Friday, October 7, 2016

Fear of Writing

The biggest drawback to a writer’s success is fear. Fear of criticism from one’s peers or condemnation from the general public. Fear of negative reviews or of spending a year or more writing a book that doesn’t sell. Fear of hiring an agent who won’t send your book to the right publisher. The list is endless.

Fear is a natural human response, especially when you step off into unknown territory such as a new genre, new publisher, new editor. Even bestselling authors fear losing their readers. So how does a writer overcome those fears? By believing in your abilities and talents. Persistence or staying power must be a tool in every writer’s bag. Marcel Proust couldn’t finish his epic Remembrance of Things Past until his mother died because he feared hurting her feelings. How many other books have been set aside and never published because writers feared repercussions?

The writing profession kindles fear and involves taking risks but writers have to come to grips with their fears and channel them into their work, such as thriller novelists who produce chilling stories for their readers. Writer Greg Lavoy advises fellow scribblers not to ignore fear. “Whatever is suppressed not only has power over you, but will help create obstacles to continually remind you of what you’re hiding from, where you feel you don’t measure up, and whether you don’t have faith in yourself. Success often has as much to do with finding what is standing in your way as with talent or persistence.”

Plugging in a night light for someone who fears the dark doesn’t eliminate fear of the dark, only the darkness. Similarly, not sending out submissions to new publishers not only eliminates fear of rejection, it eliminates the ladder to success.

The poet W.H. Auden said, “Believe in your pain. Take it seriously,know that it has meaning and utility, and that it grows a powerful kind of writing.” Unfortunately, most of us will do everything in our power to avoid fear and rejection so we don’t learn from it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Tying Up Loose Ends . . .

I’ve rewritten a first chapter many times before progressing to the second, only to find that it had to be rewritten again to fall in the line with the rest of the novel. I finally learned to write it once and forget it until the first draft is done.

I’ve never been able to outline a novel because I literally give my characters free rein. And they rarely submit to what I’ve planned for them. They have minds of their own and I wouldn’t want them doing something out of character. In my second Logan and Cafferty series, my feisty 60-year-old senior sleuths surprise me by doing things I’d never consider before sitting down to write. Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty live with me 24/7 while I’m writing about them and they have their own plans for what should happen that day. Sometimes I have to retreat to earlier chapters to include some of their "brilliant" ideas.

In A Village Shattered, Logan and Cafferty gather their friends to discuss the serial killings taking place in their retirement village. Out of that meeting came many new ideas about who the murderer might be and why he or she was on a killing spree. Until the third quarter of the book, even I didn’t know who it was, and I was forced to return to early chapters to flesh out the killer by adding inner monologue.

In the second novel, Diary of Murder, I take my sleuths out of California and place them in a motorhome in the middle of a Rocky Mountain blizzard. Fortunately, that had happened to me, so I could write convincingly about the life and death experience. The blizzard starts the novel off with a bang, but they face a similar situation later in the plot, so I had to swap some snowy details between the first and later chapters so that they didn't appear too similar. Weather plays a large role in any northern state, and gives the plot an element of danger.

In A Village Shattered, the opaque San Joaquin Valley tule (too-ley) fog hides the serial killer, but I didn’t even think about the fog until I was writing chapter three. Having lived there for a dozen years, I know the horror of trying to drive in pea soup fog, so I switched seasons and went back to chapter one to add it to the plot. In doing so, it tied all aspects of the story together. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Perfect Villain

While I was researching the criminal mind, I came across the narcissistic personality disorder, which I thought would conger up a great villain for a future novel. I had no idea that the disorder was so complex or that it bordered on psychosis.

A person suffering from the disorder is characterized by an excessive need to be admired as well as feelings of grandiosity—probably what used to be called “The Napoleon complex.” I couldn’t quite picture my villain running around with his hand stuffed in his shirt, so I looked for further symptoms.

This is what I found:

~People with the disorder have achieved great things because they consider themselves so special that they can’t possibly fail.
~They confine their relationships to only those people they feel are worthy of them.
~They have no qualms about taking advantage of others.
~They’re so self absorbed that they have no empathy for anyone.
~They feel that everyone envies them.
~They’re preoccupied with fantasies of power and success.
~They think they deserve adoration from everyone.
~They have a sense of entitlement to everything they desire.
~They’re arrogant in the extreme.

Know anyone with some or all of the above characteristics? Before I began writing mystery novels,  I thought that narcissistic people spent a lot of time in front of mirrors, totally in love with themselves. I didn't think of them as perfect villains until the "aha" light bulb snapped on.recently.

Psychologist Phyllis Beren revealed red flags that alert her to someone with the disorder: a desire to control other people, excessive lying, running other people down, an attitude of “my way or the highway,” sadistic behavior and over development of one area of the personality at the expense of others.

