Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Monday, February 27, 2012

An Interview with Anna Maclean

I'm very pleased to have Anna Maclean with us today as a stop along her virtual book tour. She writes historical cozy mysteries, which is right up my (and I hope your) alley.
Please be sure to leave a comment as Anna is giving away a wonderful gift basket to a randomly drawn commenter and you don't want to miss out!
Why did you decide to write?
    I don’t think I ever decided.  It was just always there.  I love stories and I began telling stories to myself in the form of daydreams when I was very young, and as soon as I could hold a pencil I began writing those stories down.  Of course I loved Little Women as a girl, and when the opportunity came to write mysteries using Louisa May Alcott as an amateur sleuth I jumped at the chance! 
How much research do you do?
    Usually, quite a bit.  Libraries are my favorite place to be, and there are great libraries in my town, so I can go in for the day and kind of camp out in the aisles and at the worktables.  I can’t think of a happier, more exciting place to be than a good library. Wait.  I forgot.  A cafĂ© table in Paris is pretty good, too. 
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when you were doing your research?
            For Louisa and the Crystal Gazer, I researched 19th century spiritualism and found great, great materials, including one dusty old volume that described how to make spirit paintings (using paint that was invisible when dry) and how to make trumpets fall out of the ceiling.  Can’t wait to have my next dinner party and really camp it up with ectoplasm! 
What’s your favorite method for researching?
            Reading journals and diaries.  Louisa kept some great journals! 
Do you have a favorite theme or message for your readers?
            My favorite message: life is wonderful, life is a mystery, and never, ever let anyone stop you from exploring as much of the mystery as possible. 
When do you write/what is your writing day like?
            I like to write first thing in the morning, before I’ve had to clean up after the cats, pay bills, plan dinner, take care of day job things (I also teach.)  There’s a wonderful moment when I first wake up, when something jolts my imagination out of the blue, literally, and it takes me to a new place in the work.  That doesn’t happen any other time of day, for me. 
What is the best advice someone has given you about writing? The worst advice?
            The best advice I ever got, and I got it early, thankfully,  was never to read or think about how hard it is to get published.  Just write, and hope for the best. Writing is a dive off the really high board, and while it requires skill and willpower, it also requires a certain recklessness.  The worst advice I ever had?  I can’t remember it, so obviously I didn’t take it!  
How do you approach a new book? Outlines? Just an idea?
            I can’t stand outlines.  I’m very methodical in some ways – I have to have a tidy desk and a few rituals: coffee on one side, a little Buddha on the other side of the keyboard – but when it comes to ideas and working on a book, a certain chaos is very productive.  Again, it’s that dive off the high board.  At some point, though, usually at the 2nd or 3rd draft, I do make an outline of what I have and see if the plotting is making sense, and where the holes and problems are. 
Who are your favorite authors? Have any authors inspired you or influenced your work?
            Oh, so many.  Daphne du Maurier,  Anya Seton,  Mary Lee Settle, Ann Patchett, Ian McKewan, Roman Gary…I read hundreds of books a year and this has been going on for a while, so do the math.  But what all the authors have in common: they tell a great story, and do it with great skill, sometimes even a touch of genius.  And their work has great humanity, it makes you fall even more in life with the world and people, not less.
 What makes a great book in your opinion?
            See the above! 
Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?
            Don’t let anything stop you. Write the book you want to read, write it to the best of your ability. 
Where do you see yourself as an author in five years?
            At my desk in the early morning, with a cup of coffee on one side of the keyboard and a little Budda on the other side, puzzling out a character and a plot. 
Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next few years and where do you see yourself within this industry?
            This is where I’m supposed to hold my head and moan, right?  Admittedly, It is frightening what is going on.  Sales are down, little bookstores are being swallowed by sharks.  It’s hard to find good news.  However, that said,  in a way I see us going back to more of a 19th century style of publishing, where people write what feels important to them and then they find a way of getting their work into book form, even if it means paying the printer yourself…as long as you get the work into the hands of readers, perhaps on a smaller scale than we had in the last 100 years of mass publication.  And this could be a good thing, could be a great thing.  Technology also means that essentially anyone who wants to publish, can. There may not be a whole lot of money, but that’s always been the case.  And sometimes there is a whole lot of money.  But I’ve always told new writers that if what they really care about is getting rich they should just play the lottery.  If you care about getting your work out there – this can be done.
As for technology replacing books, I just can’t see that happening. Books, when you think about it, are already a perfect technology: portable, easy to read and no problems with downloading and saving! 
Brief Bio 
Anna Maclean is the mystery nom de plume for Jeanne Mackin, the author of several novels:  The Sweet By and By (St. Martin’s Press), Dreams of Empire (Kensington Books), The Queen’s War (St. Martin’s Press), and The Frenchwoman (St. Martin’s Press).   She has published short fiction and creative nonfiction in several journals and periodicals including  American Letters and Commentary and SNReview. She is also the author of the Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers (Cornell University publications)  and co-editor of  The Norton Book of Love (W.W. Norton).  She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and her journalism has won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, in Washington, D.C.  
 “Louisa May Alcott makes a wonderful narrator, whether observing the foibles of those around her or addressing the reader with gentle humor…Fans of historical mysteries will find much to enjoy here.”                                     The Romance Readers Connection
 “Macleans latest cozy is entertaining and has a fascinating mystery and a healthy dose of humor.  The author’s attention to historical detail adds realism and depth to this page-turner.”                                    Romantic Times

