Thursday, December 2, 2021

No rant today!

 Stanley - Thursday

I was going to rant and rave in today's blog about the travel ban on southern African countries because of the omicron variant. Not only because I may not be able to fly to Cape Town when scheduled in a couple of weeks, but more so because it seems so hypocritical, with Europe now having over a hundred confirmed cases and few restrictions, and overall way more infections. The Business Maverick in South Africa had a cartoon which sums up the situation very well. Thank you Rico.



Instead of spewing fire and brimstone at the UK and Europe, I'm going to take a gentler approach and write about trees.

Not any old trees, but a special family that inhabit Africa, Madagascar, and Australia - the baobab.

There are eight species of baobab: one on the African mainland, six on Madagascar, and one in Australia. 

For those of us who grew up in Southern Africa, baobabs are a familiar sight. Specifically, the one African species is Adansonia digitata, named after French naturalist Michel Adanson. Some of them are extremely old and often huge. Some have been dated to be over 2000 years old. The owners of Sunland Farm in LimpopoSouth Africa have built a pub called "The Big Baobab Pub" inside the hollow trunk of the 22 metres (72 ft) high tree. The tree is 47 metres (155 ft) in circumference. They claim the tree is over 6000 years old, but that claim may have something to do with the fact that one is told that in a pub.

They are very fibrous, and elephants often use their tusks to dig into them for water, leaving unsightly wounds in their trunks - the trunks of the baobab, not the elephant!

Trying to protect a baobab gashed by elephants

An elephant pub

Michael and I have had a couple of baobab encounters while writing the Detective Kubu series. The first was in Kasane in northern Botswana. We were visiting the police station there, researching one of our books. The police station itself is modern, and set between two very old baobabs that had been used historically as a mail drop and a prison - one baobab for men, the other for women. We were very impressed that the Botswana Police Service had chosen a new building site that wouldn't mean getting rid of these historical trees.

The old jail with the new one in the background

In jail 

When we eventually were seated in front of the station commander, we told him that the country's police commissioner had told us to ask him to show us around to the holding cells and interrogation rooms. He didn't believe us. He pulled out his mobile phone and handed it to me, saying quite aggressively: "Phone the Commissioner and have him tell me."

Fortunately, I had the Commissioner's number, which I dialled and was extremely fortunate to have him answer. I explained the situation and handed the phone back to the station commander. After that we could see whatever we wanted.

The second baobab story Michael and I have relates to the cover of the Italian edition of A Carrion Death, our story where in Chapter 1 a hyena is found eating what remains of a human. It was titled Il Detective Kubu and had a very dramatic cover, seen below, with a pair of eyes staring out at the reader, with some baobabs on the top half. Of course, when we received the cover from the publisher, it was accompanied by a note that indicated that they thought it was the greatest cover ever. That created somewhat of a quandary for us because the eyes were were those of something in the cat family - none of which makes an appearance in the book, and certainly not hyena eyes. And the baobabs were a species (Adansonia grandidieri) that grow only in Madagascar. We decided not to push out luck and wrote back that while we agreed it was the greatest cover ever, it would probably be good to put an African baobab on the cover. We didn't mention the eyes. 

The outcome was as we expected - nothing changed.


Here are a couple of photographs of Africa's Adansonia digitata.




Michael and I and others visited Madagascar four years ago and enjoyed the famed Allée des Baobabs  (Adansonia grandidieri).

A single Adansonia grandidieri

An avenue of Adansonia grandidieri

Across the Indian Ocean to the Kimberley District of Australia we find Adansonia Gregorio, another fat stemmed baobab - the baob or Australian baobab.

Adansonia Gregorio

Back to Madagascar, there is Adansonia suarenzensis - very different.

Adansonia suarenzensis

And finally, the strangest of all - the Adansonia rubrostipa, which comes in all shapes and sizes.

A little Adansonia rubrostipa

Adansonia rubrostipa (Photo: Beth Moon from her book Baobab)

Adansonia rubrostipa (Photo: Beth Moon from her book Baobab)

In Africa, the baobab is called the tree of life for its water and fruit. A mature baobab can hold up to 100,000 litres of water (about 25,000 gallons), and the leaves are sometimes used as vegetables. The fruit of the baobabs is one of their distinguishing features. It is large, oval to round, and berry-like in most species. It has a dry, hard outer shell of variable thickness. In most species, the shell is indehiscent (a word for Zoë), which means it does not break open easily. The fruit usually dried and the resulting powder used in a variety of foods.

