Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why writing is not an Olympic event

JAN BROGAN -  As I was watching the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics last weekend with my family, taking in the history, tradition, pageantry and creativity of the spectacular event, I looked into the optimistic faces of all the world's top athletes and I had one overriding thought:

Thank God writing isn't an Olympic event.

Can you imagine what goes into being an athlete?  You spend your young life sacrificing the carefree days of youth to devote yourself to training for your sport. You dedicate four years to officially gear up for the Olympics, eat just the right food, do just the right exercises, fight with your coach,  struggle through pre qualifying and qualifying events, agonize over the competition, all for that one day.

And that one day arrives.  And maybe, just maybe you were so nervous you didn't get a good night's sleep.  Or you ate too much pasta or not enough vegetables the night before.  You've got a cramp in your hamstring or you slept wrong on your neck. Maybe you wake up with your seasonal allergies in full bloom.

 All that work, all that dedication, and you have what - a few minutes in swimming, a few more in running or a gymnastics routine? And in those minutes, it all has fall together. It all has to be perfect.

What happens if you are a half a second slower today? Your balance is just a tiny bit off.  The stiff neck affects the flexibility of your spine and you just don't rotate the right way. What if you are the Men's Gymastics team, taking all the first place finishes in the qualifications only to end up FIFTH?


Whereas, if you were just writing a novel about the Olympics, you could wake up completely hungover. You might forget the names of the American archers. You could mistake silver medalist  Elizabeth Beisel's home state, change her name and make her from Massachusetts.  You could easily mispell the name of the Malaysian shooter who competed while pregnant. (Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi). and if you decide to fictionalize and make a better story, she can even win!

You write a really crummy first draft, and then later, you can write a really crummy second draft. You can decide you got an entire subplot wrong and take it out of your book.  Your editor  can tell you that you would write it much better in first person and you can redo the entire thing.  As long as you get it right, the fifth, sixth or maybe seventh time you go through it, you can still take home the gold.

 I should be losing myself in the drama of the competition, but no.  What I'm thinking when I'm watching the Olympics is that I am so GLAD I put my heart and soul into a field where it's all about the do-overs.  I am so glad I am not competing in an event that cannot be rewritten.

When you watch are you wishing you were one of the athletes and this was your moment? Do you take inspiration from their achievements? Or are some really weird thoughts running through your mind?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Never admit your road to inner peace

JAN BROGAN -  Last week,  I had about six waking hours to critique eleven news stories from high school students. After I met my deadline, but before I had to bring the papers back to class, 
 I opened the refrigerator to get something to eat. I had only an hour and a half to shower and get changed, but I  was suddenly consumed with an overriding passion to clean the refrigerator. 

No. I am not a clean-freak.  In fact, I am SO not a clean-freak that should my husband ever leave me, my biggest fear is what the house would look like a month after he was gone.  I am SO not a clean-freak that I sometimes forget about laundry for weeks on end. If someone snuck in and ransacked my office - looking for an important clue to a mystery, of course -  I would never even notice.

And yet, every now and then I take an unusual amount of pleasure in cleaning out the refrigerator.  And so it was last Tuesday. With a burnt out brain, cleaning, scrubbing and reorganizing the contents of the refrigerator was just so satisfying.  Afterward, with just the right number of condiments pruned from the shelves, I felt revived, calm, and maybe just a little powerful.

 This is not just me.  My husband (although he is a clean freak) takes this pleasure in cleaning the car (and yes, my car, too) every single weekend.  My aunt (not a clean freak) used to really love polishing silver.

So what strange menial tasks bring you YOUR BLISS?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ironing. I love to iron. I love to iron wrinkly, damp men's oxford cloth shirts, and make then starchy and perfect. Now that I say this, I am overwhelmed with double entendre, which I promise you I did not mean. I am going to stop now, and find a menial chore that's less graphic and suggestive. (Or is it just me? And it's just--ironing?)

JAN: Yes Hank,  I think we have a new Fifty Shades of Starch thing happening, here. 

HANK: For the record, I have NEVER loved cleaning the refrigerator, or cleaning anything else. Once I put my spices in alphabetical order, that was fun.  And I arranged my jackets by color. Also fun. That's it, sisters.

