Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rewriting! Rewriting!

I wonder if I'm weird or if other writers are like me. I can't just start writing, go to the end, and then worry about going back and shaping things up. I'm writing mysteries, for heaven's sake. Everything has got to fit all along the way. Every clue has to fall in a certain place. Every important discovery has to be foreshadowed. As I write, I get interesting ideas additional to my outline, and I write them in, but then I have to go way back to the beginning and rewrite in order to foreshadow and to make sure the logic is consistent. If, for instance, I suddenly decide it would be cool if a villain had a missing trigger finger, then he must have a missing trigger finger in all preceding chapters. And if, in those preceding chapters, I have to give him a different weapon because of the problem with the finger, then I have to go back and change the weapon. And if, while changing the weapon, I get a great idea about a physical habit he develops because of the particular weapon, then I have to go back and forwards and add in the interesting part about the habit. If I don't take care of it at the time, things get all mixed up. I often tell people that my books don't get longer, they get fatter.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Different Voices

At one of our meetings, the members of my writers group pointed out that my two main characters, Louise and Erleen, spoke in the same voice and I should do something to distinguish them. Excellent comment, but how? They were of a similar age, both widows, both antiques dealers, both had lived in Minnesota for most of their lives. I didn't have the writing experience to make them have different (enough) voices, so I tried what I felt at the time was a cheap cop-out. I decided Erleen had been born and raised in the South and had moved to Minnesota right after college when she was married. I left her with a Minnesota speech style, but a habit of throwing in Southern colloquialisms as a sort of flirtatious device that had become a habit. I think it worked well. Later, when the book was finished, a reader told me that Erleen was the most delightful character in the book because of the way she talked. Isn't that just finer than frog hair?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Lengthy Character Descriptions

Many writing advisors caution against lengthy character descriptions, and when I started to write, I heeded them. As I introduced my characters in "Nice Girls Don't Bite," I tried to keep their descriptions to a brief simile. "She looked like a bright-eyed inquisitive kitten." The ladies in my writers group protested. "What is she wearing?" I heard repeatedly. I gave in a little. "She was dressed in the height of fashion." That wasn't good enough. "What is she wearing?" they repeated. Pointing out that the readership for cozies is primarily women, they insisted that clothing descriptions were necessary. Okay, I finally gave in, but I used the surrender as a springboard for characterization. My high fashion character was Erleen, so every time she changed clothes I made an item of apparel useful in other places. For example, fifteen thin silver bracelets on one wrist that quivered and clinked with her indignation in a police interview. Boots with Lucite heels that prevented her from running as far as Louise suggested in a panicky situation. I tried not to get too carried away with clothing description, but I have to admit that what Erleen wore became an interesting and sometimes funny aspect of the novel. (I hope.)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Where Are We?

I have small colored sticky notes taped around my computer screen that I try to read often as I compose. One of them says, "What time is it? What day is it? Where are we?" I have discovered that getting that information into each new chapter smoothly is sometimes easy, sometimes almost impossible, depending on the situation. Some day it might be fun to sponsor a contest to see who could write the best first sentence of a chapter that has time, day, and location in it. "It was a dark and stormy night," is, of course, already taken.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Snowbird--Wrong and Right

Snowbird came back from her southern island and re-entered the critique circle, which I was quite cozy with by then. She looked at the first sentence of my week's output and said, "Cross this phrase out, you don't need it." "Get rid of this 'was' and the word 'never.'" "In the second sentence, why are you saying 'in the house?' Everyone knows it's in the house, delete that phrase." "Tighten this third sentence up by..." Sentence by sentence, word by word, she was re-writing my chapter. I was furious. Had the woman no sense of how to give constructive criticism? I gave her a glare that would have stopped a rhino. The next time she opened her mouth to re-write what I had written, I glared fiercely at her. Eventually, she got the message and quit re-writing. That was a year-and-a-half ago, and I have now matured enough in my writing to realize her corrections were exactly what I needed to do. I wish, though, she had said, "You're over-writing and it looks amateurish. You need to go back and pare this down to nice tight sentences that flow smoothly." Now THAT I would have understood. And now that I'm writing less amateurishly, I look forward to her return north. It is hoped that she will have fewer edits, and no doubt she hopes that I will quit glaring at her.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Bear in a Bar

One very minor drawback to my writers group was that the others were writing literary fiction and I was writing commercial fiction. "So what," you say, "good writing is good writing, yes?" Yeeeeess, but... I like to explain the difference this way: Imagine you're writing a joke book. You go to a meeting of my writers group, and say, "Here's my first joke. A bear went into a bar and said to the bartender---" You'd get that far before a barrage of questions came at you. "What kind of a bear is it?" "How old is the bear?" "Is the bear married?" "Does the bear regularly come into this bar?" "Are the bear and the bartender friends?" "Is the bear an alcoholic?" "You need a lot more back story before you go much farther." To the joke reader, "A bear went into a bar..." is all the back story you need. To a mystery writer, moving things along is frequently more important than back story. (You no doubt notice that I use the past tense quite a bit. That's because I'm going back to the beginning of when I started writing. Eventually I'll catch up and we'll be in the present.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Finding a Writers Group

I found a small group of writers willing to accept me into their circle. With me added, there were four-and-a-half of us (one was a snowbird with us only six months of every year). We met once a week at a coffeehouse and emailed our pieces a few days ahead of time. Cee-Cee was an exquisite writer. Everything she wrote was concise, every word a gem. She was writing a novel about a cancer survivor who goes to the World Poker Tournament. She gave my writing a flattering amount of attention, and a truly helpful amount of criticism. Dee-Dee wrote nostalgia pieces about young love. She was quiet, not offering many detailed comments, but when she did speak up, she made a thematic suggestion that instantly took root in my mind, grew like kudzu, and became almost a whole new exciting chapter. Mimi was an attractive young model who was writing a novel, short stories, and a play. Her special talent was portraying dysfunctional (air-headed?) young women. Most of her comments didn't speak to what I was trying to do and I tended not to pay all that much attention, except... Once in a while she would say, "You know, you have a habit of..." And, shazam! she would put her pretty finger right smack on a sneaky/lazy writing trick that I thought I was getting away with. I looked forward to every meeting because the group was doing me so much good. The exceptions were the Snowbird and the Bear. More about them to come.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My First Writers Festival

I attended my first writers festival. Talk about mixed reactions! Most of them not good. The one thing worth the entire price was a seminar conducted by a Mama Cass look-alike with a no-nonsense, almost brusque, demeanor. She explained what a platform was, how important it could be, how to make one, and where to make contacts. She handed out lists of specific web sites, companies, blogs, and tricks of the trade. Other seminars, however, were disappointing in that the presenters were not organized, expecting, I guess, that if they simply stood up and talked, we would be entranced. I was not entranced. Most offensively disappointing was a seminar titled something like "How To Write Compelling Narrative." The presenter was a very well-known, often-published writer of mystery books with fascinating ethnic venues. I'd read his books; they were excellent. He started the seminar by saying, "Let's play a game. A woman enters a candy store, and...." He pointed to a gray-haired woman in his audience, "What happens next?" The woman said, "No one is there." He pointed to someone else. "And?" "She decided to look in the back room." Another point. "And?" That business continued for quite some time until he ended it by saying, "You have just created narrative." Next he pulled out a sheaf of papers and read a paragraph to us. "That's excellent narrative," he said. He read a different paragraph. "That's great narrative," he said. We finished his session that way. The final session of the festival was a panel discussion chaired by five published authors. The moderator had them go one-by-one and tell how they became writers. That killed the time. No one discussed anything. Thank goodness for the one seminar with substantive content.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Don't Murder Your Mystery

