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Monday, March 29 2010

Categorizing a film, book, or television show into a particular genre is a double-edged sword. I don't want to shell out nine bucks (or is it ten now?) for a movie about romance in the eighteenth century when I'm looking for a modern day comedy, so I need to at least know what genre The Proposal falls under. But if a movie is called a comedy, I expect to laugh at the film.

Readers have similar expectations when it comes to well-known authors. You wouldn't pick up a Stephen King book and expect a study on ancient Rome or Janet Evanovich's interpretation of Japanese opera. So when I started a Dick Francis book recently, I was expecting a murder. Let me mention that I've only read a couple of Francis' books, but both managed to offer up a body, so that set up the expectation that all of his books have a murder. The back cover of Decider describes how an architect on holiday stops by a racecourse to attend a shareholder's meeting, only to stay longer once the grandstands at that same racecourse are blown up. Fantastic. Sounds great. And though the back made no mention of a murder, I could only assume that while investigating the grandstand explosion, the architect would stumble over a dead guy. Or two.

So I started to read. And I kept reading. The story was interesting, the book well-written, the main character likable, the bad people unlikable. All the makings of an a-one mystery. The stands blew up, the architect investigated. Right, right, keep going. But around page 200, I stopped, suddenly aware that no body had turned up yet. Surely it was on the next page, or maybe in the next chapter. I continued to enjoy the read, but over the next hundred and fifty pages, I felt a certain restlessness, an anticipation of an event that never actually happened. Where was the murder? Nowhere, as it turns out. I still finished the book, felt my blood pressure shoot up during the exciting climax, and liked how the story wrapped up with great explanation and a solid ending. But was I satisfied? No. Because I'd been expecting a murder mystery and all I got was a mystery. Mind you, as mentioned, the summary on the book didn't mention murder, the binding listed the book as merely a "Novel," but I had set expectations that the book involved an untimely death. Thus, I was vaguely disappointed.

Will I recommend this book to friends? Absolutely. But I'll be sure to mention the lack of a murder. I wouldn't want them to have any unrealistic expectations.
Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 12:42 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 22 2010

It's happened. Finally. After 47 rejections (but who's counting?), I have an agent. And not one of those agents you hear about who grudgingly agrees to represent you, then sticks your manuscript in his desk drawer next to his bottle of cheap scotch and never sends it out. This agent is bright and energetic and excited to submit my work.

And with my sudden surge of hope that I'll one day see my cozy mystery published, I'm faced with an unexpected sensation. Pressure. People might actually read my work. I'm not writing endless chapters for my own amusement. I have to make sure my words are witty and compelling and interesting. Yikes.

But that feeling of pressure is offset by pure giddiness. When I first called my husband to tell him the news, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. I get such a thrill saying ridiculous things like, "I can't talk now. My agent is expecting some work." or "I got an email from my agent today." It's completely silly, but I can't help myself. Just thinking about those remarks makes me giggle.

Another feeling has popped up, amid the excitement and nervousness. Validation. Turns out I'm not a terrible writer. When people asked if I had an agent, I'd generally launch into an explanation of how the business works, how agents are looking for certain books at certain times, how agents receive a gazillion submissions a day and how they might overlook my query letter, how my book is a specific subgenre within a genre that the agent might not be interested in. All definitely true, but listening to myself, I'd wonder if I was just making excuses and deluding myself over why no one had picked me yet (what is this, a kickball game in elementary school?). I had the sneaking suspicion that the person I was talking to, intentionally or not, was wondering if maybe I wasn't a good writer. But now that I have an agent, I can say, "See, my book can't be that bad."

Or maybe it is. Maybe my agent does have that whiskey in her drawer and she drank half the bottle before reading my manuscript. Who cares? I have an agent.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 08:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, March 17 2010

I just finished reading Chasing Darkness, by Robert Crais, and felt that usual satisfaction as I finished the last page, plus that wee bit of disappointment that the story was over. As with other Elvis Cole novels, Crais used his succinct writing style to move the action along, never making me feel like I was slogging through unnecessary descriptions or dialog. At the same time, he's able to effectively convey a wide range of emotions, from humor to grief. More than once, I've found myself misting up over a passage in a Cole novel, only to get mad at myself for being such a wimp. These are fictional characters! Why am I getting so upset? Because the words are so damn believable, that's why.

And Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are the best detective friends since Thomas Magnum, Rick, and T.C. (I really should let go of 80's TV, but with the new A-Team movie coming out soon, looks like I'm not the only one stuck in the past). While they occasionally skirt the law, their actions are always based on stopping the bad guys and serving justice.

Such is the case with Chasing Darkness. What looks to be a cut-and-dried suicide turns into a murder investigation when the man is linked to several deaths and Cole becomes convinced the man was framed. At the same time, Cole must evade the police who have warned him off the case. And while the man's death is related to a previous case that Cole worked on, we don't get bogged down with too much maudlin guilt.

Instead, Chasing Darkness moves away from Cole's personal life and back to a more straight-forward thriller. And that's a good thing. I don't mind telling you that Cole's relationship with Lucy was often-times sappy and annoying, and I was happy to see her return to Louisiana. While Lucy has a cameo in this book, it's limited to a few paragraphs before Cole gets back on track and sweeps us forward in the story to an exciting finish that's all wrapped up with a tidy little bow on top.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 12:55 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Friday, March 12 2010

My murder mysteries take place in Blossom Valley, a small town just over the hill from Mendocino. Now Mendocino is a real town on the West coast of Northern California. Just watch any episode of Murder, She Wrote and you'll spot the town in the opening credits. And with Blossom Valley being so close, many people will wonder if it's really a cover for Boonville. Or perhaps Willits. But neither is correct. Blossom Valley exists only in my mind, based loosely on the Ukiah of my youth but brought up-to-date with coffee shops and wine stores. And perhaps those businesses are open in Ukiah now (it's been a while since I visited -- sorry, Mom!), but the town itself has grown too large. I need a much smaller place. And that's where fictional towns come in.

Part of the reason I chose a fictional place is that I'm lazy. When I'm writing and caught up in the plot, I don't want to stop and pull up the Google maps, make sure State Street really intersects with Orchard Street, that the hardware store is next to the flower shop. The other reason is that no town contains the exact businesses, parks, and layout that I'm looking for. At least not a town I'm familiar with. What if I want a nudie bar next to a church? Or a statue of Porky Pig in the town square?

So I created a new place. Sure, the major components are based on existing towns and cities I'm familiar with, but Blossom Valley is a mishmash of multiple places with new businesses added, existing businesses taken away. When I need a bar with animal heads for ambience down by a lake, I first create a lake in my imaginary town, and then I throw in a bar. No fuss, no muss.

Of course, by using a fictional town, I am solely responsible for keeping track of how the town is laid out. Which is why I found myself with a sheet of grid paper and a pen last weekend, drawing a map of Blossom Valley to make sure my descriptions are accurate. And how do I know if I've remembered to draw all the streets? Maybe I added one little sentence about a dentist office down on Pearl Avenue, only to never mention it again. I might accidentally put the post office in that same location. I'll know for sure when a reader tells me (assuming my book is someday published) in a tersely worded missive that makes it clear just how disappointed that person is with my obvious lack of attention to detail. Readers always notice these things.

Which is why I occasionally envy a member of my writing group. She's opted to set her mystery in a real city in the Bay Area. The vineyard and nearby ranch are fictional spots, but the rest of the city exists. She makes sure her descriptions exactly match the layout of the city, going so far as to drive the streets to record the correct mileage. And when she wants to create a scene in the police station, she can visit the station herself, take in the sights and sounds, and then provide an authentic description in her books.  A definite advantage. She doesn't find herself scrolling back through previous chapters, trying to find that description of the Main Street Café to see if the inside is done in a 50's diner style or an 80's rock style. She's eaten at the restaurants mentioned in her book. She remembers exactly how the places look, inside and out. But she's also limited by what exists. If she chooses to add a fictional business in a real town, people will get upset. Again, readers keep track. They'll send letters, pointing out what they assume was a mistake rather than use of her creative license.

