CrimeCONN 2019: Writers’ Inspiration

chalk outline, body
(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

There’s a buzz from just being in a room packed with crime writers and hearing topics discussed that consume your waking brain (but are of negligible interest to your kids, your running buddy, and pretty much anyone else). Then there are the ideas the discussion sparks. Oh, for the luxury of time to follow all those ideas to their dramatic conclusion and to absorb into my bones the writing advice provided by panelists Jane Cleland, Steve Liskow, and Hallie Ephron.

Here are 10 ideas and tips that struck me at last Saturday’s CrimeCONN at the beautiful Ferguson Library in Stamford, Connecticut. (Yesterday’s Post: Lawyers, Guns, and Money!)

1. Themes and variations. How a case is investigated and handled in court varies across jurisdictions. Envision a clutch of short stories in which similar crimes have very different handling and outcomes.

2. The case of the gentleman prosecutor. When a defendant’s mistress was about to be called to testify, the prosecutor let his wife know she might be happier waiting in the hallway. What other courtesies might a prosecutor extend?

3. Is that your best argument? An appellate lawyer advised, “Put your best argument first,” while people are still listening.

4. If you’re reading crime fiction to assess the state of the market, “don’t go back farther than five years.” There was a lot of nodding and murmured assent to the notion that Agatha Christie couldn’t get published today.

5. Coincidences happen in real life all the time. But in fiction, forget it. At least, “have no more than one,” advised Hallie Ephron, who for a similar reason nixed twins as a plot device. (We won’t mention that Louise Penny based a plot on the Dionne quintuplets.)

6. American English is tightly connected to rhythm, said Steve Liskow, which is why reading a manuscript aloud exposes problems in the language that are invisible on the page. Readers will stumble over the same awkwardnesses you do.

7. No need to write in dialect. In fact, don’t. Mention a character’s accent once and use word choice and the rhythms of subsequent speech to reinforce it.

8. Jane Cleland said great heroes are not afraid to act, though the panelists agreed they have a flaw or failing that must be overcome.

9. Put the important information at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Bury your red herrings in the middle.

10. And keynote speaker Peter Blauner repeated advice from legendary journalist Pete Hamil: “When doing an interview, listen very carefully to the last thing someone says to you.” You’re on your way out the door, your interviewee’s guard is down. This could be the juicy stuff.

See you at CrimeCONN 2020!

Is Somebody Following Me?

Crime-writers (and moviegoers) are attuned to that staple of adrenalin-pumping action, the car chase. It doesn’t matter whether the pursuit is from the perspective of the follower or the followee—“That red car’s been behind me since Cleveland!”—they can be fun to write and nerve-wracking to read or watch.

Alas, chases that are little more than special effects demo reels (thanks, Hollywood), bear little relationship to how actual people would behave and strain readers’ credulity. If your characters are ordinary citizens, they’re unlikely to notice they’re being followed in the first place. If they do notice, they won’t know what to do about it. You have to find the sweet spot between over-the-top demolition-derby mayhem and dull cluelessness.

This renodadsblog post, written by two former CIA operatives, gives some tips on how non-professionals can detect surveillance. It’s basic stuff, but if you’ve been on a steady diet of The Fast and the Furious franchise or reruns of The French Connection, and you want to get back in touch with the reactions of the typical American distracted driver, here you go!

Story characters can be followed on-foot too, of course. The Art of Manliness guide on What to Do If You’re Being Followed gives common-sense advice on detecting and eluding people following you—assuming they are everyday muggers and not trained espionage agents, of course.

 It all starts with being aware of your surroundings and policing your social media, two tactics your characters may—or may not—follow. Is there some reason your character is hyper-aware? Characters make mistakes (aren’t they fun?) but they also are resourceful.

This related post from last summer received lots of good feedbackt: Writing about Risky Encounters.

Photo: “Driving in my car” by de Luque, creative commons license CC BY-NC 2.0

First Line Mondays

First Line Mondays is an interesting Facebook group for authors. (Mostly) on Mondays, group members post the first sentence or two of the story they are currently reading. These posts are greeted with enthusiasm if other members have read the book and liked it, regardless of the power of those first words.

