On Writing


Conversations I Did Not Have This Weekend

Me: Hello Herr Scheiber, we’d like a firewood delivery before the winter sets in.

HS: Of course. Is Monday morning OK?

Me: Perfect. By the way, we won’t be paying this time. Have a nice day.

 

Me: Could I book a hair appointment on Friday?

Hairdresser: Cut and blow dry?

Me: Yeah and quid pro quo.

HD: Quid what?

Me: Look, you cut my hair for nada and I tell all my friends how fab you are.

 

Me: Two tickets for Blade Runner 2049, please.

Cinema Employee: Where would you like to sit?

Me: Up the back and for free.

CE: Sorry?

Me: Well, I’m not sure if I’ll like it. But if I do, I’ll give it a great review. Oh and while I’m here, I’ll have the medium nachos with cheese sauce.

Conversations I Did Have This Weekend

Potential reader: Is your series available on iBooks?

Me: Sure, they’re available everywhere. Here’s the link.

PR: But these books aren’t free.

 

Website query: We’d like to read your book for our bookclub.

Me: Fantastic! Would you like me to send some bookclub questions?

WQ: That would be great! Could you also gift us 10 copies (e-books, not paperbacks, obviously!)

 

Casual acquaintance: My wife wants to read your books.

Me: OK, here’s a postcard which tells you where to buy them.

CA: You can’t just give her a copy?

You’ve all heard the Picasso quote – but if not, it’s at the end of this post.

I get slack-jawed in disbelief when people expect creatives to work for free – or more often – for the “exposure”.

I’ve done my time. University degree, years of teaching and learning, self-study and quite a few failures along the way.

Then a group of people (more on that next week) showed me how to improve and find a voice, a character and a style. I spent four years honing my first book, distilling all those years of craft and education it took to get to that stage.

So the next step is to give it away?

No.

Before I published my first book, I promised myself two things: Never free, never exclusive. If I don’t value my work, why would anyone else?

Each of my e-books costs less than a cup of coffee. My paperbacks cost less than two birthday cards. Both will last a lot longer. I appreciate I’m also asking for your time and trust.

All of us readers approach a new book with anticipation and trepidation. You’re about to give me hours of your life – use them well

But if you value the hours of effort and skill that goes into keeping readers entertained, why would you expect all that for free?

Herewith the oft-quoted and possibly apocryphal Picasso anecdote:

Picasso is sketching at a park. A woman walks by, recognizes him, and begs for her portrait. A few minutes later, he hands her the sketch. She is elated, excited about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what beautiful work it is, and asks how much she owes him. “5000 francs, madam,” says Picasso. The woman is outraged as it only took him five minutes. Picasso says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”

 

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As a author, I’m fascinated by language.

Judicious choice of words lead to the right effect; to wound, amuse, provoke nightmares, yield an insight or offer comfort.

Creative Commons image by Roland Tanglao

The right words are magical. Yet sometimes the wrong words have a power all their own. When someone takes a cliché or well-worn phrase and substitutes an element of their own (whether out of mishearing, imagination or mischief), it creates a whole new concept. Perhaps it even improves on the original.

I’m talking about eggcorns.

“We’re all going to hell in a handbag”

“It’s the lesser of two equals”

“Ever since that remark, he’s been a bit of a social leopard”

“A group of scandally clad ladies”

“She tends to be a pre-Madonna”

I love eggcorns. They’re not strictly correct but somehow better. Symbiotic, natural linguistic phenomena which pulsate with life and creativity. A manifestation of language as alive and evolving and in the hands of its users. Plus they make me smile.

Beatrice Stubbs uses eggcorns. She twists her words, apparently unconsciously. The reader is left to guess how much is manipulation and faux-naiveté is behind these apparent gaffes. Lieutenant Columbo provided much of the inspiration. His apparent shambling incompetence is in fact astute psychological disarmament.

