Friday, March 6, 2015

Writing at the Border

By Art Taylor

This week's question—"Have you noticed that the jacket blurb for a lot of literary novels has been saying 'a great mystery' or 'a nail-biting thriller' recently? As a mystery writer, what do you think is going on?"—touches on so many other issues about literary vs. genre that it's hard to know where to start in answering it.

Two stories pop to mind any time this question of literary and genre and boundaries and blurring comes up. The first comes from a panel at the 2010 AWP Conference in Denver, one devoted to the teaching of genre writing in the MFA classroom. At one point, one of the panelists (I wish I could remember which now! Anthony Neil Smith? Brian Evenson? Stephen Graham Jones? Tod Goldberg?) made a comment about the difference between literary writing and genre writing: In the latter, he said, the action is at the level of the plot—what happens next?—while in the former, the action is at the level of the sentence, in the prose itself. (The obvious question: Why can't you have both? And the answer: Clearly you can... and about half the time some critic will praise such an effort for "transcending the genre," right?)

More recently, at the 2012 Fall for the Book Festival, the National Book Critics Circle hosted the panel "On Literary and Genre Fiction" with writers including Julianna Baggott, Louis Bayard, and Alma Katsu, and at one point Baggott said that literary and genre (several genres) were indeed distinct parts of the larger geographical landscape, but she argued that  the most interesting writing was increasingly being done in the border areas where these various terrains met—whether that was the sci-fi mystery or the literary mystery or the whatever whatever. (I'm paraphrasing at best, obviously.)

I think that it's easy to complain that genre distinctions are arbitrary or that they're just the work of publicists and booksellers trying to classify and categorize and shelve and sell these books? But I do think that most of us are aware of genre when we write. I write crime fiction, not science fiction, for example, and most readers can recognize some of the general elements of each to know whether they're reading either of those or epic fantasy or Regency romance. And in some ways, literary fiction might be defined less by what it is (domestic drama? suburban angst? existential grumblings?) than by what it's not: not a corpse and a set of clues, not robots and laser guns, not a lusty kiss between a swarthy gent and a busty lass. Conventions are real, expectations are real...though, of course, that doesn't mean that writers can't play productively with those elements or "rules," any more than it means that literary fiction can't or shouldn't include them or address them as well. Which brings us back to that idea that something fun is happening there in the wild border areas—not by authors trying to cash in or slumming for a change of pace, but by really being excited by certain kinds of storytelling (so-called literary writers who really love mysteries, like Michael Chabon with The Yiddish Policeman's Secret Union or Jonathan Lethem with Motherless Brooklyn) or by the ambition to be the best stylist they can (so-called genre writers who think that it's not just action piled on action, cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, but something about the prose that can truly excite, like Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent, just to choose one of many examples) or by the thrilling possiblities of crossing genres in interesting ways (William Gibson's Neuromancer anybody?). And hey, don't get me started on Cormac McCarthy with his own crime novel (No Country for Old Men), his jaunt into post-apocalyptic science fiction (The Road), and then all those westerns (Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy among them). 

We think of this as a new thing maybe, but it really isn't, I don't think. Faulkner was a fan of mysteries, and his Intruder in the Dust is a great crime story, as are the stories in his collection Knight's Gambit. Even more, Cleanth Brooks, one of the great literary critics of the 20th century, called Faulkner's great masterpiece Absalom, Absalom! "from one point of view a wonderful detective story"—and if you re-read it with that in mind. it surely is. Similarly, no one would argue with Jorge Luis Borges' place among the world literary elite, but did you know that his introduction to English-speaking audiences was in the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine? "The Garden of the Forking Paths" appeared in EQMM in August 1948, translated by Anthony Boucher himself, right alongside authors including Cornell Woolrich, Georges Simenon, and some fella named Anton Chekhov.

Good company, if you ask me.

