Monday, October 24, 2016

Panster vs Plotter: the Definitive Answer

Annamaria on Monday

“No one can write a book without an outline,” the New York Times #1 Bestselling author said to the assembled audience of mystery/thriller novelists, aspiring writers, and fans.  There was not the slightest provisional hint in his tone.  He was speaking ex cathedra.  This was the first line of his papal encyclical on how to write a novel.

The interviewer tended to agree with him.   Said that one could never get anywhere unless he (sic) knew his destination. 

“And had a map to get there,” Mr. Smug Bestseller added.


I have seventeen years of Catholic school education and an upbringing of excellent lessons in politeness from my parents and grandparents.  I flew in the face of it all.  I could not stay in my seat.  From the last row in the auditorium, I stood, looking as good natured as ever, and striking a jocular, arms-akimbo pose,  I called out the names E. L. Doctorow and John Fowles. And retook my seat.

That little red gizmo says "John Fowles."

Mr. Bestseller looked confused.  Mr. Interviewer offered that E. L. Doctorow had said something about writing being like driving at night.   I held my tongue while they continued to insist that no one could write a novel without a very detailed outline.  They both accused “pantsers” of secretly writing outlines and just not admitting it. 

That’s what inspired my crusading blog today.  How dare they accuse us pantsers of being either incapable or lying about not using outlines?

For those of you who don’t know the terms:  In mystery writing circles, a plotter is an author who writes an outline of the story before beginning to draft the scenes of the book.  A pantser starts with a few ideas or characters and jumps right into telling the story without knowing exactly what is going to happen.

Outliners, not always with the above self-satisfied attitude, often say that their way is the right way.  I have never heard a pantser say such a thing.  At that conference, I did not shout out more than the two author names above.  But I have been ruminating about this off and on ever since.  Here is what I would have said had I been in a position to do so.

Okay, Mr. Interviewer and Mr. Smug Bestseller.  You plotters need a map.  We pantsers are the explorers, the mapmakers.  We journey forth and draw the map as we go along.  We trust that some of those dark alleys we wind up in have the potential of leading us to the most creative ideas we ever have.


Here is how I think we can put this subject to rest forever.  The overriding most basic fact: Unless an author is telling the same old story, all novelists are pantsers when they start a book.  How else could the plotters write an outline, except by pantsing their way to the end of the story?  Answer me that!    Plotters begin by writing down, in shorthand, the story they are pantsing.  When they are done, they use the result of their pantsing as an outline for fleshing out the story and making it into a book.  Pansters do the same thing, except that we write in longhand from the beginning, so that when we are done, so is the book.  One way is NOT better than the other.  All writers have to find their own way to a process that yields a good book.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Protecting What’s Yours – How Far Should You Go?

A couple of days ago I came across a news item in The Guardian for a security feature intended to protect bikes – both pedal and motor – from potential thieves. Called the SkunkLock, it initially looks like a standard carbon steel lock, but it’s filled with a chemical, which – if anyone cuts about a third of the way through the metal outer casing – is released. The manufacturers claim that although this chemical is entirely legal, it will induce vomiting in 99% of people.

The idea came from San Francisco, where bicycle thefts are legion, and is being Crowdfunded as we speak. One of the inventors, Daniel Idzkowski, came up with the idea after a friend’s expensive electric bicycle was stolen while they were at lunch, despite having two $120 mechanical locks attached to it.

Of course, there are ways around the SkunkLock. The would-be thief could simply pick the lock, or wait until the gas supply is exhausted and then go back to finish the job. But as with most security measures, they’re intended for deterrent rather than outright prevention.

This ‘Room 101’-style “Don’t do it to me – do it to her!” attitude somewhat reminds me of the story of the two guys out hiking who encounter a bear. One puts on his running shoes, to be told by his companion, “You can’t hope to outrun the bear.” The first man replies, “Who said anything about the bear? I just have to outrun you.”

The SkunkLock is currently being tested and undergoing risk assessment with the company’s legal team. Because, of course, we mustn’t cause lasting damage to someone who’s breaking the law attempting to steal from us …

In similar vein, I recall an anti car-theft device from a few years ago called the Auto Taser. It resembles a standard steering-wheel club lock, with one notable exception. Normally, these clubs are simply used by wannabe thieves for leverage to break the steering lock before they’re picked. But, if you tried to grab the Auto Taser it hit you with a high volt/low amp electric shock, very similar to the usual Taser stun guns that have become regular issue for police forces in the UK.

Of course, if you’re a civilian, I think I’m correct in saying you’re not allowed to use a Taser over here. Employing the Auto Taser meant having clear warning signs on the exterior of your vehicle, at which point it came under the same legislation that covers electric fences for cattle.

Not hurting the perpetrator seems to be a priority. As someone who’s been the victim of theft, my instinct says that when someone chooses to break the law, all bets are off, I can see where this might ultimately lead. It’s our job as writers, after all, to push any idea to its logical, sometimes extreme conclusion, just to explore the effect that might have.

The opening line of William Gaddis’ 1994 novel A FROLIC OF HIS OWN reads: ‘Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.’

What’s your feeling on this? Should criminals ‘get what’s coming to them’ in real life as well as fiction? And have you come across any similar weird and wonderful devices you’d like to share?

I leave you with an advert run by Oregon-based company, The Suburban Auto Group, for Trunk Monkey – the ultimate anti-theft device:

And a thank you to Dea Parkin and the Chorley & District Writers’ Circle for their invite to me to speak at yesterday’s Write Now Festival.

Not only was it a fascinating event, with insight into the world of publishing from Katherine Armstrong of Bonnier Zaffre and myself, children’s books from Jake Hope, and the nuts and bolts of writing from AJ Wright, but the Vintage Tea Rooms nearby does a Fabulous hot chocolate that even has candy floss on it!

This week’s Word of the Week is thanatology, meaning the scientific study of death, including not only the forensic aspects, but also the wider psychological and social effects. It comes from the Greek Thanatos, death, and the suffic –ology, again from the Greek, -logia, speaking.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Flouting My Flute

I’m not going to write about the US Presidential election—I don’t even want to think about it. I’m not going to write about my book tour—except to say I’m still sailing along.  I’m not even going to write about my grandchildren—though I did dedicate Santorini Caesars to them. And most certainly, I’m not going to dare even thinking about mentioning [fill in the blank].

Instead, I’m going to write about flutes.  Well, a certain kind, indeed a specific brand of flutes and their impact on my life…as well as on anyone within hearing distance of my playing.  But first, a bit of background:  Last 4th of July weekend Barbara and I journeyed from Greece to join my family in Whitefish, Montana (over by Glacier National Park) to celebrate the wedding of my oldest nephew.  While there I went to a local fair and stumbled (almost literally due to an unmarked guy wire) over a stall selling Native American flutes in an array of woods, keys, and sizes. 

Long before the dawn of man I’d tinkered briefly with playing the clarinet and side-blown metal flute, and even today often travel with a blues harp (aka harmonica).  That background, and an eye-catching display, made playing one irresistible. Ten minutes later I was the proud owner of a High Spirits, red-tailed hawk flute in the key of G made out of aromatic cedar.

And thus began the end of world peace as we know it.

I brought it with me back to Mykonos, and spent many afternoons sitting on my balcony staring at the Aegean and playing…think tinkering…figuring my way through the next twist of my new novel. Luckily for Barbara, she’d stayed behind in New York City during those early days of my competing with mating cats for harmonic tones.  

The flute came with written directions and an instructional CD.  The creator of the brand also posted a series of videos on the High Spirits website detailing every element of how to play.  Wisely (as a marketer) he also had clips demonstrating how each of their many flutes sounded.   And yes, he knew how to play, so the cats had no fear of competition.

Subtle forces were at work, creeping in upon my unconscious like kudzu of the mind.  It began with a simple sense of practical responsibility to my flute.  How could I entrust it to the rigors of travel?  It needed a case.  Though I’d bought a black, hard plastic one used for architectural drawings back in New York—cheap, simple, and effective—it struck me as unquestionably inconsistent with the inherent spiritual nature of my precious new friend.  

So, I convinced a bag maker on Mykonos to create an appropriate case out of leather, and all felt right again with the world.  Actually suede, not felt

We made it safely back to NYC, and though flutey didn’t come along with me to Bouchercon, it’s made many trips to the farm, where we’ve spent hours together keeping black bears at bay.

Remember the kudzu reference?  As some may know, in the right circumstances that poison ivy resembling plant can grow a foot a day—almost as fast as an obsession.

I think you’re getting the point. 

