Deadly Ink: “Everybody Wins”

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The annual Deadly Ink conference held in northern New Jersey last weekend was loads of fun. Guest of Honor Wendy Corsi Staub was a lively presence and toastmaster Dick Belsky charmed. I saw a number of old friends, met authors I admire, and was delighted to be included on several panels. Yesterday’s post reviewed some of the discussion about “character.”

The Dark Side
The panel on noir stories and hard-boiled characters  risked bogging down in semantics but clearly demonstrated the many shades of black actually out there. Apologies if you’ve read this here before, but I offered Dennis Lehane’s definition of noir: In a tragedy, a man falls from a great height (Macbeth, the Greeks, Chinatown); in noir, he falls from the curb. Panelist Rich Zahradnik provided another good one: “In noir, nobody wins.”

Hard-boiled stories usually involve a detective who is not emotionally involved or is struggling not to be. Humphrey Bogart’s portrayals of Sam Spade (written by Dashiell Hammett) and Philip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) epitomize the genre. Cynical and street-smart, not reliant on the intellectual powers of Sherlock Holmes or the “little grey cells” of Hercule Poirot.

The hard-boiled character nevertheless gets the job done. Occasionally crossing my path are books that are too dark. They feature down-and-out characters living in filthy apartments who smoke and drink too much; some of them can’t think beyond their next fix. I don’t find them interesting. With four strikes against them already, whaddaya know, they make (more) bad decisions. Give me a character who at least has the opportunity to make choices.

With me on this panel were Charles Salzberg (whose Swann character operates on the fringes of society, but has plenty of agency), Al Tucher (whose work features a smart and tough prostitute), and moderator Dick Belsky.

Location, Location, Location
In the session on story setting, historical mystery author Annamaria Alfieri said she chooses her location first (British East Africa, for example), then the time period in which that place offered the most interesting fictional possibilities.  

Panelists’ strategies for establishing a strong sense of place included attention to the small details and local idiosyncrasies (lots of research here, including site visits for contemporary works), plus making sure to describe the character’s emotional reaction to the location. If you could pick a San Francisco story up and move it four hundred miles south to Los Angeles, you should end up with a different story. New Orleans isn’t New York, and South Carolina isn’t South Dakota.

Of course, panelists and audience alike thought Al Tucher is onto something with his new book set in Hawai`i. “It’s a research trip.” Yeah, right.

This and yesterday’s post about “character” are a small sample of the conference’s varied and interesting program. Whether you’re a writer or a fan, be there in person in 2020!

Photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Deadly Ink: Characters

Handwriting, boredom

Very possibly I made an impression on my daughter’s new in-laws last month when I said how, with most women, you can talk to them about their careers or their kids or what they’re reading, but in my case you could talk about blood spatter.

You might think this would have been a conversation-stopper, but my daughter’s new sister-in-law immediately launched into how her son had bled so profusely after knocking his head on the kitchen counter. “Oh yes,” I said knowingly, “scalp wounds. Lots of blood.” It pays to know your stuff.

I added to my trove of crime and thriller lore this past weekend at the annual Deadly Ink conference, an intimate group of crime and thriller writers and readers, mostly from New Jersey and its Manhattan suburbs. It’s a great place to expound upon crime-writing topics and to hobnob with other like-minded folk. Guest of Honor this year was energetic and down-to-earth author Wendy Corsi Staub, who participated beginning to end, and our Toastmaster was Dick Belsky.

I ended up on three panels, Character (you need them!), the Dark Side (who, me?), and Building Suspense. The only suspense was whether I could think of something useful to contribute. Regardless, the panels were all lively and fun and, since almost no one ran out screaming and demanding their money back, they may have actually been useful or, possibly, entertaining.

