Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Author Interviews: Marilynn Larew

Marilynn Larew is a thriller writer who is trained as a historian, using that training to shape her writing. She wrote her dissertation on the Cincinnati bank the caused the panic of 1819, and she retains a strong interest in the way money behaves. Her love of architecture comes from a stint at the Historic Site Survey in the Interior Department. Her interest in terrorism during the days of the Red Brigades led her to teach a course in the history of terrorism. In her Lee Carruthers series, Lee is a CIA specialist in money-laundering who gets involved in cases about terrorist funding in Morocco and the illegal arms trade in Dubai. She watches the headlines for new plot lines and new places to take her heroine.

She is a member of the Sisters in Crime, the Guppies, and the Chinese Military History Society.

1. Many of your books, especially your Lee Carruthers series, are set in a wide variety of countries. What makes you write about those settings, and who tends to be your intended audience? Do you think “locals” versus “foreigners” would have a different take on them?

I write what I like to read—thrillers set in places I’ve been or places I’d like to go. I think “locals” probably read cozies, but I can’t write cozies, because that’s not my life experience. When I was a kid we moved around a lot, usually every two years. The result was I went to 14 schools before I graduated from high school. That also meant that I didn’t develop the deep connection with friends and locale you find in cozies. I was always a new girl, and before I really got settled in, we moved along to another place. My father was a radio engineer, and these were the golden days of 500 watt radio stations. He loved to put the stations together and get them on the air, but he quickly grew bored with the everyday running of them, so he looked for another new station to put on the air. The result was that I was really a “foreigner” in my own country. This is probably why Lee Carruthers is a loner. As she says in The Spider Catchers, she has sources everywhere but no friends, although I think some of her sources could be called friends.

My audience is women aged 40 or 50 and above who like strong female characters and like to travel, although I have discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that a fair number of men in the same age bracket like Lee. I’m not sure why, but one of my friends told me that she is “hot.” That came as a great surprise to me, because I had not deliberately tried to write to her that way.

2. How long did it take you to complete your book—first draft, editing, the publishing process?

It took me several years to finish The Spider Catchers. This includes time I spend doing other things because I couldn’t get the plot to work. The first plot had Lee going around to all the ports of Morocco following a human traffic ring that sent captured women out to a mothership standing off shore. It was great fun, and I learned a lot about Morocco, but I couldn’t figure out a way to end the book, so I put it away for a while to think about it. When I decided to focus the plot on Fez and the Algerian Sahara, it went fairly rapidly, probably a year from start to sending it to the editor. Then it took another six months before it was ready to publish.

3. What is one opinion about writing you’ve had that’s changed over your career?

I somehow thought it would be easier. After all, I’d been reading mysteries and thrillers for a very long time. How hard could it be? The answer is very hard. I knew generally how a plot should run, but I didn’t have the tools to put the book together. It took a critical reader telling me to go out and learn how to write a novel before I did what I should’ve done—read a lot of how-to books. Even yet it’s not easy. I’m a “pantser,” that is, I write by the seat of my pants, knowing the beginning and the end and working the middle out as I go. That’s not the most efficient way to write, but I have found that trying to outline makes the whole process difficult and the product stale, and I lose those new ideas I get as I write. I’m not saying it’s inspiration, I’m just saying that one thing leads to another, and that happens only when I’m writing, not when I’m outlining. Parts of it have gotten easier over time, because I know Lee and what she would do in a given situation, but getting her to do it is another matter.

4. Is there any terrible advice you’ve received for your book or career? Bad advice you’ve overheard someone else be told? (If not, are there any common writing rules you don’t agree with?)

Writers are often advised to “write what you know.” I suspect this is more for writers of literary fiction than for writers for genre fiction, for genre fiction by definition deals with situations that the writer can’t “know.” I’ve often wondered why anybody ever invited Hercule Poirot to spend a weekend in the country, because every time he went to a country home, a corpse turned up. Of course, writers of genre fiction deal with the human condition, the human character, and motivation, all things we know. But we don’t know about the corpse in the library or a genuine conspiracy to destroy the state. These are things we invent. I had a very strange experience when I wrote about something I do know, terrorism, if only from academic research. In The Spider Catchers, every time I invented something rotten for my fictitious terrorist group to do, within the week the real terrorist group it was based on actually did the rotten thing. It was really creepy. The only thing that writers of genre fiction can do is make their characters and plots reasonable, for their readers will know if they don’t.

5. What are your biggest concerns about the current literary world?

My biggest concern in the literary world at the moment is the chaos in the industry. Publishing houses are being combined into giant corporations, and they don’t publish authors who write what is called the mid-list. They only publish writers who are proven bestsellers. How is one to get a start? You can see the effect on agents. Many agencies, in addition to trying to find publishers for their clients, have started selling packages that include editing and formatting e-books for people who self-publish. I’m not sure what will happen next. Perhaps the big publishers will disappear and publishing will be ruled by small publishers and people who self-publish.

[Editor’s Note: For readers interested in publishing, be wary of any agent or even publisher who offers to sell packages for editing or formatting ebooks. While the literary world is indeed changing, any request for money directly from the author, whether that be fees or services, is a long-standing red flag for someone who does not make his or her profit through book deals, but by preying on hopefuls. If you are interested in hiring an editor or formatter, look for independent companies or freelancers whose focus and expertise is self-publishers in which all creative control and final say remains with the author, never someone who claims to be a part of hybrid. Visit Writer's Beware for more information on common literary scams.]

[Questions six and seven redacted by author’s request.]

8. Where do you find yourself getting stuck most often—beginning, middle, or end?

Like many writers, I find myself most often stuck in the middle. The beginning is fairly easy as I lay out what the situation is. Since I write thrillers, the situation is not often a murder, but a complicated geopolitical question or a missing person. That’s not to say murders don’t occur, but they’re not the primary focus. Since I write by the seat of my pants, I don’t have a firm outline, although I usually know what the ending is going to be, but that can change as I write. It’s the middle that’s the difficulty as my heroine investigates the situation. She has to ask questions, lots of questions of lots of people, and it’s important that this not become tedious. New events, red herrings, even new plot lines have to be introduced to make the plot go. It is these new things introduced that sometimes make the ending change.

9. If you could hire someone to do any of the writing work for you, what jobs would you assign to him?

If I could hire somebody to do any job connected with my book, I’d hire someone to do the last proofreading. This is because my eyes are bad, but it’s also because after you’ve read the manuscript so many times, it’s very difficult to pick up a mistake.

10. What is an assumption people make about your career that bothers you?

There are two things that people assume about my career that I dislike. One is that writing is just a hobby for me. It’s a job, and it’s meant to be profitable. Number two is that because I’m working at home, I’m not really working. People think that they can just interrupt anytime they want to.

11. Tell us a little about your book, The Spider Catchers.

The violent takeover of Fez brothels and a new stream of terrorist funding have something to do with the disappearance of Alicia Harmon from the Fez office of Femme Aid Maroc. When CIA analyst Lee Carruthers tries to find out, she is swept into a tangled web of dirty money and human trafficking, and people will kill to find out what Alicia knew. If only Lee knew. She’s working blind, and in this case, ignorance is death. Her search takes her through the slums of the Fez medina to the high-rises of the new city and finally to a terrorist camp in the Algerian desert.

12. How much unpublished work do you have sitting around?

I have parts of two unpublished books on hand. One is Hong Kong Central, the third in the Lee Carruthers series. It takes place during the Hong Kong democracy demonstrations. I was working on that when my latest, Aftermath, muscled in and demanded to be written. I also have the start of a book about a military coup which takes place in Istanbul. It remains to be seen how much damage the failed coup last year has done to the plot.

13. Being a historian, how much artistic license do you give yourself when while writing about the real world? How accurate do you feel you have to be in your writing?

Having been trained as a historian was a curse when I first started writing fiction. Scholars write bland prose, it’s just the nature of the game, and I had to spend a lot of time deliberately introducing passion into my writing for fiction. The second problem was my absolute need for everything to be historically accurate. In The Spider Catchers, I had a great deal of trouble with airplane schedules. Casablanca is Morocco’s entry airport, and all flights leave from there. If you want to fly from Fez to Tangier you have to fly first to Casablanca and then from Casablanca to Tangier. It took a great deal of thinking for me to convince myself that I was writing fiction and I could set up airline schedules anyway I wanted to, but I finally learned. The same with the flight from Orly in Paris to Casablanca. I finally set that schedule up to meet my plot requirements too. I still like to be accurate as to the geography of the book, not much trouble for The Spider Catchers and in Dead in Dubai, because I was working with Google Earth, maps, and photographs. For Hong Kong Central, there’s a problem. I know Hong Kong fairly well, and that sometimes provides a stumbling block until I can teach myself again that I’m writing fiction.

14. If you met people like your characters, would you get along?

Whether I can get along with my characters depends on the plot of my book. I create characters to be likable or unlikable. I’d have to get along with Lee Carruthers, or I couldn’t write a series about her. She probably has a lot of my fantasy characteristics. She certainly has my voice. My daughter says she hears me speaking whenever she reads one of my books. In The Spider Catchers, I like Kemal, Lee’s lover, although he occasionally annoys Lee by being protective. I like Driss Bouchta, a Moroccan intelligence officer and Lee’s longtime friend. Alicia Harmon is annoying. I’m not the only one she annoys. Readers at a book club universally were annoyed by her. I made her that way. And then there are the Bad Guys. I made them bad and intended them to be unlikable. I think genre fiction is like that, especially mystery fiction. There you create a world of good and evil and work through your plot so that good is rewarded and evil is punished.

15. What was the hardest part in writing your book?

For me the hardest parts of writing a book are writing the first chapter and the last chapter. The first chapter is critical in “hooking” the reader. It has to be interesting and active and show just enough of the plot for the reader to want to turn the page to chapter two. I find the last chapter difficult too. It’s a summing up, rather like when Hercule Poirot gathers everybody in the study and tells them What Really Happened. It has to be short enough not to bore but long enough to tie up all the threads into a coherent pattern. For a series writer, it also has to provide a short hook to the next book.

The Spider Catchers:
Dead in Dubai:

Monday, May 29, 2017

Why Writers Will Make Mistakes When They Know Better

I’m not going to talk about complex and subtle issues like continuity errors. That’s way too much work. Instead, I’m going to do the exact thing that gets my editor fired on a weekly basis, and that’s focus on word choice, or rather basic typos.

Twice now, in my long luxurious writing career, I have spelt “learn” “luren” when writing. It’s not that I ever have been under the impression that it was “luren” or that I didn’t immediately find a mirror to look at myself like an idiot. It was something I just did naturally in the heat of the moment.

Posting a joke about it on Twitter, I received the response of, “How on earth do you spell a word wrong that you already know how to spell?”

Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?

If we look at the original idea behind the typographical error, the term typo came from a slip of the hand—putting the “e” before the “h” in “the.” If we’re going to be pedantic about it (and you all know how much I love that), putting “your” instead of “you’re” when you’re actually not informed of the difference isn’t a typo; it’s a grammar error.

The truth is that most of our mistakes aren’t from being poorly informed, but rather from simple slip ups, temporarily forgetting the rules as our focus shifts, or our minds struggling to switch back and forth from right to left sides of the brain.

I explained to him that while envisioning the scene, if I was tired or too invested into it, I would be so focused on the visuals and sounds of the moment that I focused on the “sound” of the word than the sight of it. So I spelled it out phonetically. He claimed that he had never been that immersed and that he was kind of jealous. But, I believe, he has made those kinds of mistakes before, even if he is unaware of it.

