Friday, August 31, 2007
by Tom Schreck
My book, "On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery" is now out and in stores. It takes place in and around New York City.
My main character is a not-so-social worker who moonlights as a bad professional boxer. When one of his crack addicted schizophrenic clients gets murdered he decides to find out why and it leads him into a world of internet porn and terrorism.
And then there are the Red Sox fans.
As heinous as internet porn and terrorism are they don't come close to Red Sox fans. Fortunately for me the Yankees have just swept the latest three game series. Unfortunately for me I have to spend the weekend in Cape Cod where I will be surrounded by these intolerable people.
The various shrinks I've seen over the years have told me that when something upsets me I should write it down and some how expunge it from gunking up my mental and emotional processes. I doubt this will work but I want to be a good patient.
Anyway, here goes--The top ten reasons I hate the Red Sox and their fans:
1. Their smelly old minor league stadium that they try to pass off as nostalgic
2. They all talk funny
3. The fact that they think its cool that Jimmy Fallon made a movie about them.
4. They forget that that pathetic Carlton Fisk motioning for his home run to stay fair--one of their most dramatic historic moments---happened in a year where they didn't win the world series.
5. That Ted Williams--the guy they say was the greatest hitter in history--batted something like .205 in the post season.
6. The annoying way they all sing "Sweet Caroline" at the stadium and think its cool instead of something they should be embarrassed about.
7. The way they ran Buckner out of town and blamed him for blowing the series forgetting they went on to lose game seven the next night against the Mets.
8. The way they rationalized a thirty-something Pedro Martinez throwing a seventy-something Don Zimmer to the ground.
9. They were the last team in baseball to integrate.
10. Half their team looks like the frat boys at the equally despicable Boston College (did I mention I went to Notre Dame?)
Sorry--Ten isn't going to be enough.
11. Schilling’s allegedly bloody socks
12. This whole "curse is over" and "my useless Boston life now has meaning"--as if one win in 86 years is something to be proud of. See you in 2090!
The shrinks lied.
I don't feel any better.
And I still have to drive to Cape Cod.
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
by G.M. Malliet
Photo by Gary Matthews
Q: Still Life was short-listed for the Debut Dagger of the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain. After publication, Still Life won Britain's New Blood Dagger and Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. It also won the Dilys award from the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association and landed on Kirkus Review's 2006 list of top ten mysteries.
And yet, you have said this novel nearly did not find a publisher. Do you have any thoughts as to why? Is the "cozy" perhaps a harder sell in New York than the "noir?"
A: When I finally found an agent her perception, before we sold it, was that the cozy was a harder sell in the UK than in New York. She said British readers were tired of it, having read, and bred, so many of them. But that Americans still loved the gentler, more idylized, stories. I wasn't so sure. But she proved to be right. The British reception has been good, and strong, but I have to say I think the US readers are really open to the traditional style. For which I'm grateful! I have no problem at all saying these are cozies, that's what I set out to write, as a homage to all the greats I loved, and still love, to read. It amazes me a little that this fine form is seen as incapable of also being rich, emotionally satisfiying and even challenging. Happily, this is a great community, which makes room for everyone.
In terms of it being so hard to find anyone interested in Still Life I think it was probably the combination of being a traditional tale set in Canada. It's frustrating but I do understand that agents and editors get a huge number of submissions and they make snap decisions. But it breaks my heart knowing how other writers have had the courage to start a book, finish it, send it out, and then finally give up. How many fantastic stories are shoved under beds or in drawers? I almost gave up with Still Life and was just about to put it away. Because of that my husband Michael and I have helped start an award like the Debut Dagger through the Crime Writers of Canada. It's for the Best Unpublished First Crime Novel and this inaugural year the winner was Phyllis Smallman, for her wonderful debut novel Marguerita Nights. We feel sure she'll be published now.
Q: The photos on your Web site offer a glimpse of a fictional, postcard-perfect village called Three Pines located in Canada's Eastern Township region. How much of Three Pines is like your own village, and how much of it is your fantasy of a St. Mary Mead type of village?
A: It's almost all fantasy, physically. Though this is an area of rolling hills and small mountains, of forests and lakes. But Three Pines itself is my dream village, my safe place. The place I'd create if God allowed me. What isn't made up is the feel of the village. I think of Three Pines as a state of mind. A village occupied by people who have made conscious choices in their lives. Not because they've never been hurt, not because they're too protected, or foolish, or shallow to know that the world can be a dreadful place. No. It's for that very reason they've all made their choices. They've all been hurt. As have we all. But when wounded some people become embittered, cynical, sarcastic. They hurt back. But some, and I sometimes think they're the ones most wounded, make another choice. They know nothing good comes of giving in to our darker instincts. And so they turn to what Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address called, 'The better angels of our nature.' Three Pines is a place where kindness trumps cruelty, where people help each other, and care. Where sharing isn't a word to be laughed at and even an embittered old poet is welcomed. There's that wonderful line from Auden is his poem to Melville - 'Goodness exists; that's the new knowledge/His terror had to blow itself quite out/To let him see it.'
