Tag Archives: books

The Naked Audience

I had a public speaking engagement coming up. In fact, my publisher had arranged to have me do a reading/signing of my first book, Bipolar Me, at the local Barnes & Noble.

I do suffer from anxiety but, perhaps surprisingly, this did not have me paralyzed with fear. For one thing, I had supportive friends. Although the most common advice given to people who do public speaking is to picture the audience naked, a friend of mine offered to picture me naked instead if I thought it would help. And my husband offered to stand in the back of the room and shout, “Show us your tits!” if I started to freeze up. Such helpful friends I have!

Perhaps the reason that public speaking doesn’t terrify me is that I studied speech and debate in high school. Once you’ve been in an extemporaneous speaking contest and drawn the topic “If a chicken had lips, could it whistle?” there’s little that can daunt you in the future. (For those interested, I said, no, it could not.)

I also have some experience teaching college and business school English. Sometimes this endeavor was fraught with peril. Once I was teaching a lesson based on a reading about AIDS and one of the students informed me she had heard that it started in Africa with people “messing with monkeys.” I told the class that I denied that was what happened.

One student piped up, “People do screw sheep, you know.” (He did not say “screw.”) I knew this was meant to disconcert me. “Mr. Chadwick,” I replied, “can you please tell us what disease you can get from screwing sheep?” (I did not say “screw” either.) He did a perfect spit-take, the only one I have ever caused or indeed seen in real life.

(I referred to my students as Mr., Ms., or any other courtesy title they were entitled to, on the theory that if they were required to call me Ms. Coburn, I should extend the same dignity to them. But I digress.)

I had even done public speaking at business functions. Once I had to address a group at a power breakfast meeting, introducing a new magazine that the publishing company I worked for was launching. I even opened with a joke. (“I thought that since we’re launching a new magazine, I should open with a toast. My husband said, ‘A toast? At breakfast?’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘how about cinnamon raisin toast?'”) There were gratifying chuckles.

Another time, I was asked to give a humorous talk at the retirement dinner of my boss. (Again, my husband was prepared to stand in the back and heckle.) I borrowed a technique I had seen used at a business conference and created an imaginary slide show. I used one of those little clicker gizmos that nuns used to carry in Catholic schools to “advance” the slides and then described whatever scene I wanted to set up a punchline. (“Here’s a picture of Carl dressed as The Big Bad Wolf for Halloween. The next day he called in sick with distemper.”) Afterward, they gave me $100, so I suppose now I can call myself a professional stand-up comic.

My Barnes & Noble talk, though, didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Only two of my friends showed up (plus my husband). Luckily the event was held in the bookstore’s cafe and I managed to suck in a few patrons, especially during the question and answer session. I had to skip my introduction, as the audience already knew me, and cut my joke, too. (“What is bipolar disorder like? It’s like sex. You can’t adequately explain it to someone who’s never had it.”)

Anyway, I counted the appearance as a success. I read a few short pieces from my book, which I had cleverly printed out in large type beforehand so I wouldn’t squint. I signed a book for one of my friends and a bunch for the store so they could put “Signed by the Author” stickers on them. One member of my accidental audience asked for my autograph and a few words of wisdom, though she didn’t buy a book.

And the store said they’d be glad to have me back when my second book, Bipolar Us, comes out later this year. No joke.

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Where the Weirdos Go

Where do the weirdos go to have fun? “Nowhere,” you may think. “They stay in their parents’ basements, turn pale from lack of sunlight, and debate the ending of the most recent Avengers movie.”

Well, you’re in for a surprise. There’s a place where geeks go to socialize, share, and occasionally even get laid. It’s the science fiction convention (aka “con”). Although there will be people dressed as Klingons and furries (look it up), many of the trappings of an SF con resemble those of any other kind of convention. Panel discussions, book signings, an art exhibit, a dealer’s room, a hospitality suite, parties, music, perhaps a dance. There also may be children’s programming, science guests, and, in the case of the con I plan to go to in May, animals from the Columbus Zoo.

Because I look to the outside observer like a fairly typical middle-aged lady, I get asked a lot by other hotel guests, “Who exactly are these people?”

