Halfway and Unfinished

I was talking with a writer the other day. Those writers. You know the type. Shifty-eyed. Distracted. Stinking of gin and desperation. A nervous laugh and a hair-trigger sense of despair. Yes. A writer.

She was working on her first novel, and times were bad.

Why were times bad?

Because she was about halfway through the book. Now, being halfway is a good thing, right? It’s better than being on page zero.

That damn page zero. It taunts me.

But the problem is, she has been learning craft along the way, and every time she learns something she applies it to the book, which means she is constantly re-writing the first half of the book.

Which means if she keeps this up, she will never, ever finish because she is trapped in the miasma of her novel, stuck in edits and applying everything she is learning.

Let me be perfectly clear. I am iffy on the idea we can edit ourselves into a perfect book. There’s a popular idea that if we only edit a book enough, we can craft a perfect sculptured thing of Davidian beauty that will sell millions.

Maybe.

I’ve seen books written by half-witted alcoholic troll-like creatures reach the heights of Amazon. And I’ve seen lovingly crafted books of true beauty languish in the dungeons of obscurity.

Editing is necessary to a certain extent. But do you know what I think is more important than editing? Vision.

When I sit down to write a novel, I have a vision of the story in my head, and generally the vision is the climax of the book, when the hero is pushed to the limits, and things are bleak, and the villain is invincible! And still, somehow, the hero wins.

If I don’t have the epicness of the climax in my mind, I don’t write the book. And yeah, the climax might change, but generally it doesn’t. I know the book I want to write.

I have vision.

Can editing help me reach that vision? Maybe, maybe not. I’ve spent months editing a book to realize my first draft was better. I’ve been given dodgy advice to “improve” my book when really it was striking at the heart of my vision.

My advice to all writers is to write, every day, as much as you can. If it’s only three sentences, that counts. Write, every day, and follow the vision. Yes, you’ll be hit by craft stuff and editing stuff, but the vision should remain.

So vision is more important than editing. What is more important than vision?

Finishing.

I had an Icelandic friend who give some really good advice when I first started writing. He told me to finish the book, then go back and edit. Stop going to classes, stop reading up on craft, stop listening to the experts, and finish the book.

Then, during edits, you can apply what you have learned. But only for so long. There are no perfect books. Good enough is generally good enough.

Then again, there are no rules.

I heard a story about a guy who attended the same writer conference, year after year, for decades. He worked on the same book for decades. Everyone laughed at him for decades. Until his book hit, and when it hit, it took off.

There are no rules.

Except for one.

If you don’t finish the book, no one will ever be able to read it.

I’m Guilty – Throw the Book At Me (I really need to catch one!)

JudgeYep. I’m guilty. I didn’t mean to do it. It just happened. I stopped writing and started doing yard work. With a shovel. I became enamored with a battery-operated sprayer for my weeds. I couldn’t resist the siren call of the annual plant displays at every store in town, including the pharmacy. I found a cute little raised bed garden kit and made it my own. And I didn’t write.

In my defense, I did manage to submit two already-written stories to Colorado Gold, but I don’t think that will be considered justification for letting me off. My self-imposed sentence is to put my butt in chair and shackle myself to my computer and get some words on the page.

I know that if we, as writers, were truly judged on how easily we are led astray, the docket would be filled with regretful authors being handed long sentences (hah! I didn’t even notice this the first time around!). Whether it’s catching up on all your recorded Game of Thrones or Walking Dead shows with a box of pizza, summer vacation planning, gardening, or another fun in the sun summer activity, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that you’ll write later. But then you’re tired, or it’s time to fix dinner, or pick up the kids at the pool or summer league.

Hold up your right hand (if you’re writing, you can skip this part), and repeat after me: “I solemnly swear to set up a schedule to get at least 5,000 words on the page per week.” Ok, maybe 2,000 words. I am swearing, I guarantee (but then I do that all the time). Are you with me? Can we make a pact to close the curtain to block out the beautiful sunshine, turn on some music to drown out the birds singing, and turn up the A/C so we have to wear sweaters and pretend it’s deep, dark winter and there’s nothing to do but write? Or, I guess I could just put on some sunglasses, take the laptop out to the patio with a nice cold drink and hang out with the nice birdies and butterflies while I write. gardening graphic

Yeah, like that stupid weed that had the gall to grow over there will let me. Or the lawn that grew two inches overnight….

