It dawned on me recently that mystery writers do not think the same way that normal …um, I mean other … people think. It’s the little things: scanning the local crime reports and feeling a little disappointed that nothing eventful occurred during the night, watching the Pepsi delivery man at the grocery store to see if he’s really just delivering Pepsi, or wondering if the guy who runs the local gym is actually an evil ex-Ninja with sadistic tendencies plotting to take over the world. (Actually, I KNOW the guy has sadistic tendencies – you should see the exercises he thinks I should be able to do). But the real indicator happened last summer when I got locked out of my house.
This was not my fault, by the way. I was in the back yard when my daughter poked her head out the door to let me know she was leaving and by habit (and a very good habit it is) locked the door. Twenty minutes later, I turned the door knob to go inside and found the deadbolt doing the job for which it was designed. My first thought was a fairly standard, “Oh, no!” However, my second was…and I’m not kidding here… “I’ve always wanted to break into a house.”
The top half of my back door has one of those large windows with nine panes, and I had a toolbox on the porch. It seemed like Fate. In a flash of inspiration, I conceived the brilliant idea that I would break through the lower left pane, reach through the gap, and unlock the deadbolt. I even decided to time myself so I’d know just how long the hapless homeowners had between the first tinkling of shattered glass on the concrete floor and the inevitable brutal entry. Using a pair of sunglasses as eye protection, I placed an old towel over the pane and swung the hammer with a certain amount of trepidation.
It bounced like a superball off a brick wall.
Undaunted, I swung a second time. Once again I achieved only a bounce of the hammer and some seriously undamaged glass. Mildly annoyed, I dropped the towel, which was obviously providing too much protection, and tried again. The bounce, if anything, was higher. I gritted my teeth, widened my stance, and narrowed my eyes. Then, I lifted my arm and struck like a snake, assuming a snake had a hammer and the upper body strength of a toddler.
Completely annoyed, I gripped the hammer with both hands and began pounding with all my might. And finally – triumph! The glass broke.
Sort of. A single crack ran from the lower left pane all the way to the upper right pane. That’s when I realized that the “panes” were simply slats of wood across a very large single sheet of glass. I also realized that the repair was now going to be seriously expensive, but I’d already crossed the glass Rubicon so to speak. I hammered away until the glass finally crazed (it was safety glass and there would be no tinkling), and I was able to break out enough pieces to make a hole large enough for my hand.
Only my hand wouldn’t go through. After all that effort, my questing fingers stubbed against a second undamaged pane. Foiled by the curse of double glazing!
By now, enough time had passed that any hapless homeowners (assuming they hadn’t already loaded their shotguns) would have been able to call the police, get dressed, pop some popcorn, and sit laughing their hineys off while watching me through their impenetrable back door. Throwing my hammer down in disgust, I stalked off to my neighbor’s house to ask to use the phone to call my daughter.
Which is what non-mystery writers would have done in the first place, thus saving themselves a $250 repair bill. By the way, those back door windows come in a single prefabricated unit. The whole thing can be simply lifted out and replaced in a matter of minutes by a smart alecky young man who does not try nearly hard enough to mask his amusement. Still, I consider it to be $250 well spent. I gained a lot of knowledge about door construction, a new confidence regarding the security of my home, and a terrific scene which appears in the third Jocelyn Shore mystery, DEATH RIDES AGAIN. And more proof, if proof is needed, that mystery writers just do not think like other people.
Or maybe it’s just me.
Even when the headlines are not full of tragedy, it’s not always easy being a crime writer. I worry about the moral implications of contemplating violent death. I sat at my keyboard with tears running down my face while writing about the death of a favorite character in DEATH MAKES THE CUT. Worse than that, my coworkers laugh nervously when they see me carrying scissors, and waiters give me odd looks when they overhear my friends ask who I’m going to kill next. In real life, real crime makes me sick to my stomach. So why do we love our crime fiction and why is a mild-mannered, law-abiding writer like me fascinated with that most heinous of all crimes – murder?
