Saturday, July 31, 2010

Fall Dare - The Rallying Cry is Momentum!

So here it is: I'm going to try to set my goals week by week for this semster. I hope that each Saturday I can assess the coming Sun-Sat week and adjust the daily goal for that span.

The key this fall is going to be Nulla Dies Sine Linea - never a day without a line. That was the idea of this blog to start with and I think I want to return to that, even if some weeks I have to set the goal at 25 words a day.

But it's not going to be able to stay that low, because I have a heck of a lot to do. First of all, I want to have two more books up on Amazon by Christmas. (Christmas and the week after tends to be record sales days for Kindle eBooks.) These are sequels to existing books, and they have readers waiting.

One of those books, Test of Freedom, is all there. It just needs a @%$#& rewrite. It keeps hiding behind newer and shinier ideas, though. The other book, A Fistful of Divas is, um, an unfinished short story I want to turn into a novel. Which means you could say I have barely started it.

Plus the current W.I.P. (The Man Who Did Too Much) is clamoring to be finished. And The Untitled Serial Which Isn't Really A Serial is also clamoring for some quality time.

I'm not going to get all that done on 25 words a day. Or even 300 words a day (which is what I'm setting for this week). But by setting those goals when I can't do more, I can accomplish one thing - not stopping.

And that's it: Between tonight and Saturday the seventh, I will write at least 300 words a day, which should be nearly 2500 by the time I'm done. Depending on how this week goes at the Day Job, I may be able to speed up the week after. We'll see.

Maury Chaykin Died Today

I just read in the New York Times that Maury Chaykin died today. He was the actor who played Nero Wolfe in the wonderful series Tim Hutton put on for A&E. He was one of those ubiquitous actors who could play quite a variety of roles - always interesting. I thought he perfect for Wolfe, just as Hutton was perfect for Archie.

Friday, July 30, 2010

It's the REAL Real Thing

I don't really care about appearance, but my weight has reached the point where it impacts my ability to do whatever I want. So I need to modify my diet.

Since my biggest issue is pop, and the high-fructose corn syrup in pop (and many other things) is said to be semi-addictive. I decided to cut said corn syrup out of my diet before I worry about the calories aspect. To that end, I decided to buy Jones Soda and Jarritos Tamarindo Mexican pop to replace my normal absolutely must have every day Coke. These are made with cane sugar, the way pop used to be made.

They carry both of these brands at Meijers (which is kind of a mid-western, privately-owned Walmart, only more so), so I could get it reasonably priced.

But much to my chagrin, they didn't have the Tamarindo flavor in the Mexican section. What they had in that section was.... MEXICAN COCA-COLA!

Mexican Coca-Cola is made with cane sugar. It's the actual real original Coke. You know, the stuff that will teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. The stuff you have with a smile. The REAL Real Thing.

What does this have to do with writing?

Well, I had a screenwriting teacher whose first lecture in every new class was to tell people not to smoke while writing. Or to do anything else they might ever want to quit. Because writing is very habit based. Most writers have little rituals they use to get "in the mood" and set the muse loose. It might be how you adjust your chair, or play music or whatever.

Sometimes changing one of your rituals can be helpful to your writing, but for the most part, if your routine is disrupted, so is your writing.

For me, a big (huge) cup of ice with Coke is one of my most cherished rituals. Anything that can help me gradually wean myself of that habit, without disrupting my routine is GOOD.

Besides, I like the actual real real thing.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sic Transit Moi

The past two days have been more tiring than expected. And tomorrow will be devoted to travel. I may be up to making a decent post tomorrow night, but I doubt it. I'll see you all Friday.

So in the meantime, I'll remind all that Smashwords is having an ebook sale this month, and all three of my books are on sale for half price, just through July 31. Get 'em while they're hot!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My Brain is Full

Today we went to things where I understood what the speakers were saying, and now my brain is full, and we've got another full day....

I had some things I wanted to say about Cliches, Tropes and Image-Based Lighting Libraries, but the lighting stuff is kind of esoteric and I need to be working with a full brain to make it clear. I also wanted to say something about Open Source and why it didn't apply to fiction the same way it applies to, oh, say, creating a new format for stereoscopic image data, but that was also too esoteric to do on a half-brain.

So today's wisdom from Siggraph is:

Cake = Good

(Also, Korean appetizers = Good)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cool is Boring (Which Is Why It's Cool)

Today at Siggraph we saw presentations by a bunch of the geeks who made Avatar possible. I took a way a few lessons for my students and more perspective for understanding what was going on in the animation side of the program, but I went cross-eyed from the tech stuff long before it was over.

And I came away with one lesson for all artists and writers.

If you want it to be cool, you have to go through boring stuff.

This is not a criticism of the presenters - they were not boring. For that matter, what they presented was not really boring. But in many ways it was incomprehensibly, obsessive-compulsively meticulous, AND demanding. (As all really spiffy engineering is.)

The first presenter talked about building the character models - how they not only did the motion capture of an athelete making an action move, but then had to basically build multiple layers of anatomy into their model for that to translate into something that looked like more than a cartoon. They had to build in musculature, and think about whether those muscles were actually moving or just tensing. With real humans (and creatures) the skin doesn't move exactly with the muscle under it, so they created a sheathing layer between the muscles and skin, and the skin on top of that. And that was just the background prep work to create the models for the animator to animate.

