Category Archives: writing conferences
On Not Winning the Freddie
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The Freddie Award for Writing Excellence is awarded annually to the best unpublished, uncontracted and unagented mystery submitted to the Florida Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.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.
The score is 0 to 3
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.
I love my ladies
Spoiler alert…I’m indulging in some writer whining. Again.
Tonight, a remake of a movie that holds a special place in my heart, “Dirty Dancing,” airs on ABC. Among many other negative reviews, TV Guide had this to say: “In an era where actual dirty dancing…has gone so mainstream that Katie Couric knows how to do it, this adaptation does not tango with the present…”
And yet, knowing that it will be a huge disappointment, I will watch it.
I’ve registered for the 2017 New England Crime Bake. Without allowing myself to consider what it would entail, I paid the extra $49 for the Agent and Editor Program, which includes critiques of a pitch and a query as well as the opportunity to pitch to an agent.
Initially I thought that I should pitch my current project, Gabby, at the conference. She’s nowhere near ready but if I focus on her I might be able to whip her into shape by November. What does pitching Gabby do to my plans for a trilogy that takes place in Woodbury, NH?
If I am committed to creating a trilogy, I am pretty certain it doesn’t make sense to pitch the novel that is chronologically the last one (Gabby). I am also pretty certain that it would be incredible if at the Crime Bake I could pitch a cohesive trilogy.
The truth is that in addition to Gabby, my other rough drafts are not ready to be pitched. Anne, Olivia, and Claire. Yes, that is four novels not three but Anne is begging to be joined with her daughter Olivia, and if I acquiesce, I will have a trilogy. But Anne has no murder. Or murderer. My list of characters reveals that I can change a death to a murder and provides a potential murderer. That was easier than I expected. Now for some suspects…
However, that is not the biggest issue with Anne and Olivia. It’s somewhat like Katie Couric and dirty dancing. The premise works for 1993, when it is set, but not so much in 2017. Will it be relevant to readers?
Claire is next. She has some flexibility as to when she takes place but as a senior citizen she is aging the longer she waits. Luckily, she is endowed with a murder, murderer and some suspects. And a man in the attic is timeless.
So now I’ve created a three-headed monster: Anne/Olivia, Claire, Gabby. Do I put Gabby aside and return to Anne/Olivia because she started all of this? Is what I’ve invested hours of time and brain cells into worth resuscitating? Or am I trying to breathe life into a bunch of Word files that I would be better off jettisoning into the Trash folder?
Funny how I can hear a little voice in my head, let’s call him John, giving me some advice—most likely because I have posed this same question to my writing group numerous times. Don’t worry about a trilogy, just focus on getting one novel in good shape so you can pitch it in November. Burn those early writings. They were just practice. And that’s just some of what I assume his advice would be.
But I love my ladies.
The Ick Factor
The Thursday Night Writers had another set-to this week over my exploding canary. Only four of us were present this time, but the controversy has raged through the whole group since I submitted the first draft of chapter 36 – longer ago than I care to admit.
Here’s the passage:
For my part, I kept the Stark file spread out all over my desk, like one of those impossible variations on solitaire. I inspected every line of every document, straining for some way in which it might imply a deadly secret. I marked Jeremiah’s house purchase with a Post-it memo to trace the sellers. Somehow, the sale wasn’t legitimate? Or Jeremiah’s check bounced? Or maybe way earlier, somebody with the same name had just pretended to be a descendant of Enoch Stark when they bought the house? Pretty thin, Eliza. But it got another yellow sticky note. In the end, the solitaire game looked like an explosion in a canary.
Disregard the plot conundrum. It can’t be quickly explained, and the only problem, as far as the TNWs were concerned, was the canary.
One member is admittedly squeamish. She loves cozies because of their basic rule: no explicit sex or gratuitous violence. Simile or not, she does not want a piecemeal canary obtruded into her consciousness. In a later chapter, a mere reference to “my canary” in the context of the annotated documents was enough to set her off. (Granted, she had been recently lacerated by an episode involving a frog in William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. It wasn’t a good week to reprise the canary.)
The others, it seemed to me, were going deeper into the image than … I was going to say “a normal person,” but perhaps I should just say “the reader” is likely to. There was speculation as to the appearance of a real exploded canary. A consensus emerged that the resulting color would not be yellow. I believe someone brought up the probable radius of the debris. And there was me, just visualizing little Tweety-colored feathers floating down.
The title of this post comes from a critique I received from Mary Carroll Moore, with whom I’ve taken two live workshops and one online class. She used it when she advised me to abandon the opening sentence of my novel and, indeed, to remove all technical or at least all vivid medical details from the scene, which takes place in a doctor’s office. Here’s the paragraph:
I don’t deny that I was riddled with parasites. I always was when I got back from a field trip. But I saw no reason for Brad to take that tone with a woman twice his age. His father never had a problem with my parasites.
I submitted that paragraph, as part of my first two pages, to a panel at the New Hampshire Writers Day last year. The panel consisted of well-known NH writers – all genres, not just mysteries. Each submission was read aloud by the moderator. The panelists were instructed to raise their hands at the first word, phrase or other issue that “stopped” them.
When my first sentence was read, three out of four of them jumped, but no hand went up. Which means…? You tell me. Please.
(We got well down the second page before I got a hand. Several at once, in fact. But that’s another story.)
So maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m made of grosser clay than the average cozy fan. Or maybe I just make my friends and seek advice from lovely people who are more-than-average refined. The one thing I’m sure of is that neither the canary idea nor the existence of parasites would boggle the mind of my protagonist. So maybe I’ll keep them both.
The Ick Factor may be on my mind at the moment because of the winning response to the challenge I posed in my last blog: to use in mystery plot the following two words:
Ylem: (in big bang theory) the primordial matter of the universe
Feague: To put a live eel up a horse’s bottom. An eighteenth-century horse dealer’s trick to make an old horse seem lively.
And the winner is….
Judy W.! She commented:
Your current words call to mind a Dick Francis-like mystery set in a racing stable. “The feaguing of the poor horse set loose an explosive diarrhea in the stall that splattered the walls like ylem after the Big Bang. Underneath the residue lay the missing gambler.” Ugh. Sorry, but you did issue a challenge.
Congratulations, Judy! After that, an exploding canary is nothing. It wouldn’t even cover up a dead gambler.
Descriptions are for Feeling
I’ve spent this week altering plot points in an important scene in my mystery novel. Since first I wrote it, the characters have evolved, their motivations have changed, and clues have moved, both geographically and logically. But when I surfaced from the job, I found that I had written almost nothing but plot. The reader was getting far too little help visualizing the scene precisely, getting the details that make places and events real and memorable.
Back to my trusty pocket notebook. It contains much plotless writing about things that have seized my eyes and my mind for reasons I wouldn’t even try to explain. None of them are directly relevant to my book. Still, reading these passages fills my mind with the experience of just noticing, of Being There. Maybe they’ll inspire me to find the details that will make my not-too-bad scene really good.
Here are a few of my pocket-notebook inspirations. I’d love to read some of yours.
At a meeting of our local weekly discussion group:
V_____ (a husband) talking, making sense, but pretty platitudinous. J____ (his wife) listening with unchanged expression and posture, but the hand holding her off-V_____ elbow was massaging it, tightening and loosening regularly.
G___ (a husband) discussing photos of galaxies in a book he owned, which he had already discussed with R______ (his wife.) He was addressing the rest of the group with the same arguments he and she had already gone over, but his eyes were usually on her, reliving their own discussion. A committed couple.
At a writing conference:
Up on stage, an author on a panel yaws his orange, desk-style chair rapidly left and right in a short arc. The other authors, in identical chairs, are perfectly still.
A writer teaches a class. As he speaks, in time with an upward lilt at the end of each sentence, his face first rises straight up, then straight out, always maintaining its vertical plane. With the adolescent (he’s not one) intonation, the gesture seems to mean, “You do see, don’t you? Am I being clear? Do you agree?” Sweet, if a bit phony. Yet somehow the gesture also seems mildly aggressive, snakelike.
In the room where I write:
A bird flew into the glass of the door to the balcony behind me. There was a softer thump than usual. I hoped that this would be one of the occasions when the bird just flew off with a headache. But when I went to look, he was lying on the balcony floor. I knelt to look, and saw that his eyes were open and unblinking. (At least I thought they were, but what color are a sparrow’s eyelids?) He wasn’t still. He lay on one wing and his little body was rocking quickly on its longest axis, backforth, backforth, backforth. I saw that he was not convulsing. There was no other movement, no movement of any part. Just his whole body, backforth, backforth, backforth. How could he do that without pushing any part of him against the floor? Then I realized that his heartbeat was moving him. In back and forth, I saw systole and diastole. Bismarck (my cat) came to the door and chittered. When I wouldn’t let him through, he sat and watched. I left, and when I returned, the bird was gone.