Evil exists in the world. As readers and as writers, crime fiction lets us view and attempt to understand horrible deeds through the safety lenses of fiction. Some books show the crime through the eyes of the killer and reveal his motivation, however twisted. Some books show the impact of the murder on the lives of those left behind – but in a fictional and therefore bearable way. Murder mysteries provide a controlled peek into the uncontrolled vortex of human evil, without the uncertainty and terror that accompanies the real thing. Plus, let’s face it – murder makes for darn good reading.
Crime fiction shows us how good people cope with tragedy. After a murder, the protagonist somehow has to pick up the pieces and make sense of things. The professional sleuth (the police officer or detective) struggles to maintain her emotional distance from the case while putting herself in harm’s way. This lets us feel admiration. The amateur sleuth (the friend or relative or innocent bystander) copes with loss and terror while fighting to achieve some kind of justice or closure. This lets us feel empathy. Sometimes the protagonist isn’t perfect and makes mistakes or choose actions that aren’t completely legal or even smart. This lets us feel superior. Crime fiction gives us the chance to live and triumph over life-altering events without actually experiencing that nasty life-altering bit.
Finally, we read and write crime fiction because of the unspoken promise: at the end, a good mystery delivers both understanding and some type of justice (something not always found in the real world). At the most basic level, a murder mystery is crime…and punishment. I find crime fiction to be some of the most deeply moral literature being written today. In most mysteries, there is a true sense of right and wrong; murder can never be rectified, but it can be avenged and the murderer must not profit from his crime. Mysteries explore the human response to evil and provide a sense that there are still good people in the world – people who do the right thing, who fight against injustice, who leap over tall buildings…no wait, that’s a different type of fiction. Seriously though, I find the struggle to find and stop evil as portrayed in most mysteries to be inspirational. It gives me hope in the human condition. (As a side note, I’ve recently read a few mysteries which are morally gray at best, and I have not enjoyed those at all.)
These are the big underlying reasons we enjoy murder mysteries and why we should be proud to enjoy them. Of course, there’s also the suspense, the drama, the action, and the adventure, which are definitely not to be sneezed at. What about you – why do you enjoy curling up with a great mystery?
As many of you know, National Novel Writing Month (known affectionately as NaNoWriMo) is more than halfway over. If you aren’t already familiar with the movement, participants of NaNoWriMo attempt to complete a 50,000 word novel during November. The goal is to write 1667 words every single day for 30 days.
Here’s the thing though – in 2011, 256,618 writers participated and 36,843 reached their goal of writing 50,000 words. That’s 14%. Said another way, 86% failed.
Why would anyone set a goal that is so unattainable that failure is all but guaranteed?
Disclaimer: If NaNoWriMo works for you, if you love it above all other things, and if you’re already thinking of ugly things to blast me with for using the word “failed,” then I am delighted for you. Read no farther, or if you do, consider it an insight into the rest of us. (And please don’t blast me.)
If you’re one of the 86%, consider the following reasons why NaNoWriMo might not be the best tool in your writing shed.
Writing takes time. Heck, typing takes time. The average person types at 40 words per minute, which means it takes 41 minutes just to type 1667 words. And we all know typing isn’t writing. Creative writing requires intense concentration, effort, and mental acuity. In other words, it requires us to be at our best, and let’s face it, all hours in the day are not created equal. If you spend the day working a full time job, stopping at the grocery store on the way home, making dinner, and then sitting down in front of your computer to write, you just might not hit that 1667-word goal before you suddenly wake to find keyboard impressions in your cheek and a stream of drool short-circuiting your laptop.
NaNoWriMo is in November. November means Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means family. Family means traveling or hosting relatives who are traveling. It is a lovely time of year, but is it reasonable to expect that you’ll be able to excuse yourself while the turkey is still cooling on the table to find a quiet place to write? If not, subtract four days (at least) from your available time to write. BTW, your NaNoWriMo daily goal has now shot up to 1923 words.
