Friday, September 30, 2011

Short Fiction Recommendations: Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie, of course, was a master of deception and revelation. The great thing about her short fiction is that she uses simpler versions of her techniques and it can be easier to study.

I've always enjoyed these stories, which are much like her novels -- good puzzles with an emphasis on psychology and character. And while I like the Poirot stories, there are two non-Poirot collections I especially remember:

Partners In Crime

This collection of short stories is the second of the five books about Tuppence and Tommy Beresford. It was the first one I read, however, and it made me fall immediately in love with these young adventurers. I was then disappointed to find that every book in the Tuppence and Tommy series was significantly different -- but I got over it. I soon realized that there was something cool about the four novels, as a set. They covered the four stages of life, youth, maturity, middle-aged, and old.

The short stories, though, are a fun off-shoot of that first novel, a light spy-thriller mystery. It has been a long time since I read them, and I doubt they are brilliant mysteries so much as they are great characters, but all I remember is that after I'd read them I was starved for more Tuppence and Tommy. Partners in Crime is available for Kindle -- and like most Christie books, priced at about standard paperback price.

Thirteen Problems (or The Tuesday Club Murders)

Thirteen Problems (which is actually a combination of two small collections which were very similar) is probably the finest collection of all the Christie short stories.

The series concept is simple: a group of people who meet regularly for dinner challenge one another. They each must come up with some real life experience, something they were personally acquainted with, and which seemed utterly mystifying at the time, but they learned later of the real solution. Then they take turns telling the story and seeing if the others can solve the mystery. Nobody expects that old dear, Miss Marple, to take part in the game. But of course, she's the one who solves every one of them.

Not all the stories are brilliant, and of course, they've been imitated many times since, so some of the solutions don't seem as clever as they once did. But they are good stormy night stories. My favorite is near the end of the collections: "The Affair At The Bungalow" has a clever twist on the structure of the others. (And it's better if you read it after reading at least some of the others.)

I recommend them for any reader, but I recommend them double for writers.

Told stories come in a lot of formats. For instance, when P. G. Wodehouse writes a golfing story it goes something like this:

"Golly I'm never playing golf again!" declared the young golfer, tossing his clubs aside in frustration.

"Now now," says The Eldest Member, "don't be hasty. Let me tell you the story of Gavin Plitherickhampton and I think you'll see that your situation is not so hopeless...."

It was a brilliant day on the heath (began the Eldest Member) and Gavin had been invited to play by none other than grand master Roderick MacRoderick himself...

In other words, there might be a set up scene in the present day, but once the story begins, the quotes -- and the present scene -- go away until the end. And even though the voice of the narrator remains, you are inserted into the story he's telling. (I used this technique in my Hemingway's Babyshoes story.)

But an "Armchair Detective" story has a different structure. You remain in the room where the story is being told. People interact, and ask questions, add information of their own. While the regular "told story" is built on an artificial narrative voice -- a master storytller -- the armchair detective story is built on more naturalistic dialog. The teller of the tale may be scattered, may need direction, may be lying.

It's basically an extreme version of an interrogation or questioning scene. What makes it extreme is that it's all you've got to tell the story. You can't make up for the slowness of it with an action scene. You've got to do a good job with how you handle all that boring exposition in dialog.

That's something dramatists do all the time -- since drama is made up of dialog, mainly, and is often limited in scope. But an armchair detective story is trickier than simple drama, because it isn't just that you reveal information through dialog. It's that one of the other characters (the armchair detective) must spot the solution from what he or she hears in that conversation. And although Christie set her problem up so that the teller of the story knows the solution, in many classic armchair stories, the teller is just a witness, and is completely mystified by what he or she saw.

(Rex Stout took this concept to another level with his novellas and novels about Nero Wolfe. Wolfe hated to leave his house, so he insisted that his more sociable sidekick go out and gather information and relay it to him, or to round up suspects so that Wolfe could question them from the comfort of his armchair. I may talk about him in a future installment, when I get to novellas.)

In any case, I think every writer could learn a lot from reading Christie's Thirteen Problems -- and I think every mystery writer should write at least one, if not a couple, of armchair stories, if only for the practice with making questioning scenes interesting.

That's it for this week.

This weekend, I gear up for the Round of Words in 80 Days challenge, which starts Monday. I'll post more about that (and some thoughts about the new Kindle Fire) on the weekend "Review-Preview" post.

And next week I'll talk a little more about places to find current short fiction, which is exploding all over the web, and cropping up in some unexpected places -- kind of like it used to.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Short Fiction Recommendations - Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is at the opposite end of the spectrum from P.G. Wodehosue. His stories are brilliant. They are also intense and dark and literary (usually) and not for everyone. I don't read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but I do read Ellison. I don't read it often because a little goes a very long way. But I love to hear him read his work, and I place no limits on how much I will listen when he's talking.

Because Ellison brings together two things -- the artistry of the master poet combined with the verve of the master raconteur. If you've ever met him in person, you know that words pour out of the man like water out of a fire hose.

I don't have a thorough experience of Ellison, but I can give you quite a few stories I've read. They're just all in different collections. (Note: I'm providing Amazon affiliate links to ebooks where possible. You can find these books in all sorts of places, including used bookstores or at your library... and probably a whole lot more.)

"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" This is probably Ellison's greatest work, and also the most disturbing. It was inspired by the Kitty Genovese incident -- when a woman was raped and killed in full sight of others and they just ignored it. Ellison writes of our culture as if there is an ancient, evil, blood-thirsty god lurking in modern times, driving the behavior of not just the villains, but of the onlookers. This one is SO relevant to what's going on in the world right now, where people cheer on torture and the death penalty and even the death of uninsured cancer patients. And where it's most relevant is that it's not about people enjoying the pain of others, but rather the driving force of fear and helplessness.

"The Wimper of Whipped Dogs" is in what many consider to be his most masterful collection, Deathbird Stories.

"Paladin of the Lost Hour" A story about a friendship and responsibility, as a young man saves an old man from muggers, and what he learns of the old man's mission. This one is touching as well as gripping. I could not find this in any Kindle edition of Ellison's work, but it is available in the paper edition, Angry Candy.

"I'm Looking For Kadak" is one of his light, funny stories. On a dying planet, off in outer space somewhere, the last few Jews want to sit shiva for the planet before evacuating, but they are short one man to make a minyan. So they send one of their number on a quest to find Kadak, a former member of the congregation who went off to find himself. It's a strange and silly journey through an alien landscape. (This is one I haven't actually read, but once had a cassette of Ellison reading it.) This is collected in Approaching Oblivion.

"Repent Harlequin! Said The Ticktockman." One of Ellison's earlier literary stories, often cited and collected in textbooks. I read it in school, when I was too young to grasp it all. It's a futurist fantasy, where the Ticktockman enforces behavior in a highly regulated society, while the Harlequin is the rebel. The beginning is a little wandery and hip, but once you catch up with the slick style, the end is a grabber. People talk about it as if it has a downer ending, but the very end is optimistic and imho, very satsifying. Ticktockman is collected in The Paingod and Other Delusions.

"Jeffty is Five." Another lighter (though melancholy) story, about a little boy who doesn't grow up. Ever. It's collected in Shatterday.

One other book of his which I love is Mind Fields. Ellison loves art, and when was asked to write an introduction to a collection of paintings by Jacek Yerka -- a Polish surrealist painter -- he decided instead that he wanted to write a story to go with each of the paintings. It's a beautiful collection, and the styles of the two artists are to wonderfully melded. I own more than one copy of it, because I wanted to tear one apart so I could frame the pictures... but I've never been able to bring myself to do that.

Which brings me to one more thing: Ellison's non-fiction is also frickin' brilliant. Read the intros he writes to his books, read his movie and television criticism.