In these books, and in Three Pines, there's terror, there's the wretched, stinking horror of the murder of someone they knew, by someone they know. But finally, these books, and Three Pines, are about goodness. The choice to be good, and to see good.
Q: Your background is as a radio journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Was that experience a help or a hindrance in writing fiction?
A: Wonderful question. It was a bit of a mixed bag. When writing news for the radio there's almost no character devolopment, description, mis-direction (you hope). Half a page and the story's over. When I started writing Still Life I was sure it would be over in a page and a half. 'An elderly woman was killed last night in the Eastern Townships village of Three Pines. Chief Inspector Gamache expects to make an arrest.' Good night.
On the plus side, I got to watch people as they reacted to extreme events in their lives. You don't generally end up on CBC radio if nothing is happening. I interviewed people on my show because either something extremely good or terrible had happened in their lives. For decades I saw how people absorbed those blows, sometimes with such courage it almost brought me to my knees, and other times with rage and violence. I covered accidents, illnesses, conflicts and the quieter tragedies of poverty and despair. All of that helped me try to understand our apparently limitless capacity for grace, and cruelty. It also helps put things in perspective. People have real problems. I don't. If a book doesn't end up on the bestsellers list, isn't well reviewed, well received, I'll be sad. But I've seen the end of the world, and that isn't it.
Q: Which books or writers do you feel have most influenced your writing?
A: Agatha Christie, definitely. Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes. As you see, I'm old school. Isabel Allende is amazing as is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They both have a layer of magical realism I connect to and try to bring to Three Pines.
Q: Who do you picture as the actor who might play your fictional detective Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec?
A: Whoohoo. What a fun question. Hmmm. Probably a cross between Lorne Greene (now dead of course) in his Pa Cartwright days and Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard. I also, and this might be nuts, see Kelsey Grammer. Yes, that one. He's a bit too old because I think they'd need to cast a person slightly younger than Gamache's mid-fifties, so he isn't eighty and still trying to be sixty or so. But Mr Grammer is capable of being an adorable intellectual, has a great sense of humour, and I've seen him in 'straight' roles where he has an amazing presence. He owns the screen. You'd need that with Gamache. Perhaps Vanessa Redgrave.
Q: What are your writing habits? Do you aim for a set number of pages a day, or hours at the desk? Do you have a special place where you write, or are you of the kitchen-table school of writing?
After A Fatal Grace/Dead Cold I rented a loft space in the nearby village and I write there. Six days a week. At least 1,000 words a day. I've found that while I love to think of myself as a free spirit, I'm not. Left to myself I'd eat gummy bears and watch Oprah all day. I need structure. Success for me depends upon structure and perseverence. My brother once told me a saying, The harder you work the luckier you get. I'd agree with that. Hard work doesn't garantee success, but laziness or fear or half-measures can sure handicap you. I know. I've tried all three.
The other thing I do, that I swear is potent, is a run a bubble bath and dream. I practice my own Oprah interview. I fly first class to London to accept a huge award. I win the Nobel Prize. Doesn't matter. I make up wonderful reviews for the books. I've learned that there are enough people who are willing, and even happy, to put you in your place. To criticise. And I have to be prepared for that, and even open to it. But I don't have to cut myself down. No. I have to do that opposite. I have to love myself.
Q: What is next for the series?
A: I'm actually off on a world tour in the fall then the third book, The Cruelest Month is coming out. Each Gamache book is set in a different season. So far we've had Autumn and Winter. The Cruelest Month is set in Easter - April - in Three Pines. The villagers decide to celebrate Easter by doing a little raising of the dead themselves, only to have one of their number die of fright at the seance. Enter Armand Gamache.
We still have Summer to go.
Monday, August 27, 2007
Last night I was writing a particularly violent scene in book #2 of the Phil Riley Novels and I confess, I got a little excited. Geez, I'm kinda getting into this, I think to myself. Method acting for actors is a commonly accepted approach to "getting inside a character's head" - why shouldn't it be the same for writers? I don't recall Robert DiNero donning a Mohawk and gunning down pimps in New York City. I think that would have made the papers. So clearly playing Travis Bickle hasn't had a lasting impact on his psyche. Maybe I'll be okay then, huh? Maybe I won't become a psychopathic killer like some character in one of my books, maybe? But what does it mean if it doesn't bother me to write violent scenes?
You talkin' to me?
