Thursday, February 26, 2009

And Suddenly.... Pacing

I love reading the Absolute Write Message Board. There are writers of all skill levels there-- seasoned experts, budding young writers (some still in high school), dedicated professionals and semi-professionals struggling to improve their skill, and just a smattering of complete idiots who make me feel better about my own writing. (These usually perceive themselves as seasoned experts.)

And I've learned a lot about the craft of writing from reading the forum, looking over the answers to questions I would have never thought of asking.

And suddenly this one popped up:

Which I'll paraphrase as--how can we replace the word "suddenly" in writing? The discussion was interesting, and the general consensus was that a stronger 'jump effect' could be achieved through the use of pacing.

Now, I've practiced with pacing before. I know that long sentences with complex structures tend to slow the action down. This can be used to give the reader a breather, or it can also be used to create an almost slow-motion effect. Alternately, short choppy sentences rush the reader forward in times of intense action.

The 'suddenly' effect can be created by using long, relaxed sentences and then "Pow!"-- switching to short ones.

Curious, I searched my WIP for any instances of the word, "suddenly." In most cases, the word was used in dialogue. I kept those.

In other places, I found I had already accidentally followed the pacing pattern. (Scary, isn't it?) In those cases, I simply deleted the word. There were three other places which lent themselves to practicing this skill:

A very red-faced Michael Tibbs suddenly cut across the living room and out the door.

was changed to--

The dining room door burst open. Michael stormed toward the front door.

I lost the part about him being red-faced, but I was able to sneak that in to the part where my main character runs after him.

And then there was this odd bit, part of a comical nightmare, which will probably not make its way past the first rewrite anyway:

I stood transfixed by the bird (turkey), as she spread her wings like a phoenix, but her face bloated like a pig’s. Suddenly there was a large pop, and tremendous heat. And I found my face covered with the blood of the bird.

Ick. Keep in mind, this is a first draft. How about...

I stood transfixed by the bird, her wings furling open like a rising phoenix, her face bloated like a pig’s. A flash of light. A large pop. Then tremendous heat. The warm, sticky blood of the bird oozed down my head and chest.

Still ick. But like I said, that baby's probably not going anywhere anyway. I should probably restate--it was all a dream, and no turkeys were hurt in the writing of that scene.

And then this one:

“Hey, Mrs. G.,” Michael said, “I tried you at home, but I just got your answering machine. I wanted to catch you before you finished your grocery shopping.” I suddenly heard the sound of screeching tires followed by a crunch of metal.

Let's try:

“Hey, Mrs. G.,” Michael said, “I tried you at home, but I just got your answering machine. I wanted to catch you before you finished your grocery--”

Tires screeched in my ear. Metal crashed against metal. I nearly dropped the phone.

Three times in 60,000 words? Not too shabby. That was fun.

The Quiche of Death... by M.C. Beaton

Here's the drill for anyone who may have missed it: I've been reading mystery--particularly cozy mystery--to help me develop my own skills in the craft. I'll take a book, tear it apart, dissect and analyze, to pull out the things that would help me best in my own writing.

This book is the first book in the very popular Agatha Raisin series--at least 19 books to date. And I could almost immediately see why. It was an enjoyable book--entertaining and easy to read. The two main strengths in this book are character and voice.

Agatha's character is unique and compelling. A successful career woman with her own PR agency, Agatha retires at 50 and moves to her dream home--a cottage in the Cotswolds. Like many dreams, the realization is not as pleasant as the dream itself. Agatha is a fun, imperfect character, rife with flaws and disappointments. Her attempts to fit in, and her desire to shine at times, are universally identifiable.

The voice in third person (omniscient?) is also pleasant, making this a good bedtime read. The POV transitioned from head to head a little abruptly at times. I think I would have preferred staying in Agatha's head.

I also had a few issues with the structure. Instead of one clear killer, with all the evidence leading to him, it seemed more like a game of Clue--where any of a number of suspects could have been 'the guy'.