Months later: I am working at a card table. My elbows are braced on the table, coffee mug between my hands. My knapsack-purse stands across the table. I am motionless, but one strap of the purse, the looser and closer one, trembles. Why? I am seeing systole and diastole, my own.
A fruit fly remains on a piece of white paper where I put some grapes. A single fruit fly casts a shadow, even on an overcast day.
In the summer Music Tent in Aspen:
A description of Finns. I call them Finns because I think they might be, but more because the first of them I saw made me think at once of a Scandinavian gnome. He was an old man of middle height. We were sitting two rows up from him in the Benedict Music Tent, so I couldn’t see whether white hair sprouted from his ears. But his face was such that I was sure of the ear hair. His skin was a dark brown, but it looked weathered rather than tanned. Or perhaps “tanned” in the sense of leather. Large wrinkles divided his face into subsections. His eyebrows were wild, almost long enough to obscure his vision. His nose was large and long and bulbous, three lumps separated by two none-too-narrow narrower places. His mouth was wide, his lips not especially so. He was smiling, nodding, and talking energetically with the people who accompanied him. They were Aspen Standard, as far as I could see. I can’t remember whether I saw that his teeth were scraggly or assumed it. He was wearing standard old-guy-in-Aspen clothes, a vaguely Western sports shirt and slacks.
The woman was sitting in the row behind them. She came in later with other people, but they all seemed to know one another. My first thought was that she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. But at the same time, her face was welcoming. I had to work not to stare, and then not to be caught staring. She was the man’s age and about the same height. Her skin was almost as brown as his, very smooth but speckled with large age spots. Aside from the old-lady, nose-to-chin wrinkles, she had almost none. In profile, her face made a perfect convex curve. Her chin was well back, but not receding in a slant; it looked firm, and she didn’t have the feeble, chinless look of a Bertie Wooster. Like the man, she had high cheekbones and a very notable nose. Her nose curved like a raptor’s beak, but not like a witch’s: it didn’t curve back in, but ended at its outermost point, with the septum horizontal to the ground. Not small, but neat. Both man and woman had large ears, his relatively larger than hers, but her hair framed her ears and made them stand out. Her hair was long but not full, clipped back with barrettes behind the ears and straggling down her back. From the roots to her shoulders, it was a slightly grayish white. There, in a visible line, it became a faded, reddish light brown, as if some instantaneous shock had flipped a switch in her scalp. She too was smiling and talking, and her expression made me want to know her.
Now, back to my scene. I’m going for three, very short details with the feel of these passages. I suppose “short” will be the hard part.
Surviving New England Crime Bake, NaNoWriMo, and Babysitting
Already the middle of November and this is my first blog post of the month. That means you’ve had two full weeks of not listening to me extol the pleasures of NaNoWriMo participation soon followed by my wails of despair as my word count lags behind my goal of 1,667 words a day.
This year was going to be different, of that I was confident. First of all, I started with a detailed outline of approximately the first ten thousand words of the minimum fifty thousand words required. Imagine the shock of this pantser turned plotter when I discovered that writing from the outline was easy. When the outline ran out, I transformed back into a pantser. And the writing transformed into it’s normal state: hard work.
I didn’t let that minor obstacle slow me down. Ignoring most everything else going on in my life, I focused on my novel, racking up well over the daily minimum word count. The New England Crime Bake, an annual mystery conference for writers and readers, was coming up, November 11th through the 13th, and my goal was to spend those three days in Dedham, Massachusetts, without even thinking about my NaNo novel. Except for those moments of pure inspiration when I had to jot down a note for my novel, I almost achieved that goal.
I don’t recall anyone mentioning NaNoWriMo at Crime Bake…There was plenty else to talk about, many wonderful people–published authors and wannabes like myself–to meet, and much to learn. Hallie Ephron’s master class, “The Character Web,” provided a unique way of looking at character development. Julie Hennrikus, Bruce Coffin, and B A Shapiro, among others, enlightened and entertained. My attention never wavered from the Guest of Honor, William Kent Krueger, during his talk, “High Roads and Low: A Writer’s Journey.” He looks like the twin of one of our writing group members–and even Kent agreed!