And hearing him read or give a speech is even more frickin' brilliant than reading his stories yourself. Listen to the guy if you can. (Just remember he is naturally uncompromising and, er, forthright.)

Tomorrow, I'll go into more conventional territory with Agatha Christie. Her short fiction is much like her novels -- except that she is more likely to use one technique at a time. This makes her short fiction worth studying for writers, as well as just fun to read.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Short Fiction Recommendations - P.G. Wodehouse

There are authors who can write anything -- tough or sweet or intellectual or dumb. Variety is the spice of life, and they do it all.

But sometimes an author does just one thing -- one voice, one kind of story -- and learns to do it so brilliantly that no one can ever touch him. Furthermore, after all those years of practice, he delves deeper and brings out more in the narrow medium than anyone ever thought possible.

P. G. Wodehouse, otherwise known as "Plum," is one of the latter breed. All of his stories, especially once he had fine tuned his style, are variations on the same bloody story. Nothing of real consequence happens in them, but they are rivetingly tense and surprising. His idiot heroes get themselves into terrible messes, in which they are menaced by domineering aunts, and sticky children and angry geese and terrifying prospective father-in-laws, and via mad twists and turns (and the assistance of brainy servants, and twists of fate) manage to wend their way back out by the skin of their teeth. They are often transformed from spineless terrified twits to bold, brave and honorable twits.

Wodehouse honed the voice and story style so well, that even though you can't always remember one story from another, the stories are still full of surprises and tension and laughs.

That's one of the reasons, though, I'd rather people start with his best stories. His earlier stories -- the ones in the public domain -- have all the elements, but he hadn't mastered them yet. The rambling narrative voice really does ramble a bit more, his story elements are not quite as surprising. Once the twenties hit proper, his timing was dead on, his set-ups and pay-offs sharper.

For writers: the thing to learn from Wodehouse is first his "deep point of view." One of the things he often did was narrate stories from the point of view of characters who, shall we say, aren't very bright? He used deep point of view to help us experience the world through the eyes of such a fool, and thereby sympathize. He also used this point of view to do two things: create anticipation when we could see what the poor airheaded hero cannot, but also to raise the stakes. The insurmountable problem for the hero is just as suspenseful for us. (Partly because we'd never have got into that situation, so we don't know how to get out of it either.)

Of course that part -- the twists and turns and the feeling of high stakes -- is due also to excellent set up. That is, the laying of clues and subtle touches of foreshadowing. This is worth it for any writer to study.

One other element Wodehouse is known for is "voice" -- clever, witty narration. He often used storyteller characters, like Mr. Mulliner, who would tell endless stories of the difficulties of his many nephews and nieces, and The Eldest Member, who told golfing stories at the club. These were actually omniscient and wise -- unlike the heroes of the stories -- and maybe just a little unreliable. But they, like Wodehouse himself, took advantage of deep point-of-view too, and so we got the best of both worlds, where information could be hidden or exposed at will by the storyteller.

We very seldom get this kind of art in a modern story. When we do, it's usually in a short story, since it's easier to maintain an experiment with something short.


As I said yesterday: there are NO Wodehouse stories available for ebooks which are not in the public domain, but there are crooks who will try to fool you into buying the same stories, poorly packaged. Don't be fooled. (You can get the public domain stuff at Project Gutenberg's Wodehouse Page.)


Wodehouse is most known for his stories about Jeeves, the genius valet of the benighted Bertie Wooster. Bertie gets into trouble, and Jeeves, without so much as lifting an eyebrow, gets him out of it. These stories started early and there are a couple of collections in the public domain, and they are good. Just not great. (There are both novels and short stories in the Jeeves series.)

Mulliner Stories

If you can, get your hands on a copy of Meet Mr. Mulliner. Read "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo" and the next story in the same collection, which is a sequel to the first. They are the best.

Golfing Stories

Wodehouse started out writing school and sports stories, but he eventually specialized in stories about golf. You don't have to like golf to love these stories -- which are more about love and honor than anything else. There is one collection available in the public domain, "The Clicking Of Cuthbert." These stories are not as fine tuned as the later ones, but could be a fun place to start if you do happen to like golf.

Blandings Castle

I don't think there are many short stories in this series about a fuzzy headed old Duke who is easily bullied or fooled, and he denizens of his castle, most of whom want something from him or each other. However, my very second favorite Wodehouse story of all time (after "buck-u-uppo") is a novelette called "The Crimewave at Blandings."

You can find examples of much of these, including "The Crimewave at Blandings," in The Best Of P.G. Wodehouse.

In the meantime I will end this post with the first page from "The Crimewave at Blandings."

The day on which Lawlessness reared its ugly head at Blandings Castle was one of singular beauty. The sun shone down from a sky of cornflower blue, and what one would really like would be to describe in leisurely detail the ancient battlements, the smooth green lawns, the rolling parkland, the majestic trees, the well-bred bees and the gentlemanly birds on which is shone.

But those who read thrillers are an impatient race. They chafe at scenic rhapsodies and want to get on to the rough stuff. When, they ask, did the dirty work start? Who were mixed up in it? Was there blood, and, if so, how much? And -- most particularly -- where was everybody and what was everybody doing at whatever time it was? The chronicler who wishes to grip must supply this information at the earliest possible moment.

The wave of crime, then, which was to rock one of Shropshire's stateliest homes to its foundations broke out towards the middle of a fine summer afternoon, and the persons involved in it were disposed as follows:

Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, the castle's owner and overlord, was down in the potting-shed, in conference with Angus McAllister, his head gardener, on the subject of sweet peas.

His sister, Lady Constance, was strolling the terrace with a swarthy young man in spectacles, whose name was Rupert Baxter and who had at one time been Lord Emsworth's private secretary.

Beach, the butler, was in a deck-chair outside the back premises of the house, smocking a cigar and reading Chapter Sixteen of The Man With The Missing Toe.

George, Lord Emsworth's grandson, was prowling through the shrubbery with the airgun which was his constant companion.

Jane, his lordship's niece, was in the summer-house by the lake.

And the sun shone serenely down -- on, as we say, the lawns, the battlements, the trees, the bees and the best type of bird and the rolling parkland....

You will note that there is a distinct narrator here -- an omniscient voice with an opinion and motive, even if he doesn't appear in the story.

Tomorrow I'll talk about someone who is near the other end of the spectrum from sweet and frivolous P. G. Wodehouse: Harlan Ellison. Ellison can be sweet and light and frivolous, but so can jalapeno candy. At the same time, of the authors I've read, he and Wodehouse have the most to teach us about mastery in the short form.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My Favorite Short Fiction

"So, where can you get the best Chinese food in town?"

I get asked that question a lot. And I tend to meet it with a long calculating silence -- a pause really, and not completely silent. I'll usually say something like, "Ummmmmmmmmmm...." And if there is a foodie friend nearby, we tend to exchange wary glances.

This always puzzles the asker, because they've been told I know all the best Chinese places in town. And they were not told wrong. It's just that recommending a restaurant it's not really about the restaurant. It's about the person asking.

So I ask: "How do you feel about chicken feet? What about spicy foods? What's your favorite Chinese dish?"

This is important because the best Chinese restaurant in town is the super-authentic Sichuan place, and the food there is on another planet compared to the kind of food you get on your average Chinese-American buffet.

And yes, the chicken feet question is not really an honest question -- it's a test. I don't need to know how you like them -- you don't have to order them (I generally don't) -- I just need to know how you respond to the idea that they are a food product. That leads to a discussion which will tell me whether I should just forget it and send you off to P.F. Changs.

Recommending short fiction to someone who hasn't read much of it is kind of like that.

And unfortunately I am no expert on all the kinds of short fiction out there, and I have no "chicken feet" question to help ascertain your tastes and limits.

