I Know Whodunnit

Maybe my dream is finally coming true, and I’m turning into Nancy Drew!

I’m here on Deep-Fried Friday once again, talking about story.

One of the drawbacks of reading a lot of mysteries is that you start being able to guess the killer. With surprising accuracy at times.

I was recently watching a season one episode of Bones (catching up with Netflix) and halfway through I said to myself, “That guy did it.” The next twenty minutes were filled with FBI Special Agent Booth and Forensic Anthropologist Brennen searching down other leads until they finally came around to my way of thinking and arrested the right guy. It was the third episode in a row where I had guessed the killer before the main characters figured it out.

I’d fault the writers of Bones, except that it happens with books and other shows too. I no longer fall for the red herrings like I used to. I can pull out relevant facts and ignore the irrelevant ones. I make relationship connections early on the story that inform me on motive and opportunity. I notice details.

Does this happen to you too?

Presumably, one of the worst things an author can do is write a predictable story. Twists and turns are considered a good thing. Rabbit trails are good fodder for the tale. Unexpected discoveries and surprise endings should keep us turning the pages.

However, the author simply cannot account for the reader’s part in all of this. What if your reader has consumed 200 romance novels and is now reading yours? Do you think she’ll foretell how the two will get together? No matter how well you’ve written your story, she might.

And if there is no way she possibly could predict, you might be hiding information from your reader that would help them connect to the story better. I don’t like being completely in the dark, like the author is being all cagey about releasing information just in case I might get ahead of him. Just tell me already. If I figure it out, I figure it out.

Suspecting how it will turn out, however, doesn’t stop me from reading. I watched the rest of the Bones episode not because I had no idea who the killer was. I knew whodunnit. I wanted to watch the characters interact and put the puzzle together. I enjoyed seeing them solve the mystery.

Indeed, every fairy tale and romance novel has a happily ever after (HEA), and heroes consistently defeat villains. What the reader wants to know is how the characters will get there. Did you doubt that:

  • The Rebels would defeat the Empire and the good side of the Force would prevail?
  • Frodo would get the ring all the way to Mordor?
  • Sleeping Beauty would awaken with a kiss from her prince?
  • Hercule Poirot would use his little grey cells to uncover the culprit?
  • Batman would thwart the evil plans of Catwoman, the Joker, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, or whichever villain-of-the-week was around?
  • Bella and Edward would find a way to be together forever?

Of course not. So is a predictable ending always a bad thing? No.

In fact, while I remember sitting in the theater watching The Empire Strikes Back and being wowed by Darth Vader’s revelation, my kids already knew about all of that. I knew the overall ending, but they knew the whole story and still wanted to watch every minute of the Star Wars trilogy.

It’s okay for a reader or viewer here and there to know whodunnit. But in that case, you have to give them another reason to read or watch.

Why do I continue? Because I care about the characters. This is why superhero movies continue to be made and remade and we continue to watch them. Why the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back plot never gets old. Why we read or watch police procedural dramas, knowing that they will solve the case. We want to know how these particular characters resolve the conflict.

Perhaps we’re less interested in whodunnit than howdunnit.

I have to admit that seeing Psycho without knowing the ending will make you gasp (see Tiffany A. White and Catie Rhodes for reviews of that creepy film). The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of my favorite mysteries because Agatha Christie stunned me with the conclusion. And the last episode of Newhart was the most brilliant surprise ending for a TV series ever.

However, not knowing what will happen isn’t necessary to keep me turning pages or tuned in. Give me relatable characters that I can follow as they uncover the twists and turns of their lives, even if they end up where I suspected they would.

What about you? Do you enjoy surprise endings? Are you disappointed if you figure out the conclusion? Do you care more about whodunnit or howdunnit?

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Why Grammar Matters in Your Book

I’ve been called a Grammar Nazi, a grammar geek, a grammar freak, a grammar nut, the grammar police, and a stickler. What they say behind my back, I don’t know.

I’m not that bad. I don’t critique tweets, personal emails, texts, slang, or other informal communication. I am, however, concerned about proper language usage when it comes to published works.

Before you think I’m here waving a red Sharpie and poised to attack your misspellings, mispronunciations, or mistaken word usage, you should know that first and foremost, grammar geeks are word lovers. Just like writers.

I spend one day a week talking about language on Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. Those posts range from grammar advice to etymology to word games. Language is fascinating. The human ability to communicate a wide range of emotion, information, and ideas sets us apart and allows us to accomplish together what we couldn’t do alone. Words have meaning and power. And I agree wholeheartedly that language isn’t all about where the dang comma should go.

However, where the comma goes matters.

Lynne Truss illustrated this in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. The title is based on the funny story of a panda walking into a restaurant and brandishing a pistol. He devours a sandwich, fires his weapon, and starts to leave. The server asks, “Why did you do that?” The panda tosses an encyclopedia over his shoulder and answers, “Panda. Look it up.” The bartender finds the entry for panda, which in part reads, “Eats, shoots, and leaves.” One extra, misplaced comma made a huge difference. Ms. Truss goes on to make the case for why punctuation in particular matters in language.

