Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Man Who Didn't Want to be Known.

Would you like to be recognized as a writer? Or, would you rather have your books recognized and read?

Tough choice, isn't it? It's human nature to want a pat on the back for a job well done. You've put a lot of time and sweat into writing your novel. Certainly you'd like someone to appreciate what you've achieved. Some might call it egotism, and it is. Still, that's not a totally bad thing. As long as it doesn't get out of hand, ego is important in building self-confidence--something all artists need and often lack.

On the other hand, we all want our books to be read. There's joy in walking into a library or a store and seeing your books on the shelves--especially if they're being borrowed or purchased. Isn't that a primary reason we write books, produce art or do anything creative?

We're all familiar with some writers who produce great books, whose names are recognized, yet give no or few interviews and limit marketing activities to the minimum. In our time, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, among others, come to mind.

How about B. Traven?

A man who said, "An author should have no other biography than his books." And, "The biography of a creative man is completely unimportant."

Traven, whose personal history raises as many questions as answers, assumed many other names in various phases of his life. There have been claims he was an American, born in Chicago, and that he was Ret Marut, German anarchist, who fled Germany for a new life in Mexico. Some speculation has Jack London and Ambrose Bierce using the Traven name as a pseudonym. There's even a rumor he was the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

But none of that has to do with his success as a writer. His first writings as B. Traven appeared in 1925--a short story and a novel--published in Germany.

His best known work (though not his best) is "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which John Huston made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart. Ten of his works have been translated to the big screen, though "Treasure.." was Hollywood's lone attempt. The others were produced in Mexico and Germany.

It wasn't this book/film that made his name synonymous with good writing. That came with publication of his second novel, "The Death Ship," first published in Germany in 1926. A Spanish edition was published in 1931 and it came out a third time in English in 1934.

Since then, his books have been translated to some 40 languages, he continues to be read around the world, and new editions of his work are still being published.

Would Traven's technique of putting all attention on the book and none on himself work today?
Doubtful. Unless you're already famous or your background is so mysterious or weird as to make you a celebrity without trying.

Publishers, agents and other experts tell us we must 'brand' both ourselves and our books in order to achieve sales. There's so much good competition out there today. It's no longer a matter of do I want to market or not. Marketing is too important to ignore.

So get out there and market.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

When Words Aren't Enough

"The surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete."  (The Elements of Style  by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White)
As writers, we all want our words to be understood. The same holds true for a person speaking to another. In a face-to-face conversation, the task of achieving clarity is made a little easier by means of facial expression and gestures we understand and which convey the speaker's meaning.
"There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture. The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare.
 Those aides are missing in a phone conversation, in texting and emailing and, often, in writing and can contribute to misunderstanding.
Despite our reliance on them, words can't always express the full measure of what we mean to say. That's because there are so many nuances attached to a particular word and what we mean it to convey. This becomes even more difficult when you consider translating from one language to another.
One way to assure clarity is to bring in those expressions and gestures I mentioned above.
Here's a brief example from the master, Elmore Leonard (Road Dogs):
He watched the bank robber shrug, watched him pick up his glass and take a drink.
"You're having a good time poking around," Foley said, "trying to find out what I'm up to, aren't you?"
"I enjoy talking to you," Tico said, "one bank robber to another, uh?" and waited for Jack Foley to see he was being funny.
He did, but smiled only a moment.
And a longer one from Stephen King (The Hotel Story from On Writing):
Olin looked pained. For a moment he glanced around the small, smart lobby, as if for help. At the concierge's stand, a man was discussing theater tickets with his wife while the concierge himself watched with a small, patient smile. At the front desk, a man with the rumpled look one only got after long hours in Business Class was discussing his reservation with a woman in a smart black suit that could itself have doubled for evening wear. It was business as usual at the Hotel Dolphin. There was help for everyone except poor Olin, who had fallen into the writer's clutches.
"Olin?" Mike repeated.
No question of what's going on in either case.
And, finally, one from my own Something So Divine:
"Why were you watching out for her? Did you think someone wanted to hurt her?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders and didn't answer. He turned his gaze away.
Behind them a chair squeaked, and Roth heard the scratching of the clerk's and the reporter's pens on their notebooks.
"Ned. Ned, look at me. Somebody did hurt Susie. Was it you, Ned?"
The boy brushed a shock of hair away from his eyes and shook his head. He peered steadily at Roth. He blinked, and tears ran down his cheeks. "She was my friend. I loved Susie."
"Do you know what happened to her up in that field?"
Ned slowly shook his head from side to side.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

An Idea is Just the Germ of a Story

Writers are often asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" The answer is easy: ideas are all around us.

You discover them in what your read, what you hear (writers are notorious eavesdroppers), in what you see, and so many other places. But an idea is not a story. An idea is the germ of a story. It's what gets you asking, "what if..."

The next step in the process is creating character(s), a plot and a story location. There has been argument over which is more important--character or plot. In my opinion, they're equally important. You can't have one without the other.

