Posts Tagged With: writing mystery

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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Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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.

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

Have Pen, Will Travel or Get The Heck OUT THERE, Writer!!!

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Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re a writer. Congrats. I can tell by your moleskine notebook and brace of pens, the book crammed under your arm, your messenger bag, your laptop. That’s nice. Oh look, you’ve made your way to the coffee shop. That’s great. Whatcha working on? Huh? Huh? Not going to tell me are you? That’s alright. I get it.

But here’s the thing, writer. There’s a little more to writing than… well… writing. So put that pen away for a second. No, i’m not going to stop bothering you. Put it away and listen for a second. This is important. No really. You’ve got to hear this. Are you listening?

Good.

Get out there.

Look. We’re all better off, as writers, sequestered in our respective monastic cells tapping away our stories and such. It’s one of the reasons we do what we do and love it. But there’s really more out there that you need to experience. You need to travel. You need a vacation.

Well. Duh. Is what you probably just said. But, seriously. There is a huge pile of experiences and stuff that you need to be having to restock the warehouse of ideas. There’s things you need to see, people you need to meet and experiences you must have that will just make those pages sing a little louder, a little more confidently.

But it’s not enough to just pack your bags and sallie forth. You’ve got to be open to the whole thing too. In the next few blogs i intend to post a few little whys and wherefores on the whole travel thing. Again, they aren’t meant for everyone. They won’t be a ‘do this or else’ list. In fact they’re just going to be a few things here and there that helped me on my most recent travels and stuff i’ve been reflecting on since. Things like what bars you should frequent while out on your travels, What sort of tourist traps should you hit – if any – and which one’s you shouldn’t. Then i’ll key you in to my own little travel log. Or whatever.

But let’s just start here for now. You’ve got to get out there. Find a retreat. Find a conference. Go. Hang out among the locals and get to know people. Be open. Take public transit and most importantly, chat with total strangers. Travel is an opportunity that writers must take. It’s the big golden gate to your brain that doesn’t open nearly enough. When it does amazing stuff pours in. Stuff that can and will color your words and creations more vividly than anything else.

So think of this lame post as an exhortation and an introduction. If you’re interested, just stay tuned for more. I’m hoping – of course – to tell you all about my most recent travel. I’ll be getting into specifics, so it may end up sounding a bit like a travel review type thing but i promise there will be plenty of writery stuff to it as well. And yes, in case you’re wondering, that big ship at the top has something to do with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Scapple, Aeon Timeline, The NaNo Approacheth and Horror Ensues

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

November.

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

MB7 scapple pic

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

That’s not good.

It should look something like this:

MB6

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

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

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

MB7timeline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Plot Thickens

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

Forget about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lets’ take Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he’s a friggin’ Child Abusing Asshole!

The power of why.

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

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

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The Great Mystery Writers Conference Hunt 2013

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

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

So… what’s a writers conference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey. A guy can dream…

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

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The Strange Case of the Author on the TV. – Baldacci and Johnson go to the small screen.

Hey, all. Sorry I biffed last thursday. You know how it is. Or maybe you don’t. I think I got home from work, parked my butt on the couch in front of the thursday crime shows – whatever they were – and shoved down that weird sensation that there was something else I was supposed to be doing. It wasn’t until friday that I figured it out. See? That’s what happens when you get out of practice. You get slow and stupid.

Before we get to the writing portion of things let’s do the usual roundup. Two little things: I just checked out King and Maxwell on TNT. Little did I know when I started it that it was from the mind of David Baldacci. I’ve read very little of Baldacci. Two books, I think, though I couldn’t tell you what they are. I’m pretty sure I used to heap scorn on them but I’ve had it on very reliable authority that they are a lot of fun. I have to admit I saw some promise for King and Maxwell so long as the viewer is keen on throwing the reality out with the bathwater, kicking back and enjoying a little intrigue and thriller with their standard crime tropes. The characters could use a little development, in my opinion. So far they’re a little underwelming. Maxwell takes a boat to work. King is a bit of a slob. That’s about as much as you get of them, which says to me that the actors and possibly the writers haven’t really committed to the idea of this whole thing working at all.

Honestly I think that is – or was – my critique of Baldacci too. They might be fun but they are a little thin. But then again, there’s that reliable authority too that’s picking at me to give it another chance and I think I may just do it. We’ll see how well it shakes out. I’m good with fun, until some genius decides they can take it a level further and try to make something respectable out of it which usually doesn’t work so well. But hey. I’ll cut them some slack because the show JUST started.