Much of this facet of Beatrice’s character comes from my grandmother. Some of her specials include:

‘Those cakes have sympathetic cream’

‘Can’t eat no more, I’m full as an egg’

‘I knew the dog had been naughty; she looked at me with squeaky eyes’

This week I heard from a reader in Florida. She said she loved Beatrice for many reasons, including, “she’s just like me, using quirky phrases all her own”. Another reader from Devon often sends me suggestions for future eggcorns, brazenly attempting to bribe me into writing another Beatrice book.

I keep a little book full of such discoveries, partly for research and partly for entertainment. If you have any little gems to share, I’d love to hear them.

Here are a few of my favourites:

“This leads me to believe the City of Toledo is a fan of cutting off its nose despite its face.” (University of Toledo Independent Collegian, February 2005)

“This coverage provides for protection from claims for libel, slander and deformation of character.” (Catering Magazine, January 2005)

“Our old Toyota just got us through and then gave up the goat.” (ABC Rural, SA Country Hour, January 2006)

“Most cases of vaginal thrush can be rapidly cured by the use of a peccary.” (Pharma co. report)

“As long as one invokes the hack-kneed platitudes of ‘national security’ or ‘the war on terror’, there is virtually no crime too extreme.” (Al-Jazeera op-ed piece)

“She’s described in reports as a bowl in a china shop.” (CNN, January 2002)

“My face is sore and I don’t like having big pus jewels on my face.” (internet forum)

Images courtesy of Creative Commons/Flickr.

 

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http://amzn.to/2stfJNS (Over the weekend, I had a few surprises from readers.

One was disappointing.

Somebody returned a Beatrice Stubbs Boxset for a refund.

“Nothing in the description said it was an R rating.”

An R rating? In Europe, we understand an X rating, but what does R mean?

I checked the definition and it’s pretty vague, especially when it comes to books. R means restricted. Some sex, violence, nudity and if anyone under 17 cracks the spine*, they should be under supervision. (*not a euphemism)

If my reader didn’t like the first chapter – which does indeed involve some medium to strong language, allusions to sex and a gently twisted murder – s/he has every right to ask for his/her money back. No offence taken.

http://amzn.to/2stgTJaHow to communicate to potential readers that Beatrice Stubbs is neither cozy/cosy nor excessively violent/graphic? Is there a scale one can use to reassure the nervous while enticing the curious?

Hmm.

The second surprise was a new review from an Amazon reader called Roxann.

I hope she’ll forgive me quoting her here:

I loved the entire Beatrice Stubbs series… Great plots, wonderful endearing characters and JJ Marsh’s sense of humor is delightful. READ THEM ALL. I am very sad that the series is only six books….. I miss the characters…..!!!!! Please write more.

Now stop that. I know what you’re thinking.

Eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.

But I do want to mess with Mister In-Between. How do I please both ends of the crime reading spectrum?

http://amzn.to/2rviH5nWhat kind of warnings do I add to my books? Maybe we need a new system.

  • Small x: Bad cuss-words, almost-sex and a few bloodstains
  • Small r: Medium swearing and not all dead bodies are female
  • Small c: No creatures or children injured

I started writing crime not to shock or horrify, but to entertain. I don’t want to give you nightmares. My aim is essentially to reassure that good can prevail; that human beings want to look after each other. If you’re reading a Beatrice Stubbs book before you go to sleep, I hope you’re enthralled and excited and even unnerved, but never disgusted, repulsed or upset.

http://amzn.to/2swPPKftoYes, horrible people and situations exist but beware of gratuitous shocks.

The Nasties accentuate the negative, fan fear and distort perception.

This piece by Rene Denfeld sums up why I write crime from the female perspective.

Women can be so much more than victims.

Beatrice Stubbs knows all about the negative but strives, at least, for the in-between.

If you’ve read a Beatrice book – whether you’ve loved or hated – how would you describe it?

 

 

 

 

 

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A neat way to tip an author?

After spending a few enjoyable hours in a restaurant, we pay our bill and give a little thank-you via a tip. For the waiting staff, this can be as financially valuable and personally gratifying as the wage packet.

