Monday, April 20, 2015
Friday, April 17, 2015
What are three things you know now that you didn't when you started as a fiction writer?
- The right margin doesn't need to line up.
The first time I sat down at a typewriter was at my dad's Chevrolet dealership in Richlands, North Carolina. I remember it was a Saturday, because the receptionist wasn't there (it was her typewriter), but I don't remember the year, except to the extent that I had moved beyond picture books by that point. I slid a sheet of paper into the typewriter, quickly pecked out the first line of my story, shuttled the carriage over to start the second line, quickly pecked that one out too—and then stopped. What I saw wasn't right. I found a bottle of liquid paper, smeared it across the end of the line, tried again—with a shorter word. Still not right. More liquid paper, and a medium sized word this time, and....
The books I was reading then had all the text justified on the right side. How did those writers always find words of just the right length? How would I ever figure it out?
Undoubtedly, there are other lessons there.
- There are 118 ways to do something—and they might all work.
Once upon a time, I thought that each story had the perfect way of being told, and the trick was to find it—through trial and error, through getting feedback from readers and following it, through year after year of toiling through missteps before I reached some mastery of form. Now I recognize that perfection doesn't really happen—maybe shouldn't; that each choice has both its own rewards and its own losses; and that one person's way of telling a story may not be mine, any more than mine should be theirs, or that either of ours is the better way.
Note: This applies to both process and product.
Note 2: I could've said 119 things above, or 117 maybe. Likely the point would've come across the same.
- Being a writer involves more than you and a keyboard—involves more than you, period.
I firmly believe that the most important part of being a writer is writing. However, I've also come to believe it's not the only part.
By this, I don't mean that we writers today also have to be our own editors and marketers and public relations experts and social media mavens and salespeople, etc. All that may be true as well, but all that is also focused on how we try to produce, package, and present our own work to the public—the next steps beyond pecking out our stories.
Instead, what I'm talking about is that often bandied about term of literary citizenship—of participating and contributing generously to the larger literary community. Over the past year, as much of my time has been spent on other people's writing as on my own: reading and commenting on the student manuscripts from my fiction workshop at George Mason University, trying to help cultivate those terrific young talents; reading through (and so far very much enjoying!) the submissions to the Bouchercon anthology I've been asked to guest edit; offering feedback on various friends' latest manuscripts (and my wife's too—a benefit of marrying a writer, as she pointed out here); serving as a judge for a couple of major contests and hopefully bringing some great talents more firmly into the limelight; and right on down the line—even to things as simple as celebrating someone's cover reveal (Hi, Ed Aymar!) or noting a book birthday or two (Hi, Bonnie Stevens and Diane Vallere!) or attending a book launch (Hi, Jonathan Harper!) and, yes, buying and reading a book or two—or 24. Except for my work at Mason, none of that is compensated... though if Ed wants to send me a check for a shout-out, he knows where to reach me.
As writers, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to our craft—but we also have a very real responsibility to the larger world of writers and readers in which we live and work. Being active, being involved, being part of larger conversations, making larger contributions—all that is important too.
Corollary to above: As Alan posted yesterday, writers drink—a lot—part of the camaraderie of a literary community maybe. Turns out you can drink as part of literary citizenship too. Here's my contribution to the social media campaign around the new Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Gary Phillips' Switchblade Cocktail. Note the dash of red cutting through the drink. And hi, Gary! We miss you here at the blog.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
What are three things you know now that you didn't when you started as a fiction writer?
1. Writing is easy. Writing something that is good, that other people want to read, that other people want to represent, that other people want to actually spend hard-earned money on? That is HARD. But as my father used to say, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.
2. Writing is subjective. REALLY subjective. Before I began writing, I knew, on some level, that not everyone liked the same books (substitute: movies, songs, flavors of ice cream, Spice Girls). But I sorta figured that most people didn’t have wildly divergent opinions about the same work. Boy, was I wrong! It’s amazing to me how two people can feel totally different about the same book or story. “How can any self-respecting publishing house put out this dreck?” versus “That’s the best book I’ve read all year.” And that happens more often than you might think. Of course, this is a good thing (usually).