As for the second part of this week's question—"what non-genre novel do you think is a great mystery?"—I want to add that almost every time I've taught a lit class at George Mason University focused on crime fiction (whether detective stories or noir or whatever), I always throw in at least one title on the syllabus that would likely not have been categorized in the genre on most bookstore shelves. Here's a sample of the ones I've included:
  • Walker Percy's Lancelot in a course on detective stories
  • Lewis Nordan's Wolf Whistle as true crime
  • Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men in the course "Crime Stories from Page to Screen"
  • Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts in an American noir class
  • and both Borges' "Death and the Compass" and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" in a survey of short mystery fiction
Each of these has provoked interesting discussions, to say the least—both among those students who supposedly already know the genre and among those who are coming to it fresh and have no idea whether these works are canonical mysteries or not. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Thanks for the Support!

by Alan

RUNNING cover (I’ve taken the liberty of going off menu to talk about my new release, RUNNING FROM THE PAST, which came out Tuesday.)

I don’t much like crowds.

Not at the mall. Not at concerts. Not at sporting events.

I was never one to run with the crowd, either. Growing up, I usually gravitated toward a small group of friends, and I pretty much did what I wanted—no peer pressure steered me (or so I thought, anyway).

But recently, I’ve come to like the crowd, especially the “crowd” in crowdsourcing.

Because that’s, in part, how my latest book got published.

A little background: I had this book I’d finished. I really liked it, but my agent at the time couldn’t really envision a place where it might “fit.” As an experiment, we put it up on Wattpad (a share-your-work site), which required me to get a cover, so I bought one from a professional cover designer. It got a fair number of reads on Wattpad, but I took it down after a while, and it ended up sitting on my hard drive while I worked on other projects.

Fast forward to last fall, when Amazon announced its new crowdsourcing program, Kindle Scout. Conceptually, it’s a little like American Idol for books. To enter, all you need is a finished manuscript (in one of three genres) and a cover.

So I figured, why not? No downside, really.

I submitted my package, and after being approved, I put an excerpt up on their site for 30 days (along with many other writers). Then readers (dubbed Kindle Scouts) perused the selections and nominated those books they’d like to see get published.

After the campaign was over, books with the most nominations got reviewed by Amazon staff. Using an undisclosed evaluation process, books were then selected for publishing, and I was fortunate enough to get a contract from Amazon’s new imprint, Kindle Press. I’m convinced that my success was due to a tremendous amount of support from my friends—in real life, on Facebook and Twitter, and elsewhere.

So, thanks friends!

The contract seemed fair enough: an advance (modest), 50% royalties on ebooks, potential sales of audio and translation rights (I kept print rights—a trade paperback is forthcoming!). But what really piqued my interest was Amazon’s promise of marketing. Say what you will about Amazon (and I have absolutely only good things to say about them!), they know how to sell books.

So far, everything has been great. I got a very thorough, very professional copyedit. And things have gone smoothly with the rollout.

As for promotional efforts, when Amazon talks, people listen. Their initial press release announcing the publication of the first group of Scout books was picked up by many on-line publications/websites, including: PC Magazine, Publishers Weekly, Digital Book World, Christian Science Monitor, Geekwire, Entrepreneur Magazine, MarketWatch, and Entertainment Weekly.

Of course, whether all this early buzz leads to sales is anybody’s guess. Right now, I suppose it’s more of a curiosity to most people than anything else (Crowd-sourced books? Preposterous!).

I guess only time will tell.

And the reaction of the crowd, of course.

 

RUNNING cover

WIN A FREE COPY!!!  Leave a comment, and I’ll choose one lucky commenter at random and “gift” them a Kindle copy of RUNNING FROM THE PAST. (After I announce a winner, I’ll need your email address.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Pandora's Box

By Tracy Kiely

Have you noticed that the jacket blurb for a lot of literary novels has been saying "a great mystery" or "a nail-biting thriller" recently? As a mystery writer, what do you think is going on? And also, what non-genre novel do *you* think is a great mystery?

Um, no? I have to be honest, I haven’t noticed. That’s not to say that it’s not happening, and second to the whole blue/chocolate, white/gold dress debate, it’s all anyone can talk about  (and just for the record, it’s BLUE/CHOCOLATE people!).
In my defense, it’s been a busy couple of months. In our little household, we’ve had the following:

*          The Whooping Cough (daughter)
*          Bronchitis (same kid, two weeks later)
*          Pneumonia (different kid)
*          An appendix scare that resulted in an entire day spent in ER (yet another kid who apparently just needs to hit the bathroom more)
*          The pipes at our beach house burst. Or, as the oil guy explained it, “Yeah. Your ceiling is now on your floor.” Apparently the water ran for two weeks. Given the damage it did in that short time, I think the Grand Canyon might be overrated.
*          Oh, and did I mention, I’m under deadline for the second book in my Nic and Nigel mystery series? No? Well, that’s because I have a facial tic and can’t speak clearly.

            However, now that I am up to speed, I think that as long as a tag line is used correctly, it’s fair use. (I once saw a movie preview that promised “A Pandora’s Box of Excitement!” Really? The marketing department thought comparing the movie to an unleashing of all the evils in the world was a plus? I’d like to see the proposals they rejected. No, wait.  I don’t.)  
As for the increase in mystery-inspired taglines, I think it’s a sign of the times. When I was trying to publish my first cozy, I received a note from an agent who told me that, “the days of cozies is coming to an end.” He went on to predict that the genre would be “all but dead” in five years (this was ten years ago).  I’m obviously no expert, but I think A.) He has the same problem that resulted the appendix scare for my youngest (give it a second) and B) When the world is at it’s craziest, mysteries are at their most popular.  Dame Agatha’s popularity was at its zenith during some of the worst periods in recent history. Why? Because when evil rears its head, most want to escape into a world of order and sense. They want to lose themselves in a place where justice, fairness, and goodness ultimately win the day. Take ten minutes and watch the news today - now’s that’s a Pandora’s Box -  and, I’ll happily pick up any book that promises me a respite from all of it.

A mystery? A nail biter? No. It's just a BLUE DRESS!





Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Literary Diversions

By R.J. Harlick

"Have you noticed that the jacket blurb for a lot of literary novels has been saying "a great mystery" or "a nail-biting thriller" recently? As a mystery writer, what do you think is going on? And also, what non-genre novel do *you* think is a great mystery?"

I imagine it’s a simple matter of economics. Mysteries sell. Literary fiction not so much unless a book has won an award, like a recent winner of a big Canadian literary prize, which had only sold a few hundred books prior to winning. Every once and awhile someone does a report on reading habits and mysteries are invariably at the top. So maybe a publisher is hoping by adding the words ‘a great mystery’ in the jacket blurb they will sell a few more books. But I suppose I am being a bit cynical.

I have read some very good mysteries by literary authors that did set out to write one. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin comes to mind. It not only won the Booker prize but also the Hammet, an award given out specifically to crime fiction with a literary bent.  Her Alias Grace was also an intriguing read. Michael Ondaatje, best known for his novel The English Patient, also had a literary novel, The Cat’s Table, nominated for the Hammet. While it is about the exploits of a couple of boys on a sea voyage, a mystery is at the core.

I mustn’t forget Andrew Pyper who is considered a literary thriller writer. I can’t speak on the merit of his books, since I’ve never read one. They are too scary for me, but they have won numerous awards and several are in the process of being adapted to film.

I suppose one of the literary mysteries that has stuck with me is Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. It was a fabulous book and I believe was made into a movie.


But what makes a mystery literary or not, I’m not so sure. As Meredith wrote yesterday, often they are considered more character driven than plot driven. But many of the best selling series are popular because of their characters and not necessarily their plots. I think literary mysteries tend to have less dialogue and more descriptive, often poetic passages, more internal monologues and flashbacks with less hands-on action.  But no doubt there are exceptions. I hate to use the word ‘formula’, but mysteries with a literary slant tend to be less formulistic with often very original approaches to story telling, but so can’ genre’ mysteries.  I have a feeling the line is very blurry between the two, if there are two different types of mysteries…


On another note, I am off to Portland, Oregon next week to attend one of my favourite conferences, Left Coast Crime.  I’m really looking forward to it and hope to see some of you there. I’m on the Great Outdoors: murder in nature panel on Sunday at 11:00 am.  A bummer I know, being on the last panel of the conference, but if you are still in Portland drop by and say hello.

