Friday, July 30, 2010
I meet the Rookie while riding the elevator during a writer’s conference. I initiated the exchange with, “Hi, I’m Ramona. What do you write?” because a) I’m friendly; b) chatting makes the ride less awkward; c) I’m genuinely interested in what other writers’ write; and d) I figure if I’m alone in an elevator with a strange man who is really a psychopath attending a conference to stalk victims, he might be a tad less willing to kill me if I ask politely about his writing.
Hey, I work with crime writers. I’m always on the clock.
The Rookie and I walked together to the workshop, at which point he sat in the first row and I went up to the podium. As comprehension dawned, he said, “Oh! I didn’t know you were the teacher!” and proceeded to look embarrassed. I was tempted to tell the Rookie that if he planned on being a writer, he should get accustomed to embarrassing moments, but I was busy organizing my notes and handouts and figuring out the mic. So I just smiled and told him no problem.
The Rookie was attentive during the workshop, but when we got to Q&A, he stayed quiet. Maybe he was shy before a crowd, or maybe he thought I blew him off about his teacher comment. Later, however, at the mingle time before dinner, he sought me out and asked a very interesting question.
“Everybody talks about the hook, the hook, the hook, and how the action needs to rise. But in lots of mysteries I read, after the person is killed, the story slows down and the writer tells all about the people and the town and all that stuff. I like to read all that, but it’s not action. So why do writers write it?”
I told him that he’d asked a good question. Like all good questions, the answer was in the question itself: “I like to read all that.”
Why does a reader like to read the “all that” of a story? Because it’s the “all that” that makes readers care about happened, and what’s going to happen.
With every story, there is a pre-story. Think of it as Life As We Know It. Now comes the inciting incident. Whatever it is—murder, assault, kidnapping, con—it’s a figurative hand grenade thrown into a Protagonist’s life. In an explosion, pieces, or bodies, fall. Some people run away. Some run to help. Some hide. Someone saw who threw the grenade. Someone else knows why. In a mystery, the initial blast has to be big enough that the reader wonders why it happened, who made it happen, how did it happen, what’s going to happen next, and will it happen again.
In short, the hand grenade is the hook.
But a hook is a brief part of the overall story, just as an explosion itself is brief, traumatic moment. There is chaos for a little while, but the aftermath lasts much longer. So in subsequent scenes, the writer guides the reader through the casualties, investigations, questions, consequences, secrets and betrayals. These aftermath elements give the story meaning and make it an entertaining ride. The final aftermath of the hand grenade—the end of the story—is the Protagonist’s Life As We Know It Now. Or, in more writing terminology, the set-up for a sequel.
Showing Life As We Know It is what the Rookie meant when he said the story slowed down after the inciting incident. Mixed in with the big explosion are the setting, the history, and the background of the people affected by it. In order to truly understand the impact of the hook, the reader needs to understand the Protagonist’s normal life. In fiction, as in real life, normal life is full of many minor explosions—messy divorces, stressful jobs, cheating boyfriends, money woes, crazy parents, drinking, drugs, bad acts from the past, and so on. This is all normal, everyday conflict. What the hand grenade does is to add new, bigger, badder conflict, while making the pre-existing conflict worse. Or better.
If the reader is going to stick with the story past the explosive beginning, they’ll need to understand where the Protagonist fits into the entire landscape. The writer shares this so that the reader can understand what’s at stake—why the reader should care. Because what the Protagonist really wants is to have the Life As We Know It back, but that’s impossible. Once a hand grenade is thrown, it can never be un-thrown. So the Protagonist, with the reader, begins the journey to the Life As We Know It Now.
I explained this to the Rookie over a glass of wine before dinner started. Like a good Rookie, he listened and nodded in all the right places. But he didn’t ask any more questions, and as we parted, I wondered if he got it. Did he understand the hand grenade analogy? Did it make an impression on him or was he just being polite? Did my comments to him make an impact?
I saw him again the next morning. I was in line to check out and he was rolling his suitcase through the foyer. It was crowded, so there was no way for me to ask if I had explained why the “all that” of a story is important.
But as he walked by, he caught my eye. He slowed down, raised his hand as a fist, then opened it and said, “Boom!”
I think the Rookie got it.
Thursday, July 29, 2010
The recycling bin for paper was full. The tops of the coffee and breakfast tables were clear. I separated papers and magazines into categories and filed them in separate drawers. Dust disappeared in a swipe. Light shone once more on wood surfaces. And then, I reached up on tiptoe to grab a stack of papers on top of a pile of books on the top shelf of the bookcase.
Expecting to find the papers were paid bills or long-expired sales offers, I discovered the book containing the names of guests at my husband’s funeral, and the names of those who gave floral tributes. Details of the service were noted.
Before my husband and I could be admitted into America, we had to give the American Embassy in London the addresses of all the places where we’d lived since we were sixteen and the names of all the companies where we’d worked. My husband had kept handwritten copies of these lists with dates.
When we arrived here, we needed copies of our educational achievements. My husband had labeled two envelopes, one for him and one for me. I opened up his envelope and found a signed record of his engineering apprenticeship and his discharge papers from the Royal Air Force.
My husband, unlike me, was a hoarder. He had kept our British national health service cards and proof of our vaccinations against smallpox. I found his original birth certificate but not mine. I probably had to use it one time and lost it, or it may be hidden in another area of unexplored clutter in my house.
A paper clip held eight pages of a letter my dad wrote explaining how he’d felt when he left his kids after his divorce. He wrote eloquently, describing his emotions and showing his concern for my thinking I was not accepted by my parents for who I was. He never spoke that way, ever.
The discovery of the book and the papers profoundly affected the rest of my day and perhaps, the whole week.
I remember now that backstory should not be served up in huge dollops in a novel but the writer has to know it if he/she is to flesh out his/her characters.