It’s important for writers to be aware that this happens in order to give each other a base amount of respect and be better equipped to solving the problem.

The fact is, now with the internet harping on it, most people do know the difference between “you’re” and “your,” but knowing is different from implementing.

For one thing, typing and spelling becomes habitual. You are able to type fast because of muscle memory recall; you don’t have to stop and remember where each and every letter is, you don’t have to try and pull up how to spell a word. We start to make associations of the “image” with the “sound,” which is why we often get homonyms wrong the most. Because “you’re” and “your” sound exactly the same, the brain hears the word and pulls up the associated image, not considering the actual meaning.

So you first have to reteach your mind to hear “you’re” and pull up “you’re,” but the brain’s first impulse is to replace not add.

You’ll note that many writers when they first begin to use the correct version of the word will suddenly start using “you’re” all of the time. Considering that we say “you are” more often than “your possession,” it actually makes a lot of sense why not only do they err on the opposite.

It took me about two years to teach my brain to naturally recognize the difference when writing, where I didn’t have to pause and think out which one I actually meant. Today, I will often put the right word in without it slowing me down… but even still I will make mistakes.

A reason many people recommend not editing as you write is that editing, especially copyediting, is a left brained activity while writing is a right brained one. One uses facts and the images of words, the other uses feelings and images from your imagination. Switching back and forth is very difficult, which is why the more inspired you are by a scene, the more likely you are to make basic typographical errors.

Keep this in mind when you start to get frustrated at some of your dumber mistakes, or when criticizing your fellow authors. There is a huge difference between a mistake caused by implementation or misinformation, and it affects how you should inform the writer of the issue. We know that it's not luren. We're just tired, damn it.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Does Your Partner’s Gender Affect Your Art?

Some time ago I asked online how people felt gender roles played into the amount of support shown for their artistic endeavors. The question came from some anecdotes by other writers and the different ways their partners encouraged and helped them. Or didn’t.

One of the things I’ve noticed is how much emphasis men tend to put on finances. Even when they’re saying, “I don’t write for the money!” it’s obviously on their mind. Women can share this sentiment, but typically in a very pragmatic sense. “Stop pirating my books! I need to pay the light bill!”

Men are more likely to ask me how much I make from my artwork and writing. They are more likely to ask why I’m doing it when I reveal that I’m not getting a profit from a project (like the literary journal I ran for five years). They are also more likely to worry about being successful in a monetary sense, or ostentatiously reject the importance success in a monetary sense. Many guys will be the first to say they will feel like failures if they’re not making enough money period where women are more likely to evaluate their credibility via other means. Men, it seems to be agreed, feel an intense pressure to be business savvy.

This has two outcomes. I find that male writers tend to be more polar in their success. They tend to push themselves harder and end up with more to show… or they quit completely.
There are far, far more female novelists than male. For one thing, men tend to be drawn towards screenwriting over books, it seems. I imagine this is possibly because of the higher rewards, also possibly because men tend to be more visual. But I also have noted, anecdotally, that male peers are more likely to disappear off the face of the earth. They are also more likely to go balls to the wall, submit, publish, and self-promote in a speedier and more aggressive time-frame. Women are more likely to grow slowly and keep at it. They are more likely to continue their career for many years despite not yielding huge rewards.

These are all generalizations, of course, nothing you can count on. But it does beg the question of how much gender plays a role in your morale. I started to hear stories from men who were mostly worried about how their writing career couldn’t sustain a family, what would they do if they couldn’t make it? Male writers seemed to be on their own, not considering the possibility their wife could do the heavy lifting financially.

When I wrote about a woman who didn’t like her boyfriend’s work, I received a response from an older man who suggested she should just break up with him. The blog described her confusion about how to handle his decision to pursue his dreams when he wasn’t that good of a cartoonist. He had some savings, they were completely financially independent of each other, and he was going to really try to make it work. My thoughts were that she should be supportive as long as he’s not screwing himself or her over. My older reader’s were that she shouldn’t waste her time with him.

How would it be if the genders were reversed? How many men (or women) would tell a guy to break up with a girl who decided to become a starving artist instead of an accountant?

Funnily enough, my Facebook post on gender roles did not illicit this complaint on financial support at all. All the male writers who responded interpreted it as a question of gender roles in the home, talking about how equal their household chores were, while all the female writers knew exactly what I actually meant.

While men didn’t seem to question or praise the amount of support their wives gave them, the women felt like men were disinterested in their passions or hobbies (some women went out of their way to explain, “I know it’s not that important but…”).

This was pretty accurate to the complaints I was getting beforehand. I’ve never had a boyfriend read my work. They all offered, of course, but never went through with it. My first relationship ended because we worked together on a play and he was so disrespectful I could never see him in the same light again. My last ex would correct me on things in condescending ways, like when I said that I would be finished with this one book by a certain point, he asked, “How can you be finished with something?” in order to remind me that real art is never done! You know, instead of hearing my actual point.

It’s interesting that men don’t seem to acknowledge both the amount of support or the lack of it from their partners. From what I’ve read, people of all genders often feel underappreciated for the work that they do in a relationship (it’s a major cause of divorce). I mean, a lot of the emotional maintenance that women do is pretty subtle, but why don’t men noticed when they’re not getting something that they would offer up themselves? Do they not notice? Not care? Perhaps they don't know how to identify and verbalize what's missing? Or, do they not feel they have the right to talk about it?

Over all, I do feel like the quintessential female when it comes to my boyfriend’s work. I go out of my way to read what they write, see what they’re in, help them learn lines, give feedback, encourage their enthusiastic conversation, and I haven’t yet found someone I considered to be a good team player when it came to my projects. On the other hand, up until recently, I never truly concerned myself with being broke because I figured by the time kids rolled around, we’d be a two-income household; he would likely make more money than me and my lack of business intelligence would be less relevant. Now that I’ve recognized and accepted the possibility of never getting married or having a family in that way, I’ve grown more fixated on money myself, making a living off of my work has become more important.

How much does gender play into your decision making? The expectations of your partner? From them?

I’ve learned that being around supportive and caring people can drastically alter your mental state and even your level of inspiration. Regardless of your gender, there’s a good chance that some sexist expectations are being forced on you and are truly hurting your ability to create. Financial responsibility on men or the absence of cheerleading for women are some of the biggest pratfalls of any artist’s relationship.

Does the gender of your partner affect how much support you get? Probably. Even if you’re very content with the situation, it might be useful to sit back and reflect. You might realize that they’re offering you far more than what most people would expect. If that’s the case, do something nice for them as a way to say thanks. You might realize that they’re not doing what you need and that you can, in fact, change it. You also might come to the shocking conclusion that you aren’t being as helpful as you could be, or are neglecting them unintentionally.

I’m interested in hearing more about people’s experiences. If you have a rant, an argument, or an insight, please share it! Email me at, or comment on Facebook with your experiences with your artistic endeavors and relationships.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Author Interviews: S.M. Hart

S. M. Hart wrote her first story, The Secret Book, when she was a child.  In college, she majored in mathematics with a minor in liberal studies and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. For over twenty years, she taught at a large urban high school in Fresno, California.  There she used literacy, critical thinking, and empirical investigations to teach a variety of math concepts to teenagers.  The teaching experience showed her the connection between mathematics and imagination, and between the prosaic and the poetical.  It gave her insight into human relationships and social compacts.  It also allowed her to practice the art of storytelling, and it greatly exercised her sense of humor.  Ms. Hart’s debut novel is The Book of Rhino: The Revelation, an integration of low-density fantasy and historical fiction.  Ms. Hart is originally from Durango, Colorado and now lives in Central California with her husband.

1. The Book of the Rhino has been described by some readers as a mix between low-density fantasy and historical fiction. What genre do you consider your novel, and how do you think people’s expectations of genre influence their reaction to your work?

I consider it an integration of low-density fantasy and historical fiction. I think people’s expectation of genre influences their choice of what they read and their level of satisfaction in reading it. The story in a low-density fantasy book usually takes place in a world like ours whose environment and physical laws are familiar; it has less emphasis on the usual elements associated with fantasy. Examples of low-density fantasy books are The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart and the Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead. My first reviewers reacted favorably to the low-density fantasy in The Book of Rhino.

2. How long did it take you to complete your book—first draft, editing, the publishing process?

It took almost five years from the first draft to the release date. (June 2012 to April 2017)  It took me ten months to write the book, and seventeen months from my initial contact with a publisher to the book’s release on Amazon. The longest period of time was deciding whether or not I wanted to go public with the manuscript. At first, I wanted to keep my lovely story all to myself. Then a friend of mine asked to read the book. She liked it so much she had the manuscript formatted and bound into a hardcover copy as a gift to me. What else could I do? I promised her I would think about publishing my book, which I did–for two years.

3. What is one opinion about writing you’ve had that’s changed over your career?

It is not always the slow, agonizing process I thought it was. Once in a while, it proceeds along at a nice clip.

4. Is there any terrible advice you’ve received for your book or career? Bad advice you’ve overheard someone else be told? (If not, are there any common writing rules you don’t agree with?)

I cannot recall receiving or hearing terrible advice about my book. The worst advice I ever heard (and thankfully ignored) about teaching was to not smile in class until December. So if anyone ever tells me to be serious in my writing, I will disregard it as terrible. I simply cannot write for very long without making a joke.

5. What are your biggest concerns about the current literary world?

My biggest concern is that there are not enough vertical relationships between generations of writers. I am concerned that older works of literature are not being read by younger generations.

6. What trends, tactics, styles, or genres would you like to see become popular in modern writing?

I would like to see more themes of social justice, which is one reason why I wrote The Book of Rhino. I would also like to see more humor and wit, especially in young adult novels, which is another reason why I wrote The Book of Rhino.

7. What trends would you like to see disappear?

I would love to see misogyny, the objectification of women, and the victimization of the powerless disappear. Unfortunately, this trend has been with us for a long time. Years ago, I addressed this issue in a creative writing class in college. I asked the professor why most of the stories we were reading were about strong, heroic men while the very few stories about women portrayed them as weak victims or cunning manipulators. He gave me a double C- on my next essay. The misogyny trend continues.

8. Where do you find yourself getting stuck most often—beginning, middle, or end?

I am stuck most often at the beginning. I have always been a backwards planner, deciding where I want to end up, and then planning the journey to get there. I always start with the “why” of a story. If I don’t know why someone should read it, then I don’t start it until I do.

9. If you could hire someone to do any of the writing work for you, what jobs would you assign to him?

Right now, I would not hire out any of the work. I enjoy every part of the writing process. I once asked my niece, who is also a writer, if she would write a torture scene for me because I could not bring myself to do it. Although she was willing, I eventually abandoned the idea.

10. What is an assumption people make about your career that bothers you?

I really don’t know what people assume about my career as a writer. I’ve learned that people make all sorts of strange and unflattering assumptions about math teachers. So I have learned not to let people’s assumptions bother me.

11. Tell us a little about The Book of the Rhino.

Love to!

The Book of Rhino is about five boys—brothers—coming of age in Albion (England) during the Middle Ages. When they reach adulthood, they will rule the different provinces of the kingdom. The plot revolves around the training they undergo to become effective rulers. However, one of the boys, Prince Rhino, does not want to share power with his brothers. He has a plan to eventually rule over them. He decides that he will be such a model of perfection his brothers will love and serve him forever. He thinks it will be easy, but the universe also has a plan.

And then there’s a girl named Amalia.

The main themes of the book are: free will and choice, servant leadership, equity and social justice, brotherhood and friendship.

Its main literary influences are: Phantastes by George MacDonald, The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, and The Robot Novels by Isaac Asimov.

