Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Lemon Meringue Pie Murder... by Joanne Fluke

OK, most of you know the drill. I'm an aspiring mystery writer, reading mysteries to glean techniques and tips to improve my own writing. So while this entry will have some elements of a book review, generally I diverge and talk about my own work. You've been warned. :)

I almost always begin reading a series at the beginning. But I had wanted to check out a sample from this popular cozy series, and that book at BJ's was only four dollars and change. It doesn't really matter anyway, because after reading one, I went to the local Barnes and Noble and bought the rest of the series--despite the fact that my 'to be read' pile gets bigger and bigger. Now if only I could figure out why so I could bottle it and apply it to my own writing!

The mystery was adequately developed. Yes, I did figure out whodunit--and very early. But that is par for the course for me. I think red herrings could have been a little better developed--I wasn't sure who else I was supposed to suspect. So while that is not a deterrent, it is not the thing that has drawn me to this series.

I'm sure part of the attraction is characterization. Amateur sleuth Hannah Swensen is more at home in her cookie shop. (Yes, there are recipes.) She fights the same battles that many of us do--in this book she struggles with weight and self-image, unclear relationships, a ticking biological clock and a match-making mother. The town around her is quirky and diverse. I liked the inclusion of a man with learning disabilities--you don't always see that. This book also mentions children and the elderly, people that are often left out of many mysteries.

But I half-suspect the biggest draw is the romantic potential. Fluke has done what almost everyone who has captured me to a series (whether it is in television or in books) has done. She has intrigued me with a potential romance. And not a romance that takes place in the course of a book. It is a relationship that stretches over a series. It is not so much the bringing of two people together--it is the magnetism that is created while keeping them apart. This is money in the bank. In this book, she has two potential suitors. It made me want to know how that situation came about (so I bought the older books) and how it will be resolved (so I bought the later books).

That being said, a series hook doesn't necessarily need to be romantic. An unanswered question, an unresolved conflict, or an unfinished quest can be just as satisfying. Other non-romantic hooks that have caught me were the fugitive's quest to find the one-armed man who killed his wife, and similarly Monk's quest to find his wife's killer. The incredible Hulk's attempt to fix his condition kept me turning in. And of course, Gilligan and the castaways kept trying to get off the island.

While the germ of an idea for my second book will include more of a romantic subplot, I'm wondering if I have included enough in my first attempt to hook the reader into a series. I hope the characterization is there. Early critiques of Wendy are positive. People like her--especially beta readers in my target audience. And on my second pass, I hope to cozy up my town a little more. Since Wendy is happily married, the greatest romance potential is opened up between my sidekick and my protag's daughter. And I only touched on it. I'm not sure if I have effectively created enough magnetism there to make people want it. I'll take another look at that too.

Meanwhile, Fluke has given me a lot to think about. Is there another unanswered question or unrealized quest that I have included, or could include in my book? Five dollars, er... more like eighty when you add the rest of the series, well spent.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Editing Made Simple with Microsoft Word--ROFL.

I reached a big milestone on my first dreadful novel. I finished it. Well, I really finished the draft. I am truly of the school that says, "Get it all down on paper, and then fix it later." And despite the fact that my friends love it the way it is, I know it needs a lot of work.

I should let it rest. Letting it sit before I try to edit the thing would be the best way of finding my own mistakes. It's easier when the prose is not so familiar. So right now I should put it in a desk drawer--or in my case, close the file, and forget about it for a while.

I can't do that.

It haunts me now. It begs me to open it and look at it again. And really, it might not be that bad. It has been a while since I have taken a look at the early chapters. I started writing the thing late last summer. They should have rested long enough.

But even though I was really tired last night, I had to open it up again.

At first, I only made some simple changes, like centering all the chapter beginnings. But then, for some odd reason, I started going though the Microsoft Word grammar checker.

Editing with Microsoft Word is like having an idiot as a critique partner. You don't get much helpful feedback, but it is good for a few laughs.

