Elizabeth Spann Craig is well-known in the online writing community for her Writers Knowledge Base—the Search Engine for Writers, where she maintains links to all the best posts on writing online, and her weekly Twitterific post, rounding up the weeks’ exchange of writing posts through Twitter on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder.
But that’s not all—not even half! Because Elizabeth’s understanding of writing craft is based solidly in her three popular mystery series, published through Penguin and her own imprint: the Memphis Barbeque Mystery series with Penguin/Berkley under the pseudonym Riley Adams, the Southern Quilting Mystery series with Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clove series with Midnight Ink.
Elizabeth’s a busy woman! And today she’s taken time to talk with us about the dark, labyrinthine ways of both our favorite genre. . .mystery.
Elizabeth, so lovely to have you here! I know your forte is mystery, as is mine, so let’s be completely self-indulgent today and talk of nothing but mysteries. Who are your favorite mystery authors?
Thanks so much for hosting me, Victoria! I’m excited to be here. I love indulging in a conversation about mysteries—my favorite topic.
I have lots of favorite mystery authors, and I love them for different reasons. Agatha Christie is my all-time favorite because I love her quirky sleuths and their unusual approaches to solving crimes. M.C. Beaton has been a more recent favorite. Her Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin sleuths are very human and fallible, but know how to capitalize on their individual strengths. And I’m amazed by the work of Elizabeth George (especially her earlier books), Deborah Crombie, Caroline Graham, Ruth Rendell, Colin Dexter—yes, I could go on and on ad nauseum. Who are some of your favorites?
Well, Raymond Chandler, you know. Anyone who can say, “He had a chin like a strap-hanger’s elbow,” owns me. I love the classics and Golden Age writers: Poe, Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Chesterton, Hammet, Gardner, Sayers, Van Dine, Stout. Let’s not forget the brilliant Wilkie Collins. Robert van Gulick wrote Westernized versions of Chinese mysteries about a real fifth-century judge. Ngaio Marsh’s charming Detective-Inspector Alleyn. Georges Simenon’s deadpan noir Maigret. Alexander McCall Smith’s hilariously pragmatic Precious Ramotswe. And I’ve recently discovered Derek Raymond and his haunting How the Dead Live.
Oh, we could turn this whole interview into a list of names! I’m addicted to the Gold Room at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. Have you ever been there?
No, I sure haven’t, but it’s legendary. I’m very envious! I’d probably get absorbed and forget to leave and they’d have to send a search party after me.
[Laughing] Such a dangerous place.
Recently I’ve discovered that some really old mystery titles from the Golden Age and lesser-known authors are becoming available on e-readers. It’s fantastic to be able to find and enjoy some treasures from the past.
Thank you for the tip, by the way, on Martin Edwards’ Forgotten Books column on his blog—now I have to find some Patrick Hamilton. So how did you get into mysteries? What first made you love them?
I’m a little bit of a cliche there. I’m one of those mystery writers who was heavily influenced by Nancy Drew as a kid. I read all the Nancy Drews I could get my hands on. . .my mother had ladies tearing up their attics looking for old bags of Nancy Drew books. I plowed through mysteries wherever I could find them—Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden—even watching Scooby Doo on television. Yes, I was even one of those kids who had a detective notebook of observations and recorded what adults were doing and saying. It kind of bordered on the fanatical, now that I think of it!
As a teenager, I started moving into adult mysteries. I read Christie, Sayers, and Carr before moving into P.D. James. I love a whole range of mysteries—private eye, police procedural, thriller, noir—and feel like I’ve been influenced by all of them, although I’m writing traditional mysteries/cozies.
I just love the puzzle aspect of mysteries and the fact that it’s an almost interactive experience—we solve the case alongside the sleuth. I also enjoy being scared, in a safe way. With a mystery, I get a safe thrill. If a book gets too intense, I can close it or shut down the Kindle and return to safety quickly. I think that’s one reason so many readers like traditional mysteries—the murders occur in a tranquil, safe environment. It disrupts the town, but then everything is tidily returned to normal by the end of the book. It’s a satisfying feeling.
Exactly. The triumph of sanity over insanity. Hey, remember Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s book, Harriet the Spy? Very odd, insightful take on what the world of sleuthing is all about in the childlike recesses of the human mind. Did you ever read it?
I sure did. . .maybe because I was also an odd child with a notebook! Of course in an adult murder mystery little Harriet, with all her eavesdropping, would have known too much. . .she’d have met with an untimely demise.
[Laughing] That’d make a fabulous children’s mystery—you’d better write it! It’s strange to read Raymond Chandler’s letters from the 1950s, when he railed against the difficulty of mystery earning its rightful place in the canon. And now there’s a whole world of literature based on, as you say, that sense of “safety” in exploring frightening themes, the puzzle that satisfies the intellect. What is your favorite mystery technique or storyline?
You know, there are just so many elements that make up a great mystery. It takes real skill to keep readers from guessing the murderer’s identity without making them frustrated. One of my favorite techniques is the unreliable witness, which Agatha Christie used to such great effect. It involves discrediting a witness/supporting character by either showing his incompetence, lack of intelligence, or immaturity (if the witness is a young child), and then having him either unveil a major clue or actually name the murderer or motive. Since the readers don’t respect the character, they won’t give credence to his statements. It’s a fun technique to play around with.