As I got started again, this time knowing where my book was going because I had an outline for a GPS, I bought Chris Roerden's "Don't Murder Your Mystery." If you're writing mysteries, I believe it is the most helpful book you can ever read. Every page is full of valuable and practical information. Ms Roerden goes beyond explaining what's good and what's not-so-good, she gives examples every! single! time! I recommend the book highly. The only precaution I might make is you may want to fill it with dog ears or sticky notes or a trail of crumbs when you go through it the first time, because the Table of Contents is expressed in highly creative terms, and I had difficulty looking up what I wanted to re-read.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Following Stephen King's Advice

It was at this time that The Man I Married heard a radio interview with Stephen King and repeated to me what Mr. King had said. What TMIM understood Mr. King to say was not to organize, outline, or solidify your novel ahead of time. Just start telling the story and let your characters take you where they will. As I considered Mr. King to be a genius and myself to be a former English teacher cursed with a pedantic style, I welcomed this advice. Yes! I would just start writing, and maybe what I wrote would sound natural and not heavily pedantic. About 12 chapters into "Nice Girls Don't Bite," I ground to a halt, impossibly snarled in what I had written, without a clue as to where to go next. I went to my best thinking place, the shower, and puzzled over my problem until the hot water ran out. I saw the light. Mr. King, still a genius, was talking about mainstream novels. I, still a pedantic doofus, was writing a commercial novel. Organization and plotting are the bedrock of mysteries. The author absolutely must plan ahead of time who the murderer is, how he committed the crime, where the clues have to show up, how many red herrings to plant, what order the detective follows, and a lot of other good stuff. I went back to the beginning, wrote a 12-page outline, and started the novel all over.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Finding A Hot Title

I decided to name my humorous vampire cozy "Ladies Of The Night." I felt rather clever about it. Ladies of the night is a term that could be construed to mean prostitutes, and so there was a jokey double meaning there. Both working girls and vampires tend to come out at night, doncha know. Shortly thereafter I had occasion to read various magazine articles and blogs, all of which said you had to have a "hot" title, otherwise agents, publishers, and the reading public would refuse to recognize your existence. At the same time, other various articles and blogs told me not to worry about my title, because the publisher's hot-shots would change it anyway. Pfffttt. Well, anyway, after thinking about it, I decided "Ladies Of The Night," was sorta blah--didn't have an active voice. While searching for something better, I emailed my daughter, describing what the book would be, and my need for a hot title. She sent back, "Nice Girls Don't Bite." Yessss! I loved it. I had my hot title.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Writing A Cozy

I knew a cozy mystery meant an amateur sleuth, usually a small town, and more often than not, humorous. We have all read time and again, that one should write about what one knows. I was just folding a career buying and selling antiques and the columns I write are humorous, so there was my backdrop. At the time, vampires were all the rage, glutting the market. I decided to write a cozy mystery about two widowed antiques dealers, Louise and Erleen, who unknowingly get made into vampires on a vacation trip to Romania. The twist in my book is that they are horrified and refuse to behave like vampires. They're from Minnesota, drat it. They may be undead, but they're going to be nice about it. I thought it was a great twist and something new--vampires who were going to fight it. There is a lot of advice written about starting a book in the right place. I decided to jump over all of the how-did-it-happen stuff and start with my main characters back in Minnesota, waking up with what they think is jet lag, and unable to see themselves in mirrors. I started with a funny, downright campy, opening chapter.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

When I Began

I began writing novels about three years ago when I decided I wasn't getting any younger. If I was ever going to write book-length material, now was the time. In the past I had written a handful of plays, a number of newsletters, a ton of advertising copy, news stories, and several series of humor columns, one of which was seven years old and still going strong. I also had a mystery novel written 20 years before which was deep in the trunk on a diskette that probably couldn't be read any more. With all that experience, I assumed I had the discipline and talent to write anything exceptionally well. I decided to write a cozy mystery because that was my favorite reading niche. Right there is where my career as a novelist started. I have yet to write a novel that any agent likes, but I have learned so many things about the craft of writing that my experiences are, I believe, interesting and valuable. I hope my readers will profit from them.