evaporates as soon as you are in a basement with dice in your hand playing a board game. Just like you used to do.

But this isn’t really about that. Maybe i’ll hold that one off for later.

This is about the writer i heard on the news radio station i was listening to on the way down there. I don’t remember her name, but i can tell you she’s a shakespearean professor of english and she writes Romance. From the sound of things she makes a freaking KILLING at it too. Note – this is also not a promotional ad for all budding writers to run out and scribble some romance for the sake of riches.

Anyway, she chatted a little about the killing she was making at it and most importantly how those in her profession – her literary colleagues – were oblivious to it. They were completely unaware that her professor salary was dwarfed in the extreme by the small fortune she was raking in for writing pulpy bodice rippers. Well. Ain’t that just the shit?

I grew up with Genre writing. I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought Genre writing was called books. But i poured through The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I graduated, slowly, to horror through Stephen King and then to… ahhh… this is fun… The Dragonlance Chronicles by Weis and Hickman. I was so damned envious when one of my friends scored a signed copy of Dragons of… something. I read them all. Then i soaked in Sci Fi for a while – Heinlein, Card, and then…

Neuromancer. I’ll be honest. Neuromancer broke my brain. The prose. Hell, i didn’t even really know what prose was at the time but i knew this was something different. For a while, William Gibson became my god and everything became Cyberpunk. Everything. And it was a delight. The world was complicated. Fast. Beautiful like moonlight on a heap of discarded computer parts or neon glinting on gutter junk.

Somewhere along the way, though, i stopped.

But that’s not a tragedy. There is more to the world than Genre fiction. I don’t regret for a second falling in love with Steinbeck or Hemingway or Austen or Fitzgerald. I would be an utter idiot for not falling for it. It’s beautiful, amazing stuff and it’s expanded my brain further than i think Genre fiction would have been able to. Plus, and this is really it, i burned out on Genre. It became harder and harder to find GOOD books in fantasy or Sci Fi. So much of it just seemed the same. It wasn’t the sort of hell i ever expected but it did suck.

The point of all this autobiographical blah blah is that there is still something to Genre fiction. There’s a reason so many people still read and love it and frankly, i think i got it. I got the bug again. And here it is – here’s the big secret that i think is worth telling. Shhhh… don’t let too many people know.

Genre fiction brings you hope.

There. There it is. That’s the secret.

I was watching Tomorrowland with George Clooney or as my friend and i like to call him Eyorhay Kloonay. It’s not a bad little film. Flashy. Fun. But one part stuck with me. The main character is sitting in school through a series of montages of her classes as she’s being bombarded with the negative reality of the world she lives in – war, famine, global warming, starvation, etc. Her hand is perpetually up and perpetually ignored. Finally, at the end of the montage, the teacher allows her to ask her question. What is her question?

How do we fix it?

Okay. And that’s pretty genius. Cuz here we are and the world seems like it’s falling apart around our shoulders and everything sucks and people are getting stupider and blathering bullshit everywhere we look and it gets really depressing when you see glaciers calve off and ice shelfs fall into the sea and everyone is all like ‘lalalalalalaaaaa!!! Let’s fucking PARTAY!’

But Genre fiction… It asks the question. How are you going to fix it? It ennobles the idiotic savage. How many sci-fi stories have inspired new scientists? Neil Degrasse Tyson has indicated that it’s inspired him. How many fantasy stories have made activists of kids who have gotten inculcated into the concept of evil. They WANT to be heroes. Maybe it’s not the only thing, but start them young on something… and miracles are possible.

Hell start em old. Start them whenever. In Mysteries, terrible crimes get solved in a way they so rarely do when we see all the blood splashed all over the news. In fantasy, we fight evil and we win. In sci fi we explore and face our fears of the unknown. In romance we find love in spite of terrible obstacles.

We fucking need these things. Particularly now when the world DOES seem so horrible. We need to believe in doing the right thing, being brave, exploring. The challenges are HUGE and… well.. this is just my opinion but the only damned thing that is going to save our asses against the ever-yawning void of the banality of tragic indifference is an ascendancy of imagination.