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review of The New Death and Others

The New Death and Others
By James Hutchings

Let me start by saying that I loved this book, but it’s hard to describe exactly what it is because it doesn’t really fit neatly into your standard fiction genres. But please, don’t let that dissuade you from checking it out. I’m mortally afraid that I’ll turn potential readers off by reviewing it and my poor attempts at trying to describe exactly what it is. But imagine, if you will, that Saki (H. H. Munro) didn’t die in WWI and decided to rewrite Ovid’s Metamorphosis and a few Lovecraftian short stories. Many of the stories and poems in this collection had Saki’s sly, often acerbic and dark, wit and a definite mythological/phantasmagorical slant. The book is a fascinating collection of short stories, poems, and tiny vignettes, each small fantasy ending with a Saki-esque twist. There is, quite literally, something for everyone, as long as you have a rather mordant and morbid sense of humor.

The author describes it as dark fantasy and it is that. There is definitely a Greek myth feeing to the stories, but they tend to be much more amusing that the typical myths. And it isn’t all fantasy. Or rather, I guess it is, but my favorite story in the collection was The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist that literally had me laughing out loud. I was reading it in bed and my husband thought I had lost my mind. When I picked up the book the next night to continue, he looked at me, sighed, and said, “You’re not reading that again, are you?” I was clearly disturbing his fifth reading of one of his books on the Civil War. Or else he was aggravated that he wasn’t having as much fun reading his book as I was reading this one. Get over it.

Anyway, The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist was a new Sherlock Holmes-type story, except a lot more fun, complete with murder and a brilliant consulting detective. Just to give you a taste, there is one point in the story where one of the characters is described as the sort who makes large contributions to the RSPCA. Then there was a footnote defining the RSPCA as The Royal Society for the Practice of Cruelty to Atheists. That footnote induced one of the moments that disturbed my husband so much: I broke out laughing. Okay, maybe you had to be there, though I’m glad you weren’t because our bed isn’t quite that large.

So there were stories like The Adventure of the Murdered Philanthropist (I would have bought the book just to get that story—it was that good) which continues the Sherlock Holmes tradition; Under the Pyramids, based on an H.P. Lovecraft story; The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, based on a story by Robert E. Howard; The Garden of Adompha, based on a story by Clark Ashton Smith; and many, many others.
As I said, there is quite literally, something for everyone who has a sense of humor. It is difficult to convey just how much I enjoyed the various stories. I’m not much for poetry, but I did enjoy a few pieces just because of the wry humor.

I loved this book. I just wish I could convey a better feel for this collection. If you enjoyed stories like Saki’s The Open Door or The Great God Pan, then you will adore The New Death and Others. I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a try.

Just don’t read it in a setting where they’re likely to call the men with the long-sleeved, white jackets if you start laughing insanely in public.

Where can you get it?
The New Death and Others is available for the Kindle at: 

Happy Reading!

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Creative Commons

The following is a fascinating article by author James Hutchings. I was pleased when he contacted me because this topic is something that I've seen discussed within a lot of writer discussion groups. It's the topic of licensing, giving work away for free, and other related concepts. The topic interests me greatly. Whether you agree or disagree, I hope it interests you, too.

Creative Commons
James Hutchings

Many writers, whether published or just starting out, are very nervous that someone else will steal their work, whether that be another writer using their ideas in their own stories, or someone making pirated copies of their books. When I put out a collection of my writing, I specifically gave permission for anyone at all to copy my ideas, or even to cut and paste whole stories. I also contacted the Pirate Party, a worldwide network that wants to lessen copyright, and told them that I was giving anyone permission to put my ebook on file-sharing sites. In this post I hope to show why I went against common wisdom.

Creative Commons
I used a free service called Creative Commons. Creative Commons is useful for people who want to give the general public permission to use their work, but with restrictions. In my case, I didn't mind people using my work for non-profit purposes, such as posting on a blog, but I didn't want to allow anyone to make money off it. Similarly I wanted anyone who used it to give me credit. I could have just listed these things myself. However I'm not a lawyer, and perhaps I would have worded it wrong so that someone could twist what I said to do more than I meant. Also I could have been unclear about what I was allowing and what I wasn't allowing. Sure, someone could email me and ask, but the whole purpose of having a written statement is so that people don't have to ask.

Creative Commons has a series of different licenses, which give permission to do different things. They're all legally 'tight', and they're all summarized in plain language. So all you have to do is go to their site and answer a series of questions, to get to the license that does what you want. In my case I used the Attribution Non-Commercial License.

That's what I did. But why? Common sense would suggest that I'm giving something away for free that I could be selling. However I believe that, in the long run, I'll be better off. The main reason is that I've seen how many people are, like me, trying to get their writing out there. Go to Smashwords and have a look at the latest ebooks. Then refresh the page ten minutes later, and you'll probably see a whole new lot. The problem that new writers face isn't that people want to steal your work; it's getting anyone to show an interest in your work at all. If someone passes on a pirated copy of my work, it might get to someone who's prepared to buy it - and that someone would probably have never heard of me otherwise. Even if they don't want to pay for what they read, I might come out with something else in the future, and perhaps paying 99c for it will be easier than hunting it down on a file-sharing site.

Science fiction writer Andrew Burt tells the story of someone who disliked his book, and to get back at him decided to put a copy on a file-sharing site. The effect was that he got a small 'spike' in sales immediately afterwards.

I also have some less selfish motives. Many people would assume that the purpose of copyright is to protect authors and creators. Leaving aside the fact that someone else often ends up with the rights (how many Disney shareholders created any of the Disney characters? How many shareholders in Microsoft have ever written a line of code?), that doesn't seem to have been the intention in the past. The US Constitution says that Congress has the power "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." Note that protecting 'intellectual property' isn't mentioned. The authors of the Constitution seemed to see the point as getting ideas out there where people can use them: almost the exact opposite of keeping them 'safe' and 'protected'.

The original idea of copyright seems to have been a sort of deal: you have an idea, and we want you to get it out into the world where it will do some good. To encourage you to do that, we'll give you a monopoly on its use for a limited time. After that, anybody can use it (it will enter the 'public domain').

A lot of people don't know that copyright used to give a lot less protection than it does now, especially in the United States. In the US, it used to be that works were copyrighted for a maximum of 56 years. Today copyright in the US can last for over 100 years. In fact, Congress keeps extending the time. In practice, they're acting as if they never want ideas to go into the public domain.

This is great for the owners of 'intellectual property'. But it's hard to see how this "promotes the Progress of Science and useful Arts," or how forever is a "limited time." In a sense it's a theft from the public. Anyone who publishes work has accepted the deal that the law offers, of a limited monopoly in return for making their idea known. Congress has been giving them more and more extensions on that monopoly, but doesn't require them to do anything to earn it.

It probably doesn't matter that much that Disney still owns Mickey Mouse, or that Lord of the Rings is still under copyright. But remember that these laws don't just apply to the arts. Similar laws apply to science as well. So a life-saving invention could be going unused, because its owner wants too much money for it, or because it's tied up in court while two companies fight about who owns it.