The lighting guys had to go even deeper into theory and physics to get light and the interaction between it and the atmosphere, and all the objects (like thousands of plants in a jungle, some of which were translucent). These are guys who will fuss for years trying to come up with a mathematical algorithm that will allow the computer to depict the exact right kind of sheen on hair, and how that looks different than fur. And since these algorithms take up huge amounts of computer power, the then spend years coming up with ways to do it faster and cheaper (or even possible).

Now, the lesson for writers in all this is NOT world-building. This isn't about populating your planet with the right vegetation, or building your alien with the right anatomy. Who cares if you think that stuff up if you can't pull off the story?

No, the lesson here is that - whatever your story is full of - none of it will be cool if you don't geek out on your tools. Put in the time, and energy on the one medium we work in: Language.

We have words, punctuation, syntax, grammar. We need to do our best to understand those the way the virtual lighting guys understand the physics of light and color.

(In the meantime, we started the day with excellent dim sum at The Empress Pavillion in Chinatown and ended it at a very hip Italian place called Bottega Louie. Fabulous stuff, and both places meticulous about food. I am geeked out on "mastery" today.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I Heart L.A.

I do love L.A.

I first visited Los Angeles a long long time ago. My sister was a young reporter working for the Herald-Examiner on the police beat and I came out to visit. We went to see Johnny Carson, and the old Getty museum (I was a classical studies major), and since we both were food geeks, we ate our way across the town. (Actually mostly Santa Monica.)

Anyway, today we arrived to air that isn't quite thick enough to use as a doorstop, but it would require a sharp knife to cut off a chunk and take home. On the cab ride to the hotel, I could see the distinctive shape of City Hall in the distance, and in the foreground, a woman on her knees in the slow lane, being handcuffed by a cop, while about six cops stood behind aiming shotguns and service revolvers. (The cops with the guns were all sheltered behind the police cars, the guy wielding the handcuffs and the woman, on the other hand, both just looked tired an annoyed, as they struggled to come to a consensus about whether her right arm would make it back close enough to get the cuff on. She wasn't fighting, exactly, just not cooperating.)

This week we won't get the chance to visit much or eat our way across Alhambra's dumpling houses, but we hope to chow pretty good around downtown. (Tonight, probably Engine Company 28.)

Off To Siggraph

I'm off, though not incommunicado. I expect to be posting here most days while I'm going. (Unless something happens to my netbook.) I will be slow at approving comments, however.

I am noting right here, so I can't back off, that I want to post about how other people's cliches screw you up, and also continue the series on supporting characters who are police. The next one will be "Police Officer as Functionary," (which means something quite different than it sounds).

Friday, July 23, 2010

MacGuffins, and 1413 Words on Outline

I got some good work done today. I have a gap, however, because I still haven't zeroed in on my MacGuffin.

Hitchcock once said that a MacGuffin is "the thing the spies are after but the audience don't care." Some people call it a plot coupon. It might be the solution to the mystery, or a magic sword, or nuclear secrets. When Hitch was making the movie Notorious, the MacGuffin was uranium - and at the time of production, the whole concept of making a nuclear bomb was a major government secret. Hitch claimed that the FBI investigated him, but he just had to explain that he wasn't making a movie about nuclear secrets. It was a love story. (Actually it was an excuse to make a movie with a kiss that flouted all the production codes.) The MacGuffin could as easily be industrial diamonds as anything else.

However, that all became a moot point after Hiroshima, because none of it was a secret anymore, so the movie continued with uranium as the MacGuffin.

Because MacGuffins are replaceable, it is possible to write a lot of a story without deciding what it will be. However, I like a MacGuffin to really fit the story. It's like a title - sure you could have a different one, but I want the RIGHT one. It affects why the spies want it, and "why" is all about motive, and motive is all about character and drama.

So ... I'm still working on my MacGuffins in this story. I do know that the ultimate MacGuffin (on the surface) will be a gold pearl which is rumored to have mystical powers. However, I think for most of the book it will act as a red herring. That is, it's something everybody ultimately wants, but there are more immediate goals that are hidden by it. And I think that at first Pauline doesn't want it at all. I think she wants something much more personal, like to thwart blackmail or some other plot - and the evidence is hidden with or near the pearl. (And even when it becomes the main MacGuffin, it may actually still be a red herring that leads to a greater one. That's the thing with episodic stories. Each episode needs its own MacGuffin.)

Tomorrow I'm getting ready to go on a trip, but I expect to still be able to post next week. I will probably have to switch from writing to reading for a while, though.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Just saw some news of a kerfuffle that has broken out between NY agent Andrew Wylie and Random House. Random House is one of the publishers trying to make a "rights grab" by claiming retroactive ebook rights. Wylie has announced he and his clients are going to take their backlists direct to Amazon. Law suits are expected to ensue.

I have been expecting this to happen - bigger and bigger names jumping ship from publishers who are too slow to get the nature of the new world order. But I did not expect it to happen this fast.

(And Konrath has just posted his take on the Wiley/Random House Situation.)

We live in interesting times. I think it's time to fasten our safety belts. It is the start of a bumpy night.

Not Enough Time For The Promotion We Must Do

Today I wrote up a questionaire for an important book review site and sent it off.

I also read, considered, and in some cases answered, a whole lot of posts from all over of writers who are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of STUFF they're supposed to do on the internet. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook, forums, journals, emails, groups, blog tours. Not to mention Goodreads and Shelfari and the like.

Must we really engage in some kind of internet social interaction and promotion to build our platforms and our audience? Yes.

Must we do it ALL? Heck no!

The problem is that once you start this stuff, it's hard to stop. It's like potato chips and cookies. Especially since you get little rewards in the form of "analytics." Tweet something, and golly, you just got more visits on your blog! And a new subscriber! Tweet some more. Nothing. Um. Okay, maybe you should tweet something different. If you do it right you could have a lot of subscribers, couldn't you?

And that's aside from the satisfaction you can get from just making contact with people all over the world.

The internet is a time sink - but it's an important activity, so you can't completely stop. You will always be in a battle over your time.

So here is my wisdom. I post it somewhere every single day on the Kindleboards and other places, but it bears repeating:

If you need to promote your book, your brand, or your career or yourself, the single best way to do it is to WRITE MORE BOOKS.

So I wave goodnight and go off to write....

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Quantum Plotting - and 784 words in outline

Supposedly writers are divided up into two groups - "Planners" who outline before they write, and "Pantsers" who make it up by the seat of their pants. I don't subscribe to this theory, because I don't really belong to either group. Besides, if you're going to be a pro, you've got to learn to outline whether you like it or not, and if you're going to be good, you've got to learn to throw the outline away sometimes.

Today I'm going to talk about splitting the difference - about the kind of story planning that works with a more 'seat of the pants' style.

When you're talking about mystery fiction, planning is important. All the clues, puzzles, twists and turns have to come out right. So this method works best with the more adventure or suspense end of the spectrum, but it also does work with twisty puzzles too. (Those tend to require more rewriting in my experience.)

There's a theory in quantum physics that if you knew the state of every atom in the universe at this moment, you could accurately predict the future of everything. This method is kinda like that. You don't plot out where you're going to go, you plot out where everything is at the start, and then just let the games begin.

So where do you start? With the characters. They are the forces in the universe of fiction and drama. If you thoroughly develop those characters and figure out what they want - especially the hidden characters and badguys - then as long as their motives are actually in conflict, you can often just sit down and set them loose.

Now, I believe you do have to have an idea of where you're going - because unlike quantum physics you get to choose. It doesn't have to be detailed, but you do have to decide what a satisfying ending will be:

A confrontation on a windswept mountain top, or a chase through dark alleys. Maybe you just have an image of the hero standing over the helpless villain, knife in hand and every reason to kill. You don't even know for sure what he'll choose - just that he will have to face that choice.

If you know that much, then you have a good shot at writing a story that goes somewhere. You still may get bogged down in the middle, but at that point you can step back and do a little more planning.

The story I'm calling The Serial is demanding a variation of this method, I think. It's going to have an episodic structure - where each unit of the story is a whole story arc of its own. This was common in old serials. For instance, read Dashiel Hammett's The Dain Curse sometime, and note how the story seems all wrapped up after the first section. The hero, the unnamed Continental Op, completely solves the diamond heist he's called in on, but he walks away already knowing that there is more to the story. Each stage of the story is a mystery unto itself, and each is resolved and reveals a deeper mystery behind it.

It's an interesting way to structure a story - because even though the overall story is complicated, each episode is relatively simple. I think the key to outlining such a story is to just know who each of the levels of villains are, and then take them on one at a time.

Of course, as I mentioned yesterday, I'm not actually writing this story yet, but I'm trying to use 'pantser' methods to write the outline as if it is a faster, wilder version of the story. I am working on those deeper layers but I also outlined Chapter 2 - another 784 words.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Outlines - 712 words

At the day job, today was Red Tape Day. Everyone seemed tangled in it. (And we still have some to deal with tomorrow.)

So I relaxed a bit this evening by talking about point of view on the Crimespace forums, and then sat down and started doing a narrative breakdown of the Serial. Like a very detailed synopsis. The kind with suggestions of language, but mostly story beats:

"It's an early morning, with sliver fog and dew. The suffragettes are gathering. Lily arrives with a carpet bag. She sees the wealthier ladies with their servants. Paulina is chic in her short dress, and she has a maid finishing up a protest sash that goes perfectly with her dress and hat. (Cousin 2 and the other swains are in the background, but will be introduced in a minute.)

"Mrs. Fogwindle has two footmen with picnic baskets - sandwiches for the ladies. Lily is starving, and is focussed on the baskets, even though she also wryly notices what a posh protest it will be...."

This kind of outline really works in the place of exploratory writing. You get the feel of the jokes and details and relationships, but you can rip through a lot more story while it's fresh in your head. When you sit down to write from this sort of outline, it's a lot easier because it's almost like rewriting. The actual vibe of the story is there. And it can be easier to weave in clues and things after you've beat out more of the story.

It's also very much like screenwriting - you hit the most important images, reactions and movements. (The difference is that you don't put in all the dialog, just the most interesting turns.)

I do want to get back to my series on supporting police characters a bit more, but I'm sleepy, and I'm glad to have done a lot of work.

Monday, July 19, 2010


I think I've found a vector artist who will be perfect to do a cover for "The Serial," and I can afford her current prices. So I threw myself into outlining today, so I could have a sense of what I want for the cover.

And the posts I've been writing on supporting police characters has helped sharpen my image of the series. I was having trouble with my central character - Lady Pauline. She needs to be one of those slightly too perfect characters, like The Saint or Sherlock Holmes. She's also going to be young and a little foolish, but her sheer chutzpah makes up for it.

