Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

The infectious prediction of thrillers

Friday, October 17th, 2014
The infectious prediction of thrillers

Some writers land in the right place at the right time. Others anticipate, showing us what life might look like in a few years if things go horribly wrong. Many of the near-futurists build their plots on epidemics. Bob Reiss (Black Monday) did it with oil. Patricia Gussin (Weapon of Choice) does it with biologics.

In Gussin’s novel, published in 2012 but set in 1985, thoracic surgeon Dr. Laura Nelson gets caught in a medical and bureaucratic firestorm when a fast-moving staph infection spreads through her hospital at the same time the facility receives its first AIDS patient. Aside from delivering a decent thriller, the author shows what happens when antibiotic-resistant infections spread, and how hospitals and agencies such as the CDC must work quickly to contain the disease.

Weapon-of-Choice-3DSince Gussin is not only a physician but the former vice president of consumer pharmaceuticals at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, she writes with great detail . . . and frightening authority. Frightening because people can use these microbes as weapons.

All of which leads us to the latest crisis in healthcare, the threat of an Ebola pandemic. People worry about travel and transmission. Writers evoke images of the plague. Institutions scramble to contain, treat and reassure.

In Gussin’s book, she details CDC protocols for isolation and decontamination. Have they improved since 1985? Do they work as well in airports as they do in books?

When you look into the near future, what do you see?

The secret life of writers

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014
The secret life of writers

For many authors, the secret to the thriller is a secret.

In Karin Slaughter’s novel Fractured, Will Trent tells no one except two confidants about his dyslexia. The special agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation strives to prevent people from using his disability to compromise his career. He suffers. The writing doesn’t.

In Harlen Coben’s The Woods, prosecutor Paul Copeland tries to keep secret his connection to the crime he’s compelled to investigate. As with Trent, backstory becomes backlash. His adversaries use that secret as a weapon. Coben treats it as an accelerant.

Both authors use that creative tension to drive their characters, and their stories.

How far would you go to hid something from your past?

Keeping the novel above stall speed

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
Keeping the novel above stall speed

A novel is a little like a small prop plane. Fly too fast and the scenery blurs. Fly too slow and the plane stalls.

Take the pop fiction of the ‘70s and ‘80s by authors like Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele. Some of those books streaked through plot as if it were aerial combat. Then there are writers like Martha Grimes, who tie down the wings for the night to give the reader insight into the life of a dog and two cats on the village green.

Others, like Robert B. Parker, Margaret Coel and J.A. Jance, alternate between action and reflection in short bursts designed to add depth while holding course.

I got to thinking about pace in mystery and suspense fiction after reading novels by Julia Keller and Iris Johansen. Keller’s A Killing in the Hills crackles with excitement while providing detailed portraits of her characters and their small town in West Virginia. At the other end of the pop-fiction spectrum, Johansen’s On the Run races through character and description to focus on the physical aspects of criminal and romantic pursuit. (Johansen does slow the pace in the middle of the book to create backstory, motivation and a simmering feud between the two romantic leads.) Both novels soar, just at different rates.

I generally give a book 60 pages. If the story hasn’t taken off by then, I’ll pull the ripcord. But that benchmark varies by author, genre and style.

When it comes to reading and writing, what’s your speed?

Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

Monday, August 25th, 2014
Chris Grabenstein, a sure voice at the shore

What makes Chris Grabenstein’s Down the Shore novels so entertaining? I think it’s the voice he chooses to tell the stories.

Iraq war veteran John Ceepak is a police officer in the town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. With a code of ethics as strong as a gun barrel, he’s clearly the hero. But Grabenstein chooses to filter the fluff and drama of beach life through the eyes of 24-year-old Danny Boyle. A part-time police officer who likes to impress his friends, Doyle plays the role of the post-adolescent, alternating between irreverent and respectful, hopeless and hip.

With a quick eye for contrast, Danny becomes the perfect filter for all that is crass and criminal during summer at the Jersey Shore. He’s Watson, Hastings and Natalie Teeger rolled into one. Ceepak forms the strong moral core of the books, but it is Danny’s voice that resonates long after the saltwater taffy is gone.

What do you think? Is the hero the best narrator for mystery and suspense novels or the sidekick?

For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

Monday, August 18th, 2014
For Margaret Coel, the perfect view

I don’t usually appreciate head-hopping in novels. The author gains a global perspective but sometimes sacrifices intimacy and suspense—when we see everything in real time, the heroine’s discoveries don’t always land with the same impact.

Unless the author is Margaret Coel. In The Perfect Suspect, the author makes a good case for the technique, employing it to craft a book with perfect pace. Using duel points of view, that of the killer and the investigator, she lights the candle at both ends . . . and we’re happy to watch it burn.

