Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Case of the Missing Mystery

A friend of mine is writing a thesis titled "The Shifting Trends in Women's Mysteries in the Last Eighty Years" and she sent me some questions. I'm going to answer them one at a time here on the blog over the next few weeks.

1. What would you like to see more of in today's mysteries?

I want to see more mystery.

I noticed at 2 writers conferences this past month that the term "crime writer" is becoming more prevalent than "mystery writer." A lot of books I've come across the last five years have a body on page one, a straightforward (bordering on boring) investigation, and a solution in the last chapter. They're crime novels, yes, but they don't have much mystery in them. No intriguing clues, no seemingly impossible puzzles. Not even very much in the way of mysterious settings or moods. Danger, perhaps, but too often predictable danger.

I've been told (as an explanation) that these are character-driven novels. I'm not sure what that means, other than that I seem to have to plow through usually too many scenes about the main character's love/sex life or cats or drinking problems or financial woes or dysfunctional family sagas between scant paragraphs pertaining to the crime story.

Think back to all the times Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot found an apparently inconsequential clue: for instance, rye grain in a deadman's pocket. The police ignore it. Yet, that kind of clue is so intriguing that I'll keep turning pages to find out how it fits in.

I've actually heard authors scoff at putting what I think of as "mystery" back into mystery novels. The feeling seems to be that the genre has now matured and that grown-ups don't want silly clues like that in their books. Grown-ups only want violence and sex and gritty reality.

Bunk. Reality neither stimulates my brain nor entertains me. I read to escape reality. If that means I'm not mature, I don't ever want to be.

Elena (still a "mystery" writer)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Perception of Truth

This past week I took a photography tour of the Bay of Fundy. Many of you know I'm a musician as well as a writer. Few know of my truly dismal talents in the visual arts. I can't even draw a convincing stick figure.

Still, I've been taking vacation photos since the age of six when my Dad gave me a Kodak Brownie. After college I bought myself a Minolta SLR, adding different lenses as I could afford them. I used that camera for 20 years, until they stopped making the light meter battery. Right now I've got a very unfancy Olympus digital whose limits are finally forcing me learn something about visual composition.

I took the tour mainly because it promised to visit all the kinds of natural places I love, not because I'm a serious amateur photog. Yet I did pick up some great tips from our guide, Lance Timmons (check out his cool portfolio at Beyond that though, he talked a bit about the perception of truth in a photo, which got me thinking how that applies to writing.

People assume photos are truthful little moments frozen in time. Or at least, snapshots used to be truthful, before Photoshop, right? Well, no. Photographers have always shown us only their interpretation of scenes. Before digital technology, they could manipulate photos in the darkroom during processing, or by posing what ends up looking like a spontaneous shot, or even simply by cropping out details so the viewer sees only what the photographer wants them to see. Regardless of the technology, a good photographer can sway the viewer's sympathies to each photo.

When I write historical fiction, I do my best to make the history factual, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm not showing everything. For one thing, I'd have to do a decade of research for each chapter. Writers don't have that kind of luxury of time. Even if I did, I don't want to show that many details. Like a good photographer, I need to zoom in on the subject and crop everything else. Too many historical writers spend too many words showing off their research. Do we really need a minute description of 1860s ladies' undergarments in a book about the Civil War? No. It stops the story. Only show what's necessary to bring the era and the story to life.

Also like a photographer, the details I do show ought to sway the sympathy of the audience. In BY BLOOD POSSESSED, my goal wasn't to present the Civil War from a North or South point of view. I wanted to show how war, any war, effects families. In HANG MY HEAD AND CRY, I was aiming for a perspective of Reconstruction through the eyes of a nine year-old freed slave.

The above applies to any kind of writing, not just historicals. You have to look through a viewfinder at the world you're writing about. Move around, back up, zoom in, until you have in the frame only what the reader needs to understand the story. And even after you write it, chances are you'll need to do further cropping.

The photos with this blog are from my trip, taken with my dippy little Olympus digital (the rubber ducky is my first mate, Smee).

So maybe I learned something.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Discouragement, Then & Now

I was at a writer's conference last weekend and I noticed a few things.

Fifteen years ago, unpublished writers could either keep sending out queries to agents and editors until somebody gave them a break and published something, or until the writers died, or they paid vanity presses to publish their books. Young writers were warned and warned about vanity presses, the way little kids are warned not to take candy from strangers. Writers who go with vanity presses, we were told, lost all their money, ended up with a garage full of unsellable books, and were never heard from again. This was usually true, except some of the writers never got the books they paid for. I saw one contract's small print that stated the press wasn't obligated to ever put the manuscript in print.

Then again, we were also told that getting a legit book contract had worse odds than winning the state lottery (which I think was about 1 in 100,000). Easier to win a million in the lottery and buy a small publishing house for yourself.

These days writers are still querying agents. Most editors no longer accept non-agented mystery fiction submissions. Publishing houses have merged, so less of them exist. Writers are warned and warned about self-publishing--you spend your savings and never break even, you end up with a garage full of books, and you never have a chance at a real writing career because no one will take you seriously.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Except that self-published writers using a legitimate press can be reasonably assured of receiving books with which to fill their garages. I haven't heard the current odds of getting a novel published, but it's still worse than winning a lottery. My guess is that now that lottery is Powerball (1 in 5,138,133 last I heard).

Oh, and one more thing I heard this weekend. Less books are being sold than fifteen years ago. (Legal recorded sales, I mean. This does not include under-the-table deals done in the street outside authors' garages.) Even if you do get a contract, your book will likely be out of print fairly soon. No guarantee you'll ever sell another manuscript. An author used to be considered "established" after four published books. No more. You can become a has-been overnight.

At the conference last weekend, between regular rose-colored-glasses sessions on how to improve your writing and get it into publishable shape, all these extremely depressing topics were thrashed out in detail. You could feel the frustration.

Yet, out of the hundreds of writers at that conference, how many will actually throw in the towel? Surprisingly few. For most of us, despite the fact that we know our works probably won't be bestsellers--that they may not even pay for a month's worth of bills each year--that they may never even be published after the months and years we spend on them--despite all that, we're still writers.

Writing's a calling. An obsession. An addiction.

We can't stop.

And so, my fellow writers, keep writing. And keep playing the lottery. First one of us who wins a million buys the small press and publishes the rest of us.


Thursday, June 10, 2010


Dame Agatha has been turned on her ear again. At the risk of sounding monotonous...

has been nominated for a Macavity award!

The Macavity is named for T.S. Eliot's mystery cat from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The award looks like a sleeping cat lying atop a stack of books and is given each year in the fall by Mystery Readers International, an organization of readers, writers, and anyone else in the business.

I've been in way too much shock over all this, and so have been downright rude in not congratulating my fellow Macavity and Anthony nominees. Cheers to you all.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Manuscript Format

I've been looking over some student manuscripts lately and the most consistent problem has zilch to do with creative writing, per se. Yet this problem might keep a story from being published.

I'm talking about the format of the manuscript. Think of it this way: you'll be sending that manuscript out on job interviews. Dress it appropriately and you increase the odds that your baby will land a nice position someplace.

Or, hey, think of the standard format as a secret handshake. You want to be considered a serious writer? Your manuscript had better look as if you're one of us and not an imposter. At least, that may be what potential publishers think.

Good reasons exist for using standard formatting:

1 - A font that takes up the same amount of space for each letter will always put the same amount of characters on a page. That makes it easy for an editor to tell at a glance how many published pages your story or novel will need (meaning, yes, they can then tell if you lied big time about your word count).

2 - Publishers ought to know exactly to find your address, phone, email, word count. They shouldn't have to guess if you're using a pen name, or for that matter, what name to put on an advance check. And it's just plain common sense to put your title, last name and page number at the top of each page in case they get separated.

3 - Standard formatting is easier to read and edit. You may think to dazzle an editor with an array of beautiful fonts, but you're merely distracting the eye from what ought to be the real jewel--your story.

FONT: I use Courier New, 12pt. Most computers have that font or one similar. It's easy on the eyes and as stated above, each letter is the same width. Don't make any font bold.

SPACING: I shouldn't even have to tell you to double-space lines. Do NOT put an extra line between paragraphs unless you want to indicate the beginning of a new section, and then put a "#" to show you mean the blank line to be there. ALWAYS indent each paragraph. You're not writing business letters or a blog. Don't play with spacing to make more words fit on a line or more lines fit on a page.

HEADING for each page: Top right-hand corner. Title / Last Name / Page Number.

For more on formatting, like how to do title pages, and to see examples, check out these links:
(A good example except he puts the word count at the bottom of his title page. I put it at the top, right side, so an editor flipping through a pile of manuscripts can spot it easily.)
(A good example of short story formatting.)

Your writing should be creative, not your formatting.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Anthony Nom!

Once more I'm floored.

DAME AGATHA'S SHORTS has been nominated for an Anthony award!! (That's the one given at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, in the fall.)

'Scuze me while I go sit down.



Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors