Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ebooks bought, never read

By Steve Weddle

I tend to disagree with Dave White out of sheer reflex. I find it saves times if I’m not certain of my position on a given topic. So when Dave started arguing last week that 99-cent ebooks are great because they provide many new readers, my immediate response was to argue with him. Which turned out to be the right decision.

A few months ago, on Twitter, a few of us were trying to figure out what the ratio is for ebooks bought to  ebooks read and how that ratio varies depending on price. (I dislike the term “price point” because I think the word “point” in that usage is unnecessary.)

I have, as of this writing, 482 file in my Kindle archive. That does not count the books that people have sent me – ARCs, drafts, etc.

From discussing this with folks, the answer seems to be that the ratio of ebooks bought to ebooks bought and then read is much higher as the price of the book increases.

If you want to make your own graphs and charts, I’ll wait.

Let’s take the example of the couch on the curb.

My friends Alice and Jake were trying to get rid of a couch. They put it on the curb for the trash folks to pick up, but it was too big. After a week or so, Jake put a sign on the couch that said “For Sale: $50.” The couch was gone by morning. Here endeth the anecdote.

You put a price on something, you create perceived value.

I’ve been in sales and I can tell you, buyers want value more than they want cheap. Do you ever wonder why the TV commercials for mail-order junk finish by telling you to order now and you’ll get an extra set of Super Sonic Ear Pokers for just a dollar more? Because they’ve already shown you the value of the Ear Pokers. They’re $19.99. Heck, maybe the second set is free. (Just pay separate shipping and handling.)

They’ve created the perceived value.

If you saw Super Sonic Ear Pokers in a box outside the grocery story with a sign that said “Free,” how inclined would you be to try out a pair?

Let’s take a look at the argument Dave was making yesterday: “If a book is priced inexpensively, more people are going to buy it.”

Say we’re able to sell books in two parallel universes. Everything is equal, except on Earth One the debut novel Building Romance by Ima Noob is $14 on Kindle, while on Earth Two the same novel is 99 cents.

Will more people purchase the book on Earth One or Earth Two? My guess is that more people would purchase the book for 99 cents than for $14. Where I disagree with Dave’s argument is here: I think the percentage of people who bought the book and read the book will be greater on Earth One.

In the past month or two, I’ve purchased a couple dozen ebooks for 99 cents or free. I’ve purchased two ebooks for $14. I’ve read both of the $14 ebooks. I have read seven of the others.

For me, a 99-cent ebook is usually a purchase of impulse or support. Hey, my pal Ima Noob has  a new book out. It’s 99 cents. One-click that sucker. I’ll read it when I get around to it.

Of course, this isn’t how I purchase all the 99-centers. For example, Chris F. Holm’s 8 Pounds was a 99-cent purchase. As a new author on the Kindle, his idea was to grab new readers. And that’s exactly what happened. Soon enough, he inked a deal with Angry Robot for his next two novels.

And there are bytes and bytes of 99-centers I’ve bought and read right away—just not most of them.
The argument for the 99-cent price of an ebook is that an author is likely to attract more “casual readers” than if the book were priced at, say, $5.99.

If you want a casual reader, then maybe this is the way to go.

But go to WalMart tonight. Look at the big cardboard box of $4.99 DVDs in the middle of the aisle. People dig through there looking for a bargain, not a good movie.

Read the Amazon reviews of 99-cent books. “This one was only 99 cents, so I thought I’d try it. Totally worth it.”

As Dave said yesterday: “I know this because people who don't worry about following writers and just bought a Kindle come to me asking for suggestions for 99 cent authors.”

They’re looking for a bargain. They care about the purchase, not the read.

For many – not all, but many -- as soon as that click is done, so is their interest. What they wanted was a cheap book. They’ve gotten it.

Many of them won’t read it.

But let’s consider those who do read it – who picked up the book because it was cheap.

The addition question to ask is “What does that reader do next?”

Does that reader hunt down your $12.99 ebook and purchase it, sending you $10 in the process? Or does the reader who found your bargain book scroll through the “Customers who bought this item also bought this item” section for another “good deal”?

Let’s be clear here: I’ve read many, many fantastic authors through free or 99-cent ebooks. Edward Grainger. Chris Holm. Neil Smith. Al Guthrie. Dani Amore. Malachi Stone. Victor Gischler. Nigel Bird. Josh Stallings. Ray Banks. On and on and on. Even our own Dave White and Sandra Ruttan. John McFetridge. Far too many to name.

You want to sell your book for 99 cents or $14.99, what the hell do I care?

If you have six books in a series and want to price the first one at 99 cents to get folks interested, more power to you.

When you offer folks a bargain price for your ebook, you’ll get folks who are looking for bargains. Not all of these folks care about a good book.

But maybe some of them will find a 99-cent bargain, read it, fall in love, and buy up everything that author has.

And I understand the thought that giving away your work or charging an “impulse-buy” price for it means more people will download your book. I’m just not convinced that most of those people will then read it.

You want people to download your book, charge 99 cents.

If you want people to value your book, then write something amazing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Young Writers and Price Points

I annoyed Steve Weddle over the weekend saying that the idea that a reader is more likely to buy and not read a .99 cent book is false. I have bought plenty of books that were higher priced and never read them. It's the luck of the draw, I said.

And I stand by that.

People buy books for a bunch of reasons: the cover looks cool, the plot sounds great, someone recommended an author to them. After they buy that book, it's up to them whether or not they read it and when they decide to read it. I don't think price point plays into that as much as other reasons.

But I will say this... a cheaper price point helps a new writer. If a book is priced inexpensively, more people are going to buy it. If more people buy it, the odds are better that more people are going to read that book. If a book is priced at 17.99 on the Kindle for a first time author, fewer people are going to be willing to try out that book and that new author. Therefore, more readers.

As far as the 99 cent price point, writers like to complain that's lowering the price of art... or something to that effect. Readers don't care. Honestly, put yourself in a reader's point of view. A casual reader. Not someone who combs the blogs and Twitter follow their favorite writers. Just someone who picks up a few books a month on a whim.

Do you think they consider that the price of "art" is being degenegrated (or whatever the argument is)?


They care they get a good yarn. A good read.

I know this because people who don't worry about following writers and just bought a Kindle come to me asking for suggestions for 99 cent authors. They love trying someone new, because it's affordable.

Cheaper sells more. And if more people buy your book, the odds are more people will read your book.

Indie booksellers are starting to adopt to this too. They are selling ebooks at inexpensive prices... the e-pub generation--it's going to help a lot of writers get a bigger audience..

Monday, November 28, 2011

Voice vs Tone

During the discussion on tone last week, I read posts and kept quiet. I didn't always agree, but what I was looking for was the right way to illustrate the distinction between voice and tone.

I think Joelle summed it up brilliantly yesterday, and that means I don't have much to add. However, I did find something that illustrated the difference between voice and tone, to me, that I think may help some who are undecided about the distinction.

As I discussed last week, I was raised on country music. I still listen to a fair bit of country, and I like a lot of country songs.

I'm also aware that in order to succeed in country music - like almost anything - there's a need for a certain image. My awareness of this doesn't change the fact that it's taken me a long time to warm up to the band Sugarland.