Remember that part of Lord of the Rings when Gandalf is talking about the ephemeral nature of hope? Yeah. That. Right there. How many kids read that and said: Fuck yeah. That’s going to be me some day. I’m going to stand in front of the Witch King of Angmar and though he’s going to rend me to ribbons, it’s where i need to stand. How many looked into the stars and saw themselves in a spaceship scudding among them?

Genre fiction spits in the face of the impossible. It eats it for breakfast and poops out rainbows. And hell… we can’t go wrong when it teaches us that you can stand with a dwarf and an elf and battle a freaking dragon. A. FREAKING. DRAGON. It says: yeah… i know these people are weird, different, different races that i don’t really understand but right now, these are the crew that are going to battle THAT big fricking dragon so i don’t give one god damn that one’s short and the other has pointy ears.

So, yeah. We need it. And i’m happy to write it. I want to do it as well as i know how because i WANT some kid to read it and be like ‘hell yeah. This is what justice is all about. This is what friendship is all about. This is what i’m looking to create in MY life.’

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The Art of Editing (according to me) Vol. 2 – Further Down The Rabbit Hole

IMG_0203Phew. Dang. I didn’t think that introduction was ever going to get out of the way. But now what? I’ve got em hooked. What do i do with a second act? Do i have a second act? What’s my next step? Oh God. What do i do?

Panic.

Panic should be your next step. So run off and take care of that. Chop Chop.

You think i’m kidding. I’m serious. Hanging out with a bunch of characters and a huge sprawling plot for months on end is not a ‘normal’ act in polite society. People frown on that. You are – officially – a weirdo. Which is fine. Weirdo’s make the best people. But a little panic is in order. You should celebrate. You should freak out a little. You should lose your mind a lot. You should wonder what comes next. You should panic. So go take care of that pronto and then come back. I’ll wait.

All right. How long did that take? Hopefully long enough because your next step in the epic that you just wrote is shoving the whole thing in a drawer for a while. Get it out of your head. Purge. You need the distance for the next step because a little distance really helps when you have to go back to it. I suggest you take up knitting or doing jigsaw puzzles or learning Swahili. Take your mind off of it and learn something new and different. Keep the brain minty fresh. You’re going to need it.

So you might ask – why? And provided you’re actually asking this WHY in relation to me suggesting you put it away for a while and think of something else, i will tell you. If your ‘Why?’ is merely general and existential i recommend Sartre or Camus. You have to get away from it is why. You have to let your brain catch up with where you are now. If you’re anything like me, that little noggin of yours has been reaching for that story in the darkest watches of the night every chance it can get it’s grubby little mitts on a spare thought. It’s like you’ve been shut in a closet with a film projector that occasionally breaks. Now is the point you come out and actually see the sun and trees and breath some air that is unadorned with the stank of mothballs.

If you were to look at it now – your story that is – you might not see anything different from what you saw yesterday. You would still be ‘In’ the story. That doesn’t help you read it and reading is what you need to do next. You need to read it just like joe schmoe on the street, if joe bothered to read anything other than the racing form.

Reading is the first act of editing.

Now when i say reading, i’m getting a little ahead of myself. Basically what i’m going to – or HOPE i’m going to – give you in the next few installments are the individual processes. What order you put them in are mostly up to you. I will not – nor CAN i say that there is ONE WAY to do this. There are only steps. Like tools. Reading is the first tool you will see in the tool box.

But there are different ways to read. So it’s a bit like a wrench. You know how there are eighty billion different types of wrenches out there.

Your first read through, in my opinion, shouldn’t be just slack jawed. After all, you already know you’re going to have to tinker with this beast. But, in my opinion, it helps if you keep your immediate goals reachable with the first read through. If you need to fix things – focus on the annoying mistakes you knew you made. Things like spelling and Your/You’re issues. This makes this step manageable and gives you a little boost to keep going. That’s important because you’re in this for the long haul. This is the first step in polishing the marble. Your story isn’t going to move and grab your readers without you committing to the process and little reachable things like that can help you – so long as you give yourself credit for them.

