Monday, February 27, 2012

The Cornered Poet

On occasion, two of my favorite PBS shows--The News Hour and Moyers & Company--will interview a poet. I love that someone in the media gives poetic art a spotlight now and then. Poetry gets a bum rap in our society. People who appreciate it are often considered elitists. Like opera and symphonic music, it's not associated with the masses. Yet a mere century or two ago, it wouldn't be uncommon to receive a letter with a couplet or more penned just for you. Show of hands: when was the last time you received a poem in an email?

Thinking about this today, it occurs to me that poetry started becoming unpopular about the time that TV took over our lives. Is there a connection?

Yes. Poets should never, EVER be allowed to read their own works aloud on TV. Or anyone else's poems, for that matter. For Pete's sake, PBS, if you want to show America how nifty poetry can be, hire an actor to read those lines, will you?

90% of the poets I've heard all read in the same horrible, pseudo-dramatic monotone voice, stressing each word equally, pausing where it makes no sense. And they all read from a page or book, no matter how short the poem, so rarely do their faces show delight or sadness or joy or any other emotion.

Most writers of prose are no better at reading aloud, yet authors are often asked to read from their works. I, for one, know my lack of acting skill is going to cost me book sales, so if I must, I only read a few paragraphs. Even if I get through it without stuttering, I end up sounding self-conscious or self-important, all the while completely conscious of every restless movement and cough from the audience.

Once on a panel of authors, where we were supposed to read excerpts, I suggested we read each other's. Much easier to do justice to a friend's work. But I was voted down. Two authors read whole chapters. The audience yawned and looked at their watches. Hardly any books were sold that night.

So please, don't judge a book or poem by the author's reading of it. Instead of asking the writer to read, ask what was so intriguing and exciting about the subject or theme or plot or idea that made the author need to write it. Then go read it yourself.

I'll end with a bit of poesy, part of a parody of Shakespeare's Sonnet #80, to all my favorite authors. If you read it aloud, skip the bad Lawrence Olivier impersonation and just have fun.

O, how I curse when I sit down to write,
Knowing a better talent doth use your name,
And when I read your stuff late in the night,
I wake up tongue-tied, typing words so lame...
Your least e-mail is poetry afloat,
Whilst I behind a wordless screen doth hide,
And being stuck, I snarf choc'late and quote
Him of Puck's jest and Hamlet's homicide...


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Caroline Todd On Short Story Ideas

My guest today is Caroline Todd, half of the formidable bestselling writing team called Charles Todd, authors of both the Inspector Rutledge and Bess Crawford mystery series, set during and after World War I. Their Rutledge novel A LONELY DEATH was an instant bestseller. Bess Crawford's A BITTER TRUTH made its debut last summer.
Caroline and I have worked together on many DEATH KNELL short story anthologies. As our Sisters in Crime chapter hatches plans for a fifth DEATH KNELL, I asked Caroline to share her expertise in the short story realm for our Sisters. I pass along her wisdom here..

Short Story Ideas
by Caroline Todd

Everyone says that short stories are harder to write than a novel.  I can tell you from my own experience that it isn’t true.  The real difference is the plot.  Some plots are best in a novel, where there’s ample room for character development and red herrings and lots of action, etc.  If you’ve read Harry Potter, you can see why it took not one novel but several to follow Harry as he learned to be a wizard.  Other plots have no need for greater development.  They can be told in 1/10 the number of words.

Look at a sit com, for instance. There’s one story line and one set of characters. The problem, whatever it is—getting a date, preparing for the in laws to visit, looking for a job—can be dealt with in one half hour show.  LAW & ORDER  has more convoluted plots, more characters, and it needs an hour.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if you went off to work one morning, and  the small apartment building’s outer door is locked as usual, but there’s a body lying by the mailboxes?  Once your shock is over, and the police have gone, would you start to worry about the other residents—and whether one of them killed the man?  Would you look at them differently? And would you see suspicious behavior in several of them?  Maybe one of them had already seen the body, but for personal reasons didn’t want to get involved, and so he went back upstairs instead of calling the police.  Maybe the young woman in Number 6 who used to smuggle her boyfriend in so that the other people in the building wouldn’t know she was having an affair with a married man, had a falling out with him and stabbed him.  When you try to talk to the older woman in Number 5, she nearly bites your head off.  And then someone comes to your door that night and tries to get in. What do you do? 