Monday, March 2, 2015

A pinch of mystery, a dash of romance


Have you noticed that the jacket blurb for a lot of literary novels has been saying "a great mystery" or "a nail-biting thriller" recently? What do you think is going on? 


by Meredith Cole

I have come to believe that genre is indeed a porous and hard to define thing. Mostly genre is a construct of editors and marketers who need a way to position the work they sell. Mysteries in the end are rather difficult to define with just one or two characteristics. Books in the genre have at the heart of their story a puzzle or a question that needs to be solved--perhaps a wrongful death or a crime. But so do many books we define as literary fiction. So how can any of us tell the difference?

Literary fiction is often defined as more character driven than plot driven, and honestly the genre is not selling very well these days. Genre fiction, specifically mysteries and romances, are doing much better. I just went and counted the number of mysteries/thrillers on this week's hardcover New York Times best seller list. In the top 16, 9 of them were mysteries and thrillers. Nine! So if I were a marketer trying to do my best to spread the word about a book I loved, I might very well choose to emphasize its marketable traits like mystery and romance. That way maybe I could reach someone who had just finished the latest James Patterson and might be looking for something else to read.

In the end, I think every good book has a pinch or mystery and a dash of romance. There is a question at its heart of the story that makes us keep turning the pages to see if we can find out the answer. Interesting characters, intriguing settings, great dialogue and a well-paced plot are all things I look for in a good book. And in the end, I don't care what part of the book store I find it in, only that it entertains me.




Friday, February 27, 2015

A Room with a View

Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?

by Paul D. Marks

I don’t think I have an “ideal” landscape, but I do like to see something appealing and engaging outside the window, whether a busy cityscape from a high-rise or a view of the hills or a country scene.

That said, I’ve written in places where there wasn’t much of a view.  Just the stucco wall of the apartment next door or even worse the inside wall of my apartment and no view of anything. But I didn’t like that much. Don’t like having nothing to look at, and when that was the case I would put pictures on the walls that would “inspire” me. In our last house, we had a pretty nice view...but it was on the back side of the house and my office was on the front side, looking out at the street. So the walls there were decorated largely with Edward Hopper prints – good for writing mysteries and noir. But some of the time I’d write on the laptop in the kitchen or family room where I could look out at the view. Which was nice...except for the time the hills across the way were blazing and smoke was furling up. And then hoping the fire wouldn’t jump over to us.

In our current house, I can see the canyon and hills in the distance from my office. It’s quiet and peaceful most of the time. Sometimes I just look out the window, especially at night when I can see lights dancing in the distance, across the canyon. And on the walls here are mostly rock and movie posters, lobby cards, album covers. But what happens with them much of the time is that they just blend into the background and I don’t really see them. Other times they stand out and I can enjoy them and get inspiration from them. But mostly I just look out the windows.


My office might be a cluttered mess, but I can block that out. Having something serene outside to look at calms me and gives me the peace of mind I need to get into that Zen writing state (he said with only a hint of sarcasm, at least about the Zen).

I do like our view here, but Robin’s view is to die for. Can’t compete with that. Very nice!

And, while I do like something to look at out the window, I also like to “shut the world out” when I write, not in a visual sense. But in a sense of quiet. I need quiet, for reasons I won’t bore you with. I’ve lived in places where there was construction going on next door or across the alley. Sometimes eighteen hours a day. Once the vibrations from the construction were so bad that when I tried to play a record the needle would skip across it, making a sound as irritating as fingers on a blackboard.

When I haven’t had quiet, I would play music to mask the background sounds. Mostly the music turned to white noise.

And unlike Susan, who thrives on external stimulation, I can’t write well or at all in public places. I’m just too distracted by everything going on around me. I want to drink and chat and have fun. So I like retreating to my clean, well-lighted place, to borrow a phrase.




Thursday, February 26, 2015

Me and Mrs Woolf

I have a room of my own.


 
 
As you see, it's tricked out in my habitual sleek minimalism, plus a few essential photos of Charlie's Angels and the like. It's the second room I've had since I started writing (same desk, different continental mass) and most of the time it works pretty well. I'm side on to the window and it faces the front so there's traffic. Larry next door goes to get hay for the horses twice a week, for a start. But being the last but one house up a dirt road doesn't lead to much in the way of distraction.
 
There's a cat:
 
 
 
but I've filed her. Occasionally there are woodpeckers trying to get into the eaves or wild turkeys blatantly scratching up seedlings. And one time - well, two times - a snake came in off the porch. Then there was the day of the frog in the waterbutt, the mouse in the cat dish (worried but too full to climb out) and the possum in the cow trough (very dead), but mostly it's just me.
 
There's no music except for about two hours a year, when I finish a book and print it. Then I put on either ELO's Mr Blue Sky or (recently) Pharrell's Happy (judge away; I don't care) as loud as it'll go and dance around as the inkjet whirrs and the warm pages curl out.
 
This is why I'll never go on a writers' retreat. Every one I've ever heard of is less retreaty than my real life. Sometimes there are other people.  Brrrr.
 
And yet sometimes, for no reason I've ever been able to identify, I need to go to Mishka's instead.
 
 
It can be at any stage of any draft, any time of any day - suddenly the quiet room with everything I need and the low keyboard for wrist comfort becomes unbearable and what's required is a crowded coffeeshop full of students ordering nonsensical drinks very slowly (liquorice soy chai latte, people? Seriously?) where I can hunch over a laptop with my wrists like hairpins, no reference books and Mariachi classics playing.
 
I have good and bad writing days at home but the words always pour out at Mishka's.  If anyone knows why, I'd love to hear.
 
 



Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Squirrel and Zombies

by Clare O'Donohue

Q: Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?

I don't have a dedicated office space in my house (though a girl can dream). I have a kitchen table, and I have living room couch. I have a nearby Starbucks. I have whatever hotel I'm in because my job keeps me on the road. But I've found that the writing mojo isn't so much based on what I'm looking at as what mood I'm in.

I have two writing personalities. "Squirrel" appears faithfully every time I sit down to write. Anyone who has seen the movie "Up" knows what I'm talking about. In the movie the dog gets easily distracted by anything resembling a squirrel, running off mid-sentence sometimes. In real life it's me who gets distracted by anything resembling... anything. 

I fidget, spend a lot of time reading the articles on Cracked.com, get up for my fourth cup of tea in an hour, realize I need to return an email, and remember that I haven't cleaned the refrigerator in a while. I don't mind a little squirrel in my life, it's when he overstays his welcome - wasting whole days - that I really get annoyed.

The second personality comes later, when I've found the words again. I start writing and writing and forget the world, the internet, and household chores. My half finished cup of tea gets cold on the desk. When I'm really in a book, the world outside could turn into a scene from The Walking Dead. Zombies could roam by my window, break into my house, take a chunk out of my leg, and I'd keep typing. "Just let me finish this chapter," I'd say to the undead creature making me his lunch, "and then I'll go zombie-ing with you." 

It doesn't matter to me whether I'm hidden away in an undecorated room, or sitting on the floor in a crowded, flight-delayed airport gate. If I'm in zombie-mode, the only view I care about is the one on my laptop. 

But.... 

I have found that it's easier for me to get into zombie-mode when I write in the same place every day. Maybe my squirrel personality is bored by the same-old scenery so I get down to business sooner, or maybe my brain just knows this is where the writing happens. I find it's easier when I don't have music playing, so that goes off. I don't close the blinds because scenery is not a distraction, but I do avoid the internet because it's not just a distraction it's a time-suck. 

