Saturday, December 27, 2014

Yes, But is it Art?

by Jeffrey Deaver 
(International bestselling author)

Writers love to fight.

About style, about politics, about editors, about publishers, about whether a comma must appear before "that" or "which." (It's the latter, by the way.)

About using words like "former" and "latter."

But nobody's more involved in the conflict than thriller and mystery writers. Fantasy and science fiction writers seem to get a pass on the question, but we crime writers are constantly disparaged as hacks, as sell-outs, as writers of "that stuff." Why don't we write real books?

Well, I thought I'd weigh in on the subject. And I decided that the best way to do so was to give you some guiding principles that I keep in mind in writing my thrillers.

Principle one: It's valid to accept that there is a difference between literary fiction and genre, or popular, commercial, fiction. In fact, it's helpful to understand that difference; I'll even go so far as to say that it's vital to make sure the difference exists.

What is that difference? I define it in terms not of style or subject matter or length but of the author's purpose. Literary works of fiction have as their goal to rearrange perceptions, to challenge readers intellectually, politically and morally, to make them question assumptions, to educate, to explain the world.

Genre works of fiction exist to entertain, to amuse, to thrill, to divert. Of course these goals are not--and should not--be exclusive. The best literary fiction seeks to achieve what I described above but has elements that make for a good thriller--sharp dialog, conscientious plotting, conflict, concrete imagery, a dynamic story. The best genre fiction has elements of the literary--psychological, political and social insight, depth of character, a distinctive and unique style.

Principal two: It's invalid to judge a written work based solely on that difference.

Being a recovering attorney I will now cleverly prove this principle through irrefutable logic. Recently watching the University of North Carolina Tarheels, my team, lose to Maryland--a travesty I'll get over eventually--I had the following meal: a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, cheddar cheese and mustard, accompanied by a Chimay Belgian ale. Okay, when the game went into overtime, two Chimay ales. I had, if you will, a genre meal.

Two days later I took a date to a darkly lit, upscale restaurant in Chapel Hill and had lobster bisque with truffle foam, coq au vin (pheasant not chicken, an interesting variation) and a 2002 Vosne-Rominee red wine. A literary meal, again if you will.

Which was better? Neither of course. Each was exactly what I wanted at the time and served its purpose perfectly. In the first instance, I had a delightful meal watching an exciting sports event (involving corrupt and incompetent referees, by the way.) In the second my friend and I had a subtle culinary experience that lasted several hours in a delightful restaurant.

Each was appropriate to the circumstance. There are times when I grab a Saul Bellow novel--Bellow a Nobel laureate--or a book of poems by Richard Wilbur or Wallace Stevens. There are times when I read Michael Connolly or Ian Rankin or Agatha Christie.

To disparage a literary work simply because  its goal is to entertain is intellectually dishonest and, in fact, obscures.

Principal Three: There is only one valid criterion by which to evaluate a work o fiction, and it's this: does the writer successfully achieve his or her goal, whatever that goal may be?

Was my sandwich during the game the best I could make, or did I use tasteless Kraft cheese and Wonderbread?

In the writing of one of my thrillers, do I work hard to find original themes, do I keep the plot moving quickly, do I use sharp dialog that reflects actual speech, do I spend months creating twists that will surprise and delight the reader? Or do I rely on cliches, retreads of set-pieces from bad made-for-TV movies and dull prose?

The worth of a work of fiction, and our sole criterion for criticism, lies not in the author's goal but in the skill of execution.

And if I may expand on the topic a bit: What is the key to successful execution of one's work? Which brings us to:

Principal four: Whether you are a literary or genre author, or a critic or a writer of nonfiction, you write not for yourself but for your audience. Short-order cook or chef at a three-Michelinstar restaurant, it's all about the customers.

Works of fiction fail not because they are not "literary" but because their creators lose touch with their readers' needs and expectations.