Oh, excellent. Yes. I just re-read Shirley Jackson’s canonical ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, and the way she confuses the reader about who’s portraying the truth and who’s simply bonkers—genius! So what’s the most common failing you see in unsuccessful mysteries?
I read a lot of reviews of mysteries, actually, because I’m interested in finding out what readers like and dislike most. One of the biggest complaints that I see is when readers lose respect for the sleuth. Over and over again, I’ve read reviews where readers were upset because a sleuth did something stupid, just so the writer could further the plot. If the reader loses respect for the sleuth, it really compromises the story. So if the detective needs to go into a remote part of town—by himself, at night—when he knows the murderer is probably lurking nearby, the writer needs to have to have an excellent reason for it. Does the detective think he’s going there to meet someone else? Did he suddenly realize there was a clue that he’d overlooked before—and the killer happens to realize the same thing simultaneously? There has to be a good reason for our supposedly intelligent sleuth to endanger himself.
You’re so right. No matter what the genre, it’s always about character motivation. ‘What does this sleuth need? Why are they driven to solve this mystery?’ Marlowe often thinks he needs nothing more than to make his twenty-five bucks a day, but it’s layered with his overwhelming need to see justice done. Elizabeth, is there a mystery angle you’d like to explore but don’t believe could be successfully pulled off?
Oh, sure. I’m a fan of unreliable narrator stories (as well as the unreliable witnesses I mentioned above.) But. . .it’s very tricky. When it’s done well, it makes such an amazing twist ending. I’d mention some examples in mystery literature and also some recent examples that were done well on film, but I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone. It’s a difficult technique because if it isn’t done well, the reader/viewer feels cheated or manipulated. If it is done well, the reader gets a surprise ending that causes them to think about the entire book in a different way.
I’m going to name Christie’s Roger Ackroyd as the most obvious example of this. If there’s anyone left who hasn’t read it yet—I’m sorry! It’s still a good read. What do you think of Chandler’s claim that, no matter what anybody says about the Rule of Fair Play, there’s no such thing as a 100% honest mystery?
I think Chandler is right. Mystery writers have to employ trickery in their books. We’re deflecting attention from clues, sending readers on wild goose chases, and generally deceiving the reader. But—we have to be at least a little deceptive to give the readers a satisfying read. We have to play fair, but we can’t let the reader learn the killer’s identity in Chapter Four. That’s not fair to them, either.
That’s a fabulous point: it’s not fair to the reader to ruin the mystery. We all read for fun. In fact, mystery is one of a handful of highly-popular modern genres all based upon the intensity of the thrill. What qualities do you think mystery shares with horror, thriller, paranormal, romance?
The biggest thing all genre fiction has in common is its popular appeal. Genre writers know that when their book is published they will have a group of readers waiting for their release. It’s like having a built-in, established readership. Genre fiction writers bring books to the people—books that are usually accessible, interesting, and entertaining. Genre fiction’s goal is to pull readers into the world of the story instead of distracting them with the intrusion of heavy use of literary devices or the author’s opinions/viewpoints.
You know, even literary fiction isn’t supposed to interfere with the story, only seduce the reader with language rather than excitement. I do miss good experimental fiction. What’s the weirdest mystery you’ve ever read?
The weirdest mystery I’ve ever read is the first detective story ever written: Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It’s creepy, baffling, carries a violent theme throughout the story, and has a fairly horrifying solution. But then. . .that’s Edgar Allan Poe for you! It’s not a mystery that would play well for today’s readers, since the reader doesn’t really have a fair shot at solving the case.
It’s true, Poe failed to incorporate Fair Play, but that’s one of those little inconsistencies that will occur when you’re inventing an entire new genre. Did you know his second mystery, “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” was based on an unsolved murder to which the perpetrator later confessed, saying, “He pretty much nailed it”?
I loved “Marie Roget,” but didn’t realize the story was based on a true crime. Interesting! I wonder what Poe thought about his role in solving the real case (or prompting a confession from the killer?)
What an amazing man—I wish he’d written about his knowledge of the craft. What are your favorite books on the craft of writing mysteries?
The ones I’ve got on my shelf are:
Don’t Murder Your Mystery—Chris Roerden
Book of Poisons—Serita Stevens, Anne Bannon
Police Procedure & Investigation: A Guide for Writers (Howdunit)—Lee Lofland
The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery—Robert J. Ray, Jack Remick
Telling Lies for Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers—Lawrence Block
Writing the Modern Mystery—Barbara Norville
How to Write a Damn Good Mystery—James N. Frey
Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit are great no matter what genre you write.
Occasionally, my husband looks at the bookshelf and gets a little nervous. He reminds the kids that if anything ever happens to Daddy, they need to tell the police what Mama does for a living!
[Laughing] I’d never thought of that! So, Elizabeth, what nefarious deeds are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working on the second book in the Southern Quilting mystery series for Penguin/NAL—the first, Quilt or Innocence, launches in June 2012. I’m setting up promo for the release of the third book in the Memphis Barbeque series, Hickory Smoked Homicide, which releases November 1. I’m editing a backlist title to be published as an ebook and writing the next Myrtle Clover book, which I’ll epub myself. So it’s been busy around here—but fun. I love that I’m spending so much time writing.
