Monday, October 23, 2017

Will the real writer stand up?

I used to think that ghost writers only wrote for people who were not writers, such as footballers, reality TV stars, celebrity chefs and the like. But I recently realised this was the understanding of the uninitiated. James Patterson, for example, no longer writes his own novels. He hands a plot outline and a bunch of character biographies to a team of writers who do the line-by-line stuff. Presumably, this is how he's able to produce a book a month. Other big names, such as Stephen King and Peter Straub, are apparently at it too. Oh yes, and Wilbur Smith. Just the other month Mr Smith signed a contract for eight books with Harper Collins. He will contribute the plots for said books but a team of ghost writers will “flesh” the stories out.

I am disappointed. This smacks of cheating and, as my sister always says, no one likes a cheater. Being untruthful about who is the real writer of the words demeans both the author and the ghost writer and treats the reader with contempt. But when I told a writer friend this she said I was being harsh. After all, the big named writers still produce the golden acorns from which the story tree grows. Without their diamonds in the dust heaps there would be no stories. She has a point. As we writers know, having an original, fresh idea is worth its weight in gold. Or at least, it's worth as much as someone is prepared to pay for it, because guess what? Some famous writers can't even be bothered with plot ideas. Ideas take time, so why wait for one when you can buy a bunch instead? It seems the latest development in the book world is for big named writers to buy up the plots of existing novels by not-so-famous writers and pass them on to their writing teams to rewrite. Voila, a novel is born – again and again and again.

Now I am doubly disappointed. Surely, putting your name to a novel that you haven't contributed to creatively in any way, contradicts the very thing we writers are supposed to be about ie: the revealing of a truth? This is breaking the unspoken rule between the writer and the reader and at what cost? As more and more plot ideas are bought up and recycled by anonymous writing teams, isn't there a danger that the novels will become the same? What of us lesser-famous writers? How can we compete? It's hard enough to earn a living from our writing with our royalties being slashed to a small percentage of the book “sale” price, who out of us can afford to buy a plot line and writing team, even if we wanted to? 

What do you think? Is this the beginning of the end of choice for readers? Will we not-so-famous writers be out of a job sooner than we think? Or am I being a tad melodramatic? Would you sell the plot line to one of your successful novels (after withdrawing it from the market, of course) to a big name? Would you care if a famous writer took credit for a novel you painstakingly wrote with love? What if you found out that your favourite writer is in fact a bunch of other writers, would you carry on reading? 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Why We Write

On Tuesday evening, I was honored to be the guest author at the Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County Authors Night. This is an annual event when learners and tutors share the stories that they have written. I was asked to speak for 10-15 minutes before they came up one by one to read their true stories or poetry that had been collected in a small volume. My challenge was to come up with a short talk that would be relevant.

I decided to talk about why writers write. I did a Google search for comments from writers and surveys, looked at a few journal articles, and thought about why I write. Those of us who write often have a variety of reasons for picking up a pen or sitting down in front of a computer -- or these days -- dictating into a device connected to our computer. The reasons we give vary in how they are ranked by each of us.

In general, those who write speak of:
a. the need to share thoughts, ideas, or feelings
b. being compelled to write because it is a part of their identity
c. wanting to inform and/or educate
d. wanting to influence opinion and/or debate
e. wanting to share the world of their imaginations
f. giving voice to those who have no voice
g. writing because they are required to do so by work or school
h. writing because of ego, feeling they have something important to share
i. using writing to establish themselves as experts in their field
j. using writing to memorialize people and events
k. using writing to discover who they are
l. writing to win recognition, and/or fame and fortune

I didn't mention all of these reasons in my talk. Many of them overlap, and I was more interested in the roles of writing in self-discovery, sharing ideas and feelings, educating and informing, giving  voice, and sharing the worlds of our imagination. I saw some nods in the audience, so I hope I was speaking to what the learners and their tutors had experienced.

The real stars of the evening shared where they had come from (as adult learners, some of them immigrants). After they had read, the moderator asked each a question about their experiences or their goals for the future. Their stories reminded me again of the power of words to transform lives and connect people. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Then She Said...


Since mid-September, I, Donis, have been facilitating a creative writing workshop for emeritus professors at Arizona State University. This is the second time I’ve done this workshop, and it’s been an eye-opener for me. Professors know all about the rules of grammar and spelling and the like, but people who have spent their lives writing scientific treatises and keeping a professional, unbiased distance from the reader have a hard time letting go and putting action and emotion into their writing. Not to say that they don’t have some clever story ideas! Wrangling students for thirty years will give you plenty of material.

For the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing effective ways to write dialog. Hemingway said that dialog is not real speech, it’s the illusion of real speech. I’m sure, Dear Reader, that you’ve read Elmore Leonard’s admonitions that one should try to never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue, or that one should never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.

