Curses! The Poor Abused Asterisk

by Janis Patterson

At least it used to be mistreated by overuse. Now, with the new ‘freedom’ (or abuse, as some would say) of the language, the poor asterisk has almost been forced into retirement.

These days there seems to be no depth to how low some users of the language can go. Years ago in the rare times they were used, vulgar words were filled with asterisks, such as ‘f**k’ and ‘d*mn’ ‘p*n*s’ and – well, you know what I mean. Nowadays more often than not those words are not only fully spelled but repeated several times as if the writer wants to make sure you see them and – probably – expects you to applaud or at least acknowledge their courage and honesty in using them.

Sorry, I’m not buying that.

I’m a purist about language. Language is perhaps the highest order of civilization, one which allows precise and exact communication for the exchange of ideas. To let it not only sink down to but revel in dirty words is to me a crime.

Ah, you say, but aren’t you being judgmental to condemn certain words as being ‘dirty’?

You bet I am. I believe when a word describes something dirty or societally disapproved of, a function or action not welcome in polite discourse, it should be judged. (I can hear some of you muttering most unflattering things such as censorship and prudery, but – hey – this is my column and I’m going to say what I really think.)

I was raised to believe that language is a living thing, and like all living things it should be handled with respect, if not reverence. There was a time – for most of history, actually – when use of ‘those words’ was a sure marker of either being very uneducated or very lower class, or probably both. Then suddenly the earth heaved and to use them became a mark of modernity, of freedom from antique societal restraints. And, like most revolutions, it went too far.

In the literary arena writers had to straddle both worlds – to be modern enough to interest readers and publishers who put sales above mores, but still, for those who loved and respected language or more honestly feared the censors, they tried to preserve the integrity of the language and moderate offensiveness. An impossible task.

Thus the necessity for the asterisk. It found itself inserted into words that were at best questionable and at worse obscene, turning them into a form of code understood by all, but still standing barely under the edge of decency’s shadow. In those antique days, it is to be noted that villains and bad people were the ones who used those words, even with asterisks inserted. You could almost tell who was a villain and who was a hero/heroine just by the language they used. Sort of like smoking is used as such an indicator today.

No longer, though, and both language and culture are the poorer for it. When a so-called hero or heroine rips out with what I will call the full version of the ‘f-bomb,’ ‘the c-word,’ ‘the n-word’ or any other rude/pornographic/nasty word they immediately drop in my estimation. If the usage is egregious enough, the book usually does too, all the way to the wastebasket.

While mysteries have produced more than their share of curse words, usually masculine-type expletives, it is romance novels which blew the lid off any semblance of scatological restraint. In the late 70s and early 80s romance went from a dreamy landscape of feelings and handholdings to a clinically correct – albeit originally rife with euphemism – technical manual of lovemaking and the physical parts used to do it. Not all, understand – even today you can still find romances filled with dreamy feelings and chaste kisses, but sometimes it’s a difficult hunt.

Maybe I’m just a dinosaur who lives in a different age. If so, so be it. I know what I like, and I will stand up for it. That does not mean, however, I am a total nerd. In person I have been known to let fly with a hearty ‘d*mn’ when I put a finger through a brand new pair of pantyhose or a loud ‘bl**dy h*ll’ on the rare occasion, but usually only when alone. I have been known to write those words too, but not often and usually only with villains and other slime – the only exceptions being when an insertion or six (usually mild words, like d*mn or h*ll) were not only insisted on but demanded by a publisher. (I guess they were wanting to appear au courant with ‘modern’ usage.) I’ll admit to being sometimes overly picky and proper, but not to being positively antediluvian.

I know there are those who do not find those ‘asterisk words’ – bowdlerized or not – as offensive as I do. That is their right, but on the other hand it is my right not to like, use or choose to read them. Chacun à son goût!

To Gore or Not To Gore… And How Much?

by Janis Patterson

When one writes mysteries, one has to come face to the face with the problem of violence – when, to whom and how much. Almost every mystery – those for grown-ups, that is – includes an assault and/or a death. It is very rare to see a mystery without one or the other and usually both. Dead bodies are pretty much the raison d’etre of a mystery!