So instead I am just going to offer you a sampler platter of the short fiction which I like, or has at least influenced me. And what I like is mostly mystery and comedy.

These are mostly not current writers, and mostly not available in ebook format. Frankly, I haven't found many modern writers of formal short fiction who excite me that much -- but I'm finding more and more all the time, and I'm finding a WHOLE LOT in the more informal venues. I'll talk about that next Tuesday.


The great thing about classics is that a lot of them are available at Project Gutenberg or at least inexpensively. Sometimes they are harder to read because of older styles (slower styles, as well as old slang and long forgotten references - and often politically incorrect).

O. Henry

I haven't read a lot of O. Henry and his verbal style is pretty dated, but his influence is everywhere, and his stories were usually light and funny, and always feature a clever twist. You've probably heard or seen some adapation of his "Gift of the Magi" or "The Ransom of Red Chief." Project Gutenberg O. Henry collection.

If you like old-time twisty stories, you might also look for translations of Guy de Maupassant. ("The Necklace" is probably his most famous.) Project Gutenberg Complete Original Short Stories of Guy de Maupassant.

Arthur Conan Doyle

If you're into mystery writing, you have to read at last SOME Sherlock Holmes. And though I don't know if it's his best, I think that everybody should read "Silver Blaze" because it's culturally influential. (It's where the bit about "the curious incident of the dog in the night time" comes from.) It's in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. And "A Scandal In Bohemia" is also culturally important -- it has "The Woman" in it -- and it was in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (As an overall collection, I enjoyed "adventures" more than "memoirs.")

Russian Dudes

In college I really enjoyed stories from Turgenev, Chekhov, and Gogol. And Pushkin was my dad's favorite author, I think. Many of the stories were bleak and ironic, but not always - and of course, the less bleak the more I liked them. I think Gogol's "The Overcoat" is a precursor to a lot of ironic modern science fiction, frankly.

I can't recommend many other stories by name, but here is a Chekhov story published recently in Flash Fiction Online which is a lot of fun: "A Living Calendar."

Baroness Orczy

Best known for her Scarlet Pimpernel stories -- about the secret hero who rescues people from the guillotine. She also wrote popular mystery short stories for magazines of the time. The short stories feel more dated than the novels -- I'll talk more about her when I talk about Agatha Christie on Friday but here are three public domain collections of her short stories:

League Of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Old Man in the Corner are both available at Project Gutenberg. Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is not available there, but here is an online publication of it, and there is a cheap Kindle Edition of Lady Molly (which I haven't checked out yet -- caveat emptor).

Golden Age of pulp and mystery

So many of these are simply not available, especially not in ebook format. They are likely to have a "best of" anthology here and there, though.

P.G. Wodehouse

Silly fluffy stories about air-headed upper-class British twits. Wodehouse was the master of wit, and of crazy drawing-room comedy plotting.

Some early work is available in the public domain -- and this is the ONLY work of his available in ebook form. Unfortunately, they aren't his really best work. You might like them, but if you want really top hole Wodehouse, you want the stuff from the late 20's, 30's and 40's. My favorite story ever is "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo" from the collection Meet Mr. Mulliner which is apparently only available as a collectible antique. (You may find it in your library or used book store, however.)

But fear not: this more current collection The Best Of P.G. Wodehouse, has my second favorite, a novelette titles "The Crimewave at Blandings" as well two novels and maybe a dozen or so of his topping short stories.

I will talk more about Wodehouse tomorrow.

Dashiell Hammett

Hard to find in ebook form. Heck, it's hard to find his short fiction at all. He wrote a ton of great short pulp stories particularly during the depression. Probably my favorite character is The Continental Op (who never gives his name -- a detective, or "operative" for the Continental Detective Agency). While the Op was definitely one of the prototypes for the standard hard-boiled detective, he was 1) more realistic because Hammett had been an operative for Pinkertons, and 2) the stories were more puzzle-based than action based. (Although there was certainly action, and the Op would get drunk and get into trouble with women now and then.)

Agatha Christie

Christie wrote quite a lot of short stories as well as novels, and they are much like her novels in style. And best of all, her books are available in ebook form!! (but unfortunately tend to be expensive). Some of Christie's shorts are great to study for technique -- such as Thirteen Problems, which are all "armchair" stories. They take place at dinner where people are telling stories to each other -- trying to stump each other with a mystery. I'll talk more about Christie on Friday.

Ellery Queen

No EQ fiction is available in electronic form whatsoever. Bah! But if you can get your hands on a copy of The Adventures of Ellery Queen, you'll find some straight-forward modern-style mystery shorts. (At least, you will if I remember right. It's been a LONG time since I read them.)

James Thurber

Thurber is, I think, a great model for the coming generation of indie writers-- which is why I'm going to talk about him extensively next week. He wrote for magazines, and his stories ranged from regular straight up literary short fiction to his famous modern fables and satires, to essays and anecdotes and wild autobiographical stories. He also drew cartoons.

Though he's not available in electronic form, A Thurber Carnival appears to hold all of my favorites and best known: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "The Catbird Seat," "The Night The Bed Fell" ... well, I could go on.

Damon Runyon

Have you ever seen Guys and Dolls? That was based on a Runyon short story, as was Little Miss Marker and Pocket Full of Miracles. Twisty comedy stories about underworld mooks. Unfortunately, out of print and not available in ebook format. But you should be able to find him if you search.


Can't really say I like Hemingway. Can't really say I don't like him. Most of his stuff leaves me kind of cold. However, the classic short short "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" is available to read online, and a great place to dip in and see if you like the water. (And if you read it and say, "okay, uh, what's the excitement about this?" you can go over to Wikipedia -- or a thousand other literary sites -- and read what people tend to think about it. Hemingway is worth reading the interpretations, imho. If only because he leaves so much to interpretation.)

Modern Writers

Harlan Ellison

I can't say enough great things about Ellison, even though I don't read a lot of his fiction. His stuff is deep, intense and often very dark. Ellison is sharp, opinionated, extremely smart and extremely well-read and culturally educated... and he expects the same of the reader. I mean, yeah, some of his stuff is funny and light and just interesting, but he grabs you by the gut too much to be taken lightly. (Or perhaps I should say he grabs you by the brain, and sometimes makes it hurt.)

I'm going to talk about him this week, so I think I'll leave the specific recommendations for then. I'll just say the best collection is Deathbird Stories, and they're mostly not the lighter side of Ellison.

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is perhaps better known for his wicked children's fiction, but he was also an incredible master of very wicked adult fiction. (Often very adult.) My two favorite stories of his are "Lamb To The Slaughter" and "Parson's Pleasure." (They both happen to be in this collection The Best of Roald Dahl. ) You can also see the wonderful TV adaptation of Lamb To The Slaughter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- free to watch on Hulu.

Garrison Keillor

The modern inheritor of Thurber's mantle if there ever was one. Keillor is as much a storyteller as a writer, famous for his radio show. I'll talk more about him later, but I do suggest that anybody serious about books should listen to his "The Writer's Almanac" podcast.

Lawrence Block

I don't recall particular stories by Block, but I do find that I always enjoy his short stories. Some Days You Get The Bear is a good collection. (Only caveat, when he's writing a well-established character, he sometimes writes as if you already know the characters.)

Dean Wesley Smith

Dean has written vast numbers of short stories, and his taste is often different than mine. However right now he is doing a short story writing challenge -- trying to write 100 stories in a calendar year. And he's writing them over and above his regular "professional" writing. He's publishing the stories on his website as he finishes them -- but he only leaves one up at a time. (Then he publishes them for 99 cents each on Amazon and other major ebook retailers.)

These stories, because of the nature of the challenge ,are often wild works of imagination. You should subscribe to the RSS feed of his website to catch them as they are written. The one that stands out most in my mind right now, though, is "My Socks Rolled Down" in which a man has a battle of wits with his socks. This story would never be published in a real commercial magazine. And this is why I love the internet.

I'll talk about most of these writers in their own post -- and probably some others -- over the course of the fall.

This week, though, I'll talk about three of these authors -- Wodehouse, Ellison and Christie -- in more depth. (I said earlier I would do O. Henry this week, but I'm rescheduling him.)

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monday Covers - Perry Mason and The Case of the Cozy Thrillers

I always find it interesting to look at mystery covers from the Golden Age of mystery. Nowadays, cozies have very different covers from thrillers and hard-boiled mystery -- and the books are very different too.

But back in the day, a mystery was a mystery. And I'm always surprised when I look at older covers and see how much more, well, thrillerish they used to be.

The other day I happened across some Perry Mason covers from the 1960's. These are some of the ugliest covers I've ever seen, but that's the sixties, you know? What interests me is that, just as with modern thrillers, the typography dominates. Who cares what's on the cover as long as you know it's a Perry Mason novel?

The striking difference between these and a modern best seller is the fact that the author name is tiny. The title is mid-sized. The main character name is huge. Of course, this is reasonable, after all by 1965, Perry Mason was not only a popular book series, but had been a big radio show and TV show. (Trivia: When CBS first wanted to put Perry Mason on TV, they wanted to make it a soap opera. Gardner wouldn't allow it, so they created a thinly veiled rip off, The Edge of Night, a very popular show which ran for 30 years.)

While the dominant type reminds me of a modern thriller, though, the images don't (they don't remind me of anything much current). And I can't say these are representative of much of anything. So I went hunting around a little further. Here are a couple of other Earl Stanley Gardner covers from just a tad earlier, 1958 and 1962.

The one of the left looks like modern Chicklit; on the right, it looks glitzier and more hard-boiled (which I think the A.A. Fair brand was trying to do -- although I haven't read the Bertha Cool books myself.) And while the first two are ugly as sin, both of these are actually rather attractive covers. Sure the woman from The Count of 9 looks very sixties in her make up and foundation garments, but otherwise there is a neat modern look to both of them. The only problem for a modern book is that The Case of the Terrified Typist doesn't look like a mystery cover. And I don't know that it did then either.

A well-established series can do what it wants -- the series IS the genre.

I decided to go looking for other authors, maybe looking for something a little more Golden Age. My own memories of these books, when I first read them as a child, were mostly of used hardbacks with no dust cover at all.

But I have vague memories of more thrilling covers, so I went searching wider, and look at these covers I found of Christie, Sayers and Queen books:

While there are aspects of these covers which are common with the modern cozy mystery, these look a lot more thrilling. They are suspense covers. They're for books you read on a dark and stormy night. They're... dangerous.

These days, cozies are seen as a separate genre from suspense. They have a reputation for being very safe (even when they're not). But once they were dangerous; the point of a cozy was not to stay in the light, but to look in the shadows and see that Evil lurks even in the sunniest of locations.

I don't think it's really a change in content. And certainly the writers and readers are still looking for the danger that lurks in the shadows. It's a marketing thing. Somebody -- someone who didn't even like cozy mysteries, I swear -- decided that the key hook to the whole genre was clean bright safety.

I understand it, really. Suspense and thrillers have moved into horrific territory these days. And I understand why the audience might want to be assured that the book is not going to be grueling and horrifying. But at the same time, frankly, you don't need to package something as G-rated just to assure me it's not R-rated.

I write silly, frivolous mysteries, but I really would like it if I knew people looked forward to reading them on a dark and stormy night. To me, that's what "cozy" means -- the night is dark, the house is creaking and the wind howling, and you're cozied up under blanket with a good book, a cat and a cup of cocoa.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about short fiction and recommend some authors and a few specific stories.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Week in Review-Preview: Great Links on the Blogosphere

Ah, Sleep!

That busy event cluster I was predicting for the beginning of this week? It crashed me. I ended up taking a sick day at work and staying in bed all Wednesday. I think there may have been a virus involved, but it was one of those little opportunistic viruses which can only hit you when you're down, and a good night's sleep charges your immune system strongly enough to kick it back out again.

So that Plan B where I was going to power through with my read-through? It's gone back to Plan A, where I say "F**k-it" and get some other things done, and ramp up for another major onslaught next weekend.

So I'm going to read, and I'm going to write a lot of very nice blog posts for you (for trickling out over the course of this next dare), and I'll draw.

In the meantime, this was a great week for writing posts on the blog-o-sphere, so see some links below. Also a preview of upcoming posts, and a funny story video.

Preview of This Week's Posts:

Deb Geary suggested I write up a "cheat sheet" for writers who really haven't read much short fiction and don't know where to start. This is a taller order than it sounds. It's like someone saying; "I'd like to get the hang of this 'book' thing. Can you recommend some of those novel thingys so I can see what they're like?" Only worse, because there is a lot more variety in short works than there are in novels.

So I'm going to devote most of this week to a quick cheat sheet as requested, and then start looking at individual authors. And then after this week, I'm going to devote Tuesdays to the Short Form, in all it's glory -- more authors, techniques and types, as well as the broader range of short storytelling, songs and cartoons and anecdotes and jokes and narrative essays, and even poetry.

  • Monday: Covers -- Perry Mason and The Case of the Cozy Thrillers.
  • Tuesday: Short Form -- Short Story Writers Who Have Influenced Me.
  • Wednesday: A Look At P.G. Wodehouse
  • Thursday: A Look At Harlan Ellison
  • Friday: A Look At Agatha Christie (O. Henry postponed until next week)

Hmmm, I may not be able to confine myself to Tuesdays. I've got LOTS of favorite authors and stories coming, but I'll tell you about them on Tuesday.

Links of the Week

Lots of great stuff on the internet this week about what it means to be a writer.

First up, Ron Marz reflects on what he will tell his 10-year-old daughter, who just told him she wanted to be a writer. This is heartfelt and amazing, and covers pretty much everything about the writing life. It is an absolute must-read for every aspiring writer, to know what you're getting yourself into.

Here is one of the 28 or so paragraphs:

I will tell her that if she's lucky enough to actually work full-time as a writer... "full-time" actually means "all the time." Days, nights, weekends, holidays. And even though you work all the time, and often think about work on the rare occasions you're not working... most people will think you don't have a job. And because of that, you're the first one people call when they need help moving, or need a ride to the airport, or want their knitting club newsletter punched up a little.

Next up is Kris Rusch in a bit of a rant, but it's a lovely one. She's just had too many writers come up to her lately who want a pat on the head for selling themselves down river.

It's the end of the post which really gets to me though: she points out that to be a professional is not about getting some publishing to LIKE you. It's about acting professional.

We’re professional writers—emphasis on the word “professional.” And these other published writers? The ones who take the crap deals and do a ridiculous amount of work for no pay?

Those people might be writers, but that’s all they are. They’re certainly not professionals.
I think this got to me because I see so many things reversing themselves in the new era of publishing -- and the irony of this one is that a few years ago, the measure of professionalism was getting published, or to put it another way, to get somebody else to take care of you (and advantage of you). But now the really professional people are jumping ship and learning to take care of themselves.

And lastly, my marketing hero Seth Godin wrote about how we don't suffer from "Talker's Block." If we need to say something, we generally just say it. His thesis is that this is because we talk all the time, so his advice is:
Write like you talk. Often.
I would add something to what he says though. Because it isn't just a matter of mode of communication. Most of us can type just fine without getting blocked. All this stuff I've been saying about short fiction clicked with me and this post of Godin's:

Fiction writing is storytelling. And many of the great short story writers of the last century were newspapermen. They were guys (and gals) who told stories. Who told stories. Great bullshitters who could sit around the bar and talk all night, telling story after story.

