Ignoring the Truth

This past week, socked under by a killer virus that would not abate, I sought refuge in reading true crime in front of the fire. I do not read just any true crime book that hits the racks, mind you, and you should not either. A large percentage of them consist of breathless prose highlighting the more lurid aspects of a crime, much like the detective magazines of (not-so-) old. But I do read good true crime because of the amazing psychological insights into human behavior that thoughtful reporting on a case can provide. This means I primarily read (or re-read) Ann Rule, who, until her death last year, stood head and shoulders above all other true crime writers. I know of no one else who has even come close to Rule’s ability to illuminate the cause and effects of aberrant behavior, in part because times have changed. The need to rush a manuscript to market—and be the first to offer a book on a major crime already well-publicized by other media outlets—means that few publishers are … [Read more...]

The Great Debate

Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table…. These opening lines from T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, have sparked many a debate among literary fans: is it a beautiful metaphor for twilight’s stupor… or could it be a metaphor for life itself? As it turns out, it could very well be a metaphor for how T.S. Eliot felt when presented with a literary novel over one from his beloved detective genre. Yes, the undisputed arbitrator of literary genius was a huge detective fiction fan, a fact that the bastion of high brow writing, the New Yorker,revealed in this recent illuminating article. And not only was T.S. Eliot a devoted reader of the genre, he also wrote a number of anonymous reviews of detective novels and stories, defending the conventions of the genre with passion and advocating for some of its most notable authors in the time between the two great world wars. Where was T.S. … [Read more...]

Empaths and voyeurs and parrots… oh, my!

One clear advantage to getting older is that you care less and less about what other people think. That's why a blog post like this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. But these days, I am perfectly happy to officially announce that decades of reading has led me to believe that all writers can be divided into three categories: empaths, voyeurs and parrots.  Knowing which type you are can help you better balance your books as a writer, and knowing which one you prefer can help you better choose your books as a reader. Let’s start with empaths. Being an empathy can be downright painful in real life — you are often buffeted about by other people's emotions and motivations. But it is a powerful advantage when you are a writer. The ability to instinctually feel what other people are going through, coupled with the inability to contain your sympathetic emotions, add richness to a writer's characterizations and give their scenes a level of genuineness that can distinguish a good book … [Read more...]

A matter of faith

I think all authors go through what I typically go through when I am 90% done with a book: I have a draft, maybe even one that’s been revised a few times, but there is still plenty of layering to do. The characters must be made real and the plot a little more compelling, with my readers made to care about both. With my detailed outline in hand and a list of my characters and their individual traits nearby, I pore over what I have written and determine where I am missing depth in my manuscript. It is always at this point, right before I begin the final draft process, but I begin to fear my characters are nothing but cartoons, that they have lost the struggle between word count, the need to move the plot forward and what's left over to make my characters real. On top of that, when you're writing a series as I am, you feel the need to move your recurring characters forward at least a little, too, so loyal readers, who love them as much as you do, can be rewarded. That's all a lot of … [Read more...]

Living In The Twilight Zone

I have entered the Twilight Zone — that stage in a book where an entire fictional world has coalesced inside my head, populated with characters that I am convinced lead their lives without me when I am not paying attention to them. I imagine them fighting among themselves, jockeying for a bigger role in the book, conspiring to waylay my outline and generally taking on lives of their own. It's a good sign when this happens in some ways. It tells me that I have successfully created a world with enough layers to sustain a reader’s attention. But it's not such a good sign when it comes to my real life, which suffers during this period from what some people have charitably called my "absent-minded professor syndrome" and others have called just plain old half-assedness. I plead guilty to both. But it is a condition impossible to fight. Whenever I am not concentrating on another task, it seems as if the characters I have created clamor for my attention and send me off on mini-daydreams in … [Read more...]

Hand Me the Knife

"A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it." I came across this quote from Mark Twain this week and loved it. Being a writer has one big advantage  over other occupations: it is one of the few jobs where your age is largely immaterial. But even better than that, as the books pass by, you start to acquire an awesomely-tuned ability to cut the hell out of your prose. The way I write has changed so much since my first book. I have now developed a system where I have a detailed outline to guide me, but then I cut loose and write fast and furiously in wherever direction it takes me, knowing that I will be waiting with my editing knife in hand at the other end. God bless computers and word processing. You can turn the messiest, most meandering manuscripts into a fast-paced, tight story by the time you're done and no one will ever know your book once looked like something you dredged off the ocean bottom and pulled, dripping and covered with seaweed and … [Read more...]

When a Take-Over is Emminent

I am in the midst of writing my fourth Dead Detective book and, while I don't have a title I like enough yet to offer publicly, I am well into the book. As often happens, given all the characters I typically jam into a single book, there is a minor character who has grown in importance with each page I write and who seems determined to take over. I used to say that when this situation occurred, and the author found themselves not in full control of their character, it was subconscious creativity speaking and that a wise author let it happen. Now, I am not so sure. … [Read more...]