Fruit of Adansonia digitata

The baobab is also called the upside-down-tree, for obvious reasons. It is worth a trip to Africa and Madagascar just to see these monsters.

Now I can get back to grumbling about the travel ban, particularly now that nine omicron cases were found in Scotland before the virus was identified in South Africa, none of whom had travelled to Southern Africa nor had any links to anyone there. Grrr.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

My Holiday Movie at The Charles

Sujata Massey

A Thanksgiving movie is as much of a tradition for me as the cooking. When I used to return from Baltimore to St. Paul, Minnesota, in November, my sisters and mom and I always endeavored to find a special film to watch at an art house theater like the late Uptown, and still flourishing Lagoon, in Minneapolis. The theater would always be packed, and we would inevitably run across old friends in the venue and go out afterward for coffee and film discussion.

Since 2020, Thanksgiving has been different for everyone. We had only two guests this year for Thanksgiving in Baltimore--our college student son and my youngest sister. We were so grateful for both of them. When they left on Saturday, life was suddenly dead. Sunday loomed large, and I asked my husband Tony if he'd like to go to the movies. 



I hustled my husband off to see the new documentary on Julia Child at The Charle Theatre, an "art house theater" that is Baltimore's reputedly Baltimore's oldest--dating back to 1930, although the building's former life was as a barn housing streetcars dating back to the 1890s. The theater, a smartly renovated brick building row with Tapas Teatro, a great small-bites restaurant, is sited one block from Baltimore's Penn Station, where we had recently  dropped our son for his trip back to Boston. Driving past The Charles on Saturday surely put the notion in my brain that I must return to the movies, fear of omicron be damned.


Late Sunday afternoon, a few people were wandering into nearby restaurants, but there was no queue for theater tickets. Inside, we found the ticket box just as we remembered it. However, the attendant surprised us by swiveling an iPad-like device to us showing a sea of green dots--dozens and dozens of available seats for Julia. Only four people other than ourselves were present. How weird! There would be no need for an aisle seat, or to worry about tall heads in front of us. The theater would be our living room. Masking was required, a precaution that I'm happy to oblige.

The Charles was once a small player in the city's film scene. Through the 1960s, Baltimore was filled with independently owned cinemas, according to author/photographer Amy Davis, who created Flickering Treasures, a gorgeous photographic history book. I've been in many of them, which still functioned during my life as a student and young newspaper reporter of Baltimore. But of all my Baltimore theaters, The Charles makes my heart throb. On many nights from 1982 through 1986, I came with classmates from the Johns Hopkins University campus to see films by the directors we were hearing about from our then-writing seminars professor, Mark Crispin Miller.  I saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man and so many other films that are lost in my faraway memories. 



In my day and earlier, The Charles  was an inelegant, wide squat structure whose architecture was dominated by its approximate 500-seat auditorium. Between 1939 and 1958, it was known as The Times Theatre and specialized in newsreel cinema only--a precursor to television news. In 1958, The Times was taken over by another owner and became immortalized as the more elegant-sounding Charles, showing a wider range of fare.



In the 1960s through the 1980s, the large room above the theater was called The Famous Ballroom and home to The Left Bank Jazz Society, which hosted musicians famous and infamous, including Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. I remember taking in a show and buying delicious fried chicken, a far better refreshment the popcorn offered downstairs at the cinema. 

I'm exercising my use of a captilized "The" a bit more than usual. The Charles is that inspiring. The John Waters was a longtime friend to the theater, and reworked it to pose as an X-rated theater in his 1977 masterpiece, Polyester. Many Baltimoreans appeared in John Waters' films, including Edith Massey--no relation--and Mink Stole, who I see at neighborhood potlucks. 

Another of my filmi Baltimore neighbors was a man named George Udel. George was a television cameraman and filmmaker who ultimately became the director of two film festivals and the Baltimore Film Forum organization. George was the fellow who could get special films from thousands of miles away to The Charles. He also became the beloved founder and host of Cinema Sundays, a one-time-only special film show with bagels, coffee, and audience discussion on Sunday mornings at The Charles. 

