Thursday, March 23, 2017

In the Weeds, or Keeping the Reader Interested Through the Middle of Your Novel

I, Donis, was fascinated by Barbara’s entry, below, on writing about sex. How much is enough, how much is too much? When do you cross the line and offend your reader? Myself, I usually skip over the graphic sex scenes, mainly because they tend to bore me. There are only two people in the world whose sex life interests me at all—mine and my husband’s. As for the rest of you, enjoy yourselves but leave me out of it.

I’m working on the the middle part of my WIP right now. The beginning flowed right out of me. I knew exactly what I wanted to say to set up the novel. I have a great idea for an ending, if I can pull it off. But getting from here to there isn’t as easy as I hoped. I know which direction I’m going, but I seem to have veered off the road a little and am finding myself a little bit lost in the weeds. Long ago I learned that one way to keep the middle part of your book interesting and not get bogged down is to have at least one interesting side story going. And as long as they are interesting and add depth to the novel, I don’t even mind two or three side stories. You just need to keep people reading. Maybe I need a sex scene…

The only problem with that idea is that graphic sex really wouldn’t fit in this particular series about a married mother and grandmother in 1919. My long time readers would definitely be surprised, to say the least. Of course, we all keep our target audiences in mind, and try to write material that will not offend them so much that they won’t buy our subsequent books. We don’t want to be killing any kitties or puppies unless we absolutely have to for the integrity of the novel. Nor do we wish to go too far beyond the language/sex/violence parameters set by our publishers or agents or editors lest they decide no longer to publish us.

But there are times when the story you are telling just calls for something shocking, or it won’t ring true. My self-censorship problems have to do with the mores of the times and the place I’m writing about in my current series. In 1910s Oklahoma, there were a lot of common and wide-spread attitudes that we in the 21st Century would find unsavory in the extreme – casual racism, even among people of good will who would never knowingly harm another person of any color; assumptions about women and people of other ethnicities; the treatment of children. Can you imagine what would happen today if a parent took a belt to a whiny child in the grocery store? In 1919, it would be expected. Language, too. Words that today would give the hearer a stroke were tossed about with abandon and nobody batted an eye. And I don’t mean just epithets, either. My grandmother, a farm wife with the straightest laces you can possibly imagine, used all kinds of what we would now call scatological words. In her society, crude words for excrement didn’t have nearly the cachet they now have, probably because farm people were up to their knees in it every day of their lives.

But I don’t want readers to judge my characters by modern standards and thus think less of them. Nor do I want to present early 20th Century societal shortcomings in a way that makes light of them or seems approving. So how do I deal with the reality of the time and place? Very, very carefully, let me tell you.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Will she or won't she, and other questions about sex

Barbara here. Sex is the theme for today. Or rather the do's and don'ts of writing sex scenes. The reason for this is that I am currently trying to write a sex scene in PRISONERS OF HOPE, the third book in the Amanda Doucette series, and have found myself dithering and evading and resorting to the time-honoured "dot dot dot".

I have not faced this challenge much before because in both my previous series, sex never seemed relevant. Inspector Green is married, and the old mantra of "each scene needs to advance the story in some way" seems to preclude married sex, unless it prevents the detective from answering a crucial phone call or getting someplace important. I suspect that technique would seem contrived enough that readers would yell boo-oo. Similarly, in my Rapid Reads short novel series, poor country handyman Cedric O'Toole has been too romantically inept to make it that far.

But Amanda Doucette is a different matter. She's smart, worldly, single, and thirty-five. In the series, there are two eligible men vying for her attention. In a book club discussion last fall about the first book in the series, FIRE IN THE STARS, the members (all women) said I should have let the poor woman have a sex life. Amanda might have been keen, but being aware of the perils of rushing into a romantic entanglement too soon in a series, I had been holding out. But now that I am writing Book #3, perhaps it is time. That's when I realized it was harder than it looked.

For one thing, a writer suddenly realizes they have readers. Like their mom, their kids, and even grandkids. And friends and colleagues who might imagine we really live like this. In the interests of helping me grapple with this problem of writing sex in crime fiction, a couple of my friends sent me a link to a timely article on the subject, which helped to get me thinking. Check it out here.