I know . . . already I can hear the rumblings of sell-out. But understand, I'm not speaking of lowering the bar, pandering to simple-minds and the base side of popular culture (No Wonderbread is our motto.) Readers, like diners, deserve quality, in all endeavors.

And what do we authors get out of the deal? Our pleasure must come not from ego or self-indulgence but from the joy in meeting the challenge of writing a work of fiction that moves another human being--whether it involves helping someone see the world differently or enlivening a tedious airplane journey.

That's what this magical process is all about.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers, Poisoned Pen Press.)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

"About Joe Pickett"

by C.J. Box, bestselling Wyoming mystery author

After graduating from college in Denver, my first job was a news reporter in a place called Saratoga (population 2,200) in my home state of Wyoming. My job interview took place in a fishing boat on the North Platte River. I loved the place, and the outdoor lifestyle. To make ends meet, I wrote freelance, filled in here and there, and sometimes helped out local outfitters when they needed a guide on the river.

I remember taking a fisherman out in the late afternoon in a boat. As we neared a remote inlet where large trout hung out, I had the distinct Deliverance-like feeling of being watched from above. I looked up on the same high bank and there he was: the game warden in his red shirt and stained Stetson. He waved. I waved.

The next fall, when I was doing a story for my small weekly on a poaching arrest he had made, I visited the game warden's tiny state-owned home and interviewed him while his children swirled around his desk and his wife looked in from the kitchen. Here was a man who was in charge of enforcing the law in a district that stretched 1,500 square miles. He did it without a real office, or a staff, or a supervisor. Virtually alone, he went out into that rough country every day with only his Labrador as his partner and backup.

Years later, when I sat down to construct the tale of murdered outfitters, endangered species and what can happen in a small town when huge outside forces blow into it (Open Season), I kept that game warden in mind. At the time, I didn't dare envision a series of novels where other issues could be explored.

The character of Joe Pickett is, in a way, the antithesis of many modern literary protagonists. He's happily married with a growing family of daughters. He does not arrive with excess emotional baggage or a dark past that haunts him. He words hard and tries, sincerely, to "do the right thing." He doesn't talk much. He's human, and real, which means he sometimes screws up.

Game wardens are unique because they can legitimately be involved in just about every major event or situation that involves the outdoors and the rough edges of the rural New West. They're trained and armed law enforcement officers. While reaching Open Season and Savage Run, I've ridden on patrol with game wardens to try to get it right. I think I have been embraced by the game wardens themselves (as well as their long-suffering wives). I received a vote of confidence when I was told about a message to game wardens addressed to "Joe Picketts."

Real-world experiences provide the background for Joe Pickett novels. While working on ranches and exploration survey crews, I learned first-hand about the beauty, cruelty, and balance of the natural world. Journalism proved to me that stories, and words, really matter. The growth of my own (and my wife's) international company showed me that one  can succeed in business without being a thug. Through it all, I read and wrote and thought about that game warden.

The land itself--the environment--plays a major role in Open Season and Savage Run, and all the Joe Pickett novels [which followed]. That's because the land in the Rocky Mountain West dominates day-to-day existence. The fight over that land provides the conflict and the stories.This fight has economic, ideological, historical, and theological overtones. It's a serious fight. With Open Season, I was asked by both environmentalists and developer, rancher and industry types what side I was really on, because the strong issues in the novel were presented in a balanced way. They all assumed I was on their side.

Meanwhile, Joe Pickett will try to do the right thing. Wish him luck.

(Excerpted from Mysterious Writers: The Many Facets of Mystery Writing, Poisoned Pen Press.)

Friday, December 12, 2014

'Them Old Greek Writing Blues"

by Paul Johnston. bestselling Scottish author

I've spent much of the last twenty years in Greece. I even lived on one of those 'idyllic' Greek islands for seven years - that's if 'idyllic' means very noisy in the summer and seriously dull in the winter. (No, I don't regret moving to Athens.) I must have written at least half of my published novels in Greece, as well as three deservedly unpublished ones. (I should add that I've published three novels set in Greece, with a half-Greek private eye, but those I wrote in my homeland of Scotland, if you're still with me.) So what's it like writing fiction in Greece?