I had made some modest preparations for the Character panel and focused my remarks on what I’d brushed up on, character description. Sometimes writers describe characters readers only see once or twice. Not necessary.. Sometimes they give a complete height-weight-eye color (so often green, have you noticed?)-hair color-complexion rundown. Also not necessary, I said, except when these details are relevant to the story, like six-foot, full-figured Monica Ludd, who uses her size to intimidate (or seduce) in Maggie Gee’s new novel Blood, reviewed yesterday.

I cited Stephen King in On Writing, who says a character’s description begins in the writer’s imagination and ends in the reader’s imagination. No need for details. Let your readers fill in. When they do, they own the character and that’s exactly what you want! For King’s character Carrie White, all he said was that she was a high school outcast with bad skin and a fashion-victim wardrobe. What more is needed? We’ve all known and maybe sometimes been that person.

That led to a discussion of how the movie version of a character can become our indelible picture of a character—Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone, Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire—and what happens when that picture conflicts with our internal picture—Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Total fail.

Donald Maass (Writing 21st Century Fiction) further points out the paradox that the more unique you make your characters the more universal they are. Readers can latch onto some aspect of a character and relate to it, almost no matter what. What you don’t want are bland, generalized, two-dimensional characters with no unredeeming attributes. Give them flaws! Too-perfect characters are boring and not believable.

This excellent panel was moderated by Lynn Marron and included the estimable Jane Kelly, D.W Maroney, and Dick Belsky.

(Tomorrow: More from Deadly Ink)

Lawyers, Guns, and Money: CrimeCONN 2019

lawyer

Organizers of this year’s CrimeCONN—led by Chris Knopf and Charles Salzberg—truly delivered. Their MWA-NY sponsored committee put together excellent panels and presentations, followed by entertaining keynote speaker Peter Blauner, whose resume includes the award-winning novel Slow Motion Rider and several seasons of Law & Order.

Lawyers as Characters

Authors who are lawyers or are writing legal thrillers peopled several panels. Some of them use their lawyer-character as a nexus of the story’s conflict. The conflicts may be external to their character and arise because of the inherent contentiousness of situations they set up, essentially because of the conflict between the lawbreakers they represent and orderly society. They also use characters who are advocacy lawyers—say, working for an environmental or women’s rights group—to raise issues without clunky exposition.

By contrast, other authors said their emphasis is on the character they are developing, and the fact the character is a lawyer is almost incidental to the story. These characters’ conflicts are often internal, when their needs and values conflict with the actions required of them.

Either way, writers and lawyers are professional storytellers following a loosely analogous process. A lawyer starts a case with the facts (novel set-up), makes arguments (development of the novel’s plot), and arrives at a conclusion/summation (denouement).

Attorney-author Connie Hambley said when she writes, she envisions her reader as “very smart opposing counsel,” answering in one way or another all the objections that reader might make. A variation on this point was the observation that lawyers are logical, accustomed to preparing their cases in a logical way, and a crime story also generally follows a trail of logic, through its accumulation and interpretation of evidence.

What Goes Wrong?

We remember the things that bug us, and though novels/tv/movies get a lot of details right, panelists had a long list of pet peeves. These included stories in which: surveillance is easy (and affordable); extradition happens almost overnight; judges make snap decisions about motions; and if it’s an organized crime case, there’s lots of electronic evidence. IRL, organized crime figures know what our politicians haven’t figured out: no emails, no texts, no Instagrams. And here’s one of my eye-rollers: DNA evidence that comes back in 24 hours. At the same time, panelists agreed that a story that strictly followed what happens in an investigation or in the courtroom would be unreadable (and cited this article).

They said witness testimony is often presented as too black-or-white. Either a witness is a truth-teller or a liar, when, in real life, witnesses do a bit of both. What’s more, they may not be intentionally lying, they may misinterpret something, they may misremember or simply forget.

Topic Pivot: CIA Fun

For what goes wrong (and right) with spycraft in the movies, see this entertaining video with Jonna Mendez from Wired. It’s a followup to her previous film of CIA tips on developing an effective disguise.

