A Fond Farewell to the Dame

Well, kids, that’s it for Agatha Christie. I hope that you found something interesting to use for your own work from this bestsellingest of authors.

Stuff that I’ll take away:

1. You don’t have to be all organized in your notebooks. I know that seems like a really silly thing to take away, but I beat myself up constantly about “not being more organized” or “not completing a notebook”…if I do, great (it’s a nice feeling) but I’m gonna use the notebook as I need the notebook. If I need to vent about how something is going, I’m gonna. If I need to sort out a character arc, I’m gonna do that. Posterity be damned, the notebooks are for me and I’m gonna do what I wanna do.

2. A book a year is doable. If not two. =)

3. Write what you like, because if it’s even remotely popular…you’re gonna be stuck writing it. A pen name served for Christie…but there’s still only six of her Westmacott novels vs. dozens of Poirot/Marple/other mystery creations.

4. Live a long time. You can write more books.

How’s about you guys? Anything you particularly admire about Christie?

On Friday we’re starting Jack Kerouac, the only American on the scene this year, so do you have any questions about Kerouac you’d like me to look into for you?

Tuesday Post of Accountability!

Okay, so I’ve decided to add in this as a new blog feature.

I’ve been doing Random Posts of Accountability…but I realized that I only posted those when I had done something. (Was I gonna post about doing nothing? Don’t think so.)

Now, every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

What I have done this week (6/21-6/28):

1. I am handwriting and then typing in the first draft of my current WIP, called The Line, which we will now codename TL. This week I finished five chapters, injured my right index finger because I have not done so much handwriting in forever, iced said finger, and plunged onward. Basically, I’m psyched that I’m pounding out so much material.

2a. On Thursday I hit a road bump when I got to a chapter (Chapter Nine, for anyone-who-may-be-curious’s sake) that refused, I’m saying REFUSED, to work like it was supposed to. I glared at the page for a while then decided that I would reread the handwritten stuff from where I’d left off and lo! There was the problem staring me right in the face in Chapter Four.

2b. I’ve just recently decided to rework as I go, and it goes in cycles like this: Write it to about 50-60 handwritten pages, type in those pages (editing what goes into the computer), have Shane read it and make notes (he’s already so tired of the damn story!), write more pages while Shane reads, and at some point enter in the changes that Shane recommends. I’ve discovered that reworking as I go works well for me…and when I hit a snag in the write 50-60 page handwriting part where I’m creating new stuff, it’s probably because I haven’t looked at the earlier parts enough. I’ve lost the thread.

3. Completed the critiques for my writing group–though they sadly went without handwritten line critiques like I normally do because I chose to use my damaged finger skills for writing my own stuff. (Sorry dudes.) They’ll have to suffer with quick circles, underlines, and question marks for line critique.

Your turn. What’d you do?

Two Different Ends to Two Different Series

I just finished reading Curtain, Poirot’s last case. (I promise I won’t give away the end.) And recently I’d also read Sleeping Murder, which is Marple’s last case. In both cases the books were written years (decades) before they were published.

Also in both cases the sleuths are still sharp, still the same old human-observers, and still fun to read.

But, oh, how the sleuths are treated differently by their creator.

Miss Marple is the same as always. The story hinges on the case itself being unique. A “murder in retrospect.” The idea of a murder in retrospect is that the case has laid dormant, but still has the power to affect people. I think that this was a very poetic way to end the Marple series.

Inspector Poirot, however, is not the same as always. He is much older, wheelchair bound, and his comically dyed hair seems that much more pitiable, according to his buddy Hastings who returns for the final act. The end of this series is cyclical in a more direct way than the end of the Marple series. Hastings returns. The whole thing takes place at Styles — which has been transformed into a hotel. The characters take their old bedrooms. The difference is in the characters and not necessarily the plot.

I’m not certain how I feel about this. I’ve read in various places that, like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie got tired of writing about Poirot. She apparently preferred writing the Miss Marple series, even though there are almost twice the Poirot stories/novels out there in the world. Somehow I sensed that preference much more in the final books than anywhere else where it’s easy to compare the two (like in the first books–but those are always much more hopeful anyway, aren’t they?)

Marple gets to be whole and the hero. Poirot, still heroic, gets a ton more difficulties added to his plate.

Do authors have to be fair to their series’ characters? As an author, of course I say no.  After all, we’re only human and we will inherently like one character over another. It can feel monotonous to write one character over and over again, and if we don’t feel particularly close to a character, or we don’t identify with a character, they’re harder to write.

Seems to me, as Christie got older, she would naturally identify more with her spinster, sharp-lady creation than her foreign, male counterpart. It only makes sense.

But authors also have to answer to their fans, and as a fan, I’ll admit to being a little bothered by–what I am perceiving as–the unbalanced aspect of the two endings. It almost seemed mean. The end was written way before it was published…so she knew what was going to happen to Poirot for years before the readers got to see it…so how could she avoid the images of Poirot incapacitated in her head?