Sigh. It’s going to be a long hard row to hoe to keep on the straight and narrow this summer. But I’m going to try, because I want to be good and ready for Colorado Gold. How about you? Let’s Write On!

 

Mind, Body and Writing

A friend of mine who has endured cancer treatment and chronic pain issues for the last several years recently announced that she was taking a break from writing. Cognitive issues related to chemotherapy have made story structure and continuity, even word recall, a huge challenge for her. But even more than that, I think she is tired of the struggle to cope, to be productive and meet deadlines. And maybe she’s just tired, period.

Because writing does take a certain physical stamina. It doesn’t seem like it should. After all, you sit while you’re doing it. Some people even recline in bed as they write on a laptop. I’m pretty sure most non-writers look at writing as very non-demanding physically. I’ll never forget when Stephen King was injured in that freak car accident and one of the patrons at the library where I work said something to the effect of “Well, maybe now he’ll be forced to do nothing but write and will get his books finished faster.”

Not only did the remark seem incredibly callous, as if King being injured was a positive thing, but it also seemed very stupid. Someone injured and in pain is not going to be a productive writer. And indeed, that experience took a terrible toll on King and his creativity for a number of years, as he has documented in various autobiographical pieces.

Writing can be an escape and a rejuvenating experience. But it takes energy, and energy comes from a healthy body. Many successful writers when interviewed will talk about the importance of physical exercise in their daily routine. They know that keeping the body in shape and moving helps keep the words and story ideas flowing. And recent studies have shown that physical exercise helps stave off dementia and cognitive decline as we age.

My friend needs time to heal, to learn ways of coping with the damage that chemotherapy and chronic pain have wrought on her body and her spirit. We speak of “filling the well”—through life experiences, travel, contact with other people, through living a full and interesting life. But sometimes “filling the well” involves resting. Simply being, rather than always doing.

I tend to be rather driven, especially in regards to writing. I set goals for myself and get frustrated when I don’t meet them. I was very productive the first part of this year, but then life intervened. Both good and bad things have sucked up my time and reduced my writing pace to a crawl. My lack of productivity has gnawed at me and increased my stress. And then I met with my friend and she discussed her decision, and I realized that I need to remember to nurture and care for myself physically if I want to have the energy and spark to be a productive writer.

When I started out, I saw writing as an escape from stress and a source of positive energy. But as I’ve gotten older I realize that writing requires physical energy even as it produces positive mental energy. Which means it’s important to do things that help me increase my physical vitality. Exercise is one of those. But more subtly, taking it easy can also help. There are activities I used to see as wasting time or taking me away from writing: Puttering in my garden, reading the newspaper or a magazine. Having sociological discussions with my daughter. Hanging out on the patio and listening to music with my husband.

I used to feel guilty for doing those things, but I’ve begun to understand that they help “fill the well” in an important way. Those activities relax me and reduce my stress, which rejuvenates me physically so I have the energy to write.

Always Be Researching

One of my most enduring beliefs about being a writer is that you should always be researching. Of course, the sort of research you need is completely dependent on the type of story you’re constructing, but outside of closely examining human behavior, my favorite research involves travel.

Writers don’t have to love far flung destinations, or writing about them, but for those that do we frequently turn all those “vacations” into “research opportunities” for our novels.

And right now, it’s summer. A time for sun, less restrictive footwear, and for many, trips out of town. I have always loved to travel. Maybe it was growing up in a military family that shifted around so often, or the years I spent in my early twenties roaming the globe working for an international airline, whatever the root cause, my bags are always at hand and easy to pack on a moments notice. Even as I write this, I am tripping through London, Paris, and Rome for three weeks with my family. “Vacationing” yes…but always the writer in me is searching for and noticing the specifics. Notebook at the ready, I am always eager to jot down those details, scents, sounds, the energy and feel of a location that I might not be able to conjure up in my imagination alone.