But Pauline is going to have a nemesis in Detective Constable MacGreevey - a man who is definitely the hero of his own story. He's one part Marshal Gerard, one part Wiley Coyote, and maybe a smidgen of Gromit (if Gromit had no patience whatsoever for his boss Wallace - which is why MacG is still just a detective constable).

I mentioned yesterday that the nemesis character has to be at least as strong as the protagonist. Well, it also works the other way. The heroine can become more interesting if she gets a boost from an interesting foil. It also helped when I realized that Pauline's sidekick, Lily, is not her secretary nor paid companion, nor even originally a friend - she's a young wannabe journalist that Pauline has hired to chronicle her adventures. The fact that Lily is a little more detached allows for another level of minor conflict.

And once Pauline filled out, I was able to figure out how the romantic interest enters the story.

So, much progress today, even if it wasn't the progress I planned.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Policeman as Nemesis

(This is a series of articles on police as secondary characters in mystery novels. The other entries in the series are Columbo Ex-Machina, The Dismissive Policeman, and Policeman as Community Member.)

As I mentioned last time, Inspector Slack might be at odds with Miss Marple, might resent her, but he was always on the same side as she was. They had the same goal.

But there is a common police character who does not have the same goal as the protagonist. Sometimes the policeman is the actual antagonist of the story. This happens most often in stories that aren't actually mysteries, but rather straight crime stories. Columbo, Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, The Fugitive. And for that matter, Raffles, Arsene Lupin, Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Saint.

When your hero is outside the law - whether he's a criminal, or accused of a crime, or some shadowy vigilante - it's the job of the policeman to stop him. These stories are often games of cat and mouse, and the policeman is a foil for the protagonist. Columbo, and Porfiry Petrovich (of Crime and Punishment) are mild, ordinary, hard working characters facing off against arrogant criminals. In the movie version of The Fugitive, Richard Kimball is an amateur at being a fugitive, and he bumbles his way through by the skin of his teeth, while Marshal Sam Gerard pursues with menacingly super-competent precision. Gentleman burglars and swashbucklers tend to be chased down by working class plodders.

Sometimes such characters are downright villainous - as with Citizen Chauvelin, who is the nemesis of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Chauvelin seems to be a true believer in the revolution, but he keeps secrets from his superiors, and plays games to meet his own ambitions. Like all villains, he's really after power and self-aggrandizement. He's willing to murder men, women and children, and he's equally willing to release enemies of the revolution to further his own political ends. He's a blackmailer, and a liar. (And yet he still manages to be somewhat smarter and better than the evil men he works for - who can't seem to moderate their evil, even when it's in their own best interests. They often try to intimidate and blackmail Chauvelin, and he plays them for a bigger prize than he might otherwise get.)

In the mystery, however, the policeman is usually some sort of good guy. He may be like Sam Gerard or Javert from Les Miserables, and be frighteningly single-minded. Just think about the scene in The Fugitive when Gerard tracks Kimball into the drain pipes of the dam, and Kimball tells him "I did not kill my wife!" and Gerard says "I don't care!" It's not Gerard's job to judge. It's his job to catch, and he'll do it no matter what. However, when faced with the truth, he does do the right thing.

All nemesis characters have to be good at their jobs. Unlike the Inspector Slack type, the character has to be a good match in skills for the hero.

A good example of this would be Chief Inspector Teal of The Saint. Teal is in a difficult position, because he and The Saint are really on the same side when it comes to catching the bad guys. However, The Saint breaks the law, and Teal is equally out to get him. But it's nothing personal, and they often chat together and cooperate. Teal is not depicted as a fool. He is described in one book as so sharp, that if Scotland Yard's archives were to be destroyed in a fire, Teal could probably recreate them entirely from his own memory, including rough sketches of all the finger prints. Teal's main limits are that he is honest, and he must abide by the law... and also he's limited by the limits of his minions, who are really not up to the cleverness of The Saint.

I could go on for a while about this type of character, because I really like this model, and I'm working on a character who is a hybrid of this and some other kinds. But I think it's time to move on. I think I want to talk about the Plodder and the Mentor but I'm not quite sure of what I want to say yet.

(The other entries in the series are Columbo Ex-Machina, The Dismissive Policeman, and Policeman as Community Member.)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Dismissive Policeman - Inspector Slack

Inspector Slack is the classic disdainful detective that you see over and over again in cozy mysteries. Christie herself didn't use him that much, nor did she develop him beyond a one-note caricature. He was ambitious, prejudiced and only moderately competent. (The one thing he wasn't was a slacker.) He didn't have a real relationship with Miss Marple. He didn't want one. He didn't even provide much opposition to her. He just ignored her, along with ignoring the truth, and thereby provided the need for her to intervene.

When the BBC made the wonderful adaptations starring Joan Hickson, they cast David Horovitch, and they beefed up the role to be more of a foil for Miss Marple. It was necessary because drama is about external conflict - a conflict among characters and their motivations. They didn't really change Slack so much as just let out the emotions that you know had to be there.

The Slack as written is a boring character. As presented by Horovitch, he is a little more interesting. He's not merely annoyed at this woman he'd rather not even acknowledge, he's got a full range of peevish resentments. Slack is a man who lives in a predictable pecking order, and he believes in it. He has position and authority, and he should be able to send little old ladies on their way with a pat on the head. But he's also an underling, and when his superiors force him to work with that silly old puss, he does it. He does it with resentment. He may even feel a little threatened by her success, but he does as he's told.