The question is, how did the body get dead, where is it found, what condition is it in, and how much – if any – of the actual crime do we show?

What they’re now calling cozy mysteries – the kind with a ditzy amateur sleuth with a terrible love life, a cute job, probably a shoe obsession and perhaps intelligent animals which may or may not solve the actual mystery themselves – usually back away from violence and its aftermath as much as possible. (And yes, I know there are exceptions, but it is the exception that proves the rule!) The dead body that propels the story is so sanitized and occasionally de-humanized that in some stories it resembles little more than a stage prop. Which is distressing but not surprising, as more and more publishers are demanding that the body appear in the first few pages if not on the first page itself. This makes it hard for the reader to regard said dead body as little more than a plot device instead of something that was once a living, breathing complete human being. (In case you didn’t know, this ‘where does the body appear’ thing is one of my hot buttons!)

What we used to call cozies are now in the labeling limbo of ‘traditional mysteries’ which to me means more realistic characters, more realistic actions by those characters, but with only minimal violence. There is blood, but only a tangential mention. My favorite description (taken from one of my own books, of course) talks about the body hastily covered with a now-stained bedspread (at the time of my sleuth’s arrival) with just a lip of wet red peeking out from under the edge. Enough description to evoke a feeling of horror at such a heinous and violent act, but most definitely not enough to revolt or sicken the reader. It’s sometimes a difficult balancing act.

In a hard-boiled or noir mystery, the violence is not only part of but sometimes seems to be the reason for the story. Descriptions of violence, whether or not they result in death, are often and lovingly detailed. Remember how often Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer either was beaten up (each blow described) or beat up the bad guy (each blow described.) He wasn’t the only one, either. There are scores of such novels celebrating violence written every day.

My personal bête noir example of gratuitous violence is Robert Ludlum. Yes, his novels are generally classified with thrillers, but in each one there is a mystery, and I’m trying to make a point here. I have publicly called his books ‘the pornography of death.’ Think about it – in sexual pornography nothing is hidden; every moan, every stroke, every touch, every single action is described, usually in loving and minute detail. Ludlum’s (and others’) do the same thing with violence. Every split of skin from a blow. The explosion of skin and the fountain of blood caused by the entry of a bullet… or a spear, or some other penetrating object. The crisping and blackening of skin as it begins to burn. Personally, I find it sickening, but considering how these books sell I’m obviously in the minority!

My feelings toward violence in my books are sort of like mine about sex in my books. They both happen, and we as readers know they happen, as we see the results, but they do not happen ‘on screen’ and there are no overly graphic descriptions.

Once a couple of decades ago I was doing make-up on the set of a horror film. A grizzled old hand and I were watching as an actor was being glued (yes, glued!) into his costume. The gaffer snorted derisively, saying that clump of foam and make-up wasn’t really scary.

Well, it was pretty scary-looking to me! When I told him, he said the purpose of a horror film was to scare people, and not all people were scared by all things. To really scare people, he said, you give a suggestion – a shadow, a hand or a tentacle, and let people create in their own head the thing that scared them the most. “Don’t show the monster,” he said. “Let people create their own monster.”

It’s the same thing with violence. A suggestion – ‘a lip of wet red peeking out’ – can evoke more feelings, more visceral reaction, than an entire thesaurus of detailed description. And that’s why I don’t write overt gore.

The Experiment – Continued

by Janis Patterson

If sales of my books go any lower, it looks like I’m going to have to start paying people not to read my books. Yes, that’s an exaggeration (I hope!) but it’s also in danger of becoming quite true. And I will admit it hurts to see my books languish at the bottom of the charts, especially since some of them have been on bestseller lists (international, not US – go figure that!) and some have won prizes while others, both appalling rubbish as well as tomes much more literary than mine, sell like the proverbial hotcakes.

Late last year I bewailed my position and decided to start an experiment. I was going KU. Now as a fiscal conservative, I abominate the idea of anything that reeks of potential monopoly, but I also dislike the idea of not making any money for all the work I have done on my books. I have always had all my books – those which I control – wide, meaning they were available just about everywhere ebooks books can be bought. Sales have been so bad they would have to work a week to inch their way up to pathetic.