I'm far from an expert on either the law or the publishing industry. However I hope that I've given you, especially those of you who might be thinking about publishing some writing, a different take on the whole issue of whether authors should worry about their ideas being stolen. At least I hope I've shown you that there's a different way of thinking about it, and that that way doesn't require you to just give up on making money; in fact that it might be more profitable as well as better for society.

James Hutchings lives in Melbourne, Australia. He fights crime as Poetic Justice, but his day job is acting. You might know him by his stage-name 'Brad Pitt.' He specializes in short fantasy fiction. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, fiction365 and Enchanted Conversation among other markets. His ebook collection The New Death and others is now available from Amazon, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. He blogs daily at Teleleli.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License.
* * * * *

I hope folks reading this will leave their comments. I know that I've spent a lot of time (mostly hurting my brain) considering the ramifications of copyrights and public domain. Do we ever really own an idea? Can we own an idea?  If you look at the history of invention, you'll discover that when the time is right, it seems like several different people will come up with similar ideas, simultaneously, though they may come at it from different angles. And all they really patent is their approach, not the idea itself.

Several authors I know firmly believe that no work ought to be copyrighted or be sold for money. It ought to all be freely given away. While I understant this sentiment, I then wonder, how would professional writers live if they gave away their product for free? It is, I'm afraid, too Utopian to be pratical (at least from my perspective) and I believe in free competition. If you get the same idea for a book as I get and you write it, your book will be completely different than mine. And both should earn what folks are willing to pay for it.

At least that's what I think at this moment. But I'm always open to new discussions, arguments, and routinely change my mind as folks point out different factors to me. I don't know if that means I have a mind that is a little too open or I'm just weak-minded.

You decide. And let us know.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Guest Author: Chris Redding

Mystery author Chris Redding agreed to let me interview her, and we're lucky to have her here. One of the things that is so frequently overlooked when talking about writing is the preparation work. Wej all have this fantasy that writers just sit down and...write. But months, if not years, of research go into every book to try to make it as accurate as possible. Chris is no exception as she mentions in this interview.

Chris Redding

Why did you decide to write?
I can’t not write. If I don’t write down what’s in my head, I can’t focus on anything else. My brain gets too cluttered.

How much research do you do?
This really depends on what I’m writing about. For A View to a Kilt, I actually spent a lot of time talking to a Philadelphia Detective. He taught me so much about investigating crimes. For Incendiary, not as much. My husband has been a volunteer firefighter for many years so I could pick his brain for that part of it. I was on a first aid squad for many years, so I already knew that part of it. For the novella I’m writing now I need to research what happens when a company goes public. It’s something I know nothing about so I will spend more time because there is a learning curve.

When do you write/what is your writing day like?
I write in the morning when I am writing new stuff. It’s when my brain is at it’s best. If I am revising, then I can do that anytime. I have to fit writing in between kids, husband, part time job and the morning, after everyone leaves, is the best time.

What is the best advice someone has given you about writing? The worst advice?
The best advice was to keep at it. The worst was to try to break into Category Romance first. I don’t write like category writers. Nothing wrong with them. Love a good Harlequin a couple of times a year, but that’s not my style. My plots tend to be more intricate.

How do you approach a new book? Outlines? Just an idea?
What if? It’s the first question I ask my self. Then I map out the goal motivation and conflict of the main characters. Then I careen down the hill like Bode Miller, hoping I get to the bottom in one piece. Can you tell I’m a pantser?

What makes a great book in your opinion?
It needs to resonate with the reader. I can’t tell you how it should, but that the reader needs to be able to identify with at least one of the characters. It also needs to have a beginning, middle, and end with character growth.

Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?
Learn everything you can and keep it at it.

Where do you see yourself as an author in five years?
I see myself making enough money to quit the day job and to pay someone else to clean my house.
Where do you see the publishing industry going in the next few years and where do you see yourself within this industry?
I am not one of those people who can predict things. What I’d like to see happen is more and more of the money going to authors. There is no reason that we shouldn’t be able to make a decent living from writing. Look at surgeons. They get paid a lot of money because not everyone can be a surgeon. Not everyone can be a good writer. Some people have the desire, but are not willing to put in the work. However we get there, we should be paid for what we do.

Brief Bio
Chris Redding lives in New Jersey with her husband, two kids, one dog and three rabbits. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. When she isn’t writing, she works part time for her local hospital.