So, if someone values himself over others, has little empathy, grandiose ideas and little self-awareness, he wouldn’t hesitate to commit a crime to achieve his goals. He’s like Raskolnikov’s extraordinary man in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and above the law.

I think I’ve found the perfect villain.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Elmore Leonard's Ten Writing Rules

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people.
2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.  The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.  You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.  
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. 
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.  A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.  Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Three Rules of Dialogue

I’m one of those writers who fills the page with dialogue rather than narrative because dialogue is my forte. Those of us with an ear for accents and speech patterns are fortunate to be able to transcribe them onto the page. But dialogue that doesn’t further the story or define characters will cause a manuscript to be rejected, no matter how well it’s written.

I remember reading Robyn Carr’s article years ago about the three rules of dialogue, which I copied onto 3 x 5 cards for future reference.

Rule #1: Dialogue should tell the reader something about the character’s personality or emotions, or at least reinforce something already established, like anger, timidity, cruelty, impatience or perfectionism. Instead of having a character greet someone by simply saying “hello,” have him say, “Where've you been?” or “Do you know what time it is?” while tapping his foot impatiently.

Rule #2: Dialogue needs to propel the plot forward while the reader gets to know the characters through the way they react to stimuli that directly affects their lives. Their conversations need to establish or reinforce their emotions, their relationships, and the roles they play in the plot to enhance conflict and tension. Even when writing comedy, the characters' reactions to one another are actually conflict in its truest sense.

Rule #3: Dialogue must individualize each character. No two characters should sound alike just as no two people use the same words or phrases. Each character needs to have his or her own expressions, dialects, euphemisms, speech styles and inflections. But that’s not all. They must also have their own value systems, motivations, personal habits and other traits that are expressed in dialogue.

For example, if you assigned each character a number instead of a name and gender, would they be distinguishable from one another?

Every line of dialogue has a job to do. When you’re editing and polishing a second draft, eliminate every word that doesn’t need to be there. People rarely speak in complete sentences so make sure your characters don’t sound as though they’re reciting an English lesson.

Creating a character sheet is a good way to establish who your characters really are. Describe each one physically and include his or her basic background information. Then consider pertinent information that will determine her dialogue. How well educated is she? Is her voice husky, squeaky, soft or loud? Does she have verbal ticks? Is he shy and does she stutter when she speaks? Does she use slang? Does he speak haltingly? Or is she articulate and chooses her words well?

How motivated is your protagonist? Is he aggressive, single-minded, abrasive, generous or power hungry? Any or all those traits should show up in his dialogue. Geographical differences also affect a character’s dialogue as does his education, or lack of schooling. If a character dropped out of school in the fifth grade, he won’t have an impressive vocabulary, unless he’s very motivated and schooled on his own. If that’s the case, make sure your reader knows it. One way is to have other characters talk about his education, or lack of schooling, when he’s not around, or praise him for it when he is.

According to Robin Carr, "Characters come alive when every bit of dialogue develops their personalities; when the action, tension and drama are heightened because of what they said, how they said it and when they chose to speak and when the characters’ complex individualism sets them apart from each other."

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"Mysteries Began with Vidocq"

by William Shepard

Mysteries have always appealed to me, from the Sherlock Holmes stories that I devoured as a teenager to the Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie books that expanded their audience through movie and television adaptations. As I began writing my own mysteries, the thought naturally arose to study the genre itself. Where did mystery stories begin? Who invented them, and what was the audience?

I was amazed to discover that a very odd Frenchman, Eugène François Vidocq, laid the basis for the modern detective story. He was a criminal, in fact a galley slave, who turned on his fellow criminals and became a police informant, then a police officer! He was so skilled that his work produced a descending crime rate in Paris, and he was responsible for many methods that criminologists today employ. Vidocq became the model for many authors, including Victor Hugo, whose “Les Miserables” used Vidocq as the model for BOTH Jean Valjean and his police nemesis, Inspector Javert!

The first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” by Edgar Allan Poe, was modeled in part after Vidocq’s bestselling “Memoirs.” Meanwhile, Vidocq established the world’s first detective agency in Paris, and as an international celebrity had actually consulted on the formation of Scotland Yard.
It All Began with Vidocq!
From there, the detective story started to grow. Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle broadened the detective story with their immortal sleuths, and in the twentieth century the development of the “cozy” mystery by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers reached new audiences. In America the competing “hardboiled” genre featured Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Gradually the detective story took new forms, including short mysteries for readers to solve on their own.

And so my latest work, “The Master Detective Trio,” combines three Ebooks. First, “The Great Detectives: From Vidocq to Sam Spade,” traces the detective story from its origins. And there are some interesting byways – just where did the name Sherlock come from, anyway? And who did murder the Sternwood chauffeur in “The Big Sleep?”

Then, “Coffee Break Mysteries” is a collection of twenty short mysteries, for those days when the reader wants a short reading break. The settings are varied and interesting. We first have“The Plot to Poison George Washington.” The London of Dickens and Salem, Massachusetts during the witchcraft hysteria are both found here.