Give yourself credit for them. There will be innumerable opportunities to kick your own ass during the editing process and it IS going to hurt and get pretty tiring after a while. So you HAVE to remember – this is really fricking important – you MUST remember to give yourself credit. 90% of the time you are going to be your own best cheerleader. Everyone else has already gotten tired of you squirreling yourself away and not being social and unless you have a miracle angel talking cheerleading Pegacorn, you’re it.

So, Back to the reading. Read it and make those little changes. Take notes. DO NOT scribble all over your manuscript. That just diminishes your agency and gives you a consistent visual reminder of your suckitude in those moments when you least need it. I usually start with a list in a notebook – a bit like the planning period before i sat down and wrote. If i can (and lets face it – MUST) alter a sentence, that’s fine. So long as you keep the little edits reasonable. You don’t want to muck about with too much lest you start yanking on a thread that unravels the whole damned sweater.

Take notes. Make the little changes. If you have a computer program that allows you to tack on sticky notes to things, that works really well.

What sort of notes? Well… that’s really up to you. Read it for the flow first. Read to make sure the thing makes sense, that your transitions are good and that you at least have the sketch of the emotional and plot driven content you were looking for. Read CLOSELY. Read primarily for story. There will be plenty of opportunities to get nitpicky with the grammar but this isn’t one of them. Right now you just want to make sure that the structure is in place and where it isn’t, leave a note for the engineers to shore up the bulwarks. Don’t be afraid to sit and think at the end of chapters. There are times, and they aren’t rare, when i’ve written something and don’t have a clue WHY i wrote it. This is generally the step where i start to figure out why.

I generally don’t find notes like ‘this sucks’ very helpful mainly because there have been quite a few times where i come back to that note after a little while and i’m like ‘what sucks? You’re an idiot. There’s nothing wrong with that.’ Notes like ‘let loose the dialog a little here.’ or ‘find better verbs’ or ‘string this out and add tension’ seem to work much better because then you have some sort of launchpad for the next step.

Which is where the real work begins.

Make your notes specific but not so specific that you’re technically rewriting, which i will get to. And don’t forget that this is not a ‘do this first and this second’ sort of advice column thing. This is a tool box. Rewriting is the another tool i will be talking about. You may lay the wrench of reading aside on the worktable and pick up the hacksaw of rewriting and then shift back to the wrench. They don’t have to be in any particular order. All you’re looking to do is get the rough piece of wood to look a bit more like the thing you saw in the plans.

Now, finally, you have finished reading it through. I hope. You have a whole bunch of well organized notes to guide you through choosing the proper tool for the next step. But remember, before you start, take a bow. Have a sandwich. Listen to some good music and give yourself credit. You have finished the first step in editing. You are a shiny golden god. You can do this. You will do this. Because the world needs your book.

Take this step because you are about to step out of the blue and into the black.

See ya next week.

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The Art of Editing (according to me) Vol. 1

Alright. Are we all situated? Should i take attendance? Ah screw it. Sit wherever you want. This here Blog is The Art of Editing 101. I say 101 because i’m probably not qualified to teach an upper level class on the subject. But i’m going to put a few thoughts out there in a few volumes. Whether you like it or not.

So sit down. Shush. Take notes. Yell at me. Whatever you need to do. But this is important. Seriously. No really. You in the back. I see you playing Pet Rescue. Put it away.

The first thing you need to know if you are a writer, or want to be a writer, is that editing is every bit as much an art as the actual writing process is. Start thinking of it like that. Everybody thinks that it’s a grand thing living in a wonderful floaty cloud on high, plinking away at your keyboards, creating brilliant new worlds, inventing characters. I have personally met artists who believe that the products of their fingers is spun gold straight from the start.

They are liars.

No one writes spun gold. No one. Not ever. Not once. Not in the entire history of all stories ever told.

What artists do is they start to understand that editing is every bit the process of art that drafts are. Possibly more so. Do not presume that your first, second, third, fourth, eighth effort is worthy of production and publication. It’s not. No really. Its not.

No. REALLY.

You aren’t going to believe me no matter what i say, so i’ll just put this out there as coldly as i can. If you are a self pubber, or e book writer, chances are this is going to happen to you. It’s happened to me. Here’s how it goes: You write something wonderful and you think: “oh my god! I’ve got it!” and you’ll rush to press with whatever it is, dreaming of riches falling out of the sky and the accolades and adoration of your fans.