My biggest problem is with random apostrophes. Yes, I do know how to correctly use an apostrophe. But when I'm typing quickly and the story is unfolding on my screen, I tend to place them randomly throughout my manuscript. And it is not an occasional problem. Nine times out of ten, I've thrown in an apostrophe that doesn't need to be there, or have put it in the wrong place. I might have to go through the whole thing once just searching for apostrophes.

But I really had fun reading some of MW's suggestions for fixing my manuscript.

For example:

MW choked on the word "ficus." I had placed a plastic ficus in the lobby of the church. MW has apparently never heard of a ficus. He wanted me to use "fichus" instead. Well, I looked it up. "Fichus" is a thin head-scarf. The idea of a giant plastic head scarf sitting in the middle of the lobby?

When I described a woman as having "heavily-permed hair," MW suggested that she had heavily-premed hair. That's some pretty smart hair.

It could be a branding thing, but when my hero tried to Google something, MW suggested that she goggled, or go ogled it. Go ogle that, why don't you? Hmmm. Is that where the name comes from?

And MW has apparently never heard of multitasking either.

I will have to admit, it saved the poor cat in my story from having several liters of kittens. (A typo, I assure you.)

The naughtiest moment came when I got to the part where Becky peeked in the doorway. MW wanted me to change it to "Becky peaked in the doorway." Um... not quite the image I had in mind.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Cat Who Saw Red... by Lilian Jackson Braun

Okay, to repeat the drill, I'm an aspiring writer of cozy mysteries, dissecting and studying the books I read, to glean techniques to help myself improve in the craft. So while this will have some elements of a book review, I do it mainly because writing these entries makes me consider things I would otherwise miss.

The Cat Who Saw Red is the fourth book in the popular series featuring news reporter Jim Qwilleran and his two Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum.

I have to admit, I'm a late-comer to this series, and have been keeping myself from devouring them only by forcing myself to do a survey of all kinds of mysteries from a number of different authors. Otherwise I'd probably be half done with this series. And considering how many books there are, that would be quite an accomplishment.

But this is an essential cozy series. And it is one that I will keep coming back to every chance I get, even more so when I need a break from the rougher parts of real life. This light, easy-to-read series is like an old friend. You've heard of comfort food? This is a comfort read.

Now, since I'm reading these stories looking for lessons (good and bad) that I can use to improve my own writing, I have to say that these are pretty good. But they are not perfect. (SPOILERS AHEAD)

First, the good...

Reintroducing an old flame into Qwill's life was a stroke of genius. It gave more depth to the developing character. For him to evaluate and re-evaluate his feelings was helpful for the reader to understand him better. And Braun did it without resorting to long segments of backstory. The past events were woven seamlessly into the present-day narrative. I like that she resisted to urge to tell us everything about him in the first book. I have a feeling that there is still more to learn from Qwill's personality and past in the books to come--something that is necessary to keep a series from going stale.

I also like the way this mystery was constructed. This was a puzzle-piece mystery. I'm not sure if that is a valid term or not, but I'm going to use it. There were a number of seemingly non-connected clues that Qwill needed to discover and then put together to solve this one--with the help of his cats, of course. At one point Braun even listed them all for us in one sentence as a review. Did I solve it? Um, yeah. This wasn't that hard. I almost talked myself out of it because it seemed a little obvious. There was only one piece of the puzzle (the drowning of the child) that I couldn't get to fit. I was looking forward to seeing what that had to do with the two disappearances--and was rather surprised at the end to find out that it didn't! It seemed it was just there to make the mystery harder to solve.

One technique that I thought was rather interesting, was how Braun prepared the scene for the denouement. I'm not sure if the casual bed-time reader would have caught it, but when the cats turned Qwill's apartment into a giant piece of string art with a ball of yarn, I knew it was going to end up tripping up the killer in the end. I've been trying to do this in my own story--setting the stage casually throughout the book--so that the end will seem a logical conclusion. It was a nice job, but it is hard not to be obvious.

One complaint that I do have, and I know many will disagree, is that I still think that giving these super-intelligent, almost-human attributes to the cats is disturbing. Instead of God in the machinery, there are cats in the machinery. And I do still think that is a little hokey. It doesn't bother me enough to stop reading, and it is perhaps one of the things that has made this series so popular. Others have imitated it, with varying degrees of success, so that now some people separate mysteries into two categories--those with cats and those without. It has worked for Braun, but don't expect a cat to save the day in the end of my book. Maybe it's just that my cats are stupid.

My biggest complaint though, has to do with the chronology of the ending. Qwill figures it out, and smashes the book into the piece of pottery in anger. (Yes, and it bothers me that the reader is not privy at this point to what he figured out--I think it is cheesy when the writer withholds information known by the protagonist) What does he do then? I would have gone to the police. Any sane person would have gone to the police. What does Quill do? He takes a double dose of Nyquil and goes to sleep. Huh? Idiot plot. This only works if Qwill is an idiot. It was a bone-head ending to an otherwise enjoyable book.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Ministry of the Little Things

Just got back from my mother's memorial service. It went off very nice, by the way. The most tearful moments came when Grandma saw my mother's picture in the front of the church. We knew that was going to be tough.

But the people of my dad's church were very gracious. Sometimes we forget about the ministry of the little things. There were people there who never even met my mother, but they came because they knew my dad, and because they made au gratin potatoes or a pasta salad for the event. Things like that don't just happen. They take planning and work, and then more work to clean up. I appreciate everything these people did.

The church is a small one, and more people attended than perhaps they expected. During the meal that followed the service, I saw the pastor of the church grab a sandwich while leaning against a door frame. In all the doctrinal differences of Christianity, it seems there are only two types of preachers. There are those who love the accolades, who love to be greeting and honored. These take their 'rightful place' near the front of the line, and grab one of the best spots for themselves. Then there are the kind who run around and see that everyone else is taken care of. They eat last, of whatever remains, often standing in a doorway if the chairs are taken. I have a lot of respect for the second group. My husband (also a pastor) and I share this view of the ministry.

Mark 10:42-45
42 But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them.
43 But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:
44 And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.
45 For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

There are no perks to the ministry. There are no accolades. There's only service, and that service can be hard, with little thanks ever given. Sometimes all you get for your labor and prayer is a good kick in the teeth. But God sees everything. So my prayer for today is that God sends a special blessing on everyone who labored in our behalf, and all of his servants that minister in the little things.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Help Wanted: Grammar Guru

Yes, I found another one when I was reading this afternoon. Rather than being the grammar police, I thought I'd see if one of my readers could pick out the problem in the following sentence:

Unfortunately, after awhile many of them would start acting wild and running in packs.

The first person to correctly answer will win... um, the unofficial title of "Grammar Guru of the Day." I'll just sit here and hum the Jeopardy theme song.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Writing Children's Characters

Another in a series of lessons which I am learning by reading the mistakes of others.

Consider the following scene, which closely mirrors one in a book I am reading: The young couple remembers their first meeting. He was nine. She was seven. The sun twinkled in her eyes and the dandelion fluff floated around her. And he knew he would love her forever.

Yep. Unintentional comedy.

Think for a minute about nine-year-old boys--any nine-year-old boys you've even met, and this is really a stretch. I know it was meant to be sappy and sentimental, but I almost bust a gut laughing.

I was expecting the characters to laugh about this too. I thought he was being facetious. I was waiting for her to say, "Is that why you told all the boys in the neighborhood that I had cooties?"

Writing children is hard. I'd get extra betas to carefully read every scene involving children, to tell you whether the kids are realistic--preferable beta readers with children.

Some things to watch out for: (from my experience as a mother and a teacher)

1. Kids have short attention spans. Long conversations are a no-no. The younger they are, the shorter they stay on topic.

2. Kids have a limited vocabulary. They frequently misuse words, or do not totally understand the words you use. Sometimes when they learn a new word they will use it constantly, or repeat the same expressions over and over--usually something they overhear from others or think is funny.

3. Gender differences show up even in young children. Boys tend not to say as much, but tend to be really partial to words regarding bodily functions. Girls tend to be bossy, and often speak dramatically, over-emphasizing certain words.

4. Kids today use slang. But slang changes constantly, so writers need to be careful to use it sparingly or not at all. By the time your book is published, it might mean something different.

5. Not all kids have a speech impediment, but many do like to shorten words. 'cept, 'cause, etc.

6. Children are sometimes irrational. They do not always act like thinking people. They do things like try to fly, pick their noses in public, or plan to earn a zillion dollars with their lemonade stand.

7. Children are naturally selfish. They often need to be taught to see outside their own worlds.

We need to be careful in writing children to write children, and not just miniature adults. If you're not around children, or haven't been for a while, go sit on a park bench (or even in a McDonald's) and listen to them. Keep your distance. You don't want to be arrested.

But it is my opinion, and only my opinion, that kids who 'fall in love forever' at seven and nine need to be monitored... very closely.

Friday, March 13, 2009

More learning from the mistakes of others

Continuing my anonymous lessons taken from the writing mistakes of others:

If you herald the beginning of spring in chapter one, it is probably not a good time for the protagonist to enjoy a healthy vegetable salad made from local produce. Think about it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Creating Original Characters... NOT

I have to confess. I've just had a change in heart. For some time now I have been 'reviewing' mysteries for my own learning purposes. I've been dissecting them and studying them, and I have found it incredibly helpful. I have learned so many things by watching what other people have done, seeing how they solve problems, admiring what they do well, and considering what I think they could have done better.

But I just came to a shocking revelation. These books are written by people. Who knew? And I've been encountering some of these people in other places on the web. So while I might continue writing book reviews, I'm going to step back and apply a little 'do unto others' and NOT parade what I consider an author's gravest errors all across my blog.

But I also do not have to tell you the title or the author's name to share what I have learned from reading a book. So let's give this a try, shall we?

The book I'm currently reading is entertaining, but I'm seeing some issues with character development. It's not that I don't like the characters--on the contrary. The characters are comfortable and familiar, which is something that you want in a cozy mystery. But they are almost too familiar. I've seen them before in other places.

While characters might be like those found elsewhere, it is, I believe, a mistake to make them so like familiar characters that people recognize them from the movies, television shows, and even other books from which they are drawn. They might be a certain type, but there needs to be something unique and something real about each character.

Say, for example, I wanted to pattern a character after Barney Fife. He was a funny character, and I think he'd make a great addition to my story. But rather than write in a clone named Barry, I should give serious thought to which characteristics of Barney I want to keep. Then I need to give him a unique name, and unique background, mannerisms, etc.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In the style of the great Mark Twain...

Someone posted this link, which is supposed to analyze your writing style and tell you which well-known writer your prose represents:

I entered a few paragraphs from a short story I had written, and it told me I was 32% Mark Twain. Now if I only knew if that was a good thing...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Is Setting Relevant?

I've been letting this thought stew for a little while. I asked a few people for a critique on my synopsis (for which I am extremely grateful!) and I got one comment I didn't quite 'get.' Next to the the place where I had said "Buffalo-area church" someone had said, "not relevant."

Not relevant? Since when is the setting of a cozy mystery not relevant?

So I did what any beginning writer would do. I took it out. Then I put it back in. Then I took it out again. Then I ranted that, of course it is relevant. Then I looked around and found other examples of people including their locations in their synopses. And more online critiques of synopses where people were told their locations were not relevant.

And then... I took some advice. Uncle Jim (known for his online course on the AW message board) has often said to listen when your readers tell you something is wrong, but don't believe them when they tell you what is wrong. Yes, there was a problem with my setting. And the problem wasn't that setting is irrelevant. Setting is very important in a cozy mystery--often a character in itself. My problem was that I had incorrectly identified my setting.

My book doesn't take place in Buffalo. It takes place in a small, semi-rural church near Buffalo. The church is the setting, not the geographical region.

So what did I end of saying? I went with small, semi-rural church, which is a more accurate depiction of my setting than what I had originally.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Dreaded Synopsis

I was thinking about entering my WIP in a contest, and the directions say I can include a one-page synopsis. Sure, no problem. I wasn't dreading writing a synopsis at all, until everything I read on them told me to calm down. That's when I really started getting nervous.

Here's a collection of the web resources I discovered to aid the process.

Overcoming the Fear of Writing a Synopsis... by Vicki M. Taylor

Mastering the Dreaded Synopsis--Condensing Your Novel... by Lee Masterson

How to Write a Synopsis... by Nathan Bransford

How to Write a Synopsis (Thread from AW) (includes links to samples)

Now, since I'm one of those odd individuals who learns by writing, let me summarize what I have learned.

A synopsis is a shortened, condensed version of your story, from beginning to end. (Yes, even in a mystery, you need to give the ending away) It needs to be concise, yet entertaining. You need to measure each word carefully, yet convey your individual voice. And it must sell your story without sounding like a sales pitch. In other words, a synopsis is impossible.

Some general pointers included starting with a hook--something to draw your readers on and make them want to read more--hopefully at least the rest of your synopsis. When you introduce a new character by name, capitalize all the letters in his or her name. Don't use a hinky font or play games with your margins. And write in third-person, present tense. Other than that, the length and format requirements vary widely, almost to the point where you need to disregard all instructions entirely, except for the ones given by the person or agency asking for the synopsis. Which means you're probably going to have to write multiple synopses.

But here is what I included in my single-page, single-spaced synopsis:

The hook: The hook I chose for my cozy mystery was character-driven. The first sentence introduced the reader to my character

WENDY GILMORE has enough to deal with: hot flashes, empty nest syndrome, and trying to keep everything running smoothly at the church her husband pastors.

I think this works. From it we get a hint that she is having some trouble dealing with things. We also know that she is menopausal (which hints at her age). Empty nest syndrome could imply that she is lonely or not sure what to do with herself--at a transitional point in her life. And we know that her husband is a pastor, and that she is involved, or perhaps over-involved in the ministry if she thinks it is her job to keep everything running smoothly.

The second sentence introduced the plot--a murder. The rest of the paragraph summarized the action of the first act of the mystery, and the paragraph ended with the first twist.

Each successive paragraph told the plot of an act, and ended with the twist that ended that act. Each closing sentence was written to try to draw the reader on to the next paragraph. I only included five names--all major players. There was a final short paragraph (one sentence) that covered the denouement.

I did take care to include motivations (Why was this preacher's wife involved in a murder investigation?) and I included the motivation of the killer (Why did he do it?
How did he justify his actions?) within the action narrative. And the synopsis, while omitting important details, told the main story without eliciting a bunch of "Huh's?" from my beta readers.

I edited it, tightening it up, slashing unneeded modifiers and sprinkling in stronger verbs. The only thing I'm not sure about is whether I was able to capture the humorous tone of the work in my synopsis, although there were several attempts that hint at it. The single-page requirement really made that difficult.

But I've worried about that long enough. At some point you're going to have to consider yourself done.

The Vicious Vet... by M. C. Beaton

The second in the series. I'm beginning to think you really don't get the flavor of a series until the second or third book.

Agatha Raisin continues to develop, and that's a good thing. I'm not sure characters that can be revealed on one book can hold a series. She continues to struggle--I loved the scene in the ladies' room where she replaced a light bulb so she could see (and hide) a zit, and ended up breaking the sink off the wall. Her romantic struggles are interesting--her foibles are funny, and her almost constant dissatisfaction with her life is something most people can relate to. At times lonely, discouraged, hurt--these characteristics balance the fact that she is often rude, selfish, and vindictive. She is a full character that engages the reader's interest.

There is, however, stronger language and more sexual innuendo than the first book, which means I will probably not read any further in this series myself. Kind of sad really. I think I'm going to miss Agatha.