Grammar matters. It assists writers to convey meaning effectively to their readers.

Proper grammar is a framework. Language has structure. We know a sentence is comprised of a subject and a verb. He smiles. She swoons. He kisses. She slaps. These are the building blocks of any book. And there are rules about how you string these blocks together so that you communicate your meaning to others.

Rather than think of it like the rules at school (no chewing gum, must have a bathroom pass, etc.), think about your favorite sport. Mine is baseball. It’s a terrific game of throwing, hitting, fielding, catching, and running. A grand slam homer can send a crowd of spectators into a wild eruption of excitement. However, what if there were no rules? If everyone threw wherever, hit however, caught or didn’t catch, and ran in any direction? That’s not a sport; that’s chaos. And it wouldn’t be interesting to watch or play. You’d probably get smacked upside the head by a wooden bat in ten minutes.

Language is exciting – full of meaning, fluidity, and passion! But it needs a framework to keep that excitement alive.

Proper grammar demonstrates professionalism. What is one of the major complaints about self-published books? They haven’t been properly edited and are full of grammatical and spelling errors. Of course, that isn’t true of many self-pubbed works, and there are plenty of mistakes in traditionally published novels. However, paying attention to those details puts you at a more professional level.

When we see an egregious error on a company’s sign or a brochure, it speaks to a lack of professionalism in getting their content correct for the consumer. People may wonder about the quality of the product itself if the company wasn’t willing to take the necessary steps to ensure proper spelling on an advertisement.

Likewise, people expect the purveyors of words – writers – to have a fairly good grasp on language and its usage. It speaks to our quality level. I recently tossed aside a traditionally-published novel after a few chapters when I read several incorrect phrases, including “could care less.” (It’s could not care less.)

Poor grammar disrupts the flow. Have you ever been reading a marvelous novel and had to stop on a sentence and reread it? You might wonder who that pronoun “he” refers to or stumble on an “it’s” when there is no need for an apostrophe. Perhaps a misspelled word or a missing question mark gives you pause.

Whatever the error, a grammatical oops can disrupt flow. Since we want readers to remain deep in our plot, we should eliminate anything that encourages them to jump back out of the story. A few such moments in a novel are not a problem; we are human and make mistakes. However, if you disrupt the flow of your story too may times with grammatical errors that could have been avoided, there goes the reader.

So should you turn into a grammar geek? We aren’t all grammar geeks, of course. (Thank goodness! Right?) Moreover, I misspell words and miss errors plenty of times. We all do. Have you heard the saying, “Even perfect people use pencils with erasers”? I can’t recall the last time I read a novel and didn’t see a typo somewhere. Most books have a few to several errors, and these works have typically been viewed by numerous people prior to publication.

The standard is not getting a Ph.D. in Grammarology or achieving perfection. It’s recognizing the importance of grammar and exerting reasonable vigilance to get it right.

If you’re taking all that time to develop a story, write 60,000+ words, and focus on the importance of those words, why not check for proper structure so that you can best convey your meaning? If you suck at spelling and grammar, have a grammar geek friend or copy editor take a look.

Now grammar isn’t a first draft endeavor. Don’t sweat the comma when you’re throwing out the word count. But it’s worth paying attention to in the editing and revision stages. Because we deal in language, its usage matters. Grammar matters.

What do you think, readers and writers? Does grammar matter when you’re reading books? What do you do to ensure proper grammar in your own writing?

(And as always, correct me if you see a typo here.)

Reading Habits

Suspense author and fabulous blogger Stacy Green tagged me in a “Get to Know You” game. That makes me think of The King and I, and now my brain is off on a tangent of hearing Deborah Kerr sing “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you . . .”

Never mind.

Anyway, games come with RULES: 1. You must post the rules. 2. Answer the questions and then create eleven new questions to ask the people you’ve tagged. 3. Tag eleven people and link to them. 4. Let them know you’ve tagged them.

Rather than invent new questions and tag others, I decided I really just want to answer Stacy’s questions because they focus on fiction. Since I like to talk about fiction on Deep-Fried Fridays, here’s a little about me and my reading habits:

If you could live in a fictional world, where would that be?

First choice, Narnia. I definitely want to meet Aslan . . . and ride a horse and wield a sword and talk to animals.

Next choice (and quite the opposite), a James Bond novel. I actually didn’t like the book Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, but I am convinced that I missed my calling as a Bond girl. What do you think my name should be?

Do you read in noisy or quiet places?

I prefer quiet, but I can read with background buzz. If the voices or music are too close, however, I find myself easily distracted. I definitely hate that feeling of reading a sentence four times over because other stimuli are throwing my concentration off. That said, my favorite place to read is outdoors, where the background noise is an ocean tide thundering or birds and cicadas chirping.

What was the first book you ever read?

The ones I most recall reading were the Nancy Drew and The Little House on the Prairie series. Before these, though, my favorite story as a child was Gerald McBoing-Boing by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss).

