Monday, April 30, 2012

Misplaced Hero: Introduction

(NOTE: Find a shorter, more up-to-date version of this introduction here.)

Next Monday I will begin a blog serial.  It's an experiment.  I want to play, and have fun, but not distract myself too deeply from my other writing.  But the ultimate goal is to become a stronger writer.

I want to try something: I don't just want to do a serialized story (that is, a formal story which is broken up into bits). I want to make use of the medium: blogging.

We read blogs like a newspaper column or a comic strip, as we come across it.  We may follow it closely or not.  And we expect something high-impact for low effort, even when there is a plot arc or interconnected posts.

So I'm going to give it a try, and see what comes of it: short episodes of 500-600 words or so. (I'll adjust that length as I see how it goes)  Twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.  (I'll talk about the how and why of things on other days, for writers and others who are curious about the process and the decisions.)

I don't know if I'll be good at it, and I don't know how well I can keep it up.  I do know that I have the skills to finish the story -- just in the traditional way, if serialization isn't working out for me.  But I"m starting with an open ended story, and we'll see where it goes.

(Note, I will also be working on a logo or art for the story -- I'll post this in whatever evolving state it's in at the time of an episode -- even if it's just a sketch.)

About The Story

Story Title: The Case of the Misplaced Hero
Series Title: undecided (probably The Beeton Dispatches)

The story takes place in an alternate world, which was inspired by silent movie serials, and adventure fiction and melodramas of the golden age of silent movies (i.e. 1915-1927 or so).  But it blends and bleeds in with other time periods.

You could say this story is built on the images and tropes of that kind of fiction, and from that era, just as high fantasy is built on the images and tropes from folklore, myth and fairy tales.

I sometimes think of it as "Flicker-punk" or "Jazz-punk".  But it is not dystopian, nor is the story driven by technology, so I suppose the "-punk" name doesn't fit.  All I can say it takes place in another world, but it's not fantasy.  There is actually only one magical element -- the means of getting some characters from the real world to that world.  I do reserve the right to use pseudo-scientific and magic-ish tropes from mainstream of the period -- possible monsters, inventions or ghosts.

But for the most part, the genre is a combination of "Cloak and Sword" Swashbuckler, and old fashioned Mystery.  (The mystery elements will probably come later.)

Cloak and Sword is a take on the term "cloak and dagger" and generally means lurking, spies and skullduggery, but also people swinging ropes and swashing bucklers.  Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda are all examples of "cloak and sword" swashbucklers.  The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Black Pirate and Captain Blood, on the other hand, are just plain old regular swashbucklers.

The great thing about cloak and sword is that you can set it in a modern era: if there are secrets to be kept, the hero will still want to use swords because they are (theoretically) quieter than guns.

The Plot

Plot?  There's supposed to be a plot?

But seriously folks, this first story will be about Alex, a young man who was born in the wrong world.  He's a misplaced hero cooling his heels as a perennial student at Michigan State University, until one day, he takes an accidental trip to somewhere else -- somewhere heroes are needed.

The story will be narrated by another character who doesn't enter the first story (although I'm looking for a way to get her into it in a minor way) -- Lily Beeton, the anarchist lady journalist whose life is nothing if not ironic.

The World of the Story


I refer to the overall world as Awarshawa sometimes, but Awarshawa itself is only one country in a larger world -- a country where all the trouble happens.

Awarshawa is the place the spies are from or are going to, and the ambassadors are always getting assassinated. It's where the border guards stop the train and hassle you about your papers. It's where the exiled nobles who endlessly plot against one another are from. And it's a place where refugees flee through the forest primeval, only slightly less afraid of the local bandits and armies of partisan soldiers than they are of legendary monsters.  It's a place where they are constantly at war with someone, usually themselves.

And most of my Awarshi characters, so far, are kind of like Bolsheviks with the souls of cartoon Frenchmen. (They seem to spend much of their time smoking, shrugging, accepting bribes and arguing over the meaninglessness of existence.) At least that describes the more sophisticated urban Awarshis. The wild partisans of the mountains and forest have a much more Cossack style.

Imperia and Freedonia

The main characters are largely English or American (as they are in the old stories which inspired it) -- which left me with a problem.  Is this a "Ruritanian" story?  Where it's the real world, but we make up an exotic country where all the action happens?  No.  It can't be.  Awarshawa simply does not fit into this world's history.

And besides, the reality of old serials isn't consistent with, well ... reality.

So, in order to prevent anyone from being confused as to whether there is any pretense of reality or historicity here at all, I decided to call these two other countries Imperia and Freedonia.  One rules the waves and has lots of civilized murders in country houses, the other has cowboys and square-jawed capitalists.

Freedonia, of course, is a name already in use, but honestly I cannot think of a better name to suit the tone and reality level of the story. (But no, it's not going to be as funny as the Marx Brothers.)  Besides, Freedonia doesn't play a big part in the story as imagined so far.  (It's just that Alex is mistaken as being from Freedonia.)  So for now, for the blog version of this story, Freedonia is a place sort of like America.  If I feel the need to change the name, I will.

There will be other countries, which will be named as necessary.  Don't expect them to conform to reality, but do expect them to borrow from cliches and tropes and prejudices freely.

I retain the right to utterly change this story if I decide to turn it into a book.  Or to utterly change it here.  (I'll let you know if I do.)

Next week, in Episode 1,  Lily will introduce herself and start to tell the story of Alex, the Misplaced Hero.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

ROW 80 update, April 29

A Round of Words in 80 Days Update:

Wednesday Day 24 - Long Day at day job, so I took a break.  Watched half of On The Town, for no other reason than it was available free on Amazon's Prime Videos right now.  (Still humming "...gotta see the whole town, right from Yonkers on down to the bay. In just one day!"  Here's the opening number from YouTube: New York, New York.)

Thursday Day 25 - 124 minutes. Wrote episode two of the Sekrit Projekt -- which now has the official project name: Blogstory Experiment.  (The actual story is called "The Misplaced Hero" though I don't know the larger series name yet.)

I also wrote up some posts on strategies I'm considering with this.  I want this to be a learning experience, and I am excited about the idea of writing this in very short, high-impact episodes.  However, I must remember that the first goal here is to Just Write, and it slowed me down to try and fit the story into an efficient package. I do think that the attempt is giving me better prose, though, so I'm going to try to split the difference between self-expression and self-discipline.

The other thing I did was start in on prepping a logo for The Misplaced Hero.  More on that later.

Friday Day 26 - Tired from work, but I did do yesterday's post about Hopes and Fears.

Saturday Day 27 - 61 minutes.  I spent my early session thinking through my new direction, and I think I've got a real plan in place.  Then I was bad.  I had an inspiration for how to make the kind of faux croissants I want.  I adapted a Chinese recipe for baked bao, and oh my goodness, it was a rousing success.  I made three or four different kinds of rolls with it -- just testing -- and they all came out the way I wanted.

So it was really late before I got started on real work, and even then I kind of coasted on some work I'd already done.

(Also, the whole Get Up, Stand Up Project is finally working in terms of fitness and muscle tone, but it isn't working for weight loss because of things like, you know, faux croissants.)

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Hopes vs. Fears

Whenever you get a new idea, it'll begin with popcorn kittens: your head will be filled with wild, enthusiastic motion, as ideas beget new ideas and you see more and more opportunities.

But then, after the kittens wear themselves out, and head for nappy time, B9 the Robot starts patrolling around.  At first you start having (well-founded) doubts about some of the ideas.  And then you start wondering which of many options would be best. And pretty soon all those shiny new options are looking a little scary and then downright threatening....

And next thing you know B9 is rolling around in circles, waving his useless arms crying "Danger, Will Robinson!"

