Sunday, January 24, 2021

Mystery Writing Tips Number 3

Do you want to write a series, i.e., several books that span time with the same protagonists? A perfect example is the Dorothy L. Sayers mystery series feature Lord Peter Whimsey or Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. A standalone is a single story that is complete, say, Gone Girl. Although I would put that book more in the thriller category, it’s an example of a book whose story does not move forward beyond one book. I would start off small with a standalone that could be extended into a series. If you’re thinking of writing a series, note that there is a continuity issue with writing a series that you need to consider. Don’t write out a character you may need in book three. Choose your dead bodies carefully.

I'm adding to the original post with a tip that if you are seriously considering self-publishing, that you write a series. This is an excellent way to get into the marketplace fast. I would, in fact, write three books. And by that I mean you write three really good books that have been polished and edited, with a good cover that reflects the overall theme of your book--don't write a cozy and then have a man with a knife on the cover or a thriller with a woman wearing an oven mitt standing in front of a stove. Then you enter the market by releasing a book every four months. This will wet the marketplace's appetite for your books. Then use that year to write another three books. I couldn't do this, frankly, but then I'm still working. This juggernaut approach will create a fanbase for you that can only build with each successive book. I think you'd have to be a frigging genius to write three standalone books, but you CAN do this with a series that builds off of each successive book. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

Mystery Writing Tips Number 2

Think about what you want to say. Pick an idea, a theme, something that has brought you joy or has enraged you. One of my favorite mystery writers is James Lee Burke. He has two main themes that carry through all his Dave Robicheaux books. The corruption endemic in Louisiana and the legacy of the Civil War. Another author worth checking out is Michael Connolly. He writes the ultimate police procedural. The Harry Bosch books are about a man for whom justice is all, mostly because he’s seen little justice in his own life. Pick something that means something to you, because the page written with enthusiasm will carry you a lot farther than the page written to satisfy what you think the market wants. Also, and this part gets lost in the shuffle, writing is supposed to be fun.

Friday, January 8, 2021

New Website!!!!!!!!!

Courtesy of my fabulous son-in-law, I am finally moving into the 21st century website-wise. Behold!

Claire M. Johnson Writes

Isn't it beauteous?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Shaking It Up

So, we're doing a little housecleaning here. First, I'm the new president of Mystery Writer's of America Norcal for 2021. I have big shoes to fill. Laurie King has done a superb job of keeping the home fires of MWA Norcal burning brightly. I'm not really sure how I'll even remotely measure up, but hope springs eternal.

And I'm not really writing culinary mysteries anymore, so I think a change in the title of this blog is way past its due date. New title. With the help of my lovely son-in-law, I'm working on a new website, also WAY OVER DUE. 

Ta da! First blog of the New Year. I hope to have new content every Sunday. I made this presentation on FaceBook Live a couple of months ago. It was a mess because I'm pants at social media and pushed one button, but it wasn't the RIGHT button. It's up on the MWA YouTube channel if you're interested, but I'm going to post little snippets of it here.

I grew up on Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett. And Jane Austen. Odd bedfellows, I admit. I’m going to start posting a brief Primer on the ABC’s of mystery writing that I hope will help you begin that mystery novel you want to write or you’ve written already but you’re struggling with it.

First things first, I think that ALL books are mysteries in one way or another. Do Romeo and Juliet ride off into the sunset? Shakespeare keeps us guessing for a while. Does Jane Eyre marry her Mr. Rochester? Yes, but not until God punishes him for the chutzpah in thinking he can marry Jane while his crazy wife stomps around the attic playing with matches. Spoiler alert. So, yes, I think that all books should keep you guessing. For the mystery, there should a LOT of guessing and a lot of suspense. Emphasis on suspense. That's what turns the page. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is when someone doesn't want to turn the page anymore. So, yes, suspense, keep it coming. 


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

When People We Admire Grow Clay Hooves

In addition to being a world-class novelist (insert snort here), I have a whole secret life as a huge Harry Potter fan. Of course, it started with the children, reading them chapters every night before they went to bed, and then it segued into meeting some very lovely women who were also enthralled by this universe and have become my dearest friends. We are spread across the country but have bonds that have now extended beyond Harry and his pals. Anyway, there have always been issues with the Potter 'Verse, but as so often with people you admire, you tend to ignore that stuff and focus on what enthralled you. To be clear, I didn't love her writing. I'm not going to go into why I wasn't thrilled by it, because it doesn't really matter aside from my usual cry of: Where's the frigging editor! I'm digressing. What I loved was that I had found a fun world that I could play in--something that people who scorn fandom really do not get at all, which is that ability to still be able to play even though your hair is going gray. Most importantly, I found my tribe, ma soeurs, that I have yet to find in my suburb, even though I've lived here over twenty-five years.

As the Potter 'Verse began to wind up, it became harder and harder to ignore all those, shall we say, issues that were sort of hidden by the fantastic world building. The latest revelation--boy, I bet she regrets being on social media--is the final straw for me. Your mileage may differ. I got some wonderful friendships out of my experience with her world so I'm not left with any regrets. But now that the floods have come and she has no choice but to hike up her writing pants and reveal her clay hooves, I can sigh and mourn a world that I used to love, but one I can now walk away from without a backward glance.

This article spells out the trajectory of her fall from my grace. This is behind a pay wall, but I think you get to read three articles/month free:

Saturday, September 19, 2020

A Comment on Privilege

So, I live in an upper middle-class suburb of California. In the 1930s, my town used to be fairly rural, dotted with small ranches and orchards. In the 1950s, developers bought up a lot of the ranch land, clear-cut the orchards, and made a killing building crappy little ranchettes with no architectural features whatsoever. But they were cheap and a haven for white flight. When we first moved here, most of my neighbors were in the trades, plumbers, painters., etc. My house is only 1500 square feet and that is AFTER the previous owner added a bedroom and an additional bathroom. And then the money came and more ranch land was sold and the mcmansions took over. Much of the population of this town is white--probably at least 90% because you have to have money to live here. We bought our ranchette before housing prices went crazy.  Even though I live in a tiny house, it's worth over $1,000,000. Welcome to California.

So, this morning's experience.

I'm not going to call this white privilege because if your local population is white then your argument falls apart. But this is about how privilege manifests itself in my tiny suburban enclave.

There is a trail in my town that is very popular. My husband and I try to walk as much as possible, for both our health and that of our Golden (of course we own a Golden). This path is paved and not much wider than a car. You nearly trip over all the signs recently put up regarding the mandate to wear masks if there is not six feet between you and others. Honestly? The path is narrow enough that you should be wearing a mask period because passing other people puts you in a ditch if you're trying to maintain any sort of distance between you and others passing you.

This beautiful fall morning, we walked this trail for the first time in over a month because of the smoke restrictions. Three women, probably in their early to mid-50s, passed us, gossiping among themselves. They had their masks pushed down around their necklines. They didn't bother to hike up their masks when they passed us, and after they passed us they walked three abreast, hogging the entire width of the trail so that anyone they encountered in the passing direction would have had to immediately scurry off into a ditch to eke out any distance between them and this group of women. I didn't mention that this path is rather curvy. So in addition to possibly infecting me and my husband, they were in danger of infecting anyone who came around the corner as they HOGGED THE ENTIRE TRAIL. THIS is privilege. Selfish, disgusting privilege.

When people show you who they are, believe them.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Inner and Outer Book

I'm involved in a couple of critique groups, composed of writers whose work I admire and with whom I've been working with for years. We are writing completely disparate books from each other, which I think is good. Sometimes you can become so immersed in a genre that you assume things you shouldn't. And the one thing I always say when I've read something that doesn't feel complete to me or isn't compelling me to inhale the next paragraph is, "More, I want more."

What I mean by that is the play between the inner and outer book. The outer book is, nominally, the plot, the setting, the cast of characters, the general, all-purpose construct of a book. What I mean about the "inner" book is that emotion, plot, drama, sorrow, joy, history, and all around emotional temperature of a book between the dialogue, world-building, and plot points. IMO, books that rely on too much world-building satisfy a certain cadre of readers, but for those of us who are character-driven readers, it starts to fall flat when we are bombarded with visuals and not a whole lot else. Same with plot-driven narratives, where the characters start to become paper dolls to be moved around a series of events.