But none of these things seem to worry most readers, including me. I've already started reading the second in this series.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Book(s) That Changed Me

There are a lot of little notes and quizzes on Facebook, and I've been tagged on a few of them. There was one that I was hoping would not come my way. But today I got it: the book that changed me.

Now I have a hard time picking my favorite book, much less the one book that changed me. I think any book you read will change you, and hopefully for the better. But I'm going to answer this one twice. First, the most obvious answer:


The Bible




When I was 13.


It struck me because it offered hope in a very dark time in my life. The proof of absolutes in a muddy world, and the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful Creator who could be approached, but not by my own merit.


Many times




I recommend it highly.

Now, since that may not be the answer some people are looking for, let me reach deep and pull out another book that changed my life. And again, there have been so many. But I'm going to chose...


The Miracle Worker


William Gibson


I'm thinking ninth grade.


It really shaped my ideas of the difference between pity and love. It showed that love could lift a person out of the direst background--an idea echoed in both the lives of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. And it showed that where you came from didn't matter as much as what you did with that. We're not just victims of our circumstances.


Oh, yes.


I think I saw it slightly differently as a teacher and as a parent. In later readings I saw the importance of persistence in prompting and tugging and pushing others into being all they could be.


Highly recommended.

Monday, February 23, 2009

44 Odd Things About Me

Yep, recently tagged with this list on Facebook, so here we go...

1. Do you like blue cheese? No. Sacrilege in Buffalo, but better for my cholesterol.

2. Have you ever been drunk? Unfortunately yes... once... over two decades ago. Haven't touched any since.

3. Do you own a gun? No. Took the permit course once, but never followed through.

4. What flavor of Kool Aid was your favorite? Grape... Orange... Grape... Orange...

5. Do you get nervous before doctor appointments? Yes. I have major white-coat hypertension.

6. What do you think of hot dogs? I like them, but they kick up my acid reflux and my asthma, so they're not worth it anymore. Except when I really have to have one, and it is a really good hot dog.

7. Favorite Christmas movie? Tie between White Christmas and Muppet Christmas Carol.

8. What do you prefer to drink in the morning? Coffee, decaf, with milk and sugar.

9. Can you do push ups? Never in my lifetime.

10. What's your favorite piece of jewelry? Don't wear it. Every now and then a brooch.

11. Favorite hobby? Writing. Unless I can make money at it, then I'll pick another hobby.

12. Do you have A.D.D? No.

13. What's your favorite shoe? denim flats. I wish I could find another pair.

14. Middle name? Ann

15. Name 3 thoughts at this exact moment? Is this almost done? Where is the remote? I'm getting tired.

16. Name 3 drinks you regularly drink? decaf coffee, cranberry juice mixed with ginger ale, spring water

17. Current worry? Why worry when you can pray?

18. Current hate right now? That commercials are so much louder than the show.

20. How did you bring in the New Year? Fellowship at church

21. Where would you like to go? Someplace warm, but not hot.

22. Name three people who will complete this? Me, myself and I. I don't like passing these things on. It dies here.

23. Do you own slippers? Sort of. My mother had a pair that she never wore. Only they need a good washing, and I haven't gone through any of her stuff yet.

24. What color shirt are you wearing right now? pink

25. Do you like sleeping on Satin sheets? No. They are too cold in the winter and too sweaty in the summer.

26. Can you whistle? Yes. In tune? No.

27. Favorite color? Blue

28. Would you be a pirate? Sometimes it's more fun to be a pirate. ;)

29. What songs do you sing in the shower? Varies daily.

30. Favorite Girl's Name? Elizabeth

31. Favorite boy's name? Joshua

32. What's in your pocket right now? Nothing--no pocket.

33. Last thing that made you laugh? Carol Burnett

34. Best bed sheets as a child? Um... never paid attention to sheets.

35. Worst injury you've ever had as a child? Fell of a pool ladder and sprained both wrists, both ankles and chipped my two front teeth.