Well, here I am -- moved and ready to "start" my new job tomorrow. I am only going to work 60%, leaving me 2 more days a week to write. So far I've been so busy moving and settling in that I haven't had much time to spend on my writing, but I'm getting there. Meanwhile, I know now what it really means to move to the country--small town USA. Everyone here drives a pick up and usually there are dog crates in the back. The closest thing to culture is mud bogging. It is a committment to go to Wal-Mart and the nearest Barnes & Noble is an hour away. What was I thinking? And I am sure that by the end of the month I will know all the particulars of hog hunting which might be an interesting tidbit I could add to a book one day. So at least I guess I was right, I'll have more time to write--certainly won't be in a whirlwind of social life. Oh, and I shouldn't forget to tell you this. When I use my debit card at the nearest grocery store, I don't get asked to put in my pin number. I get asked for my secret code. But the scenery is wonderful, the wildlife abundant, and there is plenty of peace and quiet to go around. It takes 10 minutes to put the boat in the Gulf of Mexico, so I really don't have anything to complain about. I just have to acclimate.
Friday, August 24, 2007
BILL CAMERON Interviewed on Fiction Nation, XM Radio
On August 25th and 26th, check out Kim Alexander's interview of Bill Cameron and Toni McGee Causey, a fun, free-wheeling conversation about their books and the experience of being debut authors and members of Killer Year. If you're not an XM subscriber, you can read Kim's review of their books online.
Hear Fiction Nation on Take Five, XM 155 on Saturday August 25th at 6pm and on Sunday August 26th at 10:00am, and again on Sonic Theater, XM 163, on Thursday, August 30th at 3:00pm. All times EDT.
SUE ANN JAFFARIAN is heading to Massachusetts and New Hampshire in early September. You can catch her at the following bookstores:
Saturday, September 1st, 4pm
Barnes & Noble Manchester
1741 S Willow St.
Manchester NH 03103
Thursday September 6th, 7-9 pm
Barnes & Noble Mllbury
The Shoppes at Blackstone Valley
70 Worcester Providence Turnpike #5
Millbury, MA 01527
Friday September 7th, 5-7 pm
270 Hartford Ave.
Bellingham MA 02019
Saturday, September 8th, 1-3 pm
541-D Lincoln St.
Worcester MA 01605
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Now #4’s done, too. He'd rather read on his own. In the last couple of weeks, he’s read Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief and its two sequels on his own. The latest Harry Potter, too.
After seventeen years of reading to my children at night, I’m done. A superannuated bedtime reader, that’s me. It’s a long wait till grandkids. Sigh.
OTOH, I can take comfort in this – my mission was accomplished. All four kids are readers. #1 and I even share books. Heck, she came with me to Left Coast Crime and Thrillerfest this year and had a great time at the panels and meeting writers.
All’s not lost. We can have shared experiences with stories so long as we watch them and not read them. This week #3, #4, and I have been checking out old episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. They love them, just as I did. Tonight I’m going to the Stanford Theatre with #4 to see Creature from the Black Lagoon. And this weekend #1 and I are going back to the Stanford to see my all-time favorite, The Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart.
P.S. Gentry Magazine’s September issue has a profile of that obscure Palo Alto crime novelist – me. To see it online, go to http://gentry.bantapubnet.com/peninsula200709/. That's a link to a Flash "reader" of the magazine. At the top of the reader, put in 108 in the "go to page" box. After getting there, just click the next page control at the top of the screen to read the entire piece. Since The Maltese Falcon has already been mentioned, I should warn you that the article contains photos of me doing my damndest to look Bogie-esque. Guess which one of the two below is the real Bogie. (Hint: I don't smoke.)
I'll be the first one to admit that I have read books that have launched other story ideas. Anyone else out there care to admit that? It's a fine line we walk when one book shuttles another, but sometimes it happens. Has anyone else ever read a book that sent you to the keyboard or notebook because you just had to get your idea down?
I still think Hunter & Me would be a great story but for now, I guess I'll just table it.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
“Love the voice. But no, thanks.” “We don’t know how to market it.” “Not interested in small regionals, but we like your writing. Submit again.” “Native American doesn’t sell. Come up with something other than Hopi Kachina Dolls.”
These are comments from New York editors, all directed at some of my past proposals.
I don’t get it. I was so excited about the prospect of writing a fourth doll collecting mystery about Kachina Dolls. After all, the series is set in Phoenix, Arizona. The doll’s history is rich with color and stories and beliefs. Didn’t Tony Hillerman (trust me, I’m not comparing the two of us) write about the American southwest, about the Navajo culture? “Yes, but he’s the only one who has managed to make it work,” said my boss.
Then there’s Steve Hamilton and his Alex McKnight series set in the Michigan Upper Peninsula in Paradise, population 445. The first won the Shamus and Edgar, and was nominated for the Anthony and Barry.
My guess is that if you want to write about the desolate desert or the frozen reaches of Upper Michigan, you better make that setting a very unique character. It has to leap at you just as the characters do. And you have to find a publisher who isn’t afraid to take a chance.
How about you? Where are your stories set? Does my next proposal have to take place in New York or L.A. or Chicago?