But your prospective publisher/agent/gatekeeper has not read the whole book, and its first line, page, chapter may be make-or-break.

Ridiculous though it seems that the first 20 words might affect the fate of a 95,000-word manuscript, that first line matters a lot. First Line Mondays gives you an easy way to compare a lot of them and see for yourself what you think works. Those first lines help ease the reader into the fictional dream, says Donald Maass.

Interestingly, many of the first lines come from books in genres and subgenres I don’t read in, and it seems different genres have different unwritten rules about how to launch a story. In the cozy genre, weather features prominently, Elmore Leonard notwithstanding. Having read quite a few of them now, I see why they are weak. Some stories attempt to plunge you into the scene with a line of excited dialog. “Oh, my god!” Georgianna exclaimed. “I never thought it would come to this!” But since you don’t know anything about Georgianna or the this it has come to, these fake-exciting beginnings may fall flat.

Here are some recent first lines I’ve posted:

  • “I watch you very day, walking past my flat on the way to the school drop-off, holding your older daughter’s hand, pushing the younger one along in the buggy.” – Envy, by Amanda Robson – a good intimation of what the book will be about.
  • “Arthur Darvish needed extra money so he went to the sperm bank.” No Happy Endings, by Angel Luis Colón. OK, it’s intriguing. There’s a certain kind of desperation in poor Arthur.
  • “I betrayed my sister while standing on the main stairs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a beaded Versace gown (borrowed) and five-inch stiletto heels (never worn again).” – Alafair Burke’s The Better Sister. A great first line because it opens up so many story possibilities, and hints a conflict.
  • “One thing about being in a recovery program, you meet the most interesting people.” – Richard Helms’s Paid in Spades. Now you’re looking forward to meeting some of them too.
  • “They passed through belts the color of mud, and belts the color of mustard, that ran directly across the stream.” The Surfacing by Cormac James. If you know this literary novel is about the far ice of the Arctic, the mud and mustard bode ill. Nice alliteration too.

Stephen King’s Opening Tricks

Stephen King says his openings are the doors he walked through to get into the story. Opening devices he uses frequently are to: put you in a precise location and time; identify the protagonist; address you (the reader) directly –  as “you”; use simple language and quotidian details, creating an easy tone; include something to provoke a vague anxiety (beyond his name on the cover!); and in some way invite you to listen to a story. Interestingly, King’s all-time favorite first line is from Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.”

Photo: Felicity_Kate11 on Pixabay.

The Enduring Allure of the City of Light

People around the world were stunned and saddened as photographs of the partial destruction of the cathedral of Notre Dame, that icon of Paris, burned. (See how laser point clouds of gothic cathedrals, which may help in reconstruction, are created.) Paris, its landmarks, its street scenes, and its culture have inspired classic literature from the popular works of Dickens and Victor Hugo (for whom Notre Dame plays a starring role) to the American expats in the 1920s to Anthony Doerr.

Crime writers too have found it a congenial home, not because crime happens there as it does elsewhere, but because to set a crime novel in Paris is to establish a contrast, a friction between the sordidness of deeds and the beauty of the setting, even as it may live only in the reader’s imagination.

The Sûreté was quick to adopt some of the early criminal detection measures developed in France, too: Alphonse Bertillon’s system of identifying criminals through body measurements—a forerunner of today’s biometric identification—and the 1863 discovery by Paul-Jean Coulier of the means to reveal fingerprints on paper, roots from which sprang stories of very French detectives, most  notably Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret.

The attraction continues. Here are four crime novels from the last year with significant Paris roots.

****The Long Road from Paris by Kirby Williams – In the late 1930s, a New Orleans octoroon jazz prodigy is making a success of his nightclub with the help of his Jewish girlfriend. Then the fascists appear. 

****A Long Night in Paris by Dov Alfon – an Israeli mistakenly murdered at Charles de Gaulle airport triggers a desperate investigation in Paris and Israel to find the real target.

*****Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin – A gentlemanly aging cellist plunges well outside his comfort zone to help the people he loves.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob – by Wendy Hornsby – A Parisian couple is pursued around Europe in a deadly game, as shadowy persons ask cell phone users to “find them,” then “stop them.”

Painless Public Readings

microphone

If you write, you may receive invitations to read from your work to a book group, at a public reading, or for a bookstore event. It’s a chance to connect with an audience, to find places in your work that still need work, and to build fans. But writing doesn’t prepare you for reading.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer, has written a spot-on essay for lithub on “how not to bore your audience at a reading.”

Before I give you Nguyen’s tips, here’s an important one from Walter Moseley. He told an audience at Princeton last year that “the longer I read, the fewer books I sell.” Author venues like Noir at the Bar, Mystery Writers of America, and my own Princeton-based writers group limit authors to 10 to 12 minutes. A taste and a tease. Nguyen’s tips and a couple of my own:

1. A reading is a performance. Writing is storytelling and good storytellers put some pizzazz into their reading. Your audience wants to be moved by your words and how you share them. He recommends listening to skilled readers, like author T.C.Boyle (here reading from his The Harder They Come, starting 7:50 in).

2. Create a script, rather than simply reading from your book. With a script, you can enlarge the type (I use really big type—18 to 20 points), so you don’t have to bury your head in the pages, and you can see the words easily even if the lectern is poorly lit, a lesson learned the hard way. Mark your script with underlinings and squiggly lines where you want to speed up, slow down, get louder, pause. Number the pages. Circle words you trip over in rehearsing. You may trip over them again. Authors with younger eyes tend to read from their tablet or cell phone, but paper never has a low battery.

3. “Practice, practice, practice,” Nguyen says. And time yourself. Cut out a paragraph here or there if, at the twelve-minute mark, you want to reach a particular point. A description that seems slow to you as a reader, probably is.

4. Make eye contact with your audience. Repeatedly. Those rehearsals you did will let you take your eyes off the page for longer too.

5. Be aware of how close to the mike you need to be and cement yourself  there. A little movement  is fine, especially with the arms, but avoid weaving back and forth, shifting your weight from one foot to the other in a seasickness-inducing way. Plant your feet and keep them planted.

6. How you look is important. “Dress up, whatever that means to you,” he says. It shows you are rising to the occasion. If certain colors or outfits perk you up and you feel good wearing them, choose one of those.

7. Bring energy into the room. “Your energy level will be the room’s energy level, which comedians understand,” Nguyen says.Here’s the bottom line: Once you’re on stage, you’re a performer. “You are putting on a show, whether it is for five people or fifty or five hundred. That’s what people have come for. If they just want to read your words, they can do it at home. Respect their time.” Don’t be boring. And if you’re really prepared, you won’t be.

And see advice from Jane Friedman‘s blog: “How to Plan a Book Reading that Wows Your Audience”!

Photo: Pete on Flickr, creative commons license.

What Did You Think of My Book?

key, Pezibear from Pixabay

Getting reviewers and readers to talk about your new book provides peer-to-peer validation of your work and is key to promoting sales,. These days, “no one will buy a book with zero social validation,” says Jordan Ring at Archangel Ink, who prepared the online guide, “How to Get Book Reviews: The Ultimate Manifesto.”

Reviews work to your advantage in several additional ways in the Amazon ecosystem. The more consumer reviews you have, the higher your conversion rate from Amazon page visits to sales. Having reviews (especially verified reviews) will boost your book in Amazon’s search algorithms. Yet, Ring says, “most books on Amazon struggle to get even fifty reviews.” Around the time of publication, unverified reviews—those coming from people who’ve obtained your book from somewhere other than Amazon, say, as advance review copies—help jump-start the process.

The Strategies

Although Ring provides a lot of detail on how to implement these strategies, and writes in that breezy and grating you-can-do-it style universal to self-help books, he warns up front that these strategies “aren’t easy and take a lot of work.” It’s up to each author to decide how far to go.