I’ve never directly translated the day’s discoveries into a story but I’ve written about characters that live on the margins of society as most new immigrants do. I will look more deeply into my experience of grief and loss if that is what a story requires.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
After a short stint in college, a slightly longer marriage and the birth of two children, not necessarily in that order, she went back to her true love, words. From poetry and song writing as a child and early teenager, she moved her talents to the mystery world where she finally found a home.
Fate likes to play cruel tricks and the first one it played on Ms. Easley was cruel indeed. Her first short story, After Hours, was published by the first magazine it was submitted to. With her writing dreams seemingly within reach, she sent off the manuscript of her novel knowing that in a short time, she’d be holding a copy of it in her hands. What she held instead were hundreds of rejection letters. Ten years worth to be exact. But she persevered and finally in August of 2009, she actually held a copy of Where the Dreams End, her first published mystery novel. Now in 2010, her first baby has been joined by a second, Murder at Timber Bridge.
When not wearing her snappy mystery writer fedora, Ms. Easley can be found wearing a dashing hard hat and building scaffold in various nuclear power plants around the United States. Visit Ms. Easley at her website, http://www.kdwrites.com/, or drop by http://kdblog.kdwrites.com/ and leave her a message.
KDE: To get to the repo man part, we have to start with how Brocs got his name. I was working at an International truck dealership and one of my coworkers was named Broc. He bought a new Harley Davidson motorcycle and rode it in to work to show it off. When I was driving the kids home after school that day, I mentioned that I saw Broc’s Harley. My youngest son looked at me and said, “Who the heck is Brocs Harley.
Ooh, my writing instincts pinged. Brocs Harley, great name. I’d have to write a book about him some day. So I tucked the name into a file on my computer and continued on with the book I was working on. As time went on, other things caught my fancy and I added them to the file. Brocs was ex military. Brocs didn’t get along with his dad. Then, years ago, when the first repo man show came on cable it hit me. Brocs was a repo man. That was the last piece of information I needed to be able to start the book. It took about a year from getting the name to knowing enough about Brocs to tell his story.
EBD: Do you think most families have complex situations, such as the one in which Brockston finds himself?
KDE: Lord yes. People are complicated beings and relationships are a tangle even when everything is perfect. Add just a pinch of ugly, and you have the start of a festering sore of discontent. I think most families are good at keeping the ugly out of the public eye, and some, like mine are just plain boring. No deep dark secrets hidden in my family closet, of course, we don’t talk about things like that, so maybe I just don’t know about them.
KDE: I am a union carpenter, and very proud of my trade. I work mostly in nuclear power plants building scaffold for repair work done during plant outages, but I’ve also worked at some oil refineries. I love my work. I love the people I work with and I love working in the nuclear industry especially. And if you haven’t ever been in a nuclear power plant, you can’t imagine all the cool places there are to hide a body. Or all the amazing causes of friction that could lead to bloodshed. It is a background that just begs for a mystery series.
And I will write one, one of these days I’m sure. The material available from my years of traveling and working nukes would be an endless source to pull from. But I can’t seem to write it yet. I’ve started the story a few times, but it just hasn’t gelled yet. Like Brocs Harley, I think it just needs to percolate until it’s ready to hit the page.
EBD: You mentioned in your bio that you live with two cats. One of my favorite characters in Where the Dreams End is Baldwin, Brocs’s cat. He reflects Brocs’s moods and provides comfort. Do your cats serve the same function?
KDE: I have lived with cats my entire life. My first babysitter was a cat named Niki that my mom got before I was born. When she wasn’t taking care of me, she was adding her bloodline to every cat in Callaway County. Back in the day, you had a cat you had kittens. Now days, not so much, but Niki was much too busy being a mother to be the kind of comfort that Baldwin is for Brocs.
I have had some cats over the years that provided that for me, but the one’s I have now, not so much. Merlin was my mom’s cat. He’s a rescue and he is very sweet, but he’s not a lapsitter, or a snuggler and he’s really hard to pet because he has such an awful case of elevator butt. Luna likes to hang out with me. She especially likes to sleep on my laptop or lean against my desktop monitor so I can’t see what I’m doing. She also bites if you pet her a millisecond longer than she wishes to be petted. This is a random amount of time that changes every time you touch her, so she’s not really much of a comfort either. And you don’t even want to pick her up without wearing welding gauntlets and long sleeves. But, she’s smart, she likes to play fetch and she kept my mom entertained while she was going through Chemo, so she’s earned her place in the family.
EBD: I grew up in a small town in PA, which some have said resembles Peyton Place. Does your town provide models for characters in your books?
KDE: I use the town and the surrounding ones as kind of models of my fictional places as far as layout, architecture and structure. But I don’t really base my characters on local people. My characters are mostly combinations of many people I’ve run into over my years of traveling and people watching.
EBD: Did you start writing short stories before you wrote novels?
KDE: I actually had written two novels before I ever tried a short story. I kind of did it on a whim. The first short I ever wrote was “After Hours” and it was actually published in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine. The first place I submitted it the day after I wrote it. I thought I had the whole publishing thing knocked out. I just needed to edit my books, submit them and boom I would be published. That was over ten years ago. I do think short stories are harder to write than novel length fiction. And they used to be easier to publish, but the last few years have been hard for ezines and print magazines as well and the market for short mystery fiction are growing smaller and smaller.
EBD: Most women write “women’s stories,” but Where the Dreams End is very much a man’s story. How did that come about since many of your short stories do feature women as the main character?
KDE: I went to my first automobile race when I was eighteen months old. I spent every weekend at the races with my folks when I was young or by myself as I grew older until I was in my thirties. I learned to ride a motorcycle when I was eight, started racing go-karts when I was ten and started crewing on racecars when I was sixteen.
In my twenties, I was part of a racing team that traveled all over the United States. Along the way, I learned to build engines, back up a thirty-foot trailer, stay awake all night driving so everyone else could sleep, and set up an open wheel car on a dirt track. During those same years, I worked in a printing plant, went to school to be a mechanic, and sold auto parts. I’ve spent my entire life around men. What I have trouble with is writing women. I’ve never spent much time around them and I’ve never had what would be considered a woman’s job. Women are hard, men are easy.
EBD: Do you blog, facebook and/or twitter to promote your books? Why or why not?
KDE: I have a website, blog, facebook account and a twitter account. I do use them to promote my writing. I also use them to meet and make friends. If the only thing you use your social media for is sales and promotion, I think you’re kind of missing the point, or that could just be me. Like I mentioned earlier, I spend so much time in front of the computer that human interactions are few and far between. I enjoy the chance to make friends. On the flip side, when I’m working twelve hours a day and all I have time for is a quick glance at my email before I fall into bed, I find everything a bit overwhelming. And all of those things are time suckers that keep you busy doing other things when you could be writing. It’s a hard balance to keep and I’m not very good at it.
EBD: Do you attend conferences such as Malice Domestic?
KDE: I love writer’s conference. So many writers, so many books, it’s awesome. And if you’re at a mystery conference, no one thinks it’s odd if you walk by a park and say something like, “Whoa that would be an awesome place to find a body.” I haven’t ever been to Malice Domestic. I would love to go sometime, but it falls right in the middle of the spring nuclear outage season and I am usually working. I hope to get there someday. This year I’m going to Killer Nashville in August and Bouchercon by the Bay in San Francisco in October. I’m really excited because it’s been years since I’ve had the chance to go to a conference.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Let me pause to tell you the joke I told Donna when I later met her for a pitch session.
Q: Do you know the difference between an actuary and an accountant?
A: An actuary is someone who wanted to be an accountant, but didn’t have enough personality.
I told her that joke right after I told her that before I retired, I had been an actuary. I have to admit we actuaries do look at the world a bit differently. Here’s an example.
The blue line shows an agent or editor’s interest. The goal is to write a novel so at the end of the book the reader will score it at least a 20. Twenty means the agent takes you on; the editor buys the work; the reader buys the book and tweets about it; the book goes viral.
Starting at the left edge, we see the novel begins with a bang in the opening pages. It steadily slips from there until we get to the last 40% of the book, which is incredible. Once finished, readers score the novel well above the success threshold of a 20.
We’ve got a winner, right?
Wrong. Check out the graph below.
The red line is what I studied in the risk/ruin theory as part of my actuarial training. The short version is if you hit the red line, it doesn’t matter how good things would have been after that—it ain’t going to happen because the enterprise has ceased to exist. In this case, the reader stopped reading. They will never get to the whiz bang ending that would make it a best seller.
As writers, we must recognize the gatekeepers to our project have so many proffered manuscripts to review that they look for reasons to declare our manuscript ruined. Once they find a reason to reject us they can move on to the next manuscript in the pile. Often ruin happens within the first page or five pages or thirty pages. When I was a reader for Poisoned Pen Press, it rarely took more than five pages to know I wasn’t going to suggest they ask for a full. By 30 pages, 95% of the submissions I read had disqualified themselves.
The novel charted must have followed the advice from Ramona’s post The First Chapter Coloring Project since the opening is strong. However the dip illustrates a sagging middle that eviscerates the great opening. The reader gives up before getting to the awesome finale. I’m sure Ramona will have some great tips to solve that problem in future posts. (hint, hint)
Hardly seems fair. No one said it was.
If I have learned only one thing about this business it is this: Anyone can write, but Writers know how to edit.
PS – Oh, the pitch session with Donna? She asked for a full manuscript and it sits in her TBR pile.
Monday, July 26, 2010
What story does your main character believe about himself?
Psychology Today contributor, llana Simons, Ph. D. is both a practicing psychologist and a literature professor. In her article, “A Therapist Should be a Good Storyteller,” (Psychology Today 7/21/10) Dr. Simons talks about the stories we tell ourselves. Her patient must deal with true but horrific circumstances of his past, keeping him angry and institutionalized. He’s quite sane. The story he tells about himself is true, but what impedes his advancement is his refusal to believe his story can change. Like a PTSD patient, he repeats the story without breaking the cycle of trauma. Little by little, Simons spins her patient new possibilities, changing the story of his future so he can break free of the past. The method she uses reminds her of how authors create stories.
Not only do characters need history for authenticity, they also need a perspective and a psychological framework through which the reader can understand and judge the character. What values does the character demonstrate? Is she a social climber, a church member, a perfectionist? How did those values become priorities? Finding out that the church member is really a hypocrite attending for appearances tweaks readers’ emotions. Some readers may be sympathetic, but many may be derisive. Answering these questions for your readers requires a little back story, but demonstrating these qualities within the context of your story shows the characters’ psychological makeup.
Tennessee Williams is the consummate author of demonstrating character psychology, which also drives his plots. His characters lie to each other and to themselves, but the truth is evident to the reader and in the end, to the characters as well. Williams’ plots test the stories of the characters and in doing so finds the truth.
Including characters’ psychological framework builds identities so that readers understand their intentions, motivations, and development. These characters are unique and memorable, every author’s goal.
Who are your favorite characters, and why are they memorable?
Friday, July 23, 2010
This is one addiction I have embraced for a writing exercise that involves highlighters. The purpose is to highlight (literally) a persistent problem with opening chapters: excess backstory.
I am often asked about common errors or mistakes by new writers. One is too much story history, too early on. Even experienced writers have difficulty holding back sharing everything pertinent about the characters and past events populating a story. Writers should know their characters inside out; they should thoroughly research settings; they should give depth to their work. Much of this translates into backstory. Backstory is important in that provides meaning and logic to why characters act as they do. Sometimes, in crime stories, backstory is what brings the current story to life. Backstory may be a mystery, or solve a mystery.
Backstory can also kill a first chapter.
