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.

You Write.

you write copy

I’ve seen this image darn near everywhere: Tumblr’s, Pinterest boards, random sites and blogs. And I’ve held onto it myself, always liking the message, and doubly so when coupled with the striking photo of a harried looking writer who seems poised to press that very first keyboard key.

I think this may have originated at Jonathan Gunson’s BestsellerLabs site, which may no longer be active, directing you to anther blog/site that seems to be on hold. So I don’t have a clue if Mr. Gunson created this or simply re-posted it from some other source. I’ll risk posting it, though, just because I love it. The message rings true for any endeavor, and it’s a simple but meaningful one for writers.

The secret? You write.

Jazz Noir

jazz noir

As if there could be something better to listen to when you’re writing noir-ish crime fiction, circa 1959?

I’m a CD and vinyl person myself. Old fashioned? Maybe. The Jazz Noir 3-CD set includes 60 pieces of jazzy 1950’s film noir themes and background tracks. A couple television series themes snuck in there too, but that’s cool. Touch Of Evil, The Man With The Golden Arm, Anatomy Of A Murder, 77 Sunset Strip, The Asphalt Jungle and so much more. Pure inspirational mood music, and I swear, it makes my fingers dance across the keyboard.

The Weather Outside Is Frightful…

winter montage

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…or so the 1945 Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne song Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow says.

Last weekend we had a winter tease ‘round here, with a good bit of snow, but manageable. This weekend we’re getting walloped, and it’s still going on as this is written. Once done, temps will drop, winds pick up and whatever was already cleaned up will just drift back into impassable hills overnight. Not whining, mind you, since it’s been winter-lite so far this season, with only one sorta-snowstorm in early November, and even November-December out of town travel into the frigid zones wasn’t too bad.

But I don’t mind a bit. For me, the most productive time of year is October through May when we’re driven indoors. There are fewer temptations, with no beaches, softball leagues, patio soirees, swimming pools, gardening or whatever warm weather pursuits might lure you away from the work you mean to do. When the shorter days and first snows send the bears into hibernation, a lot of us head to the sofa for Netflix binge watching. But for some, it’s the most opportune time to get things done, whether that’s painting your personal masterpieces in the apartment’s spare bedroom studio, building one of those insanely detailed toy train layouts in the basement, or finally starting that novel that’s been kicking around inside your head. Of course, there’s no better way to weather the – well, the weather – than to curl up in something cozy with a good book and your beverage of choice. Smarter folks may peek out the window to see the blizzards still blowing and simply choose to stay in bed. Which would be a pretty fun idea if there’s a bedmate by their side. After all, there’s no need for winter jammies when there are better ways to keep warm.

alexa mazzarello

Getting around on Saturday errands kinda sucked this morning, the snowplow drivers apparently breakfasting or loading their rigs with salt. But I’ve been in for a while now, with no plans to go back out till Monday morning, and once the week’s blog posts are scheduled, it’ll be time to hunker down over The Stiletto Gumshoe. The manuscripts-in-progress, not the website. A productive winter weekend of uninterrupted writing (or rewriting, as it happens) sounds good, with no plans to pause till evening. I expect the fingertips may be numb come 11:00 PM, at which time Eddie Mueller’s Noir Alley will beckon on Turner Classic Movies. 1944’s Murder, My Sweet is the film this week, with Dick Powell taking his first turn at reinventing himself as a hard-boiled noir favorite, and it was Anne Shirley’s last film. But it’ll be back to the keyboard Sunday, since the weather outside promises to remain frightful. But there are worse things than being warm inside when some productive work gets done. Agreed?

Montage: Roan Lavery, Meghan Elliott, Kate Williams; Still life: Alexa Mazzarello

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