Many factors influence the decision of will he/she or won't she, how much detail, what kind of detail, etc. First of all, the will she or won't she? I suspect female characters, like women in real life, are held to more exacting standards and their moral integrity judged accordingly. Male characters seem to be able to get away with lots of bad behaviour – being falling-down drunk in the gutter, not coming home for days, cheating on partners in "a momentary weakness", breaking the law in the interests of the greater good, to name a few. But let a female character forget to feed the dog, and someone will call her on it.  So part of an author's decision to let her female character have sex revolves around how this will be reflected in her character. If you're creating a raunchy, "bad girl", "no holds barred" character, she can have hot sex with whomever, whenever, wherever she wants. But Amanda is not that kind of character. She's passionate and adventurous, but she has a strong moral compass. She believes in helping people and doing the right thing. If she's going to sleep with someone, there has to be some depth of feeling and sense of commitment behind it.

So far so good; I could relate to that. But how to relate to the sexual feelings and romantic experiences of a character when there's a thirty-five years gap in years and cultural evolution between us? I was young in the sixties, which may have been the era of free love and the pill, but still just one step out of Victorian repression. No one even swore in books or in the movies, let alone showed a little flesh. Amanda would have been exposed to much more freedom, openness, and frank pressure. Plus I had never been a single thirty-five year-old woman navigating the landscape of dating and sex. At thirty-five I'd been married fourteen years, had two kids, car pools, and a full-time job.

Luckily, we writers have vivid imaginations. I've never actually murdered anyone either, but imagination (and stories from friends and family in that age group) can take you pretty far. And I suspect that some things don't change. Whether the feelings and experiences I dream up for Amanda bear any resemblance to a real woman's world is open for debate, however.

Point of view is another really interesting minefield in the handling of sex scenes. A scene written from a male character's point of view will focus on the feelings and experiences that character is having, what turns him on, what actions he takes. A scene written from a woman's point of view will, or at least should, describe her body's reaction, her thoughts and fantasies, what turns her on. I think it's very hard to write accurately across the gender divide. I've almost never read a sex scene written by a man that I found erotic, because it is focussed on what turns him on and not what turns a woman on. Even if the writer is trying to describe a woman's experience, he usually gets it wrong. Female writers probably do equally poorly trying to get inside a man's head.

But it gets even more complicated than that, and I'll have more to say about point of view later. For now, suffice to say I am still in safe territory, because I was going to be female writing about female.

But now we are down to the nitty gritty. How to describe the sex, how graphic to be, how poetic and metaphorical. Again this is partly influenced by the style of the book and the effect you want. Raw and shocking? Subtle and romantic? I rarely go in for "do's and don'ts" in writing, but I will throw in some cautionary notes here. In every scene, a writer is going for effect. In a sex scene, you hope to capture the reader and sweep them along on the journey so that they are immersed and experience it as vividly as possible. Anything that trips them up and pulls them out of the story will ruin this journey.

Metaphors and similes and euphemistic language can be killers. It takes a very skilled writer to hit exactly the right note with a metaphor or simile. Bad sex scenes are replete with images of fountains, geysers, fireworks, rocket ships, and other hilariously clumsy attempts at poetry. And once the reader laughs, all magic is lost.

Graphic detail can be an equal magic killer. First off, as you're reading about a particularly spectacular position, you might privately think "ow," or "how is that even possible?" In the article above, the writer makes reference to sex in a "disabled toilet" and I was immediately wondering how does that work, how do they fit, and how do they know it's disabled? A gush of cold water certainly would cross my mind. Magic killer.

And this leads me to the biggest hazard about writing sex scenes. The more graphic you are in your description of who does what to whom, where, and with what, the more likely you are to trip someone's "ew" wire. In the article cited above, the author's rule of thumb is if it turns you on while you're writing it, it will probably turn the reader on too. I disagree. We are not all turned on by the same things. Each of us has unique sexual triggers that come from our sexual orientation, our formative sexual experiences, and our partner's skills. And we have unique turn-offs. A three-some in a poster bed with handcuffs may drive some readers wild, but you've lost me at the gate.