I know, life isn’t fair. But this is fiction, cozy mysteries as a matter of fact, and it can be more fair than real life.

The reading for me was a bit jarring, I’ll admit, and my impressions are probably just that: impressions. After reading Sleeping Murder, my expectations for the Poirot story were different than what I was presented, so it took some adjusting. In the end, as Christie shows with Poirot, it is all about mind over matter. (Something Jeffrey Deaver explores with his Lincoln Rhyme character, right?)

Plus, he goes out with a bang:
Poirot deserves his place in crime fiction history and this was certainly achieved on his death in 1975; Poirot became the only fictional character in history to be honoured with an obituary on the front of The New York Times!“~from the Agatha Christie website

What do you guys think? If you have parallel-style characters, is it fair to expect fairness in their treatment? Or does the difference imply implicitly that you should present differences?

Those Little Bits of Insight

‘I was thinking,’ I said, ‘that when my time comes, I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice. Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.'”
~The Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage, discussing the necessity of mercy when considering a person’s fate
by Agatha Christie

I think that readers appreciate smart writers. Writers who can tell a great story are heroes without saying, but the ones who can also show a reader something about the world are remembered and returned to. Readers like writers who can make them think — not just about the puzzle in a mystery, but about the bigger world. Whether or not we agree with the writer.

Agatha Christie does that, in my opinion. I haven’t picked up one of her books yet where I wasn’t thoughtful at the end. The line above is the one that stuck out the most for me in Miss Marple’s first case. It reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote that goes something along the lines of “Don’t pray for justice because you might just get some.”

Great stuff to meditate on. Ya know?

I have read far more Agatha Christie than I anticipated while working on this mentor section. (Yep, I’d never read a word of hers until I did this….) A great part of that reason is that, every now and then, she brought me up short. Not to sound too cocky, but that doesn’t happen very often. (But it does happen.) I like it when someone can do that. I like being knocked around as a reader.

It’s a tricky thing to do without sounding preachy, these insightful bits. As it is, the one quoted above runs along that line…I just happen to agree with the vicar/Christie in the thought process presented here.

In my own stories, I don’t think I have pearls of wisdom like Christie’s. Part of the reason is my GREAT fear of sounding preachy in fiction. =)

(Or, you know, in blogs.)

In the end, I’m pretty sure you have to let the story tell itself, how it wants to be told. The little insights, and the big ones, will grow organically. Right? That seems to be the best way to do it. Like the vicar’s quote…it relates directly to the story being told. What is justice? How should it be delivered? Is mercy ever an acceptable alternative to inevitable ‘justice’? Justice is definitely a theme in the book and the quote is all about justice.

Didn’t even have to look far for that one, huh?

Plus, I think you have to emphasize the convictions of your characters. Declarative statements make stronger quotable material.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever been preached to in a story? Has any writer consistantly impressed you with their pearls of wisdom?  

Thursday Reviews: Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (A Mentor Review!)

Sleeping MurderSleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was written waaaay before it was published in 1976. It sat in a deposit box waiting for the light of day. So there may be some inconsistancies with the rest of the series…but Miss Marple is not a series that you have to read in-order, in order to enjoy it.

That being said, I can see why this book was slotted for the end. The crime is two decades old, a “sleeping murder” or a “murder in retrospect” that is triggered by the main character’s (Gwenda) childhood memories. Today we’d call a case like this a ‘cold case’. By utilizing a murder-in-retrospect as the central mystery, Christie creates a reflective element that enhances the book itself, and also her series in general.

Let me clarify that last statement a little bit. Miss Marple is a character who has solved, and survived, many different cases. At the opening of this particular case, she is hesitant to wake it up. “Let sleeping murder lie.” But there’s no way the two main characters, Giles and Gwenda, will let it rest. It doesn’t matter how old the case, it needs solving. Miss Marple, of course, joins them in the investigation in spite of her reservations.

By focusing on this type of case, Christie seems to emphasize that no case is unimportant, no case it too old to ignore, and therefore, all of Miss Marple’s cases are important, and no book or puzzle is too old to ignore. As a final book, Sleeping Murder gives the Marple stories a certain gravitas. It’s worth reading just for that.

View all my reviews

The Literary Portion of the Detective Novel

Strange that I should be talking about the accusations leveled against genre and literary writers when, lo, I come across an article by George Grella entitled “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel,” published in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, which contains an example of exactly the type of rhetoric aimed at genre writing in general, and the mystery genre in particular that I talked about on Monday:

It is one of the curiosities of literature that an endlessly reduplicated form, employing sterile formulas, stock characters, and innumerable clichés of method and construction, should prosper in the two decades between the World Wars and continue to amuse even in the present day. More curious still, this unoriginal and predictable kind of entertainment appealed to a wide and varied audience, attracting not only the usual public for popular fiction but also a number of educated readers.” ~George Grella, “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel”

In this 1970 article (see? this debate can be picked out of any year, any era), Grella attempts to explain the ‘curious’ appeal of detective fiction in particular. The article proceeds to explore the potential reasons for the popularity of the detective novel. Grella looks at, and ultimately discards, the ‘puzzle defense’ (readers like a puzzle, even super-educated ones) and the resemblance of the detective story to the Greek tragedy, and he latches onto the idea that detective fiction is a modern comedy of manners.

I like this idea because, as Grella puts it: “the detective novel’s true appeal is literary.”

Literary? Whoa. What?

Okay, he’s not saying literary like Literary vs. Genre. But the argument that the appeal is literary – meaning it’s not the puzzle and it’s not the catharsis that a reader gets and it’s not the vicarious thrill of violence – implies that there’s something about the stories that should be studied. Popular appeal aside. The novels themselves are worthy of exploring…and they have a tradition.

That gives some weight to Christie’s work that’s not from the Populace. It gives us a place to start dissecting a little closer. In that frame of mind I came up with some questions to think about the next time I read Christie in particular, and detective pieces in general:

1. Who is the hero? Is it the same as the sleuth? If they are different, how so? What role does each character play? In Christie, I’ve noticed that there’s often a character that is easy to cheer for – and it’s not always Poirot or Marple, though we like them, their safety and prosperity is not necessarily the reader’s main concern. She builds select characters and tells their stories.

2. Is the place a factor in the story? Does its history add weight? How familiar are the characters with the setting? Do they move around the ‘stage’ gracefully? What purpose does the setting serve? Does it trap? Does it offer answers? With Christie, a lot of times it’s easier to figure out who the villain is if you pay attention to how she describes things. The last few books I’ve been able to pick up on the villain not from any clue that Christie understands, but through the language she uses to describe how things are.

3. What ‘literary’ authors have written books with a similar structure? (Grella points out Jane Austen. And I see the limited settings, the interactions of the characters, and the gossip-laced ‘evidence’ all playing a part in Christie’s novels, as well as Austen’s – and no one knocks Austen.) Wodehouse is king of the comedy of manners…but his is not considered literary, mores the pity. =(

I realize it reads like a list of book club questions…but I think that close readings will reveal that there is more than meets the eye. (Appropriate for mysteries, dontcha think?)

An Opinion Piece

A recent post, and the comments that followed, on Nathan Bransford’s blog reminded me of an article by David Ropeik that I’d also recently come across via The Huffington Post regarding the professionality (is that even a word?) of today’s book reviewing culture.

Basically, book reviews have turned into something that Just Anyone Can Do. GASP!

Being an active member of the Goodreads site, and having posted quite a few of those same reviews here on this blog, I thought this was a fascinating topic.

Sites like Goodreads and the ability to review items on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble have inundated the web with lots of opinions. I’m not surprised that professional critics take a certain amount of umbrage at the ease in which the populace can speak out on literature…and the amount of opinion expressed at pieces of “non-literature” as well. And I agree with them to a certain extent. Critics and literature professors have worked and studied in the written word much longer than the average joe. Gotta give them their due. They have dedicated their lives and work to the study and understanding of this portion of the world: the book portion. These guys have spent countless hours, countless more words, and countless amounts of money trying to figure out what makes literature tick. That’s nothing something to be tossed away slightly.

However, I am not an uneducated buffoon. I do think about my reviews and I do try to create an argument for why I may or may not have enjoyed a piece. And I am not alone. the majority of people who take the trouble to write a review, take trouble.  Sure, there are quite a few people out there who use the comments section of blogs and review space to lambast the writers with unfair diatribes that often contain grammatical errors, spelling errors, and rhetorical holes that you can drive a truck through, but these are not the majority. In fact, I think most people understand to ignore this kind of behavior. A well-written review, whether in favor of a piece or whether unfavorable, stands out. So, I am definitely in favor of bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, Amazon reviewers, Barnes and Noble reviewers, talking about books.

I’m also in favor of authors encouraging readers to talk about the books they have written. After all, they spent lots of time creating those pieces for our reading pleasure…it’s only fair to let them know whether or not we did get any pleasure from the work. Bransford’s current contest (full disclaimer: I was the winner of Bransford’s Teen Diary Contest and have had my work critiqued by him…so I like the guy)–with the promise of an Amazon gift card redacted after several commenters felt uncomfortable with the idea of potential ‘payment’–is now a common contest: a signed copy of the book. While I think that this is a legitimate way to promote a book, it does raise the question of reviewers’ veracity.

Can the book world be saturated with manipulative or false reviews?

Duh.

Of course it can. But will it happen because of contests? I don’t think so. This is such a tiny portion of the reviewing world. I think that reviewers react strongly, and  negatively–and review more–when the opinion of the general population is loud (I’m sure Stephenie Meyer gets blasted a lot harder than she would if everyone didn’t scoff at shiny vampires), or the opinions of immediate friends are strong, or they take a personal exception to the author rather than focus on the work.

What do you guys think? Do contests for reviewers negate the effect of reviews? Is it a good way to build an audience? Do you use review sites or do reviews on your blog? Why? What do you get out of doing the review?