That said, Longmire on A&E based on the books of Craig Johnson. Now that one you should be checking out. I just started reading the first of the Longmire novels after soaking myself neck-deep in the first season (yeah – it was my first binge watch! Yay me!) So far the book is VERY different from the series but i have to admit I like them both a lot. Johnson has a style all his own with brilliant paragraphs, terrifically descriptive sentences that sing and fully realized characters that jump off the page. (I think I’m on Chapter 2) These are the sort of mysteries that are a true pleasure to read. It engages the language. That’s one of the things I LOVE about the mystery genre: finding authors who have a unique voice that don’t skimp on the details in favor of the zippy blood and guts whodunit.

I don’t want to gush too much because i just started but I’m going to jump forward and give the recommendation now. It’s good.

The TV series, like I said, is different but it has its own language too and very well-developed characters with a cast well suited to them. Not to mention it’s awful pretty to look at. Walt Longmire’s battle worn hat and coat, Ferg’s irrepressible earnestness, Henry’s sardonic wisdom – it’s all present and well wrought though not even close to being a reproduction of the stories.

The episodes ain’t bad either. They cram a lot of pretty fine sleuthing into an hour with a fairly well trodden plot arc covering it all that still somehow seems fresh. Even though it isn’t.

In the meantime, I’m still busy working too hard on my own little mysteries – Meg Brown #6 (obviously not the final title) is… well… growing. I’m still typing in the second draft. No idea really on when it will be ready. I’m shooting for release later this year yet, but hopefully not too much later. You can, of course, find the others on Amazon. Here.

I’ve also been a little obsessed with my new (but still old) procedural experiment. So I’ve been plinking away at that one too. Giving it a day a week while I’m still cranking out the Meg pages.

Here’s the thing, though: I need a writers conference. If anyone out there is actually checking in with this regularly and you have some suggestions on writing conferences – particularly ones dealing with mystery writing – I’d be happy to hear about it. Please let me know.

And while we’re at it and asking questions and such: what sort of thing would you like this blog to focus on? I’m really open to suggestions. Anything you can think of from a mystery writing perspective, Crime TV Criticism, writing in general, whatever. Let me know. Usually I get to thursday and I’m scratching my head at what I’m going to write about. I’d much rather start planning next weeks excursion as soon as this weeks is done. Just let me know.

Anyway. If you are into writing mysteries yourself and have been here once or twice you know I’m a huge fan of Derek Pacifico’s Writer’s Homicide School that I attended in LA last year so I have a few plugs to mention on that. It seems he just wrapped up another one in LA (I was not in attendance unfortunately) but there’s another one in Seattle August 17-18, Vegas in September 21-22, and Atlanta in October 19-20. If you’re interested in getting the real goods from a real cop, you need to attend and you should go straight to the website and take advantage of the early registration. Pacifico is a terrific instructor and it really is a terrific course that can help the sleuthing writer write better or at least avoid a few of the major mistakes we all find so damned annoying when we see them on TV for the billionth time.

Well that’s all I’ve got today. I know it’s not really earth-shattering. I swear I will have something actually PLANNED for next time. Seriously. Especially if y’all help out and add your two cents.

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

Umm… Yeah. I got nothin.

So i was trying to come up with an amazingly clever title for tonight’s blog post and that’s what I came up with. Brilliant, don’t you think? Me neither. Titling things has never been my strong suit. In fact, as far as suits go, more than a few moths have nibbled the hell out of it.

So how am I doing? Oh wonderful. Just peachy. Discovered what may be a gluten intolerance. Yay me. Which means I’m exceptionally paranoid about everything I eat now. That’s always lovely. But I can work it into the writing of course. Now I know what those old Kings must have felt like when they stared out at their amazing banquet and thought “Oh dear god, it’s all POISON!!!” So many things can come out of that sort of thing: I can be the crazy middle-aged man squinting at the labels and reading everything. I can be the cat lady rifling through the produce section, carefully prodding each and every fresh vegetable like it’s a suspect in her kidney disease. Oh so many things. If only I could get over the anxiety of something dramatically WRONG going on in my body.

But that’s not why you’re here are you? You’re waiting for the few pearls of wisdom. Heh. Like I said. I got nothin. I haven’t even been working on my own stuff as much as I’d like because the gluten thing apparently messes with your head. Bet you didn’t know that did you? Oh yeah. You get all foggy headed like you’re hungover or still drunk – but not in a good way. So you look at a draft and have to read it three or four times. And then when you try to type something it all comes out terrible.