I also read Bluebeard from a fairy tale collection over and over. The story both intrigued and unnerved me.

Pic from alykam.deviantart.com

If you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be? No, not one! Asking a voracious reader that question is like saying, “Which finger do you most want to keep?” “Um, all of them!”

Okay, okay — back against the wall, tortured if I don’t decide, and not counting a standard answer like “the Bible” — I’ll pick Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd  C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (My gut is wrenching and my face is twitching. Only one book?)

Pic from needlebook.blogspot.com

Favorite author?

I cannot pick another JUST ONE! I already did that! Here are a few authors I’ve read several books from: C.S. Lewis, Charles Martin, Rhys Bowen, Agatha Christie, Charlaine Harris (but not her Sookie Stackhouse series), Leo Tolstoy, the Bronte family (can’t I count them all together?), Rosemary Clement-Moore, Elizabeth Peters, Lois Lowry, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Is that enough? I bet I could think of more.

Do reviews influence your choice of reads?

Yes, a little. If something is widely adored or panned, I pay attention. Even then, however, I try to find out why people had such an intense reaction. A recommendation from a friend who shares my taste trumps an official book review, though.

Fiction or Non-fiction?

Like eating vegetables, I read non-fiction because it’s good for me. Like devouring chocolate, I read fiction because it’s yummy to me.

Have you ever met your favorite author?

Nope. Oddly enough, I don’t have a strong desire to meet authors or celebrities. It would be nice, but as long as they keep writing great books . . .

Audio books or Paperbacks?

Paperbacks. I’m also learning to like ebooks. I prefer, however, to do non-fiction through audio. I can listen well to an audio book while cleaning my house or walking around the neighborhood.

Classic or Modern Novels?

Classic — but not because the writing was any better before. It’s mainly because if something’s great, it’s still around fifty years from now. If something stinks, it usually falls by the wayside. That said, I read more modern novels because I have so many friends with books out and it sharpens my understanding of what I should be writing now.

Book Groups or Solitary Reading?

I have been in a Book Club for several years. However, the six of us would be friends regardless; we meet six times a year, every other month; and we read 1-2 books for each meeting. The rest of the time, I’m a solitary reader.

The book we have tapped for our next meeting is a non-fiction bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

So I said that I’m not making up eleven questions, but I will make up ONE. I’ll pose it, answer it, and then ask you to respond to it in the comments.

If you could invite three dead authors to a dinner for four, whom would you invite? I think I’d have a rip-roaring great time with Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, and Leo Tolstoy. If one of them turned down the invite, Jane Austen would be next on my list.

Thanks to Stacy Green for this great exercise. If you haven’t popped over there, check out her blog. Her Thriller Thursday posts are especially intriguing.

So who would you invite to dinner? Also feel free to answer any of the above questions about your own reading habits!

What Buffy the Vampire Slayer Taught Me

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday. Today, our deep-fried food is served with a blood cocktail, to honor the vampires and other paranormal creatures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Some of my friends know that I’ve been watching through the entire Buffy series on Netflix. (All seasons are available through streaming episodes.)

I missed this TV show when it was on from 1997 to 2003. Why? Those were the years of early parenthood for me, so my television set was tuned in to shows like Yes, Dear and Blue’s Clues instead. I finally decided to figure out what all the hype was about and started watching the series a few months ago.

As I watched all seven seasons, I made a few interesting observations which apply to TV and other sources of fiction (books, movies, etc.). Other than the obvious conclusions that karate moves are still cool and fighting evil doesn’t preclude dressing fashionably, here’s what Buffy the Vampire Slayer taught or reminded me.

Genre is just the setting; the story is about the characters. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer about vampires or Buffy? Well, yes. But the vampires, demons, prophecies, ninja fighting, etc. are all background to simply tell the story of teenagers growing into adulthood.

Buffy with her mentor Giles

Ditto for Harry Potter. The Twilight series is about lovers couched in vampire/werewolf legends. Mysteries are about the sleuth solving the case. Horror is about someone we’re rooting for making it out alive. Fantasy is about the journey of a questor. And so on and so on.

While I believe that world-building and plots are important, ultimately who cares how clever you are with that unless there is some underlying struggle for a character we can relate to or root for. We cheer for Buffy to kill the bad demons because she embodies struggles we face — such as wanting to be special versus wanting to be normal; needing to stand up to bullies and wanting to take a backseat; dealing with the complications of relationships; and moving from protection by parents and mentors to making our own way in the world. The reason Buffy resonates is because we all have our demons to fight; we understand why her story matters.

Xander, Anya & Willow

Sometimes your favorite character isn’t the protagonist. Buffy Summers is the main character, and the series is about her. Thus, the name: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Yet often the protagonist is a person in constant conflict who needs a little support or humor from others around her. Buffy’s closest friends, Willow and Xander, provide that — Willow with compassionate support and Xander with humorous quips. There are plenty of other famous sidekicks in fiction. These characters have their own appeal.

