Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Writing to Music

After reading Frankie’s post the other day on the number of books on her nightstand, I checked out the list of questions posed as part of the Sisters in Crime September Blog Hop. The questions about music and writing caught me eye so today I’ll be addressing those: Do you listen to music while writing? What’s on your playlist?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I really like music, all kinds. According to Cornell University, there’s evidence that music is good for your health. I’d love to be able to listen to music while I’m writing, but I just can’t write fiction to most of it. I can’t write to anything with words. Interestingly enough, when I wrote technical documents I had no problem listening to, and singing along with, all kinds of music. But fiction is another story.

The only exceptions to the no-words rule are Gregorian chants and the music of Hawaiian singer Keali‛i Reichel (as long as he’s singing in Hawaiian.) I’m even picky about the instrumental music I listen to while I’m writing. Mozart, Bach, smooth jazz artists like Chris Botti and Dave Koz are all okay. Harp music is a particular favorite. (Right now I’m listening to Christine Grace Magnussen’s On Wings of a Dove: Harp Music to Soothe the Soul.) I heard once that harp music can calm down an agitated cat. I tried it on one of our cats and it seemed to help. I know it calms me down. Perhaps I’m part cat.

But I cannot listen to instrumental versions of well-known Christmas carols while working on a book. I find myself singing along, drifting off into a winter wonderland instead of paying attention to my writing.

So, I’m curious. Does anyone else have this problem? Or are you all happily writing to the latest hits?

And now I’ll introduce you to the author I’m linking to as part of the blog hop: Diann Adamson. We’re both members of the Los Angeles Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Diann is currently serving as the chapter’s Membership Director. This weekend on she’ll be talking about the writers that have influenced her.

In the fun word category I have a couple more for you this week. I was watching an episode of Sleepy Hollow and they used two words I found particularly interesting: gongoozler and gumplefik.

Gongoozler is an idle spectator. (British English) According to its origins are from the early 20th century, originally denoting someone who idly watches activity on a canal. Rare before the 1970s.

>Gumplefik means fidgety and restless. I couldn’t find it in the OED or any other dictionary I have access to, but there are a number of references online to it long before the Sleepy Hollow episode aired. Let me know if you find it in a dictionary. I’d love to know the history of this word!

(See, television can be educational!)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writing and “writing”

Working as I do in graphic design, I have to deal with a lot of advertising copy. Since that’s often in flux as much as the design I’m working on, I get a bird’s eye view of the editing process. Sometimes I’m even a part of it.

If you think we novelists sweat over ever word, you should see the copywriter’s lot in life. They sweat every detail down to periods versus exclamation points, underlines versus no underlines and everyone second guesses what they do. Usually, there are multiple people looking over his/her shoulder, making their own judgements and comments. They all think they know what they’re doing, too — and some actually do — but many times I’ve seen promising copy get sideswiped by too much meddling and over-thinking. And it’s very hard to stop this process. Copywriters, like the graphic designers, want to give their client something the client likes and about which they feel confident that the job has been done properly. Sometimes this involves saving the client from themselves. Oftentimes, though, they don’t want to be saved — or so it appears.

About writing, everyone has their own opinion past a certain point. I’m talking about after all the “nuts and bolts” things have been fixed. Does this work? Should that be tried? Why is this even here? Because advertising copy is, by necessity, extremely distilled, the process is intense. So too with poetry, I would imagine (believe me, you don’t want to read any poetry written by moi!).

Given the length of novels, even short ones, this laser beam scrutiny is harder to achieve. From what I’ve seen in the advertising world, the same editing treatment would result in a writer completing a novel around once every decade. But can we not take something away from the advertising world? The most important thing I’ve learned about great advertising copy is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. The real trick is to get the reader to recognize that the word and punctuation changes are a subtle marker to ideas that are completely sub rosa, but still critically important.

I wish I could show you examples, both good and bad, in packages with which I’ve been involved, but it wouldn’t be fair to my clients. However, next time you read an ad, whether it’s found on a bus, in a magazine or newspaper, a billboard, anywhere, take a look at the construction of the copy and look at the emotions it stirs in you (or not) and whether it makes a connection with you.

Regardless of what you think about the value of ads, that’s the whole purpose of any writing, isn’t it?

Monday, September 15, 2014

The no longer dreaded synopsis

By Vicki Delany

Did someone say synopsis? (What’s the plural of synopsis? Synopsi? ).  Over the course of my writing career I have been what we call a pantser (i.e. write by the seat of my pants).  At Poisoned Pen Press, as Donis pointed out, they require a very brief outline and then the first 100 pages of the MS.  