As soon as I returned from a weekend away with adults I was immersed into babysitting for our two New Hampshire grandchildren for a week. Luckily they are in school all day, as I needed a full day to recuperate from Crime Bake as well as a full week to get caught up on NaNoWriMo. Enough said.
This afternoon, typing away on my laptop, I happened on the “Ultimate Survival Alaska” show on the National Geographic Channel. I’ve never seen this show before, and technically I wasn’t watching it, I really was working on NaNoWriMo. I quickly identified with some of the competitors struggling to win their race. One of the women fell into the whitewater she appeared unequipped to handle. She floated down to her raft that another team member had stopped for her and climbed into it. They took a break on shore where she emptied out her boots of water and removed her wet socks. I realized that if they could put themselves into physical danger to win a race surely I could write a book sitting on my couch in the comfort of my home with the furnace running and a snuggly fleece blanket wrapped around my legs, a hot cup of tea for sustenance.
I can do this.
Thanks to my spot in the TNW blogging schedule, my report on Malice Domestic 2015 can’t be news, it’s already olds. (For those who don’t know, MD is an annual convention of those who love ‘traditional mysteries.’ Think Dorothy L. Sayers.) So I’ll skip the usual list of superlatives – just google the program — and instead I’ll tell you about the people, things and events that really got me where I live or made me wonder.
Item: Why does a vendor of nesukes and other Asian carvings in glass or stone take a booth every year in the Malice dealers’ room? The booth next door sells jewelry, which makes sense since perhaps 95% of the attendees are female. All the others booths sell books old and new or hand out information on other conventions. Why netsukes?
Naturally, I opened my wallet. This is what I bought:
I recognized it instantly. Here is my first book, breaking out of its egg. I had been expecting an angel.
I don’t know what its Chinese maker thought it was. The vendor told me that she instructs her supplier on what to carve, but the objects that travel back over the Silk Road may or may not comply. The carvings of birds are wonderful. The cats too are very much like cats. The horses begin to morph into strange, wavy beasts, especially about the nose. And the vendor says that, describe as she will, her carvers cannot produce a coyote. Her coyote standards are high; she raised litters of them in her kitchen for years.
My theory on the demand for netsukes at MD is that they embody convolution. Everything is folded back on itself, twisted out of shape, more complicated than it should be, but in the end, you can hold it all in one hand. Just like a good mystery.
Item: How could it come about that Marcia Talley, author of several excellent mysteries, an Agatha Award winner and a 2015 MD panelist, looks precisely like Eliza Harris, protagonist-to-be of my first mystery? She was kind enough to let me take a photo. Here is Marcia/Eliza:
The physical resemblance is amazing, but the core of the coincidence is a matter of style. Marcia comes across as warm and open, but there is an enlivening tang of acid in her take on things. The opening sentence of her first mystery, Sing It to Her Bones, could almost have been said by Eliza, mutatis mutandis: “When I got cancer, I decided I wasn’t going to put up with crap from anybody anymore.”
Item: Where does the booze fit in? As far as I could see, MD attendees are fairly abstemious. At least I was invited to no wild parties and heard no reports of trashed hotel rooms. (I may just be unpopular.) But the Hyatt Hotel bar was Malice Central; every chair was occupied from an early hour, and those weren’t tea cups on the tables. How much of the three-day, non-stop effervescence was powered by sheer creativity, and how much by the traditional writers’ fuel?
The tipple of choice seemed to be wine, but here and there the drinks of the Golden Age appeared. On the first afternoon, two of the rare male attendees were bracing themselves to face the female maelstrom:
And a final item, the hats. The Hyatt bar notwithstanding, Malice Domestic ends with a tea party, a formal tea party with glittery place settings, scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam. It is the custom for the Guppies to wear feather boas, whatever else their costume. (Guppies = “The Great Unpublished,” a subgroup of Sisters in Crime, the association of — mostly — female traditional mystery writers. ) Regardless of publication status, ladies of verve appear at the tea in hats. No, in HATS. The year 2016 will see me shopping for something to rival these: