The Future Of Crime Fiction.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but while Writer’s Digest magazine celebrates its 100 years of publication, it’s also demonstrating a newfound maturity that seemed to be missing in recent years. The current September/October 2020 issue – a special double-sized “The Future Is…” issue – is a meaty read with instructive and thought-provoking articles from front to back. Practical business matters are well covered by Jeff Somers discussing his experience working with agent Janet Reid, followed by Cassandra Lipp and Robert Lee Brewer’s “The Next Step”, an 11-page roundup of twenty literary agents. In “Female, Powerful And Real”, Lorena Koppel-Torres shares her thoughts on writing authentic, relatable female characters in YA fiction, but her remarks apply to any audience. Susan Shapiro’s “Genre Fluidity” (Note: “Genre”, not “Gender”) didn’t simply look at genre-bending projects but actually reworking in-progress manuscripts into altogether different genres. Genre bending fluidity felt perfectly timed as I wrap up Elizabeth Hand’s latest genre-bending Cass Neary masterpiece, The Book Of Lamps And Banners (more about that one soon).   

But of particular interest to a mystery/crime fiction reader and writer was David Corbett’s “The Future Of Crime Fiction”, a roundtable including Alafair Burke, Rachel Howzell Hall and six other writers discussing the evolving law enforcement landscape, criminals’ countermeasures and how crime writers will keep up. This hit close to home. I’m intrigued by the many ways imaginative writers concoct genuinely puzzling mysteries in contemporary settings where routine (but ever changing) technology would dazzle any classic gumshoe, leaving Spade’s, Marlowe’s and Hammer’s heads spinning till their fedoras fell off. Our frighteningly detailed digital footprints and increasingly pervasive surveillance (and the easy online access for pros and amateurs alike) provide rich, new tactical fodder for mystery writers on one hand, but at the same time, diminish some of the unknown and hard-to-uncover that was the core of classic mysteries for decades. 

I’ll admit it: I’m more comfortable in an era in which the entire world isn’t a touch screen away. As my ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ character began to take shape in my head a few years back, I always imagined her residing somewhere in the late 1950’s through mid-1960’s. There’s no iPhone in her purse, and even when she doesn’t need a pocketful of change for a pay phone, she’s flipping through the Yellow Pages and chipping her nail polish on a rotary dial, along with a zillion other things that made up a sixty-year-old ‘then’. Frankly, some of them make it a little bit easier to concoct a ‘mystery’. Mind you, I’m not a nostalgia geek, and wouldn’t trade places with 2020 and 1959 (well, maybe for a day or two, purely for note-taking and observation). That’s fine for me and this project. For the braver writers turning their back on the ‘then’ and dealing with the ‘now’, the remarks Burke, Hall and crew provided in David Corbett’s Writer’s Digest article are well worth checking out. 

 Illustrations: Sam Peffer and Raymond Pease

The “There” And The “Then”.

Not everyone re-reads novels, but I do, returning to a few classics and cherished favorites every few years, sometimes just grabbing a previously read book purely on a whim. But it’s rare for me to re-visit a book finished less than a year ago. Nonetheless, that’s just what I did with Laura Lippman’s 2019 Lady In The Lake, even though the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is filling up (overflowing, actually) with new books waiting to be started.

Sure, I enjoyed Lippman’s tale of Baltimore’s mid-1960’s upper middle-class Jewish homemaker Madeline ‘Maddie’ Schwartz, her abrupt decision to leave her family for a new life in an edgy part of town, finagling her way into a bottom-rung newspaper job, and her ambitious and potentially dangerous investigation into the largely ignored death of Eunetta ‘Cleo’ Sherwood, a young African-American woman. Lady in The Lake is crime fiction. It’s definitely a mystery. But it’s also a coming-of-age story, though the age in this sorta-kinda homage to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar is Maddie Schwartz’ late-thirties, her own teenage years’ self-discovery tabled for marriage and homemaker roles. 

