Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Where fact meets fiction

In this era of fake news, the line between truth and make-believe has become so blurred that it's becoming increasingly difficult to know what's real or to trust anything you read. And I'm not referring to a profound philosophical debate on whether there exists such a thing as absolute truth or whether all truth is embedded within a context- cultural, physical, or what have you.


I mean facts that can be supported by evidence or replicated in some way. Claims for which there is some proof. People vary on the breadth and type of proof they require to accept something as likely true; rigorous science types demand evidence based on objective scientific knowledge, while others entertain other possible, as yet unknowable, realms of truth such as the supernatural, astrology, ghosts, divine revelation, etc.

But within the realm, some consistency and set of principles exist against which information's veracity can be measured. So if two news sources make opposing claims, or someone says one thing one day and the opposite the next, most of us know one of the claims at least is not true. We may choose to believe the one we like better, or we may end up not believing either. The inaccuracy may stem from simple error, ignorance, incomplete knowledge, or deliberate deception, but in this global information age, in which social media allows the rapid dissemination of information without any checks on accuracy, "untruths" can be repeated over and over so quickly that the repetitions themselves become the proof. How do you know...? Well, I read an article...

One end result of this, besides confusion and ignorance, is a distrust of all information. It's a shaky foundation on which to stand - not knowing what is real and what isn't - and it makes us cling all the more fiercely to the sources we do trust.

What does this have to do with writers? Well, making things up is our stock and trade. Science fiction and fantasy writers make up entire universes, but mystery writers generally ground our sinister deeds in the real world. Readers generally know that the whole thing is made up, and don't rely on the facts from novels to support their PhD dissertations.

Yet among writers, there are those who research meticulously, not just the topics they tackle but the setting, the time period, the dialect, and the local customs, while others don't research much at all. I once heard a very well known and respected author of police procedurals say that he'd never talked to a police officer or checked protocols. Others say, "I make it all up. It's fiction, after all."

But what about historical fiction? Medical or legal thrillers? Or adventure novels set in exotic locales? If a writer makes up all the detail on which these stories are based, the reader is taken on a fake journey. Part of the thrill of these books is the the peek inside a real world very different from what we know. From these books, we learn about 12th century Spain, or the back alleys of Venice, or the drama of the courtroom. Most writers of these books are historians or doctors or lawyers, and we trust that the world they have led us into is real (except for the body, of course). We would feel cheated if we learned they'd made the whole thing up.

When it comes to regular, contemporary novels, the rules are less clear. Some readers don't care that hairdressers solve murders or that cats talk. They know it's all in good fun. But once the writer has set the rules of engagement, they should adhere to them. Is this a real place? A real profession? A genuine issue? If so, know what you're talking about. Writers spin a web to draw a reader into their story, willing the reader to suspend their disbelief and go along for the ride. Any false note that jolts the reader out of the story breaks the spell.

As readers, we all have our trip wires - those false notes that ruin a story for us. It can be crime scene investigators who tromp all over the crime scene with their long hair flowing in the breeze. It can be streets in the wrong place in a city we know intimately. It can be weather that is wrong for the season in that place. For me as a psychologist, it is any superficial, pop psychology explanation of motives and behaviour.

So I am firmly in the research camp. Not only do I want readers to go on a journey with me, but I don't want them to be jerked out of the story and I want them to trust that what they are reading is as accurate as I can make it.  That's why last year I spent my summer reading books on Jihad and ISIS, and my winter on a winter camping trip in the mountains, all to research THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY. It's why next week I am renting a cottage in Georgian Bay (a great improvement over winter camping!) to research the setting of my next book, PRISONERS OF HOPE.

I'm sure I will still get some things wrong, but the more believable the web I weave, the more I hope readers will stay under the spell. And in the process I hope it's more than a journey into make-believe; I hope they enjoy learning some interesting information about a world different from theirs. Information they can trust.

I'm curious to know how other writers and readers feel. As readers, what are your trip wires? Does it bother you to encounter factual errors or misrepresentations in fiction? As authors, how important is accuracy in your books and how much do you research to "get it right"?

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

by Rick Blechta

Accepting compliments well is a skill that can be learned.

Let me state right off the bat, that I don’t get compliments on my writing all that often. Like Aline and everyone else who’s commented, they’re wonderful when they come and they should be cherished, because the vast majority of them are sincerely meant and that feedback is very special to all of us who create.

But you do need to think ahead of time about how you’ll respond when this sort of thing happens.

I got an early start on accepting compliments because I was performing in public at a very early age. When I turned professional at age 16, I got a lot of compliments. “You play so well!” was the most frequent one, but it didn’t take long to realize that an important part of the compliment was unsaid: “for someone so young”, because saying that would have been rude. Believe me, though, I was a real baby face and looked only about 14 at the time.

Anyway, it was obvious that I needed to figure out how to respond. I worked out something similar to Aline and Frankie. I’d been taught self-aggrandizement was not a good thing, so even if I thought I had played really well, I couldn’t come right out and say it – although I’m sure I did that occasionally in those early years.

The one thing that really helped me, though, was done behind the scenes. One of my French horn teachers heard the parent of a friend compliment me on something I’d played during a concert. He felt my response was far from adequate. Next lesson, I played very little of my prepared work, but instead he spoke to me at length about etiquette and why we do what we do and say what we say — especially in the musical world. It really opened my eyes.

It’s not that my parents brought me up poorly in this regard, but he felt that there was specific knowledge that a performer needed, and he felt that it was a big part of my musical education that I be tutored in this as well as playing my instrument.

It was my secret weapon and to this day, whenever someone compliments me, my first thought is that I have received something very special, but to also immediately express my gratitude that the person has said it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

You're Very Kind

One of the very nicest things about being an author is getting emails from people who have read your book – at least the complimentary ones that make up the vast majority. In general people don't email to pick holes in the plot or say what rubbish it was or how they absolutely hated the heroine. In fact I only remember a couple, one of which pointed out that there was a typo in the blurb – 'seperately' for  'separately' – and as a consequence my correspondent wasn't going to read my book. For spite, I think.

Happily, most of the emails are lovely, often thoughtful and sometimes even touching. They make my day and I settle down to work glowing with pleasure, once I've sent back a suitably grateful reply. No problem there.

But when I'm at events and meet readers who are kind enough to tell me face to face how much they enjoy my books, it's different. The more generous they are with their praise, the more awkward and 'Oh, shucks,' I get and the glow this time is a most unbecoming blush. I look a total idiot.

I had a brother-in-law who had beautiful manners and in response to a compliment would murmur, 'Thank you. You're very kind,' and I've adopted that, but it only takes you so far in a prolonged conversation. I can't agree, 'Oh yes, it's awfully good, isn't it?' and I can't say, 'Oh, not really,' without calling their judgement into question. And despite the fact that afterwards I will go over in my mind and treasure what they have said I find myself changing the subject by doing a Queen Elizabeth  – 'Have you come far today?'

I don't know why I find it so difficult to take a direct compliment, or even if I'm the only one who does. If readers didn't like what I write I'd be out of a job and I do, I really really do, appreciate their kindness in telling me. I'm enormously grateful for their good opinion, but I just wish I knew what to say.

I'm asking for tips here. How do the rest of you respond to these great, and obviously highly-intelligent and perceptive people with becoming modesty?

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Ludimus Deus

I've got great news to share. After years in the making, my YA novel, University of Doom, is ready to hit the streets. In fact, the official launch signing is Wednesday, July 19, at the Tattered Cover-Colfax, here in Denver. Y'all are invited, especially you folks up in Canada.

Kirkus Reviews said this: "A zooming Grand-slam of sci-fi fun."
and you can read the entire review here.

And I have these two blurbs from a couple of writers you may have heard of:

"A fun and zany mad science adventure."
Richelle Mead
#1 International Bestselling Author

"...simply delightful...immediately engaging and wickedly twisted..."
Kevin J Anderson
NY Times Bestelling Author

The original title was FrankenDad. I started writing this book more than ten years ago, and I had high hopes for its reception by New York. Which was zilch. So it stayed on the back burner for years. UofDoom is the sort of book I would've read at 13yo. Back then, there was no YA or middle-grade genre, and even if there was, I wouldn't have read it—I hated stories that were supposed to "teach" me things--preferring adult fiction from HG Wells, Asimov, Leon Uris, John D McDonald, Michael Crichton, and my favorite, Harold Robbins. As the manuscript slowly came together, I pulled from various movie and science-fiction motifs so the story has a wacky retro feel to it. Picture the Marx Brothers doing Ghostbusters doing Frankenstein and Metropolis. I also got my digs in at corporate science who--for the good of humanity--pursue one crack pot scheme after another without much regard to its true consequences or value to society. And what would a book from me be without mashing in assorted conspiracy theories?

Last year Hex Publishers approached me with an offer to publish UofDoom. I had just self-published it to a lackluster start and like most of you have learned, getting attention is especially difficult when you put out a book on your own. Hex commissioned a new cover and juiced some attention. So we'll see. If anyone has real definite answers on how this publishing game works, let me know. In the meantime, please enjoy UofDoom.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The New Religion

My father used to say: "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." Wise words.

We all know better than to talk about religion or politics unless we want to start a fight. But I've discovered a new hot topic that will raise the hackles. Nutrition!

Recently when I was at a garden party a man we all respect and admire was holding forth on the merits of a low-carb diet. Since I share his views I was nodding in agreement on most of his beliefs. Since I'm diabetic I know the importance of limiting carbs.

He and I and possibly a few other were in the Paleo Adkins diet belief spectrum. On the opposing side, of course, were the low fat whole grain junkies. And another group believed that weight control, terrific health, etc., was simply a matter of calories. It was science. The tension was obvious.

Actually what I really believe is what works for one person will not work for another. This week I'm at the Western Writers of American conference in Kansas City. We're having a great time. I've never attended a writers conference where I didn't learn a lot and make new friends.

However, the methods used by writers to create books vary enormously. I like the general classification that we are either plotters or pantsers. Plotters outline everything and pantsers write by the seat of their pants. I'm sort of a combination of the two. I begin as a pantser then outline each chapter after I've written and tack this chain of events on a wall. If there is no chain of events or movement within a chapter I face the bitter truth: There is No Movement Within a Chapter. That means it's impossibly dull.

This is just part of my method. I wouldn't dream of trying to persuade anyone else that they should adopt it. In fact I've given up on trying to pass along writing advice. Having published six books now, a historical novel, an academic book, four mysteries, and having been included in a number of short story anthologies, and created oodles of published articles and encyclopedia entries, I feel that by virtue of my variety of experiences I know a lot about the business.

I would love to help budding writers avoid some of the pitfalls. But creative people are so resistant to advice. It's part of our psyche. After judging books in contest recently, I was struck by the number of books that could be taken to a much higher lever with better editing or if the authors would correct a major writing flaw. A fellow judge assured me that he had been an editor at a major publishing house and also at one time had a "book doctoring" business and that no one would listen.

They had to figure it out for themselves, he assured me. Some do and some don't. It's like finding the perfect diet and approach to food.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Visual Rhetoric: Where does inspiration come from?

Writers find inspiration in many places. In my next two posts, I’m going to share some of my ideas on the issue.

I teach a rhetoric course. It’s a nonfiction course similar to the composition course we all took in college. Except the study of rhetoric has changed a lot since I went to college. Where I wrote only papers, and “texts” were only written, now students listen to and produce podcasts and view visual rhetoric.

Rhetoric, by definition, is the sending or receiving of messages. These may be written, spoken, or viewed. One of my favorite exercises (to do and to assign) is to have students view a work of art and write about it –– a reaction, a description, or a riff.

Consider the “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. This painting says so much about humanity (not much good) and its creator and even history (something brought this out of Bosch in circa 1500).

So what do you see? What images speak to you? How might this painting motivate (or distract) you if it hung above your desk? Now’s your chance to riff.

Visual rhetoric can offer inspiration. It will also play a large role in what “writing” looks like in 15 years. As a teacher, I’m seeing that students grasp narrative structure (certainly long form) from episodic TV shows. They are more likely to understand narrative from a visual mode, such as a Netflix show, than a written mode. They grasp argumentation and persuasion from things like this Direct TV Commercial.

Hopefully, books are still being read, but inspiration can come in other forms, including art, episodic TV shows, and even commercials. Where do you find yours?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

CCWC 2017 Recap

I recently attended the California Crime Writers Conference here in Southern California where around 200 like-minded individuals got together and talked about writing and the publishing biz. Let me tell you. The conference just keeps on getting better and better.

Over the years, I’ve attended a number of fan-focused mystery conventions, but this is the only conference geared toward writing I’ve been to. I’ve attended every CCWC since its start in 2009 and co-chaired the one in 2011. I credit the 2013 conference with helping me get published since it’s where I met the managing editor of Henery Press who now publishes my Aurora Anderson mystery series.

CCWC is put on every two years by the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime and the SoCal chapter of MWA. It takes lots and lots of volunteer hours to put together. My hats off to everyone who contributed, including this year’s co-chairs Sue Ann Jaffarian and Rochelle Staab.

The two days were jam-packed with information and opportunities to mingle with other crime writers. Attendees could pick from workshops in four tracks: Writing Craft, Industry/Business, Law Enforcement/Forensics, and Marketing. I spent most of my time in the marketing track because I feel like that’s where I need the most help. Still, my favorite workshop was the mock crime scene. We learned all about how the FBI processes a crime scene. It was fun and educational.

The crime scene

Volunteers suited up to investigate the scene

This was also my first foray into moderating a panel. It was titled Obi Wan Kenobi: Veteran Authors’ Strategies to Survive the Publishing Force with panelists Sue Ann Jaffarian, Patricia Smiley and Jeri Westerson. We had a great conversation, talking about how to survive the ups and downs of the publishing industry.

Obi Wan Kenobi panel

The conference fee included breakfast and a sit down lunch both days. Saturday, the keynote speaker was Hallie Ephron and Sunday was William Kent Krueger’s turn. Both were great speakers and left us inspired. The event closed with a short interview with Hallie and Kent, as he likes to be called.

Both of the keynote speakers also put on workshops on writing. Hallie’s was on harnessing characters to drive plot and Kent’s was on how to build suspense. I didn’t get a chance to attend either one, but those who did go told me they were wonderful so I purchased the recordings of the workshops. Yep, every session was recorded. CDs and mp3s were available at the conference. You didn’t have to wait and order them afterwards. Though you can. Here’s the link in case you’re interested:

There was also a cocktail party on Saturday evening where I had some wonderful conversations with people I’ve known for a while and some I just met.

Overall, it was a great event. Sure, I was tired afterward, but I met some great people and came away inspired to write. Isn’t that what a conference is all about?