Rules of Writing

I sent an early crime novel to a publisher who had already published one of my novels, but she rejected it, saying that, in a mystery, the victim is only there to provide a puzzle for the reader. Therefore, I should bump somebody — anybody — off in the first few pages and devote the rest of the novel to the investigation whether it be by police detectives, a private detective, or an amateur sleuth. Carefully following her own advice, she rejected my mystery on the grounds that I didn’t murder anyone until just over a hundred pages into the story.

I felt bad, naturally, but at the same time, something in me rebelled. Over the years I had read a great many detective novels and mysteries, and, although at the moment, I couldn’t offer book and page number, I was pretty certain my publisher’s theory was in error. I was almost certain I had read many crime novels, be it private eye tales or police procedurals,  in which a murder didn’t occur until later in the book.

Okay, I got over it and moved on.  A bit later I  found a new publisher.

But the other day I chanced to pick up a tattered old novel by Ngaio Marsh, arguably one of the true queens of mystery fiction, and decided to read it. In this particular novel, “Tied up in Tinsel”, we don’t stumble across a body until page 242 in a book that has only 286 pages. Wow! Obviously, the editor who rejected my little novel also would have thrown Ms Marsh’s effort into the circular file and in her disgust, she might well have sent Ms Marsh a stern message about the way to write mysteries. Too bad for an editor who had made up her mind about what constitutes a mystery novel. But reading the book and remembering the editor’s remarks, the entire incident poured back into my mind and I got all wound up again.

All this the above is a prelude to my remarks that in novel writing, there are no rules. The very word novel conjures up images of something new and different. Now a mystery novel with no murder might not go over well with readers, starting with editors, but still it is legal. There’s no law that says you have to have a murder. A short story, maybe. Remember “The Purloined Letter” by Mr. Poe.

In “Vanity Fair”, Thackeray talks frankly, to his reader. He knows it’s just a story and he knows the reader knows it’s just a story, so tongue in cheek, he goes ahead and tells it, stepping in from time to time to remind us that, after all, it’s just a story.

Fowles puts himself right into the background of a novel while observing the proceedings and of course, in my favorite mystery novels, the narrator, the detective, tells his story as he remembers it. He’s just a reporter giving us, as Sgt. Friday would say, the facts. He’s not the real author of course, but we can suspend belief and assume that private eye Raymond Chandler is just calling himself Philip Marlowe to avoid being stalked by beautiful women with pearl-handled .25 automatics in their handbags.

In fact, being a very young reader when I began reading Marlowe novels, I was severely traumatized to learn one day that Mr. Chandler was in his sixties, meaning Marlowe was in his sixties. Philip Marlowe kicking butt in his sixties? To me, a kid of sixteen, I couldn’t believe anybody in his sixties was still able to walk, much less kick butt or write about the butts he kicked. And I felt very betrayed, almost the victim of a bad joke. But I was a vapid youth of sixteen. Maybe only fifteen.

Most people today lack the patience to wade through “Moby Dick”, but when it was written, I believe people liked a more leisurely novel, something they could spend hours, even days on. They wanted their money’s worth. Remember, at that time there wasn’t much else in the way of entertainment, at least not in that price range. But today what editor would accept a long tedious novel that stops cold, and before continuing, offers lengthy dissertations on whaling, or any other industry?

If there is anything to be gleaned from this little outburst, it is that as author, you are God. Rules, schmules, it’s your creation and you have the right to say anything you want to. Now if you step too far out of recognized lines, you may never find a publisher, but these days with the Internet and self-publishing opportunities being offered every time you log on, you can still get your stuff published.

Now, I don’t suggest you go too far off the grid if you hope to find a traditional publisher who is willing to take a chance on your work, but I do feel that, as the writer, you still have the right so say what you want to.

I should mention that what makes books  like Moby Dick, Sherlock Holmes, Don Quixote, etc. isn’t always their construction, but their unforgettable characters. Remember that.

So the takeaway here is to write what you want to. Once you’ve written it, you might want to see how it compares with similar works. If you feel it’s a little outré in some respect or another, you might want to make a few changes. If you like it the way it is, submit it and see what comes out of that. BIG PUBLISHERS probably won’t look at your masterpiece no matter what it is, but there are a great many independent publishers now. Most of them are open to unpublished writers and if all of these reject your stuff, you may want to revisit the entire work and see what’s holding you back. If you do get feedback, by all means, listen to it. Listen to it, but you don’t have to do more than that. It’s up to you. You’re the writer.