The plot involves the murder of a candidate for governor in Colorado. The point of view shifts from the killer, a female police detective by the name of Ryan Beckman, to a journalist, Catherine McLeod, as each races to track the other. By alternating POV, Coel not only illuminates their motives but sets the two on a course that can’t help but result in a collision. It’s a heady rush to a satisfying end.

What do you think? When you read or write fiction, are two heads better than one?

V is for verb

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
V is for verb

The leader declared war on passive verbs.

Noreen Wald, aka Nora Charles, author of the Ghostwriter and Kate Kennedy series, vowed to stamp out all forms of the verb to be. Her fervor had inspired the Wednesday Critique Group, an offshoot of Noreen’s class in writing fiction, to the point that its members adopted a vigilance Paul Revere would envy. As we read our work aloud, we’d slash and burn to invigorate our prose.

Now an obsession with active verbs can deliver a crisp manuscript, or drive a writer nuts. Active verbs speed the story but call attention to the writing, and sometimes pull the reader out of the scene. Passive verbs put those readers to sleep. With all due respect to our instructor, what we need is balance.

It’s not always possible to find alternatives to the word is. Sometimes sentences sound less pretentious with passive verbs, and sometimes they have a better flow. The question is (and I use that word advisedly), when do we permit passive verbs and when do we pop for active language?

Does the answer require a mechanistic approach—as a former president once said, does it depend on what the definition of is is?—or does the choice grow from the writer’s intent, which changes from sentence to genre to type?

In P is for Peril, Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone hears a woman calling to a dog. “She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off.”

The passage ripples with tension as Grafton propels the prose with active verbs.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Marcia Muller tackles a less straightforward task. She needs to convey supposition as well as continuing action. Leaving the scene of a murder, Muller’s character Sharon McCone wants to rejoin her employer. “The ambulance had pulled away and the crowd was dispersing. Across the street, a light burned in the front windows of Junk Emporium. Hank was probably waiting for me. . . .”

And we burn to read more of the story.

In Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan writes the equivalent of her New Year’s resolutions in a student composition book. Keeping those resolutions has proven a challenge, so Lippman conveys the character’s frustration and resignation through a mix of active and passive language: “Tess slapped the notebook closed, filed it on a shelf with twenty-two others—all blank except for the first page—set her alarm, and was asleep in five minutes.”

Like Grafton and Muller, she uses language that embodies emotion as well as information. Had she stuck with passive verbs, we’d have nodded off in ten.

One more example and I’ll let you go. In To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming conveys both action and reflection as one of her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, searches for a missing woman: “Clare forced herself to keep her steps even, her head moving methodically as she climbed up the increasingly steep slope. She was, she had to admit, too impatient to be a naturally good searcher.”

As we are, too often, with passive construction.

So, do we need an iron rule about banishing passive verbs forever? Or can we allow the function and emotion of the scene to drive the choice?

Readers get face time with authors

Monday, March 7th, 2011
Readers get face time with authors

Simon & Schuster Digital has created a site where authors can respond to reader questions through webcam videos. Called Ask the Author, the site gives readers a direct way of interacting with writers.

As of March 7 the website listed 10 authors who are willing to talk with fans. They range from Brad Thor, author of The Athena Project, to Lisa McMann, author of Cryer’s Cross; Goodnight, Tweetheart‘s Teresa Medeiros, and music and sports author Chuck Klosterman.

Here’s how it works. Visitors click on the “talk to” button below an author’s photo and type their question. Then they check back for a response. No word from S&S on whether the system will offer live chat at a future date.

Writers with their own websites might consider doing the same in real time.

Ask The Author

The new Face(book) of marketing

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011
The new Face(book) of marketing

If you’re a creative who wants to market your work, comScore knows where to find your audience. They’re on Facebook.

Social media continues to attract more viewers and advertisers, according to comScore’s report “The 2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review.” Nine out of every 10 U.S. Internet users visits a social networking site every month, accounting for 12% of all time spent online in 2010, the digital measurement firm reports in the whitepaper. Facebook leads the pack of sites that receive that traffic with nearly 154 million unique visitors last year.

Advertisers have followed, serving up 4.9 trillion display ads, an increase of 23% over 2009. Social networking publishers delivered 34% of those ads, up 11% over the previous year.

Creatives interested in marketing their work on a shoestring might want to follow the trend. As they say on Wall Street, don’t fight the tape.

comScore SM usage graph TBB

A heartbreaking life of staggering generosity

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
A heartbreaking life of staggering generosity

An eerie thing happened on September 14, 1982. I received a letter from John Gardner that morning about a pack of short stories I’d left with him to critique, at his suggestion, even though I wasn’t one of his students. Later that day, as I sat on the rim of the copydesk, the city editor swiveled in his chair and, pointing to the computer, said, “Look at this.”

It was an AP story reporting that the novelist had died in a motorcycle accident on his way home that day. He was forty-nine. The story sounded like something from his latest novel.

Gardner was well-known in and out of literary circles for his outsized characters and their philosophical rants. Some of his books, like October Light, made the bestseller lists. A few months before his death the New York Times led its book review section with commentary on his last novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, a work I had just finished reading.

John Gardner explainsI’d met him earlier in the year in a class at a local university. The professor had invited Gardner to talk about fiction and, as a bonus, he’d read and commented on the first page of our latest submissions. He had a shock of white hair that flowed over his forehead and small, wrinkled eyes. His pipe kept going out as he talked. Later the professor invited some of us to his apartment to continue the discussion. Sitting on the floor, our backs to the tiled fireplace, we listened as Gardner talked about his work.

Some of the discussion was funny. “Why did you sell the short story on Julius Caesar to Playboy?” “Because they offered the most money.” Other parts were more serious. Gardner didn’t give a toss about genres; he didn’t care whether people considered his work popular or literary, thoughtful or entertaining. He wanted to be known as a storyteller. He constantly courted the ancient arts, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. (Years later, Hollywood would turn his novel Grendel into a movie, the closest to populism the author ever got.)

John Gardner typewriterEmerging from the dream
For emerging writers Gardner is best known for his view that fiction should remain a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, uninterrupted by extraneous detail. Yet his books were crammed with characters philosophizing about life. He seemed obsessed with philosophy and argued constantly against nihilism, a doctrine that nothing is knowable, that rejects all distinctions of moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” He may have identified deeply with Grendel, the monster who finds himself cast out of heaven because he’s ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner was a kind and generous man, lending his time and name to aspiring writings. I met him that May in class and shared an evening with friends, but I wasn’t his student. Yet he invited me to his home in Susquehanna to discuss and critique my work.

I arrived on a fine spring day to find the novelist in a farmhouse on the edge of town, nestled in the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house had curlicues over the porch; it looked like an old train station.

Inside sat Gardner’s son Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married—the week he died. A visiting colleague handed him a few short stories and a novel for comment. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Gardner went into his study to concentrate on the story. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and papers. He hunched over the story, making quick notes with a pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave. He apologized over and over for giving me so little time.

Mickelsson's Ghosts AMZA life in fiction
Back in the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical—a questions many writers hate but I was too young to know at the time. Not much, Joel said, but then he opened the door to the dining room. It was long and sparking with new plaster walls and thick with beams. The mead hall from Grendel, the house from Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I felt a chill, as if the spirit of those characters were looking over my shoulder.

There were other similarities. The main character in that book, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS, which is after him for back taxes. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, his wife, his son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father made up most of the book.

John Gardner hatThe lion of literature
Whatever its condition at the end, Gardner’s career in fiction got off to a slow start. He was born on July 21, 1933, in Batavia, New York. His father was a dairy farmer and lay preacher, his mother a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about 1,000 copies but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and married twice. He lectured at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He settled in rural Susquehanna, on a thirty-acre farm. Writers sought his comments on fiction and his clout with publishers.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he had always written interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts he reached the top of his form, merging his beloved philosophy with a strong story line. He also seemed to have mellowed from the harsh critic of his youth to a man who wanted to say good things about others. People said he was trying to find his place. Others found him humble and generous.

The day I visited him in the Endless Mountains he sat on the couch and chatted in a smooth and quiet voice about new projects. I told him I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. It wasn’t filed under “fiction.” Concerned that his backlist had gone out of print, I asked the clerk if she carried Gardner’s books and she led me to the back of the story. There they were, filed under “literature.”

Gardner threw back that great mane of white hair and howled with delight, much like I imagine Grendel might have done.

Libraries to present book, author expo July 10

Thursday, June 10th, 2010
Libraries to present book, author expo July 10

The Associated Libraries of Monroe County will present Monroe County Book Expo on Saturday, July 10, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Eastern Monroe Public Library in Stroudsburg, PA. The event will showcase the published works of Monroe County residents. It also strives to encourage aspiring writers and support the exchange of ideas about the creative process and the publishing business.

The expo will offer two feature presentations: a morning panel of authors and bloggers focused on helping writers get their work published and noticed and an afternoon discussion by Michael Ventrella on “The Pitfalls of Self-Publishing.”

EMPL branchParticipating authors must live or own property in Monroe County. They will be offered a space that measures about 36”x36” in exchange for each donated copy of one of their published works to be shared among the public libraries in the county. Authors will be able to sell copies of their publications, meet and greet readers and network with their fellow writers. Authors are responsible for the display, stock, financial transactions and any applicable taxes on the sale of their works.

Authors are required to register in advance for the event. Registration forms are available at each of the participating libraries: Barrett-Paradise Friendly Library, Clymer Library, Eastern Monroe Public Library (including Pocono and Smithfields branch locations), Pocono Mountain Public Library and Western Pocono Community Library. The form is also available online.

For more information, call your local library or Barbara Keiser at EMPL, (570) 421-0800, x13.