Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Television vs. Prose: how much is fiction?

My mother often tells me how she dreamed of being a forensic scientist and I wonder how much of it has to do with the Law and Order and CSI that she watches religiously. One day, I finally decide to burst her bubble and say, “You know those shows are extremely inaccurate, right?”

Although she knows that forensic scientists don’t wear Armani suits or interrogate suspects, she was rather disappointed about the flaws in the science of the shows, like when they find a blue fiber that automatically ties a suspect to a crime scene or when the DNA results come back in a matter of minutes, just in time to prosecute the killer. But she shrugs it off and says, “Well, it’s just a TV show. It’s doesn’t have to be 100% accurate.”

But this makes me think about all the research I do for my writing, knowing that if I make a mistake when it comes to police procedural or forensics that I will be reamed by my critique group and told that I need to be accurate or readers will have a conniption fit. When I began writing, I thought that since it’s fiction, I could take liberties, that the only resource I needed was my imagination. Of course, I quickly learned that I was deeply mistaken. Why is television not held to the same standards as fiction? Why can people like my mother shrug off the inaccuracies of her beloved shows, but get upset when something is unrealistic in novels?

Many other questions arose out of these conversations with my mother. While she watches crime drama, she seldom reads it, sticking to literary fiction when it comes to her reading. My girlfriend would never pick up a dark fantasy or horror novel, but races home to watch Charmed and Supernatural. She says it is because she reads and watches television for different reasons, one to gain insight and knowledge and the other for pure entertainment. Aside from the fact that I believe much insight and knowledge can be gained from fiction no matter which genre, it poses an interesting theory behind the different standards. If a 60-minute television show is viewed “pure entertainment” it is held to a lower expectation when it comes to being correct, whereas readers expect a lot more when they devote days to reading a novel.

I’m not sure this question could ever be completely answered, but I’m sure everyone has their opinion so leave comments. For now I’ll keep on researching, and my mother will keep on watching, living her dream vicariously through CSI despite its flaws.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Before you write...

Since my NaNoWriMo announcement, everyone has been asking me how I'm preparing. When I was asked how I prepared my first novel, I bluntly answered, "I didn't." The story marinated in my mind for a few months, but I didn't outline or write a synopsis. I am not recommending this method, especially for new writers. You'll save yourself a lot of time and effort by planning ahead. It just never worked for me.

But considering the circumstances of 3,000 words a day, I know I couldn't do this without planning. So for the first time I am outlining (in my own way), figuring out the turning points, secondary characters and subplots beforehand. That way, I know exactly where I'm going each day and can just push the story forward without having to brainstorm. So I am currently writing plot points on index cards and using my dining room wall as my novel's time line. The index cards work better for me because then I can rearrange them as needed. I'm more visual, writing out an outline on paper feels too constricting. So far, it's been working really well, new ideas are flowing in every day. I'm getting real antsy waiting for November 1st to roll around so I can get to the actual writing.

Aside from the plotting and brainstorming, I also like to use some motivational tools. Other than the sign on my laptop that says "Writers Write" I also have four books by my side. All of them save time and motivate.

If you don't' have these, you should really pick them up. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass is necessary for the beginning stages of creating the novel. Maass knows story and he knows what sells, and it motivates me to hit the keyboard. Roget's Super Thesaurus is more comprehensive than any others I've owned. The Character Naming book is a great tool, especially when needing names from different origins. When I was writing Thou Shall Not, I needed tons of Hebrew names (and didn't think it was a good idea to name everyone after my cousins). Plus, it has lists of the most popular names by year. Overall, it saves a lot of brainstorming time. And finally Hallie Ephron's book is fantastic. It includes in depth worksheets to thoroughly develop your characters and weave the story's plot. Other chapters include writing your query, marketing, and other helpful tips. There are tons of books about writing, but these are the ones that really work for me.

Planning ahead is definitely a new experience. It's hard to say whether or not it is more effective until the novel is completed. Writers, leave your comments about preparing for a novel or other book recommendations for the newbie writers!

Sunday, October 22, 2006


Two years in a row, I have passed on National Novel Writing Month, but this year, I'm giving it a whirl. For those of you who don't know, this program challenges you to write 50,000 words in 30 days, cranking out the first draft of a novel in just one month. The emphasis here is on quantity, not quality, pushing the story forward without editing or revising. Avoiding the perpetual rewrite has never been a problem for me, but writing about 1,700 words a day, every day, is no easy feat. Although this seems challenging enough, I am going to take it a step further and attempt to complete a full novel, closer to 85,000 words, in the same time frame. So friends, family, may not be coming out of my apartment very often. Get your drinks in before November 1st.

I think what made me finally commit to doing it this year is a new novel idea. I know, I know, I'm supposed to be working on the sequel to Thou Shall Not, but this story has been lurking within me for a while and needs to get out. I cannot justify putting my current project aside and dedicating my days to my whim of an idea, but it's easy to tell myself, "You're just taking a month off. And after that, you'll have another novel under your belt." When you're not on contract with a publisher, it's easier to ignore your self-inflicted deadlines. It's easier to play with ideas, spent weeks researching and brainstorming, going out for drinks with friends, and all the other distractions that prevent us from finishing projects. Not only is NaNoWriMo giving me a deadline, it's giving me an insane deadline, and that competitor in me is excited to rise to the challenge.

I encourage anyone, not just writers, to give this a try. How many times have you told people, "I have an idea for a novel" or "I want to write a book someday"? Well someday is November 1st, and by Thanksgiving, you can tell your family that you are currently finishing up your first novel.

Monday, October 16, 2006

For the Love of the Game

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with an old high school friend. We met because she wanted to break into the world of freelance writing and needed some advice for getting started. Not that I’m the expert on such things, but I’m always up for helping out a fellow struggling writer.

I asked her if she had any clips and she said she had been writing for a certain Chicago newspaper, landing three front page stories.

“That’s fantastic,” I remarked, thinking that I have yet to have one of my stories on the front page of anything.

“Yeah, I guess. But I didn’t get paid for any of them.”

I was shocked when I heard this, knowing that it was sometimes necessary to write for free in the interest of gaining clips, but never 2,000 word feature stories. She then continued to tell me how she reviewed a few books for them as well, but they wouldn’t let her keep the books. Isn’t that the deal when you write book reviews? That you get a contributor’s copy and a free book?

It amazes me how many writers are writing for free and how many editors not only refuse to pay their writers, but act like they’re doing them a favor by publishing them. Not that we’re doing this for the money (and if you are, you are in the wrong profession), but we should be compensated in some form for our time and effort.

I told her all of this and she agreed that she was fed up with working for free, so she asked her editor if it was possible to be compensated for future articles.

He looked at her as if she was nuts, saying that she was hired as an intern and that after a year they could discuss some form of compensation.

Say she was assigned an article a week, putting about eight hours of work into each article. That is approximately 416 hours of free labor.

Editors and writers, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is it unreasonable to expect compensation for work when we’re just starting out or should magazines and newspapers pay their employees, no matter what level they are at? Should we be writing simply for the love of the game or are we suckers for working without pay?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Michael Cunningham at Northeastern University

As a writer myself, I usually don’t get all giddy and “fanny” around authors. But last night, as I approached Michael Cunningham to sign my books, I actually found my hands shaking and my heart racing. Of course I was with Nicole who was one shriek away from a heart attack, so I had to play it cool.

All idolizing aside, what surprised me was the lecture’s focus on genre fiction. (I could see the literature professors cringing as Cunningham declared “I love genre fiction!”) He said he found it interesting how commercial fiction is considered disreputable in some way when, historically, novels themselves were considered disreputable. About two hundred years ago, literary folks read poetry. Novels were considered entertainment, not art. More impressive, was that he said what many so many readers are afraid to say.

“I get tired of reading about people sitting in rooms talking about people sitting in rooms talking. Take a children’s book. At five, you want to read about ghosts and monsters. You don’t want to read a book about how difficult it is to be five.”

I completely agree. If I look at my favorite books, the ones I can recite full passages word for word, there is always a conflict, a plot, a journey of some sort, whether it be internal and external. It was really exciting to see a Pulitzer Prize winner publicly state it.

He then went on to talk about how much genre fiction influenced his writing. He read passages from Raymond Chandler and Ray Bradbury, and then turned to The Hours and read the sections that were directly influenced.

“I learned about depicting seduction from Raymond Chandler,” he stated, before reading the scene from The Hours where Laura Brown and Kitty kiss. He had taken Chandler’s snappy writing style and paid homage to it in his own writing. It was amazed to hear both back to back at he had taken an aspect of one author’s writing style and turned it into his own. He continues to be influenced by great works, in fact, the scene when Anna Karenina throws herself under the train to show the world how unhappy she was, is the inspiration for his next book. Unfortunately, he is so wrapped up in his screenwriting projects, that it may be a while before that next book is completed.

My favorite story of the evening was about a reader that Cunningham worked with. He tended bar and she was a hostess with four kids and no formal education. She worked three jobs, but no matter how tired she was, she always read for an hour before going to bed. Because she didn’t go to college, she read everything, both fiction and nonfiction. Cunningham gave her Crime and Punishment to read and after she was finished he asked how she enjoyed it. She said, “I really liked it. It was better than Ken Follett. But not as good as Stephen King.”

I think people like that are wonderful, that they take books as books without dividing them up into high literature and commercial fluff. A good story is a good story, no matter which section of the bookstore it is located in.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Recently Read

I recently finished two wonderful books: Don't Be Afraid by Rebecca Drake and Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Two great reads, two totally different genres.

Don't Be Afraid is a fantastic serial killer thriller. A fast and gripping read with interesting, multi faceted characters. I won't go too much into detail as I'm reviewing it for Crimespree, but trust me, pick it up.

Please Kill Me is the uncensored oral history of punk. The entire novel is told through documentary-style interviews with the most notorious icons such as Iggy Pop, Danny Fields, and Dee Dee and Joey Ramone. I had never read a book told in this style before, and I was amazed at how effective it was. Many nonfiction books can be dense and hard to absorb, but the interview method really made the information stick. Plus, it was interesting to see the different points of view, reliving the same story but reading very different versions, leaving it up to readers to interpret what actually happened. Whether you're a die-hard punk fan or just interested in the era, Please Kill Me is a must-read.

If you've read these books, feel free to comment on what you thought. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Struggling Writer as a Series Character?

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I read, devouring novel after novel like it was chocolate cake. Since I’ve started reviewing books for Crimespree, my frequency has doubled, and I’m beginning to see that for every book that blows my hair back, there is another one that makes me wonder how it ever got published.

As both a mystery writer and reader, I look for patterns in the novels that come across my desk: the pacing, character development, plot twists, anything that could help me in my writing. And the most recent pattern I’m noticing is the occupation of the protagonists. It’s not the typical P.I. or crime reporter or even Japanese assassins and ex-military police. The main character is just an ordinary writer, trying desperately to finish their first novel.

Who sees something wrong with that?

What drives me to genre fiction is that the characters are living far more exciting lives than my own. They’re chasing down criminals, falling madly in love and saving the world from nuclear holocaust. But I have recently read over three novels where the hero has the same occupation as I do: a crime writer desperately trying to land the fairy-tale book deal.

What attracts these authors to write these characters? I don’t think the life of a writer is particularly exciting. In all honesty, the highlight of my day is when I reach my word count or find a new and exciting way to kill people. I’ve never found a body in my backyard, been accused of murder, had to prove my innocence while falling in love with the gorgeous lead investigator. I do enjoy the novels about ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances, but they are all stand alones. It is difficult, if not impossible, to base a series on a novelist who keeps stumbling upon bodies and getting involved with the crimes. To me I see this as amateurish, the writer obviously taking the easy road and basing a character off themselves.

Look at the great protagonists of genre fiction: Sam Spade, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, the list goes on. All of them are relatable without having jobs that the average person is familiar with. The protagonist’s occupation is just as important as the character itself, and maybe it’s just me, but the struggling writer just doesn’t cut it.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Revising: Productive or Procrastination

After catching up on chores and errands, I’m finally getting back into my 1,000 words a day routine: wake up, put on the coffee, and get my ass in the chair. But today I found myself doing something I seldom do, especially so early on in the novel: rewriting.

I have always been a draft person. Step one: write the piece all the way through. Step two: go back and make revisions. Step three: repeat step two until satisfied. I’ve been told many times that creating a formal outline would help eliminate the numerous drafts I insist on writing, but I never really took to it. I have my system. It works for me.

But this morning I found myself printing off the first fifty pages and reading it in a coffee shop all morning, jotting down notes, crossing out paragraphs and replacing them with new ones, littering the pages with arrows and grammar codes. It took about two hours and afterwards, I had used up all my energy and hadn’t increased my word count.

I have talked with plenty of authors who revise along the way, and claim how well it works for them, but I am still skeptical. The question is, when do we find ourselves wanting to revise? If it’s part of your routine, write a new chapter and revise the one from the day before, I can see how it can be effective. But today, I knew that the next scene I need to write is a difficult, not yet fully developed police procedural scene that I find really boring to write and therefore will surely turn out boring to read. The revisions this morning served as procrastination, knowing that I have to work on the book but not wanting to tackle the difficult chapter ahead.

While the revisions needed to be made, and it has given me motivation to push the story forward tomorrow, how much of today was wasted? Will I eliminate drafts because of the editing I did today? We’ll see.

Authors, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Is revising along the way productive or just procrastination?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


After a long Bouchercon weekend, I'm finally settling back into the routine: much more writing, much less drinking. To all of you who were there, I had a wonderful time. And if you weren't, here are the highlights you missed:
  • The "Pacing my ass!" panel with Gail Lynds and Rebecca Drake, moderated by Jeff Abbott. It was really informative, interesting, and of course, entertaining, proving once again that it's not the title of the panel, but who is on it.
  • The St. Martin's party which took place at a converted church. A weird place to open a bar, but fun to drink under the stained glass Virgin Mary depictions.
  • The limo bus which drove us back to the hotel from the St. Martin's party. Picture a limo, then double the size and stick about 30 authors in it. A new way send authors on book tours?
  • The Anthony Awards where Crimespree won for best fan publication. Jon and Ruth truly deserved it.

And, the #1 moment you wish you were there for:

  • Author Marcus Sakey and marketing guy Matt Baldacci jumping into the freezing lake in nothing but their boxer briefs. Stay tuned for photos; we took a lot!

Unfortunately, I didn't have my own camera this weekend, but Tasha was kind enough to send one of me and future bestselling author Darwyn Jones

Monday, October 02, 2006

Finally on Blogspot

Hello everyone!

I've finally gotten a blog, but it may take a while to get all my links in order. Be patient and stay tuned, much more to come!