So at the end of all this soul-searching, I've come full circle to that first rule of good writing. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes a gentle allusion or two is all that is needed to allow the reader to use their own imagination to fill in the scene with their own details. Like a good artist, more can be achieved with minimal brush strokes than with a flurry of minute detail. There are some universals in sexual arousal. A longing gaze, a tilt of the head, a touch of the finger. Maybe a caress or two.

And then dot dot dot.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Authors: the importance of knowing your business

by Rick Blechta

I have written at length on Type M about the difference between the job of “writer” and “author”. Yeah, those thoughts are very much my view of the two, and you might well not agree with them, but please hear me out. I’m not going to rattle that cage very much in this week’s post, anyway.

A few years back I did a very rash thing. Toronto was being considered to host the 2017 Bouchercon and I went to the meeting (held at the end of the Cleveland Bouchercon in 2012). What happened next I may live to regret. I said I would be willing to do the convention program book. Now payment is coming due and the sheer amount of work involved is daunting in the extreme.

Anyway, I’m currently dealing with processing author photos to accompany the brief bios that form a review of the authors in attendance. Here’s where I didn’t think through my commitment when I said, “I’ll do the programme!” At this point over 600 authors will be in Toronto next fall. Each should have a nice photo in the programme, right? That means dealing with those photos.

(When is he going to get to the writers vs authors part?)

With my professional designer’s hat on, I have to say that 20% of the author photos I’ve received have been (to put it bluntly) appalling: awful photos, too small photos and even ones that are quite blurred.

It seems to me that if you want to be taken seriously as a published author, first off, you should have a professionally done photo that can be used for situations just such as this. Yeah, your husband may have taken a great photo of you on your last holiday in Cancun, but is it up to professional standards?

I also put together a pretty exhaustive list of what authors need to know before sending in their photos. I know some of the authors submitting didn’t even give this a moment’s consideration.

One of the biggest things an author can do to help themselves stand out from the crowd — and probably the easiest to accomplish since it’s completely under their control — is to appear professional. For instance, a newspaper asks for a nice headshot for a profile they’re doing of you. Your job is to fire off a professional photo of yourself — and you do it promptly and in the proper format for print. That’s called being professional. It will help them to take your seriously.

That means educating yourself about things like finding out the difference between a photo on a computer screen and a photo on a piece of paper. (And it’s easily “google-able”.)

The thing that appalls me is that not only do too many authors attending Bouchercon not know anything about these requirements, but they obviously didn’t bother reading my instructions (designed to help them if they don’t know).

And they expect to be taken seriously as professional authors? Ain’t gonna happen. You tend not to get second chances with other professionals, especially media outlets.

I’ve just covered one small area of knowledge that an author should know. If you’re new to this game, especially, do yourself a favour and educate yourself. It will only help you.

One additional thing: Bouchercon2017 sent out a call for author photos over two weeks ago. Do you know how many I’ve received? Just over 10%. I’ll bet a good 20% of the attending authors will submit their photo at the eleventh hour. Guess what’s going to happen? I’m only going to have time to be able to just throw their photo on the page and hope for the best. So if you’re one of those authors who has registered and not taken care of this, do yourself a HUGE favour and get me your photo now when I can give it my full attention. Details are on the Bouchercon website.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The World's Largest Book

We often talk about 'losing ourselves in a book.' Here at the Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma) it is quite easy to lose yourself among the serried ranks of the 729 dazzling white kiosks that are the 'pages' of the text of the Tripitaka, the Theravada Buddhist dhamma teachings, grouped around the spectacular Pagoda.

Each kiosk is lined with stone tablets, each containing 80-100 lines of inscription, originally in gold; a stone-mason could complete perhaps 16 lines a day. The 'book' was finished in 1688 and though it suffered a fair bit of destruction over the years – not least by the British during the Anglo-Burmese War, I'm ashamed to say – it has now been restored to its pristine state of splendour.