Authors love it when you buy their books. Of course they do! It pays the bills and feeds the dogs and gives them time to write more books. But a review lights a flame in an author’s heart.

You got it? We connected! We understand each other!

It makes an author’s day a little brighter.

For more than one reason.

Reason One: People often write to me via email or social media to let me know how much they like The Beatrice Stubbs Series. Here’s one from last week:

Binge reading! JJ Marsh/Beatrice Stubbs are FANTASTIC. They are almost impossible to put down. I started Book 1 on August 2 (thanks to Kindle) and am now half way through Book 6. They are the perfect antidote to the excessive heat – just lie on the sofa and read, read, read!!

It’s heartwarming to hear such a response. Authors love to receive such praise. Thank you so much!

Reason Two: Putting your thoughts in public – eg, Amazon, iBooks, etc – allows other people to discover the books and potentially enjoy them as much as you do. How many word-of-mouth recommendations have you enjoyed? I’ve discovered true gems thanks to tips from friends.

Spread the word. Pay it forward.

Reason Three: The more reviews a book or boxset gets, the more doors open. Take a look at this post by indiesunlimited to get a bit more background. Real live people with personal opinions make all the difference to writers. Your comments support the author with no cost other than a few moments of time.

Reason Four: If you’ve never written a review before, it’s not difficult. You can go the whole hog and do an in-depth analysis or just jot down a couple of lines about why you liked it. You might like this piece by Gillian Hamer, a seasoned reviewer, on how to avoid spoilers and focus on the potential reader.

http://amzn.to/1MxQcYy

Reviewers and recommenders are more valuable to authors than you can imagine.

So on behalf of all of us – Thank You!

 

A friend pointed me to a piece in The Guardian this week, alerting me to the fact my own creation, Beatrice Stubbs, was recommended in the comments. I was pleased to be mentioned and fascinated by the author’s choices.

Drawn like a magnet to lists, I started making one of my own. In doing so, it became clear that the kind of female crime fighter I prefer is a rounded, flawed human being whose greatest asset is her mind.

From The Guardian’s Top Ten, Smilla Jaspersen would have made my list too, as would Claire DeWitt, but here are ten more brilliant women battling injustice, roughly in order of when I discovered them.

Isabel Dalhousie by Alexander McCall Smith

His other heroine, Precious Ramotswe, is more popular, but I return to Isabel Dalhousie again and again.

The setting of Edinburgh, a eclectic collection of endearing characters, our heroine’s sharp self-awareness and the philosophical questioning of moral choices are exactly what I want to read.

Plus she’s an older woman, embracing the ageing process with good grace. No kick-boxing here.

 

Blanche White by Barbara Neely

An African-American maid/housekeeper who has a nose for mysteries, this character is also a social and political commentator on the unjust world in which she lives.

Her strength and intelligence reflect the author’s, a multi-talented mould-breaker who remains an inspiration. This little interview says it all. Wonderful precursor to The Help with layers of analysis couched in tales of mystery.

Harriet Vane by DL Sayers

I was introduced to Harriet by my Triskele colleague, Catriona Troth. ‘Your writing reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayers’, she said. On hearing I’d not read any Sayers, she recommended Gaudy Night, and I’ve never looked back. There is something about The Golden Age of Crime I cannot resist. Plus Sayers, Marsh and Tey characters inhabit a world of steam trains and bicycles without a smartphone to be seen.

Lisbeth Salander by Stieg Larsson

Not a fan of excessive violence or torture in crime fiction, I avoided Larsson’s work for a long time. But when I did finally read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, I found his depiction of this unconventional personality and mind truly appealing. This character-driven element of his work led me to read more, mostly because of this girl.

Temperance Brennan by Kathy Reichs

Someone gave me a huge box of crime hardbacks as she was leaving the country. Most of them were so clichéd and graphic I gave up on them, with the exception of Val McDermid and Kathy Reichs. The latter introduced me to Tempe. She’s a forensic anthropologist, bilingual and professionally smart if not so much in her personal life. The author wears her expertise lightly, enabling her creation to be expert, flawed and politically astute. She’s also now the subject of a TV series called Bones.