“They’re mostly harmless,” I reply. (Thereby quoting from one of the classic SF novels, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) And that’s the truth. Even though they may wear authentic Scottish dirks, Viking swords, and lightsabers, they are indeed harmless. They are simply people who lead, as one song says, “Rich Fantasy Lives.” They are the geeks. Nerds. Outsiders. Every variety of misfit.

Including me and my husband. I’ve been going to cons ever since I was a stringer for Cincinnati magazine and was sent to cover one by my editor. There I wrote a 400-word piece and met people who would become my lifelong friends. (The editor had chosen me for the assignment because she remembered that I was a reader of science fiction when she knew me in high school. But I digress.)

The people who attend cons are not all Trekkies or get-a-lifes or people who think they’re from another planet. There are writers (like me) and scientists, but also musicians and career consultants and academics and lawyers and advertising people and zookeepers and all varieties of creative types from folklorists to woodworkers.

Why do they gather in these numbers (up to the thousands), in these hotels, in these tribes? Fellowship. Camaraderie. Stimulation. Understanding. Friendship. Shared interests. Fascinating discussions. Movies and novels and video games. Even love.

I’ll admit that I haven’t been to a con in years. I know that, unlike at a business convention, almost anything I do will be all right. I can hang with friends or sit in the lobby reading. I can join a large, raucous group for dinner or order a pizza in my room. I can attend parties where I know no one or concerts where I know everyone. I can be opinionated and argue or be quiet and learn. Generally, only overt violence and sexual harassment are disallowed.

And I can wear my NASA t-shirt, my Fahrenheit 451 t-shirt, or my Death Star/Ceci n’est pas une lune t-shirt (okay, I’m a language geek too). No biz casual for me. No booth duty while the salespeople power-lunch. The only booths will be in the art exhibit and the room selling shirts, books, CDs, and costuming supplies. (Cosplay is a big thing at this particular convention. Look it up.)

It’s true that after all the business conventions, I get a bit of anxiety around so many people. But the other attendees may too, and they will understand. After all, we are mostly misfits, from the over-intelligent to the socially awkward to the nearly completely unsocialized. But I’ll have a hotel room full of close friends (sharing rooms is a tradition) and a hotel full of potential friends.

So, as the song says, “Don’t be unkind to a wandering mind/Just say it again if we missed it./Some whispering poem/Was calling us home/To a place we know never existed.” Or exists for a weekend at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, anyway.

 

Projects: The Back Burner

Even regarding a life-long passion, I think a person can be too devoted to something. Note I said “something,” not “someone.” I’m not here to deny that kind of passion. In fact, I rather enjoy it. I just think that, sometimes, being too devoted can get in the way of accomplishing anything.

Take projects, for example. I know many a crafter or artist who has a back room filled with fabric, yarn, beads, canvas, clay, or patterns, but nothing at all in a state of completion. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When the muse refuses to cooperate, it helps to have a backup plan. There’s always a different pillow to stuff, doll to repair, painting to start, song to write, or sweater to knit.

I’ve had my share of unfinished needlepoint, counted-cross stitch, and latchhook projects, but they fell to the wayside as my eyesight has worsened.

I still have partial writing projects, though, simmering on the back burner.

I have recently had my first book published, but I’m here to tell you it’s far from the first one I wrote. I had more or less abandoned it and gone on to other projects when exactly the right publisher appeared, hungry for exactly the manuscript I had in the back of my drawer.

The fact that it was in the back of my proverbial drawer (actually a folder on my computer) may have meant that I had despaired of placing the manuscript, but not that I was done writing. All through my life, I’ve had several writing projects going, in various stages of completion. When one stalled, I would work on another.

I once wrote a murder mystery, a thinly disguised version of killing off my Rotten Ex-Boyfriend Who Almost Ruined My Life. I figured if that didn’t make me feel better, I could kill him off again in the sequel. But aside from a few positive comments on my “voice” and some great advice from Sue Grafton at a writers’ workshop, it went nowhere except to the back burner. And has stayed there ever since. Will I ever turn up the heat on it? I wouldn’t rule it out.