So, since most of what sales I did have were coming from Amazon and none from two of the other major outlets, I decided to start an experiment. I pulled three test books from wide distribution and put them into KU, which means exclusive with Amazon.

The results were good – for my wallet – but disheartening from a free market point of view. Sales inched up a tiny bit, but what astounded me was the page reads. No, I’m not going to give exact numbers, mainly because they are no one’s business but mine and would be considered embarrassingly low for most other writers, but they were a very large jump for me, and have increased almost daily from the beginning of the experiment. Yes, the money for KU page reads is distressingly low, but even a low return is better than no return.

However, only part of me believes that. By being in KU am I contributing to the stifling (and perhaps eventual extinction) of the free market by encouraging a possible monopoly? Part of me thinks so but part of me wants to be compensated for the time and money I spend to make my books available to the public.

By being in KU am I keeping my books away from those who shop on platforms other than Amazon? Yes, but they weren’t buying from me anyway, so what difference does it make, except that with KU at least I have the potential of earning due recompense for my labors.

I know I’m talking a lot about money – I’m not really greedy, but workmen are worthy of their hire; my books have made international best seller lists and won prizes. They – and I – deserve better treatment and recognition, and if being in KU does that I will respond.

It has taken a long time and a lot of thought to come to this point, but with my usual decisiveness I have chosen to keep feet in both camps. Those books which have performed well wide – for example, CURSE OF THE EXILE and A KILLING AT EL KAB – will stay wide. New books – released this year, such as A WELL-MANNERED MURDER and ROMANCE AT SPANISH ROCK – have been put directly into KU.  The other five books I have ready for release, plus any others I will finish in the foreseeable future, will be decided on a case-by-case basis… that, or the phase of the moon and my mood at the moment.

https://ladiesofmystery.com/2021/02/10/the-experiment—continued/(opens in a new tab)

It is true that the customer drives the market, and the vendor/writer has to follow the trends. Right now the trend is to KU, and if this trend continues, I will eventually move everything to KU. If the ebook industry does become a monopoly, all will change – and probably not for the better – but the reader has no one but himself to blame.

Starting Afresh, With Hope

by Janis Patterson

Happy New Year! Hopefully 2021 is going to be a better year than 2020. It would have to work very hard to be worse!

I’ll admit I was off my game during 2020, and I’m not sure why. My life did not change that much during the lockdowns. My normal day (if writers do indeed have anything that could be regarded as a ‘normal’ day) consists of spending most of the day sitting in the den in front of my computer all alone with my invisible friends. During the lockdown I spent most of the day in the den in front of my computer all alone with my invisible friends. The only change was that The Husband was here for about two months before he had to go back to work. Then I sat alone in the guest room/my office all alone with my invisible friends. I did miss the lunches with my real living friends, but we talked on the phone and made do with that. I also missed – and still do – our various clubs’ meetings and fear greatly that some of them will not come back after this plague is over.

Now the big change in our lives is The Husband is officially retired as of January 8 and that is a big adjustment for us both. I have pretty much moved my work into my office, leaving the den and the television – and our spoilt and yappy intrusive little dog – to him during the day. The only chore left – and it’s a big one – is to train him that when I am in my office with the door closed I am working. I’m not retired like he is – and has to learn he shouldn’t disturb me unless there is death, flames or blood. I honestly don’t know how that will go; a former Navy captain, he is not used to taking orders.

So – assuming that I am able to work at least semi-uninterrupted in my office – what will I be doing? As I said, I did a lot of goofing off this year, letting my writing and publishing slide, a distressing situation which I must endeavor to correct. I must quit taking an afternoon break bingewatching Netflix and chatting for hours on the phone. I must set up a writing schedule for the year, as I have done for many years before the disaster of 2020, and more importantly stick to it. I must set a daily routine, just as if I had an office job, because we all know writing is not only a real job, it is a strict taskmaster. Dilettantes don’t last long.

Can I do all that and become the hard-working, dedicated professional novelist I used to be? I honestly don’t know. Two years ago after a long recovery following my very first surgery ever I claimed the sloth as my spirit animal, and he is a stern taskmaster. Maybe that’s ‘anti-taskmaster.’ I can find all kinds of real and logical reasons why I shouldn’t get up and accomplish something, and let’s be honest, the madness of 2020 most definitely did not help. Sometimes it takes hours to force myself off the couch and back to the computer. Bad sloth, teaching me such self-destructive but pleasurable habits! Bad me, for giving in to them!

And, to prove I’m really working on it, tomorrow I’m releasing not one, but two brand new books. ROMANCE AT SPANISH ROCK, written under my romance name of Janis Susan May wherein an LA photographer inherits a ranch in Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon, and A WELL-MANNERED MURDER, a murder mystery written under my crime name of Janis Patterson wherein a middle-aged woman trying to survive a divorce is researching a long closed charm school and gets involved with the Kennedy assassination. Both are available as ebooks only (at the moment) on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. You see, I am trying!

2021 will be better. I will see to it. I promise.

Writing as Discovery

by Janis Patterson

Want to start a lively ‘discussion’ among writers? All you have to do is say something about how ‘plotting’ or ‘pantsing’ is superior. It doesn’t make any difference which; both have their outspoken and extremely vocal adherents. Just make sure you can hold your ground or you have a direct path to an exit. Both sides have passionate adherents.

For those who aren’t familiar with the terms (if there are any of you left out there!) ‘plotting’ is basically an outline, yes, like you used to make in elementary school, but adapted toward a book. Whether it’s the old Roman numeral/Arabic numeral/alphanumeric letter – i.e., bullet point type of outline – or a paragraph style, the outline is a detailed road map of every twist and turn in your story. ‘Pantsing’ is taken from the old phrase ‘seat of your pants,’ meaning you just write and see what happens.

In general, pantsers tend to do more re-writing than plotters, but plotters spend more time on pre-writing work.

I am an avowed pantser. Sort of. My personal system is sort of like a suspension bridge. I know where the story begins. I know where the story will pretty much end – but that has been known to change. I know a couple of plot points in between, though they can be shifted a bit during writing. Then all that’s left is to spin the webwork of the story between them. Does my story change while I’m writing? Yes, it can and has, and I think that’s a good thing, because that means the story is growing organically and being true to itself and – more importantly – to its characters.

Plotters vary from those who put down only a few plot points and notes to those who put in every raise of the hero’s eyebrow and every shrug of the heroine’s shoulders. They also do lots of pre-plotting work, making character sheets, location maps and doing interviews with their characters. I once saw a character worksheet that was at least 5 pages long and included such things as the character’s favorite flavor of JellO and their maternal grandmother’s maiden name. Personally, I’ve had close friends for decades and I don’t know that much about them!

Always willing to improve my craft, I once took a much touted ten-box plotting course that was supposed to be almost magical in creating a book’s structure. A stubborn person, I finished it even though I knew from the second or third lesson that it wasn’t for me. After all, I had paid for it and believe in getting my money’s worth.

Basically you put every turning point and every reaction into one of the ten boxes. An outline, just minus the Roman and Arabic numerals. Using this system I plotted a pretty good romantic suspense novel about Egypt, antiquities smuggling, trust issues, terrorism and a dirty bomb thrown in for good measure.

It will never be written, at least not by me. By the time the last box was filled in I was so bored with the whole idea I never wanted to see it again. Believe me, it shows in the final product when the writer is bored with the project. No matter how good the writer is, the book is lifeless and mechanical.

Don’t think this is a vote either for or against plotting or pantsing. It’s one of those things to which there is no one ‘right’ answer for everyone. The writer has to decide for himself what works for him. And perhaps it is the reader who is the ultimate judge, though most don’t have the slightest idea of the writer’s process. They just know if they like the book or not.

So what do I do? I get an idea for an opening situation, I sit down and I start to write. If the idea is sound, if the story is a good one, the characters just take over and I become more scribe than writer. Do I have to go back and do some re-writing when the plot changes direction? Occasionally, but it only makes the story stronger. Sometimes it surprises me what comes up on the screen as I write, and to my mind that is a good thing. Remember, someone – I don’t remember who – said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and a wonderful holiday season!