Fears partly come from hopes.  You hope to succeed.  That success is only in your head -- a wonderful possibility.  But after a bit, you start to own that imaginary success, to possess it like you already have it in hand -- like it's something you could lose.  And suddenly all doubts become a threat to that imaginary thing you own.

Side story: when I was about five or six, my cousin and I got into a terrible fight.  My aunt came running to ask what was the matter.
"She got more than I did!" said one of us.
"More of what?" asked the aunt.
"More pie!"
"What pie?"
"The pie we're pretending we baked!"

Anyway, here is a look at the hopes and fears I've been experiencing on this planned experiment in serialized fiction.  Strangely, every one of them applies to just about any creative endeavor a writer might take on.

HOPE: To get this story out there.

FEAR: I'll be overwhelmed with the deadlines and the format will turn out to be more difficult and less creative than I thought, and the story will suck or I'll hate it by the end.
Set reasonable goals, and then the only a problem would be if you try to overachieve.  If you rush, slow down.  If it sucks, back off to work with it more traditionally, with skills you already have.

HOPE: This story will find its audience.

FEAR 1: Nobody will find it without tons of promotion, and probably in places I'm unfamiliar with and don't know anything about.
REALITY: And they'll find it in your head?  Besides, if nobody finds it, you don't have to worry about how good it is, do you?  It's a learning experience.  Learning in private is not bad.

FEAR 2: The wrong audience will find it.

FEAR 3: The audience will be put off or frustrated by the format.
REALITY: That's a valid fear.  But that's why it's an experiment. You have to try it to find out if the format suits the story.  If it suits the story and the audience doesn't like it, then see Fear 2: they're not the audience for this story.

Plus, you don't have to offer it in just one format forever.  Or even for now. That's a part of the learning curve -- find the formats and delivery methods that work for it.  Experiment.

FEAR 4: I'll lose my existing audience, because I will do less of what I have been doing and more of something new.
REALITY: This is a major issue for writers. All of us do it, usually without realizing it:  You write for the person giving you feedback.  Even if that person is a teacher being paid to give feedback, or a fellow writer who is ONLY giving feedback because she gets it in return.

I love you guys, but I honestly have no real idea what draws you here or not. I don't know how many of you are even real people, or just server 'bots or spiders checking links across the internet.  Even if some of you express an opinion, I have no idea if I change the content whether you'll love it or hate it, or if the silent majority will be enthralled or run for the hills.

The worst mistake any writer can make is to let an imagined audience limit you.  Heck, not even a real audience.  Seriously.  It's a trap. To quote Ricky Nelson: "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself."

He wrote that song in response to an oldies concert at Madison Square Garden where people booed him for being different than they remembered.

I think one of the key lines of that song is "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck."  If you want to be an artist -- or just a happy human being -- you have to have the strength to walk away.

HOPE: This could lead to something big.  This could attract readers. This could be a massive success!

FEAR 1: I'll be successful, and things will grow too fast, and I won't be able to keep up!
FEAR 1: What do you mean, "so?"
REALITY: So how is this worse than not doing it at all, may I ask?
FEAR 1: I'll have made commitments! I'll... I'll let people down. I'll....
REALITY: Be embarrassed?  So nu?
(Have you noticed that Reality is sounding more and more like a Jewish mother?)
REALITY (cont): If you're worried about being too successful, then don't be so successful.  If you're worried about promises, don't make promises.  Look back to the top of this article for the bit about the fear of being overwhelmed.

FEAR 2: What if I get caught up in the success, and go chasing after promotional opportunities and stop writing for the audience that loves this?  Or let it interfere with my writing?
REALITY: You'll get over it.  And if you don't, you'll have to remind yourself stop doing that.

FEAR 3: What if I make a wrong choice, and I miss out on the success I could have had!
REALITY: So you can't try again?  It's an experiment!  You try something, it doesn't work, you try something else.  Why is this so frightening?

This last fear tends to seem very complex when you're in the midst of it -- we have thousands of choices to make, and they seem all so critical. They all seem like a crossroads which will lead you on an inexorable path to somewhere.  But the solution to all of them is really simple: you make a wrong turn, you go around the block and try again.  If you get lost a lot, you will get to know the neighborhood really well, too.

I once had a student aide who insisted on using the wrong software for any task.  He did his word processing, for instance, in Adobe Illustrator, page layout in Photoshop, and his drawing?  He did it in Pagemaker -- with the box and line tools.  In the end, he knew all of those programs way better than anyone else did.

So, when fears rise up, confront them.  Look them in the eye with the flat cynicism of a Jewish mother and tell them to stop being silly and eat their soup.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ROW80 Update - When Popcorn Kittens Attack!

For those who haven't been following, "Popcorn Kittens" is one of those viral videos, which writer Kris Rusch used as a metaphor for what has been going on in her head ever since indie publishing came along. Read her blog post about it, and watch the video.

More about what happened to me this week in the Sekrit Projekt section below.

A Round of Words in 80 Days Update

Sunday Day 21 - 158 minutes.  Mostly working on the new blog project.  I wanted to do more, but I got a little delayed with this and that, and then I have to get up early tomorrow.

I came across this wonderful interview with Gary Oldman and Mark Strong about the filming of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  It's just over a half hour long, and has some really good stuff about the process of acting and especially trusting the material and your own good sense.  (Also some funny anecdotes.)  Writers need to think like actors sometimes.  It's always good to listen to good actors talk about their craft.

Monday Day 22 - 168 minutes.  And I got a little distracted, or I'd have done more.  But the worst thing is, I had that terrible attack of Popcorn Kittens. (See below.)

Tuesday Day 23 - 121 minutes.  I got tired.  But I still got in two hours, most of it non-fiction.  (Support materials, outlines, and of course, things like the post below.)

(Here's the linky for everyone who updated their ROW80 effort today.)

Sekrit Projekt - Popcorn Kittens Run Amok!

Okay so I had this idea cool project for this summer (code named "Sekrit Projekt"): I'd take my ideas for the book I've been calling "The Serial" and have one of the characters blog it.  It'll be a great learning experience.  Lots o' fun!

But then I realized something:

My melodrama, Wife of Freedom (really titled The Whore of Freedom, but that title gets it blacklisted all over the place) has a sequel:  Test of Freedom.

It's deeply flawed and yet it's one of my favorite stories.  I have tried, off and on, to find an approach to rewriting it so I could publish it, but it's just too darned episodic.  Fragmentary, even.  It doesn't want to fill in and be a real book.  It's almost like.... Uh oh.  It's almost like this Sekrit Projekt idea.

OMG!  Test of Freedom is ideally suited to that.  It also fits in the same kind of genre as The Serial, because it is an non-magical alternate world story based on old adventure fiction.

The biggest problem is that it's LONG, and would take a long time to complete in 1000 word weekly blog posts.  However, it does break into two stories rather nicely, an possibly even three or four discrete stories. (However, the villain has a very strong arc in the second half, so that part might have to be one long story.  And when I get to that part, the episodes may be longer than 1000 words)

The best thing about this is that it ties in to an existing book.  So it could potentially do sales some good.  I am tempted to drop The Serial and do this story instead, and this week I am devoting some time to both stories to see if I think it will be a good idea or not.

I suspect not, though.  Test of Freedom would be more of a traditional serial, more formal and less of a learning experience.  (Plus I think the "keep writing!" imperative of The Serial should strengthen the skills I need to deal with some aspects of ToF.)

The advantage of ToF is that I have a rough draft in hand.  So it shouldn't be too challenging to do a once a week or even twice a week series with it.

The goal here is to turn my blogging time into something more fiction oriented, and more helpful to my writing.  Not to take away too much time and energy from the WIP.  Still, while I'm in this crazy mood, I think I may devote the rest of this ROW80 round to whipping the Sekrit Project into shape -- both stories. 