HALLIE EPHRON: Don't let me near your laundry. I specialize in shrinking adult clothing to child-sized, turning white things pink, and my ironing skills are minimal. 

I do rather like to weed. Under bushes and around plants, not in the lawn, ever. In fact, I've been known to pull wturn a eeds from the front yards of complete strangers and our town library. So satisfying, pulling black swallow-wort by the roots. I can't help myself. 

JAN: Weeding, really? That's the reason I hate gardening. I can be somewhat upbeat about the planting (despite the dirty fingernails), but it's the relentless need to weed that makes me want to pave the yard.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: For me, it's organizing. Which is ironic, as I may be the least organized woman in the state of Maine. But under pressure from deadlines or a particularly knotty plot problem, I will line up spices by alphabetical order, separate all the different types of bath products into coordinating containers, and convert an unsightly heap of papers into a stack of labeled manilla folders. 

I suspect it's the sense of instant accomplishment that makes these menial tasks so compelling. All of us do work that takes months and sometimes years to complete. Being able to start and finish a job in an hour or two? That's heaven.

LUCY BURDETTE: Laundry. Utterly satisfying to start with an enormous pile of dirty clothes, herd them through washer and dryer (or out on the line if the weather holds), and then fold into neat piles. Ironing? Only if absolutely necessary. I have perfected the art of extracting a shirt from the dryer to hang at just the right moment so the wrinkles are minimized.

In fact I've done four loads today when I NEED to be writing...

RHYS BOWEN: Oh dear--ironing? Cleaning the refrigerator? Have I stepped into the wrong universe here? I was once being interviewed and the interviewer was listing my accomplishments and said "is there anything you can't do?" And I replied "Ironing." Me neither she said.
My mother ironed everything. Sheets. My father's underpants. I am terrible at it. Maybe if it gave me success and satisfaction I would do it more. 
But polishing furniture--that's a menial task I do enjoy. So satisfying to see it gleaming. And sitting on the balcony with a glass of chilled wine, shelling peas or preparing other vegetables... that's okay too!
Yours from the Olympics where I saw badminton today!

JAN: We are SO JEALOUS!! (not about the furniture polishing, about the Olympics -- although I have to admit to enjoying polishing furniture - even though I rarely do it.)

ROSEMARY HARRIS: I think I have an iron ....somewhere. The last time I was moved to use it was for a tablecloth. As I recall I got a big rust stain on it and had to use a different one. Wrinkled, but no one noticed.

Weeding is definitely a good one. But my go-to mindless activity, any time of the year, is rearranging the furniture. The anchors stay the same - sofa, bed and three enormous armoires, but anything else is fair game. End tables, coffee tables, shelf units, my office. Collections of... things. What's amazing to me is how much I always love the new arrangement - even if it's the same as it was a year or so before.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I can't iron.  I have very few things that need ironing, and if it must be done, I ask my husband, who is a crack ironer. (Is that a word?) But I'm afraid that I, like Jan, fall into the cleaning out the fridge category. I've just finished a brutal week of revisions, where I've not had time to cook or to shop, and I am completely brain dead.  What I need is a long nap.  What I did was clean out the frig.  It's sort of a fresh-start thing, isn't it?

JAN:  The weeding I just don't get. But even though I NEVER do it myself, I can see the appeal of room-rearranging. But as Debs clearly understands, it could never stack up to the nirvana of tossing out expired sour cream and scrubbing the vegetable bin.

Okay, we've all bared our souls about our lower-order brain machinations, but how about you -- what dull, routine, dirty, stupid or downright Susy Homemaker task brings you inner peace?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Your Name Here

Hank Phillippi Ryan: Sue Grafton says she did it with intent: she chose her alphabet titles are insurance that she'd need to write 26 books.  There's the John D. MacDonald colors,  and James Patterson's nursery rhymes, and Janet Evanovich's numbers. 

THE OTHER WOMAN was the only title I ever had for my new book. But PRIME TIME was the third one I thought of. (And that was only after I thought of FACE TIME.) I was so happy with the triple meaning of  "On The House," my first short story, that I confess I stood up at my desk and applauded. Happily, I was alone.

Susan Oleksiw was the first publisher of On the House (now available as an e-story from Forge!).. 