I know, I know – the point of writing so much so quickly is to squash the evil inner-critic and just “let the creativity flow.” Here’s a news flash – some of us not only don’t work that way, we don’t want to work that way. And there’s NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Half the pleasure I take from writing comes from choosing just the right word, from repeating sentences over in my head or out loud to get exactly the meaning that I want. I love giving my characters the chance to come to life, to make their own decisions or have their own conversations, many of which are as unexpected and delightful to me as I hope they’ll be to the reader. For me, writing requires a gentle pace and a lack of pressure to perform, and that 1667 word daily deadline is a creativity killer that sucks the joy from writing faster than I could suck the filling from a Twinkie (sob – gonna miss them Twinkies).
So am I anti-NaNoWriMo? Not at all. It’s a tool. If it works for you, wonderful! If it doesn’t, don’t blame yourself, just find a different tool…or use the parts of NaNoWriMo that do work. So what works in NaNoWriMo?
Do set yourself a word-count goal that will help you keep writing without putting too much pressure on yourself. You know your own writing style and commitments, so choose a number that works for you. I chose 300 words per day, five days a week because that gives me flexibility. I can write 300 words even when I’m exhausted, and I never have to feel as though I’ve failed if I miss a day of writing. The best part of having such a low goal? I always hit it, and usually I blow past it. When I was writing DEATH ON TOUR, that goal meant I completed an 80,000 word novel, rewrites and all, in 9 months. Based on that pace, I briefly considered increasing my goal for DEATH MAKES THE CUT and DEATH RIDES AGAIN, but I decided against it. I completed DMTC in 8 months and DRA in 10 months, and I never felt bad about myself.
The NaNoWriMo site is a lot of fun – it provides a way to track your progress, get cool badges, and read pep talks. Read those talks, find a friend or a small group who understands or supports your goals, write down your progress. I keep a Word calendar (you can find the templates at Microsoft.com) where I log my ongoing word count. It’s very satisfying to set my weekly goal and then be able to write down an even larger word count.
The most important thing is to love what you do. Set goals that work for you, find your community, have fun, and keep writing.
Think about your career. What is the hardest thing you have to do? Writers will tell you it’s writing, and I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I’m talking about something else. In any career, there’s the part you love, and then there’s the other stuff that makes it possible for you to do what you love. Sometimes being successful at the other stuff is what will make or break your dreams. (By the way, this is actually true for any career, not just writing.)
For writers, a huge part of the “other stuff” is speaking in public. Book signings, conferences, panels, radio interviews – the stuff you dream about when you envision any level of success and the stuff you have to do if you want to become successful. And yet fear public speaking (glossophobia) is the number one phobia in the nation (even surpassing fear of death). So what do you do when you have to do the scariest thing in the world? You join Toastmasters.
(By the way, if the word Toastmasters conjures up an image of a bunch of stodgy stogie-smoking businessmen drunkenly congratulating each other over the congealing remains of a second rate dinner in a third-rate hotel, first – kudos on a vivid imagination, and second – you couldn’t be more wrong.)
About a year before my first novel DEATH ON TOUR was accepted for publication, I joined Get Up ‘N Go Toastmasters in Austin. My new job required me to give presentations to small groups, and I was petrified. I hoped Toastmasters could help, which it most certainly did. I went from absolutely quaking-in-my-boots petrified to confident. Don’t get me wrong – I still get nervous before a big event, but now I know I can make it through, and it will not only be all right, it will be fun. More than that, I now feel more comfortable when I’m meeting new people or when I’m participating in meetings. I’m able to speak up, give my ideas, and express my opinions in front of 5 or 50 or 500 people, something that was difficult and sometimes impossible for me before. I’ve learned that it’s possible to give and accept feedback in a way that’s both positive and motivating. Because of Toastmasters, when DEATH ON TOUR was published, I was ready for my first author panel at Malice Domestic, for my first book signing, and for my first launch event. Because of the confidence I gained in Toastmasters, I was able to embrace these wonderful opportunities and meet new people who have since become friends.