In the late 1990s, when I had only written just two novels set in Japan, George recruited me to be the discussant for an Akira Kurosawa film for Cinema Sunday at the Charles. I protested that I had no credentials or film expertise beyond a few courses I'd taken at Hopkins, but he prevailed, and I had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of standing on the big stage at The Charles and being part of the film discussion that ensued after.


George is sadly passed on from this world. He died from heart disease just few months after the theater's grand reopening in 1999. The legendary Raoul Middleman--also deceased--and painted  a massive portrait of George that hangs in the theater's hall in a forward-facing position. Nobody going into a film misses George. 




As I mentioned at the start of this blogpost, only four others were present at the 4:10 p.m. showing for the Julia Child documentaryJulia is also being streamed, so I hope more people can see this terrific film either in the theater or outside. It includes diary entries and never-seen photographs--including a tasteful nude of Julia shot by her husband Paul! I felt so grateful that movie theaters are continuing to keep doors open, despite low numbers of attenders. 




I was so warmed by my reunion on Thanksgiving weekend with The Charles that I returned alone on Monday to see The French Dispatch. This time, only two people were in the theater. By now, I wasn't surprised by the number. My own spouse--a fellow Charles Theatre aficionado from the '80s--wasn't interested in this one. From the preview, it was clear that this Wes Anderson film would be long on scenery and storytelling, and short on action. A better film for someone like me to see.



It turned out that The French Dispatch was basically a love letter to the hardworking and creative writers in the history of The New Yorker. The film was too long, but it was a charming, meandering feast for the eyes and ears. I thoroughly enjoyed laughing by myself at the best moments, which were plentiful.  The film also inspired me to renew my subscription to The New Yorker after many decades absence.

The two shows I saw reminded me that watching a film is as private an encounter as reading a book. That was the magical experience that George Udel believed in--why he worked so hard to bring odd and far-flung films to Baltimore. 

We'd see things that we never dreamed were there.




Tuesday, November 30, 2021

More than a Month: 7 Native American Authors

Wes Studi and Adam Beach as Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee in a
TV adaptation of Tony Hillerman's Navajo Mysteries

Craig every second Tuesday

Kia ora and gidday everyone. 

Can you believe it's the end of November already, and we're hurtling towards the festive season (or already started it in some places and cultures) and the end of 2021? What a year it's been. 

It's also that time of year when many magazines, newspapers, podcasts etc are sharing their 'best of the year' lists, including best books. I've contributed to some, and shared others. Lots of amazing reads - in a troubled time we've certainly been blessed with some superb crime writing, at least. 

Over the past weekend I was involved with the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival, a wonderful event that was intended to be a hybrid festival somewhat like this year's Bloody Scotland - having in-person events in Tasmania alongside international authors and attendees appearing online - that in the end had to go fully online after recent COVID concerns in Australia. 

Australian booklover Romany Jane shared this pic of her enjoying my interview with Queen of Crime Val McDermid over breakfast. The beauty of online festivals!

It was a heck of a lineup, with international crime fiction stars including Val McDermid, Liz Nugent, Ann Cleeves, Abir Mukherjee, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and Naomi Hirahara joining a wonderful array of Australian and New Zealand crime writers for a weekend of interviews, author panels, masterclasses, and book parties. I had the good fortune to bookend the festival by interviewing Val to kickstart things on Saturday morning, and Abir to close out the festival on Sunday evening. 

In between I also spoke at the Southern Cross Crime Cocktail Party showcasing 20 Aussie & Kiwi crime writers, and had the privilege of interviewing International Guest of Honour David Heska Wanbli Weiden, a Lakota Sicangu author whose wonderful debut WINTER COUNTS has gobbled awards in the United States since its release, and has recently become available in the UK, Australia, and NZ. 

My feature in the New Zealand Listener on David Heska Wanbli Weiden
and WINTER COUNTS, recently published in Australia and New Zealand

WINTER COUNTS is one of my favourite reads of the last couple of years, the 'pandemic years' if you will, and I've been fortunate enough to interview David a few times this year for festivals, podcasts, and the New Zealand Listener magazine. You can listen to our CrimeTime FM conversation here. 

I've long been interested in Native American culture, and have spent a small amount of time on the Navajo Nation and Cherokee reservations when travelling in the United States in years past. But until I read WINTER COUNTS last year (I ordered the US hardcover on the recommendation of SA Cosby, author of BLACKTOP WASTELAND), the only crime fiction I'd read with Native American protagonists was written by non-native authors like Tony Hillerman and Dana Stabenow. 