Both real and fictional locations have their pros and cons. And authors often struggle with the choice. I know I did. But as the plot progressed, I realized a fictional town was the best option for my books. I just hope the readers agree.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 01:01 pm   |  Permalink   |  1 Comment  |  Email
Monday, March 08 2010

I was recently flipping through old issues of writing magazines I've saved and came across an interview with Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones, from a few years ago. In the article, she makes a comment to "those people who think I'm quite old for a first novelist." Wait, what? Let's back the trolley up a minute. When are you too old to be a first-time novelist? Is there ever an age cap?

Sebold was 38 when she finished her novel. While I'm not yet 38, I'm getting pretty darn close (I'll just keep the exact number my little secret), and now would be a fabulous time to publish a first novel. Sure, I've been writing for several years, but I'd like to think I keep improving as I go along. And my life itself has developed from a sheltered upbringing with little real-world experience to a full-blown adult existence. Older writers (and I suppose I fall in that camp, much as I hate to admit it) can interject their own experiences to lend an authenticity to the tale that can't be faked.

But you never hear about the middle-aged writers. You hear about the young writers. Young writers tend to bring a fresh perspective to a topic, a vibe that makes a book feel current. And editors drool over the prospect of introducing the public to a new voice, a new angle.

I shake my head when publishers release debut novels from authors in their early twenties and reviewers comment on how mature the author sounds, wise beyond their years. So if they sound so darn mature, how is that better than reading a mature author? And can that work the other way? Has a reviewer ever said an older writer sounds naïve for all their years?

And what's wrong with just sounding your age? The critical part of any book is the quality of the writing, not whether or not the author gets carded at a bar. For me, the age of an author is irrelevant. The writing is the only thing that matters.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 03:01 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Wednesday, March 03 2010

Much debate exists about the value of joining a writing group. One camp says they're horrible wastes of time where you spend the better part of the hour chit-chatting and do nothing to develop your writing. Others feel outside input stifles the creative process and any negative comments make you doubt your inner voice. Yet another segment swears writing groups are vital to spotting errors in your work and improving the story.

I fall into the latter camp. My writing would stink without the critical eyes of my group (I'm tempted to shoot this blog over to them right now for their thumbs up).

That's not to say all writing groups are fantastic. I was in a short term group where everyone was super nice, and that was the problem. No one wanted to openly critique another writer's work, probably because we were all raised by mothers who insisted on the "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" rule. Someone might suggest a different word here, the removal of a comma there, all the while piling on the praise. And who doesn't love to hear how wonderful their writing is? But constant compliments with no criticism don't improve the work. It's like having your grandmother read your manuscript. I'd leave the meeting happy to know they liked my work but feeling like I'd accomplished nothing.

On the flip side, I knew one woman who was booted from her writing group because she actually critiqued the work. The group wanted to pat each other on the back and complain about how no one appreciated their work. They weren't interested in actually improving. But she kept arriving at meetings with ideas and suggestions. How dare she! They told her to hit the road.

My writing group strikes a fantastic balance between spotting problems in my work and providing moral support. They highlight trouble areas, tell me what's missing, offer appropriate additions, and point out flaws with the plot, all the while managing to not make me feel like an idiot. Without the group, my books would be full of inconsistencies, plot holes, and awkward writing. To thank them for their comments, I try to give their writing the same amount of attention and dedication I know they're giving mine.

If you can find such a group, don't let them go. Plant yourself firmly in your critiquing chair and never get up from the table.

Posted by: Staci McLaughlin AT 12:22 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email