As the series progressed, my favorite character became Anya, an ex-vengeance demon, who ends up working with Buffy’s mentor Giles at his magic shop, having a romantic relationship with Xander, and fighting alongside the good guys even when her motivation is a bit unclear. Why do I love her? She says exactly what she thinks. I love such characters in fiction — the ones who speak with no filter whatsoever, who say what we wish we could say but have too much restraint to, and whose charm lies in their optimism that truth is always best.

If you start a fantastical story, you have to get really inventive to keep it going. I noted to my husband that Buffy and Chuck share this in common: Since they begin with such a far-fetched premise (hellmouth under your town and teenage vampire slayer; all-knowing Intersect stuck in Chuck’s brain and spies to protect him), where do you go from there? You have to keep coming up with bigger and better stories, several of which can get a little, well, unbelievable.

Yes, we’re already in the territory of unbelievable, but sometimes it reached, “Ah, c’mon!” I think this is one of the reasons why long fiction series don’t often work well. The author must either regurgitate plot lines dressed up in other attire or get more and more out there in raising the stakes to keep the conflict and tension up. How far we’ll go with the writer likely depends on how much we like the characters and feel invested in their story.

Romances do not always work the way we wish. Team Spike or Team Angel? I think that predated the perpetual Jacob vs. Edward argument. Maybe you’re even willing to go out on a limb and suggest Team Riley. I know exactly who I think Buffy should end up with, but others have their own ideas. And I doubt anyone was fully satisfied by the end of the series on the romance front.

Interestingly enough, two of my beta readers on my mystery, Grace & Fire, were upset that the romantic portion of my novel didn’t go the way they wanted. I stick by my decision, and more readers than not agreed with me, but I can understand the disappointment of the couple you root for not getting together in that “ain’t it all great” happily ever after. I’m more willing than most to deal with such a proposition — given that among my favorite novels are such depressers as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary — but it still irks me a little. Why can’t it all work out the way we envisioned in our pretty little heads? Maybe like life, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.

David Boreanaz is my “type.” That has nothing to do with fiction. It’s just another take-away. Actually, the actor who played Angel, the vampire with a soul, reminds me a bit of my husband:  Tall, dark-headed, broad-shouldered, hard to read, and not a big talker. My hubby does need fangs and a long black leather coat to complete the look. I understand that I can keep gazing at David Boreanz now that he’s in the Bones series. I’ll have to check that one out.

So are you a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan? Why did you like the series? Who was your favorite character? What are some of your favorite TV series and what were your take-aways?

Have You Always Been a Writer?

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday where today’s topic is about fiction and writers. I’ve read quite a few author interviews, and one of the questions often posed is along these lines: “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” “How long have you been writing?” or “Have You Always Been a Writer?” Typically, the author answers with something like:

Everyone told me in high school that I was going to be a great writer. Each day, I would go home and write for hours, letting my fantasy world of H’jarka and the evil ministers of Dra’mn come alive on the page. I had most of my trilogy finished by the time I graduated.

Back in junior high, I wrote a quirky romance novella, printed and stapled it together, and sold it for 10 cents a copy. I sold out my first print run of 50 copies. That’s when I knew I had the writing juice.

I’ve always been writing. I penned my first short story in elementary school with a permanent marker on my cardboard Lunchables container.

As a baby, my first word was “plot” and my first sentence was “Show, don’t tell.” As soon as I could pick up a crayon, I drew stick figures with captions to tell a story in three acts.

Hyperbole, of course. Yet writers do often say something along the lines of always knowing that they wanted to be a writer or having written stories almost as long as they can recall.

Published authors who have written on the craft of writing also give the same message. Stephen King’s On Writing begins with a memoir in which he recounts writing from an early age and his repeated attempts to get words on a page and get others to read said words. Others are fond of saying that writers must write; they simply have no other choice, as writing is like breathing!

From shakespeareshoppe at http://www.zazzle.com

I disagree. I can sit here doing absolutely nothing, and my body will continue to inhale and exhale. In fact, I have to try hard to hold my breath for longer than about 10 seconds. Then that pesky automatic breathing thing kicks right in again.

Writing, however, is a decision, a voluntary action, a mental and physical activity. I have to choose to write.

I chose to start writing fiction in my late 30’s. Before that time, I had only written stories for classes. I certainly hadn’t created worlds of characters, written chapters, or asked others to read my work. I was past 40 when I wrote my first book. I’ve only been doing this — writing novels — for a few years.

This leads me to question the underlying assumption that one is born to be a writer. Is it that simple? Or do we come to this point through different avenues?

The truth is that I’ve had stories swirling through my head for as long as I can remember. I told myself tales in my darkened bedroom as I fell asleep at night, imagining characters and scenes. I read books and thought long and hard about their plots, their people, and the magical minds and fingers behind the stories. I pondered how breathtaking it must be to create a work of fiction that communicates so deeply to an audience the author has never met. But I never wrote stories down. That came later, much later.