Sunday, August 19, 2007
I was over posting on Absolute Write the other day and a beginning writer ask the question, how do you find out what motivates your characters? I suggested it could be done with something as simple as an interview. I said to interview your character as if you were a newspaper reporter asking probing questions about their life, quest, current situation, and other topics that could yield the answers. Come up with all the questions first. Then conduct the interview. It sounds simplistic, but it works.
As authors, we know how vital it is that all our characters have a goal. They must want something, and that something is what drives them. But it's more than just a want. They must also have a need. If we don't know what our characters wants and needs are, neither will our readers. With nothing to root for, the reader will lose interest. And in the end, they won't care about the outcome.
So what is the difference between want and need? Think of Marlin, Nemo's father in FINDING NEMO. Marlin's only son, Nemo, is captured by a scuba diver and placed inside a fish tank in a dentist's office. Marlin sets out to find Nemo. But he has a big problem, one that's quite unusual for a fish: he has a terrible fear of the open ocean. So with just that much information, we now know his want and need. He wants to find his son, but to do so he needs to overcome his fear of the ocean. The reader (or viewer in this case) will root for Marlin to make it through all the perils he faces in order to find Nemo and rescue him.
Every character must have a want and need. The most critical are the ones for our protagonists and antagonists. But I think that even the smallest, one-time, walk-ons must be motivated. If we determine the goals of every characters, we will have an easier time writing them, and the reader will have a more distinct picture of the character in their minds.
In planning our stories, it's important that we determine our main character's wants and needs first. In doing so, we'll always have a goal to focus on as we write our stories. So what are your main character's wants and needs? Can you express them in one sentence like we did with Marlin? Let's go find your Nemo's needs!
Saturday, August 18, 2007
SUE ANN JAFFARIAN will be appearing August 25, 2007 at 2:00 p.m. at
Summer Deadly Reads - Panel with Laura Levine, Bill Fitzhugh and Sue Ann Jaffarian
Culver City June Dixon Library
4975 Overland Ave.
Culver City, CA 90230-4299
Phone: (310) 559-1676
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Knee High by the Fourth of July, the third book in my Murder-by-Month Mystery series, has hit bookshelves one month early. Whee! I feel like a bumblebee that had its eye on a nice zinnia over yonder, flew toward it, and got smacked by a four-door sedan. As I scurry to set up book signings, get postcards created and sent out to bookstores and libraries, and set up media events, I wonder, how did this happen?
I should mention that I just moved--houses, jobs, kids--two weeks ago. I'm thinking of knocking over a Wal-Mart to get at the Valium in their pharmacy. Oh, and to make a political statement.
The good news is that I'm proud of Knee High. It's fun, long on humor, romance, and red herrings. Here's Kirkus Review's review:
"When the town mascot of Battle Lake, Minn., a 23-foot fiberglass statue of Chief Wenonga, goes missing, the town librarian/reporter/sleuth springs into action.
Truth be told, Mira James, recent refugee from the Twin Cities, has a bit of a crush on the Chief, especially since most of her love life with living males is in shambles. Her last boyfriend was murdered; now she has the hots for handsome gardening instructor Johnny Leeson. In the blazing midsummer, the town has been preparing for Wenonga Days when Prof. Dolly Castle heats up a town meeting with her objections to the stereotyping of American Indians, and Les Pastner, a local militia wannabe, demands that the festival be renamed White Man Days. The next morning the Chief is gone, leaving only a bit of blood and hair at the statue's base as a clue. Dolly and Les, the likely candidates, are joined by the enigmatic Brando Erikkson, whose company built the statue, which he offers to replace with an irregular woodchuck. Things go from bad to worse when a corpse missing a patch of hair turns up in Johnny's lakeside cabin and he's arrested for murder, forcing Mira to put herself in jeopardy to save him.
...Mira (June Bug, 2007, May Day, 2006) is an amusing heroine in a town full of quirky characters."
I'll let you fill in the ellipsis. :) Or ask me in person what I ellipsised over, if I'm coming to a town near you.
In more good news, Resort to Murder comes out in a week. My short story, "The Locked Fish-Cleaning-House Mystery," set in Battle Lake, Minnesota, is included, as are stories by the amazing William Kent Krueger, Carl Brookins, and Ellen Hart, among others, along with an introduction by Lorna Landvik, one of my favorite authors.
Good times. Hectic, crazy, good times. Look for me on the Channel 7 news, hands cuffed behind my back in front of the St. Cloud Wal-Mart with a serene smile on my face.
Maybe because summer is winding down or because today was overcast and everyone moved about in a state of lethargy, I’ve been feeling restless about my reading. In other words, I cruised around the local bookstore, picked up books, read blurbs, and replaced them on the shelf.
I realized that I what I wanted to read was another book in a series that has been discontinued. In fact, I even went over the check the author’s last name in order to see if she has written anything else. In this case, she had, but not in the series I have grown to love. Dejected, I grabbed a paperback my friend had recommended, brewed coffee, and prepared to read. But I couldn’t concentrate. My mind kept wandering to those characters I had come to love. I miss them. I’m feeling nostalgic for them, like the days at the pool or the sight of my flip-flops thrown off by the garage door. Soon, summer will be gone – just like those books, darn it!