Because in the end, he and Miss Marple are on the same side. And when she uncovers the crook, he's the first to leap forward and stop the guy from getting away. And in the end, Slack does have to give her a little grudging respect.

I think, when it comes to writing a character like Slack - one who is really there to just acknowledge that the police should be doing this job - you have two choices. You can write like Christie did and just get him off stage as quickly and neatly as possible, and keep him out of the way. There is a certain risk to this, however. While Christie never bothered me much, I can say that I have been annoyed at many other writers who treated their police characters too dismissively.

I think a good example is in Phillip Pullman's Ruby In The Smoke. I really liked that book, and it's been a while since I read it, but I was really annoyed when the heroine dismissed the detective as quickly and thoroughly as he dismissed her. My immediate thought was that he had perfectly good reasons to dismiss her. Maybe he shouldn't have, but she was a child, and a civilian. She has something to prove to him. He, on the other hand, deserved a little respect for the fact that that was his job. I don't remember the scene exactly, but I do remember suddenly losing all respect for the heroine. He may have been a jerk, but she came across as an ignorant little brat.

A little more characterization can fix a situation like that. The more the character is an individual, the more leeway you have to judge them poorly. Otherwise you might just want to leave the judgment out, just don't characterize at all.

ADDENDUM: when I first wrote this post, it had been a very long time since I read Murder At The Vicarage, and I had not remembered that she had given him quite a bit of attention in that book. I recently reread Vicarage, and was very pleased to see that she gave Slack his due. Although he was arrogant and dismissive, he was also competent, and often a step ahead of the Vicar who narrates the book.

Next time I think I'll talk about the policeman as nemesis.

(The other entries in the series are Columbo Ex-Machina, Policeman As Nemesis, and Policeman as Community Member.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Columbo Ex Machina

One of my favorite types of cop characters is what I call the "Columbo Ex Machina" character. This is a character who lurks deceptively, often dismissed by the protagonist as useless, and then pops out to save the day at the end. You most often see this kind of character in romantic suspense. He may even be the hero, working secretly in the background and arrives in time for the rescue, despite the heroine's best (and misguided) efforts to thwart him.

This character can be even more fun, though, if it isn't a romantic lead. I think the perfect example of this is Lt. Nathan Shapiro, the sad-sack NYPD detective created by Frances and Richard Lockridge. While the later Shapiro stories took on a more police procedural style, the first few were suspense stories in which Shapiro seemed to play a minor role. (Two stories of this kind are "The Drill is Death" and "Murder and Blueberry Pie.")

The protagonist of the story would be locked in a life or death struggle, perhaps even accused of a crime he didn't commit. In the background, Shapiro would schlep a long, in his own depressed way, one step behind the bad guys. He was so mild and easy to dismiss. He even dismissed himself. The other cops would be fooled by the villain's plot, and Shapiro, when he found himself dissatisfied with the case, assumed that he must be wrong. Those other cops were so much sharper than he was.

But little details would bug him, so he would slowly and sadly follow it up. He was a great device for building suspense because the audience knows he's right. They want him to just keep poking, even though all the forces in the universe are pushing him to drop it. And meanwhile the hero or heroine would have no reason at all to believe this sad, discouraged little man would be their savior. But then, at the end, he would show up, gun in hand, sadly apologizing for taking so long about it. It was like being rescued by Droopy, and it was very satisfying.

Of course, this kind of character doesn't have to be a policeman. Agatha Christie used this model sometimes with Miss Marple - just letting her sit in the background, knitting, while the story followed other characters who were desperate and mystified. I think this is actually a good model for refreshing a familiar character. The audience knows exactly what the character is capable of, so a little goes a long way, and the fact that the protagonist may not realize just how valuable this person is, well, that can build a lot of anticipation.

And speaking of Miss Marple - tomorrow I'll talk about that bastion of British policework, Inspector Slack.

(The other entries in the series are The Dismissive Policeman, Policeman As Nemesis, and Policeman as Community Member. )

Thursday, July 15, 2010

25 Years Ago Today Interview

There's a really brief interview of me up at 25 Years Ago Today right now. It's about writing my first book (25 years ago - yikes!)

A Little Mulling, A Little Progress

I finally got around to picking out one of Blogger's new templates. They're wider and more customizable, so I hope it works out better.

I keep promising to write my series of articles on the supporting policeman characters in amateur sleuth stories. But instead, after a long day at work, I found myself working on the work-in-progress. Though it is supposed to be on hiatus, that's a score, I think.

However, I've also got a lot of blog post ideas I want to work on. I want to do a series of posts examining various characters - mine and favorites in lit - and how they tick (and for mine, how they developed). I think the police characters will start this series off nicely.

I also want to continue talking about the role of fantasy in the writing process. Fantasy is more than just a genre with magic in it. It's also what all fiction IS. It's what we do when we write, and what we do when we read. The tools of fantasy - the tools of playing - are what we use to write.

So tomorrow I might spend some extra time writing lots of rough drafts of blog posts. (If the work-in-progress doesn't come and get me.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wipe Out

Heat, allergies, and quite possibly a bug have conspired to put me under the weather. I should know that summer is always an awful time for me.

