Writer’s Digest: Villains & Violence

 

Happy to see the July/August 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox this past weekend. I’ve heard no further news about WD parent company F+W Media’s financial woes or the bankruptcy announced back in March, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that management will find a way to reorganize and pay all creditors while keeping this vital writers’ resource going. I think 2020 is Writer’s Digest’s 100th anniversary, so it’d be tragic for the publication to vanish now.

July/August is billed as “The Villains Issue” and like many theme issues, it’s stretching things a bit to make some articles’ fit the theme. But that’s okay, since I found nearly everything in this issue interesting or useful. But my favorite was “Packing The Punch” by Carla Hoch, author of Fight Write: How To Write Believable Fight Scenes from WD Books.

Writers Digest July-August 2019

Many writers insist that sex scenes are the most difficult to write, and they may be right. Finding a comfort zone between steamy and merely icky can be challenging, particularly since every writer knows that readers will identify the roles and activities with the writer and the writer’s own ‘proclivities’. Maybe you don’t care, but you might if you’re a grammar school teacher or town council member writing lurid kink-filled scenes in your downtime.

But I’ll suggest that fight scenes – like any action scenes – can be every bit as difficult to craft as the squirmiest sex scene, if not more so. Both types of scenes have multiple participants (well, usually), there’s a lot of movement and action that must be choreographed, and then accurately attributed so the reader won’t be hopelessly lost. Who’s punching who? Who pulled the trigger, and who got hit? A sense of place has to be defined, pain has to be described and so much more, but unlike a sex scene, this has to be accomplished with an economy of words. Perhaps it’s fine to indulge in flowery prose and a languid pace for lovemaking. Fight scenes demand a finger-snapping staccato rhythm, moving fast but with pinpoint accuracy to keep the reader speeding through the words while still comprehending precisely what’s what. That’s a mighty tall order for pro’s and budding talents alike. As Carla Hoch says, “Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good long sentence, pulsating with verbs and sutured with commas to grab your reader by the collar and drag them to the scene, because you will give them no other choice and there’s no leaving until you throw in the towel.”

By Bert Hardy

Some suggest that a writer should try to hear an imaginary musical soundtrack behind their words in order to guide their pace. (You know, that might even work well with reading?) Sex scenes? If all soft-focused slow-mo stuff, the soundtrack might be a romantic Debussy piece or a soft pop ballad. More rambunctious romps might demand club tunes with a relentless pulsing beat you can feel right in your belly (or lower). Depends on what kind of frolicking the fun-lovers are up to. What kind of soundtrack sets the pace for a fight scene? Well, it’s unlikely to be a waltz. A thrash metal song, maybe. Some bust-loose jazz jam or an AOR guitar-god head banger. Hell, it could be a pompous Wagnerian thing if the fight involved axes and chain mail. In my work, it’s most likely bare knuckles on skin, slugs flying from a .45 automatic, or when the Stiletto Gumshoe’s caught unarmed, there’s still a spike heel rammed down doubly hard on a thug’s wingtips.

Thanks to Writer’s Digest magazine once again for helpful how-to’s like Carla Hoch’s terrific piece. I’ll be watching my mailbox with my fingers crossed that the issues keep coming.

(No credits available for the found art illustrations above, but the photos are by Bert Hardy above and Richard Avedon below.) 

By Richard Avedon

 

Listening To: Love For Sale (1959)

Love For Sale LP

Technically, not listening to, but still waiting for: Pioneer jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018) and his fifth album, Love For Sale from 1959, the year I’m fixated on with my own writing work. Vinyl’s been ordered, and back-ordered since forever. Suitable background music’s a must when I’m pounding the keyboard. The Mac keyboard that is. I’m not tinkling any ivories here. Love that album cover, though. The photo could be a scene right out of ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’.

