Keep moving forward

For me, the hardest part of writing a book is getting starting. Thinking about cranking out over 50,000 golden words of terrific prose is daunting. There’s the fear of “How can I top my last book?” and “Can I come up with an original idea?”

The trick is to break down the novel to pieces. Start with one word, then two, then three . . . Work on one chapter at a time before worrying about the next.

I start with an outline. I tried writing one book as “pantster” and by page 50, I was in trouble. The story didn’t interest me and, I’m sure, would bore the reader as well. I threw out of what I’d written and started over—with an outline.

The outline is flexible. I add to it and shift elements around as I progress. But, like a road trip, I have a destination in mind and can plan the most direct route with a minute of delays. As a “pantster,” I’d be taking too many scenic detours and ending up miles away from my goal.

An advantage of outline is that once that’s in place, the actual writing is easy. With an outline, I don’t have to think hard about what should be in the scene. Once I start writing, it begins to flow and gets easier. When I start building the characters and watching how the scene plays out and adding comic bits, I’m motivated to keep going. Like swimming, the initial plunge into the pool takes the most effort.

I’ve heard the phrase that a writer needs to “show up at the page.” That is, the author must sit, pick up the pen or turn on the computer, and actually write. Simply thinking or talking about writing, or saying “it’s all in my head,” or going to endless meetings or conferences or classes without writing will never produce a book.

The first months of this year, for me, had many distractions, including house repairs and cat health and working on a big teaching project. Now that’s all out of the way—for now—and I have no more excuses. I finally picked up the clipboard (my first drafts are in longhand) and began the second book in the Psychedelic Spy retro-cozy series. After all, one can’t have a series with only one book.

The first night I only wrote four pages. But that’s four more pages than I had the night before. If an author only composes one page a day, by the end of the year she’ll have a 365-page novel.

Now that I’ve started one project, I’m ending another. This is my last regular post on Ladies of Mystery. I’ve enjoyed being part of the blog, but my writing time is limited. Along with my day job and housework, I also write a newspaper column and contribute to my parish. I need more time to focus on my books. After the new book is finished I want to write another Sandy Fairfax book along with a non-mystery novel that’s been kicking around in my head for years. So many ideas, so little time.

I hope to return periodically to LOM with guest posts whenever I have a new book to share. In the meantime, you can keep in touch with me on Facebook or contact me at sallyc@earthlink.net. Stay tuned . . .

Acquired tastes

By Sally Carpenter

Why do people like different types of literature?

Writers have been wrestling with that question since the first authors tried to earn a living with their work. Why are some books best sellers and other titles flounder? If I knew the answer to that, I’d have some moneymaking books on the shelves myself.

Some books managed to stand the test of time, such as the Sherlock olmes tales that were a rave hit when Arthur Conan Doyle penned them—people went into mourning when he tried to kill off his character. The stories, set in a distant time and written in a rather cumbersome style, are still popular today. Yet the sensational private eye stories from the American pulp magazine era are dismissed as period pieces. Why is that?

I read that our tastes are “imprinted” at an early age. Often the music, books and pop culture we grew up with are the preferences we keep our whole lives. This can change, of course. As we mature we stop reading children’s books and move on to adult literature. Young adults—in conscious rebellion or unconsciously—want a culture distinct from their parents’. Often people raised in a small, closed community find their tastes broaden when exposed to other cultures.

But I think the imprinted theory is mostly true. Devout fans read a certain author in their youth, and they kept that taste their entire life. Just for fun, I’m on a Facebook closed group for fans of the Columbo TV show. Someone asked why we love the program. Many said it reminded them of growing up in a home where the family gathered at the TV to watch the show together on Sunday night. Others like the ‘70s culture of the show—the music, clothes, and mannerisms. Columbo brings back fond memories of past times. Reading a favorite author takes us to a time and location that brings us joy.

I know of authors who are noir fans. They love watching the old noir movies and their writing is a tribute to that genre. I wonder how writers find joy in writing such dark, gritty work. It’s a fascinating world of dark alleys, hideaways, shady deals, colorful characters, beautiful seductive female and a good guy who often behaves in a bad way to get the job done. The noir authors I know are nice, quiet, law-biding people. Maybe the noir world provides “nice” people a safe outlet to imagine themselves as a fist-punching, hard-drinking, womanizing private dick with a seedy office and seedier clientele.