12. How much unpublished work do you have sitting around?

The second book in the Rhino series is still unpublished; it is not yet ready for the editor. I am currently writing a series of short stories about Carl, the Calculus Cat for my blog. I would like to eventually turn it into a book. Of course, I will probably be the only one who reads it.

13.  Some people would consider math and creative writing on opposite ends of a spectrum. What is it about those two things that draw you in?

To me, mathematics is a magic world. It’s a way to describe, analyze, understand, and represent real world phenomena with abstract concepts, relationships, and symbols. I think that is what writers try to do with stories. They write to make sense of real world phenomena—even when they set their story in another world. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “This is the secret to good storytelling: to lie, but to keep the arithmetic straight.” Storytelling was one of my primary pedagogical tools; I had a story for just about every math concept. In a way, solving problems with mathematics is like creative writing in terms of setting, characters, plot, and conflict. Like any good story, math concepts have an exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution.

14.  If you met people like your characters, would you get along?

Yes, but that is probably because I get along with just about everybody. However, there are one or two characters that would test my good humor. I would have to “be kind to them because they are waging a great battle.” (Philo of Alexandria)

15. What was the hardest part in writing your book?

It was whenever my characters went through a very difficult time. I did not like inflicting pain on them and wept whenever I read the text. I think that was because their sorrows are not unique or unusual; they are common to the human condition, things that most people experience at some time in their lives, things that I could relate to.

Twitter: @SMKHart
Amazon Author Page:

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Why I’m Embracing ‘Telling’ Again

Show don’t tell is actually fairly ambiguous in its current form. I see authors preaching its merits to only show examples that directly contradict the definition of another writer. Their ‘showing’ is just a more complex version of ‘telling’ by some’s interpretation.

What is “He erupted like a volcano”? Is it showing because you needed to come to the conclusion of his mood rather than being told? Or is it telling because it’s not actually a visual?

In the best workshop I’ve taken, through his ideas of what 'showing' is I found an easy way to force myself out my box and off my crutches. It really helped to create more interesting ambiance. The teacher said that showing was to tell a story in real time. It was an image you could see before you. Telling was more abstract, information that was being delivered without need for interpretation.

Regardless of how you felt about show don’t tell, this definition really forced me to think about the different ways I could say something.

I believe in “showing.” I believe in letting the audience come to its own conclusions. I believe in delivering information through examples and images. It’s not bad advice.

But many people seem to claim that showing is more important than telling, that you should always try to show with only the rarest of exceptions. It’s not that I outright listened to them, of course, never really agreeing with it entirely, but I did find myself lamenting any time I went through narration.

One of my recent manuscripts, The Former Self, has a playful beginning that is more voice than image. Now I’ve told you guys about how this is a common problem for me—I hope to insert better visuals into my writing rather than being contingent on character—and I wrote it with the intention of coming back and fixing it. I never presume the way my book begins is the way it’s going to be by the end. I prefer to understand what the story is about and having fun before trying to make it interesting for other people, so typically I do a new version around draft two or three. Or many new versions.

It’s a backstory. The entire manuscript toys with making the first person P.O.V. more meta—I purposefully remind the audience that Rhea is the one telling her story; we are not watching events as they unfold:

“It’s a long story. One I am not too clear about anyway, so bear with me. I’ve asked, of course, a lot of these questions, but with Iden it’s important to say it in the right way. He won’t lie to me, but he is still just as resistant to the past as ever. He’ll never elaborate on his own. I always have to understand what I don’t understand, or I’ll be left confused. If that makes sense.”

The book goes from first to third. I narrate her past. I make jokes. I toy with internal monologues in contrast to what’s actually spoken. I had fun with it, “breaking” many rules that I knew people had their hang-ups on. That’s how I write all my first drafts, in fact, without worrying too much about pedantic criticism. Or at least try to, not always successfully. Most rules are contextual and I prefer to see if it worked or if it didn’t after putting it down on paper.

But the problem is knowing if it was actually successful. For one thing, just because you now have the context doesn’t mean that all your critique partners will consider that context. People love to staunchly declare, “NEVER do that!” without being able to tell you the consequences. Of course, I’ve found, over time, that the less experienced someone is, the less secure about their abilities, the more likely they are to be absolute in these things, while people who truly know what they’re doing are more open-minded, but that's not an end all. When I first meet someone, I tend to assume their opinions are true for them, and therefore meaningful. Too early and it's hard to gauge if they're just closed-minded or if they're saying something you don't want to hear.

Sometimes, your rule breaking really didn’t work. It just didn’t. Even if you are open to prologues, this one still sucks. Telling the difference between an open minded person who just didn’t like what you’ve done and a closed minded person who doesn’t want to like what you’ve done isn’t always easy.

For the last few years, I’ve struggled with this. There have been times when someone uncompromisingly insisted on something that seemed so petty and so irrelevant, but I eventually adhered to and found my life easier. There have also been times where someone gave me a completely misleading suggestion and have caused problems or added on to my workload. Most times, it’s a little bit of both.

The problem with writing free ranged first and considering your readers second is that you may not trust you know what your readers will think, even after you have something concrete to look at. I certainly don’t. I don’t always see eye to eye with the public and what works in literature.

Recently, two things happened: I do tend to agree with most of my critique partners on big picture issues and haven’t been completely blown away by a criticism in a long time, so it’s not as though I can’t trust my own tastes.

Two, while in Ireland, I couldn’t get my library ebook to download and ended up buying and reading 1984 in the three seconds my cousin allotted for me to run into a bookstore. I found Orwell’s writing style fantastic, not mind-numbingly simplistic, a good turn-a-phrase here and there, some creative prose, but not dense or condescending either. More to the point, the book has a great combination of telling with showing, setting up the world quickly with good visuals, and just all around conveyed information in a way that worked for me.

I’ve read through the beginning of The Former Self several times and the first series of narration, this backstory told and not shown, was always easy and fun to get through. In that sense, it is successful.