I wrote poetry, songs, school essays and research papers, deposition summaries (paralegal job), newsletter articles, web content, and more. Yet a novel was something I expected that I needed special fairy dust to create. Having not received an overt visit from Tinker Bell or “The Muse,” I didn’t know that I could be a writer.

Until one day, when I sat at my computer, looked at a blank screen, and wrote a chapter. Most of it sucked. Some of it didn’t.

Time passed.

I came back a few months later and wrote something else. It probably sucked more than the first one . . . but again, not all of it.

Then Hurricane Ike hit, causing us to retreat from our home and its crumbling roof. Faced with extensive time on my hands and no library card in the city we were visiting (and no eReader then), I wrote a new chapter with a new idea. I really liked it.

It could have ended there. Because I don’t think writing for everyone is a do-or-die kind of thing. If tomorrow, something in the universe shifted and I could not write another word, I would miss it horribly because I love writing fiction. However, I’d be a happy person. I have an amazing family, a great life, and lots of other things I can do (anyone need a lead singer for their rock band?). But I chose to write.

I set aside time every day and added to that first chapter. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, word by word, I wrote until one day I had a completed first draft. No longer was I considering being a writer or “aspiring” to write a novel, I had written one. I was a writer.

To my mind, everyone who writes chooses to do so. There are so many other things you could do. I bet some in your extended family think you should do something else. Whenever you get bit by the writing bug, it isn’t as easy as breathing. You decide each and every day that you write to do so.

Some knew that decision early on, just as some declare that they want to be schoolteachers or veterinarians or lawyers at young ages and go on to do just that. Some do not decide until later.  Some even appear to stumble around for a while and only know that it’s the perfect job when they land in the middle of the fiction meadow, lie back in the grass, and hear themselves say “aah.”

For my graduate degree, I worked a career counseling internship, and I know that some people find their niche early and others later in life. Such epiphanies can occur at age 5, age 25, or age 55.

I am a writer. I didn’t always know it, but I am. (And I think I’m a pretty good one too, or I wouldn’t keep doing it.)

Now tell me: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How long have you been writing? If you are recent to fiction, did you have other indications that writing, or at least storytelling, were “in your blood”?

At-Least-3 Reading Challenge for 2012

Castle reads. Oh yeah.

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday! Today’s topic involves fiction.

One of my fabulous Christmas gifts was a book journal from my mother, in which I can record what I have read and my thoughts on each book. When I saw blog posts from others listing their favorite books of 2011, I realized that I don’t remember what I read last year. Yes, I recall some titles, but I don’t know all of them. And my memory gets worse and worse every year with children.

With my new tool in hand (yeah, book journal!), I am ready for a new year of reading and keeping track. Or am I? Do I even know which novels I want to pick up in 2012?

I read about Jess Witkins’ To Be Read Pile Challenge on Jenny Hansen’s blog – a throw-down-the-glove challenge to read 12 books in 2012 which have been sitting on your TBR list for way too long. A great idea. Then I discovered A Novel Challenge – a whole blog dedicated to suggesting reading challenges, along with some cool prizes for some of them. I perused these choices as well.

But based on what I want to accomplish, I’m developing my own reading challenge, which may be best called My At-Least-3 Reading Challenge. I resolve to read at least three titles from each of the following categories in 2012.

Classics – from the following list:

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Hunger Games - read that one.

Young Adult Bestsellers

Books from 2009-2012 which topped the Amazon or NY Times bestsellers list.

Indie or Self-Published Books

I haven’t read enough of these, and there are some great authors out there. I’m leaving it open for what genre I’ll read among the indie and self-pubbed titles.

Mystery Masters

There are several mystery icons whose works I haven’t read. In developing my list, I relied somewhat on K.B. Owen’s blog to enlighten me on what I should be reading. Among the titles I’m considering are:

Of course Sherlock reads.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason) by Erle Stanley Gardner
The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Fer de Lance (Nero Wolfe) by Rex Stout
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes) by Arthur Conan Doyle
I, the Jury (Mike Hammer) by Mickey Spillane
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James
The Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie

Fiction Powerhouses – titles from at least 3 of the following authors who top the bestselling authors ever list (and whom I’ve never read):

Mary Higgins Clark
Jackie Collins
Michael Crichton
Roald Dahl
Dean Koontz
Louis L’Amour
James Michener
James Patterson
Nora Roberts
Danielle Steel

Not My Usual Genre

Don’t we tend to read certain genres far more than others? Hand me a young adult novel, a cozy mystery, or paranormal fantasy, and I’m all over it. Romance? Not usually. Science fiction? Rarely. Horror? Never.

But there are some terrific reads in other genres, and I surprised myself by enjoying several in 2011. I would like to stretch myself and read more.

I do have the standing caveat that any novel I start gets 50 pages to engage me. If I don’t care one bit what happens to the characters after 50 pages, I hurl set aside the book and pick up another. At this point in my life, I’ve decided that there are far too many great books that I could be enjoying to waste time finishing one I don’t care about. Sometimes, the reason is that the book is poorly written, but far more often it simply isn’t my cup of tea. No criticism to the author; just not a match of writer and reader.