So I'm thinking, don't just write like you talk... talk like you write. Tell stories. True ones, false ones, wild and weird.

Video Of The Week:

And speaking of journalists and storytellers, here is Keith Olberman reading a couple of very short fables from James Thurber. I'll talk about Thurber next week -- and how he wrote a whole LOT of different kinds of stories, including regular contemporary fiction, and personal anecdotes and something you might call commentary and satire -- which is what his fables really are....

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dwelling on Things With Agatha Christie

I've been reading some Christies lately, and I've noticed something that I really enjoy about Christie which I worry about in my own work, to the point of avoidance:

She dwells on things.

The detectives will discuss the evidence endlessly. Question a witness in detail. Go over the same clues, and same information multiple times... and it's never boring. Not with Christie. And the fact is, that's what I read Christie for.

Which isn't to say I never get bored when some other authors do it. Good gracious, I know I've seen it done badly. I must have, because I worry about it endlessly in my own work. But do I worry too much? I think I need to study Christie a little closer and figure out why it works for her. And maybe see if I can put my finger on times when it doesn't work.

I haven't gone off to study it yet, but I have some theories:


In Murder At The Vicarage, we get the Vicar, and Miss Marple, and the vicar's wife, and Inspector Slack, AND various suspects, AND Colonel Melchett all theorizing and giving opinions on the same info. When new information enters the scene, it thunders through the whole group of them and they all get to weigh in thoroughly... and their examination and reaction to it is a study in character from first to last. We may not get new information about the clue, but we do get a fuller picture of the characters.

In the Sittaford Mystery, which I'm reading now so I can only talk about the beginning, we learn about the characters and situation in one way, and then after the crime, the detective enters, and we learn the same information over again as he questions people and looks at things. Some tidbits are new information, but most of it is stuff we already know. But we learn it from new people, and bare facts become humanized, etc. Which makes it interesting the way gossip is interesting.

So character is an important factor in keeping it all entertaining. But I think there has got to be another reason.

For one thing, I have noticed the same tendency to go over information again and again in Perry Mason, and frankly neither the TV show nor the books are particularly great about character development. Further, the parts that can really enthrall me can be the courtroom bits where the lawyers lay out strategies and repeat information and play games with it.

Ratiocination (i.e. Thinkin')

Deductive reasoning is supposed to be what the traditional puzzle mystery is all about. And for all the Sherlock Holmes personified the ratiocinative detective, he tended to hold back the actual thinking parts from us. We had to sit passively and watch him be smart.

But as the mystery novel blossomed into its golden age, the writers started to let us in on the thinking. We become one with the process -- as wrapped up in the investigation as the characters are. Such stories are not about being mystified, they're about having a knotty problem and going after it in a competent way. So the clues themselves are interesting.

And in those cases, the puzzle is not just a MacGuffin -- it's what drives the actual drama of the story.

I love MacGuffins, and I have nothing against a story being driven by something other the mystery (as with romantic suspense, or spy comedies, for instance) but if they are, the writer has to be more careful about dwelling on the dry facts.

Next week I'll probably do a post on a related topic -- pacing the reader with the detective. It can be good to let the reader get ahead of the detective once in a while, and vice versa.

See you in the funny papers.

(Illustration from the cover of The Green God by Frederick Allen Kummer, 1911 -- original artist was probably R. F. Schabelitz, though often the cover designer was different and uncredited.)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Joe Konrath On Pie

Joe Konrath posted a refutation of one of the great fears of many authors at the moment: that the flood of new books and authors will overpopulate the industry -- and that nobody will be able to make a living, because we'll have to divide "the pie" up into too many tiny slices.

I think Joe doesn't really understand the fear, because he chose the exact argument which is likely to freak such people out more. I.e. he chose the "there is no limit -- growth is forever" argument. Which is the standard argument of every disastrous effort in history. He is actually right, in this case, because this isn't an end game, it's a beginning. (Or actually, what we've been experiencing is the end game of a previous cycle, and this is the great growth that happens with the new.)

But those people still have no reason to worry. Here's why:

Let's just say these people are right. Let's assume that, while there's a lot of elbow room for change inside the limits, that there is a limited pool of money, and it's just shifting.

1.) The pool of writers has NOT increased.

Seriously, folks. If you want to compare this to an overpopulation/famine situation -- we were already IN such a situation for a century. There's a lot of people out there writing. Very few of them ever make a penny, and fewer yet make a living.

The changes in the industry has given all those writers access, but it has not made them better writers. And it has not given them more business savvy.

So the pie is not going to be divided up equally among all writers, even if it is going to be spread a little further.

2.) The portion of the existing pie which goes to the writers just got a LOT bigger.

Writers used to get 17-18 percent, tops, and often much lower -- and they had to pay their agent out of that. With indie publishing, 35-70 percent goes to the writers. That leaves room for all writers to make a little more, even with the pie being shared out further. Those who made nothing before will likely make a little something. Those who almost made a living will now be able to make a living, and those who made a decent living will make a very good living...

All without any growth in the industry at all.

And Konrath is right, ebook publishing has a phenomenal amount of growth in it. The publishing industry is in trouble. Book distribution and bookstores are in trouble. But reading is a growth industry.

By now I'm sure we've all heard the new Harris Poll info about how ebook readers are buying more and reading more. One thing may be buried in that data (may be included may not) is that I believe we're converting new readers as well as getting growth from existing readers. Used book people and library users are coming into the fold -- buying cheap ebooks. People who didn't read books are reading other things on their smartphones, because it's easy to slip from checking your email and the latest news to checking out a blog... to reading a story.

And in all the excitement that growth and "new stuff" creates, there may even be salvation for bookstores. Whether it's a social gathering place or a place to get out of the house and shop for gifts, it's still going to be possible for bookstores to sell ebooks, as well as nice paper editions or used boos. Check out Dean Wesley Smith's latest post about his "book card" effort. He partnered with Smashwords to create cards which can be bought and sold. (And even if bookstores go away, they are the kind of thing other retailers can carry.)

If the pie really does stay exactly the same size, the people who are getting hurt are the middlemen -- publishers, agents, distributors and booksellers. But if the pie is growing (which it is) that period of growth provides an opportunity everybody to find a new niche. I've been thinking about that one too, and it's on my list to blog about -- but not right now.

Tomorrow, I will talk about Agatha Christie. I have been reading a lot of her earlier books lately, and I notice that she does one thing that I try to avoid in my own work -- and I like it. She dwells on things.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What I Would Do Differently

I was thinking about what I would do differently if I were starting today.

I would do a lot of the same things:

1.) I would concentrate on short fiction to get my feet wet and learn my craft. Heck, I'd do that MORE than I did before. There are so many more opportunities for short fiction these days.

2.) I would still write ten stories before I tried to do anything else.

3.) I would still take the top three stories of that ten and send them to magazines, and as I wrote more, I would try to keep stories on the desks of my favorite editors.

I would do some things differently:

1.) I would take all the things I didn't send to magazines and publish them on my blog, or find some other online amateur venue for them -- guest posting, blogfests, contests, forums, online aggregators, even Twitter poetry. This is the equivalent of street busking for a musician: you get out there and you perform and you learn what gets people's interest, and you learn to ignore the hecklers, and who your audience is.

2.) As I said above, I'd do significantly more with short works. I would treat it like a job, and challenge myself to write a story a day as O. Henry did -- or at least a couple a week. I'd make myself write a microfiction story or five haiku on my lunch break. This is something I used to do once in a while when learning, but there wasn't much use for the output before. Now there are all of those amateur venues online. You need material for that. Write it.

I would call that an apprenticeship, or an internship. You don't get paid for it, but you gain tons of experience which allows you to beat the competition in a real job.