I realized, sort of surprisingly, how much I had internalized the insistence that everything needs to be shown. But in fact, as long as it’s interesting, it doesn’t matter if you tell parts and pieces. Having a good mix, like 1984 does can be extremely successful.

I've seen books like Around the World in 80 Days that 'tell' to the point of tears. I've criticized novels (and myself) for conveying information mostly through talking heads. I loved the prose created from a class all about showing, and pushing myself to do so has come up with some beautiful pieces. On the other hand, telling isn't all bad either, and sometimes you got to give into your voice.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing: Relearning How to Speak

According to psychologists, learning language is different than learning words. Children who, for various terrifying reasons, weren’t exposed to speech until later in life have the ability to understand and remember definitions, but are limited when it comes to the other aspects that make up communication. They often struggle with applying grammar, though they’ll be able to logically learn of the rules. Inflection and using words for actual communication proves difficult. In the disturbing case of Genie, part of her language handicap was also due to physical disabilities. She did develop some excellent non-verbal skills, but they tended to be atypical of the body language employed by the average American.

There’s a joke for kids who don’t do well in English class: “Isn’t that the language you speak?!”

Most writers are past puberty and fully equipped to discuss things in the language they are also writing in. So why is it that when we start to write, everything changes?

A professor of mine had a sister who read prolifically. She was a shut in, and found a lot of free time on her hands. One of the things she said was she could always tell when a book was dictated—someone orally telling the story to a typist—and when it was written. It takes a lot of practice for an author to put his own actual voice directly on the page. There’s something unnatural about our natural tongue. (If we even wanted to do write in that, which, let’s face it, we might not.) Most of us are very much aware of the differences between how we write and how we speak. Many of us don’t care. Sometimes we probably should, and sometimes it’s not even allowed by societal expectations.

What is it that makes us write differently than we talk? What is it that makes it so we can’t write as we talk?

The subconscious has a compulsion to make everything “normal.” The internal part of your psyche—your autopilot, your muscle-memory recall, your gut instinct—likes to put things in boxes. It starts to track patterns in order to predict effects of an action. This allows it to think quickly. And usually, it’s very good at its job. The subconscious will tell you to catch this thing chucked at you. Children, who have yet to understand basic physics, may not be able to put two and two together and let themselves be struck, where as an adult will, at least, flinch without telling his body to do so.

It can also immediately retrieve images implied by even vague words. I say, “The dog walked to town,” it will grab a picture of a dog without actually having any information of what kind of dog. You probably pictured a brown, medium-sized and completely factious animal. It’s possible you pictured a real life dog you’ve actually met. Everyone’s subconscious has different assumptions, and your tendencies are important to note as a writer. Writing is a lot about this “negative space,” (the information that you don’t need to say), in order to succinctly give millions of readers the same image in the least amount of time possible. If you are “abnormal” and when someone says “dog” you picture “chihuahua,” you probably won’t get away with saying just “dog” without leading to some confusion.

This dog could be trotting down the sidewalk, or he could be walking through long grass. He could be a border collie, a pit pull, or a teacup poodle. He could be by himself or with an owner. He might have a collar. He might not. It could be raining. There could be fog. Despite not having enough information, the brain doesn’t force the reader to take the time and consciously think, “Where is he? What is he doing? What is he wearing?” It retrieves an image, then tweaks it as you gain more information. When it feels like a huge piece of the puzzle is missing, like “The dog walks,” in which case the setting isn’t clear, it will wait to retrieve an image, leaving the reader in a gray void.

Your subconscious works constantly throughout the day, and it wants to pull information as fast as it can. It includes things like operating your body when you zone out, or tell your fingers what buttons to push to type the word “write” without having to consciously look.

This also strongly affects the way you write your first book. Most of us have the experience going from reader to writer, and a lot of the adjustment stage is the inability to learn through osmosis. All of the sudden we realize we have no idea what happens in the middle of a book, or that we really don’t know what makes a good story—we used to just recognize it when we see it.

You ask your subconscious, “I need to begin a book.”

“Well,” it thinks, “Mornings are beginnings. Your character wakes up!”

The subconscious is not clever. Writing purely by the gut for the first time tends to create a book that is the epitome of what your subconscious thinks books are. It doesn’t understand or care about the importance of originality; it just does what it’s asked in the quickest way possible. It does what just feels right, what makes sense, what should happen.

So, your character goes on a journey.

“Something needs to happen,” you say.

“They’re traveling across the wilderness? You would come across a long, fragile bridge over a deep ravine!”

“My character is walking through a bazaar and I need a compelling conflict.”

“A child steals his wallet.”

When you don’t know what will happen next, your gut tends to pull out things it’s seen before.

This compilation of what your subconscious believes “books are” includes writing style. This means that if you secretly believe critically acclaimed novels are all a bunch of pretentious bullshit, you’re likely to overwrite. Or, you might go the opposite route and believe the narrator is like a film in which this personality and voiceless storyteller dictates neutral visuals.

This is a prominent and controllable reason that amateurs tend to have the same styles when we first begin our career. It’s one of the reasons why experienced writers often suggest reading a lot; you can catch when your subconscious is pulling assumed events from reality (you punch a guy in the face, you go to jail) versus fiction (you jump off a ten story building and hit the ground running.) If you read while you write, you’re more likely to consciously catch clich├ęs, and learn what to question about your own assumptions.

The other reasons are more about language itself than perception of what you’re “supposed” to be doing.

For starters, you just lost two major handicaps that come from oral speech: breathing and time it takes to think.

Our sentences can only be so long as our breath takes. Sometimes we’ll allow a pause to suck in some air, but usually an adult plans out his words to fit within what his lungs would allow. If they do stop mid-sentence for air, he usually hasn’t thought of what he’s going to say past that moment, and uses the time while breathing to come up with the next stretch—risking an interruption by the other party. You hear this with their inflection.

We are also limited by trying to not waste another person’s time, especially when it means they might just start talking. So we are less likely to use precise words, but jam in anything that feels right, or use several words that kind of mean what we meant instead of one correct word. Sometimes, even, we will stall, adding in excess but meaningless words to give us more time to know what we actually want to be saying. This includes, of course, “um,” but can also be entire phrases like, “In all honesty,” or “For starters,” or anything like that. It should be noted that it this is perfectly acceptable in real speech because of this limitation (people will usually try to understand what you mean to say and ignore the mishap. Those who don’t give the benefit of the doubt will often look like pedantic assholes who are trying to disrespect you out of a competitive motivation.)

In writing, however, you suddenly are able to stop and take all the time in the world to choose your words. It becomes an expectation to do so. Master writers use the right words. If you don’t, you’re just Joe Snuffy trying to play with the big boys. We expect precision, flow, succinctness, and prepared sentences, and will not accept anything that seems pulled out of the ass or half-assed.

Writers will often start talking in the way they want to be speaking if they weren’t limited by real time and thought. They’ll use bigger words than normal (sometimes inaccurately), speak in longer sentences, use technically proper grammar (sometimes by instruction), and tend to be overly formal.

The other side of this is that many people write slower than they speak. Okay, everyone does, now that I’m thinking about it. But you’ll note there’s a difference between the mistakes that fast, by the gut typers make and the ones that slow, outliner types. The faster typists tend to have more “stalling” moments in which they have excess words or passages to give them more time to think of what they actually want to say. Slower typers will be more to the point… sometimes too much so.

Even though we are allowed more repetitive word choice in oral speech, it is still less than what a beginning author will do. It’s not uncommon for people to use the same word over and over again in a distracting and sometimes even condescending manner. This is somewhat the influence of Hemingway, but it is also perpetrated unintentionally by those who have no real desire to copy him. It’s pretty much something we’ve all done, and it can be attributed to the speed in which we write.

People who capitalize random words, use a lot of unmotivated sentence fragments, and overuse certain phrases are often either slower typers, or more careful thinkers. Because they’ll write something, stop, think about what they want to say next, then write it, they will be more inclined to “forget” exactly how the last sentence read and not notice what the two sound like next to each other.

That’s the first handicap that textual writing has over verbal storytelling: the inability to control the speed in which the reader reads.

When we speak, we have a lot of say over our rhythm of speech and “timing.” In writing, we are limited to punctuation, paragraphs, length of sentence, “-ing,” and outright suggestion.

A period, a comma, an ellipsis, a dash, a semicolon, a colon, parenthesis. A paragraph break. Saying, “Joe said slowly.”

Punctuation can be used creatively, but is still somewhat restricted by rules. It is considered incredibly inaccurate to put a comma just because you wanted the reader to pause. An ellipsis (“…”) usually suggests to the reader a trailed off word. It often affects inflection and hesitation over a moment of silence. Telling the reader how to read something sometimes works, but can often be jarring and forced. People constantly bitch about semicolons (ironically because they’re not used enough). There is this whole movement against long sentences and starting with conjunctions, and so most of our tactics to control how fast the reader reads are frowned upon.

So if you were to use repetitive word choice while taking your time with a thought—the words separated by actual time—it wouldn’t sound weird. But when it flows quickly like the reader reads, it sounds insultingly simple and unplanned out.

Keep in mind that this has worked for people—Hemingway, for example—but most of the fans of those works argue that the repetitive word choice is intentional. How they tell the difference is something you should ask them. My only point here is to check for accidental repetition of words in your writing. If you intentionally did it, that’s your cross to bear.

This “speed of delivery” is only a portion of the bigger issue at hand—learning to speak without inflection or body language.

I argue that one of the reasons the internet is such a God-awful place is not because people are inherently rude, but because text without physicality tends to be interpreted as rudeness. We can have a contradictory cheeriness, or demonstrate humor, in just our tone or with a smile. We can say the same exact thing in writing that would be perfectly acceptable to someone’s face, and now they’re pissed.

Not only can you not control the timing of your sentence, but you can’t control how people hear it.

Words are far more complex than just technical meaning. It’s not about staying away from those that bend parts of speech or always caring about the subtle difference one word can cause, but recognizing the power of the right word, and why the right word may not always be the one you expect.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Author Interviews: Jacqueline Chandler

Jacqueline Chandler writes in a chatty, conversational style that makes her suspenseful page-turners easy to read. But You Can’t Hide is her first novel. Deadlock is the sequel. She’s currently working on a standalone novel set in a fantasy/supernatural world. After that, she has promised several avid readers that she will return to the world of But You Can’t Hide’s hero, Stuart Finlay, for the next instalment in his story. Her books are not literature. They’re fun. They’re the sort of novels you can take on a beach, or an aeroplane and get lost in for a few hours. They also work if read in any number of other situations as well.

1. Your book, But You Can’t Hide, is a thriller following Stuart Finlay and how his search for a missing girl leads to the destruction of a young student’s life. What do you think people see when they hear “thriller,” and how does that perception and expectation affect their reaction to your novel?

I think most people would think ‘thriller’ accurately describes my novel.  The only problem I’ve had with people’s expectations of the content is that they never thought I would write something like that.  Don’t get me wrong, the violence contained is neither overly graphic nor gratuitous, but I do come across as a rather bubbly, happy person, which I am.  My friends don’t expect these other things to come from my head.  A couple of friends have even grown distant since reading my books.  They seem to think of me differently now.

2. How long did it take you to complete your book—first draft, editing, the publishing process?

A ridiculously long time!  I remember researching this novel when I was 15.  The story hasn’t really changed much.  I killed off some characters and I eliminated some plotlines because the book was far too long, but the basic story was there.  To be researching it at 15, I had to be writing a couple of years before that, so I was writing But You Can’t Hide for about 25 years – on and off.  The last two years before publication were crucial though – major edits, major changes, and I discovered my writing style finally, so it was really completely re-written.  It all came together between 2010-2012.