And I’m dying of envy!
Elizabeth Craig’s latest book Finger Lickin’ Dead was released June 7th and Hickory Smoked Homicide launches November 1. She writes the Memphis Barbeque for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She blogs daily at Mystery Writing is Murder, which was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2010 and 2011.
Elizabeth can be found on her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder, on the Writer’s Knowledge Base—the Search Engine for Writers, on Twitter, and on Google+.
Hey, guys! I don’t usually futz around with grammar issues here, but this one came up and it’s kind of an exception, so I’m going to give you a little grammar lesson today.
You all know me well enough to know I don’t make too many grammatical howlers, and you probably also know that I use ‘they’ and ‘them’ for third-person singular construct. But so far—almost three years of this blog now—you’ve all been quite accepting of that and not questioned my reasoning. Then today someone linked to a post of mine, but when they quoted me they felt obliged to insert a ‘[sic]‘ after ‘they’ to let their readers know they know they think it’s ungrammatical. Which was very conscientious of them.
So I thought I’d better explain: this is not an ungrammatical editorial error; this is a deliberate editorial decision. One I made thirty years ago.
Back in the early 1980s, shortly after the women’s rights movement had finally put Equal Rights for women into a Constitutional Amendment (a no-brainer, right? it was voted down), there was a lot of hoopla over the correct third-person singular pronoun in the English language. Because, of course, we don’t have a neutral third-person singular pronoun, and historically English grammarians (mostly men) had made the decision that all third-person singulars must be considered male until proven female.
An extremely odd decision, all things considered, since more than half the people on this planet are female. You’d think it would go with the majority, wouldn’t you? But no. A female was male to all strangers in print unless she could give a really good reason to refer to her as female. It seems simply being female wasn’t a good enough reason.
And the feminists—rightly—took issue with this.
There was a little book that came out around then called The Tao of Pooh, which I liked a lot. So when the author wrote a sequel, The Te of Piglet, I ran right out and bought it. And what do you know—the author had decided that the great success of The Tao of Pooh had transformed him magically overnight into an authority on all things literary, and he devoted a whole chapter in The Te of Piglet to this grammatical contretemps and his personal opinion that anyone who objected to being considered male sight unseen, even when they were female, was a hysterical freak and should simply be shouted down. His argument was that it didn’t hurt anybody, it was easy to get used to, and feminists were making a big old flapadoodle about nothing.
And he had a point.
So I sat myself down and wrote him a letter—in those days we didn’t have email, so when you wrote an author a letter, you wrote a real letter, put it in a real envelope, stamped it with a real stamp, and mailed it off to their publisher—in which I agreed with him wholeheartedly. Such a trivial issue didn’t hurt anyone in the slightest and could easily be considered a whole lot of flapadoodle about nothing, as I could prove by having taken to using the female third-person singular pronoun for everyone, which I’d gotten used to almost immediately. And I thought this author, when she’d had a chance to think about it, would throw her weight behind me as well.
Sadly, in spite of my enthusiasm, The Te of Piglet failed as a philosophical treatise, and nobody ever heard from that guy again.
I was kidding, of course, about using the female pronoun for third-person singular. You could. Just as easily as the male, and with a little more logic, seeing as how you had better odds of being right in a world dominated by the female gender. But it would miss the point that respect is a pretty fundamental attitude to hold toward our fellow humans, and respect for each of us as a member of our own gender is pretty close to most of our hearts.
Fortunately, I saw a simple solution that didn’t involve either the awkward constructs he/she or she/he (I was always surprised nobody seemed to choose the latter) or some variation on randomly messing with everyone’s gender in general.
And that was in the natural evolution of language and—slightly lagging but still evolution—of grammar.
Grammar was not handed down from on high the day the English language was invented, never to be deviated from again. Grammar is a product of usage, and all language usage evolves first in oral tradition, only to be accepted in written grammatical forms eventually, even if at a slightly later date. So that, for example, when the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ dropped out of common daily usage, it was some time before grammarians realized it no longer made sense to insist upon it for the English version of the Romance Language variations on the Latin intimate second-person singular, ‘tu.’ Nobody insists a writer use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ anymore, even in dialog between parents and children. I’m pretty sure.
In the same way, common usage had already, even thirty years ago, solved the third-person singular pronoun dilemma. In oral communication, we all simply used ‘they.’
“Who was that jogger? They just threw garbage in front of my house!”
“I got the weirdest call the other day. This person said they had a hot deal for me, but it turned out they didn’t know what it was.”
“I know you always think a pundit’s clever so long as they’re fast with a pun, but I’d like to see them disagree with themself once in awhile.”
It seemed a simple step to adjust my grammatical compass to accept this common-sense solution to such a sticky problem. So I did. In fact, I even use the third-person singular reflexive pronoun ‘themself.’ I’ve been using it for thirty years—in speech as well as in writing.
Now that we’re well into the twenty-first century, with all its flapadoodle flapping in the breeze in all directions, I’ve simply stopped worrying about it. Am I on the cutting edge? Or am I just going with the flow?
Either way, common usage has proven for decades now that it’s grammatical.
Today Roz Morris over on Nail Your Novel is talking about an issue that’s extremely important to writers breaking into the industry these days: advice on revision.
I started to throw in my two cents in a comment and realized quickly that there was way too much to say in a short space, so I’m going to talk about that here today—what’s going on when your agent (or acquisitions editor) gives you advice, whom to listen to and why, and how to stay true to your own creative agenda.
Acquisitions editors are not free to deal solely in issues of craft
Once upon a time, the job of publishers’ editors was to take diamonds in the rough and help writers shape them into polished works through their professional, artistic understanding of why readers read and what makes storytelling wonderful.
The assumption was that the higher quality their product, the more they could sell and the more loyal their readers would be.
Today, the job of publishers’ editors is to find and negotiate a savvy financial deal on those books that will sell the most the fastest. They are no longer free to be artists—those who do edit wind up doing it on their own time, outside office hours. Their primary function is to get the books they love accepted for publication by their sales reps and the bookstore reps at their acquisitions meetings. And then to get those books published. (Not all books that are accepted get published, and those that do get published are not always handled properly.)
The assumption is that the more books they can move off the shelves, the more money the publisher makes, even if that means leaving a trail of abandoned, suddenly unemployed authors in their wake—which happens more and more.
Now, as Poets & Writers has pointed out, under the thumb of the marketers serving the agenda of the modern Big Six (and other publishers following in their footsteps), acquisitions editors are often the least powerful people in the process.
This means you can fight them on their ideas for revision if you want.
But if you try to change their minds about your book, you’re trying to change the minds of the wrong people.
Agents are not editors
Agents are salespeople. Their job was invented to create a filter between writers who may or may not know what makes a book intriguing to the reader and the publishers who provide that reader with their reading material.
Agents screen writers and their manuscripts for those books they believe they can sell most effectively—whether through quality or topic or authors’ names—and simultaneously screen acquisitions editors for the best matches. Then they sell those manuscripts to those editors.
Once upon a time, agents were the only screening process necessary. There were a lot of writers, yes, but there were also a lot of publishers, and the numbers were much better balanced than they are now. A lot of writers still went directly to publishers. Nobody minded. There was room for everyone, and—as John Gardner said in On Becoming a Novelist in 1983—if you wrote good books, you would get published.
This is no longer true. As acquisitions editors are forced to edit on their evenings and weekends if they want to edit at all, the burden of editing falls mostly on those who handle manuscripts before the editors ever see them. Agents have been scrambling in recent years to carry that burden, advising writers on what sells best and how to position a book so it’s most likely to not only win the heart of an acquisitions editor but also win the hearts of the sales reps and booksellers’ reps—the marketers.
Agents know a lot about sales and marketing. They also know a whole lot about the day-to-day fluctuations of the industry. They keep up with developments nobody else besides the publishers has time to keep up with.
But they are not trained in craft. So when they advise you on how to shape your book for best sales, most of them really can’t offer much more in the way of art than, “I love your writing. I believe in your talent. I really, really want this manuscript to succeed.”
The burden of craft falls entirely on you.
Independent editors/freelance editors know craft
At least, the qualified ones do.
There are far, far too many folks marketing themselves as freelance editors right now without either adequate experience or developed skills. This field is brand-new and requires no licensing, no diplomas, no proof of knowledge other than what the indie editor is willing to put out there.
Find the independent editors who can prove they are highly-qualified.
Ignore the rest.
Along with the loss of editing at the publisher level has come a tsunami wave of amateur writing in recent years, ever since the explosion of the Internet. This means not only does the burden of editing fall on the writer, but a smaller and smaller percentage of aspiring writers out there have any idea what all that entails.
Once upon a time, when someone wanted to become a writer they wanted it badly enough to devote their entire life to learning how to do it well. They didn’t write one book and immediately start trying to sell it. They wrote book after book after book, year after year, learning and honing and suffering for their craft the way professionals have always learned their trades—the hard way.
The assumption was that you can’t break into the publishing industry if you haven’t developed your skills to compete with the highest-quality authors in your field.
Now that so much of what’s being published is published for reasons other than quality—topic, marketing, authors’ names—at the same time that many acquisitions editors are free to choose whether or not to even edit, the quality against which aspiring writers measure themselves has dropped precipitously.
And we need a new screening process in the industry: there are far too many aspiring writers, far too many aspiring agents, far too few publishers. The numbers are skewed to the point that they’re unmanageable.
Just as once some writers skipped agents and went straight to publishers, now some writers skip independent editors and go straight to agents. Nobody minds. There’s room for everyone.
But when you discuss your manuscript with an accomplished independent editor, you’re not trying to change their mind, and you’re not coping with expertise that focuses entirely on marketing rather than craft. You’re working with someone who understands your craft better than you do—an artistic mentor—who can also translate the marketing issues that are the bread-&-butter of acquisitions editors and agents into the craft that is yours.
Most of all, you have an advocate who owes loyalty to no one but you, someone with no ulterior motive, who can help you make decisions about balancing sales and craft—in whatever way best suits your own goals and vision.
