Thursday, July 24, 2014

Books About Writing Books

by Alan

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time?

Over the years, I’ve read a number of books devoted to the craft of writing. As you might imagine, many have been helpful (to me), while others haven’t, but even in those less worthwhile volumes, I think I’ve always been able to find at least a nugget or two of valuable writing wisdom.

As with most things in life, you need to be careful about what advice to follow (but it doesn’t hurt to listen and read widely).

On Monday, Meredith mentioned two of my favorite books:

On Writing, by Stephen King

On Writing 

And Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott (although I would classify this as being more of an inspirational writing book than a craft book).

bird by bird

Let me add a few (random) others:

For those wanting to pen a best-seller:

How to Write Best Selling Fiction, by Dean Koontz

Koontz writing book

A long (long) time ago, back before I even really wanted to be a writer, I picked up a book by Dean Koontz (one of my favorite authors at the time), mapping out how to become a best-seller. For some reason, it’s out of print now, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a mere $68.

 

For those wanting to write a “breakout” novel:

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

breakout novel

This book also has an accompanying workbook (which I haven’t used).

 

For those who have trouble differentiating writing in summary versus writing in scenes:

Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham

Scene and Structure

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t know what I was doing. This book helped (a lot!).

 

*********

APPEARANCE NEWS

Want to see three Criminal Minds, in person, reading their work, AT A BAR?

D.C. area folks will have that chance, this Sunday night at the inaugural D.C. Noir, 8 p.m. at The Wonderland Ballroom. Meredith, Art, and I, along with seven other great writers (Nik Korpon, Steve Weddle, Ed Aymar, Tom Kaufman, Don Lafferty, Tara Laskowski, and Michael R. Underwood), will take turns reading and schmoozing. Come on by—a good time will be had by all.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Not a book, but a one-of-kind workshop...

By R.J. Harlick

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time? Sell it to us

Like many of us, when I first tried my hand at fiction writing I knew very little about the craft. With my mind brimming with story ideas, I was too impatient to get started, so rather than spending time learning about the craft, I sat down at my computer and started tapping away at the keyboard. At some point I realized I needed to know more about creative writing techniques, so I bought a few books, which I did find very helpful. Unfortunately, they have long since gone astray and as helpful as they were, I can’t remember their particulars, like title or author. Sorry.

But I can tell you about the one thing that influenced me greatly as a writer. It was a course I took fairly early on in my writing career. It was a week long intensive writing workshop that covered much more than the creative writing process.  It was also the first time I came out of the closet so to speak and declared myself a writer.  Up until then the only person who knew I was trying my hand at writing was my husband. It was also my first exposure to other aspiring authors. At that time I didn’t know anyone who either wrote fiction or wanted to, so I really enjoyed finally being able to talk about writing with like minded people. It was a game changer and it helped confirm my decision to become a writer.

The summer workshop was offered by Humber College’s School of Creative Writing located in Toronto. The day was split into two components. The morning was devoted to the writing workshops in which we students were divided into small groups and paired with a well known author, who led the workshop. This included discussions on creative writing techniques and critiques of the writing samples we had submitted as a requirement of registration.

The afternoons were spent learning about the publishing world from the experts; publishers, editors and agents. The workshop leaders also spoke about their writing process. They also had a panel of first time published authors sharing their stories on getting published. We were even given tips on how to do a reading, should we be so lucky to reach that point, and given the opportunity to actually do one, should we brave enough to put our hand up.


All in all, it was a fabulous week, well worth the money. I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to become a fiction writer. When I attended, the workshop was offered in the summer. I notice now that it is held in the Fall. I can't get the link working so here is the url if you want to learn more. http://www.humber.ca/scapa/programs/school-writers/fall-workshop-creative-writing

My rant for the day - There seem to be so many quirks with the blog software that it sometimes takes me longer to load the blog than it does to write it. 


Monday, July 21, 2014

Can you learn to write by reading about it?

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time? Sell it to us.

by Meredith Cole

I admit that one of my time honored procrastination technique is to read books about writing. I tell myself it's to get myself unstuck, or to see if I want to use a new book with the class I'm teaching this fall, but really it's because I'm avoiding actually getting some work done. Occasionally I find a wonderful nugget in a writing book that does help me get unstuck or helps me look at writing in a new way, and then that book becomes a keeper.

Although I recommend On Writing by Stephen King (you think writing is hard? Try doing it when you're in constant pain...) and You Can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts (a short helpful book that is now available again as an ebook) to my mystery classes, my favorite writing book of all time is still Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Two big and valuable pieces of advice that Lamott gives: Take a project one step at a time and try not to panic about how big it is when you start. Tell yourself you only have to write some tiny amount of words or just fill up a little square on the screen if you're reluctant to get started. And then let yourself write terrible first drafts. The second is something I recommend quite a bit. I've seen far too many promising writers get stuck in an eddy where they perpetually write and rewrite their first chapter ad nauseum and never finish their book. This can sadly go on for years.

Although I don't consult Bird by Bird much these days, I recommend it to beginning writers because she addresses some of the problems we all have when we try out something new. Adults who are accustomed to dashing off an email or writing a contract with no problems suddenly find themselves paralyzed at the idea of making something up and writing something as large as a novel. For me, it was transitioning from screenwriting to novel writing, and not having the least idea how to begin--just knowing that every sentence I wrote was terrible compared to what I was used to reading in published books. But eventually I realized that I had to write a terrible first draft in order to eventually get a polished and wonderful final draft.

Oh--and I would be remiss not to mention a book I contributed to: Making Story: Twenty-one Writers and How They Plot which is, of course, chock full of lots of great advice. And great for when you're procrastinating on your next project.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Tinker, Tailor, Coroner, Private Eye

If you had a chance to work in law enforcement, which area would see yourself in and why? The coroner’s office? Homicide division? Beat cop? Criminal psychologist? Private investigator? Defense attorney?

by Paul D. Marks


Of the list above, I know which I absolutely would not want to do: Defense attorney: Even Alan Dershowitz concedes that most defendants are guilty. And I couldn't defend a guilty party, especially because the tactics used by the defense are often despicable – particularly when they try to throw the blame on another clearly innocent party to confuse the issue and throw doubt on their often clearly guilty clients. I just could not defend a rapist or a murderer. So, no defense attorney for me. Maybe that’s why I wrote my story L.A. Late @ Night that appeared originally in Murder on Sunset Boulevard (and recently republished in a collection of my stories also called L.A. Late @ Night) about a defense attorney who has second thoughts when she realizes her client is guilty and decides to do something about it...

That leaves the rest of the list:


Coroner's office: Well, I've seen my fair share of blood and guts. That said, I'm also the kind of person who whenever they hear/see symptoms of a disease decides they have that disease. Which is why I can't watch shows like ER or Grey's Anatomy. I guess I can handle blood and guts to some extent, but not symptoms. I think this is what happens with medical students (so maybe I should have been a doctor). So, nope, coroner's office is kaput.






Homicide division: Now we're getting closer. The idea of solving cases and bringing the bad guys to justice strikes home with me. Yeah, I could do that. Third degree and all, with a new energy-saving bulb of course.






Beat cop: Nah. Dealing with all the bad and crazy people you'd have to deal with would make me nuts. And I'd probably end up in the hoosegow myself. That's sort of what my story 51-50, cop slang for crazy, is about. (Originally published in the Psycho Noir issue Dave Zeltserman's Hardluck Stories anthology, but now reprinted in the L.A. Late @ Night collection.)





Criminal psychologist: While psychology interests me, to deal with all those psychos would probably make me psycho and you'd have to have a gun with a hair trigger taped under your desk aiming straight at your client...just in case. Probably not a good way to begin a relationship.






Private investigator: Yeah, now you're talking. Bring the bad guys to justice. And you get to wear a trenchcoat and fedora and use words like gat and gunsel. And slap guys like eternal weasels Elisha Cook, Jr. and Peter Lorre around. Of course, you take your fair share of beatings too, so turnabout is fair play I guess. But still, gumshoe. Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? Or P.I., private dick, private eye, shamus, Pinkerton or Continental Op. And though he's more modern, I hope Duke Rogers, my P.I. in White Heat, carries on their tradition with grace and gats. And you get to have an office in a romantically seedy building with the proverbial flashing neon sign outside the window and the perpetual pitter patter of rain on that window that looks out to the City of Angels. Oh, and here's a happy little ditty about our fair city: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_8U93SvVyY



There's one element that was left off the list above: Prosecutor: Probably the best fit for me. A lot of people that have known me through the years say I should have been a lawyer (though I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not...),. I like the idea of being a litigator 'cause I love a good fight. Corporate law, nah. Criminal law, the D.A.'s office, sure. Being able to put the bad guys away, to argue a case. To logically prove a guilty party guilty. Prosecutor would be a good fit for me. But if I chose that route could I still wear the trenchcoat and fedora?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Giving up on the day-job

So what are the choices? Bobby on the beat, detective, solicitor, barrister, judge, pathologist, crime scene tech, PI, profiler, dinnerlady . . .