So when I find I'm spending too much time in squirrel mode, I force the routine of being in the same place, at the same time, in relative quiet, until I'm so far zombie that I don't care. Two or three good zombie days and I can venture back out into the distracting world. I've not just written a fair amount, but I'm filled with ideas for the next chapter or two - something that can keep me writing just in case squirrel pops up again.




Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A View of One's Own

by Robin Spano

Question of the Week: Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?



When we first looked at buying this home, a neglected old house that was literally in danger of slipping down the cliff it's built into, there was a room on the lower level that I had pegged as the one I wanted for my office. It was private, away from the bustle of bedrooms and kitchens and potential house guests who I thought might get in my way and break my creative trance.

My husband, Keith, begged to differ.

“You can't see from down there. You just see trees. Come look at the view from this room on the second floor.”

So I grudgingly followed him up to see what I knew would be a subpar office option. I figured he must have a different plan for that awesome perfect room down below with all that privacy, and he was clearly trying to sell me on this other room so the one I liked could be his for something else.

“Ta-da!” Keith opened the door into the tiniest, most junk-cluttered room in the house. The carpet was stained and the room was too small to be anything other than a closet.

“Very funny,” I said. “The view is great. But I like that other room better.”

We bought the house and agreed to decide on my office later. When we took possession, and the previous owner's junk had been cleared out, I looked at the tiny upstairs room again. The view was stellar. The carpet was disgusting.

“I figure I can build in an L-shaped desk,” Keith said. He showed me where he'd put the shelves. “We can strip off the carpet and you can have whatever floor you like. And you know the biggest advantage? This is too small to convert to a guest room, even if we have a full house.”

My brain perked up on that point. It was true. A blow-up mattress wouldn't even fit onto the floor space. Until then, every office space I'd had would double as a guest room in a pinch.

“Okay,” I said. “Let's take out the carpet and see.”

Now, nearly four years later, I cannot imagine what I was thinking to turn this little space down. I love my tiny office that will never be a guest room, but more than that: it doesn't feel tiny at all. It feels massive and expansive every time I look outside.

The view from my desk is a fjord called Howe Sound, about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Vancouver and an hour south of Whistler. I see mountains, islands, old growth forest. I see fishing boats, kayakers, pleasure crafts, dolphins hunting schools of herring. I see crows chasing eagles, eagles swooping down for prey. Right now as I type there's a mean looking gray boat that might be a shrimper...or maybe it's a government spy.

The view changes with the weather, the season, the time of day. I could stare outside for hours and never get bored. It helps me focus on what matters, which helps me focus on my writing.


I don't like to say these words often, and I think I'm safe now because he doesn't read these blog posts, but Keith was right and I was wrong.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Why I May Have to Live on an Airplane

"Do you pull down your shades and shut out the world when you write? Or are you motivated by a city view? A view of nature? What is the ideal landscape for your creativity?"

- from Susan

It is a good question. I’ll share what I’ve learned about what doesn’t work. What does work is an evolving solution.

Looking at anything that I could or should do or dream about doing instead of writing is not a great idea: laundry, cookie jar, iPhone, stack of bills, photos of Hawaii…not smart.



The spines of 800 crime fiction books by some of the best authors in the world, thoughtfully arranged so that I can be reminded every time I raise my eyes how far inferior what I’m typing at this moment is from their worst sentences…not the best spur to creativity.

Any view of any piece of outdoors under my control and that, therefore, needs my attention before it is ruined by rain, drought, sun, shade, or mealy bugs…my fingers itch just typing this.

A beach out my window?…Forget it. I’m miles away in my head instantly and will be out the door in five.

All of this is to say, obviously, that I’m easily distracted. It’s odd, really, because I’m a spectacularly bad typist, must look at the keys to have any hope of hitting the right ones, then look at the screen to see what my free throw percentage was for that paragraph. (So far, I’m only about 60% on this essay.) My eyes are constantly in use, so how do I see all those distractions?