 

Mystery Scene

Mystery Scene 1

Found the new Mystery Scene magazine issue 159 in my mailbox after work, and am only disappointed that I already devoured the darn thing and now have to wait for another issue. Mystery fans and writers will find the usual healthy mix of topics and mystery/crime fiction sub-categories well-represented. I got a particular kick out of one entry in the monthly The Hook: Intriguing First Lines feature, which showcases a selection of particularly interesting, gripping or even amusing first sentences or paragraphs from various mystery novels. I pasted in author Lee Goldberg’s opening from his 2019 Killer Thriller above, and who among us hasn’t met or known someone just like the person being described? Just in case the image is missing on your screen, here it is as text:

“Ian Ludlow’s UCLA creative writing professor insisted that the key to being a successful novelist was writing from personal experience. That’s why the professor was the author of five unpublished novels about sexually frustrated novelists who toiled in obscurity while teaching talentless and ungrateful students how to write.” From Killer Thriller, by Lee Goldberg 2019

mystery scene

Crime Reads: The State Of The Mystery

The State Of The Mystery

Linked from Crime Reads (crimereads.com) via Literary Hub: Part One of a must-read roundtable discussion among twenty mystery writers — specifically, the 2019 Edgar Award nominees — on everything from topics like genre ghettoization to publisher consolidation, their own earliest influences and some sage advice to newbie writers. The second part of this dialog will be posted tomorrow, 4.25.19. If you’re a mystery/crime fiction fan or writer (which I’m guessing you might be if you’re reading this) or not, it’s a lively and informative read, with interesting comments from Lisa Black, John Lutz, Leslie Klinger, Lori Rader-Day, Jacqueline Winspear, Lisa Unger and others. A link is below for the first part…you can follow up on Part Two on your own, I’m sure! But do check it out.

https://crimereads.com/the-state-of-the-mystery-a-roundtable/

A Matter Of Perspective

PW Montage 1

So maybe you can think of better ways to spend $250. That’s the cost of an annual subscription to Publishers Weekly magazine (well, shave off a buck – it’s actually $249). Maybe I could too, but I still consider it an investment and I’m certain that I squander way more than $250 every year on a lot of foolish things.

Some writers consider Publishers Weekly mandatory reading while others see it as far removed from their interests or experience, particularly when sitting all alone in front of their keyboard. As for me, I’m closer to the ‘mandatory reading’ side, and actually feel a little adrift when I’ve let my subscription lapse (I’m not lapsed these days). Is it because I want to daydream about big deals and mega-star author status? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

Reading Publishers Weekly grounds me.

PW Montage 2

Six and even seven figure book deals and film/subsidiary rights along with business news about corporate mergers, paper prices and distribution networks provide me with perspective on what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Skimming those articles reminds me that I write simply because I want to (or have to, depending on the mood), not because of any naïve expectations that it’ll pay off with meaningful contributions to my income, or invitations to pontificate about whatever in high-profile interviews and genre-con panels. Once you realize that agents, editors, publishers and booksellers alike may be much more worried about Ingram buying portions of Baker & Taylor, or do the math in your head about just how much dough Michelle Obama’s book really brought in at retail — well then, it’s a lot easier to deal with any normal writerly frustrations and indignities.

There are purely pragmatic reasons to subscribe to Publishers Weekly. The extensive weekly reviews are tagged with the agent/agency for each, which is helpful to note when you’re querying projects. Even self and hybrid author/publishers are no longer ignored, the magazine acknowledging an evolving marketplace with a monthly multi-page “BookLife” feature dedicated to that segment of the industry.

This week’s issue includes articles on Spanish audiobook production, social media’s effects on poets and poetry, and a feature on new books by and about TV, music and sports celebrities…not one of which interested me in the least. But that’s not the point. When my fingers start pounding the keyboard tonight, I’ll know why I’m doing it, and I’ll be at peace with the teeny-tiny part I play in a vast marketplace and the shared endeavors of countless people like me. And I’m cool with that.

Do Not Disturb Unless Bleeding.

busy-writing

If you’re shopping a project around (like me, again), you probably are well aware of the Manuscript Wish List site.

MSWL Masthead

A week ago the MSWL email newslteer included a cute item from The Manuscript Academy (manuscriptadacemy.com) — a downloadable/printable “Busy Writing” file, perfect for your writing room door (if you’re fortunate enough to have a dedicated writing room, of course) or wherever. As it says: “Busy Writing: Do not disturb unless bleeding and/or on fire”. Go to the Manuscript Academy’s site to download yours, and pin that darn thing up somewhere. Obviously if someone’s bleeding, you’ll want to help right away (after you hit save on your file). If they’re actually on fire, I say get some pictures first.