I don't think many police stations have full canteens with dinnerladies anymore. Shame, because that's about the only thing I'd be any good at.

Unless I was a forensic linguist. I actually was a linguist (non-forensic) once. MA, PhD, teaching in a university - all that. And what I saw of forensic linguistics was fascinating. Correcting miscarriages of justice using the power of grammar is just about the coolest thing in a very uncool discipline.

For instance, a forensic linguist can look at a confession and isolate then analyse elements such as sentence length, clause structure, phrase structure and vocabulary choices to build a linguistic signature for the author. It was a punch-the-air moment the first time I saw an analysed false confession, where a prisoner showed his own signature all through a long piece of discourse and then "unaccountably" started speaking exactly like one of the cops in the room when it came to the mea culpa.

There are more straightforward investigative use too, such as busting hoax 999 calls, ransom demands and even suicide notes, and it's getting easier all the time as the collected corpus of texts gets larger (what a depressing job it must be to input and tag suicide notes, mind you . . .)

When I turned to crime-writing, I scratched my head for a while wondering if I could use any of my former life as material.  Could there be a forensic linguistics procedural series?  It didn't take long to decide that it would be kinda one-note (like those really specific comic-book heroes who just happen to find themselves in situations where their really specific super-power is just what's needed, over and over (and over) again. Was there any other way linguistics could be useful? It didn't take long to decide "nope".

So I had no justification for feeling aggrieved when another writer - actually a team of two (which is cheating) - recently came up with a brilliant linguistics-based mystery series. Based in Britain. And historical to boot. Ouch.

Yes, I contracted a bad case of premise-envy over DE Ireland's debut Wouldn't It Be Deadly, in which Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle team up to fight crime. Curses! I read it to give a blurb, though, and in all honesty I couldn't have come up with the plot to save my life and I've never written anything as funny as the denouement. So, not at all through gritted teeth, I say three cheers for Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta - and roll on September and the launch day.

20613597
 
 
And - if you'll forgive some blatant BSP (since it's publication day) - it's a lot of fun ignoring the advice to write what you know and, instead, writing what you want and finding out what you need to know. 1930s fishing industry and Aberdeenshire wedding traditions? Go on - ask me anything.
 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why Writers Should Write, Not Work In Law Enforcement


Question of the Week: If you had a chance to work in law enforcement, what part of the profession would you choose?

Answer: I would need a role that allowed me to bend the rules. I think it's no secret that the heroes of crime fiction novels tend to be alcoholic, womanizing, rule-breaking detectives precisely because that's the only kind of detective a writer could see themself being.

The problem with the justice system is that it tries to be objective, but really there's no such thing as objective moral ground.

So if I were a cop, I would need a role that allowed me to charge someone with a crime not based on laws and precedents, but based on my subjective perception of their moral culpability. Like Susan said yesterday, I'm too empathetic (as most writers are) to be able to coldly put someone in a hostile prison setting if I think there's any hope for redemption if he stays outside the system. So basically, the only role on the police force that I'd qualify for is fictional detective.

If I were a judge, I'd be bound by the laws of the land. The odd time, I'd be able to set a precedent, but mostly my obligation would be to uphold the laws of my jurisdiction.

A criminal psychologist would be a better option. To be able to talk to a criminal and assess their motives and mental stability would give me more of an opportunity to suggest the right solution.

But where I really think I'd shine is as a financially independent criminal lawyer. As long as I was able to refuse all cases except those where I wanted the defendant to win (meaning where I thought society would be better off if the defendant stayed out of jail), I would have no moral trouble arguing innocence where I believed guilt—as long as I didn't have a psychopath or a risk for reoffending on my hands.

Cases I'd take:

(a) battered spouses or children who committed murder or other violent acts out of fear for their family's lives—too many women's prison inmates fall into this category

(b) people who commit crimes to take a political stance, either here or in other countries, where the government is obtuse to what their electorate is asking them to do

(c) anyone who takes a stand against Monsanto or global warming, as long as the acts they commit don't put life or innocent people's property at risk


Wow, now I kind of wish I'd gone to law school.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Let's Be Careful Out There"

If you had a chance to work in law enforcement, what part of the profession would you choose?


I can hear my friends and family snorting as they considering this on my behalf. If ever there was a match not made in heaven it would be me and law enforcement. So many reasons…

1.     I’m too empathetic. Really, I’m an old-fashioned, totally out of fashion bleeding heart liberal and am sure I could be convinced that the burglar with the bag full of Mrs. Jones’ silverware was only trying to take it to be cleaned as a favor to her.

2.     I hate guns. Some reasons are personal; my family has been touched by gun violence. Some reasons are practical. I’m not sure I understand the concept of a trigger guard, and it’s not on my life list to learn. Mostly, I think how precious life is, how hard we work to save life in other situations, and compare it to the instantaneous blowing away of lives on TV and in the real world.

3.     In a profession where cops, psychologists, lawyers, investigators have to make decisions, combining facts with intuition, I would fail miserably. I noticed a few years ago that I cannot look at a face and see the bad seed. I would see a newspaper photo of a proven killer and think, “Oh, he’s a nice looking kid.” (I’m more accurate where female faces are concerned. What does that say about me?)

4.     I have too much imagination. The other side of being credulous, soft-hearted, and wary of weapons is that I have a writer’s imagination. Getting to “what if?” is easy and fast for me, and I’d spend my whole life, were I in law enforcement, in a nervous crouch, hand on that trigger guard, scanning faces for clues, getting ulcers.

Best that I stay on the sidelines, writing about fictional crime, albeit stories influenced by the over-abundance of the real thing. My hat is off to the thousands of individuals who have careers within the overall law enforcement field and who stay with it year after year, retaining their compassion, professional standards, and mental and physical wellbeing. In the immortal words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, the wonderful actor Michael Conrad on ”Hill Street Blues,”




“Hey, let’s be careful out there.”


Friday, July 11, 2014

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted....

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?"—prompted a number of immediate responses in my mind, several of them a little contradictory:
  • Because I have a less strenuous schedule during the summer break (vacation) from my teaching duties at George Mason University, I usually find more time to write then.
  • Despite best plans to get some reading and writing done on my recent beach vacation down in North Carolina, it was tough to carve out any time at the computer or even to jot down occasional passages or ideas in a notebook.
  • Getting away from the computer or the notebook—a vacation from the daily routine of writing—often frees my mind in ways that staring at the screen or the page doesn't and ultimately results in some of my best ideas.
  • But then showing up every day to write build momentum, keeps the mind working and focused, and....
I tried to reconcile all that, but not sure how to bring it all together very well. I do find that it helps to at least check in daily on my current project, even if each day's process or product can vary desperately from the days before or after. And as I've said in previous posts, sometimes I go long stretches without writing at all because of the pull of lesson prep or grading or whatever—not a vacation from writing certainly, not the word I would use at least. But I also find that giving the mind time to wander—usually along with giving the body some time away from the writing desk—helps to clear up thoughts and ideas and to clear the path for those little flashes of inspiration and insight.

So.... daily focus? occasional short breaks? but not a full vacation, at least not by choice?

Maybe some of this explains why I write at such a glacial pace....


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Up, Up, and Away

by Alan

It's summertime and everyone's downing tools and heading for the hammock (if only). Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?

SPOILER ALERT: This blog post will have nothing to do with writing and everything to do with vacations. Specifically, mine.

Now, did somebody mention vacation?

I just got back from a week in the Denver area, visiting my older son who has a summer internship at a medical center there.

We had a swell time.

We went to the Denver Botanic Gardens, and saw some very cool blown glass from somebody named Chihully.

We saw comedian Joe Zimmerman at the Comedy Works (funny!).

We ascended Pike’s Peak, all 14,110 feet of it. (We didn’t hike it, but drove a rental Ford Focus. Which, I think, was more strenuous than hiking.)DSCF2661

We saw some animals we don’t usually run across (and we avoided running across them in our rental car): marmots, prairie dogs, black-billed magpies.

We visited Colorado Springs and toured the Air Force Academy and the Garden of the Gods.

DSCF2643 DSCF2632

 

DSCF2652

 

We visited Golden and toured the Coors Brewery and saw Red Rocks.

DSCF2671

We visited Boulder and toured the CU-Boulder campus and the Celestial Seasonings manufacturing facility (yes, I love factories!).

We drove up and down Colfax Avenue, which made me appreciate where I live very much.

And we did not stop for any hitchhikers!

correctional facility sign

A good time was had by all!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Summertime and the living is easy*

By Tracy Kiely
* easy is used in a wholly sarcastic manner.

Oh, to put down my pen and paper and take the summer off. But alas, my dear readers, I cannot. At this time of year my fellow writers gleefully shrug off their comfortable writing garb and don their linen frocks and sport coats in search of tennis games, picnics, and long walks along the beach. I, however, must remain behind, watching them disappear down a winding meadow lane, my grubby nose pressed up enviously against window.
I might want to make a note to lay off rereading of Fitzgerald and Dickens.
The reason for my lack of summer break is quite simple. I am forever behind schedule. My mother once told me that the road to hell was paved with good intentions and that I was going there on the expressway. She wasn’t exaggerating.
I have long lived with a demon that ruins all my plans. Unlike most demons who hide in the darkness and guard their name for fear of discovery and a subsequent loss of power, mine has a name. And that name is Yesterday Tracy.
Yesterday Tracy is always one step ahead of Today Tracy. She is a wily, evil beast. Today Tracy is forever behind schedule because of the actions of Yesterday Tracy. Today Tracy might have plans to write 2,000 words, but Yesterday Tracy decided that it was Imperative that she stays up until 3 a.m. watching Grease II.
Yes. Grease II.
I told you she was evil.
She also has really lousy taste.
She gleefully tricks Today Tracy into thinking that this decision will only hurt Tomorrow Tracy not Today Tracy.
And Today Tracy listens.
Every damn time.
And so, rather than springing out of bed full of vim and vigor (a sensation, by the way, I have never experienced), I roll out of bed rubbing blood shot eyes and desperately hoping to get the song “We’re Gonna Score Tonight!” out of my head.  
Thus, I start every day hopelessly behind schedule and must spend the remainder of the day feeling like a desperate hamster spinning on its Sisyphus-inspired wheel.
So, do I take the summer off?
No. I do not.
For Yesterday Tracy is a powerful demon.






Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Summertime and the living is easy.....

By R.J. Harlick

It's summertime and everyone's downing tools and heading for the hammock (if only). Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?

Summertime and the living is easy….Boy, is it. Finally I can shed winter clothes, feel the hot sun on my skin, go for long walks in the woods with my dogs, take the occasional plunge into the refreshingly cool water of the lake, paddle a mirror calm lake and most importantly move out to the screened-in porch, my summer office. Yup, you read correctly, my summer office, one of my favourite spots to write, where I capture my muse, so to speak. 


It doesn’t sound like I am taking a summer vacation does it? In fact at the moment I am on a big push to finish the first draft of the next Meg Harris mystery. But this doesn’t mean that I don’t take vacations from my writing. They just aren’t calendar driven. More like writing driven.

I take mini-vacations during the writing of a book, during the first draft and between drafts. It gives me a chance to step back, recharge my creative juices and see the story for the words. Often they are actual vacations on trips with my husband. Rarely do I take my writing with me when I go on a trip.


The longest time I take away from writing is after I deliver my completed manuscript to my publisher. This is what I call my real down time, when I no longer have this latest book lurking over my shoulder and I haven’t yet started on the next Meg Harris mystery. Mind you that doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about this next book and tossing around potential storylines. Sometimes I step back and enjoy a non-writing life for a month or two, sometimes longer. But invariably I start back into it, because writing is what I do, what I enjoy and besides I miss Meg.



Monday, July 7, 2014

Hiding in plain sight

When you start a new book do you know whodunit from the get-go? If so, how do you ensure you don’t unconsciously give it away? And if not, when do you decide whodunit?

I'm a big planner. I never go to the grocery store without a list, and I always make a lot of notes before I start writing. I like to know that the journey (or writing the book) is going to end up someplace good before I start. The whodunnit is a biggie in a murder mystery, so I try to figure that out before I begin writing.

But there is a lot about the book that I don't know when I start writing. I usually only figure out the "clothespin" scenes, or the big scenes that drive the main plot of the book, before I begin. This is a little like deciding I am going to drive from New York to New Orleans, but I'm not sure yet what route I'm going to take. The route will be important, and each decision I make will change the experience of the trip and/or the plot of my book. But I'm not quite ready to commit until I check out all my options.