Plots like this can start out in so many different ways.  First person, third person, it depends on what fits the story best.  And what kind of story is it—traditional, police procedural, suspense, horror?  For instance a horror story would have a dead former resident coming back to kill the present apartment owner.  Procedural would take it from the point of view of a new policeman on the block, not one of the apartment folks.  Traditional would let the woman who found the body solve the crime.  Suspense comes with the knock on the apartment door. What did you do last week?  Take your car into a garage for work? Go to the dry cleaners? Have dinner in a small new restaurant?  Walk along the Brandywine River?  Any one of those apparently harmless errands could lead to a tidy little murder. And not everyone will see them in the same light.  Another way to deal with a short story is to take one of your favorites and outline it.  Not to copy but to analyze.  To see how a published author took a single idea and turned it into a very interesting story. 

Writing is like knitting or running marathons or cooking an Italian dinner or anything else you love.  It takes a little work to do it well. And here you have a chance for your first publication!  Handed to you by your local chapter! Did you know that when the first Death Knell came out, most of the authors weren’t published?  Did you know that some of them went on to win awards and see their novels published? If you want to try to write, there’s no better place to start out than with your Sisters, who will help you, advise you, and never laugh at you, however rough your first attempt.  Nobody can ask for more than that.

Caroline Todd

Thursday, February 16, 2012

How Dumb Do You Think I Am?

Last night a guy came to my door at supper time, just as it was getting dark. He said he was finishing up a job in my neighborhood and... That's where I rolled my eyes and shut the door. One of the oldest scams in the book is a guy saying he has materials left over from another job so he can give you a great deal if you want the same work done on your home. You pay him half up front and he never returns. Or he's just looking for a peek inside your house so he knows if it's worth coming back to break in.

If you insist on trying to scam or rob me, give me a good original plot line.

Our neighborhood's had a rash of these shady visitors lately. Hey, times are hard and a person has to make a buck. Why not turn to crime when people seem to be getting more gullible everyday?

I get email constantly from folks who write fiction just like me. They simply don't come out and admit it. Today a guy said he was writing from a bank in the United Kingdom, telling a long (and I mean LONG) involved tale about me being heir to 8,375,000 pounds. Yesterday, a nice terse note from a different sender said I'd inherited a mere 5 million pounds. That was the poor side of my family, no doubt.

Does anyone actually BELIEVE these emails and answer them?

Apparently lots of spam emails are believed, because friends of mine have forwarded me all kinds of Internet threats, "true stories" of "real people," and political "facts" meant to push all my emotional buttons. Most I've already seen and I can reply, saying "This isn't true" -- stopping myself short of saying, "You of all people ought to have seen through that." Even when I haven't seen the story before, usually one quick search on tells me I've once again been hit with, to put it politely, an urban legend.

One email last week even had a P.S. at the bottom saying the original sender had checked it out on Snopes and the story was absolutely true. I clicked on his Snopes link, which took me to the Snopes search summary page. The summary did indeed begin "...this is true." It was a quote from the email being send out as spam, nothing else. If you clicked on the summary, it took you to the real Snopes page, which told you the story was a mixture of true and false information. The main statements and conclusions were false.

On Facebook the other day, the page for my town's chamber of commerce posted a warning that cell phones number would be handed over to telemarketers within days. That false rumor's been going around the Internet since 2004, yet here it was, coming from a source most people would consider reliable.

Between that and all the political lies and distortions (from both parties) being flung around, not only on ads but on network news and even PBS, I've decided that truth is pretty much obsolete, if it was ever popular at all. So I think I'll start listing my novels as non-fiction. Like Dan Brown, I'll start each with the word FACT, then say something that isn't true. Yeah, that'll grab 'em.

I'm not making this up.


Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors