Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Monday, December 9, 2013
|Some of the books on my side table.|
I'm reading a good book right now which fits many of my criteria for what a good book should be. In the process, though, I'm realizing that I encounter plenty of books that don't meet those criteria, and which I either push away partially-read or which I suffer through just so that I can say I finished. So, I asked myself, what do I want from a book? Specifically from a mystery, since that tends to be the genre that I choose?
The list is diverse and not as predictable as one might think.
For example, I don't always require a meticulous and flawless plot. If the characters are fun and the dialogue enjoyable, I'll put up with a fair amount of nonsense when it comes to realism and believability. I will suspend my disbelief, in other words, if I can have fun doing it.
Here are some of the basics I can't do without:
1. A compelling premise. This seems basic, but just because the blurb on the back is compelling doesn't mean that the writing inside the book is equally compelling. I don't need someone to die on the first page or even in the first chapter, but I do have to care enough to keep reading.
2. Good writing. I am continually surprised (despite some GREAT writing by some GREAT writers) when I pick up a book that I am excited to read because of its big debut, its many accolades, and its big sales--and find it unreadable because of poorly-written prose, grammatical errors, or clunky dialogue. Yes, writing is subjective, but when a book is promised to be amazing with three pages of big-name blurbs, I expect that book to be amazing. And sometimes, it isn't.
3. Humor. I don't need to be cracking up on every page--in fact, I like quiet humor that sneaks in and makes me chuckle. But a book is far more fun and memorable to me if the author makes me laugh.
4. Interesting subject matter. Just because it's fiction doesn't mean I can't learn things about history or science or far-away places. The best writers are the ones who teach me without ever condescending to me, and whose information is woven seamlessly into the plot.
5. A cool setting. No particular setting required, as long as you write it well. I love being taken to Europe and relaxing, with my character, in some small Viennese coffee shop or an Icelandic bar. I love a mysterious Russian street or a stately Peruvian museum of antiquities. But I am also happy to stay right here in the States, as long as my character has a house full of intriguing knick-knacks or a forested back yard with interesting animal inhabitants.
6. Surprises. I suppose the thing that gets writing noticed by anyone--an agent, an editor, a reader--is when that writing is surprising. It creates something fresh and new, either with characterization or dialogue or a method of storytelling, and a reader says "Wow! That was refreshingly good."
7. Characters I like. They don't have to be perfect, but I have to relate to them on some level or I stop caring to read about them. Characters who are cruel are not compelling if they are flat and have no motivation for their cruelty.
8. Fun. As I mentioned in my introduction, I want to have fun when I read a book. Life is short, and I will never get to read all the books I want to read. So if a book is a misery, I won't stay inside it. I recently discussed Jess Walter's BEAUTIFUL RUINS with my book group, and it was undoubtedly fun--both the reading and the discussing. Pick it up to see an example of a writer who enjoys his subject matter and makes the reader enjoy it, too.
9. Pacing. Often when I am reading a novel I start to think "This part is padding because they were trying to reach a certain word limit." I hate feeling that way when I'm reading, and the best way for an author to avoid that phenomenon is to not be so concerned with word limits, and to be very concerned with balance, pacing, and parallel structure.
10. A satisfying ending. Lately I've encountered three books that I absolutely loved until the last twenty pages. E
nding is always a tricky thing, and not all authors want their books to end happily. But an unhappy ending is not the same as an unsatisfying ending--the kind that makes your reader feel betrayed. In these cases I often write alternate endings in my mind for the poor characters who didn't earn the fates I thought they deserved.
Do any of these resonate with you? What do you want from a book?
Saturday, December 7, 2013
by Ellen Larsen
They say you should write what you know. They say you should write what the publishers want. They say publishers want books just like yesterday’s best sellers.
Paranormal is in. Drop the body on the first page. Study the market. Avoid the prologue. Series sell. Stick to your genre to build up your audience. Don’t set a mystery at Oxford, it’s been done. First person is best for mysteries. Paranormal is out.
A girl can go crazy listening to all the voices.
Here’s my secret (not the “secret to success” type of secret, the other kind): I can’t do it. I don’t really understand how other writers follow such advice. I listen to their stories of constructing their novels and I feel like I have landed in Bizarro World. I don’t fit in. I never have.
It’s not that I haven’t tried. I work up an idea using all the recommended criteria, something that is genre-specific, cutting edge, exactly what the publishers and the book stores crave. But the minute I start writing it’s like entering a world of great beauty, with alluring pathways that lead to magical wonders. I feel that I am using the same judgment to make my literary choices that I exercised when I laid out my plans. But when I have finished writing, and come back to my senses, I inevitably find that I have gone totally off the rails of my original perception of what all those publishers actually want. I end up with complex structures, unsympathetic characters, and a mish-mash of genres that are guaranteed to drive any publicist crazy.
When I sat down to write In Retrospect, I thought I was on solid ground. I planned to write a simple whodunit about a woman who felt her identity was as a member of the group. When faced with an impossible choice—whether or not to investigate the murder of an old enemy she would gladly have killed herself—she turns first to her law enforcement colleagues, next to her academic connections, and lastly to her family for guidance . All three fail her, leaving her alone to decide what to do.
Nothing off the beaten trail there, right? Detective arc and personal journey arc, nicely intertwined. All the makings of a solid psychological murder mystery.
So about that detective arc. Need something good. I’d been toying with the idea of using time travel as a tool for investigation. This would be the perfect time, because I needed a strong academic group for my protag to be rejected by, and a Science Conservatory that trained…attuned…time travelers would be perfect. Better set the story far enough in the future to allow for that.
So where to set the story? My seventeen years in Egypt are a constant source of material and inspiration. The Middle East, then. The social conventions of our time have always depressed me and inhibited me as a writer; I don’t want to write about them or even take them into account. I long ago turned to science fiction, or speculative fiction, as a way to design societies that did not have a built-in set of social barricades and locked doors. So why not blow up the western hemisphere while I’m at it? So then, post-apocalyptic psychological murder mystery.
I always enjoy writing about heroic women, and I’d pretty much known from the start that my protag would be female. And I knew that I wanted her to be not like me. (NB: I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I had no idea how much fun it could be until I discovered the joys of protagonists who are Nothing Like Me.) For plot purposes, I needed my protag to be a small woman, so I established that the only people who were physically capable of time travel are women. Small women, who must undergo years of chemical attunement to survive the rigors of the Continuum.
Thus appeared Merit, born to simple folk, selected in her youth for the great honor of traveling through time; of becoming a leader among her people. Add some original language for time travel. Retrospection. Historical Retrospection. Forensic Retrospection. Word by word, the world is built. Merit Rafi, Select, Forensic Retrospector. A bit arrogant despite, or because of, her humble beginnings, but very idealistic. Quick witted Merit. Generous Merit. Until—what?
Until the day her city state is invaded by Rasaka, a neighboring nation. Invaded and occupied. The Conservatory destroyed. The Retrospection program shattered. Then we get Merit, militia member, and then, when her beloved General Zane surrenders to the Rasakans, we get Merit the resistance operative, standing by her group till the end, when they are captured and sentenced to death. Until—the Rasakans discover who she is. And how useful she might be to them. If they can break her will. And so she alone lives when all her comrades die. Just in time to investigate the murder of—General Zane.
Which is how you end up writing a time-traveling, post-apocalyptic, psychological murder mystery—with female sleuth. Not exactly a well-known sub-genre on amazon.com.
Of course Five Star, the intrepid mystery publisher that actually bought the book, just calls it a dystopian mystery. I love you, Five Star!
When she isn't writing fiction, Ellen is helping others shape their work as a freelance editor and as editor of The Poisoned Pencil, a children's/YA mystery imprint of Poisoned Pen Press. Learn more about Ellen's writing at http://www.ellenlarson.com/.
Friday, December 6, 2013
[Note: I was thinking of inserting a black image here, to give you an idea of just how dark it was.]
