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12-19-2016: The Power of the Pen

wreathe-copyHappy Holidays!

The Washington Post on Dec. 16 printed an essay by climate researcher Michael E. Mann, who has received countless threats since the 1990s when he started talking about climate change. With the rise of bigotry and ignorance that appears to characterize the upcoming Trump administration, he is expecting a surge in the threats he receives.

So as we enter a new year, we as writers might consider how Continue reading “12-19-2016: The Power of the Pen”

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12-5-2016: Book Signing Dates; Writer Watchdog Needed

The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, celebrates its 40th Anniversary Birthday on Saturday, December 17, with the last in a series of celebration programs. The program will run from 12:00 to 6:00 p.m., and include time for book fair browsing, readings, and editor “speed dating.” Both my husband and I will be joining in the celebration and exhibiting and signing our books along with other authors.

The center has celebrated its 40th anniversary with readings and special events starting in 2015 and continuing through this year. It opened with a program honoring Richard Ford, with readings by Jeffrey Eugenides, Robert Olen Butler, Howard Norman, and Susan Shreve. Later events included a Poet Lore reading by visiting poets Bruce Weigl and M. Nzadi Keita; Continue reading “12-5-2016: Book Signing Dates; Writer Watchdog Needed”

11-28-2016 Writing—Not So Solitary

December is almost here. That means I will be talking about my latest book and signing books on the first Saturday in the Mystery Author Extravaganza at the Reston Public Library in Reston, VA. Taking part in this annual event is just one of the many benefits I receive as a member of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

wreathe-copyDecember also means it’s dues renewal time. Dues for the national organization is $40 and for the local chapter, $20. Paltry sums for an organization that seeks to even the playing field for female mystery writers. SinC was organized when women authors started noticing that male authors got the better contracts, were reviewed more often, and received more awards than female authors. In other words, the system was not fair. Men are welcome to join the group too as long as they support the goals of SinC.

The Mystery Author Extravaganza is also held in Maryland, this year on October 29 at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. On hand to sell books at both events was Tom Harig of Mystery Loves Company Continue reading “11-28-2016 Writing—Not So Solitary”

10-17-2016: The Right Style

Last week, I started reading a novel by a local author I know and stopped at the first page in disgust. The book was self-published—many fine books are self-published-but the author knew nothing about the nuances of typesetting, a time-honored profession that is both art and science. Its traditions and rules are essential to a reader’s pleasure. Ignore them at your peril.

What greeted me on the first page was not a novel but a business letter or report. That was the format, and it’s the format of this blog, which is fine for a blog. But in a novel, the result is like driving a car with bad spark plugs. It’s a jerky ride. We expect a novel to be a smooth read, gently moving from paragraph to paragraph with a slightly indented first line and no space between paragraphs.
A shift in time, place, or person is indicated by a blank line between paragraphs.

When a novel is formatted like this blog, our expectations of a shift arrive after each paragraph, but there is no shift, just an extra line for no reason. Bumpy ride.

How can an author who has read novels all his or her life, not notice the novel’s format of indented first line of a paragraph, no space between paragraphs unless there’s a shift? The exception is the first paragraph in a chapter, which may or may not be indented.

Granted, that the Word default seems to be the business letter format, but it’s an easy change to make. With “Home” selected, click on the “Paragraph” menu, then click to draw down the menu under Indentation – Special. Click “First line” and then either .5” for manuscript or maybe .25” for a smaller page or the final layout ready for printing. Then go down to “Spacing” and make Continue reading “10-17-2016: The Right Style”

10/3/2016 – Be Careful With Conflict

I once read a biography of Earl Stanley Gardner, an attorney and prolific author who wrote close to 150 novels. His most popular books starred attorney-sleuth Perry Mason, and that became a hit television series in the late 50s and early 60s and then again in the 80s.

How did he come to write such successful books? One anecdote mentioned in the biography said that when he was a beginning writer, he sent a story to Black Mask Magazine, that was rejected, but along with the rejection was another note, apparently meant for the editor’s secretary that was a rant on all the faults in Gardner’s story.

Gardner took it as advice on how to write, so he paid attention to the editor’s criticism. He rewrote the story. When he resubmitted it, he thanked the editor for the suggestions and his storyperry-mason-bk was accepted, probably because of the editor’s embarrassment.

Recently, I picked up a copy of Gardner’s first novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, at a yard sale. As I read it, I had to smile. All of us involved in writing fiction are told about the importance of conflict in keeping reader interest. Gardner took this advice to heart, and his book is almost a parody or maybe a lesson on conflict in fiction.

