Not winning the Freddie Award is quite a bargain.
The Freddie Award for Writing Excellence is awarded annually to the best unpublished, uncontracted and unagented mystery submitted to the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. The winner gets free admission to Sleuthfest, the Florida MWA chapter’s annual conference, a nice plaque and possibly a chance to pitch the agent or editor who did the final judging.
I didn’t win, but for my $30 entry fee, I got to submit the first twenty pages of my novel to be scored and commented on by three anonymous judges. That’s a lot of expertise for thirty bucks. Making use of it may prove a little challenging, though.
When the email popped up in my inbox, my heart turned over. I could tell from the first words, which showed up in the subject line, that I hadn’t won, but I was steeled for that. The terror came from facing the comments of three professionals, none of whom were friends, members of my writing group, or being paid to be helpful. However, I had thirty bucks on the table. I made myself hit “open.”
The Freddie has each judge fill in a rating sheet with separate scores on characterization, plot & conflict, dialogue, opening & setting, style & pacing, and mechanics. Most of the ratings were accompanied by a brief commentary on the reasons for the rating, often with examples and suggestions (not actual suggested wording, but “something like this….”)
Within each score sheet, the numerical ratings matched up well with the degree of criticism in the rater’s comments. But that’s where the tough part comes in. Here are the possible scores:
10 Author has done an excellent job. Very few if any mistakes and none that impacts the story
8 Though some areas might need polish, the author has done well overall
6 Entry requires extensive editing or story development to engage the reader
4 Major rewrites or restructuring is necessary
2 Serious flaws. An in-depth study of craft is needed
By the grace of God, I opened the score sheet from Judge JM22 first. S/he had given me a 10 in every category. The downside: there were no further comments. (The score sheet tells the judges to “enter comments in each section – especially if you take off points.”) I knew it had to be downhill from there, but with one perfect 10, at least I hadn’t been cast into the outer darkness.
Then the pain began. Judge JM21 gave me three 8s and two 6s. JM20 made it two 8s and three 6s.
I parsed those comments up, down and sideways for a week. I re-read the manuscript. I whined, “But don’t you see…?” to invisible interlocutors. Then I sucked it up and started taking notes. I wrestled with the wide range of the ratings, until I saw that whatever rating box they checked, the judges agreed closely on the nature of the problems they spotted.
- Too much backstory. Check. Assignment: Pick what’s needed for immediate comprehension. Find locations farther in for what will become necessary later. But that turned out to be the lesser benefit from these comments. Working with them, I’ve seen a way to alter a subplot that will be much clearer, easier to explain and actually work better with my main plot.
- Too little emotional reaction from Eliza, my protagonist, over the dilemmas I have posed for her. Check. I am a prim, mimsy New England Puritan, and we don’t get upset in public. It’s rubbed off on Eliza. Assignment: make clear how much trouble she thinks she’s in, either in speech or privately in thought. Just be sure to convince the reader.
- Too little sense of place, early on. Check. However, there was enough place-ness for one judge to conclude, correctly, that I want the location to be a major player in the story. To make my word count, I cut a lot of description. Back it comes, and I’ll worry about cutting later.
- No murder or mystery evident. Sorry, judges, no check for this one. I’ll ramp up the expression of conflicts and emotions, but I like to watch my murders develop slowly, out of situations and characters that just cry out for them. All my favorite authors do, too.
Maybe the best part of the whole exercise was the tone of the comments. They were frank, but nobody was snarky. When they liked something, they said so. The judge who gave me the lowest scores even attached a copy of my manuscript with quite a few comments inserted, some not even related to his/her remarks on the score sheet and the majority positive. S/he even gave me two happy faces for nice tidbits!
That judge prefaced her manuscript comments with the following. I’m trying to hold it in mind as I consider (but don’t buckle under) all the suggestions:
I hope you find some of my specific comments helpful, but please remember, I am ONE reader, and others will see things differently. However, when you’re submitting to agents, they’re going to be looking for hiccups and issues with the craft and mechanics, so I am pointing some of them out as they jump out at me. Take what makes sense to you and ignore what doesn’t.