Thursday, December 5, 2013
For Maria von Trapp, it was warm woolen mittens and girls in white dresses and doorbells. None of those do it for me. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with every computer I’ve owned, as well as Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. I’m even a Luddite when it comes to some postmodern devices. But I’m unambivalently in love with my iPhone and my iPad.
Now, I’m not talking about other people’s iPhones. Everyone who’s read my posts knows I have it in for cellphonistas and how they blat their private business in public, especially on public transportation, in crowds, or standing in line with people who can’t get away. But my iPhone—that’s another story.
I do try not to conduct my social life on city streets or even on my deck, where neighbors can hear me, in the country. To tell the truth, trying to hear the other party in my ear in my neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, while walking, crossing streets, and trying to ignore the usual soundtrack of sirens, jackhammers, megabass booming from cars stuck waiting for the light to change—well, I don’t know how people do it. For me, it’s like trying to eat ice cream and chew bubble gum at the same time. Can’t do it.
On the other hand, here’s how I might use my iPhone on a typical day:
Check my calendar for appointments, including therapy clients and mystery events. If my plans change, I can make the change immediately. If I have to make another appointment, I can do it on the spot.
Get my reminders. If it’s time to refill a prescription, send a birthday card, or request reversion of rights to a story, I don’t even have to remember to check a list or even unlock: the text appears on the screen with a little ping to get my attention.
Time my exercise. I do stretches and use my walking poles every day, and the timer feature lets me know when fifteen or forty-five minutes have passed. The timer’s also great for preheating the oven and not burning or overcooking the food once it’s in there. Oh, and if I need a catnap in the afternoon, I can time that too.
Take photos and even video if I see something worth recording. In New York City, where anything can happen (my husband once saw a guy, stark naked, riding down Park Avenue on a white horse), it’s great to be able to capture the unplanned moment.
Record things I want to remember, using either the Notes feature to write text or the voice recorder to say or even sing the creative material that tends to pop up when I’m outdoors doing something else or in the car.
Text my husband or a friend I’m meeting.
Check my email and my Facebook page.
If it gets dark, turn on the flashlight app.
Show anyone I can persuade to look the latest music video of my granddaughters performing. (I admit I get a bit Ancient Mariner with this one.)
Look up information to prove a point or enrich a conversation.
Make a restaurant reservation.
Buy a movie ticket in advance.
Check a map if I’m going somewhere unfamiliar by foot.
And here’s how I’m most likely to use my iPad:
Take a much better picture or video. I don’t use my digital camera at all any more.
Make another music video starring my granddaughters.
Check and answer my email.
Send a photo to Facebook and write a post to go with it.
Watch a TV series that I missed or one I’d like to see again. I can spend my evenings with Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis in Oxford, Monk in San Francisco, Or Chief Inspector Barnaby in an English village.
Watch a movie.
Check my rankings on Amazon.
Buy a book or e-book.
A word about texting, which I came to late but find extremely useful: I think the reason it’s so popular is that it allows people to communicate both synchronously, like chat (I text you, you text me back, I text you back…) and asynchronously, like email (I’m driving, and I hear the ping that means I’ve got a text. I read it when I get where I’m going and respond to it when I have time.) It’s less intrusive than a phone call (my husband’s in a meeting with his boss, but I can ask him to bring home a quart of milk or a ream of paper while I’m thinking of it—trust me, I’ll forget later). And I know he’ll see the message, whereas he might or might not check his email. That is, unless he’s left his iPhone home—but that’s another story.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
by Jane Tesh
Author of the Grace Street Mysteries
I walk every day in my neighborhood and always take a plastic bag or two to pick up recyclables. I also find things, and one of these was a little dog still wearing his harness with leash attached.
I tried my best to catch him, but he was quick as a rabbit. On Petfinder on the Internet, I discovered the missing Yorkie was Dennis, and he’d escaped from his owner several streets over from mine. An excellent name, as this little menace managed to elude me, his owner, the neighbors, and Surry Animal Rescue workers for months. I even borrowed a cage from the rescue folks and baited it with pizza. The next morning, I could see something in the cage, but my moment of triumph was short lived when I saw I had captured an extremely annoyed possum.
