Monday, July 28, 2014

A Rose is a Rose is a Rose

What’s in a name? So much I hardly know where to begin. I have to admit, first off, that I come up short if I count on my own fertile imagination: John, Mary, Smith, Jones…I tend to blank out. Early on, someone recommended the phone book, but that’s too many choices. I was paralyzed after reading a whole page looking for a perfect name to steal. There are online name sites that can be fun and they are particularly good if you’re searching for popular names in a given year or decade (very few Ednas in 1991, but America was drowning in Ashleys that year) or foreign names, as I have been doing for my story set in France.

I like names that give off a whiff of the character, but didn’t realize how close I’d come in my first book with “Winship (Win) Thorne” until one of my sons, both of whom far surpass me in linguistic skills, pointed out that the man with the dark drive to score big and the prickly personality was well named.



Have you noticed what I realized after bonding with my series protagonist, Danielle O’Rourke, usually known as Dani, that many female protagonists have gender-ambiguous names? Georgie, Kinsey, Jerri, Munch…could go on, but I think the underlying and perhaps unconscious aim is to avoid rendering them too stereotypically soft to deal with murderers while allowing their voices to remain female.

Sometimes, I’ll be well into a manuscript when I notice the character name doesn’t fit the personality that’s emerging. I thank the writing gods for the Search and Replace function when that happens, when the character turns out not to be a charming Robby but a manipulative Leroy.* It's odd how much the wrong name gets me off balance. Sometimes I'm not even sure what's slowing me down until I type it for the hundredth time and suddenly realize I can't see this character - he or she has become opaque to me. And I had an annoying experience recently when the perfectly named character had to have her name changed. It was Cherry, which someone pointed out was too much like cherie, the French term of endearment everyone in scenes she's in tosses around. Oh, rats. 

 What's in a name? Everything.


*For all the non-manipulative Leroys out there, this is where I assure you that responses to names are subjective, fickle, and say more about the person having the response than the named subject.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Writing About Reading About Writing About....

By Art Taylor

Just as research offers a tantalizingly provocative pull—that work before the writing too often keeping us from the writing itself—so too might craft books pose some risk: lulling us into some illusion of productivity because we're immersing ourselves in thinking about craft even if we're not actually crafting anything, right? and we're being exposed to fresh perspectives and new skills, aren't we? and then there are those exercises I finished—like writing five hundred words about a man looking up at a mountain while grieving the loss of his dead brother (without mentioning the man, the mountain, the brother, or the words grief, loss, or death)—those count for something, don't they? (Thanks, John Gardner.)

Actually, while some folks (my wife, for one) might turn their noses up at books about writing, I often find them fascinating, and I firmly believe that my own work has been strongly influenced by what I've learned from a handful of writing craft guides. So I'm pleased to offer not just one but four different suggestions in response to this week's question: "What's your favorite writing craft book of all time?"

Each of the books below have offered me something different and specific:

In other news: Three of your Criminal Minds bloggers—Meredith, Alan, and I—will be participating in the first-ever Washington, DC Noir at the Bar event this Sunday, July 27, 8 p.m. at the Wonderland Ballroom. The full line-up also includes E.A. Aymar, Tom Kaufman, Nik Korpon, Don Lafferty, Tara Laskowski, Michael R. Underwood, and Steve Weddle. Full details here!


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Books About Writing Books

by Alan

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time?

Over the years, I’ve read a number of books devoted to the craft of writing. As you might imagine, many have been helpful (to me), while others haven’t, but even in those less worthwhile volumes, I think I’ve always been able to find at least a nugget or two of valuable writing wisdom.

As with most things in life, you need to be careful about what advice to follow (but it doesn’t hurt to listen and read widely).

On Monday, Meredith mentioned two of my favorite books:

On Writing, by Stephen King

On Writing 

And Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott (although I would classify this as being more of an inspirational writing book than a craft book).

bird by bird

Let me add a few (random) others:

For those wanting to pen a best-seller:

How to Write Best Selling Fiction, by Dean Koontz

Koontz writing book

A long (long) time ago, back before I even really wanted to be a writer, I picked up a book by Dean Koontz (one of my favorite authors at the time), mapping out how to become a best-seller. For some reason, it’s out of print now, but you can pick up a used copy on Amazon for a mere $68.

 

For those wanting to write a “breakout” novel:

Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass

breakout novel

This book also has an accompanying workbook (which I haven’t used).

 

For those who have trouble differentiating writing in summary versus writing in scenes:

Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham

Scene and Structure

When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t know what I was doing. This book helped (a lot!).

 

*********

APPEARANCE NEWS

Want to see three Criminal Minds, in person, reading their work, AT A BAR?