Read the first time only months earlier, there were no new revelations to be discovered in the plot. And Lippman scores no better or worse than most writers do with the “there” – that is, immersing the reader in the place in which the story unfolds. I’ve never been to Baltimore, Maryland, and Lippman’s laundry list of stores, restaurants and street names didn’t conjure up any specific sense of place. That’s not a criticism. The fact is, having been raised on a century of Hollywood films and television shows, we all can recognize a handful of Los Angeles and New York street and neighborhood names and landmarks. But the main drags in Tulsa or Spokane? The upscale department store in Denver vs. the dime store chain in Minneapolis? The fancy dining spots in Pittsburgh and the greasy spoons in Cleveland? Of course not. 

For myself, I’ve chosen not to agonize over pointless geography lessons in my own writing, confident that no reader will spot check my rendition of Chicago (much less Chicago over 60 years ago) on Google Maps to uncover a fabricated street name or question if the Rexall drug store was really on the southwest or northeast corner of an intersection. The “there” – the real sense of place – has to be conveyed via much more than a tour guide’s itinierary.

But the “then”? 

Laura Lippman’s handling of the “then” in Lady of The Lake was masterfully done, and why I opted to revisit the novel, this time like a high school/college class reading assignment, taking careful note of the different ways she kept the reader firmly rooted in the Autumn of 1965 through November 1966 (with a brief coda some twenty years later). Just as a sense of place is established – and maintained – by much more than meaningless address lists, the elusive sense of “then” must first be conveyed (and then repeatedly but, hopefully, not intrusivelyreinforced) with much more than pointing out cars’ make and model years, household product brand names or some other pop culture references. In Lady In The Lake, everything really feels like it’s 1966, from the characters’ body language to the pervasive dismissiveness Maddie Schwartz constantly navigates through. Spiro T. Agnew may be running for governor, The Sandpipers playing at the theater, but those only matter if a contemporary reader even knows who Agnew was or can picture Steve McQueen on screen. Chronological cultural cues are sprinkled throughout, of course, but it’s the actions and dialog that constantly define the time, if not the place. How precisely Lippman accomplished all of this is not so easy to decipher.

My own work is set in the ethnic blue collar bungalow belt of 1959 Chicago. Neighborhood borders – and ethnic/racial boundaries – are as rigid and insurmountable as real walls, and a viaduct or railroad line as formidable as the Brandenburg Gate in Cold War era Berlin. I think I’ve managed a sense of place pretty well without getting bogged down in street names and local landmarks that couldn’t resonate with readers. But that doesn’t mean that all the maps, downloaded photos, vintage magazines and hours of research were pulled together for nothing. They’ve played their part in helping me to establish – and maintain – an essential sense of the “then” as much (if not more so) as the “there”. Am I doing it as handily as Laura Lippman? I doubt it. But a re-read of her Lady In The Lake is helping to keep me on the right track.

Photo: Andrey Dubinin

Meyer’s Murmurs And Me.

Never a member of ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’, I’m just not much of an expert on Stefenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Or much of a fan, to be honest. I skimmed a few pages of the first Twilight novel in a bookstore years ago, and have only seen random snips of the movies while channel surfing. But maybe I should say thanks to Stefenie Meyer. Well, more accurately, I do owe Rachelle Hampton for her funny 9.2.20 piece at Salon, “All 349 ‘Murmurs’ in the Twilight Saga, Charted And Ranked”. (link below)

According to Rachelle Hampton, Stefenie Meyer seems to be “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with the word murmur…there are hopeful murmurs and bleak murmurs, warm murmurs and tense murmurs, low murmurs and…well, even lower murmurs”. She went so far as to assemble an Excel spreadsheet charting Meyer’s use of the word murmur, discovering that the new Midnight Sun sequel/prequel included 67 murmurs, while the original Twilight series novels tallied 349 (which is a lot of murmuring). For the record, Breaking Dawn boasted the most, coming in at 111 murmurs.

While I may not be particularly interested in vampires that sparkle, moody teenagers or the Pacific Northwest, Rachelle Hampton’s analysis of Stefenie Meyer’s wordsmithing (and the gentle way she’s poking fun) prompted me to give the MS Word Advanced Find And Replace tool a go in my own work, something I probably should’ve been doing all along.

I was relieved to learn that I’d only used murmur twice in the completed Stiletto Gumshoe manuscript currently being queried – one murmured and one murmuring to be precise, and those over 200 manuscript pages apart. So far, no one murmurs even once in the in-progress follow-up novel, that one about halfway complete. 