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Hmmmm, blogs ARE serials, aren't they?

A long time ago in a land not so very far away, I decided to write something off the top of my head.  A wandering story.  A serial.

It would be called "The Perils of Lady Pauline," and it would begin as high fantasy with flying unicorns, and outlaws and rebels and magic trees, etc, but at any moment, if I got bored with it, I could have the characters kidnapped by aliens and ported off to the modern day U.S. or off to Star Wars land.  Just whatever I felt like writing that day.

It would be great fun, I was sure.  (To write, if not to read.)

I was, I think, in college by this time, but hadn't yet decided to be a writer.  And although I had a highly developed imagination and storytelling ability, I did not have writing skills to match.  My mind flew too fast, and I typed too slow.  (And as I've learned since, I can't even translate what happens in my head into language that fast, let a lone write it down.)

So that story got to about three pages -- solid, single-spaced text, edge to edge, on erasable onion skin. (Which means that even if I'd kept it, it would have dissolved long before now.)  And there it stalled.

The story, as I remember it: Lady Pauline was a noblewoman, a pawn in some evil lord's scheme to take power, and she was a captive who escaped with the help of a band of wild peasants, and a couple of mercenary outlaws (one of whom she would fall in love with when they stopped arguing).  You know.  Standard stuff.  I never got to the unicorns or the space ship that would haul them off to modern day Peoria.

Pauline's story never even rose to the level that I particularly cared about it.  Images didn't haunt me, nor did I get ideas from dreams.

But the concept stayed with me.

Basically, it's exploratory writing -- just letting things go, letting them be illogical if necessary, making jumps if necessary.  But it's different than exploratory writing in that this would would not have any ulterior motive: it would be for its own sake.

And that, ironically makes it harder and less free.  Exploratory writing, after all, is part of a larger process.  It can be utterly disjointed and nonsensical because it's raw material for something else.  It's not finished, and never whole.

But this idea, for all its free-form inspiration, is about bringing a whole story into being.

I've indulged this idea in my journal quite a bit, and the spontaneous stories -- often from dreams and other things -- have become a stockpile of raw material for "real" stories.  But some of these stories have stubbornly kept their identity, refusing to adapt to anything else, especially not something rational or publishable.

Over the past couple of years these have coalesced into a project I've been calling "The Serial."  I decided to develop and write The Serial into a Real Book some day.


Except something has been happening to my head lately.  I need to break out of a rut.  I have more skills now than I did when I was young.  And I keep hearing Dean Wesley Smith's voice, shouting "Dare to be bad! Write with no plan!"

And then two more things happened.

One is that I started reading John Le Carre, and I rediscovered the joys of the omniscient told story.  The Honourable Schoolboy in particular is so lovely in its pure story telling style.  Summary, exposition, often just dipping into vivid scenes and then out again.  Wry, sly, and yet somehow the truth laid bare.  It'll be logical and puzzling and interesting and then suddenly it'll fly into a beautiful, personal, painful moment that just makes me want to put the book down and lie on the floor and kick my feet and hands like a baby for simple writerly joy.

The other thing that happened was that Kris Rusch wrote a post about how publishing is changing, and someone in the comments wrote about how she'd built up her audience via a blog serial.

Now, a year ago, when you'd hear someone mention the world serial, you'd get a whole chorus of "Eewww!  I HATE serials!"  But this time, there was a whole chorus of "I've been thinking about that too."

And suddenly I knew something.  I didn't want to write a finished story and serialize it.  I wanted to freewrite the draft of this story.  No, not even a draft!  I wanted one of the secondary characters (Lily, a budding journalist) to pour out what she felt like saying about her world and the stories that happen in it.  Not just a story, but something more natural.

In other words, I want Lily to write... a blog!

(Well, not exactly a blog, because she lives in a world without computers.  But she's a would-be journalist and so she see it more as dispatches and memoirs and letters.)

So, next Monday, I'll formally introduce the new feature -- explain a little about the story and what my goals are and what to expect.  Then on May 7, Lily will begin her weekly column, telling of her friends, her foes, herself, her world, and their stories.

(FOLLOW UP NOTE: while this thought did indeed inspire me to jump in and write the serial, I decided to drop the concept of Lily as a blogger.  I found that she just told the story, and other than an awkward opening, she didn't add anything.  However, I still like the idea and I might very well give her a blog later on.)

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

ROW 80 update, April 22

A Round of Words in 80 Days Update

Get Up Stand Up

The biggest problem with my "Operation Stand Up" is that I do get worn out. Especially on work days. This should not be happening, as I converted my desk at day job to a standing desk months and months ago, and I should be used to it. The problem is that even after I got used to standing all day, I still have the muscle tone of a jelly fish.

So I haven't just been standing, I've been working to be more active. However, the result right now is that when I do sit down when I get home from work, I can hardly get out of the chair. I mean I'm like a pregnant lady in a bean-bag chair.

The goal, by all the health studies, is to get my sitting time down to four hours a day or less. Right now, that's only reasonable on work days (since I don't sit at work at all). However, I do work well at the kitchen counter, and that will be the focus of forming new habits.

ROW80 Update

Wednesday Day 17 - Longest day of the week at day job, and worn out. But I did keep my sitting time down to four hours or less.

Thursday Day 18 - Still really worn out, but I once again did keep my sitting time down to a little more than four hours.

Friday Day 19 - 220 minutes.  I had this idea, while reading Kris Rusch's blog.  I'll post about it Monday.  Between writing up that, and yesterday's post about timing when to find the body in a cozy mystery, I put in quite a lot of time.

Saturday Day 20 - 100 minutes.  I mostly wrote fiction today!  Not the WIP, but on the Sekrit Projekt I came up with yesterday.  Which is not really a secret, and I will say more below....

Sekrit Projekt!

I want to do some freeform writing.  Just do the whole "dare to be bad... in public" thing that Dean Wesley Smith is always going on about.  I need to break out of my rut, I need to stir things up, and ... I need to blog.   I'm mostly out of stuff I want to say on the blog right now.

So I'm combining all of my problems, and I am starting a new fiction feature on this blog, on Mondays.  I'm going to turn this blog over to one of the characters from The Serial, and let her just write her friends, her world and their adventures, just in any old way she wants.

I'll start the fiction part of this on May 7.  I plan to keep it up for the summer, or at least until the first story arc is done.  This Monday I'll post some background on where this is coming from, and the next I'll post an introduction to exactly what I'm doing.

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Delayed Bodies - Writing the Cozy Mystery

Elizabeth over at Mystery Writing is Murder wrote a post Friday about her struggles to move the discovery of the body as early as possible in a cozy mystery -- to get the story going.

This is generally good advice, especially in a light genre with relatively short stories, like the cozy.  You really do need to get the story going.  No dillying or dallying or shillying or shallying.'s more than good advice if you are writing for a large traditional publishers -- it's a requirement.

I, of course, had to be the contrarian.  I do not argue that the story has to get up and start going right away.  I just don't like it when the finding of the body -- a major turning point -- is rushed.

When I say "rushed" I don't mean that the finding of the body can't happen early.  Heck, there have been some wonderful mysteries where the body is found in the first sentence, or has already been found before the story even starts.  (And that's a technique I'll say more about below.)

What I mean by "rushed" is this:  When a body is found, everything changes.  It closes one sequence and opens a new one.  Whatever you are committing to in the opening sequence has to be completed. There has to be a full arc, or it's a waste.

Now, as a fan of classic mystery, I also have a bugaboo about variety, and the drama of it all (even in a comic mystery).  The story doesn't always demand that the body be found immediately, or even be found "on screen."  It can be a background event.  And pushing it to the front too early can leave me feeling cheated.