Here are a two series I loved that got zapped by the publishers:
- Rosemary Stevens and her Beau Brummell mysteries. These were charming historical works set in Georgian England. George “Beau” Brummell was the dandy of his day, but Stevens gave him a wry humor and a wit as sharp as his tailor’s scissors. I loved his valet and many of the other minor characters, including his Siamese.
- I have always loved all things Egyptian, so when I first discovered Lynda Robinson’s mysteries set in Ancient Egypt, I was beside myself with joy. Better yet, they were really good. I admit, I was partially in love with the ever half-naked protagonist, Lord Menes, and he only got better with age! He was like the Sean Connery of Egyptian sleuths! This series went on and on and then, just as it was about to reach its conclusion, the last hardcover came out in 2001 and then…nothing! I was crushed. Lord Menes, where are you?
We writers worry about our books being canceled, but it’s just as hard on the readers when it happens. Have you been sad to see a series cut off in the middle of its life? If so, which one (s)?
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Yo ho, yo ho, a writer’s life for me.
We type, we research, we edit with care,
Yo ho, yo ho, a writer’s life for me.
We bitch and moan, tear our hair with might,
Yo ho, yo ho, a writer’s life for me.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Dear Inkspot Readers,
I traded with Deb Baker and then forgot to post today; I have very little time left, so perhaps you'd like to read the tribute I wrote to Alfred Hitchcock at the Poe's Deadly Daughters Blog.
Happy Birthday, Hitch!
Monday, August 13, 2007
How did I spend it? Inside writing, looking longingly through my window at the wide avenue that runs through my part of
Now it's just past 11:00 and the game is going strong. I however am done writing. (Oh, who am I try to fool? I finished hours ago) The point is the place is hoping and, while I often write at a Starbucks in midtown, sometimes I feel like an environment that has a little more grit and bustle to it than the squeaky-cleaned-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Starbucks. Does it make a difference? Not that I can tell. The choice seems to have more to do with my mood than any real requirement of the work. The one thing that doesn't vary is the amount of time and when I write. There's a schedule and I stick to it even as the location floats. What sort of writing space works for the rest of you?
Friday, August 10, 2007
KEITH RAFFEL will be signing Dot Dead this Sunday, August 12 from noon to 3pm at:
Borders Books & Music
5903 Shellmound St
Emeryville, CA 94608
Knee High by the Fourth of July, the third book in JESS LOUREY's Murder by Month series, has just been released. She also has a short story in the Resort to Murder anthology, which is being released in September. The short story is called, "The Locked Fish-Cleaning-House Mystery," and features a Minnesota twist on the traditional locked room mystery.
My newest Darcy Cavanaugh mystery,
"Knives, poison, strangulation…ER nurse Darcy Cavanaugh is about to show-and-tell all kinds of deathly dos and don’ts for a mystery writers’ workshop at sea. Teaching the Nurse’s Guide to Murder seminar was a small price to pay for a Caribbean cruise in paradise. If only she didn’t have to share deck space with her boyfriend’s uptight mother! Aspiring novelist and wife to a powerful Virginia judge, Mrs. Skyler wishes her son had better breeding prospects than a redheaded Yankee from California. To make matters worse, the Skyler matriarch wants to submit her novel to a merciless agent whose biting criticism is matched only by her squawking, sailor-tongued parrot.
In a crazy twist, a real murder takes place and the judge’s wife becomes the main suspect. To protect her boyfriend’s mother, Darcy scrambles to peg the real killer from a tangled and nutty cast of desperate writers, overzealous fans, and distracting male cover models with killer abs."
It was a hoot to write this madcap parody of the publishing industry because--face it--this crazy business is fertile ground for clashes of ego, paroxysms of angst, hyper drive ambitions, and deep pits of desperation. (Who, us?)
And I loved creating the nasty, ruthless character of Theodora Kenyon, the cleaver-swinging literary agent who hosts the shipboard “CHOP or SHOP” manuscript critique session. Because we’ve all been there, right? Sending our stuff out to agents and editors, knowing that we could easily be “chopped” by rejection?
In fact, rejection is so universal to aspiring authors, that the LULU Publishing Company will (for the hefty price of 90 dollars) print your rejection letters on TOILET PAPER. Swear. They claim it will let you “put them behind you." Not that easy for the killer in MAI TAI to MURDER.
So--question of the day: How many “Chops” have you endured so far in your publishing journey? Any favorites? Any worthy of framing on your office walls?
(Gad, this sounds like that scene in “Jaws” where everyone shows their scars. Beer, anyone?)