The reason? Jennifer Nettles.

I don't want it to sound personal, but the reason had to do with feeling conflicted about the emphasized twang in her singing.

My first exposure to Jennifer Nettles that I recall was her duet with Bon Jovi.

I've heard her in interviews as well, and again, the southern twang is barely noticeable.

But with Sugarland? It's pretty obvious, and seems to be emphasized.

Don't get me wrong - there are some Sugarland songs I do like. But the inflection in her voice, as well as the overall emphasis of her songs with Sugarland vs other work emphasis the difference between voice and tone. Her voice is her voice. Tone is what she emphasizes with her voice depending on the type of work she's doing, or who's interviewing her.

I don't see tone and voice as the same thing. As Joelle, and Steve said: Voice is the writing style unique to the author. Tone is the color and attitude of those words.

I couldn't say it any better than that.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Fine Whine

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Ha! Okay, I technically don’t mean that kind of whine, but since I am the cleanup hitter on the tone discussion, the tone of this post might very well sound like I am whining. I mean you’ve already heard 6 incredibly articulate writers discuss their thoughts on tone. They’ve talked about attitude and about not being tone deaf. (Heck, Russell’s post even had footnotes!) How is a girl supposed to compete with that kind of brilliance? (See, I’m whining!)

I’ve only been writing for a short number of years, but in that time I’ve found that a lot of writers confuse voice and tone. Voice is the writing style unique to the author. Tone is the color and attitude of those words. (Yeah, I’m stealing Steve’s word. Sue me!) Think of it this way – tone is like wine. (The drinking stuff, not the petulant stomping around that I might have to do if this post doesn’t work out the way I intended.) You can pick up five different bottles of Pino Grigio at the store. They are all made with the same types of grapes. Kind of like noir mysteries are all part of the same genre. They have all been fermented in a similar manner just as all stories in the same genre have a formula that works best for the story telling. And yet they are have subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences. The tone is unique to each vintage just as the tone to each story is unique and appropriate for that story.

One wine might have a slightly more oak flavor. Another might have a tinge of sweetness. Another might have undertones of apple or pear. The tone changes the flavor of the wine. It changes the way the person drinking the wine enjoys it. Just as the tone of a story changes the way the reader feels about the characters and the story.

Here is an example of similar scenarios (discovering a dead body) that have two different tones even though they are written in the exact same voice–mine.

Everything was quiet as I walked through the door that led to the back of the theater. The houselights were dark, but the work lights illuminated the grand piano on the stage. The lid was up on the piano, making it hard to tell if someone was seated behind it.

I walked down the steps toward the stage. Sure enough. I could see feet. Someone was sitting at the piano. I climbed up the escape stairs, walked around the piano, and felt the world tilt on its axis.

A backstage door slammed and echoed in the theater. On a normal day, the sound might have made me jump. Only, my feet were rooted to the floor. Slouched over the piano, head resting on the keys, was North Shore High’s choir director, Greg Lucas. A microphone sat on the piano keys a few inches from Greg’s mouth. I doubted he’d be speaking into the microphone any time soon seeing as how the microphone’s cord was wrapped tightly around his throat. (From MURDER FOR CHOIR to be released July 3rd from Berkley Prime Crime)

And now for something completely different….

Michelle led Ricco down the hall to the stairway. There was a small elevator next to the stairwell, but Michelle started climbing steps instead of pushing the call button. Emily had no problem with it, but Michelle hated using the thing. It creaked and moaned as it inched along at an incredibly slow pace. Thank God Emily lived on the third floor. Three flights of stairs she could handle.

She saw Ricco eye the elevator, but he didn’t complain as he silently climbed the flights of stairs next to her. When they reached the third floor, she hurried down the dingy maroon carpeted hallway to Emily’s apartment, the last one on the left.
Five steps from the door, she gasped and her heart kicked hard against her chest. Years of working in the ER had honed her senses to recognize certain sounds and smells. This smell was the most familiar of all of them.


“Emily’s hurt.” Michelle raced to the door and turned the handle again and again. Locked. Every time but still she kept turning it. The smell of blood was stronger here. Tears burned the back of her eyes and her throat. She had to get to Emily. “Can you get us inside?”

Ricco shook his head. “Mrs. O’Donnell said she was getting her keys. We gotta wait for her. The cops wouldn’t want us to screw with the door or the lock. They’ll be evidence.”

She wanted to scream. He was so calm, so cool and unfeeling behind his sunglasses. He should know that evidence and pissing off the police were the last things she cared about. She was about to tell him that when she heard a ding down at the end of the hall. The elevator had arrived and with it a limping Mrs. O’Donnell and her keys.

“Sorry it took me a couple of minutes to get up here. Chester darted under my feet and I stubbed my toe on the end table. Hurts like hell, but I don’t think I broke anything. Emily isn’t answering the door?”

The last was more of a statement than a question, but Michelle shook her head anyway. “Something’s wrong inside. I...” How to explain that she could smell the blood before she saw it? That she knew there had to be a lot of it. She couldn’t and she prayed to God she was wrong. “Can you open the door so I can make sure she isn’t hurt? If she’s not home I can leave a note telling her to call me.”
Mrs. O’Donnell hurried over to the door while fumbling for her keys. “Make sure you tell her to stop by my place and so I can see her for myself. After what Mark did...” The door swung open and Mrs. O’Donnell gave a shriek before sagging against the doorframe.

The smell of blood hit Michelle square in the face as she ran through the doorway, through the tiny foyer, and into the living room where Emily lay sprawled on the floor. “Call 911,” she yelled as she knelt down on the sticky wet floor. Somewhere she must have registered seeing the streaks on the light blue walls, the beige Berber carpet and the white couches, but none of that seemed as important as helping Emily – although deep in her heart she knew there would be no help. There were knife wounds on her arms and chest along with dozens of abrasions and contusions. Her left leg was bent at an unnatural angle and her face… Michelle swallowed hard. Emily’s face was almost unrecognizable. Someone had beat her – badly. Nurses see the signs of death all the time, but sometimes there was a miracle. Not often, but sometimes. Michelle was desperate that this be one of those times. (From Inadvertent Witness which is waiting to be read by my fabulous agent who has received way too many books from me in the last year.)

The tone of the first is lighter. Kind of a sweet, almost bubbly flavor. The other is darker. Perhaps has more woodsy vibe. Both are the same type of grape. The same wine. And yet…because of the tone there is a world of difference.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tone: You Know It When You See It

Scott D. Parker

Like Russel yesterday, when tone came down as the subject of the week, I groaned inwardly. How the heck do you talk about tone? Remember that saying a congressman or judge once said about porn: that he'd know porn when he saw it but couldn't quite put forward a definition? That's how I see tone.

Tone is also a bit like your life's journey: you can only see the signposts from the perspective of age and wisdom. When you break-up with your first love, at the time, it's like the world is crashing down and everything else is meaningless. With time, you can see that the new trajectory your life took was infinitely better.