Three years after my first Toastmasters meeting, I’ve published a second novel (DEATH MAKES THE CUT), I have a third one (DEATH RIDES AGAIN) in production, and I am still getting up at 5:30 every Monday morning so I can make my weekly meeting. Yes, it’s dark outside when I leave my house, but I never miss if I can help it. Who could pass up a chance to hear fascinating and often funny stories (because that’s what speeches are), laugh with friends, and be challenged to become better once a week over coffee and breakfast?
No matter what your profession, Toastmasters can help you with the “other stuff”. Try a club near you (they don’t all meet at 7:00 a.m.), and if you don’t feel right at home, try another. Each club has its own vibe and its own goals, and there is one out there that is right for you. There’s no better way to get better at the other stuff – and if you’re confident about the other stuff, you can focus on your favorite stuff.
Everyone’s a critic. If you don’t believe me, think about the last time you were in a movie theater. The lights go down, the green screen comes up, showing the words, “This preview approved for General Audiences.” As the camera pans across a city gleaming in the sunlight, an eight foot tall mechanical monster stomps through the streets and gnaws its way through a skyscraper.
What do you do?
If you’re me, you turn to the person next to you and you say, “Awesome!”
If you don’t have the taste of a twelve year old boy, you might make some gagging noises or just shake your head. Either way, you are a critic.
And why not? Being a critic is fun. I’m a writer, AND I’m a critic…which means I pour my heart out onto the page and then I basically slap myself in the face. Let’s face it, that inner critic is MEAN! But really, what is the inner critic except our fear of an outer critic? You don’t really think your new cool idea is stupid – but you are afraid that someone else will think it is. And that’s where things get tricky. Because even if you somehow manage to grab your nasty little inner critic, throttle it into submission, and produce something that makes you proud, you WILL be criticized.
My first novel DEATH ON TOUR won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel award and was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award. Don’t get me wrong, that was completely wonderful, but it also means that I now have complete strangers firing up their computers to blast me with virtual face slaps.
Email and websites like Amazon and Goodreads make it all too easy. Some people write to tell me they don’t approve of my use of bad language. Others are less specific, but even more hurtful. One guy wrote, “The mystery isn’t up to par. I didn’t hate the book, although I was definitely glad to be finished with it.” (Crickets chirping in the background.)
You know, they say it takes five positive comments to balance one negative one. They’re wrong – it takes a lot more than that. (If I ever figure out how many, I’ll let you know.) The thing is, the next time I sat down to write, I had those nasty, negative words echoing in my head. I actually found myself thinking, “ooh…I wonder if I should let that character say that. What if it offends someone?” or “Yay, great plot twist. Oh, but is it …up to par?” Those words from strangers knocked me sideways, they made me question my ability, and they hurt.
Which brings up the question: how do you deal with criticism? Because if you do anything, if you accomplish anything, if you put yourself out there at all, you WILL be criticized. So many people let that fear kill their dreams, give them writer’s block, make them quit before they even start. The question is…are you one of them?
When you’re thinking about that, consider this little gem from the Goodreads website:
“This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. I would rather read Twilight twelve more times than read this again.”
Ouch! Ouch, ouch, ouch! But not my ouch. That one was for Pride and Prejudice.
Here’s another: “I would rather have gotten a root canal than read this book.” That was for The Great Gatsby.
And my favorite: “Words cannot express how much I hated reading this book.” Yes, that was about A Christmas Carol.
Suppose for an instant that Jane Austen, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Charles Dickens had listened to their critics and decided not to write their masterpieces. The world would be a poorer place.
Bill Cosby said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
You will NEVER please everybody…and that’s okay!
Back to our movie theater. You see five or six previews. If you like even one or two, you’re doing very well. You not only don’t like them all, you don’t even expect to like them all. Think how boring life would be if everyone liked exactly the same things.
The key to failure is trying to please everyone. I think the keys to success are a thick skin, a mocking little voice to use to use when you talk about your critics, and the courage to try anyway.
I love getting to meet people who have read my books – it’s one of the very nicest parts of being an author. But one topic comes up frequently and yet always surprises me. People ask me where I get my ideas and then wait for an answer as though they think I shop at a secret “Ideas R Us” store and I’m going to give them the address. (I wish I did have access to a store like that, because I’d shop there a lot.)