In “More Coffee Break Mysteries: The Sherlock Holmes Edition,” there are twenty new short mysteries to solve. If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan, like me, you’ll be pleased to find five brand new adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, all of which were approved by the literary estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

William Shepard felt that there was something missing in crime novels. And that was the world of diplomacy, a real world for all its glamour. He invites readers to "Come into that world and solve a crime or two, while you explore with me the Embassy life, its risks and rewards, and yes, its occasional murders! His novels include include Vintage Murder, Murder On The Danube, and Murder In Dordogne. Also, Diplomatic Tales, a memoir of life at American Embassies, is also available. For those who want to know more about enjoying fine wines, Shepard's Guide to Mastering French Wines is a reliable and entertaining guide to the regions and wines of France.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

by Marja McGraw

Jean asked me what inspired the personalities in the book, and this is the short version.

One of my favorite authors, Dorothy Bodoin, and I discussed that we’d both like to try our skills on a time travel book. Further inspired by two songs, Time in a Bottle by Jim Croce, and That Sunday, That Summer as sung by Natalie Cole, I took a step out in faith. I could do this, or at least I’d try my best to write a time travel story.

I thought about people I know and how they might react to life if they lived in another time period; specifically, 1909. Honestly, I have no idea what led me to choose that year. I remembered older people I’ve known throughout my life. They loved to share stories about growing up in an earlier era. Somehow it all came together.

The main character in Choosing One Moment is Carrie McFerrin. I had to give her a lot of thought and determined she must be a mystery writer whose skills someone wanted to put to use. There had to be a purpose for her time travel. Is she based on me? Not at all. Well, she is a bit clumsy, and that’s a trait we share.

She traveled to 1909 as the request of her great-aunt Genny, who’d traveled before her. I might add that Carrie didn’t travel willingly. Genny reminds me a bit of my own aunt.

My husband inspired more than one character because of the many sides to his personality (the good guys). Inspired is the key word. The world needs good men, and he was one of them.

The book includes an aged woman called Mother Possum. When I was a child there was a woman in her nineties who was called Mother Possum, and I’ve never forgotten her. The name alone made her fodder for a character. And, yes, her surname was actually Possum.

I could go through character by character, but that would be too time-consuming. In my other mysteries, the people are purely fictional, for the most part. I can’t explain it, but this time travel story felt more personal. It begged for personalities that I’m familiar with and people who have played a role in my life.

Yes, the characters are fictional, but they’re inspired by the best, and the worst (don’t forget the bad guys). And remember, there’s a killer on the loose in the fictional town of Little Creek.

One last thought, and that’s that an old crank phone hangs in my guest room. It was begging to be in a story. I couldn’t resist. It’s a link to the past.

Jean also asked about research for the story. As I mentioned, I grew up hearing stories related by elderly people. Those led me to read old newspaper articles, books about the time period, research (and images) of clothing in and around 1909, and anything else I could lay my hands on. The fact that people from that time period didn’t have the amenities we have today played a large part, too. Can you imagine what they might think if they saw today’s appliances, cell phones, cars or jetliners? What about a microwave oven or a dishwasher? A man on the moon? They’d probably laugh at at that idea.

Ah, the differences are too many to think about. If we traveled in time, imagine what it would be like to suddenly have things that we take for granted disappear from our lives.

Thank you, Jean, for allowing me to give a little background on Choosing One Moment – A Time Travel Mystery. It was an experience I enjoyed, and I think readers will, too.

About the story:

Mystery writer Carrie McFerrin has inherited an old family house and all of its contents from her Great Aunt Genny.

While taking inventory of the attic contents, she comes across an old wooden crank telephone. Thinking the old phone would look perfect in her vintage kitchen, she hangs it on the wall by the back door, and an old, yellowed piece of paper asking for help falls to the floor.

The impossible happens when the disconnected old phone rings – three rings, a pause, and three more rings.

Carrie picks up the receiver, wondering what’s going on, and her life suddenly changes – forever.

Nothing will ever be the same.

Author Bio:

My friend Marja McGraw was born and raised in Southern California. She worked in both civil and criminal law, state transportation, and a city building department.  She has lived and worked in California, Nevada, Oregon, Alaska and Arizona.

She wrote a weekly column for a small town newspaper in Northern Nevada, and conducted a Writers’ Support Group in Northern Arizona. A past member of Sisters in Crime (SinC), she was also the Editor for the SinC-Internet Newsletter for a year and a half.

Marja writes two mystery series: The Sandi Webster Mysteries and The Bogey Man Mysteries, which are light reading with a touch of humor. She also occasionally writes stories that aren’t part of a series.

Marja says that each of her mysteries contains a little humor, a little romance and A Little Murder!

She now lives in Washington, where life is good.