The same goes with tone. Like Jay and Russel wrote, one of the mechanical things you can do to evoke a particular tone is choosing certain words to fill your sentences and paragraphs. Certain authors have a particular tone. You can read one paragraph of Charles Dickens and you know the author's tone. The same is true for Chandler, Hammett, Burroughs, Chabon, or dozens of other writers. Some authors can even mimic a certain tone. In the afterward to his new Sherlock Holmes novel, The House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz mentioned that he kept a list of certain words that he used over and over again. He did such a good job with capturing the tone and feel of Doyle's language that I sometimes forgot that Doyle wasn't the author.

Yes, you can set out to create a certain tone and wordsmith your way to that desired end. Take, for example, most network TV crime dramas. Because of the structure and the language choice, many have a similar tone. Does that make them bad? No, but if you don't like that particular tone, you probably won't like the shows.

Word choice alone is only a means to an end. In some ways, it's something that' too mechanical. An author's tone emerges over time, over the thousands of words written. Tone might be the thing only readers can discover. Yes, it's true that tone can materialize in prose, but if you want to get a good sense of your own, personal tone, read your own non-fiction, including blogs entries and emails. I have speech-to-text software on my computers and one of the things the program does during setup is to analyze your writing. If only there was an option for tone I'd have the answer to what mine is.

I'll admit that I'm not too seasoned a writer of prose to know if I have a prose tone or not, but I can easily recognize my tone in emails, especially professional ones.

Can you recognize your own tone in your prose or non-fiction?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tones of Fun*

By Russel D McLean

I’m not sure how happy I am talking about this weeks subject.


I really don’t know what to say about it. I don’t have much in the way of practical advice and in a sense, I think tone is often a matter of instinct and something you can only see as part of a far larger picture.

Tone is a funny thing. It’s one of those almost instinctual tools in a writer’s box. But despite it seemed like a vague, woolly-thinking kind of idea, its an essential thing to have.

Without having control of your tone, you’re screwed.

But what is tone?

And how can your control it?

Tone is what conveys the mood of your work. Tone is omnipresent in your writing. Tone comes from your word choice, your sentence structure, your point of view. It is the result of all those tiny little choices you make by writing.

Put one thing wrong and tone can go out of the window.

Tone is of course the great problem of the internet generation. We communicate by text almost all the time these days. I have friends whom I know more by their tone in emails than I do by their tone in conversations** And it’s amazing how many times tone can be misinterpreted. Sometimes you just accept that a person has a certain tone, but if you don’t know them then you cannot forgive them seeming rude because you don’t know that they aren’t. It’s the frightening thing about reading a text – all we have to go on are the words in front of us. And if they are mis-used, then often the tone can be misinterpreted and the intent of a communication ruined.

Tone is reliant on being in control of everything else you are doing in a piece of work. Tone comes at the end. tone is the result of all your hard work. My fellow DSDers have said that tone is attitude, that tone is atmosphere, that tone is voice and so much more. It is indeed all of these. And more.

If your tone is wrong, you fix it by working at the meta-level, by fixing some smaller, more intricate process such as your word choice, your structure, your point of view, whatever. All of these other things working in unison are what produce tone. Inconsistencies in tone come from elements of your work not working in harmony, like gears of the wrong size grinding together. On their own these elements may be brilliant, but together they produce something atonal and unsettling.

In the end, what I’m saying is that tone is not something you look at initially. Tone is something you allow to emerge from your work. Writing is like putting together a jigsaw in some ways. You are working with all these disparate and apparently unconnected pieces but when you find the right way to put them together, you can produce something quite unexpected and often entirely beautiful.

*You may groan, but I worked for ages to find a pun title for this entry…
**Not because we’re shut ins but often because we live in different countries. As Tony Hancock said when he took up the Ham Radio, “I’ve got friends all over the world. All over the world! None in this country, but all over the world…”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Tone Deaf

By Jay Stringer

After the news cycle we've had in the writing community of the past few weeks, writing about tone seems to fit. Tone and voice are two of the hardest things to quantify. You know it when you see it, but getting it right? Therein lies the trick.

Tone isn't something that you can get from cobbling together other people's words. It also changes with the times, so it's not really something you're going to be able to lift out of a 1950's novel and pull off perfectly as a modern book.

Tone and voice go hand in hand in my mind. The way a book sounds, its rhythm and vibe as the reader turns the pages and reads each sentence. A great voice is smooth like jazz, pushing the reader ahead more than even the action.

Now, let's go with the normal idea that "tone" in writing is about attitude. In a Parker novel, you're going to get some fisticuffs and some heist plans and guys with broken noses as dames with backstories.

"When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed."

That's the first line Richard Stark's THE OUTFIT, a serious, no nonsense, masterpiece of crime fiction.
So the writing that follows the woman screaming in bed and the guy waking up and falling to the floor would be different than they would in many other novels. A woman screaming in bed? The guy asleep when she starts? You could go for the cheap, sexxxy slapstick pretty easily with that -- depending on the tone of your book.

Tone, as I mentioned, is all about attitude -- the writer's attitude to the book and to the audience. Heck, it's also about the audience's attitude to the story.

And, just like voice, just like attitude, it has to be your own. Sure when you first start writing, you're cribbing a lot of voice from your favourite writers. When you first start writings songs, really all you're doing is finding the simplest songs in the back catalogue of your idol, and reshuffling the deck a little.

I've written two full novels, and a couple of half finished ones, and I'm probably still trying to out walk the shadow that White Jazz cast on my impressionable little brain. It takes time.

But whereas voice is something that carries over from book to book, something that keeps drawing a reader to a particular writer, tone is specific to that story. One of the best examples of both tone and voice is When The Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block. I swear, every time I pick that book up to idly scan the first page, I then go ahead and read the first dozen chapters. There's something specific in those first two chapters that draws you in. Two things, actually. Tone and Voice.

Those first two chapters are filled with things that we're told not to do as received wisdom. It's a murder mystery that doesn't drop a body straight away. The first chapter is filled with some fairly unsympathetic characters, and the narrator himself is a drunk, which makes us question how reliable he is. The second chapter is one long example of info dump. It's page after page of back story, set up and context. And yet, because Block is in total control of his words, it all works.

The information we're being given isn't all needed for the plot. A lot of it may have been cut by an editor working on a first time author. But it's setting the tone. It's an album track. In this instance, it's filling us with a doomed form of nostalgia, one that knows the past wasn't a better place, but makes us yearn for it anyway. It talks of people and relationships long gone, and failures long buried. And, on it's way, it sets up the whole book.

Tone and voice are the things that can hold together a story. See in Elmore Leonard's rules of writing? See hoe he keeps pointing out that the rules can be broken? It's having control over those two elements that lets you break the rules.

Now I wouldn't necessarily agree that tone needs to be consistent throughout the book. I'd say what it needs to be is effective. It needs to hold you. A great writer, once again, can break the rules and mess around with tone. It can be consistent as long as it matches the story at each emotional beat, and those inconsistencies can be used to pack a real punch, like the flip your stomach does as you go over the tip of a roller-coaster.

But if, like me, you're still finding your voice, and still learning to control tone, I'd say it's safer to make it consistent. Learn what you're doing before you start showing off. I don't really have practical tips on this one as I had in previous weeks, because it's something I'm still working on. But maybe try creating a soundtrack album to your story, thinking which songs would play in each chapter if this were a film, and then write with that soundtrack in mind.

Bit above all, always make it your own.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Tone: All About Attitude

By Steve Weddle

"When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed."

That's the first line Richard Stark's THE OUTFIT, a serious, no nonsense,  masterpiece of crime fiction.

Now, let's go with the normal idea that "tone" in writing is about attitude. In a Parker novel, you're going to get some fisticuffs and some heist plans and guys with broken noses as dames with backstories.

So the writing that follows the woman screaming in bed and the guy waking up and falling to the floor would be different than they would in many other novels.

A woman screaming in bed? The guy asleep when she starts? You could go for the cheap, sexxxy slapstick pretty easily with that -- depending on the tone of your book.

Tone, as I mentioned, is all about attitude -- the writer's attitude to the book and to the audience. Heck, it's also about the audience's attitude to the story.

The first novel I wrote, LOST AND FOUND, had some tone trouble in an early draft. I pulled this out as an example of how things can go horribly wrong.

Ryan, Amy, and the narrator are on the run. There's been some violence. Some deaths at a distance. The narrator and Amy just finished talking to John David Curtis and found out that stuff you find out just before the TV show goes to commercial. That twisty thing. This Twisty Thing let them know they should probably hop in the van and proceed with the hauling of the ass toot frackin sweet.

Now we join our story, already in progress:
Ryan turned on the radio, then found a local station.
“Look,” he said. “It’s noon. We calm down. Chill out. Listen to some tunes and relax.”
Whatever crappy music was finishing up. Strings. A violin or something. Applause. Then the bum-de-dum of station identification. Top of the hour. Whup-dee-doo.
I wasn’t paying attention until Amy said, “Turn it up. Listen.”
Something about their top story. Repeating the top story, which I thought was odd because it had just turned noon, so how they be repeating it. Anyway, the woman on the radio was talking about a brazen Sunday morning robbery at a convenience store. The clerk was shot and killed. The shooter is on the loose. Good, I thought. Look for him, not us. A customer at the store had been killed too, apparently trying to prevent the burglary, she said. I hated it when they got that wrong. Burglary is when someone breaks into your house and steals stuff. Robbery is when someone takes money from you. Idiots. “Breaking news,” the radio woman said, as if the robbery weren’t already breaking news. Though the family had not been notified and police were not releasing the identities of the dead clerk and the dead customer, she said, “the customer has been identified as former LSU football star and convicted felon John David Curtis.”
The three of us stopped breathing.

“Ryan, you got a phone in your bag?” Amy asked.
“Yeah, take a grey one,” he said, reaching into his duffle and tossing her a cell phone.
She dialed a seven-digit number, then hung up after the first ring. She waited a few seconds and did the same thing again.
“Where can we go?” Ryan asked.
“I don’t know. You guys live here,” I said.
“You can’t go home, again,” Amy said.
“Look homeward, angel. The hills beyond,” I said.
“Novels of Thomas Wolfe,” Ryan said, both of us falling back into our schtick of that pyramid game that was on television when we were kids.
Amy tightened her eyeballs our way. “Let’s focus on this. It’s serious.”

Well, it is serious, but I was letting my "look at how funny I am" nonsense get in the way. I was screwing up the tone something awful. I was going to the laugh instead of playing out the story. I was just reaching for whatever tool was the closest. (Haha. He said 'tool.')

Tone is also the attitude of the characters. Are they taking this seriously. Should the reader take it seriously? Tone is like mortar -- you don't pay that much attention to it when it's done well, but it's the thingy that holds the important thingies together.

When done well, of course, a change in tone can be instrumental in a successful scene. I wasn't doing it well. There's that line attributed to George Lucas about how easy it is to make the audience cry: First you show them a puppy. Then you kill the puppy.

Stephen King said something like that, too. First he makes you care about the characters. Then he sets loose the monsters.

That's the way tone can work.

I could have done something like that in the scene I mentioned. I could have had the group doing their game show schtick and everyone laughing and having a good time and then they get the news of their dead friend. The old "first you're laughing/then you're crying" idea.

Tone is so important, so instrumental, that just by varying it at the right places, you can provide an entire layer to your book, your story.

See, tone doesn't have to be consistent. It just has to be perfect.

And speaking of tone, here's a song about clowns to cheer you up (thanks @laurabenedict):

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tone Deaf

Tone and voice go hand in hand in my mind.

The way a book sounds, its rhythm and vibe as the reader turns the pages and reads each sentence. A great voice is smooth like jazz, pushing the reader ahead more than even the action.

Robert Parker is smooth jazz. He can say in 3 words what it might take someone else ten pages to say. He can zing you with a one liner, only to pull it back with a tight emotion in the span of two paragraphs.

Elmore Leonard is jazz as well. More rat-a-tat. Descriptions through dialogue, quick bursts of action, and a subtle characterization built with few powerful words.

I love voice. I love trying to make my work seem effortless and easy. Cutting, adding--a lot of that is plot stuff. But voice... voice has to be natural. You have to know the way you sound and keep it consistent. Whether it's funny, or hardboiled, or sappy... all of that is yours.

Be who you are.

Let your voice shine. The rest will follow.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A subtle but powerful spice

For me, music has always been closely connected to my moods. I grew up solidly on country music, and used to fall asleep to old-school country music. George Jones, Gordon Lightfoot, Tom T Hall, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash. Songs not just about love and love lost, but about death. He Stopped Loving Her Today. Nothing like getting tucked into bed while you listen to a song about a guy's funeral and the love he lost.

A Boy Named Sue, or Folsom Prison Blues.

I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

I was a somber kid. A deep thinker. I was also an insomniac as a child, and I attribute it, at least in part, to listening to songs about people dying in car crashes (Carroll County Accident) and ghosts haunting the living and depressing endings.

As a writer, I think that the easiest illustration of tone is through music. Most people can understand how the music and lyrics work together to create an atmosphere and a feeling. Does anyone listen to Amarillo By Morning and feel cheerful? I doubt it.

When the music and lyrics blend perfectly, they elicit the desired response. Music alone can do this as well. TV shows and movies rely on the shortcut of music to indicate whether something good or bad will happen next, and viewers rely on the music to prepare them emotionally.

I actually think that tone is one of the things we don't talk about as much as writers, despite the fact that it can get us into a lot of trouble. Tone is what sets the reader up with expectations of what's to come. If a book is nothing but sweetness and light, with teddy bears and cupcakes and happy family moments and fifty pages in people start swearing like sailors and carving people up with machetes, there needs to be a solid set-up to prepare the reader for that kind of transition.

Just like with music. There are songs that start off somber, and the entire piece is downbeat. Songs that always make me feel like tearing up.

Songs that just depress the hell out of me.

Other songs boost your spirits and make you feel positive. This one's been on my aerobic mixes for years, just because it always makes me feel like dancing.

Other songs just make me angry.

There are times when the music and lyrics are in sharp contrast, intended to be ironic. All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down by The Mavericks always springs to mind as an example of that.

Whatever the intent, the artist needs to sell the audience, and the same is true for an author with their work. I think a lot of writers get into trouble without giving careful consideration to how they prepare readers for what's coming. I've heard stories from authors, about how their editor had them rework the opening of a book so that there wouldn't be any swear words on the first page, so that they wouldn't deter readers who didn't like swearing in their books. From page 2 through the end was one expletive after another, which was fine by the editor, as long as they could still try to mislead readers into giving the book a shot.

Can we really be surprised when the author is inundated with mail from readers who were offended?

The overall tone should be consistent, and it should convey the underlying atmosphere and disposition of the work. Yes, there may be times parts of the book appeal to different sentiments, but there is an overall tone that comes through. When I'd read the Rebus books, even when he had a long-term girlfriend, I always knew it was just a matter of time before he screwed that up. With some characters, we know they won't find peace, love and happiness in the final pages. It would be inconsistent with their character.

It's something writers have to give serious consideration to as they develop their work. I think most of the time, when we find something doesn't work for us because we feel it's inconsistent, it has to do with the events somehow contradicting that tone.

I actually think that the show Terra Nova has a bit of a tone problem. Some scenes are scary and intense and the suspense is developed well. Most of the storylines deal with some major drama... and then it's time to go home to the happy family where we can all enjoy the wonder of the universe through the eyes of a child and never really talk about the guy who's flirting with your wife all the time or the years you spent in prison, or the sense of loss that would come with leaving behind friends and family who you'd never see again. It's hard to buy into all the happy family moments because it seems like, after all the obstacles and issues and things endured, the family was fixed with the snap of their fingers. They've at least made the son be a bit of an ass with an attitude problem, but they have to lighten up on the sugary moments because it doesn't fit with the realities of the show, and when the tone doesn't work, it makes the characters come off as two dimensional, because their experiences aren't fully reflected in their emotions.

In the same way that a single spice can make or break an entire dish, tone plays an important part in the creation of a story, a part more writers should pay close attention to.


It took me 50 long years just to work out
That because I was angry didn't mean I was right...

I've been drinking deep from a jar of pain
- Jackie Leven

There was sad news last week, that Jackie Leven had passed away. The Scottish musician, a former member of Doll by Doll, had first come on my radar courtesy of Ian Rankin and his books featuring DI Rebus. I picked up a lot of great musical recommendations from the books over the years, and have several of Jackie's CDs. A great musician, a great poet, a great loss.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chose your own adventure

by: Joelle Charbonneau
Happy Thanksgiving week! (Okay, only those of us in the states really care about it, but hey, a girl has to work with what she's got.) This also happens to be the final theme week for us here at DSD. Because we are so thankful for all of you who read this blog, we want you to decide what theme you want us to blog about.
This is your chance. Would you like to hear about:
Point of View
Story structure
Working within genre constraints
Something else?
This is your turn to tell us what to talk about! What writing issue do you want seven different opinions on? What topic do you want to read about while you are eating your pumpkin pie and turkey leftovers? Let us know by 5:00 EST (because, well, we'd like to give Sandra some time to actually write her blog postnfor tomorrow). We'll then pick the most voted for topic and give it a whirl.
And on a more serious note - as an author I am incredibly grateful to every reader, writer and friend who has supported me during my writing journey. I would never have made it this far without all of you. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you no matter where you live!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"Setting" as a Unique Place in an Increasingly Un-unique World

Scott D. Parker

One of the best things about being the “Saturday Guy” here at DSD is that I get a chance to wrap up the week, to look at the discussions that have gone on before me and add my commentary. The bad thing about being the Saturday Guy is when the discussions already written pretty much say everything I wanted to say. Thus, my voice becomes redundant, a trait that is too often in abundance here on the blogosphere.

Yesterday and Thursday, Jay and Russel both wrote great pieces on setting and used comic books as examples. On Tuesday, Dave stole my thunder when he talked about setting from a reader’s point of view. I was going to touch on that, specifically in how when you hear the names Lehane, Pelecanos, Connolly, chandler, King, or Burke, you instantly conjure in your mind the cities in which those novels take place. Ditto for Arthur Conan Doyle, but in a different way. Whereas the modern writers talk about particular streets and real-world restaurants and places, Doyle doesn’t always do that. Sure, he talks about traversing up the Strand to the station, but for us readers, a century removed from Holmes’ time, we are basically lost unless we have a map. Instead, Doyle—and Poe before him—creates his setting by creating a mood. We fill in the blanks when he writes “fog-shrouded streets.” For him, he didn’t necessarily feel the need to describe the area for his readership, at least at the outset, knew London.

And that gets to another point that’s often frustrating as a writer. How much is too much? How much description of the surroundings is too little? The Elmore Leonard School of Writing all but eliminates setting from many of his scenes. It’s just dudes or gals talking or doing action. I got called on that once in my writing session: “Where is this scene taking place, Scott?” Thus, on subsequent meetings, I bring chapters and stories burdened with too much setting description. Got nixed on that, too.

More to the point, those authors I’ve mentioned above speak about a specific place and a specific time. You read Lehane, and you see and feel and hear Boston. Chandler’s LA is the postcard city with the seedy underbelly. The problem with modern America is that everything is the same. Generic America, as my wife likes to call all those strip centers with the same dozen stores in every town, sucks the life out of areas that once used to be unique. True, it’s nice that a hamburger at Chili’s in Houston is the same as a hamburger at Chili’s in Chicago, but where’s the local flavor? The same is true for books. Your run-of-the-mill thriller can be thrilling, with exotic locations in Europe or the Middle East, but, after awhile, it all kinds of runs together.

That uniqueness, that sense of place,is what’s missing in many places across this country and that’s what makes books by authors with a particular home city so special. I may not want to live in Lehane’s Boston or King’s Maine, but I sure like to visit.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Set Me Up

By Russel D McLean

And yes, that goshdarned whippersnapper Jay Stringer beat me to the punch yesterday with his Batman/Superman bit, but I’m not rewriting this week’s entry…

Setting and place are often overlooked by writers. A presiding sense of “well, its just a backdrop, innit,” crowds too many stories. But here’s the facts, Jack: Place is pivotal. Your story can’t just happen in a vacuum. And despite what you think, your choice of setting informs everything about your work.

Long time (and short time) readers of this blog will know that – along with a few of my fellow DSDers – I’m a big comic book geek, and when it comes to setting and importance, I can think of no finer examples than Batman and Superman.
Batman stories tend to take place primarily in Gotham City; a place that feels like hell has literally sprouted roots from the earth. It is dirty, urban sprawl at its worst and most rotten. It is the kind of place where not even money can buy you safety, as millionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents found to their cost.

On the flip side, Superman tends to hang out in the city of Metropolis. It’s a vibrant and dynamic city. We usually see it in the daytime, with the Daily Planet building – standing as it does for good, honest journalism – standing erect as a monument to truth and honesty. It’s the kind of place where a man like Superman can help to bring out the best in its citizens. Okay, it has its problems – as does any city – but unlike Gotham, those problems are rarely overwhelming. Metropolis is – relatively speaking – a city of hope.

Both cities reflect not only the characters who inhabit them but also the very feel of a story. The choice of location allows you to set mood and to play themes and ideas in unexpected ways.

Let’s take an example from my own writing life. The decision to set my crime novels (at least, those featuring J McNee) in Dundee was no accident. It was partly a case of wanting to write about somewhere different, but also because I could use the setting – an industrial town that had been through poverty and was seeing money come back through new industries – as the perfect setting for a crime novel. There was a natural tension to the setting that perfectly matched what I wanted to write about. It was more than just a place I could give street names to.

Which, of course, is a mistake many people make. One novel I read years ago tried so hard to make itself “local” that it lost all colour and atmosphere. Dropping in street names and referencing local publicans is not enough to create a strong and vibrant setting. No, I’d rather read about the feel of a place, how it affects the characters and the action of a novel.

But before you go thinking that I’m limiting a setting to one description, one aspect of itself, let’s think about it a while: a setting can be one thing to one person and something entirely different to a novel. After all, the Edinburgh of Tony Black, Ian Rankin and Allan Guthrie may be a horrible, terrible, dangerous place where it always bloody well rains, but through the eyes of someone like Alexander McCall Smith it becomes far more genteel, a place of a sunnier disposition where things tend to work out for the best.

And yes, all of those writers are using the same “setting”, the same city.

But they’re using it in very different ways.

Which makes you wonder if one could write a happy go lucky comedy of errors set in Gotham City and a dark, twister tale of broken bones in Metropolis. Maybe you could, if you used the settings correctly.

Setting is a matter of perspective. Same way as a character can be a hero from one point of view and a villain from another, a setting can achieve a certain mood from one perspective and quite another if you view it from a different angle.

So use your setting. Tie it in to your characters, your story, your mood. But remember that you have to consider how you’re using your setting, what kind of eyes you’re seeing it through. And that you are never, ever, ever writing characters in a vacuum.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Setting Things Straight

By Jay Stringer

Setting is a loaded concept. Setting can be a place, it can be a time, it can be the thing that cement does after you've poured it over a dead body. It can be a character. We hear that one a lot, right? What I love about this novel is that the city becomes a character. Yet a place doesn't do things. A place doesn't drive the plot. It's the people in it that do that.

I usually flip things around when it comes to writing advice. I don't talk about setting all that much. I talk about context. An argument needs context, so does a joke, or a conversation. Context helps to define place,class, identity, ideology and actions. It defines whether our scared protagonist is pointing that gun in self defence or attack.

It's not just about where the story is set, but when, why and how. It's also one of the most important factors in reaching clarity, the real juice of story-telling. Where are we in the story, and where are we in the scene. That applies both physically and mentally. Think of it all as one and the same. Start to connect the two as you write.

In previous weeks we've talked about plot and character. We've discussed how to set up who your guy is, and what he wants. The final ingredient that turns those two things into a story is context. Out of this we get the obstacles, the difficulties, the motivations and the limitations.

A story set in Glasgow city centre at 2pm is going to be different to a story set in Glasgow city centre at 2am. The location is the same, but the setting is different. The context is different. At the risk of generalising, the internal monologue of a male character walking down that street might well be different to the internal monologue of a woman walking down that street. Both scared, but both having different fears. Again, the location is the same, and now the time is the same, but the context is still different.

People often say that Gotham is a distinctive character in Batman stories. But what the fictional city actually does is reveal character. Gotham is a reflection of the hero; it's providing a context to his story and obstacles for him to overcome.

Stories need tension to be interesting, and that can be either internal or external. But if you use your setting well, you can bridge the gap between the two. Gotham took away Batman's parents. Bruce Wayne is both Gotham's' most celebrated son, and most famous victim. All you do then is fill in the blanks to play to those two angles, so that the setting reveals the character.

Gotham may be fictional, but New York isn't. Matt Scudder walks the streets of Hells Kitchen in over fifteen mystery novels. Lawrence Block used a mixture of fictional and real locations; the bars and coffee shops were real, the murder locations tended to be fictional. But these stories were not documentaries, they were not journalism. The locations worked in relation to Scudder. They formed his world, they told us things about him. His sparse hotel room told us where he was both emotionally and physically. When he moved into a nicer apartment later on, that told us how he was changing, but the fact that he still kept the old hotel room as well told us something important. The passing of time in the city saw gentrification of his old stomping ground, but really that was telling us about Scudder, not the city.

"Realism," is a phrase that gets used often when describing crime genre, and again is often used to describe setting. But there is no such thing. Realism in fiction is an elaborate con job. We just give small details to trick the reader into a feeling of realism. (Pffft, if only there was a fancy French word for that.) And it's an easy con job, because the readers want us to pull it off, and their brains are programmed to help us, they will fill in the blanks if we give the right cues.

Okay, okay. You came here for tips and you got a lecture on context and some waffle about a comic book city. But where's the practical help, huh?

Okay, okay. Delegation, that is the key. Don't be afraid to delegate work to your reader.

Part of the trick to setting -to all writing- is leaving things out. It goes back to that con job, that trick. If you want a setting to really resonate with a reader and come to life in their heads, you need them to be doing a lot of the work, you need them to be making it into something that will stick. Don't over do the descriptions. Give the reader a few small details to latch onto. Something that's on the wall, or a smell, or a temperature. Give one or two small details that are specific to that location, something that will be unique about the setting just as if you're describing a facial feature of a character.

Then forget describing the patterns on the carpet or the colour of the curtains and get into your characters' head. How does that setting affect the character? What unique obstacles does it present? What are your characters emotions in this setting? From there -with one telling physical detail and then some character specific information- your readers can go about the hard work of actually constructing the location in their heads.

But always be mindful, what does this location reveal about my characters? If the answer is nothing then consider changing the location, or cutting the scene.

And, as with last week, don't sweat the big things. Build this story one scene at a time. One location at a time. You don't need to build Gotham, you just need to describe some of it's rooms and streets, and how they affect your characters. The reader will do the rest.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Setting: The World Within

By Steve Weddle

When I think of setting, I think about the little stuff. Sure you have the region and the town where the story takes place. But I want the setting to be more than simple scenery -- the space around the characters. I need the setting to be the details that infect them.

To me, it's where you're setting your characters as much as where the story is set. You're going to set them down in this type of world. I don't care whether you call it Boston or New Boston, I want to know what's immediately around them more than I want you to name the restaurant near their home.
Charlie stayed on the top step, making his father stare up at him, at his scraped chin, little pieces of gravel wedged like flecks of house paint into the skin.
That's a line from my Country Hardball collection. The boy is part of the scenery as much as the setting is part of him. He has gravel pressed into his chin, little bits of earth. And using that simile -- like flecks of house paint -- tells you about their home. You know those beat-up houses in the country that you see (or live in) where the faint is just flaking off? Well, to me, that says so much. A little detail like that, worked into the narrative detail, tells you so much about the setting.

Let me pull another example, something small that I hope shows what I'm talking about.
They looked out across the dirt path curling behind the store, the weedy field, the train tracks that led somewhere else.
Dirt and weeds behind a store. This store, I don't mind telling you, would probably be the gas station I worked at as a kid. Every so often I'd have to go back there with a scythe and cut down the weeds. Yeah, a scythe. Don't know why the boss didn't have a weed-whacker. Guess I was it. So I'd cut down the weeds and look up at the train tracks running by carrying my hobo thoughts of harmonicas and camp fires miles away to some movie I'd seen that weekend.

