Wednesday, May 27, 2015

As Sick as a Parrot

Sybil here. I’ve been working through the comments from my editor for my next book, Paint the Town Dead. As usual, she has many useful things to say. And, as usual, some cliches have managed to slip through. To keep the flow of writing going, I don’t worry about cliches in the first draft, but I do try to excise them from the one I send to my editor.

This exercise got me thinking about cliches and how to get rid of them so I consulted my trusty(?) internet and came up with a few websites that I thought you all might find interesting.

The first one that popped up was from the Oxford Dictionary, which had a procedure to help get rid of cliches in your writing. (‘Cause as a former programmer, I can relate to algorithms and procedures.) What struck me as funny about this one was the first “cliche” noted on the site: as sick as a parrot. Well, as a United Statesian*, I had never heard of this one. Had to look it up on the internet to find out it means “to be very disappointed”. I’ve never read or heard this anywhere here in the U.S. I assume, given this is an Oxford Dictionary site, this is a British thing. Is it common in Canada as well? Has anyone heard it in the U.S.?

The next site I visited was tips from Grammar Girl on avoiding cliches. This one has some interesting historical tidbits on where some cliches come from as well as suggestions on how to get rid of them. Plus there are some links at the bottom of the article that I found interesting.

One in particular was the Phrase Finder where you can type in a word like “cat” and it’ll tell you phrases that include that word. Raining cats and dogs, no room to swing a cat,... For each phrase there’s a discussion on its origins. Great fun if you want to avoid doing real work.

And the last site I found before I gave up on searching was

I’m sure there are a lot more sites out there with tips but I must get back to my edits since they’re due in a week.

*United Statesian – see Donis Casey’s post awhile back on Thanksgiving where she mentions the phrase in a footnote:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How writing is a mirror of what is happening throughout society.

by Rick Blechta

It seems as if every day brings a new report of some corporation or other shuttering factories or closing down altogether. “The jobs have are all being moved to [enter third world country name here],” as if these things happen by accident. It’s almost like “Honest! We came in Monday morning and all the jobs had gone to China. We have no idea how that happened! When we locked the doors on Friday all the jobs were here. Then this morning, poof! Every single job (except mine, of course) has moved out of the country.”

Another trend is making do with less. Taxes are as high as ever but the services they pay for keep shrinking. Here in Toronto, we get far less garbage pick-up, door-to-door postal service is being phased out, we’re paying more and more for programs that used to be free, and our infrastructure is still falling about. That’s just on a local level.

Closer to home (for writers), we’re also being expected to do far more for far less. When the idea of advances against royalties was first adopted, it was put forward so that a writer could support him/herself while writing the book. It wasn’t free money by any stretch. If the book did reasonable business, the advance would be paid off and the company would begin handing out more royalties when it was. In the meantime, the writer didn’t have to try to juggle a day job and writing or risk starving to death along with their families. An advance against royalties was also a vote of confidence by the publisher that the book would do well enough. If they picked well and promoted well, they’d get their advance paid off.

In more recent times, the playing field has shifted dramatically and each shift has been away from writers. Here’s a partial list:
  • The value of advances has plummeted. These days a writer is lucky to get even $5000. Quite often it can be under $1000. For most of us, that’s a few weeks of very frugal living, certainly not long enough to write a full-length book.
  • Authors are expected to do the majority of their own promotion. Publicity departments even ask us to write ad copy. Ad copywriting is a very refined and arcane art. I don’t believe most authors are equipped or experienced enough to do it effectively. Why are publishers asking for this to be done when it’s in no ones’ best interest?
  • Most authors have to organize their own live appearances, book signings, readings.
  • We’re expected to have websites and pay the cost of them.
  • We’re expected to blog (which is precisely why I and the rest of the Type M members are here).
  • Need to travel for research? Pay for it yourself.
  • Need to travel for an appearance? Get someone else to pay for it.
The real changes in publishing, though, have gone by with fairly a whimper.

Here’s one: Advances given out for one book, may be paid for by the royalties of another. It works like this: Book 1 gets an advance of, say, $1000. It does okay but royalties on sales made only reach $500. Book 2 also gets a royalty advance of $1000 and is far more successful, paying back its advance quickly. The royalty statement comes in. What’s this? The author should have received $400 in royalties from Book 2, but they aren’t there. They’ve been applied to what was owing on Book 1. That is not the way the system was set up. Advances become a much more win/win situation for the publisher. (And don't get me started on the dodge that royalty periods are now a year because it’s “so expensive to calculate and produce royalty statements”. It’s done by computer. You must have bought the wrong software, bunky!)

Here’s another: Due to technology changes, books no longer go out of print. Even if they don’t have stock, a publisher can do a print run as low as 1 book at any time. Voila! We’re back in print. E-books serve the same function since they only exist as a file stored on a computer. Technically, the book is always in stock. So if the author wants the rights to their work back, good luck with that.

A third one (and this is a really troubling trend): An author gets a book deal for a new series. A clause in the contract states that the publisher gets the rights not only to the novel but also its characters. Huh? That way, if the author moves on, the publisher holds the rights to the characters so no new books in that series can be written by the creator for another publisher. The goal of this is two-fold: the publisher can hire another author to continue the series, or the publisher can demand cash to sell their rights to the character. Either way, the author is left in a terrible bind. This one is on the new-ish side and not all publishers are doing it, but my guess is that it will spread.

Agents can help with all of these things, but in the end, the publisher generally holds all the cards or has at least a very strong hand. Quite often (with new authors especially) it’s presented as “take it or leave it”, and many are desperate enough to get published that they take it.

We’re all in this together. Publishers have always claimed poverty. In some cases, it’s true, in others, not so much. Either way, we’ve been so conditioned to expect less and less, who can blame corporations and businesses by trying to use the paradigm shift in general society to their own advantage?

But there are a lot of good guy publishers out there, manned by people who get it. Here’s to the companies that resist temptation and are interested in everyone making money fairly. They seem to be few and far between – and are an endangered species themselves.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Perils of Technology

By Vicki Delany

I enjoyed Barbara’s post on the complications of crafting a plot around modern technology, cell phones in particular. In the Constable Molly Smith series, I have to always be thinking of DNA results, fingerprint analysis, cell phone records, bank warrants, and on and on, when what I really want my characters to concentrate on is what the suspect says, and how they react, what the witnesses saw, and what they only think they saw.

But now that I’m writing cozies for Obsidian and Berkley Prime Crime, I am delighting in not having to worry about most of that stuff. Because the so-called-sleuth isn’t a detective or police officer, she doesn’t have access to any forensic methods, or computer data bases. She can’t order suspects to talk to her or obtain a warrant to check bank or phone records.  

Cozy mysteries are often called traditional mysteries. Somewhat of a misnomer, I think, but in this one aspect the name fits. The sleuth has none of modern policing and forensics at her disposal. All she has to go on is her observation of human beings, what she knows about people, what she can detect from what’s happening immediately around her. And gossip, of course, where would the amateur sleuth be without gossip?

Usually obtained at the bakery or coffee shop over a latte and blueberry scone.

I am enjoying writing these books a lot, and part of the reason is that I can forget about all that techo stuff, and just concentrate on the people. It’s all about the people. Sometimes people lie, or they forget, or they misrepresent, and it’s up to the amateur sleuth to parse her way through lies and misdirections. Sometimes she’s not so good at it. And that’s the fun of the writing too.

However, there’s still the sticky problem of cell phones and calling for help. Even an amateur sleuth has a cell phone. In the second book in the series, Booked for Trouble, I had to tie myself into knots when someone is kidnapped and spirited away in a car and Lucy Richardson chases them in her mother’s Mercedes SLK (and was that a fun scene to write!) Why the heck, the reader might ask, does Lucy not just phone the cops and tell them what’s going on?

You’ll have to read the book to find out how I got around that one.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Up and at 'em!

Finally, after five long years, my new book is out, Rescue From Planet Pleasure. What took so long?

Well, first of all, I had to write the damn thing. But it's more complicated than that. In 2010, after my fifth book in the series was released, HarperCollins chose not to renew my contract. The reason? Sales. The situation baffled to me. Everyone told me each book was better than the previous, but as you tracked my sales numbers, they declined with every new title. So I was frustrated and bitter with publishing. Seems that no matter what I did, I felt like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. Let me qualify that. I was and am grateful for all the success that I've had, but I can't deny my frustration at trying my best and coming up short.

I had cooked up some new stories which I submitted as partials. But no bites. So for two years I was spinning my wheels with nothing new in the pipeline. Since no one in publishing showed interest in my stories, I didn't finish them. Meanwhile, the Amazon ebook boom was taking off, and I had nothing to offer. But day by day, fan emails trickled into my mailbox. "Where's the new Felix story?" "You left so much unresolved. You owe us." So I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and got back on that horse to start writing book six. My intention was to self-publish but at Comicpalooza in Houston, TX, I ran across the WordFire Press booth in the dealer's pavilion. I was impressed by their hustle and presentation. WordFire is a regional press owned by SF writer extraordinaire Kevin J. Anderson. He and his stalwart crew have not only put together an impressive stable of writers, they also formed partnerships with other publishers to juice everyone's authors. I decided to throw my hat into their ring. I commissioned an artist friend, Eric Matelski, for the cover and he did a fantastic job. WordFire did the legwork with the editing and formatting. This weekend an advanced copy will be available at Denver Comic Con.

Am I happy? You bet. How am I celebrating? By writing Book 7, Steampunk Banditos. Coming next year.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Finding a Character's Achilles Heel

In the mythology of Archaic Greece, Thetis, a sea goddess, marries the mortal hero Peleus. To give their son, Achilles, immortality, she – in one version of the myth – dips the infant into the Styx, the river of Hades. But she holds him by his heel, and that part of his body remains vulnerable.

Although Achilles becomes a legendary warrior, he is killed by Paris with an arrow to his heel.

I have been thinking about Achilles and his heel. I've also been thinking about the "tragic flaw" that is the undoing of Shakespeare's heroes – Othello's jealousy, Macbeth's ambition, Hamlet's indecision. I've been thinking about vulnerabilities because of the two main characters in my 1939 historical thriller. I have an upright, highly moral hero who right now would be chewed up and spit out by my villain. I have a villain who is vile and despicable, who will not hesitate to do what is required to achieve his goal. My hero is a black college-educated sleeping car porter and son of a Southern Baptist minister. My villain is a white New South business man, the son of a doctor and grandson of a Civil War general. Right now, I'm finding my hero's minister father and my villain's father, the doctor, a lot more interesting than hero and villain.

Something's wrong. And I know what it is. My thriller is a big story – moving through the real life events of 1939.  But my hero isn't up to the task. Easy enough to have him discover that something is a-foot. But not at all believable right now that he would pull together his own team of men to pursue the villain and his co-conspirators. Right now, I can't imagine my sweet, idealistic hero doing battle with my villain at the end of the book. My hero must grow. I need to find what it is that would push him to do the things that he can't imagine doing – taking charge, going after the bad guys, taking them down. Idealism will only get him so far.

And then there's my villain. I need to get him out of that black cape – not that he's wearing one. In fact, he seems to be a amicable, cultured, man of integrity. But in my head, he is wearing a black cape and twirling his mustache. I don't like him. But I need to know him. I need to find the Achilles heel, the tragic flaw (from his point of view) that will make him vulnerable. What will shake my villain? What will make him hesitate or make a questionable choice? He will have all the advantages in this game, but I need him to have an Achilles heel.

I've been thinking about these characters for a while, and I had hoped to know them better by now. I've never tried to write a thriller, but I know that the kind of thriller I want to write requires characters who are both three-dimensional and bigger than life. My villain has a plot of epic proportions. He has the money and the knowledge and the access to carry it off. But the question is why would he? Making him a mad man is too easy. I need him to be a zealot, a believer in his cause, a man who thinks he is can do this and get away with it. I need him to at the same time be a son and a friend and a man who is in love. I need to use what is "good" about him to make him three-dimensional. And then I need to give him an internal conflict. He needs to be a man bent on a course, but something makes him stumble or overreach or get careless.

As for my hero – my poor, sweet, kind hero – what is going to fire him up? The book will only work if he is who he is. Right now, I can hear his voice, but it's a voice that is so alien to me that I'm resisting letting him be who he is. I think my only solution is to dig deeper in my historical research and understand him better. College-educated, working as a porter, saving money to go to law school – about to take on a task that he could never imagine. Why? Because he is who he is and can't turn to the police or the FBI with his suspicions. But he's still not up to this. He is smart enough, but not determined enough. He believes in justice. He is optimistic about the future. Now, I need to have him believe that the future he imagines for himself and his country is in jeopardy. He needs to believe as passionately as my villain does that he needs to do what has to be done.

My hero, my villain, and I have a long way to go before the final confrontation. But writing this post has helped me see what I need to do. I need to believe in this story that I want to tell. I have a plot. I have characters. One more dip into research and then I need to start writing and see what happens. Sometimes a writer needs to take a leap of faith.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

I Feel Your Pain...

I, Donis, get so many ideas for blog entries from my fellow Type M-ers. When they write about their writing influences, about being over-committed, on-line presence, plotting and characterization, conferences... Oh, I understand every word. I feel you pain, your worry, your love and longing, your satisfaction, in my bones. It's the joy of writing. I had difficulty deciding which theme to follow up on this week, but when I read Rick's post of May 12 (Ah, the Writer's Life for Me), I was immediately reminded of a post I did many years ago about what really runs through an author's head when she's doing a book signing. I would bet that there is not a published author living who has not had at least one of these thoughts run through her head. Please indulge me, Dear Reader, as I repost an entry about an experience to which we can all relate.

What did you just say?

The Author is spending her afternoon in a bookstore, doing a signing. She is pulling out everything she has in her bag of tricks, trying to interest shoppers in her latest book.  She does not sit.  She has all kinds of things to give away, including candy, on the table.  She hands bookmarks and flyers to anyone who comes within ten feet of her table.  She smiles so much that her cheeks hurt.

She does not bother those who pass her table with their faces averted in order to avoid eye contact, but she engages with anyone who seems interested, and she talks about whatever they want to talk about, all the while trying gently to steer the conversation around to her book.She is tact itself.  She knows exactly what to say to the questions and comments that are directed at her again and again.  But what she says and what she is thinking bear little relation to one another.  Let’s listen in…

COMMENT 1: I don’t like mysteries.
THE AUTHOR SAID: What sort of thing do you like to read? OR Do you know someone who does like mysteries?
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: What do you mean you don’t like mysteries, you knucklehead?  Have you ever read one?  Do you know what a mystery is?  A good mystery is a psychological drama extraordinaire.  Even Hamlet is a mystery – did Uncle Claudius kill Daddy, or is Hamlet just nuts?

COMMENT 2 : I don’t read anything that doesn’t have a contemporary setting.  If it happened before I was born, it doesn’t interest me.
THE AUTHOR SAID: Sometimes you can learn a lot about what is happening today by reading about the past.
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: Come over here so I can slap you upside the head, whippersnapper.  Don’t you know that people in the past were exactly the same as they are today?  Don’t you know that people never learn, and the same things keep happening over and over again?  That those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it?  Of course you don’t, since you were either born yesterday or just fell off the turnip truck.

COMMENT 3:   I have a great idea for a novel.  If I tell it to you and you write it we can split the profits and become millionaires.
THE AUTHOR SAID:  I’m sorry, but I’m under contract to write X number of novels for the next 20 years and just don’t have time to ghost write.  But there are people who do that.  Look on the internet.
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: Are you too busy/handicapped/lazy /illiterate to do it yourself, or do you simply have no concept of reality?

COMMENT 4:  You’re the first real author I ever met.  I just finished my first novel.  Will you show it to your editor/edit it for me/recommend me to your agent or publisher?
THE AUTHOR SAID:  I’m sorry, but my agent/editor/publisher won’t allow me to read or recommend unpublished manuscripts in case one of my future stories has similar elements and we get sued for plagiarism. But I can give you some tips on how to get started.
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: No.  I’ve never seen you in my life.  How do I know you’re not a psychopath? Get away from me.

COMMENT 5: I’m not interested in your book.  I’ve never heard of you.
THE AUTHOR SAID: (she launches into a long tale about how years ago she bought a signed first edition of Outlander before anyone ever heard of Diana Gabaldon and now that book is worth at least $650.)
BUT SHE WAS THINKING: Actually, I’m going to be on the six o’clock news tonight after my arrest for assault.

(The author is just joshing.  I LOVE everybody who speaks to me during a signing and would never have an ungenerous thought about any of them.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Those pesky cellphones

Barbara here. We have all seen the park benches, restaurant tables and buses where everyone is hunched over their favourite electronic devices, thumbing through data on a minuscule screen to the complete exclusion of the outside world and their friends beside them. The art of conversation, and of real-time, real-life connection, is being lost, and at times I despair of the future of humanity.

I am not writing about the demise of humanity today, however. That's a post for another day. I am writing about the challenge of writing a suspenseful thriller or mystery in our digital, over-connected world. Almost everyone has a smartphone, and digital towers are springing up all over the world, even in remote deserts. Not only can these phones communicate instantly by text or voice, but they have built-in GPSs and location functions, so you can look up where you are, and others can look up where you are. In addition, the phones have cameras, so you can take photos of bad guys, pursuers, and suspicious characters and instantly text or email them. Help is rarely more than a click away. Danger is averted and the murder solved, possibly within fifty pages.

That is a serious problem. As cellphones slowly encroached on our lives, we writers devised ingenious ways of disabling them in order to ensure that the suspense and drama could continue to escalate. The wretched things have been dropped in puddles or absentmindedly left on bedside tables. The batteries have died. But we are running out of fresh ideas. Our hero can forget her cellphone once, but do it twice, and the writer risks an impatient eye roll from a reader who, having seen this ploy before, has been silently screaming from the sidelines "Don't forget your cellphone, you idiot!" Or "Not another puddle!"

In the city, a writer has to stand on her head to get around the problem of cellphone coverage, public wifi (and old Starbucks or Tim Hortons will do), and Google map functions that can tell you the location of any place you want and how to get there. It's really hard to be lost or out of touch in the city. It used to be that there were enough dead zones in rural areas that a writer could get away with having no signal for their hapless hero to use. This still happens, but it's increasingly rare. Add to that the availability of satellite phones, and the excuse of no signal becomes tenuous. What halfway competent, forward-thinking hero would head into the wilderness without a satellite phone, beacon locators, or at least a hand-held GPS?

Well, mine. In my latest book,  FIRE IN THE STARS, which was just submitted to the publisher, there would have been no story if she'd had those things. She would have phoned the RCMP, they would have pinpointed her location, and that would be that. I was forced to use some ingenuity to explain why she had no sat phone, GPS, or even a functioning compass, when she headed into a remote region of northern Newfoundland. I knew she was a smart, resourceful woman, so I had to explain why she would risk her life and continue on rather than going back for help or being prepared in the first place. Many remote parts of Newfoundland have spotty cellphone coverage, and handily even the police radio signals are not always reliable– another challenge for the writer of modern crime novels. Satellite coverage– whether for radios, phones, or GPSs– can also be disrupted if a hill or other obstacle blocks the signal, but using that excuse more than once or twice also risks an eye roll from jaded readers. "Just climb the freaking hill", they would shout.

The problems really started with the advent of 911 (or possibly with telephones themselves) but has steadily worsened. We have all read books where the hero gets herself into a ridiculously complicated situation while the reader is silently thinking "Oh for Pete's sake, why doesn't she just call 911?" Modern readers are savvy, and you can bet some of them know the latest tech gizmos that every intrepid hero should not leave home without.

Cellphones and other devices can be used to advantage for the writer too, of course. A cellphone can be found by the dead body, and its history and messages can provide clues. Cellphone conversations can be choppy or incomplete, the signal fading at the crucial moment when the killer's name is being mentioned. Computer search histories and emails are a gold mine of information to enhance the mystery. We writers have embraced that. Now if we could just lose that pesky smartphone when we need to. Anyone out there have any other ideas?