Thursday, August 9, 2007
I've dreamed of being a writer for most of my life. I wrote my first story, "The Night of the Bats," in the fourth grade. Followed that up with a screenplay for an episode of the Daniel Boone TV series. By junior high school I was actually submitting stories, and when an editor from Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction magazine sent me a hand-written rejection, I was hooked. The dream had taken hold of me down in my belly and it wasn't letting go.
With the dream of writing came other dreams. Sub-dreams, perhaps. Meta dreams. In high school, I admit, I dreamed of a guest appearance on The Tonight Show, of a writing studio in Paris, of a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Most of these meta dreams have faded over the years (well, maybe not the NYT one, entirely), but one dream has stuck with me. A dream that I hope to someday realize.
It's an old dream. Older than Paris, older than The Tonight Show. At least as old as the New York Times bestseller list. It's a dream I call The Frito Truck.
Here's how it works.
I buy one of those panel trucks that delivers tasty snacks to grocery stores. And I fix up the interior as a writing den. Inside the Frito truck!
Take a moment with me to think about that. To savor it.
There'll be a desk and a couple of comfortable chairs (in case someone stops by). I'll have bookcases for reference materials and other books I want to have on hand. Dark wood and soft carpeting. One wall is tricked out to lift up, exposing a bank of windows so I can have a view while I write. Meanwhile, on the exterior, it looks like a delivery truck, right down to the Frito-Lay logo painted on the sides.
In my Frito Truck, I can drive around until I find a good place to stop, open the windows and do some writing. But the rest of the time, I'm a "truck driver." In fact, maybe I'd even carry around a case of snacks and maybe give them away, like I was an extra nice potato chip delivery guy instead of an undercover writer. Bwa-ha-ha. And when people ask me about it, I'll say, "Well, I'm a writer, but someday I dream of delivering salty snacks to the people." (Fist held high!)
Surely I'm not the only one with a crazy dream. So tell me yours. C'mon. Let's hear it...
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
My wife and I--and hell, my kids, age 9 and 13--have had this discussion often enough: what's the best film Pixar has ever done? Of course, we all have our favorites, but I wander off the reservation a bit and bypass my favorite (The Incredibles) and throw out what I think is probably Pixar's best film--Monsters, Inc.
Here's why and it has real relevance to writers. And maybe it does to readers, too.
It is generally accepted that in terms of movies, TV shows, novels, stories, whatever, originality is pretty hard to come by. Everything we produce is pretty original because, ahem, WE are unique, and therefore everything we bring to our ideas and their execution is going to be original.
More or less.
But let's face it. With 180,000 books published every year in the US, most of us aren't really blazingly original. A mystery is a mystery is a mystery, etc. Somebody dies, somebody solves the crime, blah, blah, blah. Somebody does something awful and threatens to do something awful-er and our hero has to prevent it from happening. It's all our little nuances that make them original. It's like a car, I suppose. Four wheels, it gets you from A to B. Anything else, no matter your level of creativity--purple paint, rearview cameras, GPS, etc.--is just so much icing on the cake (and yeah, I'm aware I'm mixing metaphors).
So, why do I think "Monsters, Inc" is Pixar's best movie? Well, let me say that I think every single one of Pixar's feature-length films to-date are brilliantly executed. In fact, I think the screenplay for "Toy Story" is one of the finest scripts ever written (not that I have read every script or seen every movie ever made, but you know what I mean). I think "Finding Nemo" is an absolutely wonderful story, beautifully produced, lush and, etc, etc.
"The Incredibles" is just fun and it does what it does--a spin-off on super heroes, complete with suburban mid-life crisis--just about as well as anything out there.
But "Monsters, Inc." This movie is just plain original. There really ARE monsters in kids' closets, and they come from a different universe/dimension, they're mining the screams to power their world...
My point is that execution of a decent to good idea can carry us a long, long way. Most of Pixar's feature films are decent to good ideas executed brilliantly, and from what I can tell, you don't have to be a genius to execute something brilliantly. You just have to work hard and hone your craft. (It helps to keep your personal standards high, too).
Now, having a brilliant, original idea... that's a much, much harder thing to come by. And I suspect that the way to do that is, as multiple Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling famously said, is "have a lot of ideas and throw out the ones that aren't good."
Because if you can combine your brilliant execution with a brilliant, original idea, you get something like "Monsters, Inc."
And, of course, let's just point out that there was a gentleman doing some writing a few years back by the name of Bill Shakespeare, and most of his stories were NOT original. In fact, he was constantly ripping off other source material about family feuds and treacherous royalty and then executing his stories in his own, unique, brilliant fashion. And I guess he did okay while he was alive and even better, probably, after his death.
by Nina Wright, author of the Whiskey Mattimoe mysteries
Once upon a time, in a place far away, I found myself falling in love with a man who was funny, sexy, generous and smart, but whose personal story didn’t add up. No matter how supple my skills of denial, I couldn't ignore what I knew to be true: he was fudging some salient details…like age and marital history. Not marital status, please note. I was sure he was single. The problem was how many times he'd been married. And how recently.
