Wednesday, April 01, 2015

An Unexpected Gift

Even before I became a writer, I was a big-time reader. Fiction, nonfiction, mystery, thriller, historical. You know the drill. I pretty much still am, though I have less time to read these days.

When I do get the chance to pick up a book, I notice things about stories that I never used to. How they're constructed. How the choice of a word makes a difference in how I feel as a reader. And, when I find a novel or short story particularly satisfying, I'll go back and reread parts or all of it, trying to figure out what makes it tick. Why I liked it so much. How the author managed to make me feel sad, happy, angry, etc. at a particular point.

The same goes for television shows or movies though, with them, it's less about the words used and more about the construction of the story. The other day, I watched an episode of a crime drama that involved the kidnapping of a baby. At the end, the child was found. The man who had him was driving a car along a road and the police gave chase. The writers could have just had the police stop the vehicle (after whatever is deemed the appropriate amount of chase time for television) but, instead, they added a further complication. The vehicle ended up in a lake, completely submerged. Don't worry, the baby was rescued after someone dove in, broke a window and grabbed the infant out of the backseat. I don't remember if the kidnapper was rescued. I'm not sure I cared.

I appreciated that plot twist. It reminded me that you can't ever make it too easy for your characters. Just when they seem to be reaching their goal, add a complication. In this case, the car going into the lake and the possibility the baby won't be rescued after all.

This change in mindset is similar to what happened to me when I studied Hebrew in college. When I'd leave class, I started looking at the world from right to left instead of left to right. Things looked just a bit different. And when I did some script supervising on student films I started noticing continuity errors in movies I saw that I would never have noticed before. Though those two abilities both faded away as soon as I stopped studying Hebrew and doing continuity for films.

Some people might consider it an annoyance. You've lost the ability to simply enjoy a story instead of analyzing it. For me, it’s a gift, giving me the opportunity to appreciate an author's work even more.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

More on minions — and other minor characters

I loved Mario’s post this weekend. The word “minion” conjures up so many wonderful images, but it was also a very thoughtful piece that caused me to begin thinking about minor characters and even those little walk-ons that happen when one is writing fiction.

We often talk about “colour” and “place” in novels and they are crucial important background items that help a great deal in bringing a story to vivid life – especially if the reader lives there or has visited. That visceral “I’ve seen that building!” or “I know that place”, can certainly add to a novel’s success. For those who haven’t been to that location, the writer must provide clear images to fire the imagination and inner eye of the reader. It really can be the kiss of death when a novelist can’t manage to portray these things believably (or at all).

But maybe there’s a third very important background piece that is too often taken for granted in novel writing: the perfect background character.

I know I’ve been guilty of not giving these important people their due. You know what I mean. If you had to visually represent them, most would be cardboard cutouts. It’s quick and easy to populate a story with the “extras” you need, but I, for one, need to do it with more care.

There is something else that must be considered here, though, before you start to flesh out those walk-ons: how much is too much?

Everyone in a novel can’t be a “character”, those people who are quirky, often memorable, and when used judiciously, can lift the writing directly into the readers’ imagination. I can’t remember now whose novel it was (but it was a well-known, dare I say, famous author who was well thought of), but I do remember not finishing the book. The problem was that every character seemed to have an interesting background, or something quirky about their personality to the point that the main characters seemed overwhelmed by the background and the story rather bogged down. I remember thinking, Too hard to wade through, and set the book aside.

So that’s the back side of this coin. The front side reveals books that are so plot- and/or character- driven that unimportant characters are herded on and off the stage to the point where they seem more like cattle.

Where is the happy medium and how do you know when you’ve found it? And what are the secrets to being in that “sweet spot”?

I’ll have more thoughts on this next week, but first, I want to hear from Type M readers, and not just those of you who are authors. For the readers: how much do you want/need to know about those with whom the main characters in a book interact? What authors do you think handle this particularly well – and why? For the authors: how do you handle this aspect when crafting your novels?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Home again, home again

By Vicki Delany

Here I am relaxing at home. (Not actually relaxing, mind because I have three books still to be released in 2015 and more to write for 2016, but you get the point). Over the months of February and March I visited Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Oregon, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.  Oh, and my home province of Ontario also.

All in the service of promoting my newest book, By Book or By Crook, the first in the Lighthouse Library series, written under the pen name of Eva Gates.

Its been an exhausting schedule, but as has been said many times before, the best part of being a writer is the friends you make.  I travelled and did appearances with Kate Carlisle, Jenn McKinley, Donis Casey, Erika Chase, and Barbara Fradkin. I talked books with Molly Weston and Barbara Peters. At Left Coast Crime in Portland, I hung around with the great Canadian contingent of Robin Harlick, Cathy Ace, Sam Wiebe, Linda Wiken, Barbara Fradkin, Eric Brown and Madeleine Harris-Callway (some of whom are pictured below).

And there I met readers galore. Below is the table that Linda Wiken and I hosted at the LCC banquet. 

I am often asked if I find this sort of tour worthwhile, and I say yes.  With some reservations. It`s always difficult to tell what lasting effect (if any) your appearance will have.  I didn’t sell anywhere near enough books to pay for the flights and hotels, nor did I expect to, but I hope it will pay back over time.  I signed at Mystery on the Beach in Del Ray Beach Florida and By Book or By Crook was the number five bestselling paperback (trade and mass market) in the store for February. 

Booksellers who might not have read my new book otherwise, read it because I was coming, and loved it and so they promoted it to their customers. Certainly being on a panel with bestselling cozy authors like Jenn McKinlay and Kate Carlisle is invaluable for introducing Eva Gates as a new cozy author.

Cave Creek AZ with Kate Carlisle and Jenn McKinlay

Wherever I was I managed to find the time to drop into Barnes and Nobel to sign copies of the store stock of By Book or By Crook and slip my bookmarks into them.  Hopefully, browsing readers will come across them.

Next up: Malice Domestic in Bethesda, May 1 – 3, and the Mechanicsburg Mystery bookstore in Mechanicsburg PA on May 3rd. And, best of all, ROAD TRIP! with Mary Jane Maffini and Linda Wiken.

Until then, I had better get some writing done. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Respect Your Minions

I'm close to priming the BSP pump and start spraying news about my forthcoming Felix Gomez detective-vampire book, Rescue From Planet Pleasure. Early in that story I had a battle between the good vampires and the enemy bloodsuckers. My heroes were cutting down the bad guys by the dozens. Then during the writing of that manuscript I saw the James Bond thriller, Skyfall, and that made me reconsider the body count. Near the climax of the movie, a horde of bad guys close upon Bond and company trapped in the mansion. Our intrepid champions cut through the ranks of the evil doers who kept attacking and attacking like mindless zombies. Then it hit me.

Why are minions so willingly expendable? Why are the bad guy pawns so relentless in their attack despite being slaughtered? These guys are criminals, which means they have only two possible motives. Either they are cultish slaves or they're in the business of murder and mayhem for profit. Even if they are devoted slaves to the master criminal, wouldn't they--as they're being mowed down--ask the boss to reconsider their strategy? What's the point of them dying like vermin? And if they're in it for the money, I think that after one or two bite the dust, the rest would pull back and regroup. Money is only good if you can spend it, something that's hard to do from the grave.

In Skyfall the bad guys arrive in a gigantic helicopter, worth tens of millions of dollars. Flying that machine ain't easy, so it would have to be piloted by an experienced and rather level-headed crew, and despite their competency, the copter is easily destroyed. At what point would the crew hit "minion-override" and decide to quit acting stupid? A band of murderous criminals is like a pack of wolves, and like wolves, once the alpha threatens the pack, then they turn on him.

That realization made me reconsider the slaughter of the minions in my story, and I cut back on the body count. I even had some of the minions rebel against the villain because of their useless loss. As we writers like to say, everyone is the hero of their own story, so it would make sense for the minions to act in their own self-interest. Which actually makes for a more layered and deeper story. Lesson learned.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Until Death Do Us Part

This is going to be a short post because today is a busy one.

Whenever Chicago The Musical, is touring in the Albany area, I always have too much going on to attend a performance. But I was thinking of the musical and the story behind it a few days ago. I showed the students in my crime and mass media class a clip from the movie. As many of you know, the 1926 play was written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, inspired by two high-profile murder cases in which women accused
of murder of a lover of husband had been acquitted. She wrote the play as a satire on crime and celebrity while attending Yale Drama School.

I always think of Watkins' play in conjunction with Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles" (1916) about the murder of John Hossack. Glaspell adapted the play as a short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" (1917).

Glaspell was a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News when she covered the trial of Margaret Hossack. Hossack was accused of killing her husband, a wealthy farmer, with an axe while he slept. Hossack was first convicted and sentenced to prison. But she was freed after a second trial resulted in a hung jury. No one was ever convicted of the crime, but the case affected Glaspell deeply. If Watkins's play is about a garish, brightly-lit world, Glaspell's is about the isolation of Midwestern farm life. I'd be interested in hearing what you think of her story.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Seasons of an Artist’s Life, or Been There, Done That

As he was ringing us up, the very good looking, very young and studly clerk asked us, "So, are you celebrating tonight? Going to a party? Having some green beer?" It was St. Patrick's Day and my husband Don and I were standing at the check-out counter at Trader Joe's.

"No," I said. "Been there, done that."

"Don't worry," he told us, "I'll take up where you left off."

I thought of this when I read Rick's entry on this blog yesterday. He noted that he no longer has the same energy he had in his youth, and though still creative and infinitely more experienced, one's "fire burns nowhere as hot as it once did."

I know what you mean, Rick. When I was a kid, I started writing stories as a distraction from family trauma. I created worlds and escaped into them. I remember with fond nostalgia the days I would write for hours on end, lost in my stories, feeling an actual love for my characters as though they were my real friends or family or lovers. (Sometimes I loved my characters more than certain friends or family or lovers.) I have a much more business-like relationship with my fiction these days. I don't have the passion I once had. Just more skill.

Well, to everything there is a season, so the Bible says. The body and the brain sputter and fade out eventually. Of course, I never really thought that talent or genius originates in the brain, anyway. Years ago it occurred to me like a flash of lightning that your brain is just like a radio transmitter that picks up inspiration from the Big Mysterious Place and allows you to transform that inspiration into action in the physical world. It's just that as your receptors fray you have a little more trouble picking up the signal.
In other news, I am so close to finishing this new book. Every day for the past two weeks, I've gotten out of bed and thought, "Today's the day!" Thus far it hasn't been.

I had a rather painful writing day today. I sat in front of my computer and did my duty with gritted teeth. I typed a lot of words, most of which I’ll either have to take out later or move to a different scene. But I did it, by damn, and I’m hoping I dug out a lot of slag that has a piece or two of gold in it that I can use later.

I never know why one day is better than another when it comes to writing. Each book seems to be a whole new order of creation for me, and demands its own unique method of coming into being. I’ve been known to outline before I begin when I think that would help me clarify the direction of the plot in my own mind. I have also simply started writing, usually at the beginning, but I’ve started in the middle and the end, as well. More than once I’ve begun a novel on the fly, and then gone back and created an outline because I’ve gotten myself into a muddle and can’t quite figure the way out.he middle of a novel, there may come a moment when you wonder if you're ever going to be able to get it done. You know where you want to end up, but you're not entirely sure how you're going to get there. Sometimes I feel frightened, and wonder if I still have it in me. Will I find my way out of this maze, and do it in such a way that I bring the reader along with me?

It’s not like this has never happened to me before, and I must remember that miraculously it always works out. As I write the first draft, my beginnings never do match the end, for somewhere in the middle of the story, I changed my mind about this character, or this action, or this story line. I try not to waste time by going back to the beginning and fixing it to fit my new vision. No, no, that way lies madness. I can get (and have gotten) caught up in an endless merry-go-round of fixes and never reach the end. I just have to keep going until the book is done. I love writing, but I hate the pressure of trying to get the manuscript done by a deadline. Sometimes I ask myself, do I have to do this? Really, would the world fall apart if I turned it in a couple of weeks late?

Would it?*
*I'll never know. I'm too neurotic not to do whatever it takes to get the thing done in time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is really special creativity only the provenance of youth?