So what’s on your list of to be read novels in 2012? Have you taken on any reading challenges for the new year?

Raising Stakes: A Bible Story

Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday. Today the subject is about writing and raising the stakes for your fictional characters.

I recently finished reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, which I definitely recommend for writers. In one of the chapters, he stressed the importance of stakes.

We all know what stakes are – if you’re gambling. Your stakes are what you could lose in the game if you don’t come up with the right hand. Same thing in a novel. Stakes are what your character could lose if the conclusion doesn’t resolve in his favor.

Thinking about the elementary Bible classes I have taught, I came upon the ultimate biblical character for discussing stakes.

This post will not be about theology or religion. This is a look at stakes, from the perspective of a Bible story which many have heard.

Donald Maass says that authors need to continually ask, “How can this matter more?” and “How could things get worse?” Make your characters suffer, and the reader will feel more invested in the outcome.

To that end, let me introduce Job (pronounced jōb).

Job was a rich man who lived long before Jesus’ time and suffered a lot. The story goes that God and the Devil were chatting one day, and God said, “Have you seen Job? Now there’s a faithful guy.” To which the Devil said, “Oh yeah, if you take everything away from him, Job will stop all that stupid ‘praise God’ stuff.” God said, “Go ahead. Give it a shot. You’re gonna eat your words, buddy.”

Okay, that was a paraphrase. But then the Devil tries a lot of stuff to pressure Job into renouncing his faith in God. What does he do? Well, I’ll tell you. Because if this had been a novel, you likely couldn’t find a better example of stakes-raising.

Remember, Job defines himself by his faith in God. This is a stance he holds dearer than anything, or so he thinks. It hasn’t been tested before.

First, nearby enemies attack all of Job’s livestock and carry them off. They also kill all of Job’s servants, save the one who comes to report disaster.

Second, the fire of God falls from the sky (lightning? meteor?) and burns up the sheep and servants, save the one who reports the loss to Job.

Third, other foreign enemies raid the livestock and take camels. Um, yeah, dead servants. Except one. You’re catching onto the theme.

What’s at stake? Property. Livelihood.

We care about the things we own. Thus, a ransacked home, a tornado-devastated neighborhood, the loss of a keepsake, and a theft matter to us in stories. We work hard to gain our property. In addition, this was Job’s livelihood. Losing one’s job or dream can be a high stakes proposition.

Next, all of Job’s kids – seven sons and three daughters – just happen to be feasting together. Suddenly, a mighty wind blows in from the desert and strikes the house, which falls like a house of sticks with three piggies inside. Everyone dies . . . except of course for that one servant guy who makes it out and reports the bad news to Papa Job.

What’s at stake? Family. Losing one’s sibling, parent, or child wreaks havoc. Even threats to one’s family evokes an emotional response beyond that of hurting our property. These are our loved ones after all.

Again, the Devil strikes. This time, Job has painful sores all over his body – from head to foot.

What’s at stake? Self. Anyone who has had an extreme injury or illness can relate to how awful this can feel. Many fictional characters have their lives threatened by a villain. Moreover, threats to the self can be literal or figurative – such as struggling with one’s purpose or identity.

Next, Job’s wife pops by for a little cheering session. Oh wait, she isn’t there to cheer him up. Her response to everything that’s happened? “Curse God and die!” That one is not a paraphrase.

What’s at stake? Love. The basic theme of romance novels is that love triumphs over everything. To have the person closest to you – your spouse or significant other – trounce your feelings and leave you behind is painful. Job’s wife is hardly the stuff of Harlequin.

Finally, the cavalry pulls in. That is, Job’s three friends come to visit –  Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. At first, they’re great: They sit with Job and grieve for a week with him.

Then they turn on him. They say, “You brought this on yourself, dude. You must have sinned big-time for God to swipe at you like this.” Once again, paraphrasing. But they blame him lock, stock, and barrel. Way to kick a guy when he’s down.

What’s at stake? Friendship. There have been a slew of novels in recently years chronicling the importance of friends, especially lifelong ones (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, anyone?). At this point, Job feels completely alone – abandoned and attacked by those closest to him. He has no support network, no one to lean on.

I’ll spare you the many chapters of Job stating his case as his three friends argue with him about why all of this is happening. (All of their theories are wrong, of course.) In the end, Job keeps what’s most important to him – his faith – and God rewards him. Job gets well. Other friends come to comfort him. He gains more property. He even has seven more sons, three daughters, and lives long enough to see great grandchildren.

Some of my fellow Christians want to pass through the woes of Job and get to that happily ever after as quickly as possible. But raising the stakes did for Job exactly what it would do for any fictional character I concocted and made suffer. It changed him.

Job is a different man at the end of the book than at the beginning. He fought to keep his integrity, he experienced loss, he was personally tested, and he heard the voice of God. Yeah, that’ll change your perspective.