Good advice of all of us.
P.S. One judge downgraded my Mechanics because spell check showed “a few flagged words.” S/he and I must have different spell check programs. Mine was written by someone who learned English as a second language. On Mars.
Heidi here, reporting progress for once.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.
After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.
Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.
I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.
As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.
From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.
Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.
This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.
And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.
Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)
The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.
So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.
P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.
Thursday is finally here and we are on our way to another adventure–one, I’ll be honest, I’ve been dreading. What??? Dreading a twenty-five day (more or less) trip to Australia and New Zealand? How is that even possible?
First, the length is daunting. We have never been on a vacation quite this long. And it is really hard to figure out how long the trip actually is. In three hours we fly from Phoenix to Los Angeles, wait seven hours (ugh) then board the plane for Brisbane at ten tonight. The flight is fourteen hours long and they are sixteen hours ahead of us. We land in Australia two days from now. When we fly home from New Zealand, we land in Phoenix before we left Auckland. How’s that for time travel??
And then there’s the packing for this trip. (I just realized that the clothes I’m wearing right now will be the same ones I will be wearing in two days. More or less.) I bravely limited myself to one large suitcase. Everything I need to take fit into it. Unfortunately, everything I need to take weighs more than fifty pounds. I offloaded shoes and clothes to my husband’s suitcase and to our carryon and voila! My suitcase is now a svelte forty-nine pounds.
One issue with packing for this trip is the inconsistency in the weather. In Port Douglas, AU (“you better see the Great Barrier Reef while it is still here”), it’s going to be tropical weather. Sydney and Melbourne should be warm (high 70’s to low 80’s) but then we cruise to Tasmania before making our way to New Zealand. That’s when the temperatures may drop and we may have rain. Every day. And because the majority of our time will be spent on the cruise ship, I needed to pack some dressier outfits–not jeans–for evenings. So that’s a lot of clothes–that will be worn, by necessity, more than once or twice. Each.
I was told by a fellow Thursday Night Writer that my trip would provide me with twenty-three days of uninterrupted writing time. Of course, we both know that she is wrong. I did commit to developing an idea for a short story that takes place on the cruise ship. Since I told her this, two people have fallen from cruise ships and died. In one week. “It was not immediately clear if any foul play was involved in either of the incidents.” Depending on your perspective, the real world either steals our ideas for potentially great fiction or presents us with the perfect situation to write about.
I am bringing a brand new journal in which I vow to record every detail of our trip!! At least for the first two days…
Being days late with my blog post, and having been inexplicably visited by a poem this morning, I’m going to imitate Karen (see Dec. 12) and favor you with it. Apologies to non-poetry-fans.
The Taste of the Rose
Here it is imperceptible
That the rough calyx has begun to retreat
And the pink point to encounter the sun.
Here pink folds are still one solid mass
Though already they are crisp and smooth.
The scent is already thick.
Here at the tight center
It is fortunate for me
That I am hardly larger than my egg.
The taste is pink, crisp, smooth, as well as scented
All the way out to the edge of the drooping bud.
Now I encounter air. Now is the time
When the fact of my future wings is clear to me.
It is not my nature to consider
Whether they will be black or bright.
Returning to Arizona after eight months away–our fifth season of snowbirding–still feels as though we are embarking on a long vacation. You’d think we would have visited all of the tourist attractions by now. Yet we’ve hardly made a dent in everything this extraordinary state has to offer.
A few weeks ago, we spent a leisurely Sunday at Kartchner Caverns and Biosphere 2, both relatively close to Tucson though not anywhere near to each other. This thirteen-hour day was immediately followed by three (out of ten) of us sick with the flu. While my writing friends in NH struggled with severe colds over the holidays, I remained healthy, only to succumb to the foreign Arizona germs.