The purpose of a first chapter is to hook a reader into a story that is happening now. There are countless ways to do this, but one sure way to kill the hook is to interrupt the action with constant and/or long paragraphs of what happened before now. Too much backstory in the first chapter impedes the developing tension. Spending huge chunks of time on past events makes the events of now seem less important. Going off on long tangents about the setting feels like a history lesson. Explaining in minute detail a character’s life since potty training robs the reader of figuring out some of that for themselves.
In short, too much backstory makes a first chapter boring.
But backstory is important to the story, and some of it vital. So how do you tell what’s vital and what’s not? Where do you put it? How much is too much? How do you tell if backstory is flooding out the other necessary parts of your chapter?
Here’s help. Grab a copy of a first chapter and a set of highlighters, and color out each chapter as follows:
Action in BLUE
Dialogue in GREEN
Description in YELLOW
Backstory in PINK
Sounds simple, right? Maybe not. Action is not just car chases and discovering dead bodies. It’s anything the characters do that drive the plot. Dialogue and description seem self-explanatory, but what if the dialogue is screaming at someone to jump, run, duck, look out! Is that action or dialogue? And description—it’s easy if you are showing what a person looks like or what color car they drive, but is a blow-by-blow of a criminal as he sneaks away description, or action?
No one said writing wasn’t complicated. The second, hidden, value of this exercise is that it makes you examine what you are writing and consider what makes action action, and so on.
What is the easiest part of the exercise? Identifying the backstory. It’s all that stuff that’s not happening now. In this exercise, it’s the simplest to define, and the hardest to discard.
No one said writing isn’t full of irony, either.
Once the pages are colored, examine the balance. It’s an illuminating moment to see a story broken down into elemental colors. It can be a disturbing one if the vision is washed in any one hue. For a crime novels, the more blue the better. A steady sprinkling of green is excellent, too. Some passages, even longish ones, of yellow are acceptable.
If you find yourself looking at a bit of pink, don’t panic. Like the other colors, pink is necessary. Pages of pink? Still don’t panic—-do this instead. At each section of pink, ask these questions:
Does this section bring the action of the story to a halt?
If so, is this information vital to the story as a whole?
If yes, can this chapter work if this information is saved for later?
If the backstory is killing the action, but is nevertheless important for the plot to make sense, it belongs in the story. The next question is, does it belong in the first chapter?
To decide this, remove the pink section and read the chapter without it. If the action makes sense, even without the extra layer of pink info, it can be moved until later. Question the placement of each pink section until the color scheme is, in your mind, properly balanced.
While this process is designed for an opening, it works just as well in subsequent chapters. Any time the action feels bogged down, print out the chapter and break out the highlighters. Or, run to the office supply store and buy a new set.
For the greenie authors, or those not plagued with ongoing desire for new office stuff, this can be done onscreen as well. Simply use background colors as highlighters. It's the same premise, same effect.
Go on, give it a try.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Bestselling authors with loyal followers can be sure people will buy their next book but, if it doesn’t meet expectations, these same authors could become yesterday’s news.
My grandchildren tune into technology almost from birth. I used to think my children could’ve been born with a phone attached to their ears. My grandchildren could’ve been born with access to the Internet. Does that mean they will look for stories and dramas that can be downloaded onto their PC’s? My daughter has a bookcase that contains her favorite books. She also has an eReader so she can download her favorite authors and books recommended by her friends at any time and in any place.
So, back to the future question. How long will printed books continue to be produced? Trees die so authors can give birth to books. Paper is not easy to store and will eventually disintegrate. I’m not writing as a young rebel seeking to distinguish her generation from those proceeding. I love holding a book in my hands and opening it to the first page. But, I have to ask myself, are books and bookcases fading into nostalgic anachronism?
I’m taking a course with C.J. Lyons, author of URGENT CARE, WARNING SIGNS, and LIFELINES, on escaping the slushpile with the right query and pitch. I continue to search for an agent and a publisher willing to take a risk on a new mystery writer. Agents have become the gatekeepers of the publishing world. How soon before people rebel against their power to decide what fiction reaches the public? Writers are already displaying their work on the Internet and letting the public decide what it is willing to pay for. Could I say for certain all these writers are not as good as writers selected by agents?
Sure, there are logistic problems such as how to direct the public to an author’s latest fiction offering. There could be an app for new fiction. Amazon doesn’t have to own the monopoly for writers who want to publish first chapters online. Groups of writers could team up to seek attention on the Internet. Agents, publishers and bookstore owners could create sites. This is America. New enterprises would find a way to make money.
I’ve met agents and publishers who love books. Most agents and publishers take up the profession because they’re interested in books. But the old publishing model isn’t working efficiently in today’s world. Writers are expected to have a business plan for promoting their books. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see writers starting out as entrepreneurs even as they sit down to type the first words of their first drafts.
I continue to follow traditional routes to obtain an agent and publisher. I can’t help noticing the process is not egalitarian. Famous people publish memoirs that might be less interesting than those of any Tom, Dick, or Harry. Some authors have connections while others write first and then seek in the dark to enter the publishing world.
There’s a lot of useless information on the internet and it’s up to the researcher to sift through the good and the bad. EReaders could help with this. Maybe, in the future, readers will sift through writing that hasn’t been prescreened by an authority, and decide what they want to read.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Would you share with us some of your experience in selecting short stories for publication?
If you’ve been to the New England Crime Bake mystery conference, you’ve heard about the Al Blanchard Award. Al was the president of the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, a founding member of Crime Bake, and a member of Sisters in Crime. Most importantly, he was a mentor to many short story writers. When he died suddenly at Crime Bake 2004, the Crime Bake committee established the Al Blanchard Award in his memory.
I recently finished judging 164 submissions for this year’s contest. We have our winner and four honorable mentions!
I’ve been a partner and editor with Level Best Books since 2006 and have read submissions for four anthologies, Seasmoke, Still Waters, Deadfall and Quarry.