I was away last week and totally oblivious to what day it happened to be, hence one of my rare non-appearances on Type M. My apologies for that. Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing when that happens, but, well, it happens. The world continued to turn. Life as we know it didn’t suffer. And I’m back again this week.

While away, I began reading an account of something that’s always interested me intensely: the soul music of the 1960s that came out of Memphis, Tennessee on the Stax Record label. Yeah, it’s an arcane subject, and most of you reading this have no idea what I am referring to, but that’s okay. It’s not what this weeks post is truly about. It just provides the jumping off point. If you are interested, the book is called Soulsville, U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records by Rob Bowman.

Stax Records was an anomaly in its time. First and foremost, it was integrated. Its studio musicians, the ones who cranked out all those classic soul tunes by Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, etc. got their jobs because of their musicianship. Skin colour didn’t enter into it and that was very rare, especially in the South. This was during a time when the racial turmoil that griped the US was at its height. Once through the doors of Stax, racial differences didn’t matter. Musicianship did.

What amazes me, though, is the incredible musical creativity that existed when those band members got together. Day after day, they crafted astonishing arrangements and recorded literally hundreds of songs. With no written out musical arrangements, just feeling their way through until they were satisfied, this group of young men (mostly) cranked out more era-defining music than nearly anyone else. They’d just cut one song and move on to the next one. Their output is nothing short of brilliant. Yes, it all had a definite “Stax sound”, but the songs never sounded as if they’d come out of a cookie cutter. Each one was its own entity and in the amount that was produced, it’s truly astonishing. (I can provide a listening guide if anyone is interested.)

At roughly the same time, The Beatles were assembling their awesome catalog of era-defining songs. Their output is even more astonishing in the too brief time they flourished as a group.

Now to the crux of the matter. In what way are these two musical ensembles most similar? They all did their best work while rather young and finding their way as musicians. All were playing well “over their heads”.

In much the same way as athletes, pop musicians generally do their best work in their early years. It’s not the same in jazz or classical music, but these artists did do their best “learning” when in their teens and twenties. After that, it’s polish and experience that provides the finishing touches to what they do best and it comes mostly with years and experience.

This is not to say that pop musicians don’t continue to improve in mastering their instrumental ability. But in terms of creativity in making original music, nothing seems to beat those early years for output. None of the members of the Stax house band, as they grew older, created anything near the volume of superb and astonishing music. To be fair, they didn’t have the same chance once things began falling apart at Stax, where they worked five days a week. They weren’t recording at anywhere near the same frenetic pace. So too with The Beatles. Once they split up, their individual shortcomings were exposed simply by the fact they were working alone. Both ensembles were highly collaborative/synergistic. Everyone threw ideas into the creative pot. Solutions were tried and either worked or were found wanting. When the latter was the case, someone else would generally step forward with a different idea. The total was indeed proven to be greater than sum of its parts.

Writers, by definition, work alone. Though there are exceptions, it’s rare to find more than one person crafting the words. Yes, we can join critiquing groups or show our work to trusted allies while we’re still in the “development stages” of our writing, but that’s not really the same thing. In my own small way, I have experienced the (almost) rapture of creating something within a group. It is indeed a heady feeling. Often, it can be a harsh crucible as ideas are thrown out, reshaped, discussed and discarded by the group as a whole, but when the dust clears and you can clearly see the fruits of your labours, it is quite wonderful.

Even though I now write with words rather than sounds most of the time, something is lost. My youth is long since behind me, and with that went youthful energy levels. If I stayed up and worked all night simply because I couldn’t bear turning off the creative tap (as I often did in my youth), I would suffer physically for days, regardless of artistic elation. So that’s no longer on the cards. But I’m also working alone, there’s no one else’s creative energy to feed off of.

I believe I’m still creative in my dotage, but the fire burns nowhere as hot as it once did when I was in my teens and twenties. Shall I say that it appears to be more “rationed” than in the past? And it is nowhere near as fecund. Seldom now do ideas pour out faster than I can hope to catch and write everything down.

The saying is, “Youth is wasted on the young.” We older farts often add, “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Both are sad statements at their hearts, but no less true for being somewhat flippant.

I completely believe in both thing – but can’t do a thing about it.