In my case, hearing about the rule that the murder should happen on page three or thereabouts, I nevertheless stubbornly felt I was okay with what I had written and time has proven me to be correct, insofar that another publisher accepted Deadly Reception, and I haven’t had any complaints. So you just have to consider what you’ve written and if you firmly believe you’re right, then stick to it. Sooner or later you’ll connect with the right publisher and hopefully you’ll establish a good relationship.

One last thing that may give you solace: If and when you do get some BIG PUBLISHER to publish your book, you’ll have a very short window of opportunity. If sales after a couple of months or so aren’t what the publisher wants, off with your books head (or cover). It’s gone. Buried without any ceremony, and all you’ll have are the few copies sitting your shelf to remind you that you once had a book published. As an added humiliation, if you’re really unlucky, you may stumble across a few copies of your book in Big Lots or a 99c store but let’s hope that doesn’t happen to you.

If you allow them, most of the indies will keep your book on the Internet forever. You may not sell a lot of POD copies because of the cost, but your masterpiece can float around as an E-book on Kindle, Nook and so on forever and who knows? Maybe one day, like Van Gogh, you’ll be DISCOVERED! Hey, if Picasso and Warhol can be “discovered”, anything can happen.

Editor

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ImageLike most writers, I understand, it took a long time for me to find a publisher who was willing to accept one of my submissions. Many won’t even look at submissions from unknown writers and a good many note that they are not presently considering new material. I did get offers, but they were patently phony. Agents and publishers alike who were willing to talk to me wanted money. Luckily, thanks to sites like Writer Beware, I was savvy enough not to spend money I didn’t have to spend. So I was really thrilled when I received my first acceptance letter. A real publisher had read part of my novel, asked for the rest and she wrote back that the rest did not disappoint her. Still living in the Dark Ages, I packed up my 80,000 word manuscript and shipped it off at no mean expense and trouble to Canada. Eventually it came back, refused by the publisher. When I wrote to ask what happened, I received an apology. The publisher assumed I knew they only dealt with electronic submissions. Okay, lesson learned. I was happy at first with being a Published Author and, although I approved the cover, I eventually came to hate it. The lack of communication that began with the paper manuscript continued. Somehow, my publisher and I continued to have little misunderstandings. Then a second manuscript, initially approved, somehow got lost. When I submitted it again, she rejected it because she had just acquired two “Cozies”.  This while my novel was a police procedural! Eventually we parted in friendly fashion with my rights reverting to me. At about that same time I submitted another novel to a different publisher who accepted it. Wow! Two acceptances at almost exactly the same time, this after years of rejection. This publisher appeared to be great and even created a really neat and appropriate cover for the book. We didn’t always agree of course. She insisted that I not use contractions in narrative. In dialog okay, but not in narrative. Being new and glad to find a publisher, I tried to go along, but eventually when I pointed out that many authors use contractions in narrative, she appeared shocked and said it had only been a suggestion. After all, I was the author. Okay, but that came a little late. Unfortunately the books began falling apart the minute people got their hands on them. The publisher did offer to replace them, and eventually she assured me the problem had been fixed. However, from there things only went downhill for her and before long, she had to go out of business. She did return my rights. Another publisher accepted a novel and she appeared to be really professional. Even assigned an editor to work with me to make my novel as perfect as possible. Unfortunately, along the way she evidently discovered that there’s a lot more money in erotic novels than in mainstream, and by the time my novel was published, there it lay, a somewhat noir, but mainstream novel tucked in among steamy erotic novels featuring nudes on the covers and positioned in a way that no one would ever notice it. She returned my rights too, and we parted company in a friendly fashion. I found another publisher. She was very cooperative and helpful and published two of my mysteries. They came out with good covers and looked good and the books didn’t fall apart, but soon she fell ill and eventually had to sell to another person who apparently knew little about the publishing business. My relationship with the new owner was spotty at best and eventually I got my rights back. Finally, at long long last my work landed on the desk of my current editor. We hit it off immediately and we’ve continued to have a good relationship ever since. She has published all these other novels from before along with new ones. At the present time I have ten novels with her and two more are being edited even as I write.  She answers my dumb questions, offers suggestions, is very helpful and cooperative in putting together great cover art, and I’m currently working on another novel which I hope she’ll like as well. From this little jeremiad, as you may surmise, finding a publisher is hard enough for anyone of course, but being able to find one with whom you’ll have a great relationship borders on being a miracle. I’m really thankful that I fell into the good graces of my current publisher. I hesitate to mention names because I don’t want her overwhelmed by writers who are looking for the same relationship I have. I’m sure she isn’t right for everyone, and that’s probably as it should be. But out there somewhere, I’m equally sure there’s a publisher who’s just right for you. If you don’t hit it off with the first one…or two, keep looking. You just have to keep looking. Just had a great idea for a new web business: Match Writer and Publisher.com “Find your Muse’s match for you.” Boy, I may be onto something here. Excuse me. I’ll finish this later.

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The Sand Bluff Murders

ImageThe Sand Bluff Murders

Sand Bluff is a town long ago bypassed by the freeway. Sleepy, yes. But Sand Bluff was a sleepy little town long before that. When Jonas McCleary gets a job on the police force, he’s perfectly happy. An easy job in a small town where, as one local denizen puts it: “Most excitement this here town ever had was that time back in sixty-two whenever that Elvis bus had to stop and fix a flat.”

Besides, Jonas is getting onto thirty and he’s hoping to meet Miss Right so he can settle down and get married.

The first day he has his eye on a possible Miss Right, but on the third day he has his eye on a murder. A murder in little Sand Bluff? Wow, and before Jonas has even had a chance to get to know the town, he’s hit with another one. Twyla Peters, Sand Bluff’s resident hussy, is found lying in a pool of blood.

For its size, Sand Bluff has a lot of strange characters and Jonas has a lot to learn before he even gets started, and in the end, he has to grope his way down some dark passageways if he hopes not only to nail a murderer, but stay alive long enough to do it!

“The plot was amazing. – Marina Stevkovska

http://writewordsinc.com, amazon.com, nook.com, etc.

The Morgenstern Murders

In this sequel to The Sand Bluff Murders, former police chief Jonas McCleary has gone into business as a private investigator.

When a prominent surgeon and his wife are murdered, the family’s daughter comes under suspicion and in order to clear her name and track down the killers of her parents, she hires Jonas to investigate.

When she dangles a five-thousand dollar check under his nose, how can Jonas say no? He doesn’t promise to clear her name, but he does promise to do the best he can to bring out the facts whatever they may be.

But Jonas has a rough road ahead of him when another person is found dead and the mystery surrounding the case only deepens.

In the end Jonas may have to lay his life on the line to bring this case to a satisfactory conclusion.

From Write Words, Inc. Cambridge Books http://www.writewordsinc.com

“This is one of those books that will keep you guessing all the way to the end.  Loved it and can’t wait for the next Jonas McCleary to hit my hands.”

— Martha Cheves “Stir, Laugh, Repeat”

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How not to have control

penI‘m sure most of us like to believe we’re in control of our lives, even though experience tells us we’re mistaken. It’s certainly a comforting thought to know that you’re totally in control of everyday events around you, but of course we know that’s not strictly true.

Best laid plans…etc. We’ve all had the experience of planning say, a picnic only to find it decided to rain that day. I remember one time when I confidently went out and bought an expensive stereo on the time payment plan only to be laid off my job a week later. And so it goes. It’s pretty disappointing to finally realize and admit that we don’t really have much, if any, real control over our lives.

But when it comes to writing, ahhhh. When you’re writing, you’re God are you not? You’re completely in charge. You dream up a plot or situation and start creating characters to act out their given parts and you have the option of changing any and everything you want to. Right?

Well…maybe. Maybe usually, but here too there can be exceptions.

I know some writers make detailed notes and outlines when they write, others less so and some just sit down and start writing. In my own case, I normally don’t do much if any outlining on the computer. Being primarily a mystery writer, I usually begin dreaming up a plot and creating at least some of the characters in my head and before I actually begin writing, I usually know the ending. I know who the baddie is and how to expose a murderer. But nearly all of this is bumbling around in my mind.  Once I begin in earnest I usually make a list of the characters as they come along so I can remember their names and anything else of importance about them, but that’s about all. I’m not saying it’s the best way and it’s certainly not the only way, but alas, it’s my way and I’m too old to learn new tricks. After all, I can barely use a cell phone and consistently hold the TV remote backwards. If it was a gun I’d be dead right now.

All this preamble brings me to the point of this.

After a number of stillborn attempts and misbegotten ideas I finally began to put together a plot for (hopefully) my next epic opus. It came to me complete with a title: “The Morgenstern Murders”.