Clarice Starling, by Thomas Harris

Harris is most famous for his unforgettable villain, Hannibal Lecter. But Clarice is a brilliant psychological portrait of a hard-working, vulnerable woman whose determination and persistence enable her to hunt down her man from the smallest of clues. She has a brain and uses all of it.

Ellen Kelly by Sheila Bugler

Sheila is a friend and colleague, whose work I admire enormously.

Like McCall Smith, her setting (South London) is vital, but it’s the damaged, struggling, personable character of Kelly that draws you into the story.

She’s a real woman with a high-pressure job, two kids, and more than one tragedy in her past. After three books, I feel I know this woman and care what happens next.

Start with Hunting Shadows, the first in the series.

 

Stephanie Plum by Janet Evanovich

Crime is rarely funny, but there is a place for dark, wry humour and Evanovich has it in spades. Dry, sassy, feisty and fierce, Stephanie is forced by financial circumstances into the risky profession of apprehension, or bounty hunting. The wit is sharp, the observations acute, the character and her relationships develop over the series. Plum ages well, like a good tequila.

Cassandra Reilly by Barbara Wilson.

Humour is another feature of this clever translator who odd-jobs as a private investigator is her wise-cracking wit and roving eye. Cassandra sticks in my mind as a powerful creation and a rare lesbian heroine in the genre. Like several other authors on this list, Wilson makes the most of her locations, which range from Barcelona to Venice to Transylvania. She really should be better known.

 

This is a personal list but I’d be keen to hear about other female sleuths I’ve not yet met. Any other smart, unconventional, thought-provoking recommendations warmly welcomed. Holidays are all about discovery.

 

 

When writing a novel and even more so if you intend to make it into a series, you need to know the character as well as you know yourself. If not better.

Crime writer Sheila Bugler and I worked together on developing a list of questions to dig deeper than hair colour and speech tics to fully flesh out our main characters. (Note: there are hundreds of character questionnaires out there, lots of which may well be more pertinent to your own writing.)

However, Sheila and I were both embarking on a crime series, so we fine-tuned the questions to glean the maximum from our very different female detectives. When we’d finished, we sat down and answered in character. It was probably the most useful exercise I’ve ever done.

Later I began to realise how other characters see my MC doesn’t always reflect her true personality. Logical – none of us is consistent or 100% honest. So I developed a second exercise which helped me place her in any given environment. I found these two exercises so beneficial to my work, I thought I’d share them with you.

Have a lovely weekend.

Exercise A: From the Inside

  1. Are you typically (insert nationality)?
  2. What makes you easy/hard to get along with?
  3. Describe your earliest memory.
  4. Where do you get your information from? Be specific – TV? Which channel? Gossip? Whose word do you trust?
  5. Who or what is the love of your life?
  6. Who is your hero?
  7. Last book you read – struggle or pleasure?
  8. What do you usually have for breakfast?
  9. In what ways are you like your parents?
  10. If you were an animal, what would you be?
  11. Give an example of one of your rituals.
  12. What are you most afraid of and why?
  13. What is the last thing you do before you go to sleep?
  14. Are you normal?
  15. What would be your desert island disc and why?
  16. What would you change about your appearance?
  17. When was the last time you indulged yourself? How?
  18. What prejudices do you have, if any?
  19. What makes you laugh?
  20. Do you have any scars? Where did they come from?
  21. What is your most precious possession?
  22. What keeps you awake?
  23. Why do you/don’t you have children?
  24. Who is your best friend?
  25. When did you last lose your temper? Why?
  26. Which items do you always carry with you?
  27. What is your idea of a perfect evening?
  28. What is your greatest regret?
  29. Which characteristics do you look for in a friend?
  30. Describe your most recent achievement.
    (With thanks to Sheila Bugler)

Exercise B: From the Outside

Looking at your character from the outside is like trying to see yourself as others see you. It’s not easy so here’s a way in.

