Thursday, March 22, 2012

Occupy Greed

   I was in my high school band. Every 3 years, our district participated in a band exchange with another district. We'd travel to the other school for a weekend, do a joint concert and stay in their houses, then they'd come to our area a weekend or two later. Our exchange was with Hewlett High School on Long Island.

Talk about culture shock.

Back then my school in Norristown, PA about 30% African American, 30% descendants of ethnic immigrants, 30% Pennsylvania Dutch. Our student body of 2000 were primarily middle-class and poor students.

Their school's population was closer to 700, and at least 600 of them were rich white kids.

When we visited Hewlett, I was housed in a mansion with servants, an indoor Olympic-sized pool, and the biggest Great Dane I'd ever seen, named Sir. My guest room was larger than any room in my house, had its own bath and walk-in closet, and had never been slept in by a member of the family.

I grew up in a semi-detached home where 5 people shared a bathroom. We didn't have guest rooms. We could only accommodate one Hewlett student and only because my brother was away at college.

Skip ahead to this year's Malice Domestic Convention next month. I've been assigned to a panel titled Occupy Malice: When Money is the Root of All Murder. All of the authors on the panel have set their stories during bad economic times. I'm on the panel because half of my novel, FEAR ITSELF, takes place during the Great Depression. In thinking about the topic, I realize that all my Possessed Mystery novels are about poor and/or unemployed characters, and all take place during difficult economic times.

Why have I done that? Well, they do say "write what you know."

This week I heard a man named Charles Murray interviewed on PBS. His theory is that the wealthy are morally superior to the poor. He points to a lot of statistics that show that the majority of crimes are committed by poor people. My answer to that would be that poor people are more likely to be arrested and convicted. If we look at the amount of money stolen by men like Bernie Madoff, or by the mismanagement of the banks and investment firms that caused the 2008 depression, I'd guess it far surpasses the amount taken in crimes like convenience store robberies over the same period.

IS money the root of all evil? No. People are. Evil people exist at all levels of the economic spectrum. Greed isn't a matter of how much you have, but how much you want. The big problem comes when evil people take their greed to a national scale, have too much power over the government, and suck in taxpayer money.

I can't help remembering those Hewlett students. They taught us how the other half lives and how to drop 'R's from the ends of words. We taught them what it was like to go to a diverse school, and about cheesesteaks and shoo-fly pie, and to pronounce "water" as "wooder." We made good music together. We had fun. As their bus pulled away to take them home, they waved and called out the windows to us, and we waved and laughed back.

They were good people, and so were we.
I hope we all still are.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Drill, Baby, Drill

...or, How is Rewriting Like Having a Dental Crown Replaced?

But first, a word from our sponsor:

DOUBLE CROSS, 2nd novel in the Twins Mystery Series, featuring Gen and Sara Ziegler, is now available for Nook readers (and, of course, is still on Kindle). Watch this space for news of the third offering, THE TODD CHRONICLES, coming soon to an e-reader near you.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

A few weeks ago, I was noshing scrambled eggs when one of my dental crowns popped out. This particular crown had always been a troublemaker. I suspect it wasn't done well in the first place. The dentist who checked it (different from the fellow who put it in) pretty much confirmed that when he said the crown didn't have a good hold on the tooth and he had to drill.

Not a word any dental patient likes to hear.

The last couple weeks, as I've been walking around with a temporary plastic crown in my mouth, I've been doing rewrites. I've realized that fixing the rough spots in a manuscript is a bit like doing dental work. You have to drill a little deeper to make each change take hold and cause no further trouble.

For instance, one proofreader had crossed out the word "or" and inserted the word "of." The sentence was something like this:

I spent my afternoons in the parking lot or the store.

You can see where "of" might make sense, yet "or" was correct. I could have simply left it alone. In fact, when I've edited short stories, about 80% of writers would leave it alone. However, my feeling is, if the sentence stopped one reader's eye, it might be distracting to others, too. This problem was easily remedied by the insertion of the word "either" between "afternoons" and "in."

A more complex example involved a reader who became confused about a character, and had to go back to read earlier pages to see if she'd miss something. Never, ever, should your readers need to backtrack. 90% percent of this problem was solved by simply adding the character's maiden name to her married name with a hyphen. It made her relationship to other family members more obvious. But I had to ask myself, what made the reader miss the first mention of this character? In rereading those pages, I realized that this character actually said and did nothing the rest of the scene. She'd become wallpaper. So I rewrote those pages. Then I came across a paragraph later in the story where the name change caused another potential misunderstanding. In other words, I couldn't do a simple find-and-replace. I had to make sure that the change became seamless.

For novice writers, when proofreaders and editors send comments back to you, don't get defensive, and don't waste time explaining to that one reader why you wrote a passage a certain way. The reader is always right, though they sometimes can't tell you exactly what stopped their eye as they were reading. The fact is, though, that their eye did stop, so rewriting needs to be done. Don't ignore their comments, or slap down a quick  band-aid. Drill a little deeper. Marry the fixed segment to the rest of the story.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Robin Hathaway's Short Story Tips

My guest today is Robin Hathaway, who writes the Dr. Fenimore mystery series and the Jo Banks mystery series. Both feature medical professional sleuths battling crime in South Jersey and the Philadelphia area. Robin is the winner of the Malice Domestic St. Martin's Press Contest and an Agatha Award for her novel The Doctor Digs a Grave. Besides her novels, Robin has had many short stories published and that's her topic today.  Visit her website at


The following tips are just that. They are not rules, but suggestions.

1.  Know your ending before you start writing. This is not necessarily true when writing a novel, in which the ending may evolve gradually as you write. But with a short story, I usually write backward, with the ending clearly in mind from the beginning.

2.  Economy and precision. These two things should be foremost in your mind when you are writing a short story. You must choose your sentences carefully, making each one count. There is no room for lengthy descriptions of setting or characters. You must choose exact details that say what you mean, rather than generalizations. Be precise.

3.  Limit your characters to 3 or 4 at the most. A large cast of characters is unwieldy and confusing in a short story.

4.  Have your plot clearly in mind before you begin, if possible. If you know your ending this shouldn’t be too hard.

5.  Read some good short stories before you begin, by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, etc. and sample some contemporary authors in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock mystery magazines. Study how others succeed.

6.  Have fun!

Robin Hathaway


Member, Delaware Valley Mystery Authors