What I feel cheated out of is whatever else happens to drive the story.  Mysteries, after all, are about secrets, so there is always going to be a surface story that drives your character's immediate reactions, and an underlying story of what the killer does.  And these two trails will be full of deceptions and red herrings, and disguised truths... and I don't want to miss out on any of that.


Just in practical terms, I mentioned in the comments on Elizabeth's post that there are ways to handle the inciting incident (or catalyst) differently.  I mentioned one that works for thrillers, and she wondered how that would work for cozies.  Rather than clutter up her comments with a very long post, I figured I might as well just list a few here:

1.) The Split Incident.

This is the one I mentioned over there, and one that Robert McKee mentions in his book STORY.  If you have a situation that needs slow growth, you can sometimes split the "inciting incident" by creating a "prologue" which is outside of the story. The example he uses is Steven Spielberg's Jaws.  The movie opens with a horrific shark attack.  But that attack happens unwitnessed, so even though it's an incident, but it doesn't incite anything yet (except for a certain amount of tension and nausea on the part of the audience).

This is equivalent to Alfred Hitchcock's baseball-bomb theory.  I.e. if you have a couple of guys sitting around talking about baseball, and then suddenly a bomb goes off, you've bored the audience and then shocked them. If you show the audience the bomb under the table, and the two guys don't know it's there... suddenly the same scene is full of tension.

So in Jaws, after the shark attack, we get to meet Sheriff Brody and his family and the island of Amity in their ordinary everyday lives, and all the time we see the ocean in the background and we worry about the Brodys.  And because we're worried about them, we're a little more involved in their day-to-day difficulties.

And if we start seeing those day-to-day difficulties match up with the main danger we already know about, we feel rewarded.  Sheriff Brody is the "protector" of the town, so danger is his business -- he'll have to deal with that shark.  And he's afraid of water, so we know this will be tough for him.  And his kids are reaching the independent age (and are not afraid of water) so we're worried about him in terms of his love for them. And his struggles with the local politician aren't that interesting at first, but boy do they connect up later when the question as to whether to close the beaches comes up.

So that works in a thriller, how can it work in a cozy?

Same way.  The first thing you have to do is identify the "bomb" -- that is, the driving force of the story which will cause your characters to put themselves on the line -- and give us an early glance.  In a mystery, the bomb is always the puzzle.

So a young woman hurries along the street.  She's carrying an old fashioned cassette recorder -- which is not only odd for anybody, but it's particularly odd for her, because she's this really super hip young lady, with a smart phone and a couple of other gizmos on her.  And she seems to be up to something.  She sees someone, and ducks down an alley.  She drops the cassette player in a dumpster, and dashes on.

That might be enough, or maybe she runs into the person she's avoiding as she leaves the alley.  We don't see this person (it's the killer) but we know she's scared.

Then the story begins as Wendell Durringer, our octegenarian sleuth, wends his walker into the corner coffee house, and he finds that the hip young barrista who always got his coffee order wrong didn't show up for work....

The tricky part is this: Jaws works because we can already see a connection between Sheriff Brody's every day life and how the shark will disrupt it.  And even if we are not sharp enough to realize that connection yet, the fact that the chief of police on an island is afraid of water is plenty ironic and interesting enough to drive the opening sequence by itself.  And when the shark DOES show up, we see the connection right away, and so does Brody.

And since the "shark" in a cozy is a puzzle, I think that whatever drama gets in Wendell's way should not just be that the barrista is missing.  Wendell has to walk into the tangle of drama that will turn out to be what led to her being missing.  He may not realize that the bank manager's spilled coffee has anything to do with it.  But the conflict between the banker and the other waitress -- which seems to be over coffee -- needs to relate to what lead to the barrista's disappearance.  And Wendell might very well see that there is something going on there.

2.) "Not What It Seems" (or maybe "Mysterious Events")

This can be a variation of the technique mentioned above, except that you don't let the audience know more than the protagonist.  I used a variation of this in Have Gun, Will Play.  At the start, Mick and Casey ride into the middle of a range war, and get involved in a shoot out.  What happens in that shoot out is relevant to what happens later on.  And Mick can see that there is stuff going on that no one wants to tell him about.

So at this point, the story isn't driven by the fact that people got killed.  The tension of the story is in that Mick and Casey (and their suspicions) are not welcome, but they are needed.... because one of the players in the range war has a daughter he wants to get out of the territory.  He hires Mick and Casey to escort her to safer ground.

This makes complete sense on the surface, and is an interesting challenge all on its own, plus it has a little bit of suspense lurking in the background, because we know that something is odd about the whole set up.

While a murder does make a major turning point in the story, the actual first major turning point is when Mick decides he doesn't like any of the situation, so he goes maverick. The story has enough drive without the murder.

This technique isn't just a matter of how you begin a story -- it's a structure for the whole story, and I admit I have a weakness for this kind of structure.   A spooky house, mysterious happenings.  Love it. 

3.) Non-Murder Case Opening (or Red Herring Opening)

This is a variation on the above.  I used it in The Man Who Did Too Much. (I'm not saying my books are brilliant examples, but they're handy.) In this case, the main puzzle isn't a murder at all, or at least doesn't seem to be until a murder happens later.  The key here is that the story IS about something else.

This story begins with George's personal problems.  He compulsively takes care of people, and his girlfriend suffers ptsd and is compulsively needy, and they can't break out of the cycle and create a normal life.  They are in desperate need of an Inciting Incident to break them out of the cycle.  Luckily, right there in the first chapter, George's former boss asks him for a favor, to investigate a local lead in a distant kidnapping case.

There will eventually be a murder, but it's the kidnapping case which drives the story.  And George's personal life only adds to the drive:  George doesn't actually care about the kidnapping case, but it matters to Karla. And Karla is the person who can help George with his personal problems.  And soon everyone is sucked much more deeply in the case than any of them expect.

This may sound more thriller than mystery, but both the kidnapping, and the murder (and for that matter, George's personal life) are puzzles, and the story is structured around those puzzles.

4.)  Start With The Body

You don't always have to do anything tricky.  If you consider that the finding of the body irrevocably changes the direction of the story, then one way to keep it from messing with your setup is to find the body first.  Let the body launch the set up.  Don't give us important conversation, or too much of the character in normal life -- because we're going to lose the details with the finding of the body.  Start with the body, or only give us the broadest strokes of the scene first.

It seems to me that The Ice House started this way.  (It's not a cozy, but that's only because of tone -- structurally it was a manor house mystery.)  Three women sitting on the patio and one notices that the gardener is racing at full tilt across the lawn toward them --The gardener who never ever moved fast in his life.  Something is very wrong; he's found a body.  It's only then, in reaction to the finding of a body, that we get the context.  One of the women had an abusive husband who had disappeared years ago.  She was investigated for murder by a vindictive inspector, who couldn't make a case.  Suspicion has hovered over the woman and her friends for years.  It's been a living hell, and now it's about to start all over again.

Starting with a body is a great way to begin a story where the situation is loaded with drama from the past.  It's good even when the situation doesn't seem so loaded to the characters.  A body is found, and it doesn't seem to have any relation to the characters... except on investigation, secrets come out.

There are other possibilities for changing up how the body affects the story, but I am tired, so that's all I'll do tonight.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Here: The New Temporary Goals

(NOTE: My goals for this ROW80 quarter are still in flux, so I'm sticking with the vague goals I've mentioned below -- however, I have a new, exciting Sekrit Projekt which I'll be devoting more and more of my energy to for this summer.  Postings on that will be on Mondays - but the background on the project is listed here.)

Until the semester ends, I am trying a new set of goals. This time, instead of focusing in on a particular task I need to get done, I am going to do the opposite.

I am going to count everything writing-related.

This includes: blogging, idea generation, scribbling odd ideas, editing, artwork, formatting, accounting. And of course, you know, writing.

It will not include time spent reading and commenting on blogs -- no matter how business-related and inspirational they may be -- and I'm also not currently including reading. (Though I will be tracking reading, particularly keeping a list of novels read.)

What is the goal behind this goal?

It's pretty simple. I want to know how much of my uncounted time I'm actually doing something useful. I suspect that when I don't count these "support" activities, they start to blend in with useless stuff, like screwing around on the internet.

However, I also want to get an idea of how draining these tasks are. How fruitful they are. I want to, in other words, pay attention to them for a while.

The other thing that is related: I want to spend less time sitting down. I mean that as a shift in perspective. It isn't that I want to spend more time standing up, but rather that I want "sitting down" to be an activity, not the default.

One problem with this is that right now it disrupts all of my patterns. I need to re-form intellectual patterns around the physical ones. It's been great with reading. I pace up and down the office or around the kitchen when I'm reading, and this greatly entertains the cats. For working, I have mixed results, but I'm getting better. I may find that there are certain activities that I have to be sitting down to do properly.

I am not setting a particular time goal here at the moment. It's more a how high can you go? Total is open.

See you in the funny papers.

ROW 80 update, April 18

A Round of Words in 80 Days Update:

For those only following intermittently, my goals are temporarily changed, probably for the remainder of the semester. I'm working on a collected book of my blog posts. I'm actually taking it deeper than that. I'm also working on posts for the Daring Adventure Stories blog, and doing more in my journal again. Part of the goal is to purge all of the nonfiction thinking from my brain -- just get myself sick of it -- and then warm up to writing again. The journal kind of works both sides. It's a place to blather about whatever is obsessing me, but its also a place where I blather out ideas.

The result is that these update posts are kind of minimalist. I will occasionally burst out with a regular post (as I did Monday), but the blog here is on low key for a bit.

Sunday Day 14 - 60 minutes. Copying and organizing the files for reading. Notes on new things to write for the blog book.

Monday Day 15 - 120 minutes. Worked on the introduction for the blog book -- posted a draft of part of it for Monday's post. The idea is to set the context for the collection.

Tuesday Day 16 - 120 minutes. Today was a mixed bag. I write a new post that may be a part of the blog book, AND I wrote up quite a lot on some fiction brainstorming. I think I am finally to the point where I can just start reading through the selected posts and writing up intro and afterthoughts for each one.

Note: I've thought more formally on my new goals, and here they are.)

See you in the funny papers

Monday, April 16, 2012

The World Has Changed

When I started my blog two and half years ago, it seemed like the publishing world was recovering. It had been under attack for decades by modern brick and mortar retail -- by the automated distribution systems of Barnes and Noble and Borders in particular.

About ten years ago, I had dropped out of the race, because all my favorite authors were struggling, and many had been dropped and blacklisted as mere "midlist" authors. I had a hard time finding books I wanted to read, except at Amazon, and then the books were mostly used. So I went and learned screenwriting and became a script analyst. Hey, screenplays might be even harder to sell than books, but at least you got paid an actual living wage when you sold one.

But one day I dropped by a bookstore, and I saw that the Mystery shelves had expanded again, and they were not all thrillers, or romcoms. There were actual, you know, mysteries there. Was the genre back? I didn't know, but I knew I wanted to get back to writing mysteries. I had been in the business long enough to know what I needed to do. I dusted off all my old plans, and formed them into a new plan of attack. I'd finish the first book on a new series, and then I'd have two books/series to start shopping around....

But as I worked on that new book, I discovered that the world had changed much more radically than I thought.

Oh, not the traditional publishing world. That turned out to have not changed at all: Booksellers were still treating writers as cannon fodder -- throwing them out there for a book or two and then blacklisting them. There was a surge in mystery titles, but that was just a rearrangement of shelves. Authors were still being treated horribly, and getting a book contract was still more nightmare than dream.

What had changed was that suddenly that book contract was not the only game in town.

Not only was self-publishing suddenly a viable option, but all sorts of internet and new technology related options were mature and available to the writer.

I don't know that anybody in publishing -- not the publishers, not even self-publishing gurus who argue with them endlessly on the internet -- quite realizes the depth to which the world has changed.

It's as though publishing was a tiny isolated town, where everybody had the same expectations and goals. There were many who lived on the wrong side of the tracks, but everybody was a part of the same culture. Those on the wrong side of the tracks all dreamed of moving to the good side of that small town.

Now suddenly the whole town has been moved to a big, cosmopolitan city. Suddenly we are thrust in with other people who have very different standards and goals. Different world views. Different everything. And we're all sharing the same space and there is nothing to draw a line between us and them.

The ironic thing is that this other world was always out there. It was always thriving. It's just that it wasn't visible to those in publishing before, because publishing had a barrier around itself. And I don't mean the "tracks" which divided the good side of town from the bad. I mean there was a wall which divided the publishing culture -- published and unpublished writers, and also academics and critics -- from the rest of the world.

Here is the irony:

The publishing industry only recognized the tracks themselves -- and they saw it as a way to keep the riff raff out. Even the riff raff itself only noticed those tracks, not the wall around the city. Those tracks were a citadel which protected what was good and glorious, and now that it's down, we hear a lot from those inside about protecting our standards from the vandal hordes who are storming the now nonexistent gates. And we hear the vandals shouting, "They can't keep us out any more!"

But that's like two ants fighting over a crumb. It's a small part of what has happened. It's not even the most important thing that happened to them, let alone the rest of the world.

The bigger deal, for publishing, is that there is no longer a barrier keeping anyone IN.

And suddenly those inside are not only rubbing elbows with people who wanted to get in, but also with people who never wanted to get in. People who were doing just fine at things like blogging or podcasting, or oral storytelling, or stand up comedy, or online comics, or publishing underground fanzines.

It's not that those inside the citadel are on equal ground with those who were outside and wanting to get in. We're all now on equal ground with Uncle Jim and his long memory of a million jokes, and with Mrs. Evers' third grade poetry group, and videos of cats riding Roombas, and cartoons drawn by that brilliant math geek who never got around to showing his art to anyone before having a blog.

Those opportunities were always there, as I said. And well before the ebook revolution, the internet was also making it easier and easier for those people to make a living at what they do. Not that they couldn't before, but it was harder.

So what has changed?

Suddenly, now, we never have to make the hard choices between passion and profession.

Actually, no, that's not true: suddenly now Passion Trumps All. If you have to make a choice, you must go for passion. You now have a million options -- some professional, some not -- and the best ones may be difficult. So those writers and artists with real passion are going to be the ones who get through the difficulties.

It is more critical than ever for you to find your bliss, and find the niche where you can thrive at it. You no longer have to conform your bliss to a few limited opportunities.

That's what I have learned in the past two years of this blog.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Update: Now For Something Completely Different

Things are not working, and it's been not working for long enough to know I can't keep pushing -- I have to change things up.

This morning (Saturday) I discovered something that my brain wanted to do.

I want to work on an ebook collection of top posts from this blog.

This is ironic, because one of the things I don't feel like doing right now is blogging. But I do feel like organizing and messing about with stuff. "Cranking Widgets" as David Allen calls it. It's time to organize the spice rack, and file the junk on my desk... and sort through old posts to make a cohesive book. Or maybe even two - but start with just one.

So that is the ROW80 goal until my brain rebels and wants to go back to writing. (Which will probably be next week.)

So, for now I have a list of 28 posts which focus on surviving the writing life in this changing world. I also have about 45 related posts which I have to sort through and see if I want to include them. (Or rewrite two similar posts into a Super Post.)