But it is a good time for reading and critiquing, and gathering ideas. So that's what I've been doing. I came up with a corker of a basic twisty mystery idea today. It might be suitable for A Fistful of Divas, or I might need to save it for something else. I think I've also got a cover concept for the mystery short story collection, but I'm too tired to think about that.

I'll get back to intelligent posting tomorrow. I have some very interesting stuff coming up for you all soon, I think.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ask the Readers

A bunch of writers over on the Kindleboards discussed the possibility of arranging guest posts and blog tours among ourselves today. Sounds like a good idea, but I realize I don't necessarily know what my readers want to see.

The purpose of this blog, for me, is to keep me honest. I must post every day and report progress, and if I post interesting things along the way for my readers, well, that's cool.

But I have no idea who my readers ARE.

With my blogger followers, I can at least look and see what else they follow, but with my rss subscribers, I haven't a clue. A quick glance at my comments and rss analytics tells me that I get equal response to progress posts, and opinion posts, and analytical posts about writing issues.

So here it is:

What attracted you to this blog? What kinds of posts do you like? What would you like to see more of? Is there anything you don't see here that you might like to see a guest blogger bring to the table? Or instead of a guest blogger would you like to see interviews?

And for that matter, who are you? Are you a writer or a reader, and what kind of books do you like?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Miss Leech and The Yard

The police have a special place in the tradition of the classic amateur detective story, and it is not always a happy one. Because the actual bad guy is hidden, very often poor Inspector Plod has to take the place of main antagonist to the detective. Sometimes a rival, sometimes an obstacle, sometimes a downright villain, and sometimes a long-suffering friend and supporter. And sometimes, when bureaucracy gets in the way, the policeman might even be the client - when his nose tells him that something is wrong, but he's not allowed to investigate further, he might call on his rival to take the case for him.

A long time ago, in cartooning class, I created a cartoon strip about a long-suffering policeman named Inspector Stride, who did not need or want any help, and the competitive old lady who lived in his district, Miss Leech. I now present to you:


If I find more of these in my files, I'll put up more later.

To Fantasize or Not To Fantasize

I like to mix genres. As a matter of fact, I will go so far as to say that I can't NOT mix genres. Most of the time it's not really that much of a problem. Mysteries and Westerns go together, really - both came from similar prototypes a hundred years ago. And mixing sub-genres is not a problem - a cozy can often do with a little hard-boiled sensibility, and what's suspense without a little romance?

The thing I like to do that totally screws me up, though, is that I like to make up places which do not exist... and which also have no magic or science fiction elements to them. I don't really want to write science fiction or fantasy, I just want this alternate setting. I've been known to have conversations with myself that go something like this:

Creative Me: It's a heist story that's set in a place that's something like Texas only it's in the the middle of Europe.

Sensible Me: Why not just have it set in Texas?

Creative Me: Then where would the yodeling bi-athletes in lederhosen come from?

Sensible Me: Well, then why not place it in Europe?

Creative Me: Then where would the cowboys come from?

Sensible Me: They have cows in Switzerland.

Creative Me: Do they wear chaps? Do they have cattle drives from Zurich to Geneva? Do they have shootouts at high noon with six-guns?

Sensible Me: Um, not as far as I know. Look why not make it an urban fantasy? Have a dragon drive from Zurich to Geneva?

Creative Me: That would be ridiculous.

Sensible Me: And the yodeling bi-athletes are...?

Creative Me: ...subject the laws of physics. This is a heist story! Dragons and spaceships would have unfair powers that would change the balance of how everything works. I don't want to change the world, I just want to rearrange it!

And eventually Texerland goes on the shelf to be used for spare parts. A bit of it may show up in a fantasy here, or a character may reach full blown status and show up in a crime story over there. Sometimes the world will keep developing there on the shelf and providing more spare parts for newer stories too.

But some of those worlds are really ripe for writing - I just have to find the right story. Something where the concept and the world work together well enough that people don't get too confused about what the heck it is.

I thought I had that story for Awarshawa - which is a place that feels an awful lot like exotic parts of Eastern Europe as depicted in fiction from a century ago. The story that I'm calling "The Serial" at the moment is perfect for that world. Except....

Half the characters in that story come from a place like England. And while the Awarshi parts of the story take place in a world that cannot exist in the real historical time line, the "English" parts are showing a real affinity for reality. I could take that part and develop it into something more commercial. And parts of that story kinda want to go that way.

I'm at the point right now where I wonder if I should abandon Awarshawa to the shelf once again. I don't have to make up my mind for a long time, because I've got too many other things to write in the meantime. Heck, I could probably do both, eventually.

But it is a conundrum, because when it comes down to it, if the world is a lot like this world, I don't want to have to reinvent any more wheels than I have to. The story might be served by being a plain historical. And I don't want to cut out the mainstream mystery audience which I feel would like the stories and characters.

The question comes back to, who is the audience for this? I suppose Nora Roberts threw this question away when she wrote her "In Death" series as J.D. Robb. She built her own expectations.

So I continue to think and think....

Friday, July 9, 2010

Guest Posts and eBooks

My guest post, "Seven Ways to Stay Motivated in Tough Times," is up at The Secret Archives of the Alliterati today.

Smashwords has a summer/winter sale on right now. (It is winter right now below the equator, after all.) All of my books are half off (as are a lot of other books). The sale price appears on the individual book pages. Whether you already love ebooks or are thinking of giving them a try, this may be a good time to go browse around.