So in lieu of my usual writerly advice I have a few of my other things:

Killing Floor by Lee Child. The first of the Jack Reacher series. I saw the movie recently and though it wasn’t STRICTLY mystery it did have that nice aspect to it. They don’t generally make Mystery movies much any more. But this really had the whodunit vibe to it which I liked. So I gave the book a shot. There’s something I like about Child’s writing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. He’s a professional. Economy of line, terse but vivid descriptions, it all works very well in the sort of gruff, fast and loose mystery/thriller style he works in. That said, Reacher isn’t exactly the savviest or most observant detective I’ve ever read. I don’t want to get into it too much for those who are going to read it but lets just say he misses a few very big things that I don’t think he should have missed.

As far as characters go, Reacher is a lot of fun – if not entirely unique. I really enjoyed it and was reading it at a breakneck pace for me, but Reacher was a little vanilla. Blues aficionado, womanizing, meh. Been there, read that. And yet it’s STILL a lot of fun. I highly recommend it. If you like a nice tight, action packed mystery thriller I don’t think you could do much better. But be aware that it does have a few glaring flaws: the sort of thing that will have you yelling at the book much like I tend to yell at my television screen.

On to the next thing: Motive – What is it about other countries that can do cop shows better than we can? I call it the Beatles effect. America synthesizes country and rockabilly and blues and jazz and makes rock and roll. Rock and roll flies across the pond where the Beatles and the Stones throw a few more interesting ingredients in and then ship it back over as something brand new and totally irresistible. The Beatles Effect. Which is why we have the Stieg Larssons, the Tana French’s, etc. What does this have to do with the new show Motive? Well… The characters aren’t the dour type for starters. They appear to actually investigate rather than blunder their way into a conviction. You can actually WATCH them make conclusions based on evidence and it didn’t come from a fancy computer. Is it perfect? Heh. Not by a long shot. But it’s better than we’ve been getting lately.

Truth be told I was flipping channels at the time so I didn’t get to watch the whole thing but I was impressed. Not over the moon, but impressed. Sometimes I think we cling to the tried and true a little bit too much around here. Sure there are different things happening – that’s pretty much why I got into this mystery stuff to begin with – but most of the time we plot out similar mysteries with similar characters doing similar things and solving similar crimes in similar ways. Reacher is a good case in point as much as I enjoyed it. I need my characters to be alive. They must have their quirks. No one, except REALLY boring people are so by the numbers. Figure out what color socks these characters are wearing. Anything. Everybody has something. Celebrate the difference.

That’s why I ended up liking Motive even though I didn’t expect much from it. The characters have something. I know it sounds weird but the lead male character has strange hair and a beard! Weird right? And the female character doesn’t always look like you just shot her dog! And has a sense of humor! And they actually detect! With their eyes! Good lord I don’t even remember the last time I watched an American based crime show where the clue didn’t come from a computer. Okay. I will admit there was that part in the very beginning of tonights show where the lead detective ‘discovered’ the wallet and lifted it off the body. But I’m going to let it slide. Everybody does that. Someday I’m going to write a mystery where the detective is standing around the body waiting for the ME to show up and they’re stuck in traffic for hours. Wouldn’t that be fun? “No. We can’t ‘roll’ the body. No we can’t fish the wallet out of their pocket for an ID. For all we know right now we have a perfectly live person with several dozen holes in them, completely unable to move for some reason.” In the mean time I’ll suffer through one little evil for something different.

Well. That’s all I’ve got. Like I said it wasn’t much. If there is a pearl of wisdom in here somewhere it’s ‘figure out what color socks your character is wearing.’ It’s important. I’ve said it before but you have to know those things. If you ever get stuck with a character, or ‘blocked’ as you call it, watch them brush their teeth. Go into their medicine cabinet. But please don’t skimp on the details. I don’t even care if you don’t eve write those details. Just make sure you know them. Hemingway said something like that once. I think.

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Crime Writers Weekend – Santa Monica April 13 – 14

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Well I have returned from fabulous California. And it was fabulous. Let’s see… where do I start? With the Crime Writers Weekend, of course! I could tell you and bore you with every last deliciously wonderful (and warm) morsel of what I did and where I went on the trip but it wouldn’t mean a heckuva lot to any random reader. I will say, though, if you ever get a chance (and find a chance even if it means you have to steal it) get over to Big Dean’s Oceanfront Cafe. Best. Damned. Burger. EVER. And probably no better place to have a beer and enjoy the pier.

Anyway. The Crime Writers Weekend was hosted by The Writers Store in wonderful Santa Monica, not far from the border of Venice at The Satellite. I gotta say, I like the Satellite but mainly because it was in easy walking distance from where I was staying so I could roll out, all gross and smelly, crawl down to the Starbucks around the corner and have a cup before cramming my head with all sort of cop stuff. Aside from that… ahem… this was the second time in six months that the venue didn’t let me in when it was supposed to. I was stuck waiting for the doors to open on time. Again. That and the fact that they crunched Forensics in at the very end so that it ran up against the time crunch didn’t seem all that great. Otherwise it was pretty good.