(Her new book is THE WRATH OF SHIVA. Which is pretty perfect, right?)

And she says she thinks a lot about titles.
Do you?

We'll Call It...
by Susan Oleksiw

I've been thinking a lot about titles lately. I'm one of those people who love to browse in bookstores; I pick up any book that has an interesting title. I don't usually buy everything I pick up, but titles get me far faster than cover designs. I'm curious about the promise of those few words.

Ernest Hemingway thought F. Scott Fitzgerald got titles just about perfect, and I agree that Tender Is the Night is truly evocative. I think To Kill a Mockingbird is also nearly perfect.

Crime fiction writers consistently come up with the best titles, and when someone gets it right, the titles are loads of fun or eternally memorable. A good title will have multiple meanings as the reader moves through the book, and by the end the reader should be able to look at that title page and think, yes, that title is true in so many ways. A good example is Double Indemnity. When I think of that title the entire story comes back; the many meanings in it unfold one after the other. That title was sheer genius.

Anyone who latches onto a repetitive series title solves lots of problems with those few opening words (chief of which is those sleepless nights when I lie there inventing and discarding one lame idea after another). Arthur Conan Doyle took this route with "The Adventure of . . ." titles for many of his short stories.  He still had the problem of pulling out of the story the essential feature to use in the title (the speckled band, copper beeches, etc.), but he had half the problem solved.

 I especially like these repetitive titles (The Body in . . . or Murder on/by/in . . .) because for some reason I have less trouble remembering which ones I've read. I look at the reverse of the title page and just go down the list and know which ones I should buy (or borrow from the library).

When I began writing about titles it occurred to me that crime fiction titles almost always work on some level--I've never come across a real dud. Perhaps that's due in part to editors, but I think crime fiction somehow militates against flabby titles. I love the humorous titles, but these are a lot harder to create than we might think. A favorite is The Affair of the Blood-stained Egg Cosy by James Anderson, and another is The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters.

Both titles, as light-hearted as they are, convey precisely what kind of story the reader is getting, and this is one of the virtues of titles in this genre--they work exactly the way a title is supposed to work--they tell you the genre and the nature of the story. When you pick up Anderson's book, you know you're getting a well-written kindly spoof of the genre. Peters's book is a bit more arch but also with a bit more danger. Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun promises something quite different.

When I was looking for a particular title to talk about here because I couldn't remember all of it I googled the title and came across various sites for humorous titles. Most of them have an edge that wouldn't work in crime fiction but a couple showed great potential. Does this one conjure up a story: Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes (a legitimate academic title), or how about If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet? Now that one deserves serious consideration.

Despite all this work I did not find the one title that I really hope to be able to use one day. Look for this title on the shelves of your favorite bookstore some time in the future (if someone else doesn't beat me to it): Death by Donuts.

Do you have favorite titles, or titles that you think are perfect for their story? 

HANK: I wish I had thought of The President's Vampire.  And Mars Needs Moms. (I've always thought that was such a terrific pert tile. Too bad the movie was silly.)  The new Mark Helprin book is IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW. I figure that out only because I couldn't understand why my brain was singing "Danny BOy." And then, I did.

How about you?


Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series featuring Indian American photographer Anita Ray in two books, Under the Eye of Kali (2010) and The Wrath of Shiva (2012). She also writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva (A Murderous Innocence), now on Kindle. Oleksiw compiled A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1988), and was consulting editor for The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing (1999). Oleksiw was a co-founder of Level Best Books and The Larcom Press.

In a starred review from Library Journal for The Wrath of Shiva:

"Traditional beliefs, cultural expectations, and old-fashioned detecting make for a captivating cozy not to be missed. Beguiling Anita Ray winningly returns after her first entry, Under the Eye of Kali."

About of The Wrath of Shiva:

Anita Ray's family eagerly awaits the visit of Anita's cousin despite a servant's predictions that she will never arrive. When the prediction turns out to be true, Anita turns her attention to the maidservant, the astrologer urging the family matriarch to have an exorcism to end the servant's trances, and missing family antiques. Set in a tropical paradise, The Wrath of Shiva pulls back the curtain on traditional culture overwhelmed by the modern world.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Secrets of the Notebooks!