For instance, you want your main characters to have substance, not be paper cutouts. Readers can relate to a realistically portrayed character. So how do you do that? You give them lives. You describe them, their characteristics, their personalities. Many readers are turned off by two much description. Some want no description of a character so they can employ their imagination as to the character's appearance. My feeling is it's your story. Their imagination may not match your vision. That's why I prefer to describe my key characters.

Others will quote Elmore Leonard's famous 10 Rules for Good Writing, citing Rules 8 and 9, which tell you to avoid detailed descriptions of characters and not to go into great details describing places and things. The important points are "detailed" and "great details." He doesn't say don't describe. Read Leonard to see how he subtly introduces characters and place, so aptly we feel we'd recognize the character anywhere and know the place even if we've never been there.

So you don't want to give them everything about your character in one lump. Introduce details gradually throughout your narrative.

Now, as to plot, this is the narrative of your story. It introduces the crime, the detective, the investigation, discovery of the motive(s) and, eventually, the identity of the culprit. Some mysteries disclose the identity of the killer at the beginning, but I think that takes the fun out of the story for many readers. Most like to try and outsmart the writer, determining the identity of the criminal before it's disclosed by the writer. Traditionally, mysteries started as this type of puzzle, providing clues through the narrative to lead the reader to the conclusion. Being the sneaky people we are, we throw in red herrings (misleading clues) to throw the reader off the track as well as sub-plots to add a little more substance to the story.

This is how an idea becomes a story.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

(My guest today is Carol Crigger, author of the wonderful China Bohannon Western series and other novels in a variety of genre. Welcome, Carol. The floor is yours.)

“What inspires you to write? “This is often the second question I’m asked when I speak about my writing. The first is  usually “Where do you get your ideas?” Third asks “What is your process?”

All three questions, as you might guess, have multiple answers, but today inspiration is on my mind. With me, music is often a flash point. So here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts on the subject..

Writers say in order to write, you need to sit your butt down in front of the computer and peck away. And that’s true. It just isn’t necessarily the whole story. Inspiration is a funny thing, you see. I’m pretty sure what catches the imagination of one person may well leave another cold.

For instance, I couldnt write a song if my life depended on it. It takes more than a couple dozen words for me to tell a story. How do lyricists, or poetsand the two are often one and the samedo it, anyway? How do they put together words that can take over your mind and, even years later, put you right in the middle of a memoryor a storyjust by hearing a few bars of the song. They are a special kind of writer, for sure.

Truly though, sometimes it’s the singer who makes the rhyme. Listen to Adele! She can bend words to fit like nobody’s business, and in the most heartfelt way possible. It makes me laugh.

It’s funny how a tune can get in your mind. Earworms, right? Only for this purpose, it’s not quite the same thing. You don’t need to know all the lyrics of the song. All you need hear is one certain phrase and it’ll catch you up and form a whole story in a matter of seconds. Or a whole book. Isn’t that amazing? From just a few simple words and a tune?

I don’t rely on music as much as I used to. I guess I’ve gotten more businesslike over the years. But more than twenty years later the song Lightning Crashes by the band Live, puts me right into a science fiction story I wrote that featured a child bitten by a spider. The bite morphed her into a monster, even though she fought the venom.  The story never  got published, but I still like it. Maybe I should find the CD and listen again as I try for a rewrite.

Counting Crows has helped along a couple of my books, including the first book of my Gunsmith Series, In the Service of the Queen, which got the title from the song. Rob Thomas and Matchbox Twenty account for more than one of my books, as well. Natalie Marchant helped with another, and . . .well, you see what I mean. All it takes is a few words put together in just the right way.

A lot of people say they listen to classical music as they write. A different kind of inspiration, I’m sure. Some prefer jazz, or maybe even opera. As for me, I need only to hear the part of the song that grabs me. Once properly inspired, I turn the music off. I like silence when I write, when I can hear my own words telling the story, and my characters talking to each other.

BIO: Imbued with an abiding love of western traditions and wide-open spaces, Ms. Crigger writes of free-spirited people who break from their standard roles. In her books, whether westerns, mysteries, or fantasy, the locales are real places. All of her books are set the Inland Northwest. Her short story, Aldy Neal’s Ghost, was a 2007 Spur finalist.  Her western novel, Black Crossing, won the 2008 Eppie. Letter of the Law was a 2009 Spur finalist in the audio category. Four Furlongs is her latest release.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What Does One Writer Read?

Someone asked, what kind of books do I read.

Well, it's a mixed bag.

In fiction, I lean heavily toward mysteries. But in the past year and a half I've read a number of Westerns, some historical fiction, Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman," Howard Frank Mosher's "God's Kingdom" and even Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean at the End of the Lane."

Who do I favor in mysteries? James Lee Burke, Ann Rendell/Barbara Vine, Harlan Coben, Ian Rankin, Wayne Dundee, Douglas Quinn, Elmore Leonard, Mark Billingham, Denzel Meyrick and many new ones I'm constantly discovering.

In non-fiction, I'm all over the place: history (particularly 19th century), archaeology, anthropology, travel, biographies, psychology, philosophy--whatever catches my fancy or may be vital to my research.

I don't, in general, read fantasy, paranormal (especially zombies), sappy romances or much sci-fi, but those are personal choices and not a condemnation of those genres.

I'm currently reading Juliet Barker's "The Brontes," an in-depth study of that remarkably talented family and JM Gregson's (another of those authors newly discovered) "A Little Learning."

Much of what I read, I also review. No one but a writer understands how important reviews are to a writer, be he/she known or unknown. So, if you read, please review. It doesn't take much to say you enjoyed (or didn't) reading a particular book. And reviews, no matter how brief, help a book rise in the ratings on Amazon and elsewhere. Besides, who doesn't like to give their opinion on something?

Stephen King says you can't be a writer without being a reader. And that admirable Brit Samuel Johnson once said, "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write, a man will turn over half a library to make one book."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

James Patterson--love him or hate him?

There’s no denying James Patterson is a phenomenon in the modern world of writing.

Type “author James Patterson” in a Google search box and it’ll return 32,500,000 hits (compared to my own paltry 20,000 more or less on a given day).

Reportedly, one in 17 of all novels sold in the U.S. today bears his name and he generally outsells Stephen King, John Grisham and other big names in fiction. Only a fool would not admire him for his contributions to literacy, his efforts to save bookstores and libraries.

Yet, he seldom writes a book himself these days, churning out plots and handing over the actual writing task to a stable of auxiliaries.

Personally, I preferred the early books he wrote himself like The Thomas Berryman Number and the first Alex Cross novels. And I admit, I haven’t read much of his more recent output. Note, this isn’t the result of jealousy.

He, himself, acknowledges he’s not a great writer. He’s more of a plot-master and is definitely a great storyteller, virtues in and of themselves. Nor is he the first writer to work with assistants and collaborators. One of my favorite writers, Alexandre Dumas, the elder, who like Patterson was a fabulous marketer of his work, employed the same tactic (though the writing style of the two men is world’s apart).

Patterson worked for years in advertising and it is as a result of that experience, as much as writing ability, that contributes to his success. He knows marketing and exploits it in every way possible. He treats his work as products, not works of art. That is not meant as a negative.

His “product” wouldn’t sell if it didn’t have something to attract and retain readers. The man knows and utilizes story arc. He knows how  to grab and hold onto an audience, one always eager for more of his work. 
Though I liked that first novel of his, it is vastly different from later output. While the latter often appear more like sketches or TV scripts than novels and the first was more complex and descriptive, Patterson found his formula and it works for him.

I’m not saying we should imitate all he does but, rather, suggest he does have merit and it doesn’t hurt to consider adapting some of his ideas from time to time.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Rustling Not Restricted to the Wild West

Rustlers generally make on think of the Wild West. But an incident in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, in 1894 makes it clear they existed here in the Wild East as well.

Pat Love, who lived at Vine and Commerce streets in that year, had a fine spotted cow who was wont to graze contently along the streets and byways of the community. According to a report in the Tuesday, Sept. 4, 1894 edition of The Evening Item, Sunbury, “She was turned out as usual last Saturday and was seen at different times during the day until 2 p.m. when she disappeared.

“As evening approached the cow always went home but on that particular evening failed to show up. Mr. Love mistrusted that she had been stolen and at once began a search. In a short time inquiry revealed the fact that the cow had been led away by some man. Love went to the law and W. H. Wagner was deputized to seek the thief. He traced man and cow to Bear Gap and from there over the mountain to Danville. From there the trail led over the river bridge and along the towpath to the Halfway House where the thief arrived Sunday morning, having driven the cow 35 miles by a circuitous route. The Item reported the rustler remained there until evening and then again started off cross-country, headed toward Chillisquaque and sleeping in the woods along the way.

On Monday morning after failing in several attempts to sell the cow, the thief succeeded in persuading Joe Wolfe, a Chillisquaque trucker, to buy her for $12.

Deputy Wagner arrived about an hour later. He notified Love who came to Wolfe’s, identified his property and took possession of her. The Item’s article concluded: “They took her to Northumberland Monday evening and started for home Tuesday morning, going through Sunbury about 8:30. Mr. Love was pleased that he recovered the cow but said he would like to get his hands on the thief.”

Cattle were not the only target of such thieves. There was a time when horse theft was the number one crime at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. Among those incarcerated at the famous lock-up was Joe Buzzard of the notorious Buzzard brothers gang who terrorized the Commonwealth's Welsh Mountains from the late 1800s till the mid-1900s. Joe, youngest of the gang, considered himself the premier horse thief in the country. He was the only horse thief in custody when he entered Eastern for the last time in 1939.

Rustling plays a major role in my Western, "The Tithing Herd." If you like the genre, you'll find the novel at http://www.amazon.com/Tithing-Herd-J-R-Lindermuth-ebook/dp/B00XQK881Y/