I know an author who hates cozies because of the murder of a close family member—she “finds nothing funny in murder.” So her books are dark and grim. Fans of such stories perhaps like finding justice in the darkness.

When cozy readers are asked about their faves, they often say they enjoy the sense of family found in such books and watching how the characters change and interrelate over the course of a series. Cozy fans also like the escapism of spending time in a fantasy, small-town setting.

I recently decided to challenge my tastes a little. One of my cozy series is a 1960s spy caper. I joined a Facebook group for fans of spy books and films. I asked what books I should read as a newbie and received over 10 responses. Fans love to share their knowledge! From what I‘ve seen of the group so far, they mostly prefer the Cold War, harder-edged tales. My books may be too “cozy” for them, but hey, maybe I’ll broaden their tastes a little.

What are you tastes in reading and how did it come about?

It Couldn’t Happen Here

By Sally Carpenter

For this post I’m going to forgo fiction for true crime.

Every week, it seems, another city is ravaged by a mass shooting. It’s easy from the security of ones own home to say, “How tragic, but it could never happen here.”

Until it does.

Thousand Oaks, Calif., is a large city about 10 or so miles south of where I live. It’s considered one of the safety cities of its size in the U.S. But on the night of Nov. 7, 2018, T.O. became another sad statistic.

An armed ex-Marine walked into the Borderline Bar and Grill during the monthly College Night when many young adults were relaxing and dancing to live country music. Within minutes, 12 people were shot dead—including a police office who lived in my town—and others wounded. The killer then turned his gun on himself and committed suicide.

Three months later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. I don’t know any of the people present at the bar that night and I wasn’t there, so I can only image the terror as the survivors fled for their lives or helped others to safety. The survivors will no doubt be dealing with raw emotions for the rest of their lives. And the grief of the victims’ families seem unthinkable.

The police have determined no motive for the slaying. A few theories have been suggested, including PTSD, but questions remain: Of all the bars in T.O. that night, why that one? Why that night? What triggered the act? What did the madman hope to accomplish through killing strangers?

The bar remains closed out of respect for the victims, but another local music venue has stepped in to host a weekly Borderline Country Music Night, so the former house bands can continue to perform and the Borderline regulars can still gather in solidarity.

The rest of the community has shown amazing support. A foundation set up a special fund with the monies going directly to the victims’ families. Many groups and individuals have held fundraisers. A jeweler created unique necklaces with the profits going to the special fund. A printer created “T.O. Strong” T-shirts and has been working nonstop for weeks to fulfill orders.

REO Speedwagon was already scheduled for a local January concert, so the band (several of the musicians live in the area) decided to donate the ticket sales to the special fund. Due to audience demand, a second concert was added.

Another benefit concert was held in the large Civic Arts Plaza with a slew of well-known country singers along with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the emcee.

A small church of about 35 members held a special collection for the special fund that resulted in its largest Sunday offering to date. The local megachurch, Calvary Community, opened its doors to host several funerals for the victims, even those who were not church members.

An artist drew pencil sketches of the victims and donated the portraits to the families.  Another artist created a large wall banner with life-size color drawings of the fallen.

I work at a community newspaper, and besides carrying the news coverage, the paper is also running profiles of each victim. The reporter said the families have been happy to talk about their loved one and share their memories with the world.

I don’t have a neat way to wrap up this post, as real life is often messy and many crimes are never solved or resolved, as the pain lingers on long after the police report is filed.

Perhaps that is why we write mysteries. As authors, we have control over good and evil. Writers can punish the wicked and bring them to the justice that often seems lacking in reality. Authors can delve into minds and find the motive. Writers can tie up loose ends and leave readers with the satisfaction that, at least in our story, all will turn out right for the good guys.

Note: in your comments, please do not discuss gun control, mental illness, politics, police efforts or similar subjects. This post is not the place to debate such topics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dickens of a tale by Sally Carpenter

Charles DickensAlthough we’re past the Christmas season, every writer should watch the movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” It’s the perfect examination of a writer’s life.