Editing and Pictures

I did some editing today - including some of the manuscripts in hand, and also the guest post that should appear tomorrow at The Secret Archives of the Alliterati. (I haven't heard confirmation - I'll post when I see the link is live.)

The other thing I did today was pick the picture that I think I'll use for the cover of my mystery short fiction collection. I'm going to collect five of my published short stories, three of which have been nominated for awards, and two of which are Mick and Casey stories. The cover, though, I think I will base on the best title in the bunch: "Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup!" (Which will also be the title of the collection.)

I figure it will be a nice sampler for a dollar (Amazon won't let you offer books for free).

Tomorrow I hope to talk about the Plodding Policeman in cozy mysteries. So often a fool, sometimes a nemesis, and sometimes a stalwart. I have a lot of thoughts, but I'm not sure yet exactly what I'm going to say....

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Today's Progress - 1081 Words

I didn't write toward any particular goal. I just wrote a guest post for another blog for Friday, and then went on to write a fun scene for the second George and Karla book (which is tentatively titled "The Butler Who Did It").

And I feel particularly good about it, because I didn't realize it yesterday, but it wasn't necessarily the heat that got to me. I was having a silent migraine. My brain is only semi-functional in that state. (It's sort of like there's a loud buzz in the middle of my head. Which technically means it isn't silent, I suppose, but it doesn't hurt. It's just fuzzy.) It only let up this evening.

So, as I said, I feel good about it. And during the migraine, I actually got some good plot notes down. They even make sense.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Update: Nada

Some days you get the bear, and some days a combination of high heat and humidity, hormones and the day job get you.

I printed out the first chapter of Test of Freedom, and I wasted time on the internet. Do I get points for that?

(Must distract readers....) Hey, LOOK! Simon's Cat!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Toasting the Brain Cells

It's incredibly hot again, and I spent much of the day just keeping cool. I read, did some critiques, and noted some ideas.

The one really good thing I did today, though, was to change my approach to Test of Freedom. I've got notes, I've got ideas, I've got lots of big picture stuff. But what I need right now, I think is blinders. (Or perhaps the photographer's lollipop I talked about in April.)

Let the big picture stuff sit in the back of my head. Right now, think of this almost like a serial. One chapter at a time: Look at the first chapter and treat it like it's the only thing the reader will read. Ask myself "What does the reader need right now?" By taking this approach, I've already identified what is missing from the first two pages.

I'm going to try to take a chapter a day - write the changes in one chapter, and then maybe read and make notes on the next. The rest of the time, I'll be reading and working on other projects.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Day - eBook Experiment Update

It seems like a good day to report on my experiment in Indie Publishing. (For new readers, I started out a few months ago experimenting with my oddball off-genre stories. And just two weeks or so ago, I decided that it was time to all in or all out. I went for "All In." Read my post about the decision here and here.)

I only just published Have Gun, Will Play - my first more commercial mystery book - so I don't know the results of that yet. But it got reviews faster than my other books. And my other books are doing pretty well for such hard-to-define books:

I've sold 102 copies of my various books on Smashwords (though most of those were from free promotions - that's not all this month). Amazon changed the way they report their sales, the reports have been miscounting, but by handcount, I sold 27 books last month, and gained about six reveiws, (scattered about Goodreads, Amazon, Smashwords and misc blogs).

I have still not done much on marketing. I post a little on various forums. Send a note to a reviewer here and there. At the moment my main marketing plan is WRITE MORE STUFF. I've had requests for sequels from readers of all three books. And it's much easier to market a series - something that people can sink their teeth into - than it is a scattering of stand-alone books.

So while I work to get those sequels out (and the WIP as well) I will probably publish an inexpensive collection of my published mystery short fiction. I have a couple of Mick and Casey stories among them.

Now I will leave you with some independence day videos:

YouTube has removed most of the better clips from Yankee Doodle Dandy but here is a clip of Cagney in the finale of the Yankee Doodle Boy number from That's Entertainment. (Man can that tough guy dance.) Unfortunately, this clip cannot be embedded.

And here is the opening number from 1776. I have often wished to have William Daniels/John Adams as my muse - pacing impatiently behind me saying "Get on with it woman! We haven't got all day!" Of course, most of the great lines from this movie are actual quotes from John Adams and others. (Like the opening speech - "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace, two are called a lawfirm, and three or more become a congress!")

Just Catching Up

It was incredibly hot and pretty much nothing happened today, but the point of this blog is to report on my progress every dang day. So here it is....

*I outlined a guest post that will be published at Alliterati Archives next week (more news on that later.)

*I took a lot of notes on things I want to do with The Man Who Did Too Much, and some on A Fistful of Divas. I also did some planning on my writing schedule, because I still have such a backlog of projects to work on.

*I managed to get a hold of lots more chapters of books from the critique group and read through a whole lot of them. And I posted the first chapter of Man Who for others to crit.

I didn't read any more of The Saint, but maybe I'll do that before bed.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Critique Groups - Motivation

I decided to stick with the critique group that was frustrating me so badly. (The "rule" that bothered me the most turns out to be only a guideline, and we're working out the rest.)

One of the many things critique groups do for your is ramp up the energy. (A class will do that too.) This can be good or bad. It's bad if you find you can't keep up. There are always a few drop outs or at least laggards who fall further and further behind. Some of these are people who just didn't know how much work it was going to be. Some are people for whom the timing was just plain bad.