Still, that double-check prompted me to do similar word search/counts on all kinds of other words and phrases, terrified I’d discover that I employed word crutches or writerly ‘darlings’, those awful go-to words and phrases writers of all sorts turn to in a crunch or type almost by default. The result? Relief, once again, though just to play safe, I did change a word or two just to have something to show for the effort.

As an avid reader of postwar PBO mysteries, crime fiction and private eye series (some of which boast eye-catching covers but pretty awful insides) I can verify that many writers – particularly those of the pre-computer ‘first draft is the only draft’ school – beat some words and phrases to death. And no, I’m not going to assemble an Excel spreadsheet for you in order to prove this. Just take my word for it. At the very least, there were some very popular P.I. series wordsmiths sharing more or less the very same descriptions for every slinky female client, femme fatale and damsel in distress encountered, and using those again and again. 

Not too much murmuring going on in a lot of those novels, though.

Right or wrong, I suppose that I lump Stefenie Meyer’s Twilight series in with the notorious E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series: Mega-selling publishing phenomena that spawned super-successful film franchises, presumably leaving both writers more than comfortable for life. As well as their heirs. And their heirs. The two series seem to go hand in hand, appropriate since the Grey books began as Twilight fanfic. While some might grimace at the writing itself, there’s no denying that the novels caught on with the book buying and movie-going public, so any griping about their success just comes off as sour grapes. There’ll be no griping here, only gratitude to Rachelle Hampton, Stefenie Meyer (and maybe E.L. James, too) for reminding me to watch out for those word darlings and to double-check every so often in case things have gotten out of hand. I imagine I’ll automatically picture a sullen Kristen Stewart the next time my fingers start typing murmur.

Photo: Vincenzo Centrone

https://slate.com/culture/2020/09/twilight-murmur-analysis-stephenie-meyer-midnight-sun.html

Armchair-ing.

Writers Digest August

Magazines are planned months ahead of time, so Writer’s Digest can be forgiven for putting out its July/August 2020 “Travel Writing Issue” when few are. Traveling, that is.

Who could have foreseen where we’d be right now? A reluctant traveler even in normal times, I’ll admit to skimming some of the feature articles this month. But the magazine still had a lot to offer, particularly the excellent WD Interview with author Robert Dugoni by Larry Brooks. And even while we’re still mostly sheltering in, ‘armchair travel’ is a perfectly suitable pastime (now more than ever, actually) so hopefully a lot of budding travel writers are studying this issue carefully.

Why Bother?

raica oliviera by fulvio maiani

As explained in prior posts, I’ve reluctantly pressed the pause button on my querying and writing outreach activity, hoping things will settle back into something like normal come September (summer being a notoriously bad time for pestering agents anyway, or so we often hear). The fact is, my last query went out way back in mid-March and it was a straggler at that.

So, I was surprised to receive a query response this week. Even more so since I’d sent that particular query five months ago. I’d already flagged it as a “NORMAN” (No Reply Means A No) long ago. I’m not sure what’s more dismissive: No reply at all, or one sent five months later.

I mean, seriously…at that point, why bother?

 

Photo: Raica Oliviera by Fulvio Maiani

These Women.

these women

If you’re overwhelmed by the daily deluge of plagues, protests and politics, I’m not sure that Ivy Pochoda’s These Women (Ecco/HarperCollins 2020) is the book I’d recommend right now. But you should read it. In fact, I can think of no better way to do so than to grab it right after finishing any one of the zillion ‘thrillers’ crowding bookstore shelves with their cast of creepy serial killers abducting/torturing/murdering women in puzzlingly twisted voyeuristic descriptions.