What do you look for when reading submissions for the Al Blanchard Award and the Level Best Books submissions?
The first thing I look for is a great opening line.
Take Pat Remick’s story “Circulation” in Deadfall: Crime Stories by New England Writers: “It was the kind of heat that could turn deadly.” The sentence pulls you into the story with the promise for something bad about to happen.
Stephen D. Rogers’s story “Tail,” also in Deadfall opens with: “And damned if somebody didn’t grab my left breast.” You realize right away that Stephen’s story will be in a female’s point of view. So you read on to find out why and who.
My story, “No Flowers for Stacey” begins: “Reginald Stearns tucked himself in the shadows of the dumpster behind the Diamond Heights Mall and waited for the last store to close.” Now you know he has to be up to no good.
Second, are the characters fully developed?
A short story doesn’t give you the time to fully develop a character like a novel does, so every word and action you write should develop your character. I want a clear picture of the characters, their mannerisms, patterns of speech and reactions to conflict.
Third, where does the story take place?
The setting should be a specific place in a specific time. Descriptions should be kept to a minimum. Details should be exact and each word should advance the story. Instead of saying, “The hospital sat on top of a hill overlooking the small backwoods town of Sanderson.” Say, “Hilltop Sanatorium cast dark shadows on Sanderson Village.” It not only makes the sentence sinister, it cuts unnecessary words.
Last and most important, endings should satisfy the reader.
They should have the “ah-ha” moment that keeps the reader thinking about the end long after the story is done. The ending should answer all questions and tie them up fairly.
I can’t tell you how many stories were so beautifully written, with captivating characters and a great plot, but then the ending left me saying “Huh?”
If I write short stories, will I find a place for them?
Yes. There are many markets for short fiction. Duotrope's Digest is a free, online resource for writers of fiction and poetry. What I like best about Duotrope is, you can narrow your market search to word count, payment, print or ezine, or other classifications you might want.
Another great place to find markets is the Short Mystery Fiction Society. J. E. Seymour, one of Level Best authors, keeps the market listing up to date. The Society is a worldwide Yahoo group of writers, editors, publishers, and readers. Through informative discussion, publicity efforts, and the annual Derringer Awards, they promote the creation, publication, and appreciation of short mystery and crime fiction. I think every short story writer should join.
I feel as passionately about my characters in short stories as I do about the characters in longer works. Is that a stumbling block?
No, I think that’s a plus. Your passion will show in writing. The characters in my short story, “Cougar Attack” in Still Waters, wouldn’t leave me alone. So, I also featured them in Quarry. Don’t be surprised to find them in a novel.
What about flash fiction? Any tips for us?
Flash fiction contests are a great way to practice writing tight. They can be a little as six words, like Ernest Hemingway’s famous short story “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” to 1,000 words.
My personal favorite flash fiction contest is Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s monthly Mysterious Photograph contest. You only have 250 words to write a story that goes along with the photo, and there must be a crime. There is no entry fee, the winning story appears in the magazine, and the winner receives $25! Honorable mentions get their name, city, and state in print.
I hosted a Flash Fiction roundtable at Crime Bake one year and asked Linda Landrigan, Editor of AHMM about the contest:
“The thing that strikes me about the Mystery Photograph contest and flash fiction in general is that it is good training for writers to learn just how much of the work they can leave up to readers. In such a short story, the writer must suggest rather than elaborate for so many aspects of the story. This trust of the reader is crucial to have even in longer stories. It's what allows the writer to focus only on the elements that advance the story.
“More than most stories that appear in the magazine, the contest stories are the most likely to feature that ironic concluding turn that people associate with Hitchcock himself. Irony, as opposed to surprise endings, is important to fiction in general, but in particular story telling. In the longer stories, perhaps, the ironic elements are a little more subtle, but still present.
“Often the winning stories are a little humorous, but not always. It is hard, though, to draw generalizations about the winning stories. I can tell you that The Story That Won in the back of the magazine is one of our most loved features. We get the most mail about that, and much of that coming from readers who don't themselves enter the contest.”
Besides AHMM, try flashquake, http://www.flashquake.org/guidelines.html And be sure to Google “flash fiction guidelines.”
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
We are enjoying the company of our grandchildren. Each summer they visit us for a week or so without their parents. Lola, who will be nine about the time school starts, and I were talking about books. She’s a reader, and I abet her by giving her lots of books for Christmas. She started our conversation on this topic by exclaiming, “This is such a good book. It’s only the second chapter and already something really bad has happened.”
Mrs. Zarroli who Ramona talked about on Friday to learn from, so hers is an unadulterated experience. I asked Lola a bunch of questions and here’s what she said.
What’s a good beginning? I like bad things to happen at the beginning, even if I don’t understand them. And a good book has to have a mystery.
What makes interesting characters? The people in the book have to take risks. They have to be sneaky and stuff like that. In this book they had to break into the principal’s office. They take on a lot of stuff that we do not. If something goes wrong then something really bad is going to happen to them.
There is a pair of sisters that are so unalike. One is grouchy and the other is very nice. One likes fairy tales and the other doesn’t. Sometimes one is nice and sometimes the other isn’t. But they have to do stuff together. A good character in my opinion is brave and smart; they can trust people; they can take a lot of risk. If they’re funny that’s good too.
And I don’t like it when (for example) Sabrina magically pulled out of her pants pocket a whistle called the wind and blew away the problem.
What makes a good book’s ending? Usually it ends well, but sometimes the best books don’t end well and that can be good too.
There you have it from an eight-year old. We don’t need to graduate from high school, be an English Lit major in college or earn an MFA degree. Kids know good stories when they hear or read one: You need a good early hook and there has to be a mystery. You need interesting characters; they can’t be all alike and there has to be conflict. The characters need to be larger than life and take risks—risks that we wouldn’t normally take.