D.C. area folks will have that chance, this Sunday night at the inaugural D.C. Noir, 8 p.m. at The Wonderland Ballroom. Meredith, Art, and I, along with seven other great writers (Nik Korpon, Steve Weddle, Ed Aymar, Tom Kaufman, Don Lafferty, Tara Laskowski, and Michael R. Underwood), will take turns reading and schmoozing. Come on by—a good time will be had by all.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Not a book, but a one-of-kind workshop...

By R.J. Harlick

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time? Sell it to us

Like many of us, when I first tried my hand at fiction writing I knew very little about the craft. With my mind brimming with story ideas, I was too impatient to get started, so rather than spending time learning about the craft, I sat down at my computer and started tapping away at the keyboard. At some point I realized I needed to know more about creative writing techniques, so I bought a few books, which I did find very helpful. Unfortunately, they have long since gone astray and as helpful as they were, I can’t remember their particulars, like title or author. Sorry.

But I can tell you about the one thing that influenced me greatly as a writer. It was a course I took fairly early on in my writing career. It was a week long intensive writing workshop that covered much more than the creative writing process.  It was also the first time I came out of the closet so to speak and declared myself a writer.  Up until then the only person who knew I was trying my hand at writing was my husband. It was also my first exposure to other aspiring authors. At that time I didn’t know anyone who either wrote fiction or wanted to, so I really enjoyed finally being able to talk about writing with like minded people. It was a game changer and it helped confirm my decision to become a writer.

The summer workshop was offered by Humber College’s School of Creative Writing located in Toronto. The day was split into two components. The morning was devoted to the writing workshops in which we students were divided into small groups and paired with a well known author, who led the workshop. This included discussions on creative writing techniques and critiques of the writing samples we had submitted as a requirement of registration.

The afternoons were spent learning about the publishing world from the experts; publishers, editors and agents. The workshop leaders also spoke about their writing process. They also had a panel of first time published authors sharing their stories on getting published. We were even given tips on how to do a reading, should we be so lucky to reach that point, and given the opportunity to actually do one, should we brave enough to put our hand up.


All in all, it was a fabulous week, well worth the money. I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to become a fiction writer. When I attended, the workshop was offered in the summer. I notice now that it is held in the Fall. I can't get the link working so here is the url if you want to learn more. http://www.humber.ca/scapa/programs/school-writers/fall-workshop-creative-writing

My rant for the day - There seem to be so many quirks with the blog software that it sometimes takes me longer to load the blog than it does to write it. 


Monday, July 21, 2014

Can you learn to write by reading about it?

What's your favorite writing craft book of all time? Sell it to us.

by Meredith Cole

I admit that one of my time honored procrastination technique is to read books about writing. I tell myself it's to get myself unstuck, or to see if I want to use a new book with the class I'm teaching this fall, but really it's because I'm avoiding actually getting some work done. Occasionally I find a wonderful nugget in a writing book that does help me get unstuck or helps me look at writing in a new way, and then that book becomes a keeper.

Although I recommend On Writing by Stephen King (you think writing is hard? Try doing it when you're in constant pain...) and You Can Write a Mystery by Gillian Roberts (a short helpful book that is now available again as an ebook) to my mystery classes, my favorite writing book of all time is still Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

Two big and valuable pieces of advice that Lamott gives: Take a project one step at a time and try not to panic about how big it is when you start. Tell yourself you only have to write some tiny amount of words or just fill up a little square on the screen if you're reluctant to get started. And then let yourself write terrible first drafts. The second is something I recommend quite a bit. I've seen far too many promising writers get stuck in an eddy where they perpetually write and rewrite their first chapter ad nauseum and never finish their book. This can sadly go on for years.

Although I don't consult Bird by Bird much these days, I recommend it to beginning writers because she addresses some of the problems we all have when we try out something new. Adults who are accustomed to dashing off an email or writing a contract with no problems suddenly find themselves paralyzed at the idea of making something up and writing something as large as a novel. For me, it was transitioning from screenwriting to novel writing, and not having the least idea how to begin--just knowing that every sentence I wrote was terrible compared to what I was used to reading in published books. But eventually I realized that I had to write a terrible first draft in order to eventually get a polished and wonderful final draft.

Oh--and I would be remiss not to mention a book I contributed to: Making Story: Twenty-one Writers and How They Plot which is, of course, chock full of lots of great advice. And great for when you're procrastinating on your next project.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Tinker, Tailor, Coroner, Private Eye

If you had a chance to work in law enforcement, which area would see yourself in and why? The coroner’s office? Homicide division? Beat cop? Criminal psychologist? Private investigator? Defense attorney?

by Paul D. Marks


Of the list above, I know which I absolutely would not want to do: Defense attorney: Even Alan Dershowitz concedes that most defendants are guilty. And I couldn't defend a guilty party, especially because the tactics used by the defense are often despicable – particularly when they try to throw the blame on another clearly innocent party to confuse the issue and throw doubt on their often clearly guilty clients. I just could not defend a rapist or a murderer. So, no defense attorney for me. Maybe that’s why I wrote my story L.A. Late @ Night that appeared originally in Murder on Sunset Boulevard (and recently republished in a collection of my stories also called L.A. Late @ Night) about a defense attorney who has second thoughts when she realizes her client is guilty and decides to do something about it...

That leaves the rest of the list:


Coroner's office: Well, I've seen my fair share of blood and guts. That said, I'm also the kind of person who whenever they hear/see symptoms of a disease decides they have that disease. Which is why I can't watch shows like ER or Grey's Anatomy. I guess I can handle blood and guts to some extent, but not symptoms. I think this is what happens with medical students (so maybe I should have been a doctor). So, nope, coroner's office is kaput.






Homicide division: Now we're getting closer. The idea of solving cases and bringing the bad guys to justice strikes home with me. Yeah, I could do that. Third degree and all, with a new energy-saving bulb of course.






Beat cop: Nah. Dealing with all the bad and crazy people you'd have to deal with would make me nuts. And I'd probably end up in the hoosegow myself. That's sort of what my story 51-50, cop slang for crazy, is about. (Originally published in the Psycho Noir issue Dave Zeltserman's Hardluck Stories anthology, but now reprinted in the L.A. Late @ Night collection.)





Criminal psychologist: While psychology interests me, to deal with all those psychos would probably make me psycho and you'd have to have a gun with a hair trigger taped under your desk aiming straight at your client...just in case. Probably not a good way to begin a relationship.






Private investigator: Yeah, now you're talking. Bring the bad guys to justice. And you get to wear a trenchcoat and fedora and use words like gat and gunsel. And slap guys like eternal weasels Elisha Cook, Jr. and Peter Lorre around. Of course, you take your fair share of beatings too, so turnabout is fair play I guess. But still, gumshoe. Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? Or P.I., private dick, private eye, shamus, Pinkerton or Continental Op. And though he's more modern, I hope Duke Rogers, my P.I. in White Heat, carries on their tradition with grace and gats. And you get to have an office in a romantically seedy building with the proverbial flashing neon sign outside the window and the perpetual pitter patter of rain on that window that looks out to the City of Angels. Oh, and here's a happy little ditty about our fair city: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_8U93SvVyY



There's one element that was left off the list above: Prosecutor: Probably the best fit for me. A lot of people that have known me through the years say I should have been a lawyer (though I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not...),. I like the idea of being a litigator 'cause I love a good fight. Corporate law, nah. Criminal law, the D.A.'s office, sure. Being able to put the bad guys away, to argue a case. To logically prove a guilty party guilty. Prosecutor would be a good fit for me. But if I chose that route could I still wear the trenchcoat and fedora?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Giving up on the day-job

So what are the choices? Bobby on the beat, detective, solicitor, barrister, judge, pathologist, crime scene tech, PI, profiler, dinnerlady . . .

I don't think many police stations have full canteens with dinnerladies anymore. Shame, because that's about the only thing I'd be any good at.

Unless I was a forensic linguist. I actually was a linguist (non-forensic) once. MA, PhD, teaching in a university - all that. And what I saw of forensic linguistics was fascinating. Correcting miscarriages of justice using the power of grammar is just about the coolest thing in a very uncool discipline.

For instance, a forensic linguist can look at a confession and isolate then analyse elements such as sentence length, clause structure, phrase structure and vocabulary choices to build a linguistic signature for the author. It was a punch-the-air moment the first time I saw an analysed false confession, where a prisoner showed his own signature all through a long piece of discourse and then "unaccountably" started speaking exactly like one of the cops in the room when it came to the mea culpa.

There are more straightforward investigative use too, such as busting hoax 999 calls, ransom demands and even suicide notes, and it's getting easier all the time as the collected corpus of texts gets larger (what a depressing job it must be to input and tag suicide notes, mind you . . .)

When I turned to crime-writing, I scratched my head for a while wondering if I could use any of my former life as material.  Could there be a forensic linguistics procedural series?  It didn't take long to decide that it would be kinda one-note (like those really specific comic-book heroes who just happen to find themselves in situations where their really specific super-power is just what's needed, over and over (and over) again. Was there any other way linguistics could be useful? It didn't take long to decide "nope".

So I had no justification for feeling aggrieved when another writer - actually a team of two (which is cheating) - recently came up with a brilliant linguistics-based mystery series. Based in Britain. And historical to boot. Ouch.

Yes, I contracted a bad case of premise-envy over DE Ireland's debut Wouldn't It Be Deadly, in which Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle team up to fight crime. Curses! I read it to give a blurb, though, and in all honesty I couldn't have come up with the plot to save my life and I've never written anything as funny as the denouement. So, not at all through gritted teeth, I say three cheers for Meg Mims and Sharon Pisacreta - and roll on September and the launch day.

20613597
 
 
And - if you'll forgive some blatant BSP (since it's publication day) - it's a lot of fun ignoring the advice to write what you know and, instead, writing what you want and finding out what you need to know. 1930s fishing industry and Aberdeenshire wedding traditions? Go on - ask me anything.
 


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Why Writers Should Write, Not Work In Law Enforcement


Question of the Week: If you had a chance to work in law enforcement, what part of the profession would you choose?

Answer: I would need a role that allowed me to bend the rules. I think it's no secret that the heroes of crime fiction novels tend to be alcoholic, womanizing, rule-breaking detectives precisely because that's the only kind of detective a writer could see themself being.

The problem with the justice system is that it tries to be objective, but really there's no such thing as objective moral ground.

So if I were a cop, I would need a role that allowed me to charge someone with a crime not based on laws and precedents, but based on my subjective perception of their moral culpability. Like Susan said yesterday, I'm too empathetic (as most writers are) to be able to coldly put someone in a hostile prison setting if I think there's any hope for redemption if he stays outside the system. So basically, the only role on the police force that I'd qualify for is fictional detective.

If I were a judge, I'd be bound by the laws of the land. The odd time, I'd be able to set a precedent, but mostly my obligation would be to uphold the laws of my jurisdiction.

A criminal psychologist would be a better option. To be able to talk to a criminal and assess their motives and mental stability would give me more of an opportunity to suggest the right solution.

But where I really think I'd shine is as a financially independent criminal lawyer. As long as I was able to refuse all cases except those where I wanted the defendant to win (meaning where I thought society would be better off if the defendant stayed out of jail), I would have no moral trouble arguing innocence where I believed guilt—as long as I didn't have a psychopath or a risk for reoffending on my hands.

Cases I'd take:

(a) battered spouses or children who committed murder or other violent acts out of fear for their family's lives—too many women's prison inmates fall into this category

(b) people who commit crimes to take a political stance, either here or in other countries, where the government is obtuse to what their electorate is asking them to do

(c) anyone who takes a stand against Monsanto or global warming, as long as the acts they commit don't put life or innocent people's property at risk


Wow, now I kind of wish I'd gone to law school.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Let's Be Careful Out There"

If you had a chance to work in law enforcement, what part of the profession would you choose?


I can hear my friends and family snorting as they considering this on my behalf. If ever there was a match not made in heaven it would be me and law enforcement. So many reasons…

1.     I’m too empathetic. Really, I’m an old-fashioned, totally out of fashion bleeding heart liberal and am sure I could be convinced that the burglar with the bag full of Mrs. Jones’ silverware was only trying to take it to be cleaned as a favor to her.

2.     I hate guns. Some reasons are personal; my family has been touched by gun violence. Some reasons are practical. I’m not sure I understand the concept of a trigger guard, and it’s not on my life list to learn. Mostly, I think how precious life is, how hard we work to save life in other situations, and compare it to the instantaneous blowing away of lives on TV and in the real world.

3.     In a profession where cops, psychologists, lawyers, investigators have to make decisions, combining facts with intuition, I would fail miserably. I noticed a few years ago that I cannot look at a face and see the bad seed. I would see a newspaper photo of a proven killer and think, “Oh, he’s a nice looking kid.” (I’m more accurate where female faces are concerned. What does that say about me?)

4.     I have too much imagination. The other side of being credulous, soft-hearted, and wary of weapons is that I have a writer’s imagination. Getting to “what if?” is easy and fast for me, and I’d spend my whole life, were I in law enforcement, in a nervous crouch, hand on that trigger guard, scanning faces for clues, getting ulcers.

Best that I stay on the sidelines, writing about fictional crime, albeit stories influenced by the over-abundance of the real thing. My hat is off to the thousands of individuals who have careers within the overall law enforcement field and who stay with it year after year, retaining their compassion, professional standards, and mental and physical wellbeing. In the immortal words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, the wonderful actor Michael Conrad on ”Hill Street Blues,”




“Hey, let’s be careful out there.”


Friday, July 11, 2014

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted....

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?"—prompted a number of immediate responses in my mind, several of them a little contradictory:
  • Because I have a less strenuous schedule during the summer break (vacation) from my teaching duties at George Mason University, I usually find more time to write then.
  • Despite best plans to get some reading and writing done on my recent beach vacation down in North Carolina, it was tough to carve out any time at the computer or even to jot down occasional passages or ideas in a notebook.
  • Getting away from the computer or the notebook—a vacation from the daily routine of writing—often frees my mind in ways that staring at the screen or the page doesn't and ultimately results in some of my best ideas.
  • But then showing up every day to write build momentum, keeps the mind working and focused, and....
I tried to reconcile all that, but not sure how to bring it all together very well. I do find that it helps to at least check in daily on my current project, even if each day's process or product can vary desperately from the days before or after. And as I've said in previous posts, sometimes I go long stretches without writing at all because of the pull of lesson prep or grading or whatever—not a vacation from writing certainly, not the word I would use at least. But I also find that giving the mind time to wander—usually along with giving the body some time away from the writing desk—helps to clear up thoughts and ideas and to clear the path for those little flashes of inspiration and insight.

So.... daily focus? occasional short breaks? but not a full vacation, at least not by choice?

Maybe some of this explains why I write at such a glacial pace....


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Up, Up, and Away

by Alan

It's summertime and everyone's downing tools and heading for the hammock (if only). Do you take regular vacations from writing and if so do you enjoy them?

SPOILER ALERT: This blog post will have nothing to do with writing and everything to do with vacations. Specifically, mine.

Now, did somebody mention vacation?

I just got back from a week in the Denver area, visiting my older son who has a summer internship at a medical center there.

We had a swell time.

We went to the Denver Botanic Gardens, and saw some very cool blown glass from somebody named Chihully.

We saw comedian Joe Zimmerman at the Comedy Works (funny!).

We ascended Pike’s Peak, all 14,110 feet of it. (We didn’t hike it, but drove a rental Ford Focus. Which, I think, was more strenuous than hiking.)DSCF2661

We saw some animals we don’t usually run across (and we avoided running across them in our rental car): marmots, prairie dogs, black-billed magpies.

We visited Colorado Springs and toured the Air Force Academy and the Garden of the Gods.

DSCF2643 DSCF2632

 

DSCF2652

 

We visited Golden and toured the Coors Brewery and saw Red Rocks.

DSCF2671

We visited Boulder and toured the CU-Boulder campus and the Celestial Seasonings manufacturing facility (yes, I love factories!).

We drove up and down Colfax Avenue, which made me appreciate where I live very much.

And we did not stop for any hitchhikers!

correctional facility sign

A good time was had by all!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Summertime and the living is easy*

By Tracy Kiely
* easy is used in a wholly sarcastic manner.

Oh, to put down my pen and paper and take the summer off. But alas, my dear readers, I cannot. At this time of year my fellow writers gleefully shrug off their comfortable writing garb and don their linen frocks and sport coats in search of tennis games, picnics, and long walks along the beach. I, however, must remain behind, watching them disappear down a winding meadow lane, my grubby nose pressed up enviously against window.
I might want to make a note to lay off rereading of Fitzgerald and Dickens.
The reason for my lack of summer break is quite simple. I am forever behind schedule. My mother once told me that the road to hell was paved with good intentions and that I was going there on the expressway. She wasn’t exaggerating.
I have long lived with a demon that ruins all my plans. Unlike most demons who hide in the darkness and guard their name for fear of discovery and a subsequent loss of power, mine has a name. And that name is Yesterday Tracy.
Yesterday Tracy is always one step ahead of Today Tracy. She is a wily, evil beast. Today Tracy is forever behind schedule because of the actions of Yesterday Tracy. Today Tracy might have plans to write 2,000 words, but Yesterday Tracy decided that it was Imperative that she stays up until 3 a.m. watching Grease II.
Yes. Grease II.
I told you she was evil.
She also has really lousy taste.
She gleefully tricks Today Tracy into thinking that this decision will only hurt Tomorrow Tracy not Today Tracy.
And Today Tracy listens.
Every damn time.
And so, rather than springing out of bed full of vim and vigor (a sensation, by the way, I have never experienced), I roll out of bed rubbing blood shot eyes and desperately hoping to get the song “We’re Gonna Score Tonight!” out of my head.  
Thus, I start every day hopelessly behind schedule and must spend the remainder of the day feeling like a desperate hamster spinning on its Sisyphus-inspired wheel.
So, do I take the summer off?
No. I do not.
For Yesterday Tracy is a powerful demon.