3. Before I began writing fiction, I’m not sure I even knew anybody who claimed to be a writer. (You know, those unkempt weirdos always mumbling to themselves and gesturing insanely in the air—I steered clear.) Now I know plenty of “writers,” and they are the most intelligent, witty, fascinating, generous, friendly, engaging, erudite (look it up, people!), welcoming, gregarious, and informative people I’ve ever met. Did I mention how welcoming they are? It’s difficult to be a wallflower at a mystery convention no matter how hard you try, trust me. (Based on the above description, I’m not sure I belong, but if you don’t tell anybody, I won’t!) I mean, it’s actually COOL to be a writer!
3A. Writers drink. A lot. Especially mystery/thriller writers.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
By Tracy Kiely
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
Monday, April 13, 2015
First off, thanks to Meredith and everyone at Criminal Minds for letting me blog with you today.
- Most writers are actually pretty nice. That surprised me. I really thought, based off what I’d read about writers, that they were cranky assholes. And before I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead was published, I did the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do: I didn’t network, didn’t go to events, didn’t do anything to promote the short stories I’d placed in mags and rags. I guess that, until I had a novel officially accepted and published, I just didn’t feel like a real writer so, consequently, I didn’t know any. And I get a little nervous when it comes to meeting people I admire, and I admire a lot of writers. But almost everyone I’ve met has been friendly and encouraging and doesn’t mind it if you’re a little star-struck or you blurt out that you’d like to stare into their eyes for a few minutes or whatever. And the organizations I’ve joined, from ITW to MWA to SinC, have been equally as friendly and encouraging. That was a nice discovery.
- You need a backstory. Everyone knows that J.K. Rowling was having money problems before Harry Potter became a success. More to the point, she was homeless, subsisting on a diet of street rats and urchins while scribbling her eventual book on random scraps of paper. That’s all true. You don’t need to slip into poverty, but you need something that sets you apart, something that you can tell the occasional interviewer or audience at a reading that makes you memorable. I’m not saying you should lie, but you should lie. Chances are, your backstory is the same as mine: “I always wrote and read a lot, and then I took it seriously around college and…” God, that’s so boring. I can’t even finish typing that sentence because my hand fell asleep. Spice it up! Liars get a bad rap nowadays, but lying is totally worth it, you guys. You need an angle.
- Ya gots to keep writing. According to a recent study by Library Journal, more people are publishing now, and more frequently, than at any other point in history. I just made that stat and the corresponding study up (see?), but it’s probably true. As a guy published by a small press, I think it’s great that there are so many publishing avenues out there. As a guy distrustful of authority, I love that publishing’s rigid doors have been blown open…but holy hell, the market is crowded. There may be a few standouts who can rest for years after a single book is complete, but that’s rare, and you’re probably not Harper Lee. Don’t count on it happening. If you want to get read, you’ve got to keep writing.
On that note, since I was so pleased that Meredith offered me the opportunity to blog with you all, I thought I’d take the opportunity to follow Art’s lead and reveal the cover for the second book in my Dead trilogy, You’re As Good As Dead (coming June 13, Black Opal Books). I hope you like it! If you don’t, lie and say you do. I’m cool with that.
Friday, April 10, 2015
by Paul D. Marks
Well, bringing up the rear here on a Friday, let’s see what I can come up with:
I think I’d have to say I have two favorite quotes about writing.
The first is by William Goldman, screenwriter extraordinaire, and is about screenwriting, but I think it can apply to novel and short story writing as well:
NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess—and, if you're lucky, an educated one.
―William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade
Many people have heard this quote, but of course they forget everything he said except for the first three words. They’ve been interpreted different ways, so I’ll put my own spin on them. And that is that everybody has a different idea about what works and what doesn’t. One hears often that agents or editors will say don’t have a prologue. Then you see books with prologues. Don’t use flashbacks. There was a producer who was famous for saying that if he saw ellipses in scripts he’d close it immediately. So F all of them. And do what works for your story. A prologue might turn some people off, but it might work for others. The other thing is, you send out a story/novel and are “lucky” enough to get notes back with your rejection, so you change the story to fit those notes. You send it out to someone else and they have notes that counteract the first person’s notes. So write it your way. You can’t please everybody and sometimes it seems you can’t please anybody.