3.) I would set a goal based on the items above -- publish X number of stories in real magazines, write 300 shorts or poems, achieve a certain number of blog subscribers; something measurable -- and when I had achieved that, I would then look over my body of work and start self-publishing it. I would not only be confident of my skills, I would have 300 frickin' pieces of work to start with. I could explode out of the blocks like a thunderbolt.

That's what I would do if I were a young student who hadn't written much of anything yet, but wanted a road map to publication. Or at least I'd start with that plan in hand. Everybody is different, and most of us will eventually find our own path, no matter how and where we start. The thing about a map is that it gives you confidence. It's a safety net.

It's too late for me to do that full-throttle now. I have too many other irons in the fire -- too many novels, too many things in progress. But I'm definitely doing it in bits and pieces, because that's not just how you build skills and knowledge, it's also how you build an audience.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Next Dare - A Round Of Words In 80 Days

I supposed I could have joined A Round Of Words In Eighty Days (ROW80) earlier. It's one of the most flexible writing dares in the universe: they let you jump in or out every 3-4 days or so. However, I'm a completist, and so I wanted to finish up what I was doing, and start at the start of a round.

I will be joining them on October 3, as they start the fall round. I hope some of you will join me.

ROW80 has a very easy concept: it starts on the first Monday of every quarter (generally January, April, July and October), and ends 80 days later, which leaves maybe a week and half break between rounds. Participants post progress twice a week -- Sundays and Wednesdays, I think -- on their blogs, and put a link in the Linky page on the central site. (Here is the ROS80 info page.)

You set your own goals and you can jump in or out on any posting day. You can even make NaNoWriMo a part of your goals, if you want to do both.

IMHO, 80 days is a great length for writing a novel. It's also good for getting done a bunch of shorter fiction, or rewrites on several books. You could even set your goals for words or minutes, and decide what to write session by session.

It's also a great length for people who want to find and establish actual writing habits which last all year round. You can't sprint for 80 days -- you have to work at a pace you can sustain.

Here are my tentative goals for ROW 80

  • 600 minutes a week. (Or 6500 minutes total - If I schedule myself a break in the middle.) This will be from October 3 to December 22.

  • Finish The Man Who Did Too Much, and get it out to some beta readers. I hope to get it published before the end of the round, so the final rewrite and prep will also be in this dare.
  • "Six-Gun Santa," a Mick and Casey short mystery. (I think. It might turn out to be a novelette.) I want to publish this on the blog at Christmas.
  • Devil in a Blue Bustle, a Mick and Casey mystery -- either a long novella or a short novel.
  • Plot work on The Man Who Stepped Up, including some possible exploratory writing.
  • Microfiction and flash fiction as there is time.

I also want to work on the series bible for The Serial - and larger plot arcs, etc., but unless I get all the rest done to my satisfaction, it won't enter into this dare.

But at the moment, my brain hurts, and I must frost brownies and organize things for tomorrow's events. (Just a couple more days...)

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monday Covers - Covers for Starling and Marquette

I'm still busy trying to get The Man Who Did Too Much done, so this is a short post for Cover Monday: just a look at the thumbnails of the covers for the first three books in the series.

If you remember, I decided to go for a more old fashioned abstract 50's hip kind of look (inspired by Anatomy of a Murder). And this design really seemed suited for Adobe Illustrator -- which I wanted to play with this week.

I also happened to find a shareware font on DaFont which had exactly the look I want. Mostly modern, with just a suggestion of retro cool. Curse Casual is by J.V. Enaguas.

I like this concept for a whole lot of reasons, but one of them is how well it can adapt for a series style, so that's why I played with doing three books all together. (I know the titles and concepts for the next two.)

In the first book, the main victim is shot (and this one still needs a little tweaking on the space between the title and image). In the second: the vic was done in by a fall down the stairs.

The third book will involve "Clean Boot Hunting" (or possibly drag hunting -- haven't made up my mind) - as George volunteers himself as the "fox" in a fox hunt. I really haven't worked out the crime yet, but I'm assuming the body will be found in the woods (so face down in an implied ditch seems good).

Here's where a dilemma kicks up: A cozy mystery about clean boot "fox" hunting suggests all sorts of wonderful ideas for covers. But if you want to go for a consistent series style, you can't just run willy-nilly after opportunities presented by a single book. (However, single books can give you ideas that may adapt well to the others, too.)

One additional thing I like about this cover concept: in The Man Who Did Too Much, Karla, who sees everything though a lens of old movies and TV shows, sometimes describes George as "The Saint" or as "Roger Moore." (To which George responds, "I haven't the grace to be Roger Moore." But Karla assures him, "Movies aren't about reality.")

And The Saint, of course, is really the most famous of those minimalist abstract designs for mysteries of the mid-century.

That little stick figure featured in all the books as well as the movies and TV shows. It was like the Scarlet Pimpernel's seal -- a little signature he would leave on notes for the bad guys, designed to scare the bejabbers out of them.

It's an effective "brand" for the hero inside the book, and it sure was an effective one for the books and TV show, etc. And I think that's part of why something so simple and repetitive attracts me. (When I look at the flavor of the font from the credit card here, I can see why I immediately responded to that Curse Casual font.)

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about my next writing Dare effort, via A Round of Words in 80 Days, an organized dare which is on-going, and more flexible than NanoWriMo.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Week In Review-Preview - Potlucks and Job Actions

I really like the progress I've made, but I'm not going to be done on Monday.

Then I took a look at my calendar, and I realized I'm really not going to be done by Monday. At all. Geh!

This is an "Event Cluster" weekend. I've got at least three birthdays, a retirement and two promotions to celebrate, not to mention preparing to go on strike -- or perhaps one should say making efforts to prevent the need to go on strike. Pot lucks and job actions are time consuming, especially if the car is sick, so opportunities to shop your way out of trouble are limited.

I've got until the end of today (Saturday), and then my time is utterly and completely sunk until Thursday. No wait, I don't have most of today, either.

I intended to finish the book, take a few days' rest, and then do that last run for continuity to make it presentable to beta readers, then have another short rest before joining the fall Round of Words in 80 Days. Now I find I don't even have time for the back up plan.

What do to?

The obvious strategy: give up, give oneself wholly over to the kerfuffle of life until Thursday. Maybe even give up until ROW80 starts around Oct 3.

But there is another strategy:

Abort the "finish the book" effort, and start the continuity and proofing pass now. The second half of the book may not be ready for that final continuity check, but the beginning is just waiting for it. Housekeeping tasks are easy to do even in stress-filled busy times. Ten minutes of proofreading, or on tasks like recording names of places and people and their spellings, are easy to manage whenever the time breaks free.

So... given the time I think I have, I am hereby ending the 800 minute dare at the end of the day tonight,and starting a new 600 minute dare for the next 9 days -- ending Monday the 26th. Then that's it. I stop where I am there for a week of rest before ROW80.

I'll post on Tuesday about the ROW80 challenge. It's a flexible, ongoing effort, and a great way for those who like the idea of NaNoWriMo, but have a hard time with the timing and restrictions.

Preview of the Coming Week

  • Monday Covers - Thumbnails of three covers for Starling and Marquette series. Squee!
  • Tuesday - A Round of Words in Eighty Days Challenge
  • Wednesday - Clues, and Keeping Ahead of the Reader...Or Not
  • Thursday and Friday - Uh, whatever I come up with on Tuesday night. Maybe some writing prompts.

From here on in, I will only post once over each weekend -- just the Saturday update post.

Drawing Exercise - What I'm Working On

First of all, I'm not this good.

Aside from it being far from done, this particular exercise makes you look much more skilled than you are, because you're replicating an existing photo or drawing. (If you look down at the lower section -- that much of the image is traced.)

I learned this exercise long long ago in beginning design classes: it's supposed to help you look closely at a subject -- and I don't mean see, but to observe, like Sherlock Holmes. I may do a whole post on this at some time, because I think writers could benefit from thinking about this.

But I wanted to share some of what I've been working on, so here it is.

And here is a short explanation of the exercise:

This is a scratch board drawing. Scratch board is a white illustration board covered with a glossy, hard-baked layer of black ink. Instead of drawing in the lines and shadows, you take a sharp tool -- like an exacto-knife -- and scratch off the black to expose the light parts of the picture.

You can't sketch on a scratch board. It's very unforgiving. So for this exercise the teacher would have us lightly trace on some outlines from an existing picture with chalk. And then you start looking at the original, and scratch away at the details.

It always looks awful at first, and so they have you start it during class, so the teacher can keep telling you to look at the picture you're replicating and keep scratching. Look, scratch, look, scratch. Then suddenly it starts to look like something. It looks like something way better than you ever drew before.

The result is that you really LOOK at the work, and notice where the highlights and shadows are, and then as you get more detail in, you start noticing the details within the highlights and shadows. And then suddenly you see the world differently, and you are a better artist for it.

I like to do this as an exercise in looking more closely at the details of a particular artist or mode or style -- to get really intimately familiar with it. That's why the image I was doing here is from an ad from one of those old magazines. You really notice things about the style of the times -- how the lips are shaped, and the eyes. How the artist makes that had NOT look like a wild head of hair.

There is another important result of this exercise, but I'll save that for a full post. (Hmmm, maybe that's what I'll do on Thursday or Friday.) I'll call that the Pavlov's Dog effect.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Plan - Part 3: The Blog and the Future

This is the third part (or is the the fourth?) of a series of posts on my Big Plan For Everything In My Career. But the series was inspired by somebody asking me if I promote my books and how.

That question has no simple answer, but if it did, the quick summary of what I've said so far is this:

No. ... In this modern age of the internet, old-fashioned promotion is dead. Your brand and your body of work IS your promotion. So that's what I'm working on.

So far I've talked about identifying my brand or style ("Who am I?"); I don't think it was a very good post, because I kinda talked around the edges, but I had fun with the pictures. Then I talked about my writing plans.

Now I'm going to talk about Blogging.

Blogging Is Writing Too

A lot of writers see blogging as a form of social networking, or other promotional activity. They blog with a purpose -- they're building a platform, or "internet presence."

And that's actually a very good idea. It's an especially good idea if you are using it as a part of a major social networking and marketing strategy.

But I'm not doing major social networking and marketing. My strategy is writing, not marketing. And blogging is writing.

I had something more complicated to say, but it comes down to that: Blogging is writing and writing is what I do. And what I want people to know me for. And that makes it a part of my brand.

Blogging is the one "marketing" type activity that I go at full throttle right now, but not as a marketing activity. I do it because my blog is a part of my body of work. It's a product, like the rest of my work. It's not formal. It's free. I don't worry about typos or whether I blather on too much....

But it is a product.

And unlike most of my series, there's a lot of material here. It's mature. I have nearly half a million words sunk into this blog. And it's not my first blog.

So when it comes to marketing, what I market is my blog. Here are the strategies I'm using now:

1.) Content -- On the internet, content is king. Google loves good, mature, steady content. It makes it easier to judge a site so they can guide the right readers to it.

  • I try to keep the content interesting and relevant to my work and the interests of the audience for that work.
  • I tell jokes, and anecdotes, and post videos. And I'll get back to posting stories soon.
  • When I talk about writing, I try to go deeper into storytelling in a universal way whenever possible. Things of interest to readers as much as to writers.
  • I am my brand, this is a blog about my writer's journey. I talk about me a lot. This may or may not be wise marketing, but it it what it is.

2.) Art -- okay, this is also content. I am going to write more about covers and illustration. I love to read about that stuff myself, and I've got to assume that people who like the same kinds of things I do like illustration.

And as I said, a look is a part of branding. I decided that I will do most of my covers myself, with the idea of creating a visual style. I have only begun to develop that style, and a blog is a great place to play.

3.) Social Media - I don't use social media specifically as a promotion tool for the blog, except maybe Twitter, where I announce posts and publications. But I do comment on other blogs as a part of human networking. I like to read blogs, and I comment on them. I try to only comment thoughtfully. (Frankly, I don't have time to leave spam on every blog I read.) Since I've given up forums, I want to do this more.

I also lurk and occasionally post on a couple of Yahoo groups. And I like Crimespace, but I forget it's there, so I don't use it much.

As for the other types of social media (Goodreads, Shelfari, even -shudder- Facebook), I set up an account, but I don't use them. I may when I've done that whole filling the well thing.

I love Twitter, but I love it as a news source, and not as a social networking site. (It was designed for "microblogging" and that's what I love about it.)

All of these, though, lead people to my blog.

4.) Interviews - Because my blog is about my personal journey, the usual kinds of guest posts don't quite fit. So instead I interview writers about their characters. This gives me a break from daily posting, but it also brings in some fresh air from outside and can bring in new readers who are interested in that writer.

5.) Advertising - I use Project Wonderful to find interesting little websites to support. Some of those sites bring readers to my blog, others just give me a sense of satisfaction that I encouraged one more quirky webcomic to continue publishing. Some of my favorites drift up out of my price range, but that's okay. I like to see them succeed.

I probably do other things which I don't even think about, but that's kind of the point. In this New World Of Search Algorithms, the mantra is "Be You, And Your Audience Will Find You."

Sometime In The Murky Future...

When I feel my body of work is mature, when I think that anyone coming across my stuff for the first time will be able to find a sensible whole, when I have books published that a new customer can spend a lot of money in one go, THEN I might start some real marketing.

The sort things I will and won't be doing:

  • Guest Posting and Blog Tours: Absolutely. Blogging is writing. Spread that footprint wider, baby.
  • Professional Reviewers: Sure, when I feel the body of work is ready, I will start preparing press releases and approach book bloggers and reviewers in a serious and professional manner -- both independent and those associated with a magazine or newspaper.
  • Trading reviews with other writers: No.
  • Soliciting reviews from anybody I can bribe to listen: No.
  • Giving away free books: Absolutely. Already do that sometimes.
  • Tagging: You've got to be kidding me. I HATE tagging exchanges. HATE them, I tell yuh. Tags are supposed to be natural responses by readers. You know, people who have actually READ the book.
  • Fill out the fun info forms on Shelfari: Love to. Mean to do it now, but I don't have time.
  • Spend time on Goodreads: Probably.
  • Worry about keeping up with the competition: No.
  • Worry about pricing: No.
  • Run sales: Probably.
  • Advertise: Certain books in certain venues, sure.

Well, that's it for my big plans for the foreseeable future, and beyond. Plans always change, of course. New opportunities come up. Things you expected to do well don't, and things you expected to flop do well. You fall in love with a different story. You adjust course.

Saturday afternoon I'll post the week in review, and a preview of coming posts. Maybe Monday I'll finish this book... or maybe not.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Plan - Part 2: The Writing

Yesterday's post about "Who Am I?" really just hit some high points. Most of us have a complicated identity, and if you try to talk too much about it, you tend to blather. (Or at least I do, and if you thought yesterdays post kind of wandered and blathered, you should see the rejected drafts....)

Taking a Look A The Big Picture: What Do I Want My Mature Body of Work To Look Like?

The first step in a marketing plan is filling the reservoir, as I mentioned in the Physics of Water post. And now I know the flavor of what I'm filling it with, but now it's time to talk in specifics. How am I to fill that reservoir, and with what?

My first overall rule for my career is this: I won't write to a schedule and I won't just churn out another book in a series because people want one, or because I think that's the way to make money. (Lawrence Block had a great post on this, explaining why people should stop asking him when the next Bernie Rhodenbarr book will come out.)