HANK PHILLIPPI  RYAN: I know, it wasn’t fair. When last we left the wonderful John Curran—knower of all knowledge about Agatha Christie, the first person privy to her secret notebooks and the author of two award-winning non-fiction books about the Queen of Mystery (Secret Notebooks' now out in paperback!)-- I had just asked about his favorite Poirot and Miss Marple, and then, evil me, I said we were out of time. So, now we have more time! 
And John has revealed he will come visit today to tell us some brand new Agatha info---our eyes only. Got to love it.
 (And hey—let’s give away another copy of the Secret Notebooks! (Our last winner was Susan Elizabeth. And the winner of Meg Gardiner’s RANSOM RIVER is: Lexie’s Mom. And the winner of the ARC of THE OTHER WOMAN is: Margarete. Email me with your address, okay?)
And now:
HANK:  Who is your favorite Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple?
JOHN: The best Miss Marple ever was, and remains, Joan Hickson, who, thankfully, filmed all of the novels for BBC television. Actresses, either before and since, never captured the essence of Miss Marple as she did. Some of them have been completely unsuitable and I completely disapprove of the latest idea of ‘inserting’ Miss Marple into books in which she never appeared.
And the best Poirot is, undoubtedly, David Suchet. Later this year he will embark on the last five titles to be filmed and then he will have completed the entire Cases of Hercule Poirot! Although some of the adaptations have not been good (Appointment with Death, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), overall the standard over the last 20 years has been remarkably high. It will be a remarkable achievement when he finishes the last film.
HANK: We’ve all seen The Mousetrap. (Again and again. And anytime anyone has tickets, invite me, okay?)  But of course there were other plays.
JOHN:  Agatha Christie is the only crime-writer to achieve equal success and fame as a playwright as well as a novelist and short-story writer. Although her first Poirot play, Black Coffee (1930), is not very impressive she enjoyed writing scripts and her first big success on the stage was And Then There Were None in 1943. But she wanted more control over what happened to her books (she was very unhappy with what adapters did to, for instance, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd) so she adapted The Hollow, in 1951, herself. And then she wrote original plays - in the 1950s she wrote The Unexpected Guest, Spider’s Web and Verdict directly for the stage and adapted The Mousetrap and Witness for the Prosecution.
HANK: I could watch that a million times. It’s always a surprise, and always wonderful. Charles Laughton, I mean, how perfect. All this was happening at the same time?
JOHN: Yes! During this period she had three plays running simultaneously in London’s West End, a record for a female playwright that stands to this day. In 1961 three one-act plays, under the title, Rule of Three was her last success; the final play she wrote, Fiddler’s Three, was not considered good enough to reach the West End. The Mousetrap has now been running for almost 60 years and seems likely to run forever. I hope to write about her career as a playwright in my next book in two years time.
HANK: And of course you’ll be here to tell us all about it! Do you read modern crime fiction? (How do you even have time?) Who are your favorites among living writers?
JOHN: Yes, I read and enjoy a lot of modern crime fiction although my main interest is in the writers of the Golden Age – Christie and her contemporaries, Dickson Carr, Sayers, Queen, Marsh etc. I greatly admire P. D. James and Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine; the American writer Charles Todd, whose books are set in the England of Christie – just after the First World War; Robert Goddard, who creates wonderfully complicated plots; the novels of Colin Dexter, who has now, sadly, retired; the earlier titles of Val McDermid before they became too gory; and Laura Wilson who sets her books during World War II.
HANK:    If you could ask Agatha Christie a question what would it be? 
JOHN:  My problem would be keeping it to only one! It would have to be ‘How did you do it? How did you, a woman with no formal education and no background in writing become the biggest-selling, and most translated, writer in history?’ And I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to answer me.  She would probably look amused and say ‘I really don’t know!’
 HANK: SO Reds, John will be here to discuss…what’s your favorite Christie play? Or movie?  We still haven’t decided who should play Tommy in the Tommy & Tuppence movie—and hey, wasn’t John going to give us the scoop on that. Oh, wait, he said he couldn’t. Shall we keep trying? Meanwhile, shall we cast Tuppence? And who was the young actress who was threatening to play Miss Marple? 
And John also promises some big news. 
Remember, we’re giving away a copy of  SECRET NOTEBOOKS!