The plot has to make sense. Deus ex machina is a big no-no, and the ending can be either a good thing or a bad thing as long as it’s satisfying.
What’s so hard about that?
Monday, July 19, 2010
I find it ironic that it takes great fiction to demonstrate reality, but the truth is that reality baffles because of its complexity and diversity. The talented writer is able to cut through reality’s baffling abundance to create an analogy in fiction that demonstrates reality in such a breathtaking way as to change the reader or at least remind the reader of what is real in life. Part of that process is the method the writer uses to bridge fiction to reality.
In No One You Know, by Michelle Richmond, she uses mathematics. The main character’s mathematician sister is murdered. One of her professors allows her to lean on him while she is mourning, but she is angered when he writes a true crime fiction book based on her sister’s murder and proceeds to use all of her intimacies as the basis. The book becomes a best seller, in which the professor casts aspersions on one man in her sister’s life as the best suspect for the murder all the while acknowledging that he doesn’t have any proof. The man’s life is ruined because everyone buys off on the tale, and even though she is angry at the professor, the main character believes it also…until fifteen years later she meets the suspect and knows that he couldn’t have committed the murder. He gives her a math notebook belonging to her sister through which she comes to understand that in mathematics everything must be proved absolutely. By her belief in a false story, she failed herself and her sister. When confronting the professor, he admits that his aspersions just made the best ending to his story and had nothing to do with truth. In the end, the main character solves the murder, changing the ending to the story.
After reading A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, in which she demonstrated just how powerless we are in life, I felt that the only part of life we could control was our style, how we portrayed ourselves, in writing-our voice, but Richmond reminded me that style was only part of what we could control. We also possess our own stories. Our stories can be false or true.
I’ve written for years. At first, I hesitated to call myself a writer for fear that my story would be false when I never was published, risking my integrity. I’m to an age and stage of life that has no room for lies. I started called myself a writer because believing provides a catalyst to the writing process even though it doesn’t increase publishing probability. In any venture, failure is an option. I’ve written two novels that have gone nowhere, and I was starting to feel like a poser.
Voices from the Garage, an ezine published my short story, “Daddy’s Little Girl.” Becoming published was proof of my authenticity. Richmond points out that a mathematical proof is the litmus test of theory. I’m no longer a possible writer, but an authentic one. It may be a small credit, but at least my story is now true. I’m a published short story writer.
The next story I will tell myself is that I am a pre-published novelist, a murder mystery writer. I hope it is an authentic story because after I prove my authenticity of being a novelist, I hope I can tell myself another story and make it true: To be one of those talented writers who make a mark on the reader, changing their reality and in doing so help make readers’ own stories true.
To read “Daddy’s Little Girl,” go to: http://voicesfromthegarage.com/story/daddys-little-girl
Friday, July 16, 2010
Last week I posted about a young friend I’d met in a high school book club. This put me into a sentimental mood and made me think about my volunteer years, and what I learned from them.
My school visits were sometimes as the book club leader, sometimes as a speaker discussing a writer’s life, and sometimes as a helper in a crazy little thing called Writers Workshop.
Writers Workshop was the brainchild of a fourth grade teacher named Mrs. Zarroli. Every Wednesday, Mrs. Z devoted the Language Arts hour to creative writing. I appeared as helper because I was a published writer; because I had a child in her class; and because the word “sucker” magically appeared on my forehead any time a teacher asked me to help in class.
This time, though, the sucker was Mrs. Z. I learned more in Writers Workshop than the children ever learned from me. It wasn’t that the information was new--just the opposite. Fourth grade Language Arts focused on story building, so the lessons were like a (free) review of the basics for me, stripped down to simple, accessible presentations.
Teaching fourth graders can be challenging, the primary challenge being keeping them awake. Had Mrs. Z launched into a dry recitation of the Three Act Structure or listed essential story elements, the kids would have yawned non-stop. If she’d drawn a diagram of Freytag’s pyramid, the yawning might have stopped long enough for the ubiquitous “Will that be on the test?”
Instead, being a wise and experienced teacher, Mrs. Z provided a visual. She unfurled a long piece of paper across the blackboard and introduced the class (and me) to the Story Train.
The Story Train was brilliant in its simplicity. At the head was a very big, very black Engine. The Engine was the story starter, and it was powerful because that’s what it takes to get a story going. A small, timid engine can’t pull a load of cars, so a writer must make the story engine strong. That strength comes from interesting characters, intriguing settings, good grammar and action verbs.
At the opposite end of the Story Train was a very shiny, very sleek, very red Caboose. The Caboose was the exciting end to the story, so it had to be eye catching. It had to be powerful, but in a different way than the Engine. The Caboose had to show the scars and lessons of the journey, and the characters in it had to be changed by the ride. The Caboose was sleek and shiny because it earned that through the action and events in the story.
The Engine’s job was to entice the reader to take a ride on the Story Train. The Caboose’s job was to end that ride in an exciting but satisfying way.
And in the middle of the train were the Cars, which on the big visual across the blackboard were empty and uncolored.
The Cars represented Act II of a story, that great expanse where the meat of the plot occurs. It follows the fun of the set-up in Act I, and ends before the payoff of Act III. Act II is where the writer has to hunker down and work—and where the most danger lies in losing the reader.
An author’s job, Mrs. Zarroli told the class, was to make the Cars as colorful and powerful as the Engine and Caboose. How to do this? By making something exciting or important happen in each Car; by filling each Car with riders who are funny or scary or touching; by making some Cars dark inside so the riders can’t yet see what’s going to be in the next Car; by shining a bright light in other Cars. Each Car had to be colored and filled before the rider could move onto the next Car.
Each Car was different but they were all being pulled by the same Engine, in order, and they all ended with the same Caboose. The writer’s job was to give a Story Train rider a colorful and powerful experience full of action, adventure, wisdom, sadness or fun. The Engine was always black and the Caboose was always red, but the writer had all the colors of the rainbow in which to draw the Cars.