I never got to see where These Women will be shelved at retail, having ordered the book ahead of time for a pickup. I suspect some stores will place it in Fiction & Literature while others will stick it in Mystery/Crime Fiction, where I’m sure the book will squirm in agony, flanked by a whodunit and a police procedural. These Women certainly deals with crime. A serial killer, in fact, and on all too familiar turf: contemporary Los Angeles. But Pochoda’s novel (more or less) ignores the culprit, the crimes and the chase to focus on several women, including former prostitute Feelea who survived the serial killer’s attack back in 1999, and Dorian, the grieving mother of the killer’s last of thirteen victims. There’s Julianna, AKA Jujubee, a strip club worker and hobby photographer, and performance artist Marella along with her aspirational mother Anneke, and finally, L.A. detective Essie Perry who uncovers disturbing details about the decades old unsolved serial killer case, and suspects the murderer may be at work once again. The women’s lives all intersect, Dorian being the cook at a fish shack frequented by streetwalkers, Essie the cop who’s saddled with Dorian’s reports that’s she’s being stalked, and so on.

In lesser hands – or at least, a writer with simpler ambitions – this cast of characters would hover on the sidelines while the reader spends way too much time inside the twisted mind of a creepy killer, periodically witnessing gruesome murders and cheering along while the detective overcomes bureaucratic interference and routine male coworker misogyny to finally take down the killer. But Pochoda’s not interested in telling yet another serial killer tale. She’s writing a book about the women impacted by brutal tragedy and living in violent horror on a daily basis. The killer, the crimes, the hunt…they’re almost incidental.

Stepping out of formulaic genre fiction comfort zones into the literary fiction arena can be daunting. Here, art supersedes narrative, so if a reader accustomed to straightforward plotting and a familiar balance of character vs. storytelling suddenly feels the author is merrily flipping them off, it’s no surprise. Art can be self-indulgent, and writerly cardinal sins that would be ruthlessly purged by agents and editors in more formulaic and genre projects are not only allowed here but encouraged. Now I’m not saying Pochoda’s flipping off book buyers! I’m only noting that hip-hopping between different times and multiple character POV’s while probing sense-of-place minutiae takes some getting used to. But it’s well worth the effort, in the case of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women.

Websites & Typewriters.

WD May-June

The May-June 2020 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine was surely put together before the pandemic swept over us and the subsequent sheltering-in commenced. But this issue’s main feature, WD’s 22nd annual “101 Best Websites For Writers” by managing editor Cassandra Lipp proved well-timed for readers/writers stuck at home. I’ve already flagged a few that look interesting (just what I need…more sites and blogs to follow).

I’m pretty sure some of the site info is already obsolete (one at least is on hiatus or gone altogether as far as I know) but there are some intriguing sites in this year’s list, including some you may be well aware of but which were entirely new to me, like ‘Cliché Finder’ at www.westegg.com/cliché or TV Tropes at www.tvtropes.org. As time allows, I’ll be visiting a bunch, but cautious with the follows, a plan to prune an already too long list of blogs and sites funneling stuff into my inboxes one of the many sheltering-in to-do list chores I’ve yet to tackle.

But for readers who aren’t looking for more ways to squander time online, there’s Alexandra Claus’ 5-Minute Memoir: “Typewritten Wonder” about the old baby blue Smith-Corona typewriter in a tan case spotted at a local Goodwill store when she was only 11. Begging her mother to spring for the ten-dollar price tag got Claus’ nowhere at the time, unaware that of course Mom returned to the store later, bought the treasure and had it refurbished just in time to be the best Christmas present ever.

jak kaiser

Add something from WD’s 22nd batch of recommended writers’ websites to your favorites bar, or nod knowingly along with Alexandra Claus when she writes, “My typewriter made my childhood dreams of being a writer feel real. Its well-worn keys stoked the creativity in my soul.” Kinda makes me want to shove this laptop aside and hunt up a typewriter.

Well…just kind of.

Photo: Jak Kaiser

 

Queriers’ Quirks.

chloe jasmine by damien lovegrove

There are all kinds of writers, from snooty intellectual types to quirky artsy-smartsy sorts, and everything in between. But among writers, or at least, those sitting on completed projects ready for submission, just how many different types of queriers are there?

You might be the hopeful type with a phone always handy, certain the A-List literary agent’s call is coming any minute, just like model Chloe Jasmine in the Damien Lovegrove photo above. But then, look closer at that pic and take note of the automatic beside her typewriter. Jasmine may not take rejection very well.