The more I played, the more I clicked back onto the High Spirits website, and the more my obsession grew. I began envisioning acquiring another flute, and searched the Internet for places where I might be able to find one while on book tour in Missouri, Arizona, and Colorado, all likely places for finding Native American flutes.  I sought out several shops, but found nothing to my liking. Then it dawned on me to call the flute manufacturer.

Foolish move.  The lovely young woman who answered the phone at High Spirits told me of places in Phoenix where I might find what I wanted, and when I said I would be in Tucson, too, she said, “We’re located only an hour south of Tucson in Patagonia and it’s a beautiful drive, so why don’t you come down and visit our showroom?”  She even recommended a place to stay in town.

The drive to Patagonia, Arizona along a two-lane highway winding through the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountains toward Mexico is transfixing, reminiscent of a desert version of the part of Montana where I met flutey.

Patagonia proper, with a population of approximately 900, is actually more like a hamlet than a town.  It came into being at the turn of the twentieth century, and its history is inexorably tied to once thriving nearby mining operations (currently attempting a resurrection). Today, though, it is a paradise for birders, insect collectors, butterfly watchers, artists, hikers, hunters, and flutists. 

I stayed at the Stage Stop Inn, and ate a delightful meal across from the town hall (a converted railroad station) at The Velvet Elvis Pizza Company located just a few doors down from PIGS—Politically Incorrect Gas Station.  All that, plus the “super moon” lighting up the Arizona sky that night, had me perfectly teed up for my first-thing-in-the-morning trip out to High Spirits—and the following high-tailing, three-hour drive back to Phoenix to catch a plane to Denver.

The narrow road leading the mile out of town to High Spirits had me thinking of any number of Bates Motel-like settings, and when I turned left at a faint sign marked “High Spirits” onto a dirt road wandering left and right back toward who knew where, another Bates came to mind…this one playing her part in Misery.  Thank you Mr. King for the flash back moment.

But, all turned out perfectly wonderful. 

The place turned out to be just as I imagined, with flutes and kind folk set off against a natural backdrop reflecting the historical spirit of what they represent. I felt as if I were meeting flutey’s family for the first time. Which I guess I was. 

And being the kind-hearted soul that I am, I arranged for some of the cousins (the long, thin woody ones) to come live with us back east. Just how many I shall not say, because they’re in transit as I write this, and I’ve not yet told Barbara the number of new places to set at the table. But I’m sure everything will work out fine, because at heart she’s a tinkerer, too.  And her sister plays the bagpipes.

‘Nuf said.


Friday, October 21, 2016

La Pharmacie Francaise

One of the highlights of the recent trip to the USA was the Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans.  A little  unobtrusive shop front, bit dusty and unimposing. It was five dollars to get in - the best five dollars we spent in our entire trip. The person in  charge was worth the money alone- a young man in his very early twenties with a chiselled face and jet black hair. He had walked straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe novel. Or off a hammer horror stage set. He took our five dollars and rang it up on an antiquated bronze till. He handed us a laminated guide and away we went. ( We started upstairs as some children- very noisy children and their equally loud mothers had appeared and I thought I should keep away from them as their were sharp instruments at hand.)
Louis J. Dufilho, Jr. of New Orleans was the first to pass the new licensing examination for pharmacists and that made this shop, the first United States apothecary shop to be use standard remedies and adequate treatments of choice.

Even in those days the power of celebrity could be used to sell lotions and potions.

Alcohol might not take the pain away but it helps you to forget it.

                                    Tinctures and lotions, powders and potions

Early spectacles. The discs in the cream box are the early separate corrective lens used to ascertain the final  prescription.

A collection suitable for any small Belgian detective.

It might look like an instrument of torture but I think it's for eyedrops.

A very precise set of scales

I have a modern version of this but mine looks so boring compared to this.

A portrait of one of the funders- I think he had been hitting the hair restorer..

A maternity situation- all laid out... until you realise what the chair in the far corner was for...

Hot water and towels Betsy!!!

You can fill in the blanks here....

An old wheelchair...

                                                                           Ouch ditto

Probably still accurate.

Forceps haven't changed that much

                                              Out the back was a beautiful courtyard,

                                              No home should be without a dish of leeches....

                                                Like he needed a hole in the head!

An old till 

                                                          It got everywhere- even then...

The paper rolls  are actually individual paper cards, rounded off with constant use. They are the prescription records hanging on copper wire.

What a great place to set a novel!

Caro Ramsay 21 10 26