On his website, Tim Hallinan suggests that instead, the writer “use body language: Dialogue broken up by description of what characters are doing provides context and also projects an image. When someone other than our protagonist is speaking in a scene, what is our protagonist doing? Are her hands at rest? Does she listen intently? Does she squirm in the chair. Drum her fingers? Twist her hair? We convey a lot without saying a word.”

I like that idea.

For instance:
"Nonsense," Martha interjected, is a perfectly acceptable sentence, but if I were a fly on the wall, I might see what Martha is doing when she says this. One might try something like, Martha straightened, indignant. “Nonsense."

Rather than "Question?" Beth offered, try, Beth held up a finger (or leaned forward, or tapped the table). “Question?"

And rather than "Okay, Beth. Ask it," Joel replied, consider having Joe sigh, roll his eyes, flop back in his chair, then, "Okay, Beth. Ask it."

You can come up with better examples, but you get the picture.

Of course the "rules" are really only suggestions.

As far as the current popular idea in publishing of only using "said"...I use "noted" and "agreed" and "asked" and the like plenty of times myself. But I do think that the take-away points are: 1) don't use descriptors that draw attention to themselves, like, "he asservated", because that puts the author in the picture, and 2) if you can describe the situation, body language, etc., in lieu of a dialog tag, that's the best way to let the reader see what's going on and draw her own conclusions rather than having the author tell her.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bouchercon reflections

Bouchercon, the world's largest mystery conference, held its latest annual crimefest this past week from Wednesday to Sunday. The 2017 version took place in a spectacular, sprawling hotel in downtown Toronto that had two towers, multiple levels of meeting rooms, open foyers, and ballrooms all connected by escalators running up and down through the open centre. Almost two thousand people attended the conferences, all united by their love of crime. There were hundreds of authors and aspiring authors, readers, librarians, booksellers, editors and agents, all trying to navigate the huge selection of panels, readings, signings, interviews, parties, and other crime related activities. I didn't count the number of panels, each of which featured a topic and an array of authors chosen to talk about it for an hour, but I estimate there might have been close to a hundred. Even running from one to the next all day long, an attendee could only get to a fraction of them.

When I was a relative rookie, I tried to do just that. There were so many topics that fascinated me, about setting and character and style, and so many authors I wanted to hear, that I ran myself ragged. It's exhilarating but exhausting to be in the midst of all this excitement and information, and by the end, I always dragged myself back home wanting nothing more than a month of solitude. Most writers are introverts and need alone time to recharge. Socializing, meeting new people, being "out there" to promote a new book and make new connections, is draining for us.

This year I made a conscious decision that I would not try to do too much. I've been to dozens of conferences over the years and have met a lot of people I was eager to see again. That, and having fun, were my primary objectives. In the latter, I mostly succeeded, but I only actually saw a fraction of the old friends I wanted to see. Two thousand people, all spread out in different events, makes this very difficult. Sometimes we seemed to be like ships passing in the night, spotting each other on adjacent escalators travelling in opposite directions. To all those I missed, there was a hug ready for you and I am so sorry for the lost opportunity.

As for the more formal aspects of the conference, I attended the events I was supposed to, most importantly my own panel about social issues (and crimes against humanity, which we panelists quickly agreed was a misnomer). It was very interesting and ended far too soon. I also attended the International Authors reception hosted by Crime Writers of Canada, where as a past president I got to stick a welcome ribbon on authors from far away as they were introduced. That was fun! I shook hands with authors from all over including Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the UK, Ireland, and Scotland, Africa, South America, and Europe. Later that evening, I participated as a table leader in the CWC pub quiz, where I learned I know precious little about crime fiction despite being immersed in it for twenty years. Once our table realized we were going to bomb, we sat back and enjoyed inventing outrageous answers.

Dundurn authors after the publisher's reception
Beyond that I attended only two panels and seemed to spend my whole time eating. I had a planning breakfast with my fellow panelists, lunch with my fellow Type M-ers, coffee at my publisher's, and numerous delicious dinners with my friends. And in-between, drinks. My greatest take-away from Bouchercon 2017 was probably five pounds and a vow never to drink again.

Until the next conference. At the moment I don't even want to think about that. I have a novel to finish and several promotional events coming up with THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY. Eventually the batteries will recharge, but in the meantime, a huge thank you to the organizers of Bouchercon 2017 and to the many volunteers who made it a success. All of us who love crime fiction thank you.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Another (and logical) benefit of a library

by Rick Blechta

I think I may have posted about this, but not within the past several years. (When you’ve been here pretty well weekly since 2006, things tend to run together a bit.) But considering the discussion here of late, I think it’s entirely suitable to bring this up again.

I like libraries…as a place to write. As in many things in life, discovering this was the result of necessity.

I was still teaching instrumental music when I began seriously writing. That meant very long days. Since my wife taught music privately (meaning she had students one at a time), she would schedule her lessons after I would be home, so for many years we passed like ships in the night as she went down to the Royal Conservatory to do her thing. When our sons were little, this meant Dad’s Babysitting Service required all hands always on deck. By the time I got the little bast…our darling children to bed, I was pretty well no good for anything — except bed. Some nights I might get a bit of writing done, but not much.