When I moved to my wonderful house, I finally had a room just for work. I set it up so I face a whiteboard, bookshelves behind and to the sides, window to the right, a whole floor away from food. The best outcome so far is that I’m burning more calories running up and down stairs.

So what works? Two places really work wonderfully, and from what I’ve heard other writers say, they’re not surprises: airplanes and coffee cafes. Something about the quality of the noise, the lack of potential delight by interacting, and the tight radius of my space has an effect on my powers of concentration. Since I have a deadline coming up, I’m thinking about installing chairs around me, finding a tape loop of 50 voices talking at once, and maybe tilting the whiteboard so I can barely operate the keyboard. If that’s too hard, I’ll head to Peet’s!






Friday, February 20, 2015

Pantser? Plotter? Agatha Short Story Finalists Weigh In On This Week's Question

By Art Taylor


I'm pleased to welcome a distinguished group of writers to help round out this week's discussion on the question "Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?" Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, Kathy Lynn Emerson, and I all have stories which have been named finalists for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story, to be presented at Malice Domestic the first weekend in May. Soon after the finalists were announced, Edith invited us all to join in a big group post at Wicked Cozy Authors, which will appear on Friday, March 6— and Kathy also offered to host another post at Maine Crime Writers in April as well. Stay tuned for all of that!

In the meantime, I thought that this week's question here at Criminal Minds offered a good chance for each of us to talk about our nominated stories, what method we used in writing them, and whether that was the approach we normally took—or a step in a new direction. I'll kick things off, and then include each author's response below—along with a link to each story (embedded in the story's title in the heading for each section). Thanks again to Edith for suggesting this blog hop in general!

Art Taylor on "The Odds Are Against Us" and "Premonition"

I'm fortunate to have two stories named as finalists for the Agatha this year: "The Odds Are Against Us," which was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (cover right), and "Premonition," which appeared in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, published by Wildside Press in conjunction with the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. What's funny is that the two stories couldn't be more different in my mind, both in the final product and in the process behind them. "Premonition" was a story that I started several years ago almost purely as an exercise in style: writing from the "you" perspective like in those old Choose Your Own Adventure Books and trying to layer dreams, imagination, and reality in such a way that it was tough for the "you" to see where one began and the other ended. While the story was sparked by one of my own nightmares, and I soon had a sense of where the story should end, the rest of it was written just to see where it went—and then revised with an extra layer of menace, thanks to a Halloween theme for the anthology submission.

"The Odds Are Against Us," on the other hand, was pretty carefully plotted from start to finish before I started writing it—all of it focused around a choice that the narrator needs to make, the consequences that follow that choice, and the way that the past both determines and then complicates both the choice and the aftermath. Because of what I saw as the greater thematic heft of this story, I felt like it really needed to be calibrated pretty carefully each step of the way, and I'd laid out each of the scenes and their purpose in advance to determine the movement of all the parts.

So which do I usually do? My writing generally follows a wide range of approaches. Some stories build in unexpected directions, some are planned out firmly, and sometimes it's a combination of approaches—surprises for me that I hope surprise the reader too. 

Barb Goffman on "The Shadow Knows" 

I’m a plantser. I plot at a high level before I start writing (I know the beginning and generally where I’m going), but I don’t know the exact route I’ll take to get to the end.

For “The Shadow Knows,” I wanted to write about a superstitious man, Gus, who believes his town groundhog, Moe, actually controls the weather. Gus decides to get rid of Moe so his town could finally have an early spring. I wanted Gus to be injured while trying to nab Moe, but it took a while to figure out how to make that funny, which was my goal. (In the end, it’s all in the voice. If the same scenario had happened to a less grouchy person, it wouldn’t have been funny.)

I tried to write a story by the seat of my pants once. In the end, that was way too much work. I ended up writing a lot of things that ultimately didn’t serve the story’s purpose and had to be deleted, and I still haven’t sold that story. So while I tip my hat at pantsers, I am firmly and happily a plantser.