While Wanbli Weiden is a fan of Hillerman's mysteries starring Navajo sleuths Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, it's great to see a Native-written thriller now getting lots of acclaim and attention too. 

Of course, Wanbli Weiden is not the first Native American crime writer, but hopefully his recent success - WINTER COUNTS has already won nine awards in the United States, including sweeping the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards for Best First Mystery this year - will bring more attention and open doors just as Larsson and Mankell did for Scandi Crime and Jane Harper did for Australian crime. 

Today is the last day of November (which is Native American Heritage Month in the United States) and given I've been thinking about this topic after speaking with David again recently, and we should read indigenous authors all year round, here are seven Native American authors you may want to try (some I've bought and read on David's recommendation, plus a few others) in the coming weeks and months. 


laFavor's ground-breaking crime novels were re-released by the University of Minnesote Press in 2017, six years after the author and activist passed away.

CAROLE LAFAVOR

A Two-Spirit Ojibwe novelist, nurse, and activist who lived and worked in Minnesota, laFavor published two crime novels in the late 1990s, around the time she was serving as the only Native American member of the of the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. ALONG THE JOURNEY RIVER introduces Renee LaRoche (likely the first queer protagonist in Native crime fiction), who must investigate the theft of several sacred artefacts and the murder of the Tribal Chairman while juggling the cultural differences in her new relationship with a white woman. 

"Ultimately the re-release of Carole laFavor’s novels serves to underscore the significance of her writing to the Indigenous literary canon, to remind us of the power of her activism for HIV-positive Native peoples, and to return her important claims for the centrality of Two-Spirit peoples, bodies, and histories to the public eye," said Lisa Tatonetti in the Foreword to the new 2017 editions. 


David Heska Wanbli Weiden is a Professor of Native American Studies in Denver
and an enrolled member of the Lakota Sicangu Nation. 

DAVID HESKA WANBLI WEIDEN

As I said above, WINTER COUNTS is one of my top reads of the past couple of years. It's a powerful thriller set on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, beautifully written and laced with themes of a broken criminal justice system and native identity. Virgil Wounded Horse is a tribal enforcer on the reservation, available for hire by victims and their families who are looking for some sort of justice when the FBI and tribal police fail. But when heroin threatens the rez, and Virgil's nephew, he undertakes a dangerous investigation into those who profit from others' pain.

This is a thriller with heart and soul. The kind of book that sticks with you beyond the events that have you rapidly turning the pages. Character-centric crime fiction that packs a punch in a setting that pulses through its lyrical prose. For me - and many other readers, critics, and awards judges, it seems - WINTER COUNTS marks the arrival of a strong new voice in crime fiction. 


An expert on John Steinbeck and pioneer of Native American Studies, Louis Owens won the Roman Noir Award in  France in 1995 for THE SHARPEST SIGHT

LOUIS OWENS

The first time I discussed Native American crime fiction with Wanbli Weiden, he immediately named Louis Owens as in his view "the most important" Native crime writer. A Professor of English and Native American Studies and the Director of Creative Writing at UC-Davis before his suicide in 2002, Owens blended thriller plots with broader themes, murder mysteries with mysticism in novels like THE SHARPEST SIGHT, BONE GAME, and NIGHTLAND. 

Says Wanbli Weiden: "His books are not really page-turners, but he pioneered a style of crime fiction which sort of set the stage. He incorporated a call for political action, social commentary, and a surrealistic style. There’s something really interesting about Louis Owens; he’s not really included in the canon of great crime writers and I’ve been arguing for a long time that he should." 


Chippewa poet and novelist Louise Erdrich won the National Book Award in 2012 for THE ROUND HOUSE, her tale of a teenager attempting to avenge his mother's rape

LOUISE ERDRICH

Considered 'one of the most significant writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance', Louise Erdrich is a poet, novelist, children's author and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She's won numerous awards including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and published more than 30 books, including a 'justice trilogy' of novels set on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota that may be most appealing to crime fiction fans. 