The second book, Deadlock, was done between 2012 – 2014, which by most author’s standards, I’m sure, is still a ridiculously long time.

The current book I’m on has already taken me three years and I’m not yet close to finishing.  I am well out of my comfort zone on this one and I’ve really struggled with it.  I am devoting more time to it now though and I hope to get it finished this year.

3. What is one opinion about writing you’ve had that’s changed over your career?

That I could do it.  I’ve been writing stories since I was a young child.  I’ve been seriously devoting time to this since I was a teenager.  I love it.  It helps keep me sane.  But I never believed I could do it.  I mean, to get anywhere in this business you have to be extraordinarily talented and, even then, you have to be very lucky to find the right agent or right publisher who are willing to take a chance on you.  I’ve been shortlisted a few times by publishers who in the end decided not to take the risk - I’ve been ignored entirely by agents.  So, I studied something else for my degree.  I never expected to ever publish.  I never thought to actually try to pursue this seriously.  I wrote less frequently and I was miserable.  It was only in 2010 when, to me, self-publishing became an actual thing I could do, that I decided to really go for it.

4. Is there any terrible advice you’ve received for your book or career? Bad advice you’ve overheard someone else be told? (If not, are there any common writing rules you don’t agree with?)

Advice?  No.

Rules?  Meh…  I write very much like I speak.  My style is consequently very easy to read and positively conversational.  This means that, where appropriate, I sometimes start sentences with the words And and But.  It sounds right in my head and I find it to be a good way of emphasising a particular sentence, but I know it’s meant to be grammatically incorrect.  Or at least it was.  Has that rule changed yet?

5. What are your biggest concerns about the current literary world?

I’m curious to know what will happen in the future with self-publishing now on the rise and it also no longer being the kiss of death to an author in the eyes of an agent or publisher.  I can imagine the market getting completely saturated and I think that will make it even harder for an author to make her/his mark.

6. What trends, tactics, styles, or genres would you like to see become popular in modern writing?

None that I can think of.

7. What trends would you like to see disappear?

None that I can think of.

8. Where do you find yourself getting stuck most often—beginning, middle, or end?

Beginning and end.  The idea for a book comes to me in a scene - normally one from somewhere in the middle – and the rest of the book gradually gets built around it.  I write a book in the order in which it comes to me in my head – I really have very little control over the creative process.  So, I normally write various chapters from the middle of the story first.  Then I organise them in some sort of order that hopefully makes some sense.   Then I’ll work on the beginning and try to set up some of what I’ve written in the middle.  Eventually, I’ll come to the end.  The end of But You Can’t Hide only came to me in the last six months before publishing.  To have written a book over a 25 year period and not know the ending until the last six months is pretty bad.  Once I have a full draft, I’ll go back to the beginning and agonise over that first line, first paragraph, first page, first chapter.  They’re so important and I want to be able to sell them the way I feel I can sell the middle.  When I’m happy with that, I read it all through and try to link the chapters together so it looks like I actually wrote them in some sort of order.

9. If you could hire someone to do any of the writing work for you, what jobs would you assign to him?

Blurb on the back cover.  Didn’t even have to think about that answer.  It is so hard to condense a 100,000 word novel into 100 words while still doing it justice and giving enough information to let readers know what to expect, without giving too much away.  It’s a completely different style of writing and I find it agonisingly difficult.  Hats off to anyone able to master that.

10. What is an assumption people make about your career that bothers you?
That it will never go anywhere and that I’ll never be able to make a real living from it.  I can’t say it’s an entirely unfair opinion considering how hard it is to get anywhere as an author, but, yeah, it bothers me.

11. Tell us a little about But You Can’t Hide.

OK, this falls under the realm of the back cover blurb style writing.  I can tell you a LOT about But You Can’t Hide but if I try to tell you a little, it will come out not making much sense.
Basically: It’s about a weary private detective trying to find a young girl who then gets sucked in to the dangerous world she’d hoped she’d left behind.

That doesn’t tell you much.  Sorry.

I can tell you that I love this story, and I love the characters.  Characters are really important to me.  I have to be able to connect with them or feel something for them.  Even if they’re bad people, even if what I feel is an urge to watch these characters burn, I still have to feel something.

12. How much unpublished work do you have sitting around?
I have 8 different novels crossing various genres that I’d still like to finish and publish, one of which I’m currently working on.  I also have 39 short stories and 5 poems which I’d like to publish in one or more anthologies.  Additionally, I have an unfinished play – I can’t work out how to finish it and, honestly, I haven’t invested any time in it in a long while.

13. You are a British national, but currently live in Germany. How does living in a new country influence your writing or the way you see the world?

It doesn’t as such.  I’ve been living here since 1995, so the way of life here is pretty normal to me now.  In fact, I find England a little strange when I go back there and that makes it harder for me to write my books, which are typically set in England, when I’m not really sure how the country operates anymore.

Also, the language is sometimes an issue.  I think I’ve forgotten more English words than I can remember.  Idioms are harder to recall and the sentence structure in English varies greatly from German, so I sometimes have to think it through.  I wish I could say that this is because my German is so incredibly brilliant that I speak like a native, but it would be a lie.  I’m just not a language person – that’s a bit of a setback for an author.

14. If you met people like your characters, would you get along?

Depends who.  Several of them are amalgamations of friends or people I know.  Some are rather nasty characters I’d rather not meet, or at least, would rather not meet again.

15. What was the hardest part in writing your book?

Having children.  I get quite involved in my characters and their stories.  Once I had kids, I found it very hard to be with my children and then write the sort of things I write about, so I stopped.  For several years, I didn’t write at all.  I just couldn’t.  Once the kids got older and my head got out of the fuzzy fairy tale world of tickles, peek-a-boo, and snap, I was able to get back down to it.

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