Well, as anyone who lives in California will agree, writing in a warm climate is definitely easier than trying to think and type while shivering. But there we run into the first problem. John Fowles, a very fine novelist who also wrote one of the best Greece-based novels in The Magus, rightly said that the landscape and light in Greece are very unforgiving to artists (let's leave aside the issue of whether crime writers are artists…). I guess what he meant was that the hills and coastline, the olive trees and the sea, are so beautiful that they make everything else seem imperfect - and that's before you take in the Parthenon etc). You need inner strength to be a writer in Greece, and I didn't have enough of that as an apprentice and earlier on in my career.

Another issue is the people. Don't get me wrong, I love the Greeks, and I'm not just saying that because my wife is one. They're very down-to-earth, very curious and very keen to offer their honest opinion. But none of those qualities is particularly helpful when you're struggling with a first draft, nervous about your characters or trying to be smart with your storyline. Good old British reserve seems more appropriate, but then you run the risk of insulting the Greeks with their Mediterranean sensibilities. Cultural differences, don't you just love 'em?

Then there's the small matter of Greek history. No matter how imaginative you might like to think you are, you'll never come up with a story to beat those the Greeks acted out. I mean, they're still making films about Helen of Troy, Leonidas and his doomed three hundred, and that well-known sociopath Alexander the Great. To paraphrase Shelley, look upon my ancestors' deeds and despair…

And another thing. How's a writer to compare with the Greek literary tradition? Can you inspire people better than Homer, make them weep longer than Sophocles or laugh louder than Aristophanes? I think not, brave scribe. On the other hand, you might just be able to hold their interest better than Plato - but that's down to the modern world's short attention span, not your superior dialogue.

So, all in all, Greece manages to make the modern day writer feel completely insignificant and utterly insecure. Then again, that's what writers feel wherever they are.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Getting a Late Start by June Shaw

A new friend asked the silliest question: "Why did you wait so long to start writing novels?"

My desire to become a writer surfaced when I was in ninth grade. Before then I thought good writers were old dead European men. I couldn't relate. My English teacher told me he was sending me to a literary rally. I knew grammar well, which most of the test would include, but we'd also write a paragraph. He told me to practice. I should write about a splinter.

A splinter? I slunk back to my  desk. This would be the dullest paragraph anyone ever created. I described a silver of wood, checked for grammar and punctuation, and carried it to his desk.

He skimmed it. "June, this is boring."

"I know, but you told me to write it."
"Yes, but do it like this." He wrote Ouch! and said I should write from the splinter's point of view. Somebody just sat on it.

Wow, that was it! My education. My inspiration. I was so excited to realize an author could create people and things and make them do or say anything. What my teacher actually did was introduce me to modern creative writing that included humor.

I'd never read things like that before. None of my teachers ever had us do creative writing. I can't recall the topic of the paragraph we had to write about at the rally, but I did place first and I never forgot that splinter.

Over time I'd often think of that splinter and want to write, but instead ran with my five children to their activities. My husband died when they were five to eleven years old.  Once my head began to clear, I knew I wanted to write. I became a
teacher who taught English. Over time I sold essays and stories. My one-act plays did sell and I finally read novels and learned to write them. My first novel, Relative Danger, features a spunky young grandma and her hunky sometimes ex-lover. Is she me? I'm often asked. She's who I want to be.

When Killer Cousins, the second book in the series, came out, both books received great reviews and much praise. I was thrilled. My third book takes place on a cruise ship. 

I'm in my second adulthood and having great fun! Thanks for letting me share. I love my characters. Quirky and unique, they are people I want to spend much time with and I want
my readers to do the same.