While in Arizona my plan is to hide out in the theater room with my laptop and work on my current project, “Anne.” (If you are confused as to which project is my current one, you are not alone. It reminds even me of a tennis match.) The score is 0 writing sessions to 3 movies (Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde, and The Zookeeper’s Wife). Writers take note: of the three movies, Dunkirk was the only one not based upon a novel.
Due to our trek to the Tucson area, we missed watching the 75th Golden Globe Awards live. The extensive news (more political than entertainment—who knows where the line is anymore) coverage has brought me up to date on what transpired. The highlights of the evening for me would have been when Big Little Lies and The Handmaids Tale won their awards. Both television shows are based on books of the same name by Liane Moriarty and Margaret Atwood, respectively. As a writer I want to believe that the success of these shows is due to the novels they are based upon. Looking for inspiration, I reread “Liars” as I recuperated from the flu.
To have someone—many someones—love your book so much that they would want to make a movie or television series based upon it would be unbelievable. (Though according to the panel of authors at the New England Crime Bake 2017 who had movies made from their books, it’s not guaranteed to be a positive experience for the author.)
Would the prospect of a movie or television series adapted from one of my (currently unfinished) novels motivate me to write? If my pinkie swear with Eleanor (to finish “Anne” over the winter) doesn’t motivate me, I doubt if anything will.
CLUCKS, MEOWS, ARFS, TRUMPETINGS AND SOME CHITTERING
This afternoon I framed the invitation to my daughter’s wedding in one of those two sided plastic frames that stand on their own, the two sides opposite each other. On the facing side I placed a picture of her when she was about 8 or 9. In the picture she’s sitting on the kitchen floor, her three chickens vying for her attention and all three sitting in her lap, an overturned bowl of chicken food nearby. She was a chicken lover, and the funny thing is that given three chickens now she’d do the same thing. She had names for her chickens which I can’t remember, but she would. She’ll never forget them.
She’d like time to write someday and I bet that her stories will include chickens.
My novel. I like the sound of that. I even like the story though no one else seems to. Outside of my group anyway. My novel has a cat. We weren’t around chickens a lot, growing up in Queens, but we always had cats and I remember each and every one. Cats in stories always add coziness to a cozy, make a thriller more thrilling and a fantasy more bizarre. I don’t know why but a cat has all the potential of an extra character with paranormal abilities even if they are just being themselves.
My fictional cat, Woodrow, does nothing but eat and sleep. He does sniff out the antagonist in one scene but the humans are not perceptive enough to recognize his odd behavior as significant. They give him food which shuts him up. He’s ordinary. But, as a cat he has the potential to deliver ALL that cats are known for: sneakiness, faithfulness, ruthlessness, bravery, devotion and otherworldliness. Woodrow just doesn’t deliver any of that. Maybe (sardonic laughter) in the sequel.
Could a chicken add as much to a story? Can anyone remember a story they’ve read where the protagonist is bound up in a relationship with their chicken?
Dogs figure largely in novels and no denying they are fun, but they don’t have the cache of a cat. Try thinking of what dogs symbolize and they’ll fall flat and short of a cat. In fact they are usually the fall guy in a book with a cat AND a dog. They bite and growl. If your story needs that, throw in a dog or two.
Elephants. They’re like large cats. Mysterious. You never know what they’re thinking. I loved the ending of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. A cat would do that. Or get the elephant to do it for him. They have the same mindset. The trouble with elephants is their size; far too big for anything but a circus or the African veldt.
Parrots. They think like cats and elephants. And they add color. Suspense, too, if you’ve ever been around one. They’ll rip into you if you’re not careful. And they’ll talk and spill the beans if someone is killed in their presence. But only if they liked the victim. They can come in handy for that special story.
Monkeys are underused. They could deliver some intrigue as in, I wonder what the monkey over the mantelpiece is going to do, and when. Like the proverbial gun they’re way too obvious, however. They stand out like a sore thumb in a typical setting. Cats patrol the floors, just under the radar, always on the alert, as invisible as the old family retainer who waits. Monkeys are not subtle.
I’m waiting for the chicken story. And I’m looking forward to the big day.
Woke up this morning to temperatures that would not rise to see minus 1, Fahrenheit.
The bed was warm but I couldn’t stay in bed forever. My husband, after scanning the weather reports, informed me that it is warmer in Greenland, Iceland, Siberia and Antarctica. Granted, it is summer in Antarctica, but, really . . .
The furniture is cold till I sit for awhile and release some body heat into the cushions. Throws cover me from top to bottom. I need gloves to read.
Only the cat is warm. He sleeps on the heat register and blocks the heat from the wood stove in the basement from rising any farther than his fur. It’s his job and he takes it seriously.
It will be like this for at least a week.
Readers are prepared for this eventuality. It is the same eventuality as being laid up with a cold, as I am right now. And, following so closely on the heels of Christmas, we must certainly have gotten new stockpiles of books to keep us going. I received two gift certificates for my e-reader, a book of cat cartoons and cat short stories from the New Yorker, a Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter mystery in French, and, from the library, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. That should be enough for now, but if the weather cold and the viral cold continue then, by gum, I’ll have to dip into an older pile of books.
Perish the thought that I should write something while waiting for my brain to warm up. My blood has become sluggish, the synapses in my brain have gone on holiday. I’ve become like molasses in January before January. Dulled and stupefied by internal and external attacks on my well-being I have hunkered down to await warmer muses.
It is possible that a thought worthy of being written down will actually worm its way into my mind during this period of hunkering. I wouldn’t say nay if I had one, I wouldn’t resist it, but I haven’t much hope. Those mercurial Muses enjoy more temperate environments, not fevered minds in frozen bodies.
It is the practice in Iceland to give books on Christmas Eve and then spend Christmas day reading. It’s not a bad idea.
But then it is warmer in Iceland than it is here.
Warm wishes for a Happy New Year to all.
Happy reading and productive writing.
I took a busman’s holiday today. I’m starting to plot my second book and, needing to get a blog post out, I gave myself permission to noodle around online, seeking useful info for my plot and a blog at the same time. My next set of murders involves forging medieval manuscripts. So it’s perfectly legit for me to find out how to do that, right? Just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean I’m not working.
I had great hopes of a news story on NPR yesterday. Seems the French police arrested the CEO of Aristophil, a Paris dealer in manuscripts, who has collected billions of Euros from investors for “shares” in his portfolio of assets. But alas! for my murders. These manuscripts seem to be perfectly real. The police claim it was the investment management that was shady — a giant Ponzi scheme. In any case, the court is having the collection sold at auction, so if you’d like to bid on the manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, you’ll soon have the chance. [Breaking news! The French government has stepped in to declare the Sade manuscript a national treasure. It’s out of the auction. Sorry.]
It turns out that the University of Delaware’s Library possesses a special collection devoted entirely to forged manuscripts. It was the gift of Frank Tober, a chemist who worked on the Manhattan Project. His interest in the subject began with the chemical methods of detecting fraud, but twisty subjects lead to twisty trains of thought. Before he was done, Tober had branched out into counterfeiting, the forgery of artwork and furniture, hoaxes, and imaginary books and libraries.
At first I thought the pickings were slim for me in the Tober collection: it has only one forged illuminated manuscript. It always pays to keep digging, though. The Tober manuscript is one of hundreds produced about a century ago by the “Spanish Forger,” whose work still lurks in museum collections today, although many have been identified. And the art market always adapts. The Spanish Forger’s work is now eminently collectible. And probably easier to forge than the original manuscripts. (Plot idea here?)
Of course, when you are surfing the web, diversions and byways are legion. Searching for forgeries naturally brought me to hoaxes. I was thrilled to find a “Museum of Hoaxes,” right in San Diego, where I will be visiting in another week or so. Well, almost there. Only a hundred miles away. I could visit! And the web site kindly gave directions:
We’re based in San Diego, California. If you’re in the downtown area, get on i-5 north and keep driving until you see a giant floating jackalope off to your right. You can’t miss it! If you reach LA, you’ve gone too far.