I tried again, with a nonfiction book this time about cartoon character Lisa Simpson. I ignored the fact that Fox would have a thing or two to say about a book based around one of their copyrighted characters. This time when I submitted a proposal to agents, I got back the one thing I never expected: not an acceptance, but a really great rejection letter. It was obvious from it that the person had done a thorough reading of my manuscript and thought about exactly why it wouldn’t fly.  Then she told me, in detail.

I abandoned that project (no back burner for that one, just lessons learned) and moved on to blogging. I had been blogging weekly for several years when it occurred to me that I had enough material for a book. A friend suggested that I give it a try. So off went proposals for Bipolar Me. Dozens of proposals, for several years. No dice. Eventually, I gave up. Back it went, on the burner or in the drawer, until an indie publisher swooped in and resurrected it. Now it’s available on Amazon, Nook, and Apple.

I haven’t completely given up the idea of fiction. I’ve got a new mystery that’s pretty close to being finished – if only I could figure out what needs to happen in that one pivotal chapter that still hasn’t come together. Right now, it’s on the back burner, waiting for a burst of creative fire to get me going on it again.

I’ve also got a number of humorous essays from this blog that I’m eager to turn into something. That’s what I’m working on now while I wait for the mystery to come together. And if neither one of them shows any forward motion, I’ve always got these blogs to write. I may never run out of manuscripts, circulating out in the world, stagnant on my hard drive, or on the back burner, just waiting to bubble.

At least they only clutter up my hard drive and not my whole study.

 

 

The Grinch-Hating Grinch

Don’t get me wrong. I love Dr. Seuss. But I think the latest adaptation of the Grinch makes two too many.

I used to check out his works from the Bookmobile until my mother insisted that I get at least one book by another author at every visit. Although my all-time favorite was Green Eggs and Ham, I had a soft spot in my heart for How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

I was young enough to be thrilled when the book was made into a cartoon that was shown every Christmas from 1966 on. Who could possibly be better than Boris Karloff to narrate and voice the Grinch? And the uncredited Thurl Ravenscroft to sing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” (Trivia note: You may know Ravenscroft as the voice of Tony the Tiger in all those cereal commercials.) It was perfect just the way it was.

Since then there have been two other versions, both big-screen adaptations, a live-action version in 2000 starring Jim Carrey, and the other this year, a CGI animated movie with the main character voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. I have not been to see either one and have no intention of seeing them when they are shown on TV. I am a total Grinch about any version except the real Grinch.

There were difficulties in making the 1966 version. The original Grinch was a poem of only 32 lines. To make it into a cartoon that would run 30 minutes (or however long it was without commercials) required some creative stretches. The Ravenscroft song was added, of course, plus a lot of comic bits featuring the dog Max, the Whos singing around the tree, and extended visualizations of the Grinch preparing his Santa suit and maneuvering down Mt. Crumpet. They all fit neatly into the narrative. Not one moment seemed out of place.

The Jim Carrey live-action version ran 105 minutes and Benedict Cumberbatch’s, 86 minutes. No matter how clever their additions to the basic plot, they could only serve to clutter Seuss’s simple plot and spot-on characterizations. At over an hour each, that’s a lot of stretching.

That’s the problem with remakes or reboots or reloads or whatever they want to call them. They almost never live up to the original. Bedazzled, for example, was a perfect little gem starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I didn’t mind the gender-swapping of having Elizabeth Hurley as the Devil (with Brendan Fraser as her hapless foil), but the broader style of humor, including throwing away one of the best gags in the original, was in no way better.

There are other examples. Think of The Thomas Crown Affair, The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or any of the Inspector Clouseau movies. None of those were necessary. The movies were just fine the way they were. (The only really good update – and it was an adaptation, not a straight remake – was when the ultra-serious Zero Hour was morphed into the uber-comic classic Airplane!)

I do understand the motivations behind these remakes, primarily money. Proven classics should be proven box office hits the second or third or fourth time around, and the producers, directors, and writers don’t even have to think up new plots and characters.

Then there’s the excuse of “introducing a new generation of young people to a classic film using stars they’re familiar with.” Jimmy Stewart and Gene Tierney stand the test of time and so do many others. It’s too bad that most people only see their work if they take a film class in college.