The Art and Craft of Fiction:
A Practitioner’s Manual
by Victoria Mixon
“The freshest and most relevant advice you’ll find.”—Helen Gallagher, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“Wonderfully useful, bracing and humorous. . .demystifies essential aspects of craft while paying homage to the art.”—Millicent Dillon, five time O. Henry Award winner and PEN/Faulkner nominee
“Teeming with gold. . .makes you love being a writer because you belong to the special club that gets to read this book.”—KM Weiland, author of Outlining Your Novel
The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
by Victoria Mixon
“This book changed my life.”—Stu Wakefield, Kindle #1 best-selling author of Body of Water and Memory of Water
“Opinionated, rumbunctious, sharp and always entertaining. . .lessons of a writing lifetime.”—Roz Morris, best selling ghostwriter and author of Nail Your Novel
“As much a gift to writers as an indispensible resource. . .in a never-done-before manner that inspires while it teaches. Highly recommended.”—Larry Brooks, author of four bestselling thrillers and Story Engineering
“I wish I’d had The Art & Craft of Story when I began work on my first novel.”—Lucia Orth, author of the critically-acclaimed Baby Jesus Pawn Shop
Porter Anderson of Porter Anderson Media is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a producer and consultant formerly with the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome and INDEX: Design to Improve Life in Copenhagen. He’s worked in journalism throughout the changes of recent decades at the network of CNN, the Village Voice, and the Dallas Times Herald. Now recently he’s begun writing his cutting-edge “Writing on the Ether” column for writers every Thursday on the blog of former Writers Digest publisher Jane Friedman.
And today he’s going to take us diving deep beneath the wave of writing—to discover the real power and sinew of this craft we all love.
Porter, it’s delightful to have you here. You’ve been very supportive of me on Twitter for such a long time, but we’ve only recently gotten to know each other. And, I have to say, you write some of the most intelligent, hilarious emails I’ve ever received in my life!
Thanks, Victoria, and congratulations on releasing your new book. I’m sure it’s here somewhere under all this white lace. We’ll find it before we’re done, don’t worry. Go on with your questions, I’ll just be digging through this pile of doilies over here. . .
Thank you! And don’t worry about the doilies—we keep the wine in this bottle right here on the desk.
That’s a Montipulciano d’Abruzzo. How did you know? This lace is looking better by the minute.
[Laughing] We’re celebrating! You’ve got some big news today, right?
Right, and you’re the first to have this, Victoria.
I just finalized things last week in New York: I’m issuing the Porter Anderson Q2 Music Challenge Grant to support one of the most important developments in worldwide music today—and it’s a way I hope to introduce writers, including your readers, to one of the best daily companions they’ll ever find.
Have you ever heard of Q2? It’s @Q2Music to your Twitter friends. And online, Q2 Music lives here.
It’s a free 24-hour Internet stream that focuses on—ready for my favorite slogan?—”the fearless and relevant music you crave.”
It’s really hard to jump with both feet into a writing career, without some palpable contact with the soul-reflective surfaces of art. I’m not arguing pop-vs.-literature. But if you want to rumble somebody’s world either in a pop or classical setting, then we’re talking vocabularies. The difference in knowing a few words or phrases of a language and being fluent in it are profound. And the more each of us who writes can grasp the muscular reach and breadth of artistic rigor, the better we become at the subtlest winks of rich writing.
Think of the most wicked film scoring you’ve ever heard. What today’s composers are doing—some of them actually in film—is what Q2 calls “living music.”
As in music-for-living, this is music that tells you something about your own life. Music that scores your characters’ lives in the bargain.
This is about the writer’s private world—as opposed to their public world, their published works. It’s the world of the act of creation. “What I’m listening to today.” I see it on agents’ blogs, too.
Most of these composers could no more write a book than you or I could write their concertos and tone poems. But the key is that they’re alive and working, they’re in the line at Starbucks, going for the same turnstile as you in the subway, trying to sort out software issues, putting on their pants one leg at a time. Not while they’re in the line at Starbucks. You know what I mean.
Seriously wasn’t going to ask. [Laughing]
As composer Grey McMurray put it recently on Q2, “Words are attempts to bridge the same gaps that music is attempting to meld.”
Yes. We’re all searching for a way to give expression to something that’s never before been expressed.
If Herr Beethoven were writing his 9th Symphony today, Frau Mixon, there’s every chance the “Ode to Joy” would be something different from what he wrote in 1824. And he’d get the planet-wide audience that Q2 is giving our composers today. Can you imagine what Mozart would have given for a way to have San Francisco hear the same music he was premiering in Vienna? Simultaneously?
So before I forget, the dates I want you to get down on that lacy calendar of yours, Victoria, are October 18 to 26. That’s when Q2 does only the second pledge drive it’s ever held. It’s that young.
And the Porter Anderson match will be the first challenge grant they’ve ever had.
Of course I’d really love it if writers felt they want to donate even a little bit—I’ll match them measure for measure—but I’m not pitching the pledge drive, I’m pitching new music for new writings: What I really hope to do with all this Q2-ing and fro-ing is get you and my other writing colleagues to listen.
Wonderful! Listening is actually a huge part of writing. I’ve seen novels dedicated to the albums that got the authors through them. There’s something about the link between the audible ambiance of your environment and hearing your characters’ voices.
I find that the last thing I need as a writer is “background music.” I actually need collaborative music. Something that gets me around emotional corners, explores dissonances with me, sorts out the rhythmic features of a character’s voice, and bolsters the complexity of a scene’s dynamics.