My other favorite writing quote would be this from Jules Renard: “Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.”
I mean be honest, haven’t you felt this many times? We are the artist, we have the artist’s vision and true, sometimes it’s messy, but sometimes it’s also more real, more authentic (to use a hackneyed phrase). A lot of times editors will want to clean up your manuscript to the point of taking your voice out of it. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not. But unless they’re paying you don’t pay attention because the next person might not like their suggestions. When I was doing script doctoring I’d often get a writer’s draft of a script. Then besides tightening, which is always a good thing, there would be notes or conversations with directors, producers, etc., about how they wanted to change it. And often, they would, of course, want more sex and violence, yes it’s a cliché but it’s true. But also often they would tear the heart out of it. Whatever good things were in the writer’s draft they’d want to trash. And often the writer’s draft, while needing some work was better than the final draft, whether it was my draft or another person who came on to rewrite after me. I was friends with a fairly well known writer-director. And I remember reading the first draft of one of his early scripts. And it was pretty good. And then the studio and a big name producer got involved and they made changes to his script and diluted it to the point where it was mediocre at best. Maybe it was more commercial, and it did get made. But I don’t think it was a better script. And I don’t think it did particularly well at the box office.
Some other quotes I like:
The next two are on the same page, so to speak:
“Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.”―Gene Fowler
“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”―Red Smith
Having been around the block a time or two, as a writer and a lecturer on writing, I constantly come across people who want to write, who have an idea and want someone to help finish it, gratis, of course, because “it will be the biggest money maker in the history of all time.” Lucas and Spielberg and Grisham and J.K. Rowling will be jealous. But more often than not they don’t put in the time and effort, blood, sweat and tears required because to do that is to do metaphorically what these two quotes suggest: stare at a blank piece of paper (computer screen) and open up a vein until the blood starts dripping off your forehead. People think it’s easy to write. Because they don’t know how hard it is and they don’t really want to know.
“The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”―John Steinbeck
I think this one speaks for itself. And with the book and publishing worlds in the turmoil they’re in today, this quote is more prescient than ever. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the track to try to earn a steady living.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
That's one writing quote that means a lot to me today. It was was said by . . . me, actually, this morning, as I started the third day of writing with one (broken) arm splinted and attached to the opposite shoulder with a tight sling. Elephants' trunks might be pretty handy but elephants' typing is the pits.
Seriously though, I've always liked "a writer writes", as spoken by the Billy Crystal character in Throw Momma From The Train, a fabulous film about writing.
And it's a good message - especially now when a writer can blog, tweet, post, pin, and generally spend ten hours a day at a keyboard doing all sorts of lovely writery things without producing a single word of story.
Sticking with films about writing, another favourite quote of mine is the two parter:
spoken by both Nicholas Cage characters in the divine Charlie Kauffman's Adaptation.
It helps me remember both a. that clever writing is stupid if it doesn't mean anything and also b. never defend your writing when someone gives you an edit.
The rule of three demands that to finish this blogpost I either think of a great quote from another film about writing or quickly make a film about the rise of two-trunked elephants.
Easy. Slightly tougher is the choice between Misery and The Shining. But for a great quote alone, Misery wins.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
Can I Quote You?
No fair, Robin, with your ten quotes... But luckily, writers love to talk about writing, so here are a couple of my favorites...
At the beginning of a novel, a writer needs confidence, but after that what's required is persistence. These traits sound similar. They aren't. Confidence is what politicians, seducers, and currency speculators have, but persistence is a quality found in termites. It's the blind drive to keep on working that persists after confidence breaks down. - Walter Kirn
I try to remember this on the days when anything, everything, is more interesting to me than what is on the page.