36. Do you love where you live? Most of the time. February is not one of them.

38. Who is your loudest friend? hard to say.

39. How many dogs do you have? none--three cats

40. Does someone have a crush on you? I sure hope not. I'm a happily married woman.

41. What is your favorite book? Whatever I'm reading at the moment.

42. What is your favorite candy? Sponge candy.

43. Favorite Sports Teams? Buffalo Sabres, Bills, UB Bulls.

44. What song do you want played at your funeral? Held in His Mighty Arms (Hymn by William Macomber)

How to Write a Murder Mystery, Part III

Kate White's third point in her article entitled, "How to Write a Murder Mystery" was, and let me paraphrase, to start with the characters in motion, and accelerate from there.

Anyone reading this blog (if there were anyone reading this blog) would know that there was a big gap before my post of part two, and three. The reason for this? I was rewriting my first chapter... again.

It wasn't that my WIP lacked excitement. It started with a missing woman. It did, however, lack movement. The main problem was that my protag was home alone, so there was no immediate dialog until the fourth page. And it perhaps 'told' a little more than it 'showed.' I rewrote it so that the sidekick happened to be there with her. Thus there is a little more interaction and movement than in the original version.

And I think I worked on my hook in the process. The action in the opening paragraph is slightly comical, and is consitent with the tone of the story. I'm hoping it will make people want to read more.

Now, not all cozies begin jumping right into the mystery. I've noticed recently that many cozies begin with an introduction to the main character--and a lot of back story. Now, anyone who teaches a seminar or class on fiction writing will tell you that it is something you should avoid like the plague. And yet the last few books I've picked up have started in this same way. Why? Perhaps it might work in cozies because the cozy reader is often sold on the character. Getting to know him or her before the action starts might be desirable at times. But that character really better grab you.

I've opted to start in motion. My first chapter begins with a missing woman, and ends with a dead one. But I feel a little more liberty now to include a bit more back story among the action. Now if I can squeeze more character development while she moves, that's even better.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Query Haiku.

I just entered a contest. The challenge was to write a query letter in haiku format. The winner will get a critique of their real query letter. It was fun. Here is my entry.

Wendy's to-do list:
Cater wake... Watch victim's kids...
Catch the murderer.

Now the problem is that if I win, I have to write a query letter.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to Write a Murder Mystery, Part II

Kate White's second point in her article entitled, "How to Write a Murder Mystery" was to create a character with good demons.

Yep, Demons. There not just for paranormal literature anymore.

Now, I'm not sure all of the great detectives have figurative demons. Some are not quite so troubled. They seem just quirky. Others garner interest because being a sleuth seems ill-fitted to his or her station in life.

Demons. Yes, a good portion of detectives seem to come from broken homes, either losing a parent at an early age, or coming from a completely dysfunctional environment. But then again, who doesn't? As Kate mentions, Nancy Drew grew up without her mother. Adrian Monk was deserted by his father when he was 8, and was responsible for his mentally ill mother and agoraphobic brother. William Monk was an amnesiac.

Does my protagonist have demons? Well, she never knew her father. Her mother is a flake. She is simultaneously facing menopause, empty nest syndrome and a crisis of faith, while living in a fishbowl. Close enough for me.

Quirks. Not all detectives had major demons. Columbo, for instance, is better known for his wrinkled trenchcoat, cigar, and talking about his wife (whom we never see). Qwilleran wrinkled his mustache and was waaaay too attached to his cats. My character is in a bit of a menopause fog. She had major problems putting meals together. She's always making bizarre substitutions. She puts off exercising, eats junk food, and has no idea why she is gaining weight.

Ill-fitted. Jessica Fletcher is perhaps the epitome of the unlikely sleuths. The fact that she is an average person, a teacher, and there was nothing in her life that qualified her as a detective made the choice even more interesting. My protagonist is right there. The last person in the world you would expect to solve the crime? Yep. And the irony works.

One thing that I've been considering, and it relates to this topic, is how the reader identifies with the detective. Some detectives are interesting because they are entertaining. We are amused with their antics and amazed at their prowess. We watch them in the story. Other detectives are people that we tend to identify with. We become them in the story. Perhaps the best detectives do both.

Case in point, Monk. The obsessive-compulsive detective has generated an equally obsessive fan base. It is perhaps not surprising to find among its fans people who are brilliant but battle some minor (or more serious) dysfunctions. These are the fans who identify with Monk. They feel his struggles, cheer his victories and share his grief. Others watch him. His struggles, while outside their bond of identification, amuse them.

So how does my protagonist stand up?

I think it might depend on which market I pursue for my novel. My preacher's wife detective might be identifiable to the Christian market. In the mainstream market she would perhaps be more entertaining--with the reader seeing her as quirky, and seeing the irony of a "church lady" solving murders. And here's where it gets funny.

My first person POV might play better with the Christian market. But I'm beginning to wonder if it could be too intimate a portrayal for the mainstream cozy reader who might not readily get into her head. I might re-write a chapter or two in third person, and see how it reads.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How to Write a Murder Mystery, Part I

I recently came across an article by Kate White, titled "How to Write a Murder Mystery." This one really got my attention. She gives serious references to Nancy Drew and Adrian Monk, two of my favorite detectives. So not only must I give the article a good look, I might just have to buy and read all her books as well. Anyone who likes Monk and Nancy can't be half bad.

But in the meantime, let's work through the article.

Kate gives four tips for writing mysteries, and I'm not sure we're breaking any new ground here, but it might not be a bad idea to look at them, one by one, and see how my work in progress is measuring up so far.

"1. Start with a Killer Title."

I've failed already. I have been agonizing over my title. I came up with a couple working titles, but I keep second-guessing myself. My book is a cozy, and while the titles I came up with are intriguing, they seem too dark and serious for the humorous voice of my protagonist.

I think a better example to follow would be the light-hearted titles of some cozies that I've read or heard of. Tamar Myers has some great titles, all a spin on common phrases: Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth; and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Crime. Donna Andrews uses birds: We'll Always Have Parrots.

I did have an idea. I thought perhaps, for my preacher's wife protagonist, that maybe lines of famous hymns could be changed into humorous titles. It sounded like a great idea--until I actually tried to do it. There are two main problems with this plan. The first is that there are only so many hymns that are commonly known by the general public. The second problem is that many are so beloved and so serious that changing them at all would appear sacrilegious.

I though momentarily of naming my protagonist Grace, and using titles like Amazing Grace, Redeeming Grace, Saving Grace, and Grace Through Fire, but that's been done. Same thing with Faith.

I recently read a book entitled, Prey for a Miracle. It seems like there should be endless titles with the word 'prey' substituted for 'pray', but not many of them make sense. "Prey Without Ceasing" is a possiblity, but what does it mean? It sounds a bit bloodier than my one-victim book.

Oh, well. At only half-way through my rough draft, I still have time to work on it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Third Person Omniscient and the Mystery Writer

I believe I first read it in Hallie Ephron's book (Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel)--the third person omniscient POV doesn't work well in mysteries. The proposed reason was that readers would feel manipulated. If we can get into everyone's head, why not the killer's?

Since then, I've been paying close attention to the POV in the mysteries I've been reading, and I've encountered first person--with either the sleuth or the sidekick narrating, and third person--with either one or multiple POV's. But the book I'm reading now is the first one I've encountered with a true third-person-omniscient POV. Does it work? Not for me.

Somewhat reminiscent of the head-hopping I've seen in fan fiction, I found the book dizzying and confusing. The scene transitions are abrupt, and I never knew whose head I was going to end up in next. I was also angered a bit when I found myself in the head of someone who was up to no good, but then was only given partial information. It brought the author into the story in a way I found upsetting.

Now, I'm not saying the book is terrible. It is humorous in places, and some of the characters are interesting. Many casual mystery readers won't give POV a thought. But the POV was an unfortunate choice. The killer is obviously the one major character whose head I've been denied entry. Kind of takes the fun out of a whodunnit, doesn't it?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Prey for a Miracle... by Aimee and David Thurlo

OK, this is the first post of this type on the new blog site, so let me go through the whole drill. I've been reading mysteries for two purposes. I enjoy them, but I'm also studying them (sometimes by a brutal dissection) to help me learn more about how to write my own. Because of that, while some of what I say may resemble a book review, even books that I like might get a full forensic examination.

First, let me say, that I did enjoy this book. It was a nice cozy read--quick and easy reading--a good bedtime book. It was not a murder mystery, and was devoid of violence, sex, and foul language. Yes, it can be done!

I liked the quirkiness of the characters. There are some things that are going to be amusing just because a nun is doing it. A nun on a Harley. A nun on a roof. A nun at a biker bar. And the former vocations were as interesting--a journalist, a marine. And the parish priest had been a professional wrestler.

The mystery was fairly well-spun. There were enough sub-plots and red herrings to keep me guessing until the end. The characters were adequately developed, although I picked up the book in mid-series and probably missed a few things--like what the main character looks like. But then again, perhaps that she was a nun is all I really need to know.

I bought this book to help me answer a few questions. Namely, how tolerant is the mainstream mystery-reading community of a protagonist that is a person of faith? And I'm not sure I got a definitive answer.

Sister Agatha is a person sincere in her convictions, unlike many religious characters in books who are portrayed only as charlatans and hypocrites. And yet she is not a Mary-Sue. There are areas she struggles with. She is also the POV character (3rd person), so the events are filtered through her faith.

And yes, God is in the machinery. I think that is only proper. I'd go as far to say that God is a character in this book, and should probably be whenever you have a protagonist of faith. If God is real in Sister Agatha's life, if she regards His words and sees Him work in her life, how could you not include Him in the story? And how can you show the efficacy of prayer without seeing God answer it?

Monday, February 2, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

Yes, I was recently tagged in that insidious Facebook prompt to write 25 things about myself, and pass it on to 20 friends--or however that goes. So here we go.

1. I don't feel bound by email and tags that ask me to forward things. I might just pass it one to a few people. The chain stops with me, and if that means I'll have seven years bad luck, or get warts or something, so be it.

2. When I was little, I bore an uncanny resemblance to Shirley Temple.

3. I tried to fly...once.

4. I used to want to own a restaurant when I grew up.

5. To me, lobster tastes like I'd imagine eraser would. Sweet potatoes make me gag.

6. I never button my coat or wear a scarf.

7. I have a half-sister I never met. I saw her on a milk carton.

8. When I was pregnant, I craved white rice and corn muffins.

9. I have a degree in electrical engineering that I never used.

10. I homeschooled my daughter from third grade all the way through high school.

11. I can't go into a store without buying a book.

12. My TV crushes are/were Simon Templer, Spock, Remington Steele, and Monk.

13. I once saw Liberace in the Buffalo airport.

14. I've written several hymns.

15. My beverage of choice is a 50/50 mix of cranberry juice and ginger ale.

16. I have a nasty Scrabble habit.

17. As a teen, I accidentally sneezed soup out my nose at a missionary.

18. I think the best way to eat Oreos is to dunk them in milk, then stick them in the freezer for five to ten minutes. Use a fork.

20. I clean my house while wearing my pajamas.

21. When I was a child I asked for a cat. They told me I could have a pet tree instead. I fell for it. My pet maple lived to be about 15 before it got some spotted disease and died. I cried. I still get attached to trees.

22. I sleep best when the temperature in the room is below sixty degrees.

23. Lee Goldberg once commented on my blog and said I must be as big a television junkie as he was. I took it as a compliment.

24. I've tried to skeletonize a hamster. Please don't try this at home.

25. I once waded in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans during the same month.