Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Just finished reading a popular science book about poisons--and it brought home to me how important it is for writers to read books outside their normal areas of interest. I'm not sure this book qualifies for me since I write mysteries and have long held an interest in forensics, but anyway, I enjoyed it immensely. 

The book was called:  "Molecules of Murder" and was classed as a popular science book.  I have to say, it was very popular in my household.  My biologist husband stole it from me the minute it came in the door. I finally had to fight him for it.  When I got my hands on it, it proved worth the trouble. So worth it that I'm searching out other books by the author: John Emsley.

 Emsley has a warm, chatty style of writing and an approach that makes even chemistry—which can often be very dull—fascinating. And as with so many British writers, he has a understated humor that hits the mark, e.g. "…she poisoned her father with a white powder sent by her lover, Lieutenant William Cranstoun, who assured her it would end her father's objection to their marriage. It did—it killed him."

 You have to love a science book written like that. Emsley is popular, and no wonder. I wish some U.S. scientists would realize you don't have to be dull and humorless to write about science. In fact, I believe that the cold, somber style of most science papers written in the U.S. is directly responsible for the decline in science students. It was certainly one factor that killed my career in the sciences. That and being told that science papers were not supposed to be funny. Or amusing.

 I guess only deadly dull papers can be taken seriously.

 Anyway, I'd rather read a British science article any day, since most of them have a much more accessible, warmer style and wry humor even while covering exactly the same subject with the same accuracy.

 Americans take themselves way, way too seriously.  Science should be fun, not BORING, and so should the articles (in so far as it is possible).  I'm not suggesting they be filled with a joke a minute, I'm just suggesting that we need to take ourselves a little less seriously and one or two minor, wry comments doesn't mean the information in the paper is any less accurate or real.

 But I digress.

 The point is, if you are a writer, expanding your horizons to other fields of endeavor can only make you a better writer.  If you are at all interested in science or the application of chemistry to forensics, check out that book (and note--I don't know Emsley and never heard of him before, and he's not paying me to write this--although if he reads it--any small gift he sees fit to send me would be much appreciated.)

 "Molecules of Murder" is therefore highly recommended, particularly for anyone with the following interests:



Students of Chemistry/Forensics

Folks interested in or involved in Forensics


Law Enforcement (I particularly think folks involved in law enforcement would love this book to get a better handle on, or at least introduction to, the chemistry of poison in a very accessible way.)

 Nitty-Gritty Review

For those who want a little more info...I'd preface the following with the background info that I have always loved science and forensics, so keep that in mind.  But if you love shows like CSI, you may find this book fascinating. "Molecules of Murder" actually gives you the science behind the poisons. In the introduction, Emsley presents you with a brief look at the history of chemical analysis and its application in solving murders throughout history.

 The good news for Modern Society is that it appears poisoning's "heyday" is pretty much over. It's on the decline as a favorite murder weapon, and that's excellent news if you're in the law enforcement line.

 The book is divided up into chapters relating to different poisons, e.g. Chapter 5 "Adrenaline and the Near-Perfect Murders of Kristen Gilbert". The poisons discussed include: Ricin, Hyoscine, Atropine, Diamorphine, Adrenaline, Chloroform, Carbon Monoxide, Cynanide, Paraquat, and Polonium.

 In each chapter, there is a brief introduction of a historical (or recent) case of the use of a poison, followed by these sections: toxicology and chemistry; historical uses; production and application; the effects of poisoning; detection and identification; positive factors; examples of poison attacks; and then a specific case where the poison was used in murder.

 While that may sound dry and perhaps daunting, it is incredibly accessible because Emsley makes heavy use of anecdotes and examples from history, recent events and even literature. The broad range of examples is part of what makes this book so entertaining. For Rican, he goes into the details of the murder of Soviet dissident George Markov in 1978. The USSR Secret Service agent actually used an umbrella to deliver the poison to Markov and frankly, for the fascinating details, read the book. It's nothing short of unbelievable and would make a great fiction story although I doubt any editor would find it believable enough to buy it.

 Part of the interest of "Molecules of Murder" is th heavy use of short anecdotes. The sections are actually written almost as murder mysteries like Columbo—where you may know who the killer is, but the intrigue comes from how he or she was exposed and the poison identified.

 I learned so much from this book and was completely enthralled.


And I totally plan to use it when writing my next murder mystery.


Sweet Dreams!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Random Thoughts on Writing

Just finished reading a crime novel that I enjoyed, but made me think about how easy it is to read a book, internalize it, and then duplicate elements in it without realizing it.  Or at least I'm assuming that's what happened with this author.  It was really the most bizarre thing.

Background:  I'm a huge fan of Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries.  I actually like the books more for the development of the main character than the mysteries (which are rather thin).  Rutledge suffered severe post-traumatic stress during WWI and is fighting to be normal, hold down a job, and basically live a life within post-war British society.  The glimpses of society during this period--when everyone is trying to adjust--and the difficulties Rutledge faces just getting along (much less investigating murders) is fascinating.  I just can't get enough of them.

And Rutledge's biggest challenge is to appear sane when he hears the voice of a dead Scotsman in his head.  It's done brilliantly and you feel so anxious for Rutledge in his efforts to control his fragile mental condition.  And part of the brilliance is the development of the voice into what amounts to a second character, a Scotsman who died during WWI, due to Rutledge.  It is heart-wrenching.

So.  Enough background.

I read this new book--well, I won't provide a lot of info about it because I really don't want to criticize the book or embarrass anyone.  In fact, other then what I'm going to describe below, the book was one of those "I can't put this down" stories and I doubt anyone else would notice or have this same issue with it.

Anyway, at the chapter 7 mark, all of a sudden, the main character is hearing a voice in his head.  Seems it is a reaction to WWII stress.  A reaction he never displayed up until that point.  And it's not like some horrible thing happened to trigger this, either, during the first 6 chapters.

Seems like the character should have displayed this issue from page one instead of waiting that far into the book and springing it on the reader after you think you know him.  Particularly something as important as schizophrenia (or whatever mental illness it is that makes you hear voices in your head).  That seems like a major thing that the character ought to be experiencing from the beginning.  He shouldn't seem normal and then half-way through the book suddenly become schizophrenic.  Unless he forgot his meds.

And he doesn't seem particularly disturbed by this sudden mental degeneration either.  Nor does he seem to struggle with it--and with the effort to appear normal--the way Rutledge does.  At least not for the next few chapters, anyway.

I'm okay, you're okay.  He certainly seems okay with the whole voice thing.

Here's the oddest part.  The voice in this guy's head is...yes, that's right.  Scottish.


I had not realized that if you suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on by a wartime situation, and you hear a voice in your head, that voice will be Scottish.

Learn something new every day.

But what did I gain from this as far as writing goes?

It may not have been a mistake on the author's part.  Maybe she never read the stories by Charles Todd and it is just a coincidence.  Maybe no one else noticed that the main character didn't have this trait until chapter 7.  Maybe no other readers will find it at all odd, or peculiar, and I'm making a mountain out of a molehill.

All these things could very well be true.

But it did bug me.  So I concluded:

1)  Don't suddenly veer off into left field and inflict new personality traits on your characters half-way through the story.  If they are going to be weird, make them weird from the start.

2)  Don't use specific, peculiar character traits that are MAJOR traits of characters in series written by other authors.  (Note to myself:  No matter how much you like Adrian Monk, do NOT make a detective in any story you write an obsessive, anal-retentive, mental case.  Even if you want to.)

3)  Be careful about absorbing things from other writers and grafting them deliberately, or inadvertently, into your work.  It looks...peculiar.  (See above.)

I may be a little too hard on that author, but it is something that I want to watch out for in my own writing.  It's so seductive and easy to slip up.  And imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's also a form of plagiarism in my eyes, even if it is technically--not.

But most of all, the most egregious part of this was that the author took a perfectly fine, sympathetic character and grafted something unnecessary and unnatural and just plain weird onto him.  I can only imagine she wanted the hero to be more vulnerable and therefore more sympathetic.  But the reader already liked and was rooting for the hero.  There was no need to "work up more sympathy" for him.

Leave well enough alone, already!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Writing as a Career

Writing is such a strange career: I almost never meet writers who are "comfortable" with where they are.  In my day job, I'm a computer specialist, specifically an Enterprise Administrators managing over 550 domain controllers in 370 sites nation-wide.  And while everyone wants more money, folks are pretty happy with "where they are".  I know that back when I decided writing was a dream job (emphasis on dream) that had little to do with reality, being an Enterprise Administrator was my ultimate goal.

So naturally, having reached that goal, I no longer want it.  Story of my life.  Anyway, I mentioned this computer stuff not to make your eyes glaze over but as a point of comparison.  Because writing, in a lot of ways, is never what you expect, and your goals have a way of morphing into something completely unexpected and nerve-wracking.

When you start out, you just want to write.  You might never care if you get published, the writing is enough.  That's sort of a misty, happy-crappy initial stage.  For some writers, there is no desire or need to progress.  Sigh.

They are the lucky ones.

But for a few, the idea of getting published takes root.  Then really weird things start happening.  Just like the acting world, I've seen the development of "strata" of writers. 

And note, having an agent will make some of the upper strata easier or more possible, but in no way guarantees the writer will ever make it from one strata to the next.  Even having multiple agents doesn't always help.

Night-Writers:  This is the first strata.  They are the equivalent of those actors and actresses who get occasional "gigs" at community theatre or perhaps even a paid, local production.  For writers, this means you have squeaked through the door to publication by smaller publishers, e.g. e-publishers.  You get royalties, but there is no way to live on the money because you may make $50-$300 per book and it may take 6-months to write a book (or a year, in my case).  Hence the term, night-writer.  You have to keep that day job, just like all those wait-folks working in restaurants determined to someday get their big break.

The advantages, however, are that you don't necessarily have to conform to what is popular in fiction.  Publishers are more willing to take a chance on you, since they don't have to pay you an advance up-front.  You can work at your own pace.  You have creative freedom.

The disadvantages are fairly obvious.  You aren't making enough to even receive minimum wage for the time you spent writing your book.  You're responsible for all your own advertising and promotion, which is typically more money out of your pocket and may actually require you to spend money earned at your day job.  Most likely, you won't be able to walk into a bookstore and find your book: they are typically sold via Internet sources, even if your e-book is sold as a paperback.  Not a bad thing, just an ego note.

The Commercials:  So now, the writer has made it to a level that actually pays advances.  These are still smaller publishers, but they do pay advances ranging from $500 to $1000.  Just like actors in commercials--you can earn money, and it's fairly nice money, but not enough to live on.  Unless you can write really, really fast.  Again, if it takes you about 6 months to write a novel (I take about 6 months to a year, or longer) then you may make $2,000.  Still not enough to live on.  At least for me.

The advantages, though, are that you may actually find your book in a few bookstores (ego boost!).  The publisher may do some (small amount) of promotion and may already have some distribution channels which will help you.  They also, typically, don't lock you into a multi-book contract with outrageous deadlines, so you still have some scheduling freedom.  And you may retain fairly good creative freedom, but...maybe not.

Publishers in this range tend to have stricter guidelines about length and types of stories they will publish.  But they will accept manuscripts from writers without agents, so that is a huge plus for some writers who have difficulties finding (or working with) an agent.

The Soaps:  Yeah!  Okay, so you're not a glamourous writer lounging around with a chef, gardener, housekeeper, and two or three hangers-on.  But you have the chance now to actually make a living if you don't mind earning slightly less than those on welfare.  Seriously, many writers consider this "mid-list" or at least a living wage, but if you quit your job, it's best if you're married to someone who is working.

You get multi-book contracts, e.g. a three-book contract.  Just like a soap actor, you have a little job security (unless the soap actor pisses off someone and gets written out of the story).  You get an advance somewhere in the range of $3,000 to $25,000. 

The publisher does a little more in the way of promotion, plus they have distribution channels, so you'll actually find your book in a bookstore.

This is the stage all non-published writers who want to be published aspire to (unless they're totally starry-eyed and think they'll leap right to movie star).  They (often naively) think if they just reach this stage, they'll be all set.  For some, this may be true.

But you know, some folks are just never happy and writers seem to be more angst-ridden than almost any other group of people I've ever meet.  Because so many are at this stage and completely fraught with performance anxiety and other woes.  Which is actually understandable, given the fact that writers when they reach this stage, often (foolishly) give up their day jobs, thinking they have it made.  Or because they have to in order to keep up with the writing schedule imposed upon them by their publisher.

This is where it really does get to be like the soaps.  Because mid-list writers are like actors, slightly nicked by a knife and then thrown into an ocean of sharks and told to pretend to be terrified.  The camera is rolling.  They could be "written out" at any moment and be swallowed up again into relative obscurity. 

The advantages are that you're finally able to--possibly--make a living.  The disadvantages however, really start to be noticeable, just like those sharks.  You now have to meet a schedule imposed by your publisher.  This can be a huge problem for folks who take a little longer to write and polish a book. 

There is no guarantee of a follow-on contract.  Each contract is a separate negotiation and future contracts may depend *gulp* upon how well your previous books sold.  This means that pretty much each book needs to be better than the last.  Not as easy as it sounds.  Your muse needs to buckle down and write every day, regardless of physical or emotional trauma.  And having a multi-book contract does not mean they will automatically accept your second or third book.  They may decide it doesn't work for them and that's the end of the contract.

Or, you can wake up to find whatever genre you wrote is no longer selling and no publishers will even talk to you.  Your agent may give you a nice kiss on the cheek, a pat on the head, and a goodbye forever (except to get those royalty checks on past sales).

Talk about performance anxiety.  You have to fight for every scrap.

The Movie Stars: We all know these folks.  As a writer, you can become a movie star with your first book, a la Allison Brennan, or you can work your way up like Jennifer Crusie.  Regardless, at this level, you have an agent.  You have no other job.  Your mere name brings dollar signs to the eyes of agents and publishers.

At least for a while.

If you think all worries are over at this point, you are sadly mistaken.  One bad book can be forgiven.  Two bad books...maybe forgiven.  But three? Hmmm.  Four?  Well, sweetie.  There are always the soaps.  Or commercials.

In fact, nothing is certain at any stage, except:

 *  What you write tomorrow must be better than what you wrote today.

*  You'll never be completely free of neurosis.

*  You'll never know if/when you'll get that next contract.

But you know what?  While writing may make eventually me crazy, if I don't write, I am crazy.