There is even a tiny chance – infinitesimally small – that you’ll actually RECEIVE those things (which is far far worse, really, than if you don’t.)

Then, many years later, you will review that thing you rushed to press and you will invariably head-desk so fricking hard Mr. Miyagi will want to take lessons from you on how to break tables with your forehead. (another tip: this is going to happen anyway, but I hope to help mitigate the damage to furniture if I can.)

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are authors among us, very popular authors, who somehow get that fantastic ego ballooned to ludicrous proportions by enigmatic success and become impervious to this effect because… well… filthy luchre is still pouring in so they can’t be that bad… but they are.

Write well. No one gives a rats ass if you have money coming out of your rectum if you still can’t carry a tune and write a sentence. In fact, you’ll be an even bigger asshole. They’ll gladly stand around with their hands out smiling at you long enough to grease their palms but at the end of the day, you’re still going to have pros call you an inveterate shmuck.

So….

Sorry for that preamble. But that’s where it’s at.

Editing is an art. This is Volume One of the things i’ve learned. Subtitled even further as The Introduction. If you are content to fumble about taking chances and hoping for the best then don’t worry. You don’t need to come back. If you WANT to get better, I can tell you the things that have helped me.

Am I a great writer with fame and fortune to spare? Nope. But I am someone who more often than not does NOT put things out into the world that I would be ashamed to stand behind. I do not claim wealth and success… yet. And I don’t want to, until I feel like i’ve earned it.

Editing is an Art. Are you sick of me saying it yet? I’m going to keep saying it. It’s a beautiful thing in itself.

Take a picture. Go outside right now and snap a shot of any random thing. ANYTHING. Seriously. I’ll wait.

Got it? Now take a look at that picture. Is it art? No. It’s probably a shot of your cat, or maybe a shot of your car. Or the nearest snow bank. That’s fine. You aren’t a photographer. And I JUST asked you to take a shot of any random thing. But what’s the big difference between you and a professional photographer? A professional photographer would have set his composition. He would have framed it. He would probably have gone into some program and tweaked it. He might have cropped it, adjusted colors. If he was old school he would have used chemicals to do this and that mysterious alchemical thing we whisper about – photographic process. He might have used a different camera or a different film. He did all of this because he KNOWS how.

How does he know how to do this you ask?

Because he has screwed it all up before. Editing is the process by which you hone your talent. The more you edit, the better you are at drafting and setting up the originals, the less things there are to edit the next time.

It’s the art of getting yourself closer to what it is you want of your art. You had the idea, you know what you want to say, you know how you WANT your reader to feel. Now you must craft and hone and tinker and process and alter the color and get the notes right until that IS what they get.

Or die trying.

And don’t get me wrong… it might kill you.

End of The Introduction.

Coming Soon – Volume Two – The Basics.

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The End of the Road – Sort of: NaNoWriMo comes to a close but the story goes on.

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So. I finished almost a week ago now and seeing as my ‘victory dance’ was rewarding myself with Dragon Age: Inquisition, i have been hanging out in Thedas since then. If you need me you’ll find me wandering more or less aimlessly through The Hinterlands, or some other bandit choked place.

But that’s not why you’re here are you? You’re here to find out how it all shook out and when you’ll be able to read my Nano masterwork. At least that’s what i hope you’re here for. Well… it’ll be a while now. This is my fourth completed Nano and this year i’ve had a big year in terms of writing. I finally finished working on the draft of The Stonemaidens Cup and have been up to my eyeballs in editing the massive thing. I finished writing and MOST of the editing of Meg Brown number 6: Meg Beats Cancer. I wrote a teleplay for the Nano group for Castle. I wrote a short story that i’m working on editing for Wattpad or somewhere similar, then there is Meg Brown 7 – last year’s Nano project which is just about finished in draft form and now The Normal Zoo. So really, in a weird way, Nano is a bit just like a day at the office.

But i love my office. And i love Nano and all the nano’ers reaching for their dreams.