Simplistic? Yes. Effective? Also yes.
Mrs. Z ended the Writers Workshop with a handout, an 8.5x11 version of the Story Train. Mine is in a drawer, with other important papers, but I think about that Story Train when I create a story. Is my Engine strong enough to make the journey? Did everyone and everything make it safely (and sensibly) to the Caboose? Are my Cars colorful and full enough?
Most of all, will this train trip be memorable for the readers who climb aboard it?
Thank you, Mrs. Zarroli, wherever you are, for reminding me of these questions.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
When a natural disaster strikes, hurricanes, fire, and flood, how do people behave? Why does one person risk his own life to save others and another collapse and need psychiatric help? Everyday heroes don’t see themselves that way. They seem to act from an unconscious drive.
How do people respond to acute and chronic danger? In war-torn countries whole populations are forced to adapt first to acute and then chronic danger. In the US, in this and the previous century, wars have taken place in faraway regions. The general population has not been challenged except for the families of military personnel serving overseas. 9/11 was an exception, an acute and sudden crisis, which forced citizens to react according to their core strengths and weaknesses. Citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq must deal with the constant threat of death. They have to make choices—whose side are they on? Do they want to take sides? Is survival their only goal?
In Europe, whole populations lived under the rule of the dictator, Hitler. Any infringement of the rules enforced by the SS could lead to torture and death. The UK lived under constant threat of being conquered and endured five years of bombing. They had to go about the daily business of living despite air raids and constant reminders of death. People in their late teens belonged to local warden patrols. One of their duties was to scrape victims of bombing off streets and sidewalks. Neighbors saw houses across the street burned to the ground and whole families destroyed. Amazingly, many humans survive this chronic danger with their spirit intact. At the same time as people under siege experience daily threats to their lives, they often experience deprivations such as severe food and goods rationing.
It is this enduring spirit within the human psyche that I search for in some of my characters.
As an RN, I often saw people face crises. How does a family cope with an accident that results in a brain injury to one of its sons, married and the father of two? Does jealousy erupt in uninjured sons who watch their mother spend hours at the bedside of her sick child? The wife, can she divide her time between her husband in a coma, or worse, acting weird, and her young children? Do members of such a family make snap decisions or do their actions seem to come from somewhere deep within their memories?
When people are sick, they sometimes hide their feelings from their doctors who seem so much above them with their control over life-saving techniques and their knowledge. These same patients don’t hide their feelings of frustration, anger, and despair from their nurses. I learned to listen to how ordinary people process their fears of disability, aging, and death. The human spirit never ceases to amaze me.
Then there are the ethical decisions that require courage. I think we learn this kind of courage during our school years. When a classmate is being made a scapegoat, how do you react? Do you join the in-crowd? Do you secretly dislike yourself for joining the winning side? If you are the scapegoat, how do you react to the injustice and the constant chipping away at who you are? Can you fight back and what methods do you choose?
I’m guessing it’s because I was born into a western culture but I most often see the individual against society. Sometimes a person has to reject the beliefs of her/his peers in favor of a more ethical choice. Gang members are scary with their violent tactics but I see them as cowards because they need the backing of the group.
It is these questions of how a person faces a crisis and what unpopular moral or ethical choices she/he makes that motivate me to examine my fictional characters. Sure, the story’s important but who brings that story to life and why—that’s what intrigues me in the work of others and in my own work. I’m reminded of such characters as Scarlet O’Hara, King Lear, the three boys who become men in MYSTIC RIVER, and the women in the adaption of Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli novels on TNT.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Meet Leslie Wheeler, Author, and Coordinator of the Speakers Bureau for the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime.
If you need a speaker for your organization, Leslie will be happy to help.
Writing Through Loss
When my husband died in the fall of 2005, I couldn’t write for several months. I didn’t go up to my third floor study, but stayed at his desk on the second floor, dealing with the “business” part of death. When I finally ventured to my study, it was to write the words I would speak at his memorial service. It felt wonderful to sit at my computer, engaging in an activity that’s so much a part of who I am. But I didn’t remain long. I was too overwhelmed by everything that needed to be done, including getting our son through his first year of high school without his father. Since I wasn’t writing, I stopped attending the weekly critique group, consisting of four Sisters in Crime and one Brother, which I’d participated in for more than a decade.
The only writing-related activities I could handle were book events, many of them arranged by the Sisters in Crime/New England Speakers’ Bureau. My second mystery novel, Murder at Gettysburg, had been published the previous spring, and I wanted to publicize it. As my husband’s condition worsened, I had to cancel some events, but others I went ahead with, though not without misgivings. Waiting for the audience to arrive at a Boston area library, while my husband was hospitalized, I thought to myself. “What on earth am I doing here? How am I going to get through this?” Surprisingly, the event turned out to be one of my best. I was able to really connect with my audience, and that connection was just what I needed. It took me out of myself and my own worries and reminded me, that despite present and future difficulties, I was and would continue to be a writer.
But I still wasn’t writing, although I had two partially completed manuscripts, one a stand-alone suspense novel, the other, the sequel to Murder at Gettysburg. I’d read through one, then the other, only to decide that each posed problems that seemed insurmountable in my fractured state of mind. Finally, I found a less daunting project. While my husband dozed through one of his last chemotherapy treatments, I’d jotted notes for a short story. After his death, I went back to those scribblings and slowly crafted “Skystalker,” which was eventually published in a Level Best Books’ anthology.
Writing that story helped. So did re-connecting with my critique group. Realizing that I was too stressed to get myself to meetings, they came to me. One November night, they showed up at my house with a potluck dinner. They not only brought all the food, but plastic and paper goods to save me the trouble of cleanup. A few days later, I attended the New England Crime Bake Conference, where I was again reminded how supportive the mystery writing community is, as both old friends and people I barely knew approached me with expressions of sympathy and concern.