The beauty of a writer’s relationship with composers is that we’re rolling on parallel tracks. We’re coursing through the same lush culture on mutually supportive trajectories. Because music is moving in another language, I can let it “speak” to me about one of my character’s despair or about one of my article’s key arguments, and no words get tangled up with mine. I’m still conversant in my own vocabulary, even while a composer carries on in hers or his.
Something a composer “says” in a piece of music can help me “hear” something I needed for a chapter or an essay, it can even get me up out of my seat and send me searching for the phrase I didn’t even know I needed.
Yes! This is the dedication to language that’s so important. So many new aspiring writers are simply unaware of the enormity of what they’re attempting. Writing is such a wonderful craft, but it’s not literary air-guitar.
Everybody realizes now, I hope, that the advent of the Internet has made what seems like entire municipal populations think they were born to write and be published. We’re lucky that the honkings and squealings of those AOL dial-ups didn’t sound like instructions from God to “Go forth and remove gall bladders” or “Render thy service, my child, as an air-traffic controller.”
Surgery and aviation? Few people would dream of scrambling down their driveways to get into the nearest operating rooms and control towers.
Somehow, millions of people did hear, “Get thee to thy kitchen table and scratch out as many books as possible.” As you know from your work taking in literary laundry, an awful lot of folks are finding it much harder than they expected to go from notes to novel, from “all those great family Christmas letters” to genuine memoir.
One of the main things we admire in great literature is that it holds its own in the arts world, it exists in the context of “arts and letters.”
In E.M. Forster’s 1927 Clark lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge—which you can Whispersync onto your Kindle in a volume titled Aspects of the Novel—Forster said, “A novel is a work of art, with its own laws, which are not those of daily life, and…a character in a novel is real when it lives in accordance with such laws.”
That’s what learning to create great fiction is: learning what those laws are—really just the techniques for speaking to a reader in the ways they’re most able to hear—and developing your skills at playing with them. Have you ever dabbled in storytelling yourself?
I wrote a one-person play based on Bernard Shaw’s religious writings, his theory of “creative evolution.” The Shaw Estate licensed it through the Society of Authors in London and Dan Laurence had it entered into the permanent Shaw Archives, which was an amazing honor.
Shaw wasn’t just a playwright but also a novelist and, even more importantly, a critic. And working my way through his logic, it was obvious that the elegance with which he wrote about faith—and anything else, for that matter—was fundamentally a product of his own immersion in the arts.
You started your career in writing through a different art, didn’t you? Just as Flannery O’Connor developed her writing craft through her paintings.
You know, it’s been like falling up stairs for thirty years. I was an Equity actor at the Asolo in Sarasota when the New York Times bought the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
In my day, we did a genuine English rotating repertory at our theater, three full productions running at a time. You pretty much looked at your costume to remember which show you were playing each matinee and evening. Tights: Othello. Spectacles: The Cherry Orchard. Tuxedo: Private Lives by Noel Coward, or maybe Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.
Imagine getting your Coward and Stoppard lines mixed up with the moment: “I have a memory like an elephant. In fact, elephants often consult me.”[—Coward]
“Don’t quibble, Sybil.”
In fact, one of the trickiest thinks about doing so many repetitions of these scripts in rotation is that the last joke you’ve heard can make it onstage.
The actor playing Cassio in Othello has a line to Iago about Othello’s lovemaking with his wife: “Make love’s quick pants in Desdemona’s arms.” Well, our actor in the role at the Asolo one afternoon had just been doing the usual wrong-way-to-say-it gag with the rest of us in the dressing room, heard his cue, walked into the scene onstage and said it: “Make love’s quick arms in Desdemona’s pants.” I actually think Shakespeare, or Edward de Vere, might have been tempted to revise if he’d heard it.
Went down like gangbusters in the mezzanine.
To this day, I’m hooked on that awful moment in which you have the chance to “catch the conscience of the king.” To walk out onto a stage in the dazzle of stage light with hundreds of people waiting for nothing but what you’ll say and do? Such an exhilarating responsibility, I cannot tell you.
Frank Langella was talking about it recently on NPR’s Morning Edition with Scott Simon. Langella says his favorite description of the moment is “leap empty-handed into the void.” If you’re serious about the craft, that’s not overstating the risk-aversion you’re negotiating.
Exactly like the chance you have every time you go to the page—instead of the stage—to say something to your audience as a writer. Your readers are good enough to pause, to give you one precious, shuddering moment of their time.
You can either catch their conscience, seize them with a thought, grab onto them with those empty hands and arrest them with the sheer force of your mind’s beauty. Or you’ve lost them. Hesitate, and they’ll evap on you.
Oh, that gorgeous, earth-shaking first instant! Sometimes I get terrible stage fright on the page. Performing is even worse when the playwright doesn’t provide you with your words.
Or when your playwright provides you with lousy words. We won’t name names. Of course, I’d actually moved on to do something else, as all actors must do, to earn a living when the new administration at the Herald-Tribune asked if I’d like to try writing criticism. Huge boon for the audiences, of course, not to have to worry that I might turn up on stage again.
“I’m demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists.” [—Stoppard]
“Not to mention Darwin is different from the origin of the specious.”–that’s from Jumpers, not Travesties.
And so my start in journalism was as a critic and arts reporter at a succession of papers.
Tell us about professional criticism of the arts—that’s something about which aspiring writers are being taught really nothing these days.