Edith Maxwell on "Just Desserts for Johnny"

I am by nature a pantser, and I particularly am with short stories. For "Just Desserts for Johnny," the first sentence popped into my head: She hadn’t planned on killing Johnny Sorbetto that winter. He had promised her so much. And I went from there. All I had to do was keep writing, follow the story, and figure out how to make it end.

Sometimes an entire story will pop up while I'm out walking, and all I have to do is fill in the details, but it’s not like I plotted it. It just appeared in my brain, and those are the stories that seem to write themselves.

Novels are a bit different, especially since my publisher at Kensington asks for a three-to-four page synopsis before I write the book. But I still pretty much pantser it, as long as I update the synopsis when the book is finished. The most plotting I do is three or four scenes ahead.

Kathy Lynn Emerson on "The Blessing Witch"

I write by applying fingers to keyboard and hoping that whatever oozes down from my brain is still intelligible when it shows up on the screen. I can’t visualize far enough ahead to outline anything, whether it’s a short story or a novel. In fact, I don’t always know which length will ultimately work for an idea. I’ve written more than one short story only to discover that it needed to be a novel and “The Blessing Witch” and another short story titled “The Cunning Woman” (in AHMM later this year) started life as scenes in a novel I’ve since abandoned as unworkable. This is not the most efficient way to write. I wish I could outline. On the other hand, whatever it is I’m doing has led to over fifty traditionally published books and more than twenty short stories in anthologies and magazines, so I must be doing something right.     

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Which Way Did I Go?

by Alan

Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?

I graduated college with a degree in mechanical engineering. I like plans, schematics, and spreadsheets. Formulae, laws of physics, straight lines, sharp corners, curves described by elegant mathematics. I believe in ORDER.

My name is Alan, and I’m an outliner.point a to point b

If I tried to write something without an outline, I have full confidence it would devolve rapidly. I’d start writing a scene, and everything would be fine for a few  minutes, but before too long it would go flying off the rails. For instance, have you ever had an argument with someone, but ten minutes later, you’ve miraculously switched positions? Which reminds me of a book I read once, where the characters’ back stories kept shifting, making following the chain of events difficult, at best. Not as difficult as rocket science, but still hard. Did you ever wonder how these advanced 3-D rendering technologies have changed the way engineers design rockets? And rockets are way, way cool. Maybe I should write a book about people hijacking a rocket and settling on Mars. Mmmm, Mars. I do like their chocolate. And if anyone is interested, I prefer dark chocolate. I understand it’s actually healthy for you. And I’m all about the health. Hey! Squirrel!

But I digress. (If you couldn’t tell, I often write these blog posts by the seat of my pants.)

Now, where was I?

Oh, yes. Outlining. I outline, but when I say I “outline,” it’s not like how we were taught in third grade. Nothing formal whatsoever—no Roman numerals, no subsection 12-G-IV-c, no indenting. First, I map out how the story begins. Then I plot out how the story ends. I also like to pencil in some of the major turning points along the way. Then I fill in the scenes that connect these “tent poles.”

Sometimes I have a good idea what a scene should contain, but often my outline consists of little more than: “Scene 14: Joe and Sue meet in the old chemical plant. Joe tells her something shocking, and Sue runs off, slips, and falls into a vat of hydrochloric acid.”

I should make it clear that I’m not a slave to my outline. I view it as a living, almost-breathing entity. When things change (and boy, do they ever), I change right along with them (or should I say, I change my outline right along with them). In my writing workshops, I tell outliners that if things aren’t working, consider changing your outline. (Similarly, I tell pantsers they need to change their pants (ba-da-bing!).)

Sometimes I wish I had the ability to just sit down and start writing (with the reasonable expectation of producing something decent). That’s right, on some level, I envy the pantsers. So carefree. So happy-go-lucky. So…Bohemian.

But even if I did write more by-the-seat-of-my-pants, I don’t think anyone would ever confuse me with a free-wheeling, spontaneous artiste. And that’s something I’ll just have to learn to live with.