Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Perfect Villain

While I was conducting research, I came across the narcissistic personality disorder, which I thought would conger up a good 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 having the characteristics for fictional 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 might not 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 my perfect villain.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

No Sunbonnet Sue

Anne Schroeder writes memoirs and women's fiction set in the West. She's currently president-elect of Women Writing the West and has won awards for her writing, including the 2012 LAURA Award for short fiction. Her historical western novel, Cholamo Moon, a young girl's struggle to womanhood in California country, will be released in April. Anne makes her home in Southern Oregon with her husband and two dogs. Fortunately, she said, they all share a passion for out of the-way places.

      Anne wrote the following about women in literature: 

Sam Peckinpah was fond of saying, “I hate women in westerns. Women stop the action.” Sounds harsh, but in “real westerns,” the whore/stoic wife/spinster stereotypes allow women a minor role while the cowboy rides off into sunset to fight another day. Now the ladies are demanding their due. So why the stereotypes in the first place?

In the sparsely developed West, social roles were narrowly defined. Fear of being ostracized was very powerful. Gossip kept men and women socially separated from each other, single women, especially. Teachers could be fired for perceived lapses of rather rigid rules.  

Old daguerreotypes reveal a lot about attitude. One famous photo shows two miners’ wives standing in the Leadville, Colorado muck, staunchly determined to rise above the mud and the flies, the scarcities and solitude. They’re wearing starched lace dickeys and serviceable hats they’ve brushed and mended, and bedecked with a fresh quail feather from last night’s supper bird.  

Defining women by their dress may be an effective cinematic tool, but writers need to question the obvious. Was abandoning the corset the slovenly act of a down-and-out whore? Whalebone stays, so easily available in the East, became expensive at the trading posts. Did women simply get tired of trying to farm in one?

The first time a prairie wind blew a woman’s dress over her unmentionables, western-bound women began to modify apparel to fit their needs. They taught each other to stitch buckshot into their hemlines and to remove hoop skirts that dragged them under wagon wheels and caught fire in the coals. They shortened their hems so they didn’t drag in the manure or mud. They donned bloomers not out of fashion sense, but because it made it easier to ride a horse astraddle. The western hills were simply too dangerous for a side-saddle. A woman’s hair was her glory. Even when she had to comb it for vermin, rinse it with rain water and coil it in the dust of the trail? Doubtlessly, some women chopped theirs off and wore a hat.

Women were physically small. (A woman boasted in an 1887 letter that she was 87 pounds, and no slouch.)  Some had grit and physical strength, but others didn’t. Some were tall, or fat, or masculine in appearance. Some woman had to “pass” to survive. Those who wore britches and handled shot guns like a man could become a folk hero (Annie Oakley.) Muleskinners and soldiers were found on their deathbeds to be women. Charley Parkhurst, the noted stage driver, was not only a woman, but she secretly bore a baby. Ironically, the rebels made it into folklore, not the Sunbonnet Sues.   

Many women didn’t have a vote in the decision to “go west.” Church-goers biblically followed husbands who had land or gold fever. Did she become bitter when her children died of disease or accident? Did she pine for family and household goods left behind?  Think of how we would feel if our sister-in-law helped herself to whatever wouldn’t fit into a 4x10 foot wagon after our husband had packed everything he needed for farming, along with food enough for the family and the animals. Women went insane on the Oregon Trail. Sometimes they sat down and wept, and wouldn’t get up again.

Back in the day, children were expected to support their parents. Many families sold homely daughters as twelve-year-olds to brothels for a few dollars to spare the cost of feeding them. Beauty wasn’t perceived in the same way we see it. Cowhands fell in love with women who made them feel good. (Remember “Little Heifer” in Lonesome Dove?) Whores were pock-marked from their mercury face powder, small pox and beatings from customers and pimps alike. According to Wild West Tech, prostitutes began their career at age 13, and only about 18-19 when they succumbed to tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, drug overdose or suicide.  Life was grim. On their paydays, a young girl might service from twenty-four to forty men. She worried more about a cowboy’s spur ripping her sheets (which she had to pay for) than she did about her body.)  

Thankfully, today’s western writers can go beyond the Martha Starchbottom stereotype  and create intriguing and unforgettable characters.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Mistakes Writers Make by editor Chris Roerden

Chris Roerden is an outspoken freelance editor with eleven books to her publishing credit, including Agatha winner Don't Murder Your Mystery and Don't Sabotage Your Submission.

Chris, which editors did you understudy and was ethics part of your publishing curriculum?

I learned publishing the way some writers write: by the seat of my pants. I learned editing by reading voraciously from early childhood on and having a photographic memory. I learned ethics by determining, also in childhood, to be as different as possible from my father--a hypocritical, racist, abusive s.o.b.

Tell us about your background in publishing.

I had the good fortune to grow up in Manhattan and be accepted as an art major at the High School of Music & Art (now LaGuardia). I also had the good fortune to graduate at 16 at a time when jobs were plentiful. So I picked Rockefeller Center as a nice area to work in and got jobs in the public relations and advertising departments of major corporations. I wanted to see how commercial artists worked.

This was long before email, of course, so one of my clerical tasks was to redistribute interoffice mail, by hand, among the 35 staffers in one PR department. While making my rounds I compulsively corrected the text of about-to-be-printed materials. To my surprise, my bosses valued the skills that I’d taken for granted. Didn’t everyone know how to write an effective sentence? Apparently not, because I kept getting promoted to more and more interesting positions.

I learned a little-known side of publishing that paid well and was a great training ground for learning marketing. Besides, I’d seen enough to know I couldn’t produce commercial design as fast as the artists had to--I’m a tinkerer.

Which types of books do you most enjoy editing and which ones do you prefer to stay away from, and why?

I most enjoy mysteries and thrillers because editing them lets me analyze how intricately they are plotted. Nonfiction editing paid the bills, but there wasn’t much intricacy to discover. What I stay away from are books on spirituality, because after the first half-dozen or so they seem too similar to each other.

What made you decide to become a freelance editor?

Family transfers took a toll on my career choices. I did some teaching of writing at universities when my boys were young, but often I worked for niche publishers, where I learned the business from inside out. By the time 50 approached, I held a well-paying position as managing and production editor for a growing niche publisher in Wisconsin, but I missed the hands-on editing of manuscripts. Yet changing jobs was no longer easy at my level--my experience was perceived as fast-tracking me to take over a higher-up’s job.

So I decided to freelance for a while. Unlike many who set out to freelance, I was never without a steady stream of clients, and I liked being my own boss. A major turning point for me was editing the first books of two up-and-coming mystery writers: Alex Matthews, for whom I’ve edited nine Cassidy McCabe mysteries, and Jeanne Dams, who won the 1995 Agatha for Best First Mystery.

If a novel starts out well but loses its focus halfway through the book, as an editor what do you usually do?

I’m always frank with writers and offer a great deal of feedback--probably more than they expect. I find it an advantage to work directly with each author. (One nonfiction writer complained that I made her miss her deadline because it took her so long to make all the changes I’d recommended--yet she chose to make them!)

I’d like to emphasize that I consider all edits suggestions and observations, which authors are free to accept, reject, or analyze to see why something made me stop and how they might prefer to come up with their own improvement.

What prompted you to write your first book?

If you mean Don’t Murder Your Mystery or Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, they are actually my 10th and 11th books. My first I’d merely volunteered to edit for the bicentennial celebration of the town of Cape Elizabeth, Maine--where we’d just be transferred to. Word got out that this newcomer had been a “New York editor.” Turns out that the town historian refused to make his manuscript available, as I’d been led to believe, which was actually a good thing, because expressions such as “she was big with child” characterized his writing style.

So I began collecting bits and pieces of Cape history, accompanied by my one- and three-year-olds. I loved the work of compiling all the material and writing about it, but the gaps in my knowledge of American history motivated me to do something that had not interested me until then: go to college. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. I was 30 at the time and assumed I’d do poorly. Instead I received highest honors, a big surprise to me.

How well have your ghostwritten books sold and were they written for fledglings or well –known authors? (I'm not asking who.)

All of the 11 books and a game I’ve written, either as a ghost or under my own byline, are nonfiction. I edit fiction but don’t write it, though my two latest titles are about writing and revising fiction. Eight titles I wrote for mid-sized businesses and national organizations. Several started as editing projects, but each client’s text was poor so I ended up doing the writing.

Sales reflect the extent of promotion by each client. One is a real go-getter who’s been on many national TV talk shows. For writers who have a taste for writing nonfiction, I’ve always said that becoming a ghost is a good living. As for the fiction I’ve edited, many successful authors aren’t eager to have it be known they work with a manuscript editor, so in a way editing is ghosting, too. But editors are used to keeping low profiles anyway.

What are the usual mistakes writers make that cause editors to cringe?

The first 10 mistakes are arrogance, as in:

 My book is so good it doesn’t need editing.
 The only thing it could use is maybe a light proofreading.
 Everyone will want to buy it.
 Every publisher will want to publish it.
 They’re getting a bargain at 150,000 words.
 To make sure no one steals my ideas, I’ve already registered the copyright.
 I don’t have to read guidelines, write a synopsis, or play by any of those other Mickey Mouse rules because those are for amateurs.
 I never read books about writing.
 What genre is it, you ask? Let the publisher figure that out. They’re in the business. It’s got romance, mystery, history, and biography, and autobiography.
 There isn’t another book like it.

Any advice to novice writers, including self-publishers?

There’s so much more to being the author of a book than writing it. I think it’s a good idea to know your goal. For instance, is publication of a particular book your goal or is it publication of your best work that will make you proud for years to come? Is it the desire to hold your finished book in your hand ASAP, or is it a career as a writer? If you anticipate a writing career, I advise aiming for traditional royalty publication instead of self-publishing, even though that will take much longer and require greater perseverance.

Self-publication can affect a writer’s eligibility for certain organizational positions, awards, speaking roles, and conference panels--all of which could play a part in book marketing and even in developing a mentor.

Anything you’d like to add?

It’s never to early to start networking through organizations and writers conferences, as long as you maintain your regular time commitment to writing. And I always recommend reading more widely in the field you’re entering, and learning more about publishing and marketing--such as by reading either of my two DON’T books for writers.

Thanks for taking part in the series, Chris.

Chris's main web site has links to her publisher’s site, to a long excerpt from Don't Sabotage Your Submission, and to lots of information about editing and about Chris. The shortcut to her Amazon blog is (then scroll).