The truth is a lot less fun, but a lot more believable. I work at it. I spend countless hours, I take notes, I write and rewrite and stomp around. I think about stories, characters, conversations, and plot twists all the time. Sometimes I get stumped, and I have to set my creative problem aside for a while, then try to sneak around it and surprise it when it’s not looking. In fact, because I have to work so hard, I’ve never thought of myself as being particularly creative.
It turns out, that’s just the way it works. In a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer discusses “How To Be Creative” and the best news is “anyone can learn to be creative and get better at it.”
The key is understanding that each creative challenge requires a different type of cognitive process. Some problems need a sudden flash of insight – that “ah ha!” moment that feels so wonderful. You can boost your abilities in this area by relaxing, by having a drink, by thinking about something else, by not paying attention for a while. This allows your right brain to process the information and besides, it’s fun. Einstein once said, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” And if you can’t trust Einstein, well who can you trust?
The flip side is that other problems require steady small steps – the type of continual incremental work that eventually brings success. Experimenting, refining, editing, and repeating often produces truly polished and magnificent work. Nietzsche said, “All great artists and thinkers are great workers.” *
(* The difference in these two quotes explains why Einstein was invited to far more parties than Nietzsche.)
Writing, more than almost any other type of activity, requires all the tools in the creativity shed. The flash of inspiration that explodes into a great character or story, the smaller flow when the perfect word leaps from your keys, the steady progress made by sitting at the keyboard day after day, week after week, whether you feel like it or not. Since I write in the mornings, I very seldom turn to alcohol (as far as you know), but the daydreaming, the slack-jawed staring into space, and even (yes, it’s embarrassing) that occasional game of solitaire get my brain and creativity going each day. I used to think I was wasting time…but maybe I was just giving myself the break I needed.
So…what do you do to get your ideas flowing?
When you think about any mystery series that you love, it’s all about the characters. Sure, you pick up that first book because the story sounds intriguing, but you keep coming back for your new best friends. Think about the classics – Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael. In a lot of ways, the mystery is just the vehicle that lets you watch your favorite characters in action. Sort of like the bun is really just the transportation device for the hot dog. You hope it’s a really good bun, accompanied by cheese, relish and ketchup, but you’re really there for the hot dog, aren’t you?
Okay, that’s a terrible analogy. But the best hot dogs…I mean, characters …drive the story and keep you coming back for more. They are real and sometimes extraordinary people with their own concerns, problems, relationships, and jobs. As a reader, I’m there to find out how the story unfolds, but I’m riveted by the personalities of the players. Waiting for Sherlock Holmes to insult Inspector Lestrade or hurt Watson’s feelings is big part of the experience. Watching Brother Cadfael work in his herb garden or discover the existence of his son is as fascinating as learning about the crime. Knowing Miss Marple knits and watching her hide a razor sharp mind behind a façade of “fluffiness” is what makes the mystery come alive…and keeps me thinking about the book long after I’ve closed the cover.
I love all kinds of characters, but I have a soft spot for amateur sleuths. Murder is not part of their “real” lives, and they aren’t paid to go to a crime scene or figure out whodunit or put their lives on the line. In these stories, the murder is an extraordinary and unpleasant event – and not just for the dead guy. In my novels, Jocelyn Shore is a high school history and French teacher who has better things to do than to go around looking for killers, but who finds she just doesn’t have much choice. In DEATH ON TOUR, her Egyptian vacation is interrupted by the murder of one of her fellow tourists, and she has to figure things out in self defense. In DEATH MAKES THE CUT, the murder is more personal. When a close friend is killed and is suspected of drug dealing, Jocelyn has to get involved to clear his name. But she also has classes to teach, kids to protect, school politics to navigate, and a faltering romance to resolve.