Tomorrow: Tidbits that might make good plot points

Photo: “Bewigged man.” by gappa01 is licensed under 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.

Painless Public Readings

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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.

They Shall Not Grow Old

New Zealand director Peter Jackson has accomplished something of a miracle. At the behest of Britain’s Imperial War Museum, he and his team have created a documentary about World War I using archival footage—scratched, faded, juddery—and restored it nearly to today’s standards (trailer). The process achieves more than improving watchability, it brings these soldiers to life.

When he received the assignment, Jackson didn’t know what the film would be, his brief was simply to “do something creative” with the film archive in time for the 100th anniversary of the armistice last November 11.

He and his team melded the restored film with the voices of men who had served, interviewed by the BBC decades later. They went to war as ordinary soldiers, they were young (ages 15, 16, and 17, many of them), and their reminiscences of the war were quite different than what their officers’ would have been. This isn’t a movie with battle maps and arrows, strategy and tactics. It’s not about the unique or memorable incident. It’s everyday survival. Mud and lice and rats and cigarettes. I cried.

Stick around for the post-movie feature about how the film was restored. The before-and-after examples of changing the timing, fixing over- and under-exposures, how sound was added, and the colorization are fascinating. Their devotion to detail pays off. Speaking of paying off, the film has broken box office records for a documentary, and Jackson himself took no fee.

This isn’t a movie about heroes. It’s about everyday lads doing the best they can in the worst circumstances. In the most important sense, they’re all heroes.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 99%; audiences 92%.

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.

Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

Comfortable Ambiguity

pond

photo: Jill111, creative commons license

Uh-oh. I have to lead a book group discussion today of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You—which I read and reviewed three years ago, and I can’t find my copy of the book! And the library doesn’t have one. I feel so unprepared. But at least I have this:

In a perceptive Glimmer Train essay, summarized here, Celeste Ng talked about “comfortable ambiguity,” and how in Everything I Never Told You, she tried to give readers space to enter the world of the story and enough clues to come to their own conclusions about the fates of the characters. Since so many of her early readers had strong—and differing—opinions about what those fates were, her efforts were clearly successful. I’m hoping my book club members came to different conclusions too. A lively discussion should ensue!

If you’ve read this book, you’ll recall that the story takes place in the 1970s and centers around a family living in a small town outside Cleveland (modeled on Ng’s home town of Shaker Heights): honey-blonde Marilyn, the mother, estranged from her own mother, her would-be career, and the future she thought she would have; James, her Chinese husband in an era and a place where being Asian made him—at least in his mind—the perpetual outsider; and their three black-haired children, the only Asian-Americans in their school. Hannah, the acutely observant youngest, Nathan, the oldest, on his way to Harvard, and in the middle, Lydia—serious, responsible Lydia—her parents’ favorite. Their hopes are pinned on her.

But something goes drastically wrong, as we learn in the book’s first irrevocable sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” In the aftermath of her daughter’s disappearance, a desperate Marilyn finds the dozen diaries she’s given Lydia to see what clues they may hide. She jams the flimsy locks open. Every page is blank.

As the story’s point of view shifts among family members, and each tries to piece together what happened to Lydia and why, the secrets, the alienation, and the deceptions in their own lives emerge. Even in this crisis, little is shared among them. Each must come to an understanding of Lydia’s tragedy in a unique, highly personal, and for some, devastating way. In my experience the novel skillfully drew me into deeper and deeper waters until I realized the surface was far above. I will be interested to see whether the book group members are comfortable with its lack of a final clarifying answer.

Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers. Ng’s second book, the 2017 Little Fires Everywhere, also delves into family secrets when a custody battle erupts in a “progressive” Cleveland suburb (you-know-where) over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby. It’s an exploration of race, class, and unconscious privilege that also received extravagant praise and is being turned into an eight-episode television series. Less ambiguity in the story here, but also less comfort.