But one thing was still missing: a novel-length project to get me through the months ahead. As I pondered which manuscript to go back to, it dawned on me that the series mystery, while rougher and less complete than the suspense novel, was the better choice. I’d started it when my husband was well enough for us to go on research trips as a family. We’d visited places like Mystic Seaport, which provided the inspiration for the fictional Spouters Point Maritime Museum in the novel. Thus the series mystery was associated with happier times than the suspense novel, which I’d worked on during the last, increasingly difficult, year of my husband’s life.
So in the early spring of 2006, I returned to the novel that became Murder at Spouters Point.
Now that book, dedicated to my husband, will be published in October, 2010, five years and one month, after his passing. To me, it’s a testimony to the power of the written word to help one through hard times, but also to the generosity of my fellow mystery writers who reached out to me at a time of need.
An award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, Leslie Wheeler now writes the Miranda Lewis “living history” mystery series. Titles include Murder at Plimoth Plantation and Murder at Gettysburg. The third book in the series, Murder at Spouters Point, will be published in October, 2010. Leslie’s stories have appeared in four anthologies published by Level Best Books: Windchill, Seasmoke, Still Waters, and Deadfall. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, serving as Speakers’ Bureau Coordinator for the New England Chapter. She is also a founding member of the New England Crime Bake Committee, and chair of the Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction Award Committee. Visit her website at www.lesliewheeler.com
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
All kidding aside, I’m delighted Master Point Press, a small publisher located in Toronto and specializing in bridge books, will be my publisher. The process of obtaining this contract got me to thinking.
In 2009 I became the reigning Queen of Rejection of the Guppy Chapter of the Sisters in Crime. (Yes, I am really a guy; and yes, the Sisters in Crime and their chapters enthusiastically welcome men as long as they support the organizational objectives and obey the rules.) I earned the title because for the period of the contest I racked up the largest number of rejections from agents and/or publishers. As consolation for winning, I received a gift certificate from the Guppies and lots of cyber-chocolate.
Those were nice consolation, but the best gift I received was a piece of information from one of the other past Queens. She told me that most of the previous Queens of Rejection had gone on to be published.
Unlike the plethora of rejections I received for my first two novels, I sent my bridge book proposal only to Master Point Press. They read the proposal and asked for the complete manuscript. After reading the complete manuscript, they had a couple of suggestions and wanted the book 50% longer. Once I delivered that, they offered a contract.
Why were they interested in my book? One reason was I had identified a market niche that they agreed was underserved.
Underserved markets are a big difference between fiction and nonfiction. Spend some time and you can find them in nonfiction. In fiction, I’m not sure there is such a thing as an underserved market—at least not until the vampire trend morphs into something else and for a short while there aren’t enough books in the pipeline containing the something else. Unfortunately, to serve that previously unidentified niche you had to already have your novel written and be the first to enter the breach. Daunting, to say the least.
The second reason they liked my work was voice. I’m not a grand Pooh-Bah of the bridge world. After a 30+-year layoff I started playing bridge again four years ago. I wrote the book I wished I had available to me while I was learning. I illustrated the lessons in the book with mistakes I observed Intermediate/Novices making (including lots of my own). One of my early readers said reading the book was like listening to me talk—which you either like or don’t; fortunately the publisher did.
In the end, voice carried the day. Developing voice is a necessary but not sufficient condition to becoming published. In the world of bridge books, in another 15 months (and if the creek don’t rise) I will have met the other necessary conditions to having a published work. In the fiction world, I’m still plugging away. As one of the former Queens of Rejection told me, often the difference between success and failure in this business is the difference between trying yet again and giving up. Literary Agent Michelle Gardner also makes this point in her blog yesterday.
Let’s hear it for trying yet again.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Needless to say, managing a business, two adult children, husband and household interferes with my writing. I don’t know how other writers multitask around tumultuous households. This summer seems to have commanded my time more than others. It rained a lot around D.C. in May, so in June I crammed in all those spring cleaning chores that are normally spread out over a few months, resealing our deck, washing windows and cleaning carpets.
My son graduated last year from college. Due to the economy, he is working part-time in my husband’s business. He hasn’t been part of our household on a daily basis for two years. Having lived on his own, he is particular about his diet, which we support, but his diet necessitates almost daily trips to the grocery store. He would shop himself, except that he works, commuting between Maryland and Virginia. Since I don’t get a paycheck, the grocery store is on my list.
My daughter, home from school, is working too, doubling our household residents. In passing, I’ll mention the party she had in our home last weekend while my husband and I were out of town. Somehow, the carpets were trashed and I spent two days cleaning them (thank goodness it rained in May and I didn’t clean them twice). Yes, she would have done it herself if not for her summer school class and work schedule. No, she won’t be having anymore parties anytime soon.
Fortunately, our business has recently surged, after a two year dearth that hit the housing market. Great, except I’ve sent out more proposals in the last two weeks than in the previous year. We also have three business vehicles in addition to the four we use personally. My kids take care of their own cars, but the remaining five must have regular maintenance-again, my domain. And then my husband’s hobbies become my responsibility.
This week, a twenty-six foot boat appeared in my driveway. A client, who no longer used it, gave it to my husband. Great, a real windfall. My husband’s hobbies by necessity have dwindled because of his back problems. He cannot and may not play softball anymore. Fishing is the only hobby left to him. Due to his back issues, I try to compensate by helping in physical activities, like mowing the yard and assisting moving equipment, like air compressors or generators off and on his truck (now you know why I weight train), so when I saw the boat, I saw another task falling into my hands.
Does this sound like a poor pitiful me column? Don’t believe it. Next week, I’m off to the beach where I will devote myself to writing and fun. My family will be at home working, so there is a balance. I live for the day when my writing pays and “my work” will actually be considered work. Until then, I swipe an hour or two out of every day to write, multitask with the professionals, and hope to write that forward in my book where every author lies.