Oh, boy! I’ll just… Wait a minute. Just drive north? Till you see a floating jackalope?
Maybe I’m not really competent to write about forgeries, far less spot them.
The “museum” is, of course, just a web site. I would have tumbled to that eventually, when I scrolled down to the “Staff” section:
Curator Pretending to be in Charge of a Museum
Deputy Curator in Charge of Fire, Electricity, Dead Pigeons, Insane Hamsters, Frog Skeletons, Poltergeists, and Medical Curiosities of All Kinds
I seem to have wandered far from my serious and entirely justified research project. And it’s lunch time. I’ll leave the rest for another day.
You may notice that I didn’t say writing “in” December? The only thing I’ll be writing this month will be this blog post, addresses on envelopes for Christmas cards, and checks as gifts. I don’t even need to sign my photo Christmas cards—our names come pre-printed.
As luck would have it, this poem (mostly) popped out of my mouth while I was in the basement bedroom sewing Christmas presents. I believe this is the first poem I have written since grade school, over fifty years ago. And that one was better than this one.
I apologize in advance—the use of “poem” in reference to what is written below is hyperbole at its best/worst. I blame the poem and my willingness to post it to our esteemed blog on the stress I have been under as a result of December and Christmas.
Most wonderful time of the year. Kids must behave and adults gear Up. Up. And up. Photos to scour for cards and calendars. Hurry before Snapfish wants more of your dollars.
Envelopes to address. Stamps to buy. Cookies to bake and apple pie. Presents to make. Who spends time crafting presents anymore? No one! That is what Amazon is for.
Who gets what? How much? Oh, to heck with it. Everyone gets a gift certificate. Secrets to keep. A tree to cut and lights to string. Decorations. Carols to sing.
Parties to attend and surprises to hatch.
Parties to plan and Hallmark movies to watch.
Do not forget
The Hallmark movie drinking game,
Carrots to leave for reindeer tame.
Stockings filled by Santa before milk and cookie, Smiles of children at presents placed under the tree, Make it worthwhile. Christmas night all is calm, the gifts put away. We’ll do it all over, come what may.
Heidi here. I’m in book jail, and I’m not writing fast enough. I was already not writing fast enough when I came down with the flu. The words dried up completely. Here are my four tried-and-sometimes-true methods for making the deadline anyway.
- The filing method: shuffle paper (or electrons.) Look through all those appended notes for corrections and improvements. Organize them. You may use pretty-colored file folders to do this. If you get lucky, some sentence will click and you find yourself writing instead of amending.
- The copy editing method: You’re going to have to weed those adverbs eventually. Start the line-by-line read-through. The upside of this method is the same as for Number One. Some connection will appear that sets you to churning out words for elsewhere in your book. If worst comes to worst, you end up with fewer adverbs and cleaner prose.
- The jig-saw method. Bring up on your screen all the hopeless dreck you’ve generated while trying to get your current chapter right. Clip out the substantive bits that simply must be in the final version or the plot won’t work. Dump them in a new file. Try to make them fit with each other. This method works the way physical jig-saw puzzles do: each sentence — even each phrase — that meets your eye might just fit over here… or over here… or…. And you’re just going to do one more piece before you stop. Really.
- The butt-on-chair method. For those of us raised as New England Puritans, this is Number One, not Number Four. If you were a serious writer and a virtuous person, you would simply ignore your illness, sit down and write. The result would be War and Peace or the Iliad, at least. On account of your will power, you see. The fact that this is a total crock never penetrates the Puritan mind. Neither does the fact that if you try it, you succeed only by using methods 1, 2 or 3.
You’re going to be sick no matter what you do. But if you can bring yourself to put your hands on that keyboard, and something does click, for some blessed number of minutes, you’ll forget to feel sick.
Holiday tip: check out The Harvard Book Store’s Holiday Hundred