Know what bothered me most? Not the lies as much as the fact that he kept telling them even after he knew full well he was talking to someone with a brain. A writer, no less. A keen observer of the human condition capable of doing complex equations, not to mention on-line research.
Why, I wondered, would he pretend to be ten years younger than he really was and insist that his adult kids were, too? And why oh why did he declare that the charming woman he worked with was merely an old friend when I had proof that she used to be his wife?
I won’t reveal how our story ended because I’m morphing it into fiction...and that's the seed for today's blog: to consider characters who are other than they seem. Characters who misrepresent themselves, through weakness or willfulness or both.
That describes a fair percentage of the cast of any mystery novel. But let’s widen our lens. Back in my acting days, a theater director told me, “People lie. Figure out when your character is lying, and you’ll find her inner truth.”
Advice that can work for writers. The key question, though, is why does your character lie? What does lying do for her—or what does she think lying will do for her—that the truth won’t? What’s at stake in her world, and why is lying the chosen route? Is it simply the easiest way, or does she think it's the only way?
Other intriguing questions, at least for her back story, include how did she learn to lie, whom have her lies hurt, how does she feel about lying, and how do other characters feel about her? What if she lies so seamlessly that she no longer knows when she's lying? How much responsibility should she take for the lies she tells?
I've been pondering these fictional liars: Anyone in a mystery who lies so subtly that readers can’t detect his repeated untruths. How do we as writers manage that charade and then eloquently expose it? Or what if you have a lying “regular”--maybe even one of the good guys? Perhaps the protagonist's buddy or sidekick lies as easily as he breathes. Why does our hero put up with that? And what if the liar tries to make honesty a habit? What causes the change of heart? What can he do to earn people’s trust?
Most intriguing of all: What if your protagonist is a liar? Whiskey Mattimoe tells fibs only when necessary, and readers know when she’s lying. (She's not good at it.) The convention of the unreliable narrator is a whole different issue. That's the point-of-view voice who deliberately misleads readers. How many of us use an unreliable narrator when we write mysteries? And if we don’t, why don’t we?
Back to the flesh-and-blood guy who insisted he was younger and less-often-married than I discovered him to be. If he were in a Whiskey Mattimoe mystery, where he might very well end up, Abra the Afghan hound would teach him a lesson. Provided, of course, that nobody murdered him first....
the third Whiskey Mattimoe mystery
Monday, August 6, 2007
Writing is a job you don't turn off. At least, if there's a switch, I haven't found it. When a serious writer—even one who writes funny stuff, like me—is in the midst of a book, she tends to eat, sleep, and breathe her story. I know I do. I probably even dream it. I haven't been lucky enough to remember any helpful dreams, darn it all. Darn it! But, I'm pretty sure the all night show's going on in a little pink cloud over my sleeping head.
I wake up, and poof! Zippo. So, it's back to being relentless about working on my story, plotting and drafting and editing and revising and angsting to make it all just the way I want it to be: a good story well told.
Sometimes we, as writers, push so hard that we need to take a mental step back. We need to get away from the work and recharge ourselves enough to recapture the joyful experience that writing was meant to be. It shines through in our work when we do.
This weekend I did just that. A group of close friends and I took a camping trip into northwestern Michigan, the region where my Kate London Mystery Series takes place. The weather has been spectacular, the waters as crystal blue as the Caribbean, and the people as quirky and fun-loving as ever. It's been wonderful. I am currently sitting in a wireless cafe in Petoskey, Michigan overlooking the gorgeous bay while I write this post.
I've walked the beach where Kate would walk, watched the shooting stars she would see, danced my heart out, okay, danced my butt off at Legs Inn, the awesome Polish restaurant/ eclectic folk collection/ gardens/dance bar at the edge of the world, and walked the streets where Kate might shop for deep-discount designer shoes.
I'm tired but completely recharged. As Julia Cameron teaches us in her wonderful book, The Artist's Way, it is crucial that we recharge our artistic batteries. Tomorrow when I arrive home, I will be inspired, recharged, a little weary, but ready to write.
What inspires and recharges you?
SUE ANN JAFFARIAN events!
August 11, 2007 - 11:30 a.m. approximately. Sue Ann Jaffarian will be on Literary Speak, Pasadena Community Access Channel 56 with Gary Phillips, Patty Smiley and Edgar Winner Naomi Hirahara.
August 11, 2007 - 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Sue Ann Jaffarian will be on a panel entitled Stop, You're Killing Me with Patty Smiley and Harley Jane Kozak at the Burbank Library, Buena Vista Banch, 300 N. Buena Vista Street, Burbank, CA.
Saturday, August 4, 2007
By Tom Schreck, author of ON THE ROPES, DUFFY DOMBROWSKI MYSTERY
My main character, Duffy Dombrowski, doesn’t have good luck with relationships. It’s not that he never has a girlfriend-- it’s that something just always goes wrong.