The Normal Zoo isn’t finished. In fact, it’s gotten a bit bigger since ‘finishing’ the word count goal and will get bigger still as i work to complete it. It’s hard to see right now how much further i have to go. What i should do is take a breath that isn’t filled with Thedas air, take a gander at what i’ve got and start mapping out where to go next from here to finish it. Planning ahead this year (which i confess i didn’t do much of last year) really set me up well to coast on the word count for the first week or two and then it became another heavy slog where the story just puffed out like a popcorn kernal.

In the end, i’m starting to think The Normal Zoo MIGHT just become a series. I hope not. I have too many series already and aside from my Meg Brown Books and the Longmire novels i love by Craig Johnson, i’m just not into series. The trouble is that the book ballooned a little larger than i thought it would. I had more ground to cover than i figured. It’s possible that i’ll be able to chop it down in the end and get it under the word count for publication but it’s really hard to see that right now seeing as i’m at 55,000 or so and i think i JUST rounded the middle.

But again. It’s hard to tell.

So how was Nano this year? In some ways it was fantastic. I got to really tuck in to a story. When you tuck in like that you start with these people and you’re really sort of nervous around them. You don’t know them. They don’t know you. LIke any first time conversation, there’s a little awkwardness and unpleasant silences you or they desperately try to fill. Just like reading, though, you come to know them and they start surprising you and you start to love them a little more and loving them is what you need. Even the bad guys. Yes. I sort of love the Worsteads. I hate them, because they are awful people but they’re very vivid to me. But nothing beats Ashley and Lola and Mia and Emily. I didn’t expect Lola to be into old movies and film noir. That was lovely and we bonded over The Thin Man and My Man Godfrey. I didn’t expect Ashley to be so… funny. She’s really brave but doesn’t believe it at all and she’s… well… hopefully you’ll see. Yeah. I got to know them and for the moment anyway, i’ve left Lola in a bit of a low spot but she’s already trying to work her way out of it and i expect she’s going to get herself into a bit of trouble before then.

I miss the Chateau of Soot. I didn’t spend enough time there and would very much like to – when i rewrite it – give it it’s due. It’s a grand place, full of dust but very homey. I don’t know why it’s called the Chateau of Soot. It’s not actually sooty.

There’s nothing quite like having this thing bubbling and toiling in your head for a while – an idea that is pretty bizarre no matter which way you look at it – and finally sitting down and cranking out on it. It’s a flood like you see in a gum commercial, full of cool blue waves stanching the embers in your head that are threatening to get out of control. It’s a sudden cool ocean breeze on an otherwise sweltering day. It’s a lot of things. And that’s what Nano is all about in my opinion. You get to tell the world, for a full month, go screw yourself, i’m going to let my brain frolic like a deranged sweater-wearing bunny in a field made of minty evergreen grass. You get to put that imagination to use, sometimes for the first time since grade school recess. And yeah. It’s grade school recess.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

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Nano Day… Whatever. I’ve lost track

Ashley2Alright. Let’s make this quick. I’m in the middle of a bit of a word war with the Shadow and Clay blog. I don’t have time for this blogging nonsense. Don’t you know it’s NANO?

Anyway. So here it is in a nutshell: After two weeks of work on this novel and 37000 words or so i can freely and honestly admit that it has spiraled out of control. I’m still really enjoying it and i’m having a blast writing the bits and bobs of it but those bits and bobs are only SLOWLY building into a story. I feel as though i haven’t even really started yet.

But that’s Nano for you. Get those words down. A draft – no matter how horrible or meandering or completely lost, or whatever, is nothing if not the longest outline you’re going to write. As of right now – all of the little bits i’ve been thinking over for more than a month are coming out. I have a talking hawk who is gradually inserting herself more and more into the story. I had no idea Ashley would become such a handful.

The little meeting with the talking whale who lives in an ocean inside a maintenance shed at the zoo went off perfectly and had everything i wanted. I have a group of nosy middle class suburbanite jerkfaces muddling in my MC’s business. I’ve got everything i wanted except a story that is moving inexorably to it’s conclusion. In fact, 37000 words in and i feel like i’m still in the first few chapters explaining the characters.

I finally have my main character, Lola, getting a tour of the school she’s going to attend. This SHOULD have happened in the first 10000 words but here i am. Way late – And dreading the intense and massive editing process to come. What gets saved? Will i have to reorganize everything? Can i condense? Do i just plod on and include all that i want to?