At any rate, I boycotted the Jim Carrey Grinch and will do the same for Benedict Cumberbatch’s. If that makes me a Grinch, so be it. I realize that my singular protest will affect them and their box office prospects not in the slightest. I shall do it anyway.

For the memory of Dr. Seuss, if nothing else.

Getting Closer to a Real Book

book chapter six
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I’ve written before about publishing a book and how amazing it feels to get a response to a query from a publisher, a request for a complete manuscript, and an author contract.

There are even more joys to come, big things that make your book more and more real and smaller things that make you grin. Here are some of mine.

Being assigned an editor. Another person is now actually working on your book, helping to make it into something real and better.

Working with said editor. I’ve been an editor myself and know what it is like. It can be a game like chess by mail (or email, in this case). Your editor – in my case Aaron Smith from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – sends you a tracked manuscript with suggested changes and you accept them or not.

For my book, the great majority of editorial changes were right on, particularly in the matter of punctuation. I have a tendency to overuse commas, parens, and dashes. These are things that feel like my natural voice in writing but aren’t necessary or even correct. Aaron also helped me see where my writing needed to be fleshed out and where links to other sites were superfluous. Only one round of back-and-forth was needed before we both were satisfied.

Getting an ISBN number and barcode. If you’ve ever looked at the back of a real book, one you’ve bought at a store, you’ll notice the ISBN number and the barcode. The barcode, of course, allows someone to know the price and pay for the book. The ISBN number is what tells you you’re got a real book. Here’s an explanation from the International ISBN Agency: “An ISBN is essentially a product identifier used by publishers, booksellers, libraries, internet retailers and other supply chain participants for ordering, listing, sales records and stock control purposes. The ISBN identifies the registrant as well as the specific title, edition and format.” A real book!

The cover process. I understand that with large book publishers you simply take what you are given. My small, indie publisher, however, sent me a copy of what they came up with and allowed me to comment on it. It’s nice to be asked. They even gave me a do-over and a new designer when I didn’t like the first version.

The galleys. Or in this case, a copy of the documents laid out in spreads, like the open pages of the book it will be. I reminded the publisher that I wanted a dedication to my husband, suggested a way to make the table of contents a bit clearer, and pointed out when one essay title was in the wrong font. I don’t know if there will be final galleys after this, but if there are, I will read them thoroughly and promptly.

The bound books. I am not yet up to the point of this ultimate thrill, but I anticipate it with great incipient glee. When the box of 25 books arrives on my doorstep, I will, after my husband picks it up and brings it inside, rip it open, make high-pitched sounds of delight, and insist that many photos be taken of me posing with the books and in my Eliezer Tristan Publishing t-shirt and signing a book for Dan.

Then I will get to decide who gets an autographed copy and who has to wait for it to come to a bookstore near them.

The launch party. This is still theoretical at the moment, as I can’t afford to throw an actual party. Perhaps a local bookstore or library will let me do a reading and I can call that a launch party. Or maybe my friend Tom, who does online concerts, can coach me through an online launch.

The t-shirt. Completely optional. But my husband has said that he will take an image of the cover and have it printed on a t-shirt for us both to wear. Maybe we can call it advertising and take it off our taxes.

Then I can get to the really important stuff – promoting my book and selling it, which the publishers will also be doing. It takes a real book to be able to do that.

Writing: Other People’s Lives

cold snow person winter
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It is often recommended that writers write what they know. Unfortunately, this has led to a plethora of novels written by angsty professors about how an angsty professor finds renewed spirit via an affair with a ripe coed.

Writing what one knows is also difficult when one has led a basically boring life. Not everyone is Steve Irwin or Jack Ryan or Jacques Cousteau, after all. I for one have never climbed a mountain, thwarted a spy, or been a spy for that matter. Must I restrict my writing to the everyday adventures of a former English major who has two cats and enjoys crossword puzzles? What a snooze!

There are a few geniuses who’ve managed it. Most notable is Martin Cruz Smith with Gorky Park. Without having been to Russia, this superstar writer made us all believe in his snow-covered, KGB-infused vision.

For him, and for the rest of us, there’s research.