THE ROUND HOUSE, the second in the loose trilogy, centres on Joe Coutts, a 13-year-old boy angered by the poor investigation into a brutal attack on his mother, who sets out to uncover the identity of his mother's attacker with the help of his best friends. Blending crime story and coming-of-age, the Sunday Telegraph said "Erdrich has achieved an impressive trick; a spellbinding read, an earnest message and fierce emotional punch". 


Marcie Rendon's second Cash Blackbear novel was shortlisted for an Edgar Award

MARCIE R RENDON

Following David's recommendations back in September, I ordered novels from a few other Native American crime writers, including two mysteries by Marcie Rendon, a playwright, poet, author and activist who is a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation. I really enjoyed both books - MURDER ON THE RED RIVER and GIRL GONE MISSING - and in some great news they're now more widely available thanks to Soho Press, with more Cash Blackbear tales hopefully on the way in the not-too-distant future. 

Set among the grain and sugar beet fields and small towns of North Dakota and Minnesota during the Vietnam War, the Cash Blackbear Mysteries centre on a tough young Ojibwe woman who’s survived tragedy and foster care and now drives truck, hustles at pool, and occasionally helps her only real friend Sheriff Wheaton solve crimes. I thought these were really good character-centric crime tales that also explore some of the prejudices and injustices faced by Native Americans.


Most famous for his Arkady Renko 

MARTIN CRUZ SMITH

Perhaps the most renowned Native American crime writer is one that many may not know is Native American, especially given his seminal work is a series starring Russian investigator Arkady Renko, Yes, Martin Cruz Smith, author of the huge bestseller GORKY PARK, and the eight Renko novels that followed, is of Native American (Pueblo) descent. While GORKY PARK was a breakthrough novel for Cruz Smith in 1981, he'd actually published eighteen books the decade before that, ranging across pseudonyms and genres. 

The film version of GORKY PARK went on to win an Edgar Award, but Cruz Smith himself had twice been an Edgar nominee for his earlier novels, including NIGHTWING (1977), a supernatural thriller inspired by the author's own tribal ancestry. Cruz Smith also co-wrote the screenplay of the 1979 film adapted from that novel, which did poorly on release but later developed a cult following. 


insert caption
STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES

A native storyteller that I've been hearing a lot of great things about during the pandemic is Stephen Graham Jones, a Blackfeet author of experimental, horror, crime, and science fiction. I've recently bought THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS, his literary horror novel published in 2020 that was praised by NPR as also doing "a lot in terms of illuminating Native American life from the inside, offering insights into how old traditions and modern living collide in contemporary life". 

Talking with Wanbli Weiden in September, he said of Jones: "He’s mainly known for his indigenous horror, but he wrote a [crime novel] that I think is almost a direct descendant of Louis Owens, called ALL THE BEAUTIFUL SINNERS. He very much takes Owens’ surrealistic style and then moves it in a new direction." 


Thanks for reading. Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 

Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll be ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

Ehara taku toa, he takitahi, he toa takitini

(My success should not be bestowed onto me alone, as it was not individual success but success of a collective.)



Monday, November 29, 2021

Lessons from Stephen Sondheim


Annamaria on Monday

RIP to a genius with words

The New York Times calls him a titan.  He himself said that he thought teaching was a sacred profession.  We may not think we could ever come close to his genius with words, but we writers can look to him for lessons.

Sondheim's first big break as a lyricist/composer came when Leonard Bernstein chose him to write the lyrics for West Side Story.  Here is a song we all know (Aside: Rendition specially chosen for you, Stan):


Great right?  Yes!  But... 

Lesson one: Years ago, I heard an interview with Sondheim in which he  said he thought the lyrics you just heard were wrong.   He picked on one phrase in particular - "It's alarming how charming I feel."  He said those words are far too sophisticated for a girl like Maria.  The New York Times posted that 2008 interview at the top of its obituary on Saturday.  In it he says that Maria sounds like Noel Coward.  My debut novel had just gone to press when the interview first aired.  I blanched when, upon inspection of the page proofs, I saw the number of instances when my characters were using language that was (ahem) out of character for them. 

Here is my favorite version of Sondheim's biggest hit tune. Bonus: It comes with his intro and him accompanying Bernadette Peters:

 


Lesson two: Sondheim's introduction says he wants to teach us a lesson with this song. I'm not sure exactly what lesson he had in mind. What this song teaches me is that you don't have to dumb down your work to make it popular.  These subtly ambiguous lyrics struct a universal chord.

Then there is this:


Lesson three: if you want to show off your extensive vocabulary, you can get away with it.  But only if the scene is silly and will make people smile, not groan.


The Sondheim song that I listen to most often is this one.  This is my favorite rendition, by the incomparable Barbara Cook.



Lesson four: if you want readers/listeners to fall in love with your work, make them feel something. Make it intense. And especially if you can give them comfort or a glimmer of hope, they will keep coming back to what you have to say.

I've saved for last what I think is the most important lesson. Present MIE company excluded, I think this is a lesson that applies particularly to the crime novel genre. Lesson five in Sondheim's own words:

"I like to change styles.  That's one of the things that appeals to me about stories. It has to be unknown territory.  If you've never done anything like it before, it's got to make you nervous. If it doesn't make you nervous, you're going to write the thing you wrote before."

You can hear and see the whole that interview and hear these words and many more from Sondheim himself. Just click here.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

What comes next? Handling writer's block

Zoë Sharp

I wrote a post about writer’s block about seven years ago, but as it’s a condition that does not improve with time—or age, alas—I thought it was well worth revising and revisiting.


 

Up until a few years ago, I would never have considered that I suffered from writer’s block. I still view my work as a craft not an art, and whilst I always strive to become a better craftsperson/crafter/more crafty, that doesn’t mean I can get away with sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. Putting arse in chair and putting fingers on keyboard generally works for me. This is a job, after all, no longer a hobby. As Lee Child famously once said, lorry drivers don’t get lorry driver’s block—they simply get up in the morning, get in their lorry, and drive.

 



In the past I thought of writer’s block as being a dreadful case of staring at a blank page and not being able to get a word down. But according to the online definitions, it can go much further than that. It also covers being able to write, but being convinced that everything you produce is utter rubbish.

 


If that’s the case, I’m a chronic sufferer. 


One of the best blogs I ever came across on the subject was penned by 
Charlie Jane Anders going back ten years ago. In it, she explored the different types of creative shutdown that form WB, and how to overcome them. The blog itself is well worth reading, but here are the highlights:


You can’t come up with an idea

This has never been my problem. I have so many novel ideas they’re falling out of my ears. Unless, of course, we’re talking about blog ideas, or short story ideas, and then yes, I do stare holes in the walls. These days, if I’m stuck I try writing up any kind of scene for which I have half an idea, regardless if it might fit with a current project or not. The CJA blog recommends you do a ton of exercises to get your creative juices flowing, from writing a random scene in which somebody dies, or falls in love, to writing a scathing satire of someone you hate. (Of course, just be careful not to accidentally email this one out to your writing class buddies…)

 

You have plenty of ideas, but none of them seem to go anywhere

This is a tougher one to get around and I admit to it being an issue with me. Until I have the starting point of a story of any kind nailed down I feel I can’t proceed further. CJA suggests working out the purpose of a project—that the novel idea you’re losing a grip on is actually a short story, for instance—which may rescue it. Saving them for a later date is often the only thing you can do, and come back to them later—and by that she means sometimes years later—when any reservations surrounding them have had time to disperse. Instead, look round for something fresh. If your creative mind is working so hard on reasons to reject the current crop, the chances are it will soon produce something that works here and now.

 

 

You can’t make progress even though you have an outline

This always happens when I’m in the middle of a novel. I’ve carefully worked out my outline beforehand, but there will always be sticky bits, and they’re usually where things have got a little vague. I tend to think of working from an outline as like driving along a road at night. Your headlights are on and you can see the road immediately in front of you in stark detail, but beyond that things are hazier. You know ultimately where the road leads, but that doesn’t mean a deer isn’t going to leap into your path, or an oncoming driver will career into your lane and you have to be prepared to react to that. If I’m trying to shove a story forwards and it won’t go, there’s usually a good reason. The best bits—to my mind at least—are the ones that arrived easily and fast.
 
CJA points out there could be a couple of reasons for getting stuck in this way. Either your outline has a major flaw and you won’t admit it, or there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with your outline, but you just can’t see a way of getting from one high-point to the next. In either case, she suggests going off on a bit of a tangent and seeing what happens.
 