I’m a trained therapist who has been around that crap long enough to be at least partially fucked up for life.
Here is my answer to Dr. Phil, Oprah, Dr. Joy…and for that matter the People’s Court, Cheaters and Cops on identifying trouble spots in relationships.
1. If your girlfriend or boyfriend use the following words “issues, space, communication or intimacy” more than twice a year—run.
2. When you’re on a first date and he/she says “Well, my therapist says…” ask for the check.
3. The first time he/she complains about having to go to probation that’s a bad sign.
4. When he/she starts to wonder if they’re gay—not that there’s anything wrong with that—as loving and caring as you are, realize that that fact might be a stumbling block in your relationship.
5. When he/she says that football/boxing/sports in general or the Sopranos are just activities designed to avoid intimacy that’s not a good sign.
6. If he/she is over 20 years old and blames their parents for their failure to be gainfully employed, have the ability to get out of bed before 11 am on any given day or have regular bowel movements you might be headed for a high maintenance relationship.
7. They can be vegan, macrobiotic, lactose intolerant, gluten allergic, bulimic, have Irritable bowel syndrome, carpal tunnel or fibromyalgia…but they can’t have all of them.
8. More than two memberships in organizations that end in “Anonymous” maybe a sign of some trouble.
9. This might just be me but if they have really, really ugly toes—tufts of hair, crooked or long enough to throw a split finger curve—and they insist on wearing open toed sandals or Teva’s that’s a deal killer.
10. More than eight animals—no wait (I’m counting)—make that ten animals as pets is a little weird.
11. If when they sustain an injury and they choose Reiki, kinesiology or acupuncture instead of the emergency room slow things down a bit.
12. The first time they say “I don’t have cable.” Think things over.
13. If they get really over excited on American idol night—or if they know all the contestants and their hometowns keep it light.
14. If the monthly pornography bill is half the mortgage be worried. Hold it—make that the whole mortgage.
15. If they are obsessed with blogging and put a lot of trust in lists then you’re in big trouble.
TOM SCHRECK's debut On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery has received a thumbs up review from Kirkus Reviews. The reviewer said "...warmhearted, tough, funny—Duffy makes it a promising debut."
KEITH RAFFEL, author of Dot Dead, speaks at Google, and you can see it here!
Thursday, August 2, 2007
So what do you give up? A lot of writers say they read less than they used to, an ironic and almost tragic sacrifice. Some will tell you they gave up some favorite hobby, watch less TV, or became vaguely anti-social after they started writing.
One of the more prolific writers I know claims that sleep is overrated, especially if you maintain a disciplined diet of nicotine and caffeine.
You could stop doing the daily crossword puzzle or give up your drinking problem, but you certainly don’t want to stop doing the things or visiting the places that inspired your stories in the first place.
So where do you steal time to write? What sacrifices have you made to finish your manuscript?
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
I hate housework. And just as washing a kitchen floor or doing laundry are necessary evils that cannot be ignored for long, so too must the good writer pay attention to the housework of writing in order to produce a solid, cohesive and accurate book or story. There is just no getting around it.
Writing housework is the time spent categorizing characters, places and events so that their use throughout the manuscript is consistent and accurate. If the villain has blue eyes on page 7, he/she must have blue eyes on page 230, unless, of course, colored contacts are being used and then those must be accounted for in the text. If you write that it’s Sunday when your protagonist visits a witness and then three days later you say it’s Friday, shame on you, you didn’t do your housework.
Everyone handles their writing chores differently. I know writers who keep index cards, notebooks, and separate files on the computer. Generally, I fall into the last category and often supplement it with a large erasable whiteboard. While working on a manuscript, I keep a file specific to that manuscript in which I list all the characters, both major and minor, the places they go, and the dates and times of day they do things. As soon as a character is mentioned in the manuscript, I stop to add that character to my notes file. The character is given an identity, physical characteristics, an occupation, a place of residence, and even a little back story. There might even be a note or two about how I intend to use them again later in the story.
Places and dates are given a similar treatment. For tracking dates and timelines, I pick a starting date for the story and download a blank calendar page for that month and year and fill in all holidays, birthdays and other dates important to the story. I then mark on the calendar each day’s progress of the story – Odelia gets dragged into the murder on Tuesday, she tracks down the one-eyed jockey on Thursday, etc. As I said, if the story starts on a Sunday, five days later had better be Friday. And Easter never falls on a Tuesday. Believe me, readers pay attention to these things.
I repeat – I hate housework. It keeps me from the flow and fun of writing, but without it I’d have a big sloppy mess on my hands, especially since I write a series. And I’ve found that if I wait to do my writing chores after a day’s writing, I don’t do them properly. For me, it works best while I’m in the moment when the character, place or activity is fresh on the page.
How do you do your writing housework? Here’s your chance to play Heloise and share your tips and remedies for tracking ongoing information in your work.