More weeks passed. The weather became colder. Dennis remained wild and free. Occasionally, I would see him basking in the pale winter sun on a front porch, or sprawled in the church parking lot, completely unconcerned that everyone in the neighborhood was trying to catch him, that it was freezing cold, and that he still wore a leash that could possibly hang him up in a tree.
Then one day, a neighbor greeted me with, “We got him!” Her daughter was playing with her dog in the backyard, and when Dennis came over to play, she managed to grab the leash. Dennis was returned to his owner.
But there’s more to this story.
At the time, a young relative of mine was struggling with alcohol addiction, so much so, she had to go to a special institution. No visitors. No phone calls. But she could get letters, so I wrote as often as I could, sending silly pictures and jokes, and of course, reports and updates about Dennis, Yorkie of the Yukon.
Later she told me that the Saga of Dennis meant a lot to her. If a little Yorkie could survive three of the coldest months on record in a harness and leash and not get hung up in a tree, or snagged on a rock, not get run over, or attacked by a larger animal, not starve, or freeze to death—if Dennis could overcome all those obstacles and find his way home, maybe she could overcome her problems, too.
As of this September, she is four years sober.
Learn more about Jane and her mysteries at http://www.janetesh.com.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Know what our products costs
Put our money where our business is
Monday, December 2, 2013
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Janice Law Trecker (Guest Blogger)
Back in the Dark Ages when I started writing, my first mystery editor was fond of praising books as “ripped from the headlines.” Like most mystery novelists, I pillaged local crime stories, and for a time I made a good thing out of the London Daily Telegraph’s stellar coverage of chicanery and mayhem of all types.
However, I’ve had a more complicated relationship with earlier, “ripped from the history books” crimes and real life historical characters. I’ve done three straight novels based on historical fact, only one of which, All the King’s Ladies, set at the Versailles court of Louis XIV, was a success. It was detailed and historically accurate but it filtered much of the action through minor characters.
Less successful were The Countess, which borrowed the career, but not the full biography or personality, of a real SOE agent during WW2, and a novel about the filibustering William Walker, who for a time made himself president of Nicaragua in the run up to our Civil War. The latter, as agents like to say, “never found its audience.”
Gay, promiscuous, alcoholic, and a genius, Bacon was out of my usual range and, believe me, I spent quite a bit of time considering whether he was really a good idea. Then I learned he had lived with his old nanny until her death, and the game was on. As a downstairs child on an upstairs downstairs estate, I knew Nan, at least. The result was Fires of London – Francis during the Blitz - and the new Prisoner of the Riviera – Francis on a French holiday that goes bad, with a concluding volume forthcoming.
These novels have written a good deal easier than my earlier ventures into historical fiction, and I think I know why: I’ve hit the right balance between historical accuracy and the imaginative freedom required by the novel. This is easier said than done, especially if, like me, one has also written history books and historical articles. All too often I’d hear a little nagging voice in my ear saying, “that’s not strictly true,” just at the moment when I most needed a little room to maneuver with the plot.
Similarly, FB really did go to France shortly after the war ended, and he really did go with both his lover of the moment and Nan. That’s actually probably weird enough. I think we can assume that he never got involved, as he does in the new novel, with professional bicycle racers and French gangsters, although since he was acquainted with the notorious Kray Brothers in London, I think I can claim that at least he brought the gangsters on himself.
That’s what I tell myself, anyway, if I feel twinges of guilt for borrowing his life and personality for entertainment. There is something dodgy about mixing fact and fiction, especially with modern characters, and I feel that. But the Muse has her own imperatives and I’ve found it unwise to reject anything that she insists. And then, a little guilt is probably a wholesome thing for any writer of that genre of violence, guilt, and retribution, the mystery novel.
Besides the Bacon novels, Janice Law is the author of the Anna Peters series of mysteries and numerous stand alone novels and short stories.
Friday, November 29, 2013
By the way, my ebook Relatively Dead (May 2013) includes descriptions based on the house where Silas Barton lived in Waltham, as well as the cemetery where he is buried.