For me, the most satisfying read is one that uses plot to flesh out character and character to flesh out the plot. It's a marriage of sorts, and with most books this works nicely. But a richer book, a book that you keep and not recycle is a book with an "inner" life.

There are as many different ways to "deepen" a narrative than there are blades of grass. Frankly, it's the difference between a standard romance novel and Jane Austen. Both consider women getting married. And that is about the only comparison you can make between a beach read and one of the greatest word smiths of literature ever born. Or to be more personal about this, the difference between one of my mysteries and, say, Raymond Chandler. Yes, I do consider Chandler to be literature.

None of us are Jane Austen or Raymond Chandler. So where to we go from here? We try to be them, that's what we do. That's when you strive to create an inner life to your book. What distinguishes you from any other writer is how you manage the inner book. This where the "you" in writer comes in. I have heard it said there are no new plots in this world, and I believe that is true. Shakespeare apparently hogged them all to himself. But to say that there are no new writers is complete nonsense.

Let's delve into this with a little example.

Mary said, "Bob, I've got to tell the police what happened."

Bob replied, "If you do that, the serial killer will carve you open with a knife cutter and hang your innards from a meat hook like he did everyone else. Don't say anything, Mary. I'm so worried about you."

Her brother. Such a kind man. He'd been her protector for years, shielding her from her mother's criticism as best he could, acting like an older brother even though he was  four years younger. 

She clamped her legs together tightly to make sure that Bob didn't see the steak knife hidden in her lap.

When he stood up, she wasn't sure what he was going to do, Would he keep trying to convince her? Did he know she knew? She waited.

Wow, there is plenty of drama in this little snippet, possibly enough to stand on its own. But what if we add some "inner-ness" to this scene. And you could certainly say that the above is nothing more than a first draft. Fair enough, but isn't that the point of a second, third, and possibly fourth draft. You have the bones, now search for that "inner" searchlight that illuminates everything around it and beyond. You're looking for words that hint at another story lurking around the first story.


Mary said, "Bob, I've got to tell the police what happened."

She'd been so afraid all her life that this bold statement shocked her a little. Like it wasn't actually coming from her mouth, but from someone braver, from a confident woman who'd own any room she'd walked into without any effort. Someone who'd never had any problem meeting people's gazes or confronting bullies; someone who wasn't deathly afraid of spiders, heights, dentists, flying, bees, and thunder (but not the lightning, odd that). But this was bigger than she was, and maybe that was the point. She stuck out her chin in a defiant gesture willing Bob to contradict her.

Which he did. As she knew he would.

First, he smiled. It wasn't condescending, comforting more than anything else, and he put a warm hand on her shoulder, as if to add to a physical gesture to the smile meant to comfort. He'd been her protector for years, shielding her from the worst of her mother's criticism as best he could, acting like an older brother even though he was four years younger. He'd spent their entire lives trying to protect her, her ever-willing spider killer, holding her hand when they flew on planes, waiting for her at the dentist so that he could drive her home because he knew she'd be too emotionally shattered by the drilling to drive herself home safely. He didn't even kill the spiders she asked him to get rid of. He'd search for a glass and a notepad to slide under the glass and then free the frantic spider outside somewhere, even watching it scurry away to make sure that it was still alive. Such a kind man.

Bob replied, "If you do that, the serial killer will carve you open with a knife cutter and hang your innards from a meat hook like he did everyone else. Don't say anything, Mary. I'm so worried about you."

She winced at that visual reminder of all those other women who'd been tortured and terrified for hours and days on end. True victims.The cool of the metal against her thighs was so foreign to the usual softness of her skin. Still, she clamped her legs together tightly to make sure that Bob didn't see the steak knife hidden in her lap, the folds of her skirt bunched around the blade.

When he stood up, she wasn't sure what he was going to do, Would he keep trying to convince her to stay silent? Did he know she knew? She waited and moved her hand closer to the knife handle.