Never in a million years do I want to be Job! But writing a fictional Job isn’t a bad idea.  Take him to hell and back and see what he learns from the journey. Test your character’s mettle. Force him to rethink his life. Have readers ask about your protagonist what Jews and Christians have asked about Job for many years: What would I have done in his position?

That’s what raising the stakes in a story is about.

What Bible story or classic tale can you think of that illustrates raising the stakes? Or what recent example in fiction, film, or television illustrates this concept? What have you put your own fictional characters through?

What Would You Put in Your Fiction Museum?

I have probably mentioned before – maybe a dozen times by now – that Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favorite films. (Ignore all sequels; by comparison, they suck.) In Raiders, an object takes center stage as archaeologists and villains compete to be the ones in possession of the ancient and powerful Ark of the Covenant.

I started thinking of books in which an object is a central part of setting or a symbol for the character. What fictional objects do I wish were real and I could see and touch?

So for Deep-Fried Friday, I am opening my own museum.

Welcome to Julie’s Novelties of Novels!

Enter inside and see what is featured in today’s exhibit.

Sherlock Holmes’s Pipe

While Sherlock Holmes is best known for smoking a Callabash pipe, this type is not mentioned in the short stories or novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. Instead, the most commonly referenced pipe is a churchwarden, which Sherlock smoked often when contemplating problems and solutions.

Image: pipetobacco.com

Source: PipesMagazine.com

The Hatter’s Top Hat

Lewis Carroll never referred to him as the “Mad Hatter,” although we all know him as such from the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Instead, he was merely The Hatter. His tea parties were quite the event, so why shouldn’t one look dapper wearing a Victorian top hat?

Sources: Several, including Lenny’s Alice in Wonderland site

Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak

This item is heavily guarded due to its magical powers. Used by Harry Potter and friends in the series by J.K. Rowling, invisibility can come in quite handy from time to time.

Image from thlog.com

The Wardrobe to Narnia

Although we often picture a rather ornate wardrobe for the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis only specified that it was big and had a looking glass in it. This Victorian wardrobe is the portal into the land of Narnia where animals talk and a lion rules.

Image from antiques-atlas.com

 Sleeping Beauty’s Spinning Wheel

First told in the 17th century, the tale of Sleeping Beauty involves jealousy, an evil woman with a spinning wheel, and a curious young woman who cannot resist this fascinating gadget. Prick, sleep, and wait for a handsome prince. Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky each told the story in their own way.

Image from The Canterbury Auction Galleries

One Ring to Rule Them All

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

Thus is the inscription in Black Speech on the ring featured in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. The volcano ash has been polished off the ring for its display here.

Image by Marios Tziortzis

The Cat’s Hat

The mischief maker from The Cat in the Hat maintained his distinctive look with this red-and-white hat which towered above his devious feline mind. Dr. Seuss’s tale has been a beloved one since its printing in 1957.

Image from Okie Book Woman’s Blog (cute Seuss stuff)

Now it’s your turn: What would you put in your fiction museum? What items stand out to you in stories, books, television, or movies?

15 Famous Fiction Sidekicks

One of my duties at church camp a couple of weeks ago was to assist the secretary with various administrative tasks.  We wear nametags all week for identification and security, so I added “M’s Sidekick” to the job description on my nametag.  It seemed appropriate, and she rather liked that idea! 

That got me thinking (albeit everything gets writers thinking):  People love a good sidekick!  And even if you don’t like the sidekick, they provide opportunities for the main personality to shine. 

Who are some famous fiction sidekicks?  My definition of fiction here includes books, movies, comics, television, and more!   For this post, fiction is simply the world of make-believe, and any such character counts. 

Barbie & Ken – Really, no one would ever buy the Ken doll without having the Barbie doll first.  He’s only there to make her look good. 

Batman & Robin – Thank goodness for Robin’s “Holy Torpedoes, Batman!” that made Bruce Wayne look smart and strong when he unveiled the plan to defeat the treacherous villain. 

Calvin & Hobbes – If you don’t have a sidekick, turn your stuffed animal into one!  It’s all the better if your fluffy tiger friend is actually wiser than you. 

Captain & Gilligan – If you never saw Bob Denver as the beatnik Maynard in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, you missed a truly great sidekick!  On Gilligan’s Island, however, Denver turned sidekick status into main character focus.  He was only the first mate, but the action revolved around him. 

Don Quixote & Sancho Panza – The Man of La Mancha is not alone in his quest for adventure.  He convinces the uneducated Sancho Panza to be his squire.  Sancho faithfully discharges his duties, while recognizing that his knight is not exactly as sharp as a sword.

Han Solo & Chewbacca – Without the Wookiee there, Han is a lonely guy smuggling goods and talking to himself.  With Chewie, you know that for all his brashness at the beginning, he has a big heart and a good friend.  Plus, I love the line, “Laugh it up, furball!”

 

John Steed & Mrs. Peel – Yes, there were others who played sidekick to Patrick Macnee’s Steed in The Avengers, but Emma Peel (Diana Riggs) was the best.  His old-fashioned car and trim dress were nicely contrasted with her Lotus Elan and trendy fashion.  Moreover, their word play and chemistry were classic.