 

You have no idea what happens next

This can quite often happen if the night before I didn’t stop writing until my forehead kept nudging the space bar. The next morning I’ll open up the document and discover that not only have I stopped in mid-sentence—occasionally in mid-word—but I have no idea where I was going with it. Sometimes the bulk of the previous paragraph makes very little sense either, but that’s another thing altogether. This is why I try never to end the day’s work at the end of a scene or chapter, so I do know what’s supposed to happen next when I pick up the thread again, and I re-read the previous day’s scribblings as well to get me back up to speed. CJA suggests, if you’re really stuck, to have something unexpected happen. To have Huck and Jim take a wrong turn on the river and get lost, or to drop a grand piano on someone. Or, as Chandler would say, to have a man walk into the room with a gun.
 


You think your story took a wrong turn waaay back, but it’s only finally come to a head now

This is terrible. I mark progress on a book by the cumulative total of words and having to throw away some of those words because you’ve wandered down a literary cul-de-sac just throws the whole project out of whack. To quote some old phrase: there’s no harm in turning back if you’re on the wrong road. That’s not to say it doesn’t hurt, but don’t throw any of that excised chunk away. The chances are it might come in handy for something else further down the line. You just might not be absolutely sure what that is yet. CJA suggests that you miss a section and carry on from the point you feel you should have been at, had you not decided to deviate in the first place, leaving the missing part to be filled in later. As someone who frequently writes out of sequence—many’s the epilogue I’ve written before the rest of the book—this would work for me.

 

You’re bored with the characters

Here CJA and I deviate because she suggests that perhaps this is because you haven’t worked out who your main protagonist is yet, and you’ve been concentrating on someone who’s a minor character. CJA’s advice is that sometimes you have to find the knife before you can twist it, and therefore writing a dozen pages or so of nothing-much-happening will help you get inside the world you’re creating and possibly also discover whose voice grabs you hard enough to make it obvious they should be the main character rather than a bit-part player. 
 
When I was writing only the Charlie Fox series, I was never in any doubt who was the main protagonist. But since then I’ve written more third-person, multiple-viewpoint narratives. The latest Blake & Byron books focus on two main characters, but with various scenes from other viewpoints. These characters are important to that particular story, but who may (or may not) reappear in the next book.
 
The best advice I ever received on this front was to make everybody count. Imagine Hollywood is turning your book into a movie, and a bit-part actor has just been cast in only one short scene, in which he/she is questioned by your hero/she-ro. I want that actor to be delighted with the part, rather than reading glumly through their lines and thinking, ‘ah well, it pays the rent…’
 
The scenes I’ve just been working on are a case in point. My detective, Byron, needs to question a possible witness at a motorway service station. The witness turns out to be a female truck driver from Glasgow, who is a reformed drug addict and spends her downtime reading Dostoevsky. What’s not to like?

 

You keep imagining all the reasons why people are going to hate your work

CJA describes this as your Inner Critic—you can’t make choices because you keep imagining how someone on goodreads or Amazon will tear you apart for it later. The Inner Critic, she says, has its place during revision, but during the first draft stage is better drowned out with some Finnish death metal. I’d agree with this, but at the same time I tend to self-edit as I go along, and therefore I don’t rush a first draft onto the page with the thought that I can correct any problems at the second/third/fourth draft phase. But, this is just me. I know everyone writes in their own way and therefore I do give sneaky house room to my Inner Critic during the first draft. I just try not to let it paralyse me to the point where I can’t get anything down. Reading over and over what I’ve written previously, trying to refine and improve it, always helps.

 

 

The Difficult Third Quarter

Here I’m deviating completely from CJA’s list to add a few of my own. The Difficult Third Quarter—DTQ—is one of my constant bugbears when I write. The first quarter of the novel I’m racing into the story, introducing the players and asking more questions of the reader than I’m answering. The second quarter is for some answers, followed by more questions and a few red herrings. But the DTQ is when you have to start pulling the threads together. Pull them too tight, too soon and the ending falls flat. Don’t pull them tight enough and you’ll be left with too much explanation to do in the final chapter. Unless you write the kind of books where the detective settles everyone down in the drawing room for the big reveal, this is something to avoid.

 


 

So, my question this week is do you suffer from writer’s block and if so what do you do to combat it?


 

This week’s Word of the Week is carking, meaning anxiety, worry, a burden on the mind or spirit. It comes from the Anglo-French karke, from the Old North French carche, charge—a variant of load, burden, imposition.