I had this Morgenstern. He was one of those investment banker birds who made a killing in the big bust and quietly retired to a luxurious compound overlooking the lovely Pacific Ocean in sunny California. Naturally, because of the many people whose fortunes and sometimes, lives, were ruined due to his shenanigans, he had accrued a pile of enemies as big as his fortune.

Before long I was actually writing. Started off well. I was fully in charge. But then, about a week or so into this work, something unexpected happened.

That jerk Morgenstern didn’t want to be an unscrupulous investment banker. He wanted to play doctor. Doctor?!

Slipping completely out of my control this guy had decided to be a doctor instead of an investment banker. That meant I had to go back and add “Dr.” every time I mentioned his name. Luckily, on the computer that isn’t so difficult. And he didn’t like to be such a lowlife either. Enemies? Sure. As a doctor, he had opened several abortion clinics in the bay area and found his clinics plagued by protesters who marched daily around displaying placards. They even located his compound and began marching outside in front of his home.

Okay. I didn’t ask for that and didn’t expect it. I honestly don’t know where that came from, but there it is. Even my fictional characters come out and mess up my plans.

Now let me say right here that this isn’t a moral story. I couldn’t dream of writing a scathing philippic against abortionists, and I certainly can’t blame those who are against it. I write mysteries and don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to make a statement. Blame Dr. Morgenstern if you want to blame somebody. I don’t know how or why he decided to become a doctor and set up abortion clinics.  I certainly don‎’t have the expertise to speak for or against abortions. I’m not writing to make any judgments, and I’m not here to defend those who don’t believe in abortion and I can’t judge the doctors who perform this service. Being a male, I’ve never had occasion to consider having an abortion. Fortunately too, the possibility has never come up in my extended family. Everybody related to me already has plenty of kids and more on the way. I suppose one thing in favor of abortions would be the savings in birthday presents, but I kind of enjoy all those little birthday parties even when the cake is on the heavy side.  On the one hand, I wouldn’t advise anyone to have an abortion, but on the other hand, it’s certainly not up to the likes of me to tell women I don’t even know how they should live their lives.

I hope to get this book finished before the end of the year, and God willing, it will be available early next year and I’ll be done with the late Dr. Morgenstern. Yes, despite his change of career, he still gets whacked. (Call it fate, Kismet, destiny.) And although he isn’t really a bad guy, I’m just not that emotionally involved with him to be upset at reading of his demise.

So the takeaway here is that we’re not only not in control of our lives, but evidently we aren’t always in control of our fiction either, but I guess that isn’t all bad. Makes the whole journey more interesting and sometimes even fun.

How do Writers Write?

Over the years I learned that one of the most recurrent questions asked of writers is “How do you write?”

I know some carefully plan their books out chapter by chapter, or even scene by scene, while others take a more open approach, feeling their way along. I understand Agatha Christie carefully plotted each book, and obviously it worked for her. I’ve read that Georges Simenon, on the other hand, simply went into his study and started writing. Thirty days later he popped out with another book.

I’m sure many writers, especially hopeful, as yet unpublished writers, wonder about these things, sometimes questioning their own habits.

Most instructors will insist you establish a schedule and stick to it. Get up and start writing. I can’t argue with that advice. Jack Woodford wrote that while employed as a bank clerk, he got up at four in the morning, rain or shine, and wrote until it was time to go to work. He wanted to give his best to his writing, not to the bank.  Like Mr. Balzac I drink lots of coffee, although it probably hasn’t made my writing better or worse. As Mr. Woodford suggested: No-Doz will keep you going. Coffee will keep you going too… to the bathroom.

I thought that by addressing my own habits (?) some other writers might either take courage or on the other hand, see a pitfall to avoid.

I’ve always been a procrastinator.  I’ve never in my life been able to establish a writing schedule, and like everything in my life, I’ve always worked in fits and (often false) starts.

I’ve never been able to plan a book down to the last detail. In fact, I don’t do much planning at all. Since I write mostly mysteries, I take care to establish the killer before I start, but in between…well, here’s a typical scenario: I piddle on the computer for a while and then I have a cup of coffee and lie down on my chaise in the patio and close my eyes whilst listening to my babbling false brook. Or, sometimes I read for a while and then close my eyes.  Weeks may go by, even months, but one day an idea comes to mind and I start thinking about it, seeing possibilities. I begin to develop it more and more and may actually start writing and creating characters. I have several like that, a number of stillborn books that either linger somewhat mummified in my computer or books have already been lost to posterity.

But now and then an idea comes along begins to grow and the more I think about it, the better it seems. Where did it come from? It could be from something I saw on the news, or something I read about or heard about. I don’t know. It had been over a year — a very dry year — since my last triumph (LOL), “The Sand Bluff Murders”, and day after day I tried to think about things I might write. Just recently an idea began to form and each day I liked it more. Although I didn’t really start writing, I began to visualize it in my mind and — because it’s easier to get an acceptance from my particular publisher is I offer something as a sequel  — I turned it into a sequel to The Sand Bluff Murders and voià, The Morgenstern Murders was born. Here comes the really weird part. After such a long dry spell, I hadn’t even completely finished polishing The Morgenstern Murders when another book began to fall into place. I called it The Handyman but before I got off to a very good start, I realized the handyman was only a catalyst. The story was really about a small town deputy sheriff and it quickly changed from the Handyman to The Deputy. It should be out by July.

In the meantime, I confess, I play it by ear. I pretty much let the characters take over. That brings me back to my chaise in the patio. I’ll take a little break and lie down and close my eyes and start writing prose that would go down in history. I mean impeccable, flawless prose that rivals Shakespeare and the King James Bible.  It’s so good that no matter how tired I am, I just have to get up, go back upstairs and get to my computer. Unfortunately, by the time I get there, somehow things don’t turn out anything like they did while I lay on my back with my eyes closed.  They never do. Sad but true.

And that’s my system. When it’s going right, nothing can interrupt me. When I was working on my first published novel, “The Little Mornings”, my little spare bedroom which I had turned into my office, was invaded by my daughter, her husband and five kids, all of whom took over the office with air beds etc. This went on for a month, but I had reached a point in the book where the urge was too strong, so every day I literally climbed over air beds and, surrounded by noisy kids, kept right on going and finished the book without a ruffle.

I don’t know whether this will help anyone, or perhaps show people pitfalls to avoid, but there it is. Now that I’ve got my fingers warmed up on a hot keyboard, I can get back to writing.

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Books at the Library

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Wow, Barrie Olmstead, in charge of new books, has accepted my books in print for the shelves at the Sacramento Public Library. If anyone who reads this can get down there to check out a copy, the next move will to be ask for more, more, more. My publisher will love you and I’ll love you. Maybe even the library will love you and name a wing after you. 

Review of The Sand Bluff Murders

Here’s a neat review from Café Reads, Where books and beans are celebrated,
http:/cafereads.blogspot.uk

TUESDAY, JULY 31, 2012
Special Blend: The Sand Bluff Murders

Rating: 8/10 in Mystery/Thriller

Summary: “Newly hired officer Jonas McCleary is into his third day on the job in the tiny town of Sand Bluff —and Sand Bluff has its first murder in twenty years. Before Jonas can begin to get his feet wet, local hottie Twyla Peters is found murdered…Now, faced with two seemingly unconnected murders, McCleary is really put to the test. But the worst isn’t over.”
Provided by author

Published: Cambridge Books, 2012 (soon to be published)

Where I got it: sent to me in PDF form

More information: http://www.writewordsinc.com/

Review:
With a touch of humor and romance, The Sand Bluff Murders throws a likeable lead into a chaotic and intriguing mystery plot. As the mystery unravels, the first-person narration forges an important bond between reader and lead character, whose wit and sarcasm endear him to the reader. The writing is polished and practical. What really grabbed me was the dialogue, which captures the essence of a conversation without insulting the readers’ intelligence. Albrecht shows his skill and precision as an author when he summarizes the protagonist’s back story later in the book, rather than pummeling the reader upfront with a lengthy biography. I was also impressed with Albrecht’s pacing and chapter breaks. Albrecht clearly understands the mystery genre and has assembled his suspects, alibis and intrigues accordingly.

On the flip-side, I would have liked to see the book open in media res. Also, as a matter of personal taste, I thought some emotional stakes for the lead would have given the reader a more holistic view of his character. At times, the lead’s sarcasm makes him sound immature and less believable as a law enforcement officer, much less a detective. Some of the suspects are also underdeveloped as characters, but this is not a capital offense in mystery novels, since they are typically plot-driven.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. Albrecht has the potential to become a successful mystery writer, and The Sand Bluff Murders–with its witty narration, charming protagonist and solid mystery plot–is definitely worth the read.

Author’s Note: Clinically proven to be more effective than the other leading novels.

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