I will be rewriting many of these -- either to update them or to make them clearer for those reading out of context. Here is the main list, in approximate order:

What it is to be a writer
eBook as Artifact, William Morris and Me
What does Artisan Mean to You
Mastery Comes First, Not Last
Heinlein's Rules series (to be updated)
On Hatchlings And Neo-Pros
The Times That Try Writers' Souls

The Writer in the New World of Publishing
Books Are Not Commodities! They're...Pastrami on Rye!
Editorial Standards, Pulp Fiction and eHow
How Readers Find Books These Days
How To Stop Worrying and Love The Algorithm
Search Engines, eHow, and Fiction Writing
Marketing and the Physics of Water
Volume vs. Quality, a False Dichotomoy

Finding Your Voice
Sophistication Ain't Everything
In Praise of Mary Sue (intro, +3)
The Value of Boredom
Konrath on Being Deliberate
The Leap From the Lion's Mouth
Genre and Soy Sauce
Why Did I Self-Publish?
Be Brave, Be Fair, Do Good Work (rewrite from scratch for a conclusion)

When I'm done reworking these, and writing additional material, I suspect I'll decent little book, worth $2.99.

This will be my ROW80 goals, and I'll go back to counting minutes as my main goal for a while. I'll probably increase the quantity, since these are things that absorb me for longer than it should. But I'll announce that with next week's post.

ROW80 Update

Wednesday Day 10 - Taxes

Thursday Day 11 - Taxes

Friday Day 12 - Reading

Saturday Day 13 - Epiphany! I started out thinking about how I want to change my life this summer, ended up thinking about what I want to do RIGHT NOW.

Here's the list of This Weeks ROW80 Participants...

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Existentialist Cat

I was just not up to doing a Friday Favorites post this week. But a friend just sent me a wonderful French video of a cat who suffers from ennui, as only cats and Frenchmen can....

And just to give you the other side of the equation, here is Popcorn Kittens again. (I suspect these kittens are American.)

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

ROW 80 update, April 11

ROW 80 update

Sunday Day 7 - Sleeping. Well, okay reading. I had a busy and energetic start of the day, but I faded on getting home. Then I noted an increase in sales on some of my books, and so I went and looked at the books.... and I ended up reading a bunch of my own work.

Don't laugh. I write this stuff for my own entertainment, and I can get utterly enthralled in my own writing, especially if I haven't read it lately.

Monday Day 8 - 1 Session, 45 minutes. I should have done more, I planned to do more, but I had a bunch of distractions. I did some great thinking on Starling and Marquette. I think it's for a book further down the line, though. It took me a while to change gears back to Mick and Casey.

Tuesday Day 9 - 2 Sessions, 40 minutes. Today was largely eaten up by dentistry and taxes. Also, making a vat of Chinese bbq pork for the freezer. Of the writing sessions, the first was largely Starling and Marquette, but I settled down to more on Mick and Casey before bed.

Taxes this year are slightly more complicated because I made more money, but I haven't tracked down all my deductions yet. (I forgot about a few of them. I have to go back and enter them, but that's easy in Turbotax, at least.) I may or may not be paying self-employment tax this year.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Rise of the Amateur - Why Do You Write?

The other day I picked up one of my books and started reading in the middle, and got hooked and couldn't stop. This happens to me all the time. I do not feel guilty about this. It's a brazen secret: I love my own stories.

That's why I write them.

So they exist ... and I can read them.

Writing them is also fun and entertaining. I enjoy crafting a story, I enjoy the business end, I enjoy editing. But I'll be really blunt here, if someone else could just write all those stories in my head for me, I would not be at all upset that I didn't have to. They'd just have to do it the way I'd do it... and they won't.

There are a lot of other reasons to write. All of them are valid, even the "I just want to be rich and famous and show Mrs. Pickledorf from third grade that I am NOT a complete loser who will never learn to spell."

But your motives will have an effect on how you go about your writing life, and whether you stick with it, and whether you can make a career of it. Whatever naturally motivates you, whatever it is that drives you to start this and keep at it, is the easy part.

The problem comes in what motivates you do to the stuff you don't care about.

For instance: if you love crafting the final draft, but hate staring at the blank page, what can you do to motivate yourself to keep at that blank page until you have something to work with?

For me, the struggle to "break in," to make a living at writing, to hold my book in my hand -- those used to bring enough benefit (excitement, interest) to get me through the process, and get those stories out of my head and onto the page.

But now... they just don't do it any more. It might be my age (the whole "been there, done that" thing), or it might be the one-two punch of traditional publishing becoming just too horrible to desire, and indie publishing being too open to worry about.

And so I find myself in a very very odd position. I'm scrambling and yet complacent. Floundering and satisfied. Running without drive. Happy and yet stressed out.

Finding The Prize to Keep Your Eyes On

I've talked before about the concept of keeping your eyes on the prize: Having a single unifying (albeit artificial) goal to keep you on track and keep you from being distracted. When I was screenwriting, I was able to use the Nicholl Fellowships as that artificial goal. It was a single, simple thing that got me to push those stories from my head to the page, and not worry about marketing or schmoozing or production or contracts or rights. For the Nicholl, all you had to do is write a great script, and mail it off before the deadline with a thirty dollar check.

Breaking in to traditional publishing used to be that simple too, particularly the magazine market. It was Heinlein's Rules all the way: write, submit, write, submit. However, once you broke in, the goal began to scatter, as you dealt with other things, and started aiming at higher markets, etc.

With the addition of self-publishing, there is no unified goal. And every goal has a million options. I decided that the only way to simplify it was would to set an arbitrary numbers goal: number of titles published, number of titles in a series. Having a "plan" for all that.

But none of that gives me much drive any more.

And I've finally settled down to the elemental drive -- the one thing that really drives me to do what I need to do:

If I don't write it, I can't read it.

I have to bring this into existence. If I don't, the characters will linger and die before their time; before they do all the cool things they want to do with their lives.

This is what I would call the Amateur Perspective. Or you might even call it (if you want to get all high-falutin') the Moral Imperative Approach: "If I don't do it, nobody else will." Or looked at another way, you might call it the Existential Approach. ("There is no meaning, no existence, unless you bring it into being.")

This feels like it's contrary to the professional approach. It's more suited to totally amateur efforts like Nicky Charles, than the sort of thing Dean Wesley Smith seems to teach, for instance.

But really, it isn't. Both are about work ethic -- about drive. What gets you going when you don't feel like working? What gets you to do the jobs you don't particularly like to do?

Heinlein's Rules are the Bible for writing as a vocation, but I really think it could be good to look at them through the lens of writing as an avocation. What do they mean to the dedicated amateur? How do they apply to the artisan? I don't know when I will get to this, but I do want to take another look.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A little Fred Astaire to Wish You a Happy Easter

I always watch a little Easter Parade this time of year. (Although I admit, I usually fast forward through the talking parts.)

Here's a shorter version of the video I originally posted (the previous was taken down) Fred Astaire is buying presents for Ann Miller, and does some fancy dancing to convince a child he wants a drum instead of a bunny.

Happy Easter to you.

And see you in the funny papers.

ROW 80 update - Finally Getting Started

ROW 80 update

I am so far behind, and I have so much on my plate, that I feel this portion of the week was a miracle. I am way too weary to talk about why. I can only say that I think I found the element that did not feel good enough or fun enough, and with much persistent work, I am finally able to go after it.

Wednesday Day 3 - Nothing -- this is the long day at work. Still recovering from the migraine.

Thursday Day 4 - 3 sessions. I was brainstorming to get momentum up again. I had really bad sinuses though, so I was still battling health and weariness. Still, I think going back and redoing a short scene that didn't satisfy into a foundation scene for the story might be just what I need.

Friday Day 5 - 3 sessions. Some fruitful brainstorming. I am moving into the Mess Of The Full Blown Book stage. I needed one more thread to carry what I've been writing, and I finally found it.