 

Leonard & Sheldon – We can argue this a bit, I suppose – whether Sheldon is actually Leonard’s sidekick.  But his character never really grows; he just provides the interesting background and side stories that demonstrate how Leonard is learning to negotiate the world around him. And what a great job actor Jim Parsons does with that!

Lone Ranger & Tonto – Tonto defined “faithful companion” as he rode alongside the Lone Ranger.  I don’t know much about this one, but it was my father’s favorite growing up so it goes on the list!

Lucy & Ethel – Lucy wouldn’t have been able to get into so many hilarious fixes if Ethel wasn’t there to accompany her.  Let’s face it:  We’re all more willing to do something stupid when a friend will do it with you.

Marlin & Dory – Disney loves sidekicks!  But the one that stands out to me is the brilliant performance of Ellen Degeneres as Dory, a fish with a short-term memory problem.  Her humorous quips are a perfect contrast to Albert Brooks’s worried father character.

Mr. Rourke & Tattoo – Having grown up in the era of Fantasy Island, the image of these two men in white suits welcoming guests to the island of dreams is forever etched in my mind.  Imagine Mr. Rourke having no one to tell who was coming onto the island; you wouldn’t know why anyone was there!  And Rourke looked even more savvy and wise when Tattoo looked up at him and called him “Boss.”

Shaggy & Scooby-Doo – Or should it be Scooby-Doo & Shaggy?  Which one was the sidekick?  They hid together, shivered in fear together, took the “other way” from Fred, Daphne, and Velma to encounter ghosts together, and gorged on pizza together.  What else can you expect from man’s best friend? 

Sherlock Holmes & Mr. Watson – Mr. Watson was our window into observing the genius and challenges of Sherlock Holmes.  In fact, it is Mr. Watson who often encourages Sherlock to use his talents to solve crimes.

Wayne & Garth – It was Wayne’s World, but without Garth it’s just a creepy guy in a basement with a video camera.  With Garth, it’s two creepy guys in a basement with a video camera!  And they were really funny.

So who else would you list in the sidekick category?  Who are your favorites in literature, film, comics, etc.?  Do you have any favorite scenes with sidekicks?

Friday Fiction: The Power of Three

Among the mainstays in the world of fiction is the TRILOGY. As I cracked upon Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, I wondered why a set of three is so common. 

 

It made me think how decorators are always saying that knick-knacks, vases, and other décor should come in sets of three because that is more appealing to the eye. There are the clichés that “Good things come in threes” or “Bad things come in threes,” depending on whether you are hearing it from an optimist or a pessimist. My own faith, Christianity, values the number three since God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit constitute the Trinity. More threes include the Three Musketeers, the Three Stooges,  three Charlie’s Angels, three branches of government, three parts of a nucleus, the three Chipmunks, three primary colors, Christopher Columbus’s three ships, and three judges on American Idol (that fourth one never worked). 

So are we just fascinated by threes, and thus the fictional trilogy seems the perfect length to tell a tale? After all, when we talk of a story having a beginning, a middle, and an end, that’s another three. 

Here are a few of the fiction trilogies I’ve read.  

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – The ultimate fantasy trilogy which set the standard for many that followed. The Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, and Return of the King relate the tale of a reluctant hobbit and his friends’ quest to overcome forces of evil in Middle-earth.

Maggie Quinn vs. Evil – Author Rosemary Clement-Moore calls this a series, but until she writes a fourth book (go right ahead, Rosemary!) I’m calling it a trilogy, which I read this year. Prom Dates from Hell, Hell Week, and Highway to Hell are the three so far, which deal with Maggie Quinn and her brushes with demons. 

Midnighters Trilogy – Written by Scott Westerfeld, this young adult trilogy consists of The Secret Hour, Touching Darkness, and Blue Noon. It’s a fascinating series about teenagers with supernatural abilities and evil lurking at midnight. 

Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis – Consisting of The Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, this science fiction trilogy takes place in three planets of our solar system. Lewis had started a fourth, The Dark Tower, but he didn’t finish before his death in 1963. 

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – Okay, I know it’s not a trilogy, but it was originally intended to be. I did read Hitchhiker’s Guide, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Life, the Universe, and Everything. Adams still used the word trilogy, calling Mostly Harmless “the fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named trilogy.” And I think that’s funny, so I’m keeping it on the trilogy list! 

There are several others that began as a trilogy (The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice), caught fire, and led to a slew of books in the series. It’s awfully tempting for an author to keep giving readers what they seem to want and are definitely willing to buy. (Check out this interesting article about “Trilogy Creep” –  the strange tendency of trilogies to expand and see more and more works added.) Mind you, I only read the first three of Rice’s vampire series and happily have no idea what happened after that; presumably more blood-sucking. 

What do you think of trilogies?  Why are they so popular?  What trilogies have you read?  Which ones would you recommend?