Saturday, September 5, 2020

Recognizing Progress in Your Own Writing


Scott D. Parker

Should I or shouldn't I re-read a completed manuscript before picking it back up again to work on it?

I debated with myself for longer than you'd expect, but let me give you a little backstory.

I wrote and completed the 1.0 draft a few years ago. I particularly enjoy the premise and the characters in this mystery/thriller. I remembered how the story started and the very end, but not a lot in the middle. I had vague memories but nothing crystal clear. Maybe it wasn't that good?

So a year or so ago, I attempted to write the story again *from scratch*. That is, do not read the old manuscript, but just rewrite the story. I changed some of the focus of the story, but ultimately shelved the 2.0 version in favor of books I've already published.

But I really like the tale. I decided it would be my Fall 2020 writing project. And that should I or shouldn't I question kept swirling in my head. On the one hand, were I to pick up the 2.0 version and just keep going, I might leave some cool stuff out that I didn't remember. Yeah, I know that if I don't remember something, it must not be memorable, but I don't subscribe to that idea. There are plenty of things about which I can remember my personal reaction but not quite the details. The end of Redshirts by John Scalzi is one.

I finally came down on the side of re-reading the 1.0 version. This was over 500 manuscript pages and, as of yesterday, I have about 100 pages left. Two things struck me.

One, there were indeed some cool scenes and moments in the book. I found myself actively reading and enjoying the story anew. I'm still time constrained in the mornings before work, and just about every day, I cursed the alarm that signaled it was time to get ready for the day job. I was into it and glad I decided to re-read the 1.0.

I read it with my yellow legal pad next to me, outlining the story as I read it. I noted POV, settings, character names, and general flow. All of this was in blue ink.

It was the red inked notes that told me just how far I've come as a writer.

These red notes are ones where I'd say "Need more description" in a scene where I'd introduce a character, but then give either a cursory physical description or none at all. I know, right? Other times I'd write "Need new option" when the 2020 me, reading the story, could see the next step a mile away. 

The biggest thing I noticed was how easy the characters had it. In more than one spot, I'd have a challenge and the next thing I knew, they had solved it. Really? I mean, if I'm irritated that they had it so easy, you know other readers will fire off a 2-star review.

I'll finish my re-read of the 1.0 version this weekend. I'll follow through with a re-read of the 2.0 version (about 75 pages) and do the same outlining. Then, with my improved storytelling skills, I'll craft the 3.0 version.

Have you re-read old material and realized you've improved your skills?

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Beau Goes to College


This week, Beau takes a look at Satan's Sorority by Graham Wynd.

In the fall of 1958 Sandra Delites is packed off to college in Connecticut after an ‘incident’ with another girl.

Her father thinks a small town university will be just the thing to straighten her out, only he hasn’t reckoned on the sisters of Sigma Tau Nu. Not just any sorority, their rites are bloody and the girls are hot – but not for the boys! President Trixie Faust sees a lot of potential in the newest pledge and Sandra is eager to learn: the thrill of the kill is just the beginning for these college girls gone wild.

Halloween will be extra scary this year. Forget black cats--you don’t want one of these sisters to cross your path.

"A refreshing change... For those more learned than me there are plenty of literary and occult references in this story.  Putting a twist on Goethe’s famous character by making it female was interesting and also made the ending more surprising.  I enjoyed the ending, even if it was more of a beginning. Sometimes when I read a book I find a single line sums it up perfectly. The poets often claimed that death wore a mask, but they never said it wore a sorority pin. Not yet anyway."  -Tony Lane


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Writers' Room Wednesday: Lucifer

Post from @chris_rafferty -> 

Where it all begins — the Writers Room. Where we create something out of nothing. After days & days of hard (& fun!) collaborative work, we turn this giant whiteboard into a fully mapped-out story. Here's the board for #Lucifer 508 #SpoilerAlert. #behindthescenes #LuciferSeason5 

Original post on Twitter and IG:

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

An Interesting Questionnaire

On social media and to friends, I've mentioned how much I like the French writer Patrick Modiano.  He's a master of emotion and mood and mystery, and few, if any, of his thirty-plus novels run as long as 200 pages.  He grew up in post World War II France and had a very unusual relationship with his father, who, during the war and although of Jewish descent, apparently was a Nazi collaborator (Modiano's mother was a Belgian-born Flemish actress).  Modiano himself never seems to have learned precisely what his father did during the war, but it's clear that his father never wore the star Nazis demanded all Jews wear and that he didn't surrender himself when the Paris Jews were rounded up to be taken to concentration camps.  His father spent the war, from what Modiano could gather, making a living on the black market and socializing with Gestapo agents in Paris.  He survived the war unharmed and in sound financial shape.  Modiano's first book, La Place de l'Etoile, is a World War II time novel about a Jewish collaborator, and -- talk about parents not supporting your literary efforts -- when the book appeared, it so upset his father that the man tried to buy up every existing copy.

Shady fathers, aloof fathers, fathers with secrets, fill Modiano's books. He is obsessed with memory and its elusiveness, and in novel after novel, he explores the enigmas of memory.  A good profile of him in the New Yorker, from 2014, describes how he "has returned again and again to the same themes: the pull of the past, the threat of disappearance, the blurring of moral boundaries, 'the dark side of the soul'."  That's an accurate description, though it doesn't convey the sheer pleasure of reading Modiano.  His plots are filled with menace and suspense, and that he loves detective fiction and noirish fiction is obvious from the plots he concocts and the remarkably evocative atmospheres he creates.  He makes you work to piece puzzles together and prefers suggestion and somewhat open-ended resolutions to tidily wrapped up narratives, but of course, when you explore memory and moral ambiguity, not everything can be fully answered. 

The other day, I finished reading my sixth Modiano book, Paris Nocturne, and I'd say it's a wonderful place to start reading him if you haven't already. It involves a car accident, a weird hospital, a woman who vanishes, ether, a search for the vanished woman, an odd and poignant dream, and much wandering around Paris as a man tries to put together confusing fragments of memory he has. Told in the first person, as all the Modiano books I've read are, it has a distinctly noirish tone mingled with a sweet melancholy.  Much of the story takes place at night, on dark streets, but glimpses of light always seem to be just around the corner.

Well into the book, the narrator mentions remembering "a rainy afternoon in the Latin Quarter, a fellow with a jawline beard in a grey trench coat was handing out leaflets.  It was a questionnaire for a study about young people."

The questionnaire has questions pertaining to family life, and then it asks three questions I found interesting.  I found myself stopping for a moment in my reading to mull the questions over.  The questions, as posed in the book, are these:

1) "Would you prefer to be part of the revolution or contemplate a beautiful landscape?"  

2) "Which do you prefer?  The depth of torment or the lightness of happiness?"

3) "Do you want to change your life or rediscover a lost harmony?" 

The narrator answers like this:

1) "Contemplate a beautiful landscape."

2) "The lightness of happiness."

3) "Rediscover a lost harmony." 

In responding to question three, he does add, in reference to "lost harmony": "These two words were the stuff of dreams, but what could a lost harmony really consist of?"

Good question, as they all are, I think, and I found myself wondering how I would answer them.  I also wondered, considering that in the book these questions are directed toward "young people", whether I would have answered differently when the narrator's age, around 20, than I would answer now, at age 58.

For question one, I know I would have said "be part of the revolution" when I was 20, but now...I have my doubts.  I'm talking about actual, full-blown revolution here, whatever that even means, not merely the specifics of the current moment and the coming presidential election.  Not that I don't think a revolution of a particular sort, with lethal implications, shouldn't come down on a large swath of people, but I'm less optimistic now about the fallout from revolutions than I was, say, 40 years ago.  After the optimism and change, the usual reversion, by those in charge, to power grabs and repression and corruption.  Or so I tend to think nowadays.  Revolutions will happen and at times need to happen, but all things considered, would I rather just stay to myself and contemplate a beautiful landscape?  At this point, though I'm not one hundred percent certain about this, I probably would.

Question two:  Not even a semblance of a doubt for this one. Once I might have said I opt for the depth of torment because isn't that what writers and artists of all stripes, as history has shown, are supposed to be like? Nonsense. I completely come down with a preference now for the lightness of happiness. Anyway, by now I realize that the whole equating of depth with torment is silly.  The lightness of happiness! I even like the phrasing. It's not easy to achieve, though.

And question three: change your life or rediscover a lost harmony.  I'm with Modiano (or Modiano’s character) again here.  Sometimes, obviously, you need to make changes in your life, but as the novel’s narrator says, lost harmony is the "stuff of dreams".  It's a sense you have that may not even be based on anything real.  What lost harmony?  Did a harmony ever exist?  I don't know, honestly, but somehow reading Modiano, I knew exactly what his character meant by saying he would love to rediscover it.  If nothing else, that's a great reading moment, a feeling of harmony shared with an author you find simpatico.  And that's nothing to be frowned at.

Anyone have any thoughts on what they would answer to these three questions? 

Monday, August 31, 2020

The Lessons of Crime Fiction

Teaching about the Black Lives Matter movement offers many opportunities. Opening the classroom to conversations about racism, justice, activism, and healing allows a teacher to touch upon a multitude of lessons and helps create resolution and positive action. Perhaps surprisingly, crime fiction can play a part in these lessons.

Dr. Anjili Babbar and Dr. Myron T. Strong consider how crime fiction can be used to explore racism, its history and its current incarnation. 

Dr. Anjili Babbar

 Dr. Myron T. Strong

In June of this year, as protests erupted across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, our students were actively discussing Dashiell Hammett’s short story, “The Gutting of Couffignal,” in their online discussion board. This story follows the Continental Op as he tries to get to the bottom of a seeming riot on an elite island. He eventually discovers that the perpetrators are formerly wealthy Russians, forced to flee their country after the Communist Revolution, now living in destitution. “This really relates to the Black Lives Matter movement,” one student noted. “The Russians have been disenfranchised, and they’re voiceless. When people aren’t heard, they turn to methods that can’t be ignored. Like the protests that led to riots in Baltimore after Freddie Gray. Martin Luther King said that ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’”

Was this Hammett’s intention in the story? It’s difficult to say. On one hand, Hammett had sympathy for the Communist movement, and the Op does not hesitate to use violence against the ringleaders of the Couffignal looting. On the other, Hammett’s inclusion of the Czarists’ motives suggests a willingness to consider responses to injustice—whether real or perceived—as ubiquitous, common to all people. In the classroom, the imperative point was that the story inspired the students to situate current socio-political events in a broader context.

Later in the semester, the same students read Sarah Paretsky’s “Skin Deep,” in which V.I. Warshawski maneuvers a discriminatory criminal justice system on behalf of her Black friend, who has been falsely accused of murder. Even with this premise, the students were disappointed by the main character. “She doesn’t see the forest for the trees,” one student asserted. “She tries to pressure her friend’s boss to help her by threatening to expose the undocumented immigrants working there.” Not only were the students broadening their context of specific social concerns; the approach had become second nature to the extent that they were criticizing a character for not doing the same.

The obstacles to approaching diverse perspectives in the classroom have long been the elephant in the room of undergraduate academia. The curriculum long offered little diversity in readings and assignments, instead focusing on canonical white, often male, writers. That has shifted in recent years, but approaches remain problematic. Some students report discomfort about white professors guiding students of color in discussing their lived experiences, and about a focus on oppression narratives, at the exclusion of other lived experiences of marginalized people. Following nation-wide responses to the murder of George Floyd, academic departments across the country have scrambled to find better ways to promote “own voices” narratives and to address systemic racism and corruption – yet professors of crime fiction have been tackling these topics for decades, even as their focus has sometimes been dismissed as “genre fiction,” rather than “real” literature.

The use of crime fiction to explore diverse perspectives and systemic social challenges overcomes many problematics. Rather than being spoon-fed interpretations that might seem restrictive or alienating, students can apply critical thinking skills to analyze issues of justice invoked by crime fiction narratives and draw their own conclusions. Likewise, these narratives naturally encourage students to recognize specific social issues as part of a broader socio-historical framework, and thus to approach justice-related concerns outside of the contemporary biases of political discourse. This, in turn, helps them to develop empathy for disparate perspectives – an empathy which is underscored by the inclusion of marginalized characters who are individuals with agency in the pursuit of justice.

In our classes, students discuss gender-socialized power dynamics (Nikki Dolson); they discuss “othering” and its relationship to criminal justice (Peter Robinson, Agatha Christie); they discuss police discrimination and reform (Adrian McKinty); they discuss immigration (Angie Kim), classism (Colin Dexter), racism (Walter Mosley), and the politics of war (Anthony Horowitz). By examining these topics outside of the contemporary, location-specific contexts to which they are habituated, students can approach them on their own terms, at least partially unconstrained by the politically-charged discourse that surrounds them on social media. In turn, they are able to build the tools to return to these specific, contemporary issues with the wisdom, logic, and critical thinking supplied by a broader context. 


Dr. Anjili Babbar is a writer, scholar, and professor of crime fiction, British and Irish literature, and folklore, and president of the Dashiell Hammett Society. Upcoming publications include Finders: Justice, Faith, and Identity in Irish Crime Fiction (Syracuse University Press) and “‘This Isn’t F*cking Miss Marple, Mate’: Intertextuality in Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy Series” (in Guilt Rules All: Mysteries, Detectives, and Crime in Irish Fiction, edited by Elizabeth Mannion and Brian Cliff, Syracuse University Press).

Dr. Myron T. Strong is an award-winning sociologist and writer, whose areas of expertise include the sociology of race, gender, Afro-futurism, and comics. He is Academic Outreach Coordinator for the Dashiell Hammett Society, Executive Council Member for the Eastern Sociological Society, and Co-Chair for the Committee on Community Colleges of the American Sociological Association. Recent publications include the co-authored textbook, Sociology in Stories: A Creative Introduction to a Fascinating Perspective (Kendall Hunt).

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Caught on Tape

By Claire Booth

My last tape player died this month. It was random and rarely used—our 2004 Honda CRV came with both that and a CD player. Maybe that was the year Honda couldn’t decide whether to switch over to the newfangled CD technology. Give ’em both, make everybody happy.

I hadn’t used it in quite a while; it was my husband who was cleaning the car, found two dusty tapes in the glove box and decided to pop one into the player. No luck. Did I want him to throw them away?

God, no. Those were—are—precious. They were gifts that required both thought and time. Given to me back when there were no algorithms pointing to similar songs, no already curated playlists, no point-and-click-and-you’re-done convenience.

Back when a mix tape was a declaration of love, or a gesture of friendship, or a reward for beating someone at a certain beverage consumption game popular on college campuses.

My two tapes have more miles on them than the Honda does. They took me across the country multiple times: Missouri-to-California and back; Missouri-to-Washington, DC, and back; Missouri-to-Florida; Florida-to-Seattle; and Seattle to the Bay Area. It’s a miracle they didn’t give up and curl into a tangle of weary ribbon somewhere in the middle of Kansas. I couldn’t possibly throw them away.

So now they sit on a shelf—obsolete but essential. I’m going to get on iTunes and put together a playlist of all the songs, even though I know them by heart. But I’ll keep the brittle plastic, too—as a reminder of all those miles, and the extravagant effort someone put into keeping me company along the way.