It begins on the first page when Della Street walks into Mason’s office and says she thinks the new client is a phony. She’s opposed to this client at every turn in the plot. Then it’s obvious that the client is lying and withholding information and Mason knows it, but how to find out the truth? From what she tells him, Mason knows he’s up against some tough foes, and he’s in danger of being disbarred. And then Paul Drake, the detective, comes in, and he becomes another source of conflict. So by halfway through the book, Perry Mason is in conflict with his secretary, the detective he uses, the client, and an assortment of tough characters. Gardner establishes Perry Mason as a tough fighter who will battle any and everyone, but to me it seems like the conflict was laid on so thick that it became a parody.

Conflict is important, but when it becomes obvious or biased, it becomes trite, irritating, and boring. For instance, when the wife opposes her husband’s dream of adventure. Boringly obvious set-up. And biased. For one thing, why can’t it be the wife’s dream of adventure? And why can’t the conflict come from another source than the obvious spouse, who could be supportive.

Surprise us with the conflict. We’re inundated with the standard issue, and a lot of us are too sophisticated to buy into a writer’s lazy use of it.

Against the Tide

Some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous buildings, including the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, were built after his 80th birthday. Many of his buildings, including the Guggenheim, met with intense criticism. But today, 56 years after his death, he is known worldwide as a brilliant and innovative architect., and the Guggenheim is a revered part of New York City.

He succeeded despite a chaotic and scandalous personal life, structural problems in his buildings such as leaking roofs, an obsessive and Continue reading “Against the Tide”

Learning New Tricks

For months now I’ve been seeking a focus for this blog. Since my cozy mysteries feature the 90 year olds at Whisperwood Retirement Village, I give a talk called “Able, Alert, and Active – Acting Your Age at 90.” The talk is well-received—the audience says it is inspirational and motivational. Suddenly, my blog had a focus: Motivating, inspiring and countering all the little voices in our heads that tell us why we can’t or aren’t or shouldn’t; motivating and inspiring despite the rejections (I’m a writer); motivating and inspiring despite whatever our age or circumstances. That is what this blog is about. Enjoy.

Here goes. . .

Let me introduce you to Captain James Arruda Henry. He was a lobsterman who lived for more than 90 years without being able to read and write. Then he heard about another man Continue reading “Learning New Tricks”

Solace for the Writer: On Criticism

Interpretation and criticism often wear the same hat, but unlike interpretation, which is relatively benign, criticisms and rejections can be devastating. Since I am a writer myself, subject to rejection and the barbs of critics as are many of you, an important book in my library is called Rotten Reviews & Rejections, edited by Bill Henderson and Andre Bernard and published by Pushcart Press in 1998. It presents critical, if not downright nasty, quotes from reviews and publishers’ rejections of now classic works. It is solace for the spirit, a “so there!” response.

For example, Samuel Johnson in Lives of the English Poets (1779) commented on John Milton’s Lycidas: “The diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. . . Its form is that of a pastoral—easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting.” Continue reading “Solace for the Writer: On Criticism”

To Outline or Not to Outline

When I finished my third novel, I swore that I would first outline then work from the outline to write my fourth novel.

An outline, I thought, would help me write a book more efficiently, without the need to reorganize chapters, backtrack to check plot points, or rewrite to sort out confusion and repetition. An outline would propel me forward each day, since I would know what needed to happen next. With an outline, I could probably finish a novel in just a couple of months.

Excellent plan, I thought. How naive could I be?

Very. I simply can’t write that way. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my characters until I get immersed in their lives and dilemmas. I don’t think of all the interweaving plot points and digressions at first. The ideas simmer and froth in the back of my mind until I pull them forth as my characters and the plot dynamics need them.

Now that I’m halfway through my fourth novel, a sequel to Shadow of the Rock entitled Return of the Rembrandt, I realize that my first draft has to be considered my “outline.” It still needs much filling in. Character development, relationships, motivations, and plot points have to be refined and strengthened. But I’m on the way.

Years ago, I gave a workshop on setting goals. I discovered that most of the people in the workshop resisted goal-setting. I was shocked. I had thought goal-setting was a no-brainer. Like writing an outline. The most common reason the naysayers gave was that single-minded working to reach a set goal got in the way of serendipitous possibilities along the way. They made an impression, because that’s the way I’ve come to feel about outlining a novel.

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More for the 90s Club

For those who arch eyebrows at my 90s Club mystery series, I add three more examples of 90-year-olds still active, still alert, still contributing.

Featured in Parade Magazine, Dec. 29, 2013 issue, was 94-year-old Olga Kotelko, West Vancouver, Canada, who still competes at long-jumping and high-jumping.

When Marta Eggerth, operetta singer and international film star, was 92, she performed for an hour and a half at a cafe in New York, then went on to perform in other solo shows at the Viennese-style cabaret. She recently died at age 101.

Homer LaBorwit, from Baltimore, MD, was a practicing optician into his 102nd year.

The 90s Club cozy mystery series features Nancy Dickenson and the 90s Club at Whisperwood Retirement VIllage who meddle in murder and mayhem and almost lose their lives.
The 90s Club & the Hidden Staircase
The 90s Club & the Whispering Statue

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