I'm not interested in the train tracks. I'm not interested the setting around the characters. I'm interested in the setting within the characters.
We’d walked across the fields back to her house, climbed up the cement steps and used our elbows and chins to open the thin-metal screen door. A sprig from a dying nandina bush got caught in the door. I reached back, snapped the branch like a finger, then closed the door behind me.
See, I don't want someone to read that and say "Ah, a nandina bush. They must be in Zone 7." For what I'm writing, the part of the setting that's important is the bush -- but I don't care about the bush. I care that the bush gets in the way and that the narrator snaps it "like a finger." And then he just goes on with his business.

Because, for me, setting isn't another character. I've heard people make that argument, and that's fine for them. But for me, setting is part of each character. Another person might have snapped the branch "like he was breaking spaghetti noodles to feed the church." That's a different type of character.

For me, setting infects the characters and informs the reader. Setting isn't about the world surrounding the characters of my stories. Setting is that shadow spreading from within the characters -- their world extended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Reader's Opinion on Setting

Sorry, I missed character week last week. I had some computer issues that caused me not to be able to post.

But this week is setting.

I'm going to take a different view on this. Not as a writer, but a reader. When I read a crime fiction novel--one of my favorite aspects is setting. In fact, I often will choose or not choose a new writer/novel based on where it's set.

Is that weird of me? Probably, but hey, I'm the reader, it's what I do.

I love to read about new places in a America. Love to hear about downbeat midwestern cities. I also enjoy checking out how writers write about a place I've been. Does it feel like a living breathing place, or just an area that any story can be set?

But what's really cool to me is to read several writer's different takes on one place. I love Lehane's Boston, the dark, gritty blue collar world of neighborhood bars and backstabbing friends.

But it's quite different from Robert B. Parker's Boston. Parker's Boston is one for white collar crime and dark academia. So many others write about Boston as well, and each take is just a hair different.

And that's what makes setting cool. The same place can be very different in each author's hands, but at the same time, you catch the similarities--the virtual walking tour of places.

Does Setting draw you to read a novel?

Does it chase you away?

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Story, In Any Other City

The majority of stories can happen anywhere. The percentage of stories that are completely limited to one location is small. In part, this is because people are people. There may be variances for cultural elements and aspects, but very few places have a lock on a specific type of story that's unique to them.

I think that actually makes choosing a setting harder, rather than easier. What seems to go into the choice has more to do with the author's comfort, perceived popularity and sellability. Yes, I'm one of those Canadian authors who was told to move my story south of the 49th parallel or I wouldn't sell to a US publisher.

I failed to mention at the time I really preferred the idea of selling to a UK publisher. However, I did refuse, and part of the reason I refused to move WHAT BURNS WITHIN out of the Greater Vancouver Area had to do with the issue of believability.

You see, the idea for WBW had come to me when my ex-husband was involved with the fire department. He was on call, and one night, in the middle of the night, the alert sounded. He responded over the radio, confirming he was on his way, while I lay in bed, suddenly not able to drift back to sleep because I realized in that moment that anyone could know I was at home alone. Anyone with a scanner - and as a former journalism student, I knew college kids who kept those things on hand. People around town who were nosy, the rural pot-sellers... Anyone could know I was home alone.

It started to scare the crap out of me. And the idea for a story was born.

In order to make the setting work, I needed a larger urban area than where we lived at the time, but it needed certain technical realities. Not all cities have volunteer fire departments, or volunteer officers who are on call. Some have full-time firemen, like my friend, Steve, who serves in New Westminster. In order to position the story correctly, I had to make sure I checked off certain boxes, or anyone with local knowledge would laugh in my face.

No way did I want a story that fell apart on a technical snafu.

I also knew the GVA and was comfortable semi-fictionalizing it, while playing largely in the real world.

I refused. And the series sold to a US publisher anyway.

I started working on HARVEST OF RUINS in 2007, when I was in Canada. I originally planned to head back to my hometown and present a fictionalized Muskoka. I knew the landscape intimately, and for me, HARVEST was a story that really wasn't location-specific. It didn't hinge on technical issues the way WBW did.

When things changed in my life, I looked at moving HARVEST south of the 49th, and began the painstaking process of researching for a Maryland location that would work. Little did I know that I was going to be living in an area lacking in lakes, which played a critical role in the original draft.

Modifying the draft for the location wasn't that difficult, though. Tim Hortons became Royal Farms. Webers became Double T Diner. A lot of the substance could stay the same...

Except for a main secondary character, who just happened to be Native. Or Aboriginal. The term we used to use was (no offense intended) Indian... which reminds me of a story about translations, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Where I grew up, in Muskoka, I had classmates who were Native. Not many, but some. But in Maryland? Uh, not going to happen. There was a very different reality in this area after it was settled, and the Aboriginal populations were largely displaced.

Those are the kinds of things I wouldn't have even thought about if I hadn't spent a lot of time here, and wasn't married to a Baltimore boy. Although, in the end, I moved the location back to Canada, revising the manuscript for a different setting was a worthy process that taught me a lot. It also made me aware of just how important setting research can be, and reinforces to me why it will always be easier for writers to stick with what they know when it comes to setting, because it's so easy to get something wrong.

You've got to be comfortable with what you're doing. If you aren't, I think it'll come through in your work. Own what you know, and you can make it work.

Oh, and that story about the word 'Indian' and translations? When WBW was being translated into Japanese, my translator asked me about a reference using East Indian in the text. She wanted to change it Indian or Indonesian. I had to explain why it is that in North America there's a distinction between 'Indian' and 'East Indian', and that it doesn't strictly mean Indonesian, either. For her, understanding the history of the term in the context of North American culture was an eye-opener. She had no idea about the localized history of the word and how it used to be used.

Prior to the experience of working with a translator, that wasn't something that would even have occurred to me. How we portray setting is not only a challenge for us in our own language, but can present unique challenges for translators as well, and that's a reality that may not be avoided by fictionalizing a setting, either. Whether you write about a real place or one you've created, most of us write with some grounding in reality and culture, and those are components of setting that we will have to contend with in our work.

When appropriate, there are those who render the setting as its own character within the text. That's not always necessary - or appropriate - for the telling of a tale, and it lies within the writer to strike the balance that best suits their story.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

All the world is a stage

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Welcome to theme week #3. This week we are going to be chatting about setting.

When you tell a story you have to cover certain things – who, what, why and where. For me, the where determines so much about what kind of story a person is going to tell. A story set in a rural, economically depressed town is going to be very different than one set in downtown Chicago. For me, the setting is more than just a backdrop to a story, it is a character that lives and breaths just like all the other people who populate our books. The houses, stores, landscape and socio-economic climate of a book impacts everything in the story from the tricks a sleuth can use to investigate to the personalities of the characters who populate the area.