When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. - Ernest Hemingway
People are complicated, messy, contradictory, and frustrating. They are also really fun to write and read. The "real" people of reality shows are characters. The characters in Breaking Bad were people.
And, finally, this from James Bond...
The worst situation you can have in a thriller is a lead who looks like he can handle himself. - Daniel Craig.
Let's get this out of the way first - Daniel Craig looks like he could handle himself in any situation. (Cue sexy music) but fair point. One of the reasons I love his Bond is that he feels pain, physical and emotional. I keep this as a reminder that even when writing a smooth-talking, take no prisoners character, there should be some cracks in the armor to keep things interesting.
Monday, April 6, 2015
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
―W. Somerset Maugham
10. “If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
―Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Friday, April 3, 2015
This week's question is a terrific one: "There's only so many ways to sing the blues and yet no one ever asks blues musicians why they're still doing it. Do you ever feel restricted by the constraints of the crime genre or overwhelmed by what's out there?" Any type of genre description or definition offers a framework or context in which the artist/author creates a work and in which the reader/listener/watcher experiences it—but while some of these might be restrictive, I'd hesitate to call them repressive. Many, many year ago, Margaret Maron offered an analogy about the idea of genre and constraints, one that has stayed with me. She compared the mystery genre to the sonnet; there are rules to the sonnet (14 lines, specific rhyme scheme, etc.), but there's a wonderful lot of different ways to do interesting things to make the form your own. And I do want to say I appreciate the question's emphasis here on the phrase "crime genre" as opposed to mystery; many of us interchange the two fairly loosely, I think, but "crime fiction" strikes me as more encompassing of the genre's full spectrum: tales of amateur sleuths, detective stories, police procedurals, thrillers, noir, spy novels, romantic suspense, etc. (or to carry out the metaphor just slightly: sonnet, villanelle, haiku, sestina, terza rima, whatever). And personally, rather than overwhelmed by the scope of all that, I'm thrilled by it.
In other news, today at the Maine Crime Writers blog, Kathy Lynn Emerson is hosting a conversation with this year's finalists for the Agatha Award for Best Short Story: Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, Emerson herself, and me. This is part of a continuing blog-hop for us—and still more to come! Check it out here—with Kathy providing links to previous appearances as well.
And finally, here's the first sneak peek (!!!) at the cover of my debut book, On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories, due out September 15, 2015 from Henery Press. I was pleased with it, and hope others will be too.
Thursday, April 2, 2015
There's only so many ways to sing the blues and yet no one ever asks blues musicians why they're still doing it. Do you ever feel restricted by the constraints of the crime genre or overwhelmed by what's out there?
Constraints? What constraints? That there has to be a crime, or promise of a crime, somewhere in the book?
I hardly find that constraining. In fact, there are so many genres and sub-genres, permutations and combinations of sub-sub-genres, that I think you could probably write whatever you wanted and it would fall under somebody’s definition of a crime novel, somewhere.
Despite the almost inexhaustible number of different storylines possible under the crime fiction umbrella, I don’t feel overwhelmed trying to meet a certain set of expectations or writing a specific type of story.
Well, certainly no more overwhelmed than trying to write a novel in the first place.
Sometimes, I liken the process of writing a book to playing the world’s largest pachinko machine (just like Plinko on The Price is Right). A writer has to make an infinite number of choices when crafting a story, from big picture things like setting, character, and story arc, to smaller things like characters’ names and dialogue and other minutiae (should Tom’s suit be blue or gray?). I like to visualize each one of these decision nodes as a binary choice on the machine, where every choice moves the story in another direction. Once you “compile” the results of all the choices, you have a unique story that is the sum total of the myriad choices made along the way. (This is why two writers with the exact same premise will come up with wildly different novels.)
As long as you face each decision as it comes, and don’t worry about the other million choices, you won’t be overwhelmed. At least that’s what I tell myself.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Just be sure to bring lots of sriracha.**
**And speaking of sriracha, it’s an ingredient in my recipe, KILLER TOFU, which is in the recently-released Mystery Writers of America Cookbook!