Fantasy writer Morgan Hazelwood’s site (morganhazelwood.com) recently took a peek at the different ways writers query in her post “The 10 Types Of Queriers” (link below). “Self-published authors get to skip the query trenches,” she writes, “but, for the rest of us, we all take different approaches to querying agents. What type of querier are you?”

Morgan Hazelwood Dot Com

Hazelwood provides a pretty accurate but still whimsical list of ten typical approaches, and any writer actively engaged in the querying process will smile (or wince) once they recognize their own tactics. Sure, Hazelwood’s poking some lighthearted fun at fellow writers, but anyone being honest will concede there’s a little of each of her types in us.

There’s the “I-Know-A-Guy” type who earnestly attends genre cons and writer events in order to hook-up with industry professionals, determined to query only agents met in person. Or “The Perfectionist”, a wannabe submitter who’ll finally get that query written after the manuscript’s next revision…which has been going on for years. Or, “The Eager NaNoWriMite” who banged out a first novel during NaNoWriMo and is already querying that same first draft, cocksure that a huge book deal awaits. “Oooh, Squirrel!” may be the best querier moniker, that writer managing an initial batch of queries, but quickly distracted by some new project before following up with more.

Since Morgan Hazelwood’s last ‘type’ is labeled “The Morgan”, she’ll understand if we assume that’s where she fits on the list (and for what it’s worth, “The Morgan” isn’t a bad type to be).

I’m not sure I could spot myself among her ten types, or at least, not precisely, more likely sharing both good and bad habits of various queriers. And the fact is, right now, C.J. Thomas is no type of querier, having decided to put the entire process on hold till things get back to normal. Well…normal-ish. My last batch of three queries went out in mid-February with one straggler sent in mid-March, just days before the ‘sheltering-in’ commenced ‘round here. None of those received a reply. In fact, the only recent response received came the first of May in reply to a January 2020 query (not a form letter, but still a no).

Any naïve notions I may have had that agents stuck at home (particularly in beleaguered Manhattan) might have time to catch up on query responses was precisely that: Woefully naïve.

I couldn’t come up with cute titles like Morgan Hazelwood did, and could only label myself as A) Patient and B) Focused on who’s selling books, not merely open to looking at my type of material. Naturally, I refer to the usual online and print resources and directories, but my ‘Bible’ has been the mystery/crime fiction reviews in Publishers Weekly, which usually list the books’ agents. Yes, I like to know which agents are open to queries. But I also want to know which agents actually sell their clients’ projects and how often. PW comes in handy when you want to see who closed deals, even in so-called genre fiction. After all, that is what this query/submission process is all about.

Things will begin to get back to normal soon enough, even if only in cautious baby steps at first. Then I’ll be querying again, perhaps sometime this Summer. I’ll reassess how I fit into Morgan Hazelwood’s list of ten types of queriers once I restart. For now, if you’re a writer, take a peek at her site and this particular post to see how you fit in. It’s a fun read.

https://morganhazelwood.com/2020/04/16/the-10-types-of-queriers/

https://morganhazelwood.com/

Get Your Uniform On.

fred mcdarrah

While most folks are sheltering-in, and many are (hopefully) working their day jobs from home in pajamas (tossing on a blazer for a Zoom staff meeting, if needed), writers already accustomed to working alone probably don’t give much thought to what they’re wearing at the keyboard.

Or, so you’d think.

Blonde Write More Dot Com

Lucy Mitchell’s Blonde Write More site took a look at this in a 4.12.20 post, “How To Dress Like A Writer – 5 Key Writer Looks” (link below), lightheartedly teasing those who “dreamed about becoming a writer and want to master that writer look”. She lists five basics like the ‘Tweed Writer Look’, the ‘Geeky Writer Look’ and so on. Check it out.

Natalia Vodianova Elle Denmark

My own reignited writing endeavors have been solo and safely hidden in my writing lair with little need to worry about ‘writerly’ attire. But, when I was still a socially engaged writer taking community college night classes, attending a monthly writer’s group open mike live reading session (held in a bar to stoke shy writers’ courage so someone would actually read their works-in-progress), trekking to regional or national genre events, or even dialing way back to college days and immediately after, I’d have concurred with Ms. Mitchell that there definitely are ‘writer looks’ (or more specifically, a writer look, as in singular) adopted by the legit scribes, the wannabes and the poseurs alike.