I find it’s these specific details that seem to breathe life into our settings and locations, and there is no better way to know about a place than to experience it first hand.

And yet…

It’s not always possible to get to all those locations we wish to bring to life on the written page. I mean, where exactly does one hop a flight to Mars? Middle Earth? Maybe the Death Star? Even placing all our fantastical settings aside, not all writers have the ability to get to Zambia, Brazil, or even Canada to experience those places first hand to capture all those multisensory details themselves.

I myself have never been to Oaxaca, Mexico, the Ellora Caves in India, or Mount Emei in China; and yet all these locations have provided the backdrop for major events within my novels. As writers, we often have to find a way to get there…without actually getting to go there.

Here are my favorite virtual travel tricks for learning about a place:

  • Guide books (preferably the ones with fantastic color photos)
  • Travel blogs
  • Expat blogs
  • Interviews with people I know who have lived in a location I’m writing about
  • Local ethnic restaurants (that are praised as being “authentic”)
  • Foreign films from the region I’m writing about
  • Translated books set in, and written by writers from, that region
  • Google street maps (where available) that can take you there on your computer

I tend to set my characters everywhere but here, and I blame my roving, adventurous heart for this. While I’ve had the great good fortune to see much of this world myself, I still depend on all those virtual travel tricks to round a place out and provide me background knowledge that I wouldn’t have necessarily picked up simply being there. But in truth, while these elements give your books and stories foundation of place, it is likely your life, the sights, sounds, aroma, the people weaving in and throughout your everyday world that provide you breadth and depth of material. As writers, we should always have our research hats on, even if we’ve traveled no farther than the distance between our beds and the coffee machine.

Because it really is interesting what strikes you when you simply remember to pay attention to the world—especially the parts that occur only inside your own head.

Rereading and Rereaders

First, a note, reading is my primary entertainment, I don't have cable television (I have two network channels, that's it) and I don't download and watch films.

I reread my library (not my own work) all the time. I always thought everyone did, but I was having a talk with a writer friend and found out she never rereads a book.

This got me thinking.

I know that my fans DO reread my books, and my series, and I asked them why on Facebook. I got 128 main comments and comments on the comments...

And they reread for the same reasons I do.

1) Sometimes I read a book fast, just zoom through it, and I go back and re-read to savor, pick up details I miss. This is particularly true if there's a mystery or suspense plot and I missed a clue.

2) The book is part of a series and I reread one or more previous books to recall what's going on in that particular world at that particular time.

3) I know a book explores a particular emotion/topic/character that I want to think more about and I reread for that.

4) I know I'll see something new in the plot or the characters, in the STORY when I reread.

5) I am deep in deadline or my mind is tired and I don't want to plunge into the intellectual stimulation of a new world or story question but want some entertainment.

6) And, as far as I'm concerned, the best: Comfort. I like the world, I like the characters, I like the story and I want to settle in and visit them again. There are good lines I want to savor, there are laughs I want to recall and laugh with again. Or I want to be on that spaceflight and look out the portal at the stars, or journey with the drovers in nineteenth century England, or see, once more, how love unfolds between these two very disparate people.

One that doesn't apply to me:

My favorite authors don't write fast enough and I read fast and I'd rather reread a good story than try new authors.

One that applies to writers more than rereaders:

I want to see how that writer pulled a certain technique off. One of my favorite books is Northern Lights by Nora Roberts. I think it is a fabulous example of how to have a deeply depressed hero in the beginning and keep the reader not-depressed, interested, and reading.

So, as a writer, there are several ways to consider readers who do and don't reread.

First, from the point of view of voracious readers who don't reread. They will try and will buy a lot of books, probably zoom through backlists if they find something they like. Yay!

Rereaders will be loyal fans, they'll wait and anticipate your next book. They'll know what you're talking about when you reference the Hawthorn-Holly Feud, the intelligent Turquoise House, when the flying horses (volarans) deserted the Marshall's Castle, the size of Brownies... etc. If you're on social media, you can interact with your readers, and build more of a following. Since they reread your books, they're interested in your characters and stories.

I'll talk about how readers and fans can help you out (non-promotional-wise) in some other blog, but now I think I'll head back to that werewolf challenge scene I particularly liked....

 

Sign up for Robin's new e-newsletter 

Character Flaws: Heil Hydra

***Before I get into my post, I wanted to acknowledge the lives lost on Sunday. My heart breaks for Orlando. 

 

For those who aren’t nerds like myself, you might not be aware of the recent issues surrounding the Captain America

Star vector shape

comic. Apparently Captain America is a double agent. He’s a hydra operative. Hydra are the bad guys, Nazi really. Good ole Captain’s sudden outing as part of Hydra has the nerd community up in pale arms (you know, because we never walk in the daylight, sort of like vampires but without the sparkle).

Now don’t stop reading. This isn’t a commentary on the Captain America clusterf***k. I want to discuss responsible character actions. As the creators of characters, we have a responsibility to our readers. Heck, JK Rowlings admitted she shouldn’t have killed Harry off.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t kill off your characters. I’m merely saying, if you decide a character needs to die, make sure it’s true to the story. That’s what has people angry. This goes against EVERYTHING Captain America is, was or will be.

I can think of a million (okay, maybe a few less) ways to write one’s self out of the Captain America controversy. He could be a triple agent for example. Really a good guy all along. Yet if you kill off a character, like Harry, you’re pretty much screwed for the next book.

If you feel like being done with a character or storyline, I beg of you, give it a happy ending. My greatest reader fear is Robert Crais will kill off Elvis or Joe (if this is a shared fear, facebook Robert Crais and beg or bribe him not to do it). I also worry about Harlan Coben’s  (@HarlanCoben)Win character (the finest example of loving an anti-hero).

I’m a wimp who can’t take it when my fictional heroes die.

Everyone should live happily ever after, damn it.

And yes, my nickname is Pollyanna.

 

How do you feel about the controversy surrounding Captain America? And for you non-nerds who actually see sunlight, what say you about killing off a character to end a series?

Bootstrap Your Book

BootsOne of the biggest problems facing new self-publishers is the capital investment required. Almost all the advice on how much it costs to self-publish suggest that it takes thousands of dollars. It’s no wonder that new writers turn to the scammers who promise success for mere hundreds (plus the hidden up-sell once they’ve hooked the mark).

Once an author has a few books out and earning, justifying the expense of self-publishing becomes a little easier, but how do you get that first book into the market without robbing the kid’s college fund or dining on ramen for a year?

First, start with a reasonable budget. A first time self-publisher has no gauge for what kind of return to expect. Generally speaking, that first book takes a long time to gain traction so shelling out cash that may not come back for years – if ever – is a hard nut. Start small and calculate your return on investment.

Example: A novel selling at $3.99 on Amazon earns around $2.50 per sale. It only takes forty sales to earn $100. A first time self-pubber with a good marketing plan can probably do that in a month. It might take two. It will certainly take less time than writing the next book.

Second, produce the best book you can within that budget. Three things sell books--cover, blurb, and sample.

The cover has to be eye catching, indicative of the genre, and clearly recognizable in thumbnail size. Too many first-timers make the mistake of creating their own covers to save a buck when they could be grabbing a pre-made ebook cover for as little as $50. In many cases that includes a paperback format cover, too, but don’t get hung up on the paperback. The market is in ebooks. You can add paperbacks once you have some cash flow generating revenue to invest.

Blurb in this context means product description, not the one-liner that somebody more famous than you gives you to promote the title. The purpose of the blurb is to convince the potential reader who has seen your cover and looked up your book on Amazon to grab the sample. If it convinces them to buy the book, that’s just gravy. Don’t try to sell the book in the blurb. Just hook them into the sample. Too many first-timers over do the blurb and turn off the reader before they even get to the story.

Sample is where the book needs to sell itself. A good opener, a solid follow through, and a decently formatted ebook will pull the reader all the way to the “buy me” link at the end of the sample. If you’ve done your work correctly, that link will be a siren’s call to lure them deeper into the story without making them feel like they’re being held up at the troll booth.

Third, wait! What about editing and formatting and layout and design and advertising and marketing and … stuff I need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for?

Purists might want to look away. I’m about to commit heresy here.

You probably can’t afford to pay an editor for your first book, but your book needs a copy edit as a minimum. You also should get a development editing pass and some line editing wouldn’t be amiss. Frankly, you can't afford it so here's what you do instead.

Beta readers can tell you if the story works. They can tell you where the story bogs down, or where it moves too quickly. They can tell you if your characters are believable or if the dialog is stilted. They can point you to the problem spots or tell you that the story is good. Unlike a developmental editor they can't tell you how to fix it, but knowing what's borked is half the battle.

Note: Let's be brutally honest here. At this point, unless you’ve got a million words behind you, this story is not Good. You may think it’s Good. You might be an outlier on the curve and actually have written something Good, but if it’s your first book, it’s nothing like the book you’ll write five titles down the road. That’s not a problem. That’s an advantage. You’re not aiming for Good. You’re aiming for good enough.

If that last bit of heresy wasn’t enough, here’s another.

Editing can be crowd sourced.

Not the cash-raising, gofundit kind of crowd sourced. The actual process of giving the book to about a dozen people who will send you back corrections crowd sourced. Ideally some of them will be fellow writers who have some idea about things like where the quote marks go and when you might use an m-dash instead of an n-dash. They’ll recognize realities like dialog shouldn’t be corrected for grammar, but might need you to add the missing word.

This will not result in a perfect book. If done properly, it can result in a book that is good enough.

So, give the manuscript to two or three colleagues to mark up for you. Get their feedback and figure out whether to accept it or not. Some you’ll agree with. Some will be in the class of “how did I miss that?” and some will be “Uh. No.”

Once you’ve got those changes in, send it out to two or three more colleagues to mark up and repeat this process two or three times. Save your better readers for the last pass. That’s where you can get the most benefit from the nit-pickers and analytical readers.

There’s actually a rationale behind this iterative, crowd source approach. From a quality assurance standpoint, more eyes mean higher probability to catch the errors. Nobody will get them on the first pass, but by correcting those before handing it off to the second and third and forth, each new reader will have fewer to find and will more likely find the less obvious ones.

You can also use beta readers for this. Most of them will tell you anyway, but if you ask them to look, you’ll get some typos along with the story feedback. It’s also a good way to get early buzz. Readers who liked your story and have an investment in making it better are more likely to tell their friends about it.

This can take a while, but don’t fall into the Perfect Trap. There are no perfect books. None of the Bigs publish perfect books. A librarian once said “I’m not that worried about typos and grammar. I still buy books from Harper and Random House.” If you spend all your time making it perfect, you’ll never publish and that is the fatal flaw. The reality is that you can’t prove there are no typos. You can only prove there is at least one more – by finding it.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this process is that it forces you out of your comfy spot. It makes you begin to forge connections with other writers in your genre and the readers who are most likely to be in your audience. These connections will make the difference when it comes to sales and promotion of your book when it’s finally released into the wild.

Remember you’re aiming for good enough and good enough is sufficient. In fact, I still aim for good enough, but I also look at better than the last one. You’re still on the first one and good enough is hard enough to hit the first time. Eventually your books will have earned enough--or sold enough--to justify hiring a real editor for the next one. This isn't the best way to publish a first book, but it's head and shoulders above many of the alternatives.

Next Time: Publish Or Perish

Image Credit:
John Lobb Boot by Robert Sheie
Creative Commons BY 2.0

Never Do Your Own Cover Art. Unless You Want To.

Author Pic 2016-smallerThe continuing saga of KK’s quest to conquer Kindle Scout.

Last time, I talked about Kindle Scout, a book I wrote, and my decision to see what I could accomplish by trying out the program. In order to submit your book to KS, you need to have 1. A book. 2. A cover. 3. Lots of editing and formatting shizz. This post is going to cover number 2—the cover. And my apologies in advance—it’s a long one.

FIRST: If you'd like to Scout a book, here's one from an online acquaintance of mine. Moonlight's Peril, by Ashlynn Monroe.

One of the first things self-publishing gurus tell aspiring self-publishers is, “Never make your own cover art.” This is probably a good piece of advice. Unless you want to make your own cover art, and are willing to put in the due diligence to make one that doesn’t look like you put it together in MS Paint (unless MS Paint is an important theme of the book, of course [sets aside plot bunny for another day]).

So…confession time. I do my own cover art. Some of it is stanky (and is on my list to be redone). Some of it is, in my own humble goddess-like opinion, not too damn bad. Why do I do my own art? Because I like doing my own art. I like learning about graphics and Photoshop and Canva and GIMP and whatever else. For the most part, I enjoy the challenge and the process.

I learned to use Photoshop making Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fan art. I made wallpapers with half-naked (and sometimes totes naked) David Boreanaz on them because it made me happy. And I learned a lot. When I started self-pubbing, I used those skills to start making covers. The first few I made—not so hot. But I started learning. I have a friend who works for the cover art department at one of my publishers, and she vets my work. My daughter is about to become a photography major, and has a great skill and eye for art. My college-age son has been making computer graphics for ages, and also has a great eye for art. So they give me feedback, too. Which leads to feedback like, “Mom, her face looks like it has a tumor on it,” and “No, those colors look like three-day-old poop.”

That’s the kind of feedback you need for this kind of venture.

So what do you need to make your own covers aside from somebody—preferably multiple somebodies—to tell you when your painstaking work is a piece of crap?

1. An idea of how cover art works. There’s all kinds of advice on the internet about how to improve/create cover art. My current favorite guru is Derek Murphy, from creativindiecovers.com. On his site, you can find templates, author tools, and even an online tool where you can create your own covers (I haven’t tried it, so I don’t know how well it works, but give it a go if you’re so inclined). He also has published a book on the topic, which has some interesting advice in it, much of which seems to fly in the face of the advice of other cover gurus. For example, Murphy says it’s not necessary to make the title big enough to read on a thumbnail, which you’ll find as the Number One Guideline for Proper Ebook Cover Art just about everywhere else. Since I’m super contrary, I figured this was the advice for me.

His templates are very cool, but they’re in Microsoft Word (!) and MS Word hates me, so I was unable to bend them to my will. However, I imported some graphics into one of them, got a general idea of what I wanted my cover to look like, then assembled everything in GIMP.

2. Some graphics software. I used Photoshop for a very long time, then I upgraded the OS on my computer and the old, old copy I had stopped working. This was very stressful. I swore a lot. Then I consulted my Tech Department (above-mentioned son and daughter) for recommendations. After some fiddling with various freeware packages, I ended up with GIMP. It’s free, and it does darn near everything Photoshop does, and with a similar workflow. (I still needed a tutorial from my son, who helped me with my cover for Lord of the Screaming Tower, but I’m getting the hang of it.) I recommend finding something you’re comfortable with, and then playing with it until you feel comfortable. Find online tutorials or a mentor-type to get you on your feet.

3. Some PICTURES!! Pictures are the most important part of cover art. Because cover art, duh. There are lots of places to find photos—istock photo, fotolia, bigstock, dreamstime, etc. Some pictures are pricier than others. My favorite price is free, so I’m going to talk about how to get free pictures you can use for your covers.

Firstly, though, you have to be VERY CAREFUL about this. Be absolutely sure you have the right kinds of licenses for your photos before you put them on your book cover. Some places, like morguefile.com and Wikimedia commons, are mostly public domain, but still be sure to read the fine print. Some pics at both these places require you to change the picture, or require you to credit the photographer. Don’t take shortcuts here—respect the photographers.

Anywho… Another way to get free pics, almost all of which will have the right type of licensing for book covers, is to wait for free trial memberships for major stock photo sites. I coincidentally was offered a free trial to graphicstock and bigstock within a couple of weeks of each other, and as a result ended up with close to 150 images for free. Once the trial is over, you just cancel, and then feel guilty every time they offer you another free trial (in all fairness, though, I’ve spent quite a bit of money at these sites, so I should probably chill). All the pictures I used for this cover came from the collection I downloaded during these free trials, and I have a bunch more that I grabbed with an eye toward future projects.

4. Fonts!! Never underestimate the power of a flippin’ awesome font. You’re probably good with two for a book cover—one for the title and one for your author name, possibly with an eye toward future branding. You can spend as little or as much as you like for fonts, from what I’ve seen. Again, I like free. My current site of choice is fonts101.com. They have a gajillion fonts, and they have a Font O’ the Day mailing list, and how cool is that?

You also have to look at licensing with fonts, so keep that in mind. If it says only for personal use, I’d suggest not putting it on a book cover. Look for fonts that are free for any usage or that specifically say free for commercial use. Or, of course, pay for the commercial upgrade if you really like the font.

That’s my basic how-to when it comes to covers. If you’re comfortable doing it, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t. If you’re not comfortable doing it, it’s probably better to outsource it.

So here’s my cover, if you’re interested in having a look-see. I’m fiddling with the eye/font color. If you want to weigh in with your favorite, feel free.

Call Me Zhenya-goldCall Me Zhenya-redCall Me Zhenya2

 

Which is Stranger—Truth or Fiction? … by Margaret Mizushima

“Humankind cannot take too much reality.” ~T.S. Elliott

Margaret MizushimaI love it when a grizzled detective on Dateline or 48 Hours shakes his head in amazement and says to the interviewer, “This crime is so twisted. You can’t make this kind of stuff up.” As a mystery writer, I can’t help but think, Oh, but we do.

Crime fiction writers spend countless hours researching their novels—the law, law enforcement, crime scene investigation and technology, the elements of their crime, you name it—but we still rely on our imaginations to utilize the information and create scenes from what we’ve learned. And you know what happens when a writer’s imagination kicks into gear? Mighty chaos can break loose. We try to “stick to the facts, ma’am,” but it doesn’t always work out that way. The truth might get tweaked or facts might be dramatized for fictional purposes.

Still, facts and fiction intermingle. I’d like to give you a few examples from my debut, Killing Trail: A Timber Creek K-9 Mystery. Prior to writing the book, I was fortunate to shadow two skilled police dog trainers and watch them work with dogs and handlers. These professionals told me stories about the amazing things their dogs accomplished on the job. The crime fighting duo in my Timber Creek mystery series are Deputy Mattie Cobb and her K-9 partner Robo, a dog cross-trained in narcotics detection and patrol. So when I sat down to write, what does Robo do? He finds the body of teenage girl!

This discouraged me, because patrol dogs are typically trained in cadaver work or narcotics detection but not both. A phone call to one of my consultants solved my dilemma. “The trainer could have tested the dog for cadaver work when he was young but ultimately decided to go with narcotics detection training,” she said. “Some of these dogs remember everything.” Ah…okay then. Keep writing.

Mizushima_Killing TrailHere’s another example: My husband is a veterinarian and he helps me plot my stories. Before I wrote Killing Trail we brainstormed elements of the crime and came up with the idea that drug traffickers would use large dogs as mules by force-feeding them balloons filled with cocaine. Several months later, I was walking the treadmill while watching television and saw a news clip on drug traffickers in Columbia who used greyhounds as mules by surgically implanting bags of heroin under their skin. This example of how reality followed fiction told me a couple things—one, our idea wasn’t too far-fetched, and two, these crooks can be more cruel and inhumane than my husband and I can imagine.

And one more: In my series, ranchers and merchants of Timber Creek are concerned about drug traffic through their community, so they donate money for the sheriff’s department to buy a narcotics detection dog. After the book was written, a friend of mine sent an article from a small town newspaper about townspeople organizing a committee to raise money for a narcotics detection dog for their police department. The town council nixed the concept. Some speculated it was turned down because several council members were participants in the local drug traffic problem. Hmm…fact or fiction?

Don’t you think T.S. Elliott would be shocked by the reality television shows we have in our world today? I know I am at times, and I agree that it’s debatable whether or not some of these shows are scripted. But I’ve come to believe that both fiction and reality can startle, shock, and sometimes be downright unbelievable. And as to which one is stranger—I think it’s a toss up.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Margaret Mizushima has a background in speech pathology and practiced in an acute care hospital before establishing her own rehabilitation agency. Currently, she balances writing with assisting her husband with their veterinary clinic and Angus cattle herd. Her fiction has won contest awards, and her short story “Hay Hook” was published in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers 2014 anthology, Crossing Colfax. She enjoys reading and hiking, and she lives with her husband on a small ranch in Colorado where they raised two daughters and a multitude of animals. She can be found on Facebook/Author Margaret Mizushima, on Twitter @margmizu, and on her website.