Serious, legitimate criticism is fantastic training, especially in journalistic practice, because you’re paid to formulate and promulgate an informed opinion, which is not the job of standard reportage. It’s also not “Go” or “Don’t Go” stuff. That’s reviewing, a form of consumer guide, not authentic criticism.
In criticism, you leave it to the reader to decide for him- or herself. And you become extremely sensitive to fairness. I worked with some terrific people in the business, on the executive board of the American Theater Critics Association and as vice-president of the International Theater Critics Association. Covered both American and European theater. When I made the jump to the networks, the focus naturally went over to hard news. But I’ve never left criticism behind.
So that fortunate start—artful stumbling, really—was a double blessing. One: It gave me my entry into journalism via criticism; and two: it gave me my entry into writing via the arts. I came to this career through writing as an art.
Porter, what’s your take on the future of literature?
I guess I’m hoping that our suddenly bigger writing community doesn’t fall into the entertainment trap that’s so badly diminished journalism. A penny dreadful will always have its place.
But there’s nothing sadder than a writer who never tries to work in deeper water, at least once.
Know what I mean?
Porter Anderson is smart as heck and all over the Internet. Read his weekly column for writers, “Writing on the Ether,” and follow him around on Twitter. Join me, Jan O’Hara,and other industry professionals in the Free the Real Porter movement.
Just the other week I interviewed my friend Katie Wieland of Wordplay here to talk about her novels, how to fall in love with research, her new book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success, and why Westerns are so darn cool. We had great fun, and today she’s returning the favor by hosting me on Wordplay with an excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual.
I’m teaching Katie how I learn structure and character development through the books I read—which, like the books you probably read, are legion. And I’ll teach you too! Please join us for Reading with Attention.
Joel Friedlander runs The Book Designer blog, where he teaches writers how to navigate the modern world of self-publishing through his decades of experience in the small publishers’ industry. He’s an expert on typefaces, cover design, social media, and self-marketing. He’s the author of The Self-Publisher’s Companion: Expert Advice for Authors Who Want to Publish. Plus he’s promised me a cup of coffee the next time I drive through his town in the rolling green hills just north of San Francisco. And today he’s hosting me with a guest post excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual.
Please join us as we talk about Hook—what readers throughout the ages have always looked for in a Hook, why industry professionals refuse to take more than a few seconds over your Hook, what cheap vintage pulp has in common with canonical literary greats, and why the Hook, even though it’s not the most important moment in your novel, is the most important moment in the career of your novel. Writers: How to Open with a Big Bang!
Joanna Penn owns The Creative Penn blog, where she teaches everything from how to take a self-published book to market to what to do with it once it’s there. Last winter, as part of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers exchange, she and I traded guests posts, her 7 Ways to Attract Attention to Your Book Sales Page here and my Beyond the Most Common Fiction Mistakes over on Joanna’s site. Since then, her self-published debut novel Pentecost, a religious thriller, has sold over 13,000 copies, and she’s expanded her site to include the author blog Joanna Penn for her fiction readers and Mystery Thriller TV for those of us who just love those genres.
And today she’s going to talk to us about why the glass is always half-full.
V: Joanna, you put so much great information about how to self-publish on your blog, I’m not going to ask you to re-explain it all here, but just ask: how do you break down all that information into its basic components? And why?
J: It’s funny how the blog has developed over almost three years. When I started I just wanted to share what I had learned through my own experience. I wanted to save people time, money and heartache in their own writing and publishing journey. Back in 2008, I self-published my first non-fiction book, How to Enjoy Your Job…Or Find A New One after being rejected by traditional publishing. So I had material first on writing non-fiction and then about print-on-demand. I also discovered the hard way that you need to know about marketing in order to actually sell books. I experimented with old-style marketing and only sold a few books even with national TV, and then I discovered blogging and online media, which is how The Creative Penn really got started.
So that all breaks down into what the blog covers now—basically, writing, publishing options and marketing, which I think form the basis of what writers need to know.
V: I love your sense of organization. Simple and yet comprehensive. And you have a couple of other options you offer writers, too, don’t you?
J: I formed the concept of Author 2.0 around the idea that publishing has changed and authors can’t behave how they used to. Writing is not the only thing anymore. You have to have an author platform, whether you want traditional publishing or to self-publish. The Author 2.0 Blueprint was formed as way to encapsulate all that.
I have also always loved listening to audio, on my commute, at the gym or doing housework. I was devouring as much content as I could in order to learn from people who had been there and done that, so I started my own podcast as a way to learn myself and also share with others. The podcast has turned into something I consider critical to my own personal journey as well as a way I network with other great people in the industry. There’s over fifty hours now of free audio interviews with people on writing, publishing and marketing that people can download.
V: And I will be joining you on November 3rd! I’m limbering up my voice already.
J: The Creative Penn continues to evolve, and I try to help other people by allowing guest posts for blog tours and other promotion, plus I am trying to grow my own author services with webinars and digital products that help authors with their journeys. I have had my own consulting business for years so I bring an entrepreneurial head to this creative community, but ninety percent of the content is free so everyone can benefit.
V: And that’s the entrepreneurialism that really determines self-publishing in today’s climate. An amazing open door—but you do have to have an entrepreneur mindset. So let’s talk about your own self-published fiction. You’ve self-published your thriller, Pentecost, this year, and the skuttlebut is that it’s already sold over 10,000 copies. Can you tell us that story?
J: I always wanted to write fiction and early on decided that I wanted to write something like The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. This style of literary fiction pretty much blocked me for years, as it wasn’t a style I was comfortable with, and ‘real life’ got in the way as well as my own mindset, which was more comfortable with non-fiction writing. Later on, Dan Brown showed me that religion can be woven into thriller and mystery and more importantly has a market. I have a Masters in Theology and also a degree in psychology and wanted to blend those interests into a fiction series that would be like Da Vinci Code in the scale, brilliant locations and religious ideology but with a kick-ass female heroine like Lara Croft.
In 2009, I did NaNoWriMo and wrote the first 20,000 words of Pentecost. It has been a big journey and an amazing learning curve, as writing fiction is a whole different skill set. I have been sharing the journey along the way so others could also learn as I went.
It took another year to write, edit and then look at publishing Pentecost, and it was launched in February 2011. Seven months on, it has now sold nearly 13,000 copies, averaging 1500-1800 per month. It’s stayed in the Amazon bestseller rankings for Action Adventure and Religious Fiction since the launch, which is pretty exciting.
V: Oh, congratulations. What a thrill! Was it hard to choose between pursuing traditional publishing and heading into publication on your own?
J: I never considered pitching it to traditional publishing because I felt that a first time novelist would get nowhere. I’d rather “do an Amanda Hocking” and sell lots on the Kindle and later on get picked up with a better deal because I have proven sales and a bigger backlist. I think a series is also the best way to establish a career in fiction and has been proven to be the best way for most authors to make a decent living.
V: I think so. I analyzed the Publishers Weekly best seller list a couple of years ago, and it was all about thrillers and serial protagonists. Readers buy authors rather than books.
J: I am ever the business-woman and don’t believe in the starving artist myth. We can all be creative as well as business-people, so I am writing for the love of it, but also I want to make a good income.
Pentecost is the first in the ARKANE series, and Prophecy comes out in early 2012. There are at least seven books planned in the series, each investigating a new mystery around religion and psychology.
V: So you’re poised! Now, you’ve talked a little on your blog about how you got into the world of self-publishing and online marketing, a world in which you sound really happy and extremely enthusiastic about the possibilities. Can you tell us about this–about how you see the publishing industry right now and where you see it going? What makes you so enthusiastic?
J: I am a naturally enthusiastic person, and I think that you attract the energy you put out. I have found the online writing community to be amazing, supportive and generous, and I want to give back as much as I take in. So enthusiasm is my default position. If I’m not passionate about it, why do it?
But I also love writing and publishing in all its myriad forms! I am enthusiastic about publishers who are embracing new ways of disseminating content and also about gorgeous limited edition print books that use the physical book form to express in new ways. Think Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes.
I see these as a dichotomy of creativity that we can all be a a part of. Cory Doctorow is probably the ultimate example of this. He is published traditionally yet all his books are also licensed under Creative Commons. He gives away content for free but also produces hand-tooled limited-edition print works selling for almost $300.
NY Times bestseller Scott Sigler is also blending traditionally-published thrillers with indie publishing for his more unusual books that his fans flock to buy.
V: Fascinating—thank you for all the links! Really, it is such an extraordinary time for writers and publication.
J: I think it is exciting if you consider the possibilities and the blended publishing deals that people are doing now. I would still love a big book deal with movie tie-ins while Angelina Jolie can still play action heroines!
J: But in the meantime, the new ways of publishing and marketing mean authors with great books and a DIY attitude can actually sell books, build relationships with fans and have a writing career. I personally believe the big break is more likely to come if you write lots of good books that people want to read and you get them into people’s hands. It is a time of opportunity, but perhaps only if you have the glass-half-full attitude.
V: Yes. And yet, do you see any downside?
J: I personally cannot see the downside of the current market. I am a bibliophile and a passionate reader. I believe that you and I and people reading this will continue to buy books in all their forms. The industry will have to change, as all industries are in the face of technology, but stories and books will continue to thrive in all their variation. I know I read three times as much fiction on my Kindle as I did in print, so I believe the technology is actually a positive force for authors.
V: What are the hidden complexities that writers might not be aware of?
J: The complexities of these new publishing models are that you clearly need to run your own business to do this properly, and many people don’t want to do that side of the equation. They would rather have someone else do it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You can trade control and indeed income for a quieter life. I personally embrace control of my income and choices!
V: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about the current state of publishing?
J: In terms of what I have learned recently, the biggest thing is that ebook sales can be amazing. I am getting a decent cheque from Amazon every month, and I understand how Hocking, Konrath and Locke can be making an excellent income by having these sales with multiple books. I only have one and need to get on with my backlist so I can progress towards the Kindle millionaire status. (See you in a few years!) I have also sold ninety-eight percent ebooks, which actually makes print publishing vanity publishing for me. I will continue to use print-on-demand, but basically the sales for indies must primarily be ebooks. Exciting times!
Joanna Penn is the author of Amazon bestseller Pentecost, an action-adventure thriller, and three other books. Her blog, TheCreativePenn.com offers articles, audio and video to help you write, publish and sell your book. Joanna is on Twitter @thecreativepenn.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Scott regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his WIP Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.