  • Providing a request for reviews in the back of your book is probably the easiest (see “overcoming reviewers’ barriers” below); I see more of these all the time. You’re a writer, you love your book, make that request engaging and clever.
  • Search for reader-reviewers who have commented on similar books and compile a list. There’s even an app that will find them for you. Bear in mind that most people don’t want yet another way to be spammed, and find a balance between warm and too chummy.
  • Contact those reviewers by email. As a reviewer for crimefictionlover.com, I receive review requests occasionally, and the overly personalized versions weirded me out at first, the kind that sound almost stalkery. (“I saw your review of x, and . . .”) But that’s me.
  • Follow up. Ring says most authors may be willing to make an initial query, but won’t follow up, which increases total response rate markedly. He provides lots of details on how to do and track this.
  • Follow up with people who sign up for any bonuses you offer, although the sample text he offers would put me off. (People need to know that, in signing up for bonuses, they will be on an email list for further contact, of course.)
  • Using other reader-centric platforms—such as GoodReads or LibraryThing—repeat your search for reader-reviewers, outreach, and follow-up.
  • Be sure to use any endorsements or back cover blurbs you’ve acquired to fill out the “editorial reviews” section of your book’s Amazon page.
  • And do not try to boost the number of reviews by relying solely on friends and family, review swaps with other authors, or paying for reviews. Amazon sees, Amazon frowns.

Overcoming Reviewers’ Barriers

My friend, book marketing guru Sandra Beckwith, has looked into why people do not review the books they read. What she learned may help you craft your approach in the back-of-book copy or any email messages you send requesting reviews. She says:

  1. Readers are intimidated by the review process. They don’t know how or where to start, or what they should even share in a review.
  2. Haunted by memories of school book reports, readers think reviewing a book will take too much time.

Sandy has developed a reader-tested template—a fill-in-the-blanks PDF file—with writing prompts to help readers prepare a review in just a few minutes. She charges a nominal fee for the form, and authors can make as many copies as they want. She suggests including the template with every review copy, handing them out a book signings, emailing them to readers, and giving them to everyone on your launch team. If they encourage your readers to overcome “reviewer reluctance,” that’s a big plus!

Did They Really Say That?

Making fictional dialog sounds like something people would actually say takes practice. Having spent so many years writing for think tanks, I have to be especially careful my characters don’t sound like they’re lecturing a roomful of dozing college students. As a result, a few lines of conversation can demand as much time and concentration as whole paragraphs of description.

Usually the key is subtraction, and you can get a master class on how few words dialog needs by reading Elmore Leonard. A guideline that should be emblazoned in neon, is “no tennis matches”! A conversational ball that goes back and forth, back and forth, each person responding to the other’s shot, is tedious. In real life, people change the subject, they answer a question with a question, they go off on a tangent, they reveal hidden agendas. In fiction, they can do this too, without real speech’s stumbling, imprecision, and grammatical tangles, like, you know?

But most of all, I try to make the conversation sound like anyone but me. Is the speaker male, female, old, young, ethnic, rich, poor, well educated or not, from the South, the Midwest, New England? Is the story set today or fifty years ago? What phrases, idioms, and slang does this character use?

Two New Tools

If you’re looking for insights into how people speak, the partnership between linguistics and Big Data provides some answers. Orin Hargraves at Visual Thesaurus has described Brigham Young University’s two new databases of conversation, based on dialog from English-language television and movies. TVCorpus has some 325 million words from 75,000 television comedies and dramas from 1950 to today. Movie Corpus compiles 200 million words from 25,000 movies from 1930 to 2019. These data sets let you compare British and American English, and the way speech patterns change over time.

I know, you’re thinking, screentalk isn’t how people really talk (though it’s better than it used to be). In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the influence goes in the other direction! Would people really be so reflexively snarky and would casual conversation be so laden with profanity if television sitcoms and the movies hadn’t paved the way? And Hargraves cites research showing that movie-talk better matches how native English speaker think we speak than actual speech does.