Taylor Lashae

I never actually spotted the tweed jacket or professorial corduroy blazer/sweater vest types, cliché that they may be. I saw a stray Boho or two looking more like refugees from Green Party rallies or Grateful Dead cassette swap meets. But mostly the writers, soon-to-be’s and just-acting-the-part folks uniformly wore head-to-toe black. Intended or not, the 50’s/60’s Beat Scene revival (or what we imagined it to be) was channeled through a Millennial monotony of black Levi’s, black leggings, black tights, black sweaters, black hoodies, black flats, black work boots, black Converse, black scarves, black t-shirts, black knit dresses, black leathers, black ripped sheers, black gloves (big on the fingerless ones) and – surprisingly – black hats aplenty: Porkpies, newsboys, tams, trilbies and the old reliable, black berets. Well, you get the picture, dark as it is. And shame on me for showing up in regular Levi blue jeans with non-black work boots (from Kmart, no less), black pullover notwithstanding (a lesson learned and never repeated after enduring all the derisive glances).

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia 3

Say what you want about monotony, but black-on-black-on-black simplifies things when rolling out of bed still bleary-eyed, whether for class or breakfast with your fellow keyboard dancers.

I’m sure there are romance novelists in billowy Laura Ashley prints, YA vampire epic masterminds in 90’s Goth gear, and committed hard-boiled crime writers in fedoras with filterless Luckies dangling from their lips (surely looking down their nose at the rest of our laptops as they muscle the keys on their manual typewriters). But I’ve only seen those at costume parties,

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia 2

Lucy Mitchell’s Blonde Write More post was well-timed. Y’know, this sheltering-in isn’t going to last forever. Whether it’s in June or not till the Fall, we’ll all be creeping back into the bars, coffeehouses, in-person classes and all-night bitch sessions at friends’ apartments. Soon enough, it’ll be time to stow the PJ’s, yoga pants and torn t-shirts salvaged from the rag bin. I’m just kidding about all of this. (Well, sort of.) Maybe the real point is: Lets not get too used to the new reality. This too will end, even if still socially distanced, and we’ll all have to get our uniforms out of mothballs.

Esther Canadas Peter Lindbergh Vogue Italia

Photos: Fred McDarrah, Natalia Vodianova for Elle Denmark, Taylor Lashae, Esther Canadas by Peter Lindbergh

How to Dress Like a Writer – 5 Key Writer Looks. #WritersLife

Murder For Profit.

The Writer's DIG

George Dyer, writing for Writer’s Digest magazine, compares crafting a mystery tale to a chess game, with the pieces replaced by human characters, the individual moves being the plot (and presumably, its mysterious twists). The writer? The writer’s both a player and a judge, though still operating within various parameters. Dyer points to things like suddenly revealing ‘deux ex machina’ an all-new character in the closing scene to solve ‘the crime’, or implausibly arming a gangster with poison or a refined society girl with a Tommy gun as plainly breaking the rules..

What makes all of this particularly interesting for me is that George Dyer wrote it back in 1931. But we can read it now at the Writer’s Digest magazine website (link below), with a second installment to follow next week.

Writer's Digest

As the venerable writer’s resource celebrates its 100thanniversary, there’s a vast archive of guidance and info (like Dyer’s essay) to tap into. Consider a 1997 interview with David Baldacci, whose 1994 overnight success Absolute Power sold for a then unheard of $5 million advance…that ‘overnight success’ coming after an estimated 10,000 discarded pages from 11 years of writing. That’s in the April 2020 print magazine, which showed up in my mailbox on Wednesday, and just in time to help restock the to-be-read pile on my writing lair’s endtable. Though still working through “The Small Press Issue”, it’s a good one, and I have to say, I’m liking the modest shift in content seen in Writer’s Digest’s recent issues. And I’ll be looking for Part Two of George Dyer’s take on mystery story techniques next week. Kinda want to see if his words of writerly wisdom from 89 years ago still hold up.

I’m betting they will.

https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/vintage-wd-murder-for-profit-mystery-story-techniques-part-1

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