The Mick and Casey Mysteries:

Mick and Casey are the cornerstone of my writing career. That series is the most commercial thing I've written so far, but it's still out on the fringes in many ways -- it's cross-genre (mystery and western), and it tramples on expectations in ways that people don't seem to expect. (I know that sounds silly, but honestly, people do expect you to trample on certain expectations. And if you don't do it the way they expect, that tramples on their expectations of expectations.)

My main problem with Mick and Casey is a lack of momentum. I started the series a long time ago when I was trying to break into commercial publication, and I put a heck of a lot of work into it, only to be shut down. "Love it, but nobody wants westerns, and cozy mysteries are poison." So let's just say I burnt out before I even got started.

Still, even though there is only one book, two short stories and a novelette out there, you could say that Mick and Casey are a "mature" series. I may not have momentum, but I do have a bunch of partly written novellas. In every case I started them thinking they would be a marketable short story, and when I realized they would be way too long to publish (but too short for books) I would move on to another "short" story.

The novella is, I think, the natural length for Mick and Casey, just like it was for Nero Wolfe. There might be a few short novels in there, and probably more short stories, but even the short stories are likely to fill out to novelettes. The main, natural length seems to be 70-150 pages -- or 20,000-50,000 words.

In the modern world of e-publishing, there is no reason to abandon novellas. And they are quick to write. So I hope to have 3-6 new longer Mick and Casey stories in the coming two years or so.

The Starling and Marquette Mysteries

The work-in-progress (The Man Who Did Too Much) is the first book in this series. While it is quirky and probably tramples a few expectations of its own, it is the only series which is solidly in a particular, modern, commercial genre. Mostly. It kinda blurs the lines between some sub-genres. It probably borrows as much from P.G. Wodehouse as from Agatha Christie, but nobody is going to mistake it for something other than a traditional mystery.

This first book is going to come out somewhere near 90,000 words. As the "origin" story it might be a little longer than subsequent stories, but I don't think so. And this was much harder to write than I expected, probably because of the influence of both Wodehouse and Christie -- complex, intertwining subplots and psychological threads.

So I think all these books are going to be full length, and they're all going to be a bear to write -- because I am not P.G. Wodehouse -- but I don't think they're going to take years to write each.

I have at least four, and probably five books in mind before I get to the point where I feel it is a stable and mature series. I may be able to do a book a year on it, but I'm not counting on it. My goal is to have the first one published in November... and maybe keep publishing in November each year. I would really like to get the next two done, at least, to make me feel like the series is established.

"The Serial"

This is where I'm going to let it all hang out. This is going to be a repository of full-blown Camille-ness. Here is where the rubber hits the road in terms of personal branding. The mysteries at least have a genre, regardless of whether they fully fit or not.

But The Serial is, um, well, er,... I think it won't even be an actual serial, in the sense most people think. But there will be people tied to railroad tracks and spies and locked-room mysteries and nosy detectives and sword fights, and bandits, and secrets, and flights through the dark of night in the forest primeval. So far there are no aliens, and very very limited magic (just what's necessary to set up the world for the reader)... but there are giant carnivorous roly-poly bugs! (Or at least rumors of them.) Maybe ghosts.

But for the most part this is not a fantasy or speculative fiction. Magic and imagined technology emphatically do not drive anything here. I call it "Jazzpunk" -- since it driven by the culture of the early Jazz Age, and not the technology the way cyberpunk, steampunk and dieselpunk are.

So this is really where the branding comes in. And most particularly, this is where the ART comes in. Genres and brands need a look.

For right now, though, I'm just in the development stage: I'm researching and working on art, and creating a series bible. I'm collecting magazines from the period, etc. I probably won't do much in terms of writing or publishing this in the next two years, except....

I WILL be playing with it on the blog, and may even publish some of it here as I work through that larger development.

(NOTE: I did end up playing with it on my blog, and it did end up being a serial -- you'll find the first episode of The Misplaced Hero here.)

Short Fiction

Short fiction is where I think I can move my career along faster -- before I've finished filling the reservoir, so to speak. Especially very short fiction. Flash stories, jokes, poems and anecdotes are easy to read, and show people you can tell a story.

My short fiction doesn't fit a hundred percent into my branding plans, though. I write a wider variety here. I sometimes write very mainstream, fit-the-genre kind of stuff, or even literary stuff -- but that's why it helps with the overall plan. Short fiction is a way for people to sample my writing, which (unlike samples) actually shows how well I pay off on the setup. They also are something you can spread far and wide.

My main plan for short fiction write now is to write a lot of it -- as much as I can without slowing down production on my main books. I'll be submitting to some of the major magazines out there (most notably Ellery Queen and other Davis publications), which will slow down the actual publication of these stories. Not only does traditional publishing take a while, but it also delays doing anything else with the story. I will also be looking for guest posting homes for some stories, and publishing some here, as well as in small ebook collections.

The other thing that short fiction does is allow me to develop other series (or even existing ones) in a limited way. I have some really fun other series, including a quirky almost-hard-boiled young detective named Max. Even Starling and Marquette have their first short story in the Pink Snowbunnies In Hell flash fiction anthology.

Miscellaneous Other Novels

I don't intend to write any more novels for a while which don't relate to the above plans. However, I have completed drafts of various books which I might well publish if the mood strikes me. Some of them kinda fit into "The Brand" -- like the sequels to The Wife of Freedom. Like The Serial, it's an alternate world without any fantastical elements -- built from a different era of melodrama and swashbuckler.

(And, like The Serial, the sequel to Wife of Freedom -- Test of Freedom -- will soon be serialized on this blog, Mondays and Thursdays, starting October 15, 2012.)

But the other stuff -- like Harsh Climate and The Scenic Route -- fit mainly via a quirky point of view. I have no plans to follow those up yet, but I do have ideas.

But Wait, There's More!

Even though I am not doing any real marketing efforts, I am doing some actual traditional marketing:

*The Blog -- If I am my brand, my blog is the obvious and natural place to build it. It is important enough that I will have a whole post just about that tomorrow.

*Announcements -- I don't break my neck to do this, but when I publish something new, I do announce it. Twitter, here, maybe on Kindleboards or Mobilereads. But honestly, sometimes -- okay, most of the time -- I forget to even tell my mom.

*Review Copies -- Every so often I will send out some copies to reviewers who have an easy set up on their blog for submissions. I am not currently, however, going around looking for reviewers. I am collecting URLs for interesting book blogger sites for later, though.

*Blog tours and guest posting -- I will probably do a miniature blog tour in January for The Man Who Did Too Much. This will be more an experiment and learning experience than anything. I hope to do enough to let me know how it might work best for me, and how I might want to use such tours in the future. (I'll talk about this more in tomorrow's post about my blog.)

*Advertising -- yes, I use advertising. It doesn't work well for my books most of the time -- at least not with the main venues most indie writers tout. I have found that the right ad on the right site at Project Wonderful sometimes has a minor effect -- enough to break even maybe if you squint.

The most important result you get from advertising -- exposure -- is intangible. It's not about getting a return on investment. It's a black hole into which specifically budgeted money disappears. So a good idea is to treat it like gambling: set a budget for it and forget it.

IMHO, the best reason for advertising is to support the site where the ad appears. Be a real sponsor. (More about this in tomorrow's post, too.)

*Website -- I neglect my website because I'm not actively marketing. But I do update now and then. And I will use it more extensively when I am actively marketing.

Tomorrow, I'm going to talk about how my blog fits into my career and marketing plans. It's something I'm doing now, and it is a "mature" effort. I don't intend to change what I'm doing there much, in future.

The key thing for me about a blog is that it isn't a marketing tool, it's a product.

See you in the funny papers.