The title is a misnomer. Charles Dickens didn’t invent Christmas. He only revitalized interest in it. During the industrial revolution, employers saw no reason to close their factories and cease production on Christmas day. And many of the old customs of the British countryside, holiday feasts and dancing, did not fare well among the crowded housing and low wages of urban life.

Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” reminded people of past celebrations and hit an emotional nerve that had them yearning for a holiday of goodwill. He also wrote other Christmas stories, but his first is best remembered.

But writing “Carol” was no easy feat, according to the movie, which is grounded in fact.

The film begins with Dickens on a lecture tour of America. Before the days of mass media, writers were treated like rocks stars. Dickens in greeted with standing ovations before he even speaks. How many contemporary writers have encountered a reception like that? Amid the clamor of the appearances, though Dickens would rather be at home, writing.

After the tour, Dickens’s publisher informs him that his last three books were “flops,” and an advance may not be forthcoming. The author is spending too much money on home improvements and he needs to borrow money. His wife is pregnant—again. Dickens needs to write another hit immediately.

But he’s out of ideas. As Dickens says, “Shakespeare—now there’s a man who could write. I doubt that he ever had a blockage.”

The author hates that his income depends on producing an endless stream of prose. “I’m sick to my teeth of writing for bread. I should have become a journalist.” Today, few authors can fully support themselves on fiction writing alone. They write in other fields, work a day job or have a second income from a spouse.

Dickens carries a small notebook with him and jots down unusual names of people he encounters. At a club he meets a man named Marley. “If you get the name right, the character should appear,” says Dickens. Many writers also keep lists of story ideas, names or trivia to use in their work.

Dickens hits on the idea of writing a Christmas story, but his publisher says no. Like many modern authors, he turned self publishing.

A small press quotes him the cost for the books, which will have color illustrations and fancy binding.

“You’ll have to sell every copy to make your money back,” says the printer.

Dickens replies, “That is my intention.”

How many authors sell every printed copy of their work or earn out their advance?

Dickens then hires the illustrator, Mr. Leech, who is taken back by the author’s demands and deadlines. “What you’re asking is impossible for an ordinary man,” says the illustrator.

“But you are no ordinary man,” says Dickens. “You are a genius.”

Later, when Leech receives copies of the text, he is again dismayed. “I am not a hired hand. I am an artist,” he says. “A jolly ghost (Ghost of Christmas Past). I can’t draw what I don’t understand.”

Can we have a show of hands from authors who have disliked the cover art for their books? I hate one of my book covers. My publisher hired the designer, a new person she wanted to try out. The first cover the designer gave me was appalling. I gave a concept to the designer, but she failed carry it out the way I wanted. Rather than making changes, the designer insisted she be paid. My publisher never used her again.

Now the pressure is on Dickens to write, as Christmas is only a few weeks away. “The characters won’t do what I want!” he moans. “I’m afraid if I can’t finish it I’ll never write again.”

His wife tells the servants to avoid him. “We must not disturb the poet when the divine frenzy is upon him.” Yes, we writers often say no to other obligations or friendly chitchat whenever we’re facing deadlines or feeling inspired.

When Charles neglects his family, his wife says, “I fear your characters mean more to you than your own flesh and blood.”

Authors often feel their creations are so real they can touch them. For Dickens, his characters actually come alive. He even takes Scrooge with him on a walk around London.

Scrooge is not an easy person to get along with. “I fear your representation of me is rather one-sided,” Scrooge says to his creator, “I have written a speech . . .”

“No!” Dickens shouts. “I’m the author!”

Scrooge: “Allegedly.”

I’ve hear authors say how their characters will take over the story or move the plot in a different direction or say things that the writer didn’t plan. The clay tells the potter how to build the pot.

The other characters of “Carol” begin to crowd Charles’ small office. After he yells at them, one says, “Was he the author? No wonder he looked so depressed.”

The writer shouts to his characters, “Go on, back to work!”

In the end, of course, “A Christmas carol” was a smash hit and Dickens did sell every copy of the first run. People began to celebrate Christmas in high spirits, and Charles went on more tours just to read “Carol” aloud to eager listeners.

Would anyone pay me to read my writing aloud to them? Maybe not, but as long as they read and enjoy them, then my work is well done. And if I get “blockage,” I can watch the movie again and see how Charles Dickens overcame his obstacles.

Photo Source: Deposit Photos

Writing in the new year

By Sally Carpenter

In the Ladies of Mystery rotation, my post is always the first one each month, which means I get to kick off the new year. I’ve made my 2019 writing resolutions.

First off, I have a 90-minute presentation in March as part of the University Series, a program of adult education classes held in the local Catholic parishes during Lent. I gave a talk two years ago on the nature of evil and crime, and it was well received. This time I’ll be speaking about the portions of scripture that are found in the Catholic but not Protestant Bibles. Some of the stories are mystery-related!

The book of Daniel, chapter 14, has perhaps the world’s earliest locked-room mystery. In a temple to the idol Bal, the priests left food and drink each night. They would leave, lock the door, and the following morning the food would be gone. So the idol must have eaten the food, right?

One night, after the food was placed in the temple and everyone had left, Daniel spread ashes on the floor. The next day, footprints were seen in the ashes. Caught in the act, the priests revealed a secret door that they used to enter the room during the night and take the food.

The story in Daniel chapter 13 has a #MeToo vibe. Two prominent men lusted after a married woman named Susanna. One day they found her alone in a garden and tried to assault her. She resisted and screamed. In an effort to punish her, the men told the townsfolk Susanna had a lover, although she insisted she was innocent of the charge.

Daniel questioned the men individually, and their stories did not match. When asked about the type of tree where Susanna met her alleged lover, the men give different descriptions, and so their accusation was proven false.

As for my mystery writing: My last Sandy Fairfax book was released two years ago, so I need to get that series up to speed.

In 2018 year I wrote a new short story about Sandy to add to the reprint of “The Baffled Beatlemanic Caper.” However, my publisher said the story made the book too long.

What should I do with my leftover story? I considered selling it as a stand-alone on Amazon, but a reader said she didn’t have an ereader. If I wrote three or four more stories with the same character, I could bundle all of them into one print book/ebook.

The stories will involve Sandy’s family members and his girlfriend with more attention given to the family dynamics. Each story takes place in a different setting, but the trick is to keep Sandy’s detection work from getting repetitive—talking to the same types of people and finding the same sorts of clues. The plan is to finish the anthology by the end of the year.

Next up for 2020 is the “Flower Power Fatality” sequel, tentatively titled “Hippie Haven Homicide.” After all, one can’t have a series with only one book. A guru and his counter-culture followers invade the sleepy town of Yuletide, Indiana.

This year my local library is starring a monthly writers’ group for adults. I’m scheduled to speak to the group in March. So far I have no other writer appearances set for 2019. While I enjoy participating in such events, they don’t result in book sales. Spending hours on a presentation and then to sell one book at the event is not the best use of my time. But I’m open to the right opportunities.

I also getting things in order so I can attend Bouchercon in Sacrament in 2020.

Meanwhile, I’ll still be posting on Ladies of Mystery and writing my Roots of Faith newspaper column.

On a personal note, my cat is old. Will I be breaking in a new cat this year? Or will I be cat-free for a while? Stay tuned . . .

 

 

What a character!

by Sally Carpenter

I recently began rewatching an old favorite TV show from the 1970s, “Alias Smith and Jones,” about two bank robbers in the Old West who decide to go straight. This time around I noticed that much of the show—and its appeal—was based less on traditional western action (gunfights, brawls, horse chases) than on character development.

Some of the stories were complex and required close attention, but the focus was on the two charming, good-hearted protagonists and the fascinating characters they encounter each week. We have many long scenes of just two people talking—and it’s interesting.

TV shows of the 1970s were loaded with gimmicks and catch phrases (“Aaayyyy!” “Oooooo, Mr. Kotter!” “Who loves ya, baby?” “There ya go!”). Baretta had his cockatoo. Cannon was obese. Kojak was bald and ate lollipops. McCloud wore a cowboy hat and boots in Manhattan. Ironside was in a wheelchair. Charlie’s Angels was jiggle. Even people who never watched the shows recognized these characters, but does anyone remember the stories?

Columbo (my favorite TV detective) had his raincoat, rumbled suit, cigar, old car, lazy dog, unseen wife and loads of relatives. At one point Peter Falk complained that his show was overloaded with gimmicks. Yet “Columbo” stands out not only for the subtle clues and sharp dialogue but because Falk expanded the character beyond the artifices into a captivating person that viewers wanted to bring home to dinner.

Back to “Alias Smith and Jones.” The protagonists, Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes, had no gimmicks, tics or catch phrases. Kid was a fast draw. Heyes possessed a silver tongue that could charm the skin off a snake, and was often the brain behind their schemes. But that’s as far as it went. Ben Murphy and Peter Duel (later Roger Davis) developed their characters through their actions and dialogue—as any good actor should do.

What does all this have to do with mystery writing?

Mysteries have a reputation of sacrificing character for plot. The emphasis is on solving the mystery/puzzle. Too often the characters are caricatures or stereotypes (the hard-bitten PI, the femme fatal, the overweight rural sheriff, the klutzy/ditzy female cozy sleuth who falls in love with the police chief) whose sole purpose is to serve the plot. Character depth or development often gave way for clues and plot complications.

Readers may spend time once with a book to solve the crime. But if the characters don’t grab them, they’ll never give the story a second read.

The appeal of cozies is in the character more than the crime. Each cozy series strives to create a loveable cast that the reader gets to know more with each new book. Readers watch a protagonist go through romance, courtship, marriage and maybe children. Young characters grow up and older ones may decline. Many cozies have the “goofy relatives” (which are often stock characters) who provide conflict for the protagonist.

A criticism of cozies is that they are more about the characters than the plot. I’ve seen cozies in which the body appears on page one and then disappears until the murderer, for no reason, blurts out a confession to the protagonist in the last chapter. Not what I call a mystery.

So the challenge in mystery writing is to balance both character and plot—that the crime carries through the entire story and is solved by the protagonist through fair play and sensible clues, and that the characters are fully developed personalities, unique but realistic.

All this with a minimum of gimmicks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s an author to do?

By Sally Carpenter

New authors looking for publishers now have two less options.

Last month Oak Tree Press, an independent publisher of novels in various genres, closed its doors. That came as no surprise. Some years ago the publisher had fallen too ill to continue the work, and the company has been slowly winding down ever since.

Some OTP orphans with ongoing series signed on with other small presses, particularly with a firm run by a former OTP author! Other writers, the ones who had only written one or two books and were no longer actively writing or promoting their work, quietly let their books go out of print.

The big surprise in October was the announcement that well-respected indy mystery publisher Midnight Ink was shutting down in 2019. The press had a number of well-known and successful authors under its wing.

Every mystery has a motive, but MI has released little information as to the closure. MI is owned by a larger entity, so my guess is the decision came from the corporate level. I assume the parent company no longer wants to invest in mysteries, focus on other genres, or get out of book publishing all together.

Most, if not all, MI authors are represented by agents, which may make it harder, not easier, to find a new home. Some indy presses do not want to handle the legalities of working with agents. Also, many small presses generate book sales too low to adequately compensate an agent and her author.

As for the orphan authors hooking up with a large New York-based publisher, fuggitaboutit. The large firms, which have now gobbled up the majority of publishers, seem only interested in blockbuster sales, celebrities and their ghost writers, or writers with a massive social media presence. Average midlist authors need not apply.

And signing with a large publisher is not a guarantee of stability. I know of authors who had multi-book contracts with the “big boys” but the contract failed to renew. The reason most given was “low sales.” But these authors had books in libraries, rave reviews in top publications, and worldwide sales. Just how “low” is “low”?

So where does this leave the orphan author? Fortunately, while options are closing in one area, new possibilities are springing up.

With the death of one small press, another seems to appear. Some authors I know are now with presses I had never heard of before. With desktop publishing, anyone can start a book firm from ones own kitchen.

Some orphan authors who have an established fan base are going the indy/self-publishing route. They’re in total charge of cover, content, distribution and deadlines. Nobody can fire them.

The downside of such freedom is the responsibility. Unless the author is a highly skilled jack-of- all trades, she needs a designer, editor and publicist. She must do all the formatting, marketing and grunt work. She also covers all the costs of publication. Self-pub is not for the faint of heart, but for writers who have the time and perseverance.

I will be interested to see what happens to the OTP/MI orphans. Most, I’m sure, will land on their feet. Others may leave writing and move on to other pursuits. And some may launch new small presses.