Unlike the Homicide School for Writers this one wasn’t nearly as focused, rather it was a nice shotgun approach to law enforcement covering Gangs, Patrol, Narcotics, Undercover, Murder for Hire, SWAT, Victim Services, Forensics and Search and Rescue. Honestly, it was a lot to take in but I managed to take excellent notes if I do say so myself. Some of the speakers were recently retired and showed (sometimes in spite of themselves) both the tenor and tone of their professions as well as some eye-popping frustrations. One of them, Patrol Officer Harry Penny had a truly unique viewpoint covering the mid 60s and early 70s. If you ever get the chance to let the man speak you will not fail to be entertained and informed and if you’re interested he has a book out: Behind The Badge: The Funny Side of the “Thin Blue Line”. I bought a copy while I was there but there’s nothing quite like seeing the man in person.

So what got me about the weekend? hmm… Well… I had no idea how much of Gang Life is actually run from inside prison. In fact I had no idea how that was even possible. But it is and the weekend made that clear. The presentation on Narcotics was very engaging and shockingly thorough even though it didn’t get in detail about the procedure of a Narcotics case. I’m going to have to research that a bit. The bit on Undercover operations and SWAT was fascinating, particularly when you take into account that the presenter now works with CIA, FBI, Interpol and others in a private capacity. He is – apparently – what you would call a ‘bad ass’. I’ll probably post more details as I work through editing and rereading my notes.

I guess what got me the most about it was that it gave lie to the thing you see too much of on TV, where the units all seem to operate as solitary squads in their own little fiefdom. You get the impression that if it wasn’t for the CSI’s no crimes in Las Vegas would ever be solved (another impression you get from CSI is that if you happen to be wearing a patrol officers uniform you might as well have beamed down with Captain Kirk wearing a red shirt as your life expectancy is nil.) The Crime Writers Weekend shows that none of this is the case. In fact, as with the Homicide School for Writers there were some rather choice words spent at the expense of CSI (no big shocker there) but from people who were acquainted with the shows original creators.

Law Enforcement is not a solitary act operating in the vacuum of their own squads or units. In fact, as the weekend showed, it’s an interwoven latticework of departments providing intelligence and communicating. We’re all used to the homicide guys standing around the body, but who got there first? Generally a patrol officer (much to homicide detectives chagrin sometimes). We’re used to gang violence and such in our television (which is oddly NOT spoken about a lot in favor of the pretty 18-25 year old girl or 30 – 50 year old man victims as mentioned earlier) but we don’t generally see Gang Unit guys consulting in a homicide investigation even though they’re the one’s who would know the players. Tips and clues can come from anywhere. The business of Gangs is Narcotics. Fugitive Apprehension Squads and Swat may (and often do) work together etc. It’s not something you get a very accurate impression of in your regular prime time cop drama. But it should be.

I suppose that’s a little difficult to swing dramatically. It becomes an ensemble piece. I ought to know. The next Meg story has an awful lot of that and sometimes I feel like I’m biting off more than I can chew with it. But why not? What’s the worst that could happen? You could fail at writing it. Worse things have happened and frankly I’m enjoying tossing officers from different endeavors into the story. It gives me a chance to expand the setting and environment of Meg and Friends and voila! all of a sudden you have a bunch more possible conflicts, plot points, minor characters to work with. It doesn’t ALL have to be about your intrepid investigator and their brilliant deductions and the life and operations of a patrol sergeant can be every bit as interesting and intriguing as that of a homicide investigator.

Well in any case. I’m back in Milwaukee now…

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And I’m about to embark on a few new things. For starters I’m going to launch a few little promo pieces for something I’ve been working on for a few years now. It’s a little different. Actually it’s a lot different. But it’s an honest attempt to flex the muscle of the genre and see how far I can stretch it. Just to let you know it’s a bit far so be prepared. If you’re a classic mystery fan it might strain your patience but I think it’s worth it – a determination I’ve made based on the criteria that I’ve enjoyed writing it.

In the meantime the work continues at pace on Meg Brown 6. Shhhh… the actual title’s a mystery. I think you’ll like it. If you haven’t read any of the other Meg stories… well what are you waiting for? All the stuff I write on this blog (aside from the reviews of course) get acted out in real-time over there. You can think of it as the practice field for the sort of thoughts that eventually end up on this blog.

 

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