Manuscript Academy Masthead

Mystery Scene

Mystery scene

Finding a new issue of Mystery Scene magazine in the mail is just like getting an unexpected present. I spent a pleasant Sunday evening with this new Winter 2019 issue, as well as the morning after to finish it up (once through the pre-dawn Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru en route to work, the car eater going full blast this Monday AM). I haven’t read anything by the cover story feature, Laura Benedict, but plan to now. Many writers have peculiar rituals as part of their work habits. Benedict’s compelled to clean and de-clutter her house from top to bottom before commencing a new novel. “Horace McCoy: Noir’s Forgotten Founding Father” by Michael Mallory made me think about an unsung hero of the genre, McCoy not the most prolific writer, but the author of the Depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They which made him a darling among the European literary philosopher set. Of course the issue had the usual features and pages and pages of new release reviews…all in all, a pleasant end to a cold weekend (and a helpful start to a frigid work week).

Ruined Words Relegated To The Back Of The Lingerie Drawer.

TRANS-SIBERIAN EXPRESS by Norbert Schoerner Vogue UK 2005

Back in January, Ashley Holstrom wrote a short but fun piece that appeared at Book Riot (bookriot.com), “Words Romance Novels Have Ruined For Me”.

She begins, “If you read romance novels, you know how it goes: Words get new sexual meanings, because euphemisms are fun! And then the word is ruined in your brain forever.” Recently reading a non-romance book, she came across the word “mound” and automatically wondered if the book was about to take an unexpected sexy turn. In fact, it only referred to a mound of ants. Nonetheless, the word “mound” had been permanently imbued with a sexual meaning for her (and for many others, I’d bet), so frequently employed euphemistically in romance novels.

Holstrom provides a brief list of words similarly impacted. I’ll bet you could add your own to the list, culled from romance novels, erotica, or just as likely, “PG-Rated” novels awkwardly wrestling with a sex scene. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can almost feel the author’s reluctance to allow their fingers to type a few obligatory “sexy” words. Hence, euphemisms. Ashley Holstrom’s list includes routine words which any writer will need to employ in purely pragmatic applications and which hopefully can retain their real meaning without being eroticized: Center, core, delicious, electric, enter, explode, growl, length and even wet, for instance.

But her list also includes some words that have been used to death as euphemisms till they may, in fact, have become permanently compromised: Bud, chiseled, erupt, essence, folds, thrust, erupt, moan, nectar, rigid and throbbing, to name a few. She even lists “supple”, a word I’ve always liked, have few enough uses for, but just enjoy the sound and the ‘feel’ of it. But I guess it’s stuck in the ruined list.

Writers will grope (oops, that’s probably one, too) for words they’re comfortable with when the thought of typing the basics like the three big C’s (rhymes with flit, flock and…flunt?) give them the vapors or threaten to make their keyboard melt. And readers can chuckle to themselves when they encounter euphemisms used in cringe-worthy ways. But damn it, it’s a shame when perfectly good everyday words have to be retired, like being tucked away next to the sex toys way at the back of the lingerie drawer.

And I still intend to use supple whenever the hell I want to.

Image: ‘Trans-Siberian Express’ by Norbert Schoerner for Vogue UK, 2005)

Tiptoeing ‘Round The Templates

Tiptoeing-Templates 1

Whether as a reader or even as a writer, there’s much to be said for a ‘comfort zone’, that familiar territory of a particular genre’s or category’s reliable template. Familiarity doesn’t have to mean boring or redundant. Each book will have an author’s individual spin. It’s like a really good breakfast from a neighborhood diner where the short order cook (likely visible and hunched over the grill behind the counter) feels no compunction to stir in fancy imported cheeses, the toast won’t come from a vegan bakery, the heap of hash browns are grilled, greasy and just right and the coffee’s served sans-cinnamon or caramel but refilled frequently. Nothing nouvelle, no surprises, but still something to be savored.

When you crack open a traditional ‘whodunit’ mystery novel, it’s safe to expect that a body will be discovered by the end of chapter one and the rest of the book will be spent working through a list of suspects and red herrings to uncover just who committed the crime. Though every writer will put their own individual spin on the template, that reliable formula is almost as comfy as your apres-workday sweater or your reading chair. Naturally, reading nothing but books that rigidly adhere to some pre-ordained genre format would eventually become dreary. It’s fun to be surprised or even challenged, yet we’ll still return to the comfort zone again and again.

Part of what separates the writing pro’s from mere wannabe’s may be an ability to anticipate reader’s expectations. In traditional ‘whodunits’, that business about ‘discovering the body by the end of chapter one’ ( a gross over-simplification, obviously) may be a reader’s reasonable expectation, and therefore, the writer’s implicit obligation, or so some agents and editors are likely to point out.

Tiptoeing-Templates 2

But the mystery genre – at least as a retail bookstore merchandising label – covers more than only traditional whodunits and includes all sorts of thrillers, crime fiction, noirs and much, much more, where the rules often are bent, twisted or turned completely upside-down. Clearly some writers aren’t merely tiptoeing around the category’s templates, but merrily stomping over them. That said, I’m not sure I’ve earned the cred to do any foot stomping on genre conventions just yet.

Charles Finch’s front piece on “Winter Thrillers” in this past Sunday’s New York Times opened with: ”Who knew a thriller could be this boring! Felonies, hush money, Russian agents, dogged journalists – in real time, it turns out, all that stuff moves like molasses, with none of the subtle internal coherence you find in a good novel of suspense. We may have to concede that while truth is indeed stranger than fiction, fiction is substantially better arranged. On the other hand, we don’t know the ending yet. There are great books that begin slowly, the authors talking themselves uncertainly toward their material before suddenly they find it and the intensity increases, the options narrow, the risk heightens: The final report comes in.” Finch then goes on to review an Australian author’s new thriller which apparently takes its sweet time to get moving, but ultimately turns out to be, as he notes, “all at once enthralling”.

(Of course we know perfectly well what thriller Finch was really talking about in his introduction, since most of us watch in disbelief as it plays out on our TV and phone screens newsfeeds every night.)

At the moment, I’m tiptoeing ‘round the templates myself, reluctantly conceding that attempts to ignore sensible genre conventions traded well-intentioned creativity for dreadful pacing.

Tiptoeing-Templates 4

With the completed manuscript for my noir-ish period crime novel The Stiletto Gumshoe deep in the un-fun querying process, I’d been hard at work and roughly halfway through the first draft of its follow-up. But I recently halted work on the in-progress sequel in order to revisit the first novel, which is now midway through a fairly substantial rework that’ll slice an entire hunk off the front and redistribute essential info throughout the manuscript. I was reluctant to do so at first. (Horrified is more like it.) But with a couple nearly identical ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ query replies in hand – quite complimentary but sternly reminding me that not all genre conventions are bad just because they’re familiar – I sucked it up and got to work killing all those ‘precious darlings’ writers are warned to watch for. Once the first novel’s updates are done, I can restart the querying process while I concurrently start over at the very beginning of the follow-up book to slice, dice and purge the same sort of artsy-smartsy opening portions that cluttered up the first. Un-planned, time-consumptive and frustrating? You betcha. But the first book is already better for it, and the follow-up will be too once updated and back underway. Like Charles Finch said in his NYT Book Review piece, it ought to ‘increase the intensity, narrow the options and heighten the risks’ and do so all that much quicker for the reader.

Sure, some will say I’m a weenie for kowtowing to some agents’ comments (agents who may have relayed nice remarks, but no offers of representation, mind you). Well, then a weenie I am. Consider: If a painter proudly unveiled a portrait in progress only to be told “Nice, but the nose is crooked”, then that painter should grab a brush and fix the bent schnoz.

Tiptoeing-Templates 3Even though I happily embrace novels that defy genre conventions and turn category formats upside-down while I work through stacks of comfortably familiar books, I don’t expect I’ll be on the vanguard of redefining literature. I’ll be content with telling a good story that I really want to share, hopefully doing so with the pacing and narrative flow publishing professionals approve of (as opposed to beta readers who are all too often neighbors, coworkers and drinking buddies). So for now I’m just fine with adopting a wobbly and precarious pose between writer’s how-to books’ rigid guidelines and the natural storytelling creativity struggling to cut loose, and just tiptoe ‘round the templates.

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