The trouble with amateur sleuths in a series is that, after a few books, you have to start wondering why bodies like piling up like firewood in autumn wherever this supposedly average, normal person goes. It’s one reason I put Jocelyn in somewhat different locations in each book. (In the first, she’s in Egypt, in the second, she’s back home in Austin, and in the third, she’s visiting a ranch in central Texas.) However, when I really love a character, I’m willing to forgive the Jessica Fletcher syndrome. (For those of you who don’t remember the television series “Murder She Wrote,” Jessica Fletcher was a writer who lived in a small town – a very small town – and yet who managed to stumble over a body every week. In fact, Cabot Cove probably had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation.) To me, that’s a very small price to pay for the pleasure of spending more time with my favorite amateur sleuths.
Besides the classic characters I’ve already mentioned, some of my newly discovered amateur besties are G.M. Malliet’s Max Tudor (WICKED AUTUMN), Hilary Davidson’s Lily Moore (THE NEXT ONE TO FALL), and my fellow Algonquin Redux pal Rochelle Staab’s Liz Cooper and Nick Garfield (WHO DO, VOODOO?). I know there are more wonderful new amateurs out there – who are your new favorites?
“If it wasn’t for that pesky woman’s horrible death, it would have been a perfect morning.” DEATH ON TOUR (2011) by Janice Hamrick
Memory is a funny thing. Why do we immediately forget the name of a person we’ve just met? Why is the name of the last book we read just on the tip of our tongues? Why have our car keys somehow skittered away on their own? Is this kind of thing normal or could it be (sharp indrawn breath) a sign of aging?
I’m in the middle of Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, in which the author explores the “art and science of remembering everything.” I don’t read a great deal of non-fiction, but this fascinating and well-written book has kept me captivated from the start. The most interesting premise (and one I’ve actually been able to remember) is that humans are very, very good at remembering spatial details, humorous images, and anything to do with sex. Skipping the last two for second, think about the last time you visited someone’s house (even if it was for the first time). Can you picture the entryway? Do you remember the general layout? For example, I bet you can recall where the kitchen was and remember details even down to where the sink was in relationship to the refrigerator. We don’t try to memorize those things – they go into our brains naturally. However, less concrete information such as the series of random digits in a phone number or someone’s name just slip away like water.
One of the techniques used by contestants in the USA Memory Championship (and yes, that’s a real thing) is to associate something you want to remember with a vivid image in a specific location. Meet a guy named Mark Baker at your company kickoff? Picture him in a white baker’s hat carrying a loaf of French bread with a giant neon green check mark on it. Put him in your company’s meeting room or even in a toilet in your company’s bathroom (remember how humorous images work). There’s an image you’re unlikely to forget.
When you think about it, coming up with both a vivid image and a location from your memory is an act of creativity. And it’s what mystery writers do best – creating vivid images of people and actions anchored in memorable settings. Think about your favorite novels – Miss Marple in St. Mary Meade, Brother Cadfael in Shrewsbury, Kevin Corvelli in Hawaii. I think it’s why so many people prefer real books to ebooks. Having something you hold in your hands makes the words real. The location on the page (so intangible in an ebook) becomes a memory prop. How often do you think of something you’ve read and picture where you saw the words on the printed page? When I flip back through a book to reread a paragraph, somehow I know it was about two-thirds of the way down on the right-hand page. So…readers and writers have a built in advantage when it comes to memory. So why is my own memory so poor?
I think it boils down to paying attention. Half the time, I’m “multi-tasking” – by which I mean I’m thinking about one thing (often a plot twist or character) while I’m doing something else. So I walk into the house and drop my keys in the mail pile. I don’t “forget” where they are – I’m just unaware where I put them. The same goes for meeting people. I’m too worried about remembering my own name or I’m distracted by everything else that’s happening. I don’t take the time to focus on a face, to transform the new name into a vivid image in a memory place. The good news is that, according to Foer anyway, practice really does help your memory improve. For me, I think practicing being present – being aware of the here and now, concentrating on what I’m doing or who I’m meeting instead of on my own inner world would be of enormous value. So that’s what I’m going to do…right after I work out this one hitch in my latest plot.