What to do?

Lunchtime at school was the best opportunity for (nearly) daily writing and the school library (except on rainy days) was perfect. No one was in it and I had some lovely solitude and silence (and if you teach band, silence is especially golden) to type away on the library computer. (I got very familiar with floppy discs and the peril of leaving them behind in computers.)

On weekends, holidays, and especially during the summer break when I had more time, I began using public libraries when being around home, and kids, and, well, fatherly responsibility became too much for any good writing to be done, I’d hike off to the library for a couple of hours with my Apple IIc which was remarkably portable for the time.

Move on a number of years and now I had a proper laptop and continued to use libraries as a place to write when needed. I’d even disappear to any library nearby when on holiday. My wife was remarkably understanding whenever I did this and I tried not to abuse her good nature and forebearance too much.

To this day, I enjoy and embrace the library writing experience. No one bothers you or asks questions and they’re quiet, allowing full concentration.

My current favourite place to use is Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Great Library which is actually open to the public (it’s a law library) except when bar exams and the like are going on. One glance at the accompanying photo will show you why I enjoy it so much.

Anyone else like to write in libraries?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Proper Libraries

Marianne has really sparked something off with her post about a digital library. Personally I feel quite sad at the thought. Speaking as someone who went to Mallorca recently for week, taking only seven T-shirts, two pairs of shorts and undies so that I could use the weight allowance for paper books, I'm not prepared to compromise on the quality of my enjoyment.

There is something about a library, whether it's the little local one on the doorstep, the glamorous one in a stately home that comprises yards of beautiful bindings in bookcases with ormolu trellises across the glass, or the huge university ones with undiscovered treasures hidden in the stack rooms below, that holds a promise of true romance.

When I was at Cambridge University I was studying Macbeth and went to do a bit of direct research on Holinshed's Chronicles, which was Shakespeare's source for the story. (He badly distorted it in the play – Macbeth was actually a rather good King of Scotland for fourteen years, imposing law and order and supporting Christianity.)

There in the university library, amazingly enough, I was allowed to consult a copy of Holinshed which was actually the same edition that Shakespeare used. I bet they don't do that now! I was able to take it to a table and turn to the section on Macbeth, just as he would have done. It gave details of the conflict where Duncan was killed but there was no mention of murder, or of a Lady Macbeth.

It didn't take long to read and I browsed on, turning the stiff, heavy pages to see what would catch my eye, just as Shakespeare obviously did. And there was an account of the murder of one King Duff by Donewald, who was spurred on by his wife. Who could resist a scenario like that? Not Shakespeare, certainly – never mind historical accuracy here, we're talking drama.

And because I could physically turn those pages I had the extraordinary privilege of seeing how Shakespeare's mind had worked. The chill of shocked delight I felt stays with me still.

The digital library may offer infinitely more resources than any normal library could. But what about that physical stuff – the feel, the smell, the look of the stacks of books? What about the intimacy of feeling that you are seeing directly what the author saw when he proudly picked up the first copy of his new book?

If you want information, digital is just fine. If you want to read a book – really read a book – I would contend that it isn't, and the research is on my side.

Long live proper libraries!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Rapid Reads Novellas

by Vicki Delany

Rapid Reads Novellas

At the end of this month, Orca Press will be releasing my fifth novella for them, White Sand Blues.

This is a cozy mystery, the first in a new series about a young Canadian paramedic working in a small Caribbean Island country.  Any resemblance to Turks and Caicos and one of my daughters, is purely coincidental.

It’s a novella, meaning short (about 100 pages). But these books are far more than just a long short story, or short novel. The Rapid Reads books are written for a very specific audience. Adults with low literacy skills, (the reading level is about grade 2 – 4)  ESL students, the elderly who might not have the attention span for an entire novel, and those who are looking for a quick, fast-passed, exciting read. Even teenagers who aren’t big on reading might enjoy them as a way to ease them back into the reading habit.   Before the airplane restriction on ereaders during take off and landing was lived, I loved to carry one or two of these books for the short time frame when I couldn’t read my current novel.

I love writing these books. To me, it’s an exercise in stripping a novel down to it’s basics. Because of the space limitations as well as the literacy requirements, there are no alternative POVs, no flashbacks or alternating time frames, no subplot, no extraneous characters. Just a good story, well written.  The pace is fast, the story quickly developing, to get it all in those 120 pages (about 15,000 – 20,000 words).

In the earlier Sgt Ray Robertson series, (Blood and Belonging, Haitian Graves, Juba Good.) I used the short form to go darker than I usually do. Themes I didn’t want to develop into a full novel, involving struggles in fragile states,  worked perfectly in the shorter form.  With the new, much cozier series, I’m back on familiar ground, but working in a more restricted environment.

If you have someone in your life who needs a less-complex reading experience, I hope you’ll consider looking into Rapid Reads.