Obviously, a nonfiction writer has to rely on research – interviews with the biography subject, police files on Jack the Ripper, the diaries of Sir Ernest Shackleton. This does not, however, preclude adding a personal touch to the facts. Take Mary Roach’s work, for example. She may never have been an employee of NASA or gone to Mars herself, but her Packing for Mars is a masterpiece of factual research combined with first-person observation and idiosyncratic footnotes. For nonfiction writers, exploring other people’s lives is part and parcel of the genre. Even Rabid, a book about rabies, provides a glimpse into the lives of researchers, doctors, and victims.

For the fiction writer, research is a necessary evil as well. If you write a novel set in Victorian times, you can make it convincing only if you know what people then ate, how they dressed, what political upheavals affected their lives, and even how they used the English language. Even contemporary fiction requires research: What were the laws on the statute of limitations like in Ohio in the 2000s? What are the procedures involving releasing a person from prison? What does a meth lab smell like? These details may not add to your plot, but they can make or break the verisimilitude.

And of course the rule about writing what you know is right out the window with science fiction. You can research what is postulated about faster-than-light travel or colonies on Mars, but at some point you’re going to have to make that leap and write about a creature, a planet, a culture, a history that never existed.

It’s tricky when it comes to writing fiction about people. You can’t fashion every character after yourself (even if there’s a little piece of you in every character). And unless you want to be sued, you can’t write a villain as some specific person from your life, especially if they’re easily recognizable. Better to give that person a hook hand or a lisp, or make him over seven feet tall.

In my fiction writing, I give my characters small pieces of my life. I let my protagonist live in an apartment I once had and can describe in great detail. Another character gets a friend’s kitchen with the odd wallpaper border of ducks.

Then I do mashups for other characters. One gets the hairstyle of one friend, the hobbies of another, and the sexuality of a third. One has the appearance of someone I know and the lifestyle of a different person. Mashups keep me detail-oriented without borrowing too much from any one person. These imaginary amalgams allow me to visualize the characters clearly and not have to keep reminding myself whether the bad guy is tall and skinny or short and dumpy. I know how my model for his body moves, so I know how he moves too.

Until I can figure out a way to write an autobiographical novel about a middle-aged woman who hasn’t hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and hasn’t gone through astronaut training, I’ll keep doing my research and my mashups.

 

Beating the Rejection Slip

focus photo of yellow paper near trash can
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Writers fear them, yet they are inevitable: rejection slips. I’ve seen many a one in my life as a writer. (That’s what good about blogs. You never have to send yourself a rejection slip.) They can be cruel. They can be perfunctory, mass-produced and not even signed by a human being. An actual rejection slip may never arrive at all, leaving a writer to wait in anxious hope forever.

Rejection slips can be devastating. They can be empowering, too, in a strange sort of way. I’ve known writers who’ve defiantly papered their walls with rejection slips until they got a book contract. Once in a while a rejection slip comes that makes it clear the editor or agent has actually read the proposal or sample chapters. He or she may even provide helpful comments that can lead to improving your writing. Or the editor may say that your writing is good, although the book is just not for them. Those desperate for validation (most writers) treasure the first half of the evaluation.

Short story and nonfiction article writers and certainly poets get rejection slips, too. But the book rejection slip can be the most devastating because you may have spent literally years preparing your manuscript.

But here is a tale that may give you hope: I just beat the rejection slip. I have been offered an author contract.

How did I do it? I followed the rules. I gave up. Then I got lucky.

Since my book was a memoir (non-fiction), I knew that I had to prepare a proposal with sample chapters. (Fiction requires a completed manuscript, not just a proposal.)

Then I combed the Internet for agents that were accepting new clients and publishers that would accept proposals directly from authors. I sent out my query letters or proposals. I was very careful to send each recipient what they preferred and to make it meet their specs: query only, proposal only, proposal with three sample chapters, or ten pages, or whatever. I attached my proposal or pasted it into the email, whichever they wanted.

I tried to be at least a little sensible. I looked for people who wanted the kind of writing I was doing – nonfiction or memoir or mental health. I looked over their websites to see if there was one particular agent/editor who was more interested in my genre and addressed my query to that person. I never sent a “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” query.