Something important that I haven't always figured out before I begin are the identities of all the minor characters. And that's when things can get really interesting. Minor characters are great red herrings and can help create subplots for your book. They can skulk about in the background guarding their secrets and attempting to distract your hero/detective from figuring out identity of the real villain.

I believe in playing fair and giving readers all the info they need to figure out the murderer. But I also believe in being sneaky about it, so readers can enjoy the puzzle and the experience of being led astray before all is revealed. That means burying clues in plain sight, which is, of course, easier said than done. And when I want to know if I managed to pull it off, I ask a few readers to take a look at a draft and let me know.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Who, What, Why, When and Where Dunit?

When you start a new book do you know whodunit from the get-go? If so, how do you ensure you don't unconsciously give it away? And if not, when do you decide whodunit?

by Paul D. Marks

I have to start off sort of like I started the last blog post two weeks ago. Then it was 'yes' and 'no' to the question. Now it's 'it depends'. Because there is no right or wrong way to do anything most of the time. So sometimes you know who the badguy is from the get-go, and sometimes you don't.

Different stories generate from different ideas and sometimes those ideas are more "complete" than other times. Sometimes you might come up with a good villain and build the story around them, so you know whodunit right off and work up to that.

Sometimes you start with the main character or a peripheral character, so you might not know whodunit. And if you work like me, a "pantster," you just start writing and see where it goes—and can even be surprised by whodunit. And sometimes (there's that iffy word again) you have a plot idea or a hook or some notes or thoughts in your head about incidents or actions, character bits, dialogue, maybe an opening line or scene, etc., and you weave those into the story as you go and see whodunit from there.

And sometimes you might think you know whodunit...but your characters come to life and have lives of their own, take you in a different direction and surprise you. So the second part of the question—when do you decide whodunit?—works itself out one way or another, depending on which route mentioned here or above you take. At least if you're a pantster. Obviously, people who outline might have all of this worked out ahead of time.

As to how not to unconsciously giveaway who done it – that's where having other people read your story can come in handy. They can see the stuff that the writer is too close to notice. So you read and re-read and write and rewrite, and as you do, you try to catch and fix those kinds of things. And this is where it can be an advantage to be a pantster—since you don’t know who the bad guy is, you end up writing it in a way that doesn’t reveal too much and later, when you’ve figured out who the bad guy is, you can go back and add little hints earlier.

clip_image002In my novel White Heat, not only do I know who the badguy is from the beginning, but so does the reader (sort of). Because he goes into the main character's office, private detective Duke Rogers, and hires Duke to find a "long lost friend." It's such an easy gig that Duke doesn't even do the paperwork, just tells the guy to come back in a couple of days. Duke gets the info for him, the guy pays for it and splits. Duke doesn't even know his name, or at least his real name. A short time later he's reading the paper, finds the "long lost friend" has been murdered and Duke knows he inadvertently helped the bad guy find her. Feeling guilty, he determines to track the badguy down on his own time. But where to start? As I say, we meet the badguy right away, but we don't really know who he is, where he's from, etc. And that's the main plot of the book, Duke trying to figure out who he is and find him and bring him to justice.

One Amazon reviewer complained that we "know" who the killer is too early on. But, as I say, we do and we don't. We see him, but we don't know who he is or anything substantive about him. This reader had a problem with that, and that's fine. But I knew who the killer was and Duke knew who he was (sort of) and that's the story. Sometimes the mystery is not in ‘who done it’ but in the why, where and how? What I'm trying to say is that for me the story and characters are often more interesting than the whodunit, though that's fun too.

clip_image006In another example, in my short story Dead Man's Curve, from the anthology Last Exit to Murder, the main character, Ray Hood, is a guy on his uppers. He's old, he's a druggie and his glory days as a backup guitarist for Jan and Dean are behind him. So when he gets a chance to do an illegal favor for a friend that might lead to his eventually getting another shot at the spotlight he jumps at it. But what interests me is Ray's story, more than the overarching plot or whodunit, as we know who dun it early on. I was even concerned that the editors might want to take out a couple of "quiet" scenes that didn't necessarily advance the plot, but they didn't and I was glad. Especially because those were my favorite scenes in the story. The scenes where we get to know Ray, see what happened to him, see his day to day life. The rest of the story moves ahead at a quick pace, those scenes slow it down a bit, but in a good way, I think. I guess what I’m saying here is that even though I write mystery and noir stuff I tend to focus more on characters and the why rather than the who done it.

clip_image004We all read mysteries for different reasons, but a lot of the time it is because we want a sense of justice and good triumphing over evil, as well as for character and the actual "mystery". Even in noir and hardboiled there is ultimately some kind of justice, though it is usually a little muddied and unclear. In real life murders go unsolved for years, sometimes never to be solved. The Black Dahlia murder is still unsolved, but in fiction it has been solved dozens of times. So the who-dunit is obviously important to us. We want resolution, but we also want to learn and experience something more than just whodunit. We want to know the characters on a deeper level and the why of it and that's important too.

And Happy Fourth of July to everyone:

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Thursday, July 3, 2014

Goldilocks and The Five Books

Do I always know whodunit? No.

Is that a problem when it comes to pitching clues? Oh, yes.

I've written ten Dandy Gilver mysteries now and I've been surprised at the end of four of them when I find out who the murderer is.  Four or five. I can't actually remember who the murderer is in the one I've just finished writing because I haven't read it yet. (See other posts for extreme pantserhood).

When I changed my mind about the culprit at the end of Book 1, I reckoned I didn't need to change anything else earlier in the story. It was all there, pulsing on page. However, three out of four of the first ms readers didn't know whodunit when they had finished the book. That is not really a very great state of affairs. So I did change it to make things less oblique but I still come across readers who don't agree with me about whodunit in AFTER THE ARMNISTICE BALL. They don't seem to mind and who am I to argue.


But I started Book 2 determined to stamp all that sort of nonsense out and the result is that everyone always knows whodunit halfway through THE BURRY MAN'S DAY. Ah well. Again, people don't seem to mind.


Then there's Book 3 - BURY HER DEEP - aka The Concept Album, or in the words of Dave Headley of Goldsboro Books (one of my favourite bookshops and one of my favourite people) "the one where nothing happens". So the question doesn't arise but again no one seems bothered.


But I knew better than to try it twice. In Book 4, tons happens. It's a veritable circus. No, really - it's a circus. Look:


But even though THE WINTER GROUND is packed with incident and characters, not many of the incidents are clues and not many of the characters are suspects. It's still one my favourites, though. Because . . . circus.

Finally, came Book 5 where I got it juuuuust right. I did know whodunit all along, every character is a suspect, every incident is either a red herring or a clue, and it's my absolute favourite, because I knew I had cracked it. DANDY GILVER AND THE PROPER TREATMENT OF BLOODSTAINS was when all kinds of extra great things started to happen.

 
Still, I was back to changing my mind about whodunit for Book 6. I knew in Book 7. Changed my mind in Book 8. Changed it again in Book 9 and, like I said, for Book 10 I'll get back to you.
 
So . . . why all the covers, which are not really needed to answer this question? Well, I've just got the advance copies of the gorgeous, newly re-Dalmatianed US edition of A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE (November):
 


And also the brand-new and quite delicious UK Book 9 (July):

 
which is as stuffed with clues (and fake clues) as the title suggests.
 
It did occur to me, writing this post, that if I had ever taken a creative writing course, I might not have spent four books working out how to do it, but I love those four books and loved writing them too . . . so je ne regret (almost) rien.
 
But now that I have learned how to weave the clues and the red herrings, can I pass any useful tips along? 
 
All the advice this week has been great - hiding in plain sight, balancing prominence (no guest-star baddies a la Columbo), shooting for 90% bamboozlement - but I'll offer one more. Well, I'm really just adding to what Lori said yesterday. The first clue has to come as early as possible, I think. Then, if they can flit in and out of sight at fairly regular intervals  - not necessarily frequent, but regular - the truth is close enough to a reader's consciousness for the denouement to provoke an "Aha!" or even a "D'oh!". Too many clues too close together though can result in a nasty "Duh!".
 
And what they flit in and out of sight amongst are the red herrings. Those are the other trees that make up the wood that stops a reader seeing anything clearly. Ideally, they need to be spaced out just as carefully. Like this:
 
 


This draft (not Dandy Gilver - a stand-alone) is not quite there yet. Clearly there aren't enough orange things in the first half. But I'm working on it. Wish me luck.