Part of the problem was that the idea was originally a novella or even novelette -- so some elements were a tad "light weight" for the story. But it's also a risky transition time -- when you pull out the threads and can get into a bigger project than you expected. Still, I think this will make it a much better book. And tomorrow I can get back to writing.

Saturday Day 6 - 3 sessions, 60 minutes (writing). I had hours and hours of prep work, but I think I'm finally almost caught up on all the work I missed last weekend. I really feel good about the work I did today.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Friday Favorites - John Le Carre, Experience, and Tableau Vivant

I always knew I would like John Le Carre's books. But they are dense, and every time I'd dip into one, I'd put it back down thinking "you know, I really think I'm going to like this... but not right now. My brain can't handle this right now."

But now I am just ripping through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. And I will certainly be ripping through his other books.

I've learned a couple of things from this. One of them is something I knew when I was young, but didn't really know: Maturity matters.

Before, when I started reading Le Carre, I could understand what he was writing about on a deeper level. I could see the complex motives of his characters. But I hadn't lived in a petty, bureaucratic, paranoid, hostile workplace before. I mean, not long term, not in a culture like that. I understood it, but I didn't connect with it.

But I have lived in a dysfunctional paranoid work situation since. So this time I'm having PTSD flashbacks, as I watch these characters maneuver through life. I utterly connect now, even though these people live lives very different from mine.

Before I made this personal connection I was driven more by curiosity, to see into an alien world. Mere curiosity isn't always enough to get you past density. Le Carre just drops you into a culture, without context, and you have to scramble a little, mentally, to catch up with what's going on. He's a big one for slang, too. Language and slang are the brushes he uses to paint a culture. And it makes the whole thing incredibly rich.

If his prose wasn't so dense, I would have probably read and enjoyed his books without waiting until I had a deeper connection -- but they would have less meaning for me. And probably would have less meaning even now.

Tableau Vivant

But there is something else that makes Le Carre especially interesting to me right now. After last week's post about Hitchcock, I was going to move on to talk about Wes Anderson, another director who uses static settings, but in a very different way .

And as I thought about it, I realized that some of what Le Carre does in fiction is a perfect bridge between the two.

I really love the way Le Carre sometimes builds his scenes like tableaux, or paintings. We have story and action and drama swirling around in the context, but the scene itself is just someone standing and watching, or sitting and talking, or walking down the street.

I used to think this is what people meant by the term "set piece." (Which it isn't -- a set piece is a scene that is whole in itself and can be pulled out and put back in whereever it's convenient for the storyteller to put it -- things like character moments, or which reveal background into. However tableaux can be set pieces too.) But the correct term is tableau.

You know what a tableau is: it's like a diarama. A scene laid out in figures, illustrating something. A battle, a disaster, something historical or famous. Something important enough that you feel the need to see it in three dimensions.

A Tableau Vivant is a special kind of tableau: a living scene -- where actors in costume strike poses to create a 3-D illustration of something. It has a long tradition in performance art. People might still see them in Christmas presentations where people stage live nativity scenes -- and perhaps illustrate several other scenes from the advent.

In Victorian times, people often created tableaux as amateur theatricals -- to illustrate popular books of the day, or reproduce a famous painting. On stage, a narrator might present a story or poem, while actors create a series of tableaux behind him to illustrate.

Interestingly, the popularity of reenacting paintings, including nude models, became a way to get around decency laws, and were used for decades in burlesque and even vaudeville to show nekkid women on stage. (If they don't move, it's not lewd -- it's art!)

You still see some signs of this practice in old movies -- not the nudity, but the "beautiful girls" aspect in the Zeigfeld style shows, where there'd be dancers and a guy singing about glorious women, and then mini-tableaux will be revealed with women in various poses -- standing like statues or illustrations, or fashion magazine covers. (Not nude, of course. You can see an homage in the "Beautiful Girl" number from Singin' in the Rain -- the tableau is about 1 minute in.)

And actually, now that I think about it a tableau vivant plays a major part in Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mystery Black Orchids. (An actor is murdered in the middle of a well-watched tableau vivant!)

However, when I'm talking about how Le Carre writes sometimes like a tableau, I'm not talking about a literal one, as in Black Orchids.

When I'm talking about tableau as a fiction technique, I'm talking about those times when nothing much is happening "on screen" -- the characters may be frozen in space, or more likely, just doing something ordinary and mundane -- but the narration or situation causes the scene to be infused with drama.

A great example is a story I read a very long time ago, (and unfortunately can't remember the title). The whole story is a picture of a town on a particular morning -- as though the town were a tableau vivant. We hear from the narrator that it's a town capable of great evil, but never had the chance. The narration zooms in, like a camera, on the town's executioner, who is at breakfast with his family. And there we learn about the man he going to execute as soon as breakfast is over. Eventually we learn why in a stunning twist.

There is no dialog in this story, it's all narration -- like a camera roving around this breakfast table scene, showing us not only the attitudes of the characters but also revealing their inner motives and thoughts. The story never leaves the breakfast table, but there is a lot of drama packed into that scene. Just as there might in a well done painting.

This technique is often used in literary fiction -- especially the way I describe it above. But that's not the only way to use it. It is very well suited to aspects of spy and detective fiction -- any story where the driver of the action is information.

I'm going to pause for a bit of irony: though film and television can make good use of a tableau style, they do a LOUSY job of it with using it as a tool to display information. It has a whole different effect in film. I'll talk about that next week when I get to Wes Anderson.

But for a book, it's ideal, because the action in an intellectual spy story takes place inside, in the head. Especially with the kind of story Le Carre is telling. I remember once reading the mystery defined as a story about "what will have happened." The idea being that that action in a mystery happens all off screen.

And that's exactly what he's doing in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It's the story of a retired spy, George Smiley, who is asked to look into an incident that might indicate whether there's a double agent working in the highest echelons of British Intelligence. And he has to do it without letting anyone know he's doing it. And the people he's investigating are not just top professionals who can spot when somebody is up to something -- they are also competitive political beasts who are alert to any possible backstabbing by friends as well.

So everything has to be very very low key. It's all about investigating stories of the past and checking over paperwork. The drama can come from things like the fact that a Russian diplomat wore a uniform with medals to a funeral -- that means something.

What Le Carre does to bring this to life is to leave the scene still -- a child standing at a window observing a new teacher; Smiley sitting still in a chair while reading a report -- while dropping us deeply into the character's experience.

I don't even know how to explain what he does. He doesn't use an authorial voice -- he puts us deeply into the character's point of view -- and yet he is also omniscient, passing us through the scene and the various characters inner passions.

We're inside the heads of these mind-workers, and we see and feel the drama of it all. It's a place where rivalries and self-defense may be all about information and ideas. And yet they're also very visceral -- involving sex and life and death.

So often with fiction, we are taking internal things and illustrating with visceral external symbols. An angry person throws a punch, for instance. Le Carre is successful in doing the opposite, manifesting the visceral and physical in the intellectual level.

Next week I'll be talking about, Wes Anderson, who does amazing things with stillness and quietude in movie form. Although his films are most certainly not like Le Carre novels in subject or tone, his style has a certain similar touch: they both force a certain patience on the audience, and lure the audience into looking rather than just following.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

ROW80 Update, April 4

A Round of Words In 80 Days - First Update

This weekend ended up a wash. A simple act to help a friend get to a bank turned into a three day saga, but we got 'er done. Also, Monday turned out to be migraine day -- which is techincally a 24 hour period of grogginess and light-sensitivity, so it it continued well into Tuesday, and I'm exceedingly cranky.

So things did not get off to an auspicious start.

(Based on relative popularity of things I do, I'm seriously considering giving up fiction writing and just collecting my comments made on other blogs, and selling those instead.)