However that relationship works, these databases are a fascinating way to learn about “very informal language,” which is probably what most of your characters speak. At the very least, you can use them to check for clichés and archaicisms or to devise language to fit a particular era.

I did a quick scan of the phrase “perfect crime,” and found the TV database has recorded its use  203 times—a lot of times by Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Psych. Go figure.

(Meanwhile “go figure” appeared 427 times in the TV database, including a lot of “go figure it out,” while the movie database includes 224 examples, most of them like my standalone “Go figure.” Since the earliest use was from 1938, you could use it in a classic noir story without worrying you were introducing a 21st century expression.)

“Perfect crime” appeared 91 times in the film database, with the first usage recorded in a 1936 film titled The Case Against Mrs. Ames: “There is no perfect crime because there is no perfect lie.” Nice!

photo credit: Jon Seldman on Visual Hunt.com, creative commons license

Reading at the KGB Bar

Last night a writing friend and I participated in an even that puts us right at the fringes of the fringes of New York literary society—a reading sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America at KGB Bar in the East Village. KGB Bar is hidden away on the second story of an old tenement, up a vertiginous flight of stairs.

Although this description doesn’t do it justice in terms of its fine balance of joie de vivre teetering on the edge of seediness, here’s what the founder, Denis Woychuk, says about it:

In the years since it opened in 1993, KGB has become something of a New York literary institution. Writers hooked up in the publishing world read here with pleasure and without pay to an adoring public . . . The crowd loves it. Admission is free, drinks are cheap and strong, and the level of excellence is such that KGB has been named best literary venue in New York City by New York Magazine, the Village Voice, and everyone else who bestows these awards of recognition.

He’s right about the pleasure part. It was attentive crowd, even though I was the final reader of five, when the audience had already enjoyed several of those drinks! Wanting to appear convivial yet be one-the-ball for my reading, I’d nursed one glass of wine all evening. “What white wines do you have?” I asked the bartender. “Pinot grigio.” “Oh. What red wines do you have?” “Cabernet Sauvignon.” “I’ll have that.” The barrel savage. How appropriate.

The other readers—P.D. Halt, Mary Jo Robertiello, James D. Robertson, and A.J. Sidransky—each read a scene from one of their novels. I read the opening of a short story to be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. No idea when it will see the light of day, but if you’re a subscriber, watch for it! It’s called “New Energy.”

I’m so thankful to my writing group, Room at the Table, for organizing our twice-a-year public readings. (The next one is March 27! For details, see our Facebook page.) Great prep for my eight minutes at KGB–a former speakeasy and Lucky Luciano outpost, then h.q. for the Ukrainian Labor Home, a socialist hangout, which explains the Soviet memorabilia and the hammer-and-sickle matchbooks. It was fun!

Notes from the Dark Side

raven

Here’s news I like to hear from an anthology editor.

Wrote Lyn Worthen, “I am proud to announce that Quoth the Raven, which was recently named the Best Anthology of 2018 by the Critters Workshop/Preditors and Editors Annual Reader’s Poll, is now on the 2018 Bram Stoker Awards Preliminary Ballot.”

In Quoth the Raven, poets and short story authors tell a contemporary tale, riffing on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s “Berenice” inspired my story, “Tooth and Nail,” and now some of my family members hesitate to be in a room alone with me . . . Nevertheless.

Why Dark Fiction?

My fellow QtR author, Tiffany Michelle Brown interviewed several of the collection’s 32 authors on why they are attracted to dark fiction. “Why do you think we like to read about the things that terrify us?” she asked.

Emerian Rich, author of the story “My Annabel” says, “Horror addicts like to be scared in a safe, non-harmful way. Creep me out, test my limits, push me over the edge as long as in reality I am safe in my warm bed, able to switch on the light and see the monsters are just in my head.”