The first few times you have to drop out of a group, or class or novel dare, you have to wonder "is this because I just don't have the stuff to be a real writer like those other people?" It can be very demoralizing. And I think the secret is this: The test isn't whether you can keep up with any group or class or novel dare. The test is whether you can get past the doubt that comes on you when you fail.

Because we all fail. We have deadlines we miss. We all have personal goals we don't achieve. If you don't fail once in a while, you didn't set the bar high enough in the first place.

The good thing about the energy of a critique group (or class or dare) is that if it doesn't leave you behind, it will certainly carry you forward, at least for a while. I don't know if it is animal magnetism or the herding instinct, but the example of others, and the need to keep up or outpace the rest, is a great way to get your muse in gear.

Today I've mostly been reading the earlier chapters of other members of the group, but I also found myself reading through the first eleven chapters of The Man Who Did Too Much, and really enjoying myself. I may be soon ready to move into the tricky stuff.

The other thing that happened was that I realized that I may want to turn A Fistful of Divas into a full novel. It's half a long short story right now, that I was planning to turn into a novella - but the one thing I really feel is missing is the depth and pathos of these largely comic characters. It's fine to just hint at it in a short story, but to stand up to the first book it needs more. And I realized last night that this story's whole concept is founded on Casey's backstory. I thought this was a story about Mick having to make up to Casey about a blunder he makes early on. But I think that's just the first act.

Now, the thing is, I didn't just decide to go deeper completely on my own, out of some artistic vision. When I'm on my own, I think I do things to improve my writing out of some grand commitment to my art, but the fact is, I'm a writer. I make up reality, and when I'm on my own, I make up my commitment to my art and all that as well. All it took to bring me to reality and make me do it for real was one fan who read Have Gun Will Play, and said he was eager for the next book. A real person, not an imaginary one.

Funny how that real person inspired me to do a whole lot more than a bunch of imaginary ones.

This is the real reason you have to put yourself out there. Writers tend to be shy. And people tell us that we have to develop a tough skin because it's good for us to be able to take criticism. Because criticism is good for us, and we will be better writers if we just listen to harsh critics more.

But that's not the real reason you need a tough hide. The reason you need it is because if you hide from the hurtful nasty stuff, you'll never experience the really joyful stuff. Yeah, a critic will probably do you some good, but not nearly as much good as just meeting one real fan. Because they are much more motivating than anything you just imagine.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

More on The Saint - Psychological Warfare and Con Jobs

I do like the old "confidence game" story. Both the positives of things like "Widow's Peak" and the TV show "Leverage" or the scarier ones like "Gaslight."

Deception and twists are the key parts of such con jobs, but there is another element that often plays a part - and that is psychological warfare. A con man, of course, likes to manipulate the emotions of the mark - scare him, excite his greed, motivate him in an irrational way.

Sometimes the psychological warfare is critical to the plot - the core thing. In Gaslight, for instance, Ingrid Bergman battles for her sanity with Charles Boyer and a wonderfully evil young Angela Lansbury. (It was Lansbury's first film, and she got an Oscar nomination for it. Ingrid Bergman deservedly WON the Oscar that year, though.) Unless you have something against classic movies, rent it, buy it, watch it. Especially if you want to learn a little about adding suspense to your stories.

Back to The Saint: Simon Templar really hates crooks. He hates them so much that he doesn't just want to defeat them. He wants to punish them, not just at the end, but all the way along. He spends a lot of time teasing and annoying them, and leaving his famous calling card - that little stick figure with a halo that appears on nearly any book, tv show or movie related to Mr. Templar.

The problem with this is that there is only so much purpose to it. Yes, it's satisfying up to a point. Yes, it's often a part of a greater plan. But there comes a point when it puts the whole situation at needless risk. And that's a tricky point.

I'm not yet sure whether I think the way Charteris handled this element in "The Man Who Was Clever" was good or bad. On the one hand, he did use it to create great tension, and a little negativity, for a character who was just too perfect. It's one thing for The Saint to take risks with himself and even his willing followers, but then an innocent is put at risk. And when his back up plan to protect her fails, his sidekicks understand that they are STILL not to sacrifice their shakedown of the crooks in order to save the girl. The prime goal never shifts.

Now, they do pull it off. (I think that does not constitute a spoiler - The Saint always wins, one way or another.) But they do it with a tarnished reputation, at least in my eyes. To the modern reader, that may be a good thing - given that too much gleaming perfection hurts the eyes - but I don't think that's what Charteris intended. I think he wanted us to be fearful of The Saint's possible failure, not angry about it.

There are a couple of points in a story when you see something of what a character is made of - and I think the "all is lost!" point (which tends to occur sometime after the middle, but before the final confrontation) is one of the key ones. When all is lost, when the plan is shattered because more is at risk than the hero thought, then we see what is really important to the hero. And yes, there may be a real conflict within him or her. And sometimes the best characters are those who do not easily make the right choice, and who refuse to accept they must make a choice at all.

But if you don't want to lose sympathy for the character, you have to think hard about those choices and how they make them. Does your character hesitate at all? Does your character change direction?

One thing I like in Leverage - which is a TV show about a gang of thieves and con men who even the score for victims of powerful people - is that when the "all is lost" point comes, they change direction. They may scramble to try to pull off the original goal too, but when something more important is at risk, that becomes the prime goal.

I'm not sure I don't like The Saint better when he isn't really a saint, but I think that giving your character such arrogance is a risk, and should be handled carefully and consciously.