Monday Day 1 - 1 session, 12 minutes. Restarting is hard. My head, already groggy, isn't warmed up or into it. I pushed out a morning session to get it going, but I never had a chance to let the thoughts grow, so I just ended up dropping it.

Tuesday Day 2 - 0 anything. It took until late in the day for the migraine grogginess to clear up. However I realize that the problem here is prep work....

Prep Work - and This Week

For microburst writing to work, you need to have the story active in your mind. That's what was going on last quarter: I was putting the emphasis on the brainstorming and such.

Well, I didn't shift it into gear this weekend, so I didn't have the fuel to make the burst work. So I've got to make up for that. Therefore, for this week, my three sessions will be brainstorming sessions -- getting my head back into the story.

One thing I did do, was some very good brainwork on the next story, but that is too early in development to write yet. I've got some exploratory scenes I could do, however, if I find I just have to switch to a new project for a while.

In the meantime, I am reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and I think I will talk about that for Friday Favorites. It's a kind of continuation on the discussion of Hitchcock. I want to talk a little about a technique I call the literary Tableau Vivant. And that will lead to talking about filmmaker Wes Anderson later on.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Revenge of The Peeps - a Bunny Day story

I wrote this little bit of fluff for the ebook anthology Pink Snowbunnies in Hell, a collection of flash fiction all inspired by the phrase "Pink Snowbunnies will ski in Hell...." The book has lots of humor, fantasy and horror, some poems, and even some serious contemporary literary type stories.

I, however, thought immediately of the lead characters in my mystery The Man Who Did Too Much. The key phrase is definitely something Karla would say, while George might very well question whether snowbunnies were actually all that rare in hell.

So I asked them to present to you this little Easter play, in which they lampoon themselves a bit. (Although Karla would like to assure you that she does own a tiara, clown shoes and even a snow cone machine. And both of them keep nudging me about maybe letting them carry out their plans in a future book....)

* * * * *

Revenge of the Peeps
by Camille LaGuire

"PINK SNOWBUNNIES WILL ski in heck before I--oh, hi, George."

Karla Marquette paused as she entered the diner. She was forty, and wearing a plastic tiara and clown shoes, along with blue jeans, a T-shirt and a beach towel tied around her neck like a cape. No one in the diner, except George, gave her a second glance. It was a small town. People knew what to expect.

George Starling was quite the opposite of Karla. He lurked in the corner of the diner--conservatively dressed in a tailored suit, with a mysterious air, and an even more mysterious accent that wasn't quite English. Folks around town were pretty sure he was a Canadian spy--or maybe hit man--when he wasn't vacationing in Potewa County, and they weren't far wrong.

George looked Karla over and cocked his head.

"All right, I suppose I expect the clown shoes from you, but the tiara?"

"I was fairy godmother at a kids' party today," said Karla, who did odd jobs--emphasis on the odd--for a living. She clomped over to sit opposite him at the little table by the window.

"So what will you not do until after the pink snowbunnies ski in hell? Or was that heck?"

"Hell," said Karla. "Definitely hell. I have to go to a wedding. Tomorrow. I hate family obligations. Did I mention to you how I hate them?"

"Endlessly, but usually you get out of them."

"I'm not going to let Cousin Selia bully me into going, even if it is Jane's wedding...."

George sat up with sudden interest.

"Jane?" he asked. "She's the one I met, isn't she? The timid one with the runaway dog."

Karla nodded. She remembered the incident. George had rescued the dog from traffic--which is something he was wont to do. Rescuing, that is.

"Selia is her mother," said Karla.

"We have to go," said George, urgently. "You have to take me along as a guest."

"No!" said Karla.

"Why not? You like Jane."

"And you hardly know her."

"I rescued her."

"You rescued her dog. You don't have to look after everyone you've ever held a door for."

"Yes, I do," said George simply. "And you haven't answered my question. Why wouldn't you want to go to Jane's wedding?"

"I don't like the groom."

"That's no reason to--"

"I said pink snowbunnies will ski in hell first, and I meant it."

George looked narrowly at her. "Are you sure that pink snowbunnies are all that unusual in hell?"

"They're snow bunnies, George."

"Could be metaphoric. What about those pink marshmallow bunnies at Easter?"

"You mean peeps?"

"Consider how many peeps humans have sent to hell via microwave. Angry vengeful pink bunnies, slaloming along the flames of hell. I'm sure there are lots of them there right now. So you can't get out of it. The bunnies have sailed."

"This wedding is the revenge of the peeps?" said Karla.


"Well, I've never microwaved any peeps in my life. I'm not that mean."

"Original sin. All of mankind must pay."

"Maybe we should invite PETA to the wedding. They could protest."

"Does PETA have a confectionery chapter?"

"They ought to," said Karla. "They could throw powdered sugar and food coloring on the groom."

George paused. "He's really awful, you say?"

"He's a creep, and a bully. Just like her mother. Jane really deserves better."

"Perhaps we should stage an intervention."

"Mom and Dad already tried, with ice cream and everything, but it didn't work."

"Oh," said George. "If she's in love--"

"She isn't! She's afraid of her mom. And she's afraid of Dickie too."

"Dickie?" George sat back in astonishment. "You mean the guy who beat up that workman for spilling paint on his sidewalk?"

"Yep. Dickie Wenswyck."

"And her mother approves?"

"She recruited him."

George was silent for a moment, and then said, with an air of finality, "I must stop this marriage from happening."

Oh, crap, thought Karla, she'd triggered his hero obsession.


"I'll... kidnap the bride. Right from the altar."

"That's a felony, George."

"I promised to help her if she were ever in a jam."

"You can't commit a felony. You'd be deported."

Karla looked hard at George, and he settled back and looked sullen. They both thought for a minute, and then suddenly George cocked his head.

"Has anyone tried an intervention on Dickie?"

"Nice idea, but I think he's immune to ice cream."

"I was thinking more of a dark alley."

"Aggravated assault is a felony too."

"He has a penchant for picking on people. I could lure him into picking a fight with me...."

He drifted off, thinking. Karla thought about how nice it would be if someone like George could clean Dickie's clock, just once. Or it might be more fun if it wasn't someone like George. Someone sweet and little and fluffy and.... Then Karla smiled.

"Did you know I have a pink Easter bunny suit in my closet?" she said.

"Somehow I'm not surprised," said George. "But I don't--"

"Did you know that tonight is Dickie's bachelor party?"

"Not surprised about that either."

"He'll be drunk, and he'll probably be very high by the wee hours of the morning. And if he isn't, everyone will think he was. Nobody will believe him."

"Believe him about what?"

"The peeps!" she said, grinning. "Imagine a dark alley, he's stumbling home, and then BAM, something hits him. It's cold. A snow ball on a warm summer night. He's freaked out--"

"Where do we get snow?"

"I have a snow cone machine," she said, waving him off so she could continue her story. "Then, two furry monsters with floppy ears and large incisors step out of the dark, like Harvey on steroids. Or maybe like Dirty Harry...."

"Dirty Harvey?"

"Right. And they proceed to convince Dickie to skip the wedding. Or they break his knees if he doesn't.... Do you break knees? Or just fingers?"

"I can do either, but isn't it still a felony?"

"Sure, but they won't be looking for you. They'll be looking for pink snowbunnies from hell. It's the perfect crime!"

The End

* * * * *
If you enjoyed this little holiday sketch, you might check out Pink Snowbunnies in Hell anthology -- 20 flash fiction stories for only a buck (proceeds go to animal rescue organizations).

Get it at for Kindle, or at Barnes & Noble for Nook, or in other formats at Smashwords.

You may also enjoy George and Karla being slightly more serious in their first mystery novel The Man Who Did Too Much. Available for Kindle, Nook, and at Smashwords.