For my Rebecca Robbins books, I deliberately chose to set the stories in a small town in Illinois. Why? Well, one, because I know Illinois and while I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, I have been in many of those small town and feel like I know and understand what those towns look like and the kinds of people who live there. But more important, I needed a town where a roller rink was still a vital heartbeat of the community. In the suburbs, roller rinks are fun places to hang out. Kids and adults enjoy spending a few hours in one and then move onto the next activity. And if the roller rink closed…well, they’d just go to another one a few towns over.

In smaller towns, father away from the cornucopia of activities found in more urban areas, roller rinks are a gathering place for people of all ages. It is part of the culture of the town. The mere possibility of closing the rink would create immediate conflict. Small towns also have a lot of personality. There are less big box stores. Shops often reflect the owner’s style. And let’s face it—in small towns everyone knows everyone’s business. There is no blending into the background which means people tend to embrace their differences as opposed to trying to be like everyone else.

In my upcoming Paige Marshall mystery series, I dropped my opera singing/theater loving character in the north shore Chicago suburbs. (Because face it—there aren’t a lot of professional opera jobs in rural Illinois!) The setting creates a completely different kind of conflict for an amateur sleuth. For one thing, there are more cops. Something tells me those police officers are probably not inclined to let someone get away with poking their nose in a murder investigation. Not to mention the fact that almost every block in the suburbs has that neighbor that watches ever car and pedestrian coming down the street. It isn’t exactly easy to snoop around a suspect’s house with the neighborhood watch on patrol. The more urban setting is important to the story and creates a whole different feel and investigative style to the book than perhaps I might have originally intended. But that’s what makes it fun.

For me, the setting impacts everything in the book. Character expectations, motivation and relationships are all driven by the setting. Which makes me wonder, as a writer, how does the setting you’ve chosen for your books impact the way you tell your story. And for all the readers out there – do you find yourself drawn to reading books set specifics kinds of settings? Inquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

When Character(s) Presents Itself

Scott D. Parker

I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code. I dug Jurassic Park. I like network crime dramas, and I rock out to KISS.

Deep thinkers? Weighty tomes? Gritty television? Not at all. I'm simple that way, for better or for worse. I love story, a something that propels me to read, watch, or listen. I find character studies for the sake of character studies to be, well, boring. My recent experience reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians made that loud and clear. I was bored through almost the entire book and, at the end, when I read rave reviews about the depth of character in the book, I realized what the book was really about. Oh, thought I, so that's what he was trying to say. That's cool, but couldn't there have been more action?

Perhaps it's my ability to check my brain on page 1, the door of the movie theater, or when I flip a channel. Maybe I'm okay with eating pablum every now and then. It's easy to digest and doesn't taste too bad.

Take Robert Langdon, the hero from the Da Vinci Code. Did I care about his childhood or what made him tick? Nope. I wanted to follow him through the maze and find out the truth. But, and this is key, he revealed his character through his actions. As Jay wrote on Thursday, "plot reveals character." Granted, Langdon's still not very deep a character, but the ride sure was fun. And, when I pick up a book or watch something, most of the time, I'm just in it for the show.

My Own Characters

Except for the characters I write. That's when I want to know all there is to know about them. Here, too, is where Jay's point is made abundantly clear: plot does indeed reveal a character. And it is in this arena where I follow the opposite advice I give for plotting.

Last week, I revealed myself to be an avid plotter. When it comes to characters, I am the wait-and-see guy. Take, for example, Carl Hancock. He is the co-star of my Harry Truman mystery. When I came time to write this book, I knew that I could not have Truman in serious danger so I needed a cast of fictional characters, primarily a partner for the mystery Truman investigated. I'll freely admit that, when I wrote page 1, Hancock was cardboard. I did exactly the same thing Russel mentioned yesterday: I described Hancock--slightly with a Texas caricature--and just put him through the story. What happened during the next few weeks and months surprised me.

Hancock started living and breathing on his own. He started doing things I never anticipated or planned for him. The deeper into the novel I got, the more I started to notice about him. Little things he did revealed his nature and the way he thought. My fellow readers picked up on it, too, and told me that the Hancock character was was the most fully formed of my fictional characters. It happened all because I let him breathe and gave him space to flex his muscles.

Calvin Carter, my railroad detective, nearly transformed himself over the course of three stories. When the first story started, he was merely the avenging son. By the end of that tale, however, he had transformed into the showy actor he was. The second story brought him a new set of character traits I hadn't even considered, while the third one solidified the ways in which he conducts his investigations and his actions. He's best with an audience and, if there isn't one, he'll wait.

The Biggest Obstacle to Overcome

Characters and their traits might just be the biggest obstacle I face when I write. With my insistence on knowing an entire story arc before I set pen to paper, there is mounting evidence that I subconsciously want the same for my characters. I want to know how they'll react to *every* situation before I even get to it. And it can paralyze me. Which is why Russel's post from yesterday was such a nice thing to read. He reminds us writers that we don't need to know all that stuff. Know a few things and let the story show you how your character will react. They'll be less like cardboard and more like real people if you do.

Playing Adam

Last Sunday, Joelle wrote about how she picks names. One of her characters found her name when Joelle scanned Facebook. I do something similar but much more analog: I look around my writing room.

I have two main bookshelves in here. The one my grandfather built contains paperbacks, the other one, an Ikea model, has the trade paperbacks, my annotated Sherlock Holmes, and my old tabloid-sized comics from the 1970s. So, when it comes time for me to come up with a name, I merely look around my room and put two names together.

Mrs. Hurley, the lady proprietor who runs the hotel in which Truman and Hancock stay during their investigation? The chancellor of the university from which I earned a Masters in history (the diploma's on the wall). Thomas Jackson, the partner of Calvin Carter? Play on a historical figure that one. And Carter himself. Originally, I thought of calling him Collins (because I have Max Allen Collins novels on the shelves) but scraped it on account of the possessive problem (Collins' or Collins's). Carter came from the ether or the subconscious, I don't know where, but "Calvin" emerged from one source: my Calvin and Hobbes collections. Plus, you've got the John Calvin influence, but, c'mon: Calvin Carter was named after a six-year-old boy. It's just more fun that way.

Album of the Week 1: Songs of Mirth and Melancholy by Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo. How does one describe this nine-song collection? Yes, there are jazz elements, but those only take up 1/3 of the album. Taking a cue from the chamber music of the 19th Century, Marsalis (saxes) and Calderazzo (piano) basically make 21st Century chamber music with jazz influences. These are songs, not merely templates for improvisation. Marsalis's tone on these tracks is simply gorgeous, rich, full, broad, dripping with emotion. Calderazzo's piano is, at times, Chopinesque and Monkish. I love albums that are difficult to classify. This one is my new favorite.

Album of the Week 2: The Good Feeling by the Christian McBride Big Band. On the other end of the spectrum is this first album by McBride's big band. Brash yet moody, audacious yet subtle, this is a group that modernizes the type of ensemble that flourished in the 1930s but is fresh as now, and brings with it echoes of all the decades in between. Whether you want the fast, loud propulsion of hard bop, or the soundtrack-ish influences of the mid 1970s, there is something for every taste. As a member of a local big band here in Houston, I'm always on the look out for fresh takes on this kind of ensemble. McBride writes over half of the tunes here, so you can rest assured that the tradition of the big band is alive and well.