These are all thoughts for a much later date. For now, WRITE WRITE WRITE!!! GET IT ALL DOWN!

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Day Five of Nano – My Progress So Far

Alphonso

Alright. It’s… well… i’ve lost track now. Day six. I really should be actually writing something. Well… i am. Just not the thing i should be writing so let’s keep this quick shall we? So i can get back to it?

So far it’s been going pretty good. I’ve done four of these previously and let me tell you – the five day/day six or first week an be pretty rough. Lots of people have been tossing up the white flag in surrender right about now. Plots dwindle out or just abruptly drift off into nothing, characters are starting to rebel, real life issues creep in. Week one is… well… it’s wreckage. You start to realize just what you’ve gotten yourself into. Sometimes you even start making stuff up and just padding out the words.

All good strategies really. Sometimes you have to ramble intelligently to pick up your own thread. No harm in it.

Me, i’m at 18,000 words and the fifth chapter. Things are going great actually. I just introduced Allerdyne the zookeeper, Ashley the Red Tailed Hawk and last night i finally managed to get my Main Character to meet the Queen of Yesterday, Karin the talking whale and the ocean in the maintenance shed. It’s a pretty pivotal moment in the story, really so i’m pretty happy with it. The whole episode popped into my head in the late afternoon, right down to the nitty gritty details and it went off exactly as i imagined. In fact, it was better than i imagined. That’s when you know you got it right on the first try.

To any of you non-writers out there who might be reading this – it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes you have something imagined (the first step in writing a scene is seeing it) and your characters decide at the last minute that they’re going to go in another direction. You can tell when this happened. You’re merrily writing the scene you pictured and all of a sudden the writing becomes forced and you’re fighting it, as though the circumstances and the characters are quite literally tugging you in another direction.

But the scene with the whale in the maintenance shed didn’t do that. I took my time with it and it flowed out right down the line. Dialog and all. That’s time for a victory dance.

If you’re wondering what the gorilla is doing at the top of the page here, well… that’s another character. Apparently, i’m having more difficulty naming him than i thought. The name i gave him in Scapple is Adolpho Bumbles but throughout the story it’s been vacillating between that and Alphonso. I think it will stay Adolpho but that will now require some editing. Adolpho and Marion Bumbles and their son Kevin – who is also a Gorilla. Talking gorilla’s of course.

For some reason i’m having the worst time remembering that the Gorilla wife’s name is Marion. I’ve had to look it up nearly every time i write it. Ah well.. Another one of those things that just happens i suppose.

Anyway. I am off to get my word count up for the morning. It’s nice to wake up early and crank out a good 500 – 700 words before showering, that way there isn’t such a long haul when i get home from work. Just another possibly helpful strategy to any of you still trying to find time somewhere.

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The Calm Before the Storm – Minus 2 Days to Nano

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So here we are. A fell wind whistles across the plain. It’s a scary time. I am quaking in my boots. Except i’m actually barefoot in my office listening to the Beatles on my Dan Fogelburg inspired pandora page. And i’m not actually quaking. I’m calm and relaxed and full of happy anticipation. I’ve already set up the scrivener project, i’ve got a bit of outline all roughed out. I’ve got my initial cover done. It’s all over but the shouting.

And boy… there’s enough shouting.

My head has been just running ragged with all of the stuff i want to throw in this little novel. It’s been multiplying rapidly. I’m not sure where i’m going to put all of it but i’m pretty excited. So I think, for this little blog post, i’ll just spend a moment telling you all what i’ll be working on.

The whole thing started when my friends kids asked me if i was a real writer. Here’s the thing about that question. There is no answer. I’m sure if you ever asked Ernest Hemingway if he was a real writer he would look at you boggle eyed, his gin and tonic halfway to his mouth and his eyes widening. ‘Real compared to what, exactly?’ Would most likely be the first thing that crossed his suddenly panicked mind. It was for me. But when you have two children asking that question, it sort of demands some sort of answer. So i said sure. Thankfully, their mom agreed. And then i said i’d write them a book. The events in question might be a little out of order but that’s basically the gist of it.

It’s always best when you find someone to write for. I know a lot of people say they write for themselves and that’s great and all when you’re younger and voiceless and being picked on and you believe (with some very real justification) that no one gives a hoot about your words. But the older you get – i hope – the more you’ll realize that writing works better, and you want to do it better, when you have people you want to write for.

I told them i would write them a story. They would have to come up with the basics of the story. Which is where i’m at right now and that’s another thing i would tell the prospective writers of the world. If someone throws a pitch, swing at it. My first five books – The Meg Brown Mysteries which are now on their sixth book and the seventh was last years nano project – were based on a suggestion from a friend on her way back to California. You never know where this stuff is going to end up and frankly, it takes a bit of the plotting out of your hands and gets your brain working on just HOW you’re going to do it.

Their idea, naturally, consisted of a bunch of characters who just happened to have the names of all their friends. And they suggested that they were all animals. They gave me the types of animals and all the names. They wanted some sort of crime to be solved (which, frankly, i’m still working on. I’m used to murder and violent death which, for a kids novel, is not exactly right on.)

From the bare bones of their ideas came the story of Lola, a young girl and the adventures of her friends Mia who is a Cheetah, Emily a Dolphin, and Ashley A Hawk. I even started writing it in a first chapter but it really didn’t work out well. Who knows? It still may not work out well. I have never written for kids before, but that’s just the thing. It’s a challenge and i’m now really looking forward to the plot and writing this little thing. There’s tons of charming little magic bits in it, pixies, faeries, a whale that lives in a maintenance shed, and a zoo.

It’s going to be fun. And that’s what this is all about. Sure. It’s also about getting the words out and putting that novel on paper but its also about turning off the world for a little while and just enjoying the ripe produce of your own brain.

And here’s the other thing about Nano – it’s gone global. In my auspices of an admin on a Nanowrimo Facebook page i’ve admitted people from all over the world who are participating. So people might whine and cry about the sorry state of literature as a direct response to Nano but to heck with those people. To me, and i’ve said this before, Nano is football. Not American football that requires thousands of dollars just to suit up, but the real European grab-a-ball-and-some-friends sort of football. It’s a november holiday for writers, for doing something a little crazy and a little beautiful and sharing the experience with people all over the world. Are we all going to be published geniuses worshipped for our wit and brilliance? Probably not. But for one month, we brave few – we happy few – get to have a collective breath of literary abandon. We get to shuck off the festering rind of an all too awful world and create the means of that worlds hopeful beautification.

Nano isn’t going to save the world, but here’s the little secret that all nanos know: so many more worlds get saved in November than most people ever know.

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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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Love and Death – Romance and Sexual Tension in Writing Mystery

This one comes from the Meg Brown Facebook Page (my very own page for fans of the Meg Brown stories as written by yours truly). I had a little trouble coming up with a subject for today’s mystery post so i threw it out there for all my friends and neighbors to come up with some suggestions. I figured it wouldn’t do to write another review – particularly seeing as i hadn’t read anything in the past week to review about.

Anyway. The question i’ve picked is a good one: does every detective or protagonist always need a love interest, partner, or sexual tension? The short answer is: No.

End of blog. Move on.

Just kidding. I don’t know about you but when i’m reading a mystery or thriller i sometimes get the feeling that the sexy vamp or quirky love interest is just casually dumped in on a whim after being loosely cobbled together from the random love interest factory. You don’t have to go far to see this sort of thing. Just go to the grocery store, find the tiny little book shelf and pick up the first thriller you see. Now read the back jacket cover. If it isn’t so laden with accolades that after reading it you still haven’t a clue what the book is about you’ll probably find something similar to the ‘partnered with his gorgeous assistant district attorney’ or ‘now, with the help of a beautiful comic book fan’ etc. Implying that whoever the hero is they will encounter, at some point, a ready-made perfectly-built sidekick complete with potential sex right out of the package.

This is just my opinion but that sort of thing irritates the hell out of me. A romantic interest and sexual tension is a great thing to have in any story. Like Chandlers adage of bringing in the guy with the gun sexual tension and a fitting love interest can really punch up the ingredients of any given thriller. It can also add the level of spice that sends it over the top into stupidity. Chandler and Hammett were so good with the sexual tension that they’ve become tropes in and of themselves. Who can forget Lauren Bacall as Vivien in The Big Sleep or Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy? But like everything else, they created a cliche that’s become so familiar that even those completely unfamiliar with the mystery/thriller genre can tick off the type from memory.

In my own stories i’ve so far avoided adding a love interest. It may come up when the time is right and i don’t discount the advantages of such a thing. Any chance you can get to add conflict and tension to a mystery/thriller and do it convincingly only serves to advance the plot and create more drama for the protagonist. The trouble i have with it is that the romantic interest only seems to exist for it’s own sake as a cast off character. If you aren’t consistently using such a character (preferably the same character) then whoever it is becomes the skirt or sausage de jour and a reader isn’t likely to give a poop about them, knowing that they are only providing motivation RIGHT NOW. What Chandler and Hammett did so well was grill their love interests right into the story. The Maltese Falcon would be a dull lackluster chase after a bird statue without the intricate machinations of O’Shaughnessy, and i would hate to think of The Big Sleep without the slinking sultry Vivien and her playfully deadly sister. These characters weave their way through the story like a cinch and pull it tight when it needs to be pulled.

Mystery and thriller writers have a tendency to jerk readers around with a protagonists sense of compassion for a given character. It’s roughly akin to ginning up concern. Most of the time you don’t feel it at all. Does anyone even remember the female companion to Robert Langdon in The Lost Symbol? Anyone? I had to go look it up, actually. But then i’m not Dan Brown’s biggest fan anyway. We’ve all seen the revenge motive, the race against time to save the girl, the intimate betrayal, all that stuff. It’s been done to death and unless you can really bring something new to the table like Tana French does in In The Woods, then leave it on the dust bin of cliches.

Basically my point is this: People – and your characters especially – will have relationships and they should. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s really a question of how you write it and what it adds to the story at hand. Love is always a terrific motive for murder, after all. But if you’re going to go that route you really need to put your back into it. What does love turned to murder actually look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? It’s really a matter of how you explore that without treading the same well worn ground. Because it is SUCH a tired cliche you’ll really have to blow up your comfort zone to make it work. This means research folks. Buckle down and hit the books. Read some ee cummings. (Not even the rain/has such small hands) Read Wuthering Heights if you haven’t already. Read Austen. Read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I recommend those right off the bat because they do very well to soak you in the sour, gurgling, underbelly of love and romance – they give you a nice taste for the lunacy of it. Things like that would have to be a source of your inspiration. If you want a protagonist who’s going to risk life and limb to rescue the damsel from the bad guy you’re going to have to convince us why and what that means to them. You can’t just say “she’s awful pretty, It’d be a shame if she got run over by a train while tied to the tracks.’

Unless your protagonist is the german grail hero Percival. In which case he’s mind bogglingly stupid so it’s okay.

Quite honestly and in my completely unasked for and un-expert opinion – consider your character as an individual first and foremost. You should know your detective or whomever you’re writing about personally. They should feel comfortable enough with you that they start lying to your face. You should know what they’re looking for in the grocery store, what their favorite brand of wine is and what they drink it out of (in Meg’s case she’s drinking chard out of a small glass beer stein) Don’t expect to know everything about them. Let them have their secrets but know where they bury them. THEN, if you want to add a love interest or a romance do the same thing with someone else and put the two of them together. That way when the real sparks start flying they’re coming out of the writing organically and not as a forced plot march.

Be careful – very very careful – if you’re working on a series that your character doesn’t have the skirt or sausage de jour. It’s a remarkably easy way to ruin a readers empathy with a character if they pick up a new girl or cute guy every book. At some point, as a reader, you just stop caring and you wonder about their sanity as they’re dashing headlong on the train tracks trying to get there before their love gets run over.

Like anything else, romance and sexual tension is a tool and like any tool it needs to be maintained and cared for or it becomes useless. If you can’t use it effectively then go get the blades sharpened or don’t use it. Not every mystery needs a love interest but every mystery needs a mystery. Put that first in your plot – make a few characters, stir and let breathe. If they generate heat you’ve got a bonus, if they separate… well… that can be amazingly dramatic too.

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