We've just come back from a holiday in this amazing country. For me, it fulfilled a dream I've had ever since I read Kipling's 'The Road to Mandalay' and wanted to see 'the dawn come up like thunder out of China 'cross the bay' – as indeed it does, a red and angry sun rising through the grey mists of the morning.

It is the first Third World country we've ever visited and certainly it has severe problems with a 10% child mortality rate and clean water a rarity in the countryside. The military dictatorship has ruined the economy and despite a fig-leaf of democracy in the person of Aung Snag Suu Kyi is still in control. Yet there is no malnutrition and in a fortnight we saw far fewer beggars than you would see if you walked along Princes Street in Edinburgh. The monasteries and nunneries, run solely on alms-giving, feed anyone who comes in – even if they do little towards medical care or modern education.

The sheer bling of the pagodas takes the breath away – tons of gold, thousands of rubies, sapphires and diamonds – but my principal memory is of the people themselves, smiling and sunny, and as intrigued by our foreign-ness as we were by theirs. Wherever we went little children would beam and wave or run up for a 'high five'!

I can't say it has given me useful ideas for a book. One guide engagingly explained that if there was trouble in the village the Chief Elder (elected every five years) would try to deal with it but if necessary would send for the police. If the police weren't coping, in the last resort they would send for the monk and after that, he explained serenely, everything would be all right. As a plot, I feel that would lack something.

What the experience did give me, though, was brilliantly summed up by Somerset Maugham in one of his Burma novels. When he travelled, he said, 'I do not bring back from my journey quite the same self that I took.'

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Guest Blogger Mary Anna Evans

Type M is pleased to welcome guest blogger Mary Anna Evans, author of the wonderful  Faye Longchamp Mystery series. Faye lives the exciting life of an archaeologist, and Mary Anna envies her a little. In her latest Faye Longchamp mystery, Mary Anna takes Faye to Oklahoma, which I, Donis, think is a very fine thing indeed. Find Mary Anna on Facebook and Twitter, where she runs regular contests for her followers, who can win books, swag, or the chance to have a character named after them!


I just moved to Oklahoma, the very heart of Tornado Alley. My new book is set in Oklahoma, thus it has a tornado traveling menacingly across its cover and I have deadly whirlwinds on my mind.

This should be no surprise to anyone who has read my work, since Artifacts closes with the mother of all hurricanes. To research that story, I read a book called Florida's Hurricane History from cover to cover, but I also dredged my own memory for colorful details. When I was seven years old, Hurricane Camille blew ashore 60 miles south of me and roared over my head. When you read that Faye is hearing the trunks of thick-bored pine trees snap, know that I remember that sound. And if, perchance, you should read in Burials about Faye experiencing extreme weather in the form of severe thunderstorms and maybe a tornado in Oklahoma, know that I have personal experience with those, too. I grew up in Mississippi, which weather aficionados have dubbed with its own stormy nickname--Dixie Alley. I've lived through enough hurricanes, tornadoes, and near-misses to know that it's all fun and games until The Weather Channel sends Jim Cantore to town.

So what does it feel like to be way too close to a tornado?

Well, a tornado took out my school's football stands and field house when I was eight, just a short walk from my classroom. I should have been able to see it happen, but all I can tell you is that the sky turned so black that we couldn't see even that short distance. When I was in the fifth grade, a funnel cloud skirted our elementary school campus, but I can't tell you much because we were all in the hall, sitting on the concrete floor with our heads between our knees. The same thing happened when I was a student at Ole Miss, but we were all ushered to the library basement, where we could trust that we'd be safe, unless all the floors, ceilings, books, shelves, and furniture on the upper floors caved in on us.

Fortunately (fortunately?), I can tell you more about the tornado that interrupted my eighth-grade English class. The sky turned green. (Yes, it really does that.) The clouds were a shade of purple that was somehow both deep and bright. As they lowered over us, daytime went nighttime-dark and the streetlights came on. We were herded into the hall to, once again, sit on the concrete floor with our heads between our knees, but this time there were skylights over us. And this time I peeked.

Those purple clouds roiled above the skylights and they dropped hailstones the size of softballs. The hail hit the roof with loud thunks and clanks, and the sky got even darker. The sound of the wind did indeed sound like a locomotive, just as every witness of a tornado has always said. Later, school gossips said that our school principal was outside watching the storm as it happened. Now that I'm an adult, I'm guessing that he was wondering what he'd do to protect us all, if things turned bad, but the gossip among youngsters was more lurid. Everyone said that he had to wrap his arms and legs around a post just to keep from being blown away. Remembering the force of the wind's gusts, I do not doubt it.

I'm writing this post on the sunniest of days, but a thunderstorm just two nights ago brought marble-sized hail to my Oklahoma back yard. It took those icy nuggets for a reminder that the earth is big and that I am small. And I took it for a sign that the tornado gracing the cover of my brand-new book was just the right image to usher it out into the world.

Happy spring to you all!

Visit Mary Anna's website at

Friday, March 17, 2017

Multi-Author Signings

Last fall I participated in a multi-author signing. It was sponsored by the Loveland Public Library, which is a state of the art facility. There were over fifty authors present with their books on display.

These kinds of events can be very frustrating for the newly published if they have wild expectations for sales. Unless you are a big-name author, chances are you'll be lucky to sell a couple of books.

So why go? There are many reasons to attend and here are a few cheery tips, warnings and observations to make the most of these events:

1. Just because someone doesn't buy your book on the spot doesn't mean he won't buy it later in a different format. On-line offerings are less expensive. 

2. Note the number of persons who explore the displays with a pen and pencil--taking notes. They might plan to download directly from the library. Electronic services through local libraries have exploded. Hoopla, Overdrive, Freading, Librivox, and OneClickdigital are sites that allow instant access to material.

3. If you've published a number of books, bring all the titles. Browsers usually ask "what is the first book in the series?" And that's the one they will want to buy! Not your latest. Multiple titles also demonstrate that people buy and read your books and the publisher finds it worthwhile to stick with you.

4. Put some thought into your display. Buy little bookstands. Make the collection colorful. Some of the authors tables at this event were works of art. Print out a little sign with prices and lay it to one side so customers won't have to ask.

5. Concentrate on getting browsers to stop at your table. Yes, lure them with chocolate. There is no way they can buy books from fifty authors. A little boost to their blood sugar and some pleasant conversation (about your books) can be a welcome pause in the lengthy time it takes to survey the tables.

6. About that pleasant conversation! Make each person feel good about not buying your books. What? Sounds crazy? It's not. Most folks feel guilty about not supporting local authors. People who have done you the enormous courtesy of stopping at your table should be encouraged to read flap copy, the blurbs on the back, and a few sample pages. Get the books in their hands while you talk. Then encourage them to look at other tables before they purchase. After doing so, you and your books will stick in their minds. Not the surly author who sighed and looked cranky when the overwhelmed buyer didn't shell out.

To be my next posting.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Busy Mini-Retirement

My mother is retired. But every time I call, she tells me she’s busy. I shake my head and think, How busy can you be, Mom?

Well, this week I’m on vacation –– my own mini retirement, if you will. Students are gone. My oldest daughter is in college, my middle daughter is visiting friends in New York City, and my youngest is in school all day. Theoretically, I should be getting lots done on my work-in-progress.

But theories are based on hypotheses. And hypotheses are only guesses. Very rarely are they outcomes.

So far this week, the dog has a vet appointment, this year’s FAFSA report must be completed, and I have school projects that –– if I allow –– can keep me busy all week. Yesterday, I wrote 700 words and revised a chapter twice. More than I’d accomplish during my usual 4 to 6 a.m. writing session. But I didn’t get done as much as I hoped.

You’d think after writing three novels featuring US Border Patrol agents –– and researching until the cows come home for each book –– that this new project (a novel set at a boarding school) would be something I could write very fast. Yet that’s not been the case. Lots of starts and stops. Lots of interruptions. Balancing a writing career with a teaching career and some educational consulting forces me to get as much out of my 4 to 6 a.m. sessions as I can.

So how did my week off get filled up? It’s probably a question my mother asks about her “busy” retirement.