The best instance of me writing totally by the seat of my pants was the third Constable Molly Smith book, Winter of Secrets, where I knew nothing but the first chapter when I began and continued to know nothing about what was going on until I finished.

I blogged about the process at the time:

But now, I have to announce that I am a convert! I am writing two new cozy series: the Lighthouse Library Series from Penguin Obsidian and the Christmas Town series from Berkely Prime Crime.  You will be hearing more (a lot more!) about those books as time passes, in the meantime, have a peek at my new web page for the Lighthouse Library Series ( BTW, I am using a pen name for the Lighthouse books, Eva Gates.

Those publishers not only require an outline for the new book, they wanted an outline for every book before signing me to a three-book contract!

I’ll never be able to do this, I thought.

I have to if I want this contract, I said to myself.

And so I did. And I found that I really, really like writing by an outline.  The initial coming up with the outline isn’t easy. You have to come up with the main premise, then decide how all the characters are going to behave during the book, who the ‘guest’ characters are and what they are up to, and how it’s all going to be resolved.

But once it’s done, I find that it makes the writing of the book so much easier.  It doesn’t destroy creativity, not at all. Because the outline is just the roadmap, it’s what you see as you travel the road that is creative and fun.  For example, in the second Lighthouse Library book, Booked for Trouble, the protagonist’s mother comes to Nag’s Head (where the series is set) and finds herself accused of a murder.  Okay, that was in the outline. But that she drives a Mercedes SLK was not.  That just came to me as I began to fully describe the mother and some of her habits. Did I have fun putting Lucy, my librarian, in the SLK, particularly during the desperate car chase that leads to the climax.

I am finding that once the hard work of coming up with a plot and all its complications is done, then the writing process is so much easier.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Writing Lessons from a Master… Jeweler?

Please welcome this weekend’s guest blogger, Holly West. Her Mistress of Fortune series transports the reader to late 17th century England, a trip well worth taking. When Holly’s not wandering the captivating streets of 17th century London, she lives, reads, and writes in Los Angeles with her husband, Mick, and dog, Stella.

Take it away, Holly!


Writing Lessons from a Master… Jeweler?

You might notice that Mistress of Lies, the second novel in my Mistress of Fortune series, is dedicated to master jeweler Ralph Goldstein. To give you some context, my series’ protagonist is amateur sleuth Isabel Wilde, a mistress of King Charles II who secretly makes her living as a fortuneteller. But part of her back-story involves her older brother, Adam Barber, who worked as a goldsmith before he died in the Great Plague of 1665. The profession I chose for him is no accident: I spent many years learning and practicing the very techniques used by Adam Barber and his 17th century colleagues under the expert tutelage of Mr. Goldstein.

cover of Mistress of LiesWhile present day goldsmiths might be aided by the use of gas torches and various other conveniences, I can fabricate a ring very much the same way that 17th century goldsmiths did. In fact, I’m fascinated by how little the craft has changed in the past three hundred-plus years. When I sat down to write Mistress of Lies, I knew I wanted to pay homage to the trade I love so much, and as a result, Adam’s story and the possibility that he might’ve been murdered are central to the novel’s plot.

As it turns out, I learned more than goldsmithing from Mr. Goldstein. Though it wasn’t necessarily his intent, he taught me that the dedication required to become a master jeweler is also required to become a master writer. Even if one possesses a natural talent, it takes time, effort, consistent practice and patience to become proficient. Both require the understanding that if something is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing well, and with care.

Though some will argue that Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” has been debunked, the idea that the mastery of a given subject requires a good deal of time and practice resonates with me. It took me five years to write my debut novel, Mistress of Fortune, and much of that time was spent studying the writing craft. I took classes, I wrote regularly, I edited and revised and then revised again. The resulting novel is a polished gem I’m tremendously proud of, and I put these skills to further use in crafting its sequel, Mistress of Lies. I’m far from being a master writer yet—Malcolm Gladwell might say I’m still about 5,000-hours short—but I’m dedicated to pursuing the craft and becoming the best I can be.

The tools of the writers trade might differ from that of a goldsmith—pen and paper or a computer replace gas torches and mandrels—but the principles of mastery remain the same. I’ll be forever grateful to my mentor, Mr. Goldstein, who instilled these standards in me before I ever wrote my first paragraph.

To celebrate the September 29 release of Mistress of Lies, my publisher, Carina Press, is offering Mistress of Fortune at the sale price of 99 cents. Both titles in the Mistress of Fortune series are available for purchase wherever ebooks are sold.