I did this dozens of times. I kept a list of where I sent each and crossed them off when the rejections came.

And after a number of years and rejections, I gave up. I decided to abandon my book (by that time it was completely written) and move on to another book-length project in another genre.

While I was struggling with that manuscript, however (I still am), I noticed a new independent publisher who was looking for nonfiction books on mental health issues. So I said, what the hell? I was pretty much inured to rejection by then. I sent a query letter.

And I got a reply, within days. Did I have a proposal or a completed manuscript? Encouraged, I said that I had both. They asked to see the manuscript. And within a week, I had an offer. Given the length of my rejection list, I jumped at the chance.

I was a little wary of throwing in my lot with an indie publisher, and a start-up at that. But the founder was someone I had heard of, someone who was a noted expert and activist in the field of mental health. It was not a vanity press.

And now I have signed my author contract and been assigned an editor (I look forward to many fruitful conversations with him). They also introduced me to the intern who had picked my manuscript out of the slush pile, to whom I am eternally grateful.

I’m not a novice at writing. In addition to these blog posts, I have written and published nonfiction articles and children’s stories. But being a BOOK author is the best! The day I get my 25 printed copies I will indeed squee, long and hard.

Say hello to the next author from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – me!

 

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

Real Crime and Fake Crime

I am a fan of both kinds.

Perhaps I should say that I am a fan of writing about both kinds. Better known as true crime and mysteries, the two types of writing have made up a large percentage of my reading for many years – as well as science fiction, fantasy, and nonfiction that deals with science, nature, adventure travel, and more. (Think Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars and Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and you’re in the right area.)

I first got hooked on mysteries when we were visiting my grandmother and I dipped into her collection of Agatha Christies and Rex Stouts. I can’t remember when I first latched onto true crime books, but it may have been around the time of Jeffrey McDonald’s Fatal Vision.

Nevertheless, the two are decidedly not the same and no one should – or could – confuse the two.

Let’s get the really fictional crime fiction out of the way first: cozy mysteries and animal mysteries. Cozy mysteries are the sort with no blood and guts and no actual detective (except perhaps as a minor character to be out-thought by the intrepid librarian, gallery owner, or suburban mom). There is no way to confuse these novels with real life. Sorry, but bed and breakfast owners, golfers, and caterers do not solve crimes (though they certainly can be the victims of them), and the CIA doesn’t recruit grandmothers (though I like Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax series because they contain little travelogues and are soothing when you’re in bed with a cold). In real life, talking animals do not solve crimes either, though dogs may occasionally dig up a bone and thus start an investigation.

The crime fiction that comes the closest to real life is the subgenre called “police procedurals.” They don’t seem to be as popular lately as the police-or-private-detective-identifies-serial-killer-murderer-and-gets-to-be-a-target-as-well ones. But there are definite gems. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, is perhaps the best and the epitome of police procedurals. The main characters are police officers and the plots bear at least a slight resemblance to, well, police procedure.

In true crime, however, there is no tidy plot, nor a single detective (with or without civilian sidekick). Most real crime investigations involve dozens, if not hundreds of officers – unless they’re “cold cases,” when they might feature at least a handful. In crime fiction, the crime is solved neatly, with no or few loose ends unless a series of books is planned with a continuing arc for the criminal.

What happens in real life is nothing like that. There are crimes that are never solved. There are questions that will never be answered. There are “plot twists” that no editor would approve. In one true crime book I read, the serial killer was caught because he was stopped by a low-ranking police officer for a traffic infraction and was caught with a dead body in the back of his pick-up truck. That would be a crappy ending for a novel, but worked just fine in real life.

Of course, there are other crime-type books that are of interest. There are true-crime works like The Green River Killer (Jeff Jensen) that follow a complex investigation from beginning to end and Ann Rule’s books which read almost, but not quite, like fiction. And there are forensics-based fictionals like those by Kathy Reichs (which are nothing like the Bones TV show supposedly based on them), as well as forensics-based fact books like Teasing Secrets From the Dead by Emily Craig. Legal thrillers like the John Grisham novels also have wide appeal. Again, there are real-life legal cases that are comparable and have the added advantage of being true – Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi being the most famous.

I don’t watch much TV, but there are comparable forms of crime fact and fiction available there as well. Squeezing the cases into a scant hour may be preferable for people with short attention spans, but I always figure that they could, if they chose, read a book for an hour at a time and stretch out the fascination.

On the other hand, if you prefer cookbooks to “plucky baker solves crime” books, there’s plenty out there for you as well.

How to Write When the Muse Takes a Hike

We’ve all had those days when we simply turn away from a blank screen (or a blank piece of paper, if you’re a traditionalist) and say, “I just can’t write today.” And we’ve all had those passionate days when writing draws you to your keyboard and sucks you in and you can’t not write.

But what about those in-between days? Those when you think of writing and simply say, “meh.” How do we find inspiration or motivation or something to get us writing on those days?

There are the traditional motivators: deadlines and schedules. I’ve used both myself. (And most writers cherish the quote from Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”)

In fact, for my blogs I use both. I have a loose schedule in which I start writing on Wednesday and have a hard deadline of Sunday by noon to post them. Those have worked for me. But if I haven’t written anything by Friday, I get nervous, and that motivates me. Or it makes me consider reposting or repurposing an old post or one from the other blog. And repurposing is a form of writing.

But there are also less traditional motivators. Here are a few.

Boredom. This is closely related to avoidance of worse stuff. If there’s nothing happening in your life or in your house (I can hear all you parents laughing), don’t waste your time on tedious household chores. Sit down and write. Unless you’re writing ad copy for funny-looking tables, writing is not boring, or at least not as boring as, say, ironing. The ironing will still be there when you’re done writing. Believe me, no one else will do it. And no one else can do the writing.

Faking it. This has worked well for me when even the writing is boring (see ad copy, above). Pretend to write, just so that anyone walking past your desk will think you are writing. Write just one sentence. I’ve found that if I do that, I pretty much know what the next sentence should be. Before I know it, I’m writing!

If you really want to get some writing done, set out to write the first paragraph. Either you will realize what the next paragraph should be or you will realize that the paragraph you’ve written shouldn’t be the first one. Maybe it needs an intro. Maybe it should come later in the piece. By the time you’ve shoved it down, paragraph by paragraph, you’ll find where it goes, use it as the conclusion, or dispense with it altogether.

Reading. Read with attention and intention. Read something by your favorite writers and try to see the “bones” of their writing. Highlight whatever it is you’re struggling with, be it description, dialogue tags, or first-person narration.

Or read something serious and look for quotes that make you think. Then write about what you’re thinking. Agree or disagree; just write. Read a headline that makes you angry or puzzled or skeptical. Read the article and write a reply to it. Read the newspaper and write an op-ed. If you like, you can call this research, even though it looks to your family or your co-workers like you’re loafing.

Introductions and cover copy. Writing the preface to a book, even one that doesn’t exist yet, will (or should) give you a sense of the theme of the book. So what if you re-write it after you’ve finished the book? It’s a way to get started. Writing the cover copy or inner flap description can make you realize what you need to be writing. Say the cover copy you write says, “A suspenseful thriller that follows in the footsteps of Tom Clancy.” That can make you realize that what your book needs you to write is another suspenseful or thrilling scene. Or that you need to read more Tom Clancy (see reading, above).

Bad writing. You ought to know bad writing when you see it. It’s all around. Say to yourself, “I could write a better short story/blog post/advertisement/headline/sitcom script than that.” Then go do it. Even if that’s not the style or genre you usually write in, do it anyway. You’ll be exercising your brain and writing muscles. And at least you’ll be writing something, not staring at the blank screen or paper.

The future. If you want to be a published writer, you have to write. It’s not enough just to want it. You’ve got to do it. Every time you sit down and write will get you closer to that goal. Remind yourself of that dream and write, dammit! Even if what you write isn’t very good yet, there’s always the next draft, or your writer’s group, or the example of your favorite writers to encourage you.

At first, you may have to trick yourself into writing. But your writing may go more smoothly the next time. And the next time. And the next – until at last you summon the muse or the passion takes over. You know, the way you’ve always heard writing should be.