Can this predilection be traced to the fight or flight instincts developed over millennia? Susan McCAuley, author of “The Cask,” thinks so. Our world today is relatively safe, she says, and “going to scary movies, reading scary stories, and going on scary rides, helps fulfill a part of us that isn’t being used very often, at least in countries where all our major survival needs are met.”

Her theory may get some support from Donea Lee Weaver, author of “The Ca(t)sualty,” who admits that, for her, the attraction of dark fiction is “the adrenalin rush.” She says she may be covering her eyes, “but I’m still peeking through my fingers, because I just have to know what happens next.”

The stories that Sonora Taylor, author of “Hearts are Just ‘Likes’” says she’s most drawn to aren’t just about a dark force, but how someone’s responding to that darkness” and is possibly unhinged by it. Understandably, the Poe work that inspired her story was “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

My own answer to Tiffany’s question is that “sometimes reading about—exposing oneself to—supremely terrifying things makes it easier to deal with the fearful events encountered in everyday life. Some experts suggest this accounts for the popularity among women of a certain kind of thriller. Reading about sexual violence helps readers contemplate not just the terror of such an event, but also its survivability. Maybe.”

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Raven artwork by rebeccarawrr, creative commons license.

Resurrection on the Cutting-Room Floor

scissors, blood, editing
(photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license)

The first draft of one of my novels was 135,000 words—1.5 times what was remotely saleable. Since I didn’t plan on writing solely for myself, I couldn’t risk being thrown in the circular file before my doorstop even reach an editor’s desk! So I began to cut. In the many subsequent drafts and rewrites, I’ve always had one eye on shrinkability.

When my editor—the stellar Barb Goffman—suggested I beef the novel up in some areas, I knew we weren’t just talking addition, we were talking subtraction too. A number of characters were easy to jettison altogether, but a few that had to be trimmed still spoke to me. The three most promising I’ve turned into published short stories, something J. Todd Scott may have done with a character from High White Sun (a short story in, I believe, Mystery Tribune).

One character I didn’t want to lose is a murdered Roman priest who thinks his classic migraines are communications from God. Although his death remains in the novel, his backstory is repurposed in “The Penitent,” published last year in Bouchercon’s Passport to Murder.

A mafia fence launched his career by masterminding the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in Boston, a resume-enhancing crime unrelated to events in the novel. That story became “Above Suspicion,” appearing in the current issue (#26) of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

Another priest, Anglican flavor this time, intervenes in an assault on my protagonist, no doubt saving her life. While this priest has only a minor role in the novel, his giddy nonstop talking charmed my beta- (or perhaps I should say gamma-) readers, and I worked him into a story—“What Saved Them”—published in the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue.

The transformation from novel excerpt to complete short story turned out not to be as easy as I expected, and each presented its own challenges. If you’re ever tempted to resurrect one of the darlings you’ve just killed, here’s what I learned.

Four Tips for Authors

1. If the characters involved in the short story remain in your novel (that is, if you haven’t gotten rid of them altogether), you need an eagle eye for continuity. You can’t have your character driving a Porsche in the story and relying on Uber in the story. More important, they cannot do anything in the story that would affect the action of the novel.

2. Originally, I’d engaged in vigorous head-hopping in the scene where the priest dies. I found I could park the novel’s point of view in the head of the assassin, yet write the short story from the priest’s perspective. Same events, two points of view. That was fun.

3. The story of the fence had a strong core from the get-go because of the extensive detail about the ISG theft. I wrote new backstory—waybackstory—about the character’s childhood in Fez. And of course more extensive setup and denouement.

4. OK, it’s fun, but is it a story? The Anglican priest was a character. His story had to be developed from scratch using the dialog I’d salvaged. But who was he? How would he behave? What changed for him? The rescue of the woman would plausibly have a long-term impact on him and it became a source of reflection, laying the groundwork for his subsequent actions.

Because you don’t have a blank page when you deal with bits excised from other works, there are many more than the customary limits on your degrees of authorial freedom. Whether the resurrected short stories prove useful in marketing or whether they are just good stories in their own right, you can feel good about creative recycling!