Friday, September 12, 2014

In Danger of Being Crushed

This month Sisters in Crime (SinC), the organization for women mystery writers (and men who support our mission), is sponsoring a "SinC-up for bloggers". SinC members are encouraged to blog about one or more of the suggested questions and then link to another author who will do the same:

I going to answer the question: "What books are on your nightstand right now?" I like this question because I was horrified by how many books were on my nightstand. I had a Collyer Brothers (the notorious hoarders) moment  
as I imagined the pile getting higher and higher until it towered over my head on the pillow. Then I would make an awkward sweeping movement as I tossed in my sleep and all the books would come crashing down on my head. What a way to go! Done in by a pile of books in various stages of being read.

At present, there are only four books on my nightstand. I'll talk about what they are in a moment. But the reason there are only four books is because I realized the danger of having a pile of books between me and the water glass I sometimes wake up and fumble for in the middle of the night. I realized that about the time I bumped a book, hit the lamp, and knocked the glass over. By the time I had gotten out of bed and found a mop I'd concluded there was no sensible reason to have more than one book on the nightstand at a time. But somehow three more books found their way back there.

The problem is that I have so many books I need or want to get read, that it's not only what is on my nightstand but what I've just scooped off the floor by my armchair in the living room or what I've piled on top of other books in my bookcase.

Right now, I'm trying to focus on George Orwell's 1984. I've read this one before. But this semester, we're planning an event at school -- a screening of the most recent film adaptation followed by a panel discussion -- and I want to make sure the book is fresh in my mind. So I read 1984 last week on my flight home to Virginia and on the way back. And then I lost it for two days among the books in my house or at the office. The truth is, I still haven't found the copy I was reading. But, luckily, I'd purchased a new copy because I couldn't find the old one -- and then I found it and lost it again.

What else am I dipping into as I try to finish 1984?  A Short History of Rudeness by Mark Caldwell. I've read that one before, too, but I'm reading it again as I think about civility. I'm thinking about civility because that's the other part of our theme for the semester -- civility and surveillance in public spaces. I'm also reading Caldwell's book again because I'm thinking about these issues in relation to the book I'm writing about dress, appearance and criminal justice.

I'm still working -- slowly -- on my historical thriller set in 1939. So I have a copy of Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression on my nightstand. Important scenes in the book take place in New York City, so the fourth book on my table -- a bulky paperback of 700 pages -- is The WPA Guide to New York, produced by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s.

Two book are about to take their turn circulating off my bookshelves to my nightstand, or maybe only as far as the dining room table -- Does This Mean You'll See Me Naked: Field Notes From A Funeral Director by Robert D. Webster and Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. I'm reading the Webster book because the victim in my next Hannah McCabe book (What the Fly Saw, due out in March) is a funeral director. I started reading about the funeral industry and death rituals and superstitions as I was doing research. The Kingston book is rotating back in again because I'm in need of de-cluttering. I turn to that book when I need a boost to get my clutter at least sorted into tidy piles. If I could ever finish the process, I'm sure my feng shui would be much better and my life would become orderly. But, at least, having Kingston's slender book there on my table ensures I won't sink into Collyer-like chaos.

There you have it -- what's on my nightstand and a few of the books that are scattered about elsewhere. I know there was a time in my life when I read one book at a time. I still try to do that when I want to relax. But with so many books to be read, I often end up multi-reading -- going from book to book based on what calls to me any given moment. Confessions of a scattered reader.

And now, I'd like to introduce the author to whom I'm linking --Eleanor Kuhns:

Eleanor and I are both members of the Upper Hudson Valley (Mavens of Mayhem) chapter of Sisters in Crime and we share the same publisher. Eleanor's first book, A Simple Murder, was the winner of the 2011 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel. She writes a historical mystery series set in the late 18th century. Take it away, Eleanor.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Two Hundred and Fifty Words

We've been having some unusual weather here in the desert over the past few weeks. You Dear Readers may even have heard of our Hard Rain. We usually get some seven inches of rain in a year here in the Phoenix area. Last Monday morning we got five to six inches in less than 24 hours. Needless to say, we aren't set up for that sort of thing around here. The drains couldn't take it. There was nowhere for that water to go. Many folks were flooded out of their homes, and believe me, no one has flood insurance around here. I'm happy to say that even though we got ankle deep water in the back yard, there was no flooding in the house. By Tuesday the freeways were no longer rivers and I was able to make a creative writing workshop I was giving that day in Cottonwood, a town about 115 miles north of where I live. If I enjoyed weather like this I would have stayed in Oklahoma.

Photo of the freeway, from The Arizona Republic Newspaper

But back to business. Over the past week, some of my fellow Type M-ers have been writing about the agony of the synopsis. Never has a truer word been spoken than when they pointed out that you may send in a synopsis of what you think the book will be about, but by the time you finish writing the book, it will probably bear little resemblance to description you worked so hard on. The synopsis/outline that I submit to the publisher beforehand isn’t all that complex. I simply tell the story in a short, narrative form, and that seems to be fine. Before I submit a complete manuscript, my publisher requires that I send her the first 100 pages for approval. Having the publisher review the novel’s progress has on more than one occasion saved me some major rewriting.

After one’s book is accepted for publication, many presses ask their authors to send them detailed information about the book, the author, publicity plans and ideas, and lists of institutions, groups, and people who may be interested in receiving an advance copy of the book for review. But in my humble opinion the very hardest thing to do well is the 250-word summary. That one is a killer, as anyone who as ever tried to summarize a novel can attest. How do you reduce your brilliant tome to its barest essence in such a way that readers will be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and beat down the doors of their local bookstore in their desire to get their hands on your book the minute it comes out?

The regular contributors to Type M are all writers with media, advertising, education and literature backgrounds who have learned from hard use and sheer practice how to go about it. Some may even enjoy it, but I find it painful. Yet being able to summarize your book in a few words and make it interesting is an incredibly important skill for an author to have.

Here’s the technique I’ve developed over the years: I start by writing a summary of the story that is as long, wordy, flowery, poetic, and descriptive as I think it needs to be, and word-count take the hindmost. Then I go back and cut out the flowers and the poetry. Then out comes the descriptive. I don’t need to say who this character is. This plot point or side story which I mentioned is not a crucial element of the story. In the fifth draft, I realize I don’t need this sentence. In the sixth draft, I don’t need this clause. This word. By the the tenth draft, the summary is as distilled and to the point as Scotch whiskey.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Searching for truth in a wonderful strange land

Barbara here, writing this blog in a small cabin on the western coast of Newfoundland. A full moon is shining through the spruce trees and a wide, shallow brook is swishing by a few feet from my front deck, although I am inside because there is a fierce wind sweeping off the Strait of Belle Isle and a forecast of possible frost.

I am here researching locations and details for my latest book, and am having a wonderful time hiking the shorelines and mountain trails of one of the most beautiful and remote places in the world. One of the charms and frustrations of this beautiful peninsula is that cellphone and internet coverage is very spotty. The locals laugh about it. Stand over there by that tree, m' dear, hold your phone out towards the ocean, stand on one foot, and it might work for you. This afternoon, sitting in this very same chair, I had no signal, but now the wind has died down a bit and I am getting full bars. I hope they hang around long enough for me to post this blog.

This is one of the reasons I came to Newfoundland, and to the Northern Peninsula in particular. I have visited the island several times and grew up on stories told by my Newfoundland-born father. But a writer needs more that general memories and impressions. If we are writing about a real place, we need to know the smells and sights and sounds of it. Otherwise some Newfoundlander is going to say "That girl doesn't know what she's talking about!" And more importantly, those specific details provide the vivid texture and colour that make the story come alive.

So I am photographing and writing notes on every scene along the way - the stones on the shoreline, the colour and sound of the surf, the way the boats are scattered on the shore, the ferns and moss on the forest floor, the strange, twisted tangle of the tuckamore (which makes a perfect hiding place for a frightened fugitive). Often this exploration provides plot ideas and inspiration, such as the tuckamore. Sometimes, and equally important, it provides a reality check. Oh,oh, that idea won't work because the villagers are much too nosy, or keep too sharp an eye out, or there are local AVT and hunting trails all through the area I had thought was deserted.

I am also talking to local people to get the information I need. Yesterday I spent the morning talking to a woman from canine search and rescue here on the peninsula, and tomorrow I hope to talk to fishermen and plant workers at the local shrimp centre just north of here. Later in the week I hope to talk to the local RCMP. Going to the source, like a journalist, gives me a richness of detail and a personal perspective I'd never get on Google.

Which brings me back to the internet. Today's mystery writers are constantly trying to find ways around it. Nothing more frustrating than that niggling voice in our heads that says why doesn't she just use her cellphone? Or her GPS? People are connected within an inch of their lives today, making it really difficult for writers to make them lost or in jeopardy or unable to call for back-up, etc. Dropping cellphones into puddles or draining their batteries can only work so often. My Newfoundland story requires that the characters be out of touch, or at least only sporadically able to communicate with the outside world. Hence I was thrilled to discover that large swaths are without coverage, and sometimes you had to stand on one food and hold the phone over the ocean to get any signal. I have been testing the dead zones and signal strength all the way up the coast and will continue to map it for the rest of the trip. All part of realism. I don't want any resident of the remote little village of Conche saying "Wait a minute, there's perfectly good reception here, m' dear! That girl don't know what she's talking about!"

For now, let's just see if I can send this blog.