On the left hand side of a piece of paper, write down five of your character’s key values. What are the things they hold dear? Think conceptually, eg, truth, loyalty, persistence, kindness, etc

Now on the right, write down how those characteristics could be perceived by someone who doesn’t know/is prejudiced against/hates your character. Eg, truth can be seen as rudeness, loyalty as blind devotion, persistence as pig-headedness, kindness as being a sap, etc.

The whole How-Dare-You row kicked off again after Anthony Horowitz revealed he’d been advised against writing a black character in his Alex Rider series.

The BBC story is here: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-39988992

This topic both interests me as a reader and a writer. (I’ll spare you the inevitable para where I impress you with all the varied and well-researched perspectives I include in my own books.)

Leaving aside the precise definition of exactly what a ‘black character’ is, why shouldn’t Horowitz dare to inhabit a character other than himself? The Alex Rider series features a junior version of James Bond, aged 14-15.

Taking it to the extreme, all my characters will from now be 62-year-old white Jewish men living in London. – Anthony Horowitz

The subject of who has the right to write is on my mind.

I read a Bailey’s Prize shortlister which tells the tale of a privileged white woman and a mixed race man to whom slavery is not just history, but family.

I read a film script written by a man which focuses on female sexuality, sisterhood and what women really think of a penis.

I’m reading a book from the POV of a character who is mentally ill. No, not your average ‘unreliable’ narrator, but someone with an acknowledged, controllable illness.

They’re all fascinating, informative and emotionally engaging. I don’t need the author’s CV or photograph to tell me if their qualifications are sufficient. If they fall into cliché, patronise, mock or don’t do the basic courtesy of attempting to empathise with a character’s external moulding and internal reactions, they have no right.

Last week, Words with JAM published an interview with Jason Donald. How did he approach writing his character of Dalila, a young Kenyan refugee woman, I asked.

I believe it’s possible to empathise with someone who is different from yourself. Assuming the opposite dehumanises everyone who isn’t exactly like you, because you relegate them to a place outside of human connection.

That being said, there’s a lot of homework to do when creating a character and you need to approach the task with a deep humility. I went to a lot of different people and asked them to read my early drafts, to guide to me, to challenge my assumptions, to inform me of things I’d never considered, to reveal nuances and to also point out where my portrayal was working.

For her Diversity series in the same magazine, Catriona Troth interviewed Debbie Reese, who runs the widely respected blog ‘American Indians in Children’s Literature’ 

First of all, caring about Native people is not a condition for getting it right. If you don’t know someone personally, what you hold in your head and heart is more of an abstract than a reality. In the 1990s, illustrator James Ransom was asked why he had not illustrated any books about Native people. His reply was, “because I have not held their babies.” That’s a beautiful metaphor for the relationship of trust you have to have in place before you can do justice to someone’s stories. Once you move from the abstract into the real, you pause to consider what you are going to write or teach.

And Farhana Shaikh, MD of Dahlia Publishing, based in Leicester, which champions diverse and regional writing in the UK.

Do you believe it is ever possible for white writers to write authentically (or at least well) from the point of view BME characters?

I don’t see why not. And yes, it can be done well the other way around too. That’s more of a question of the writer’s ability to do it well enough so it’s believable, than anything else.

When I read Beauty by Raphael Selbourne, I absolutely loved it – and as long as the experiences of BME communities is represented in literature I think that’s more important than the question of who is writing it. Also I’m not sure how we qualify the authenticity – if we live in multicultural cities than surely our experiences are shared and therefore overlapping?

Finally, Christos Tsiolkas, who sums it up perfectly.

http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2012/05/christos-tsiolkas-has-breakfast-with-jj.html

I agree.

We all have the right to write outside our own experience. So long as we understand what that means. We should work harder at getting into other skins, minds, worlds, never forgetting it’s a privilege.

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