This post was previously published in December 2015 at Patricia Stoltey's blog.

Backstory Feeds Frontstory

Whack me upside the head – go ahead.

I was putting together a presentation recently for a workshop about writing mysteries and I wanted to make the point that the variety of ideas for mysteries—setting, characters, plots and themes—is endless.

I thought it might be insightful and instructive (maybe even interesting) to look at recent Edgar Award Winners.

So I made up a nifty PowerPoint slide for three books and included, verbatim, the description of each story.

JuneBlog2016LouBerneyThe first was Lou Berney’s The Long and Far Away Gone, winner of the Edgar Award for best paperback original.

(What a great title.)

Summary: In the summer of 1986, two tragedies rocked Oklahoma City. Six movie-theater employees were killed in an armed robbery, while one inexplicably survived. Then, a teenage girl vanished from the annual State Fair. Neither crime was ever solved. Twenty-five years later, the reverberations of those unsolved cases quietly echo through survivors’ lives. A private investigator in Vegas, Wyatt’s latest inquiry takes him back to a past he’s tried to escape—and drags him deeper into the harrowing mystery of the movie house robbery that left six of his friends dead.

 

JuneBlog2016LoriRoyThe second was for Lori Roy’s Let Me Dies in His Footsteps, winner of the Edgar Award for best novel. (Best novel!)

Summary: On a dark Kentucky night in 1952 exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses into forbidden territory. Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines, not since Joseph Carl was buried two decades before, but, armed with a silver-handled flashlight, Annie runs through her family’s lavender fields toward the well on the Baines’ place. At the stroke of midnight, she gazes into the water in search of her future. Not finding what she had hoped for, she turns from the well and when the body she sees there in the moonlight is discovered come morning, Annie will have much to explain and a past to account for.

 

JuneBlog2016LoriRaderDayThe third was Lori Rader-Day’s Little Pretty Things, winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award. (Love this title, too.)

Juliet Townsend is used to losing. Back in high school, she lost every track team race to her best friend, Madeleine Bell. Ten years later, she’s still running behind, stuck in a dead-end job cleaning rooms at the Mid-Night Inn, a one-star motel that attracts only the cheap or the desperate. But what life won’t provide, Juliet takes. Then one night, Maddy checks in. Well-dressed, flashing a huge diamond ring, and as beautiful as ever, Maddy has it all. By the next morning, though, Juliet is no longer jealous of Maddy—she’s the chief suspect in her murder. To protect herself, Juliet investigates the circumstances of her friend’s death. But what she learns about Maddy’s life might cost Juliet everything she didn’t realize she had.

I haven’t read any of these books—but I want to read them all!

Right?

In putting together the presentation, it was easy to spot the fuel for each fire.

Berney: Twenty-five years later…

Roy: Two decades before…

Rader-Day: Back in high school…

I know it’s obvious.

It’s a simple point.

But characters are nothing if not for their backstory.

Brighton - Michael HarveyCharacters don’t walk onto the page without having been bruised or beaten or worse. They have had a life.

If your character’s past is dull, gray, bland, flat, flavorless, vanilla, and drama-free, you may not have a character. Or much of a story.  Sure, it’s what happened to your character but it’s also how your character responded to those key moments. That’s where character—and your story—is forged.

Now I see backstory everywhere I look. “Happy Valley”—the best Netflix thing I’ve seen in a long, long time. The writers backed up a dump truck full of backstory and piled it on West Yorkshire sergeant Catherine Cawood. (The "happy" in Happy Valley isn't so happy.) And I just read a taut novel called Brighton, by Michael Harvey, and backstory drives “front” story like a seamless Mobius strip of tension and action.

As I said, an obvious point.

But if you’re struggling with a plot or the “now,” you might take a look at the past.