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.

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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?

Genre vs. Literary: It’s Not a New Debate

I cannot say that I have at any time a great admiration for Mr. Raymond West. He is, I know, supposed to be a brilliant novelist, and has made quite a name as a poet. His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the height of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people living lives of surpassing dullness.”
~The Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage, discussing his impression of Miss Marple’s nephew, the renowned novelist Raymond West; by Agatha Christie

In my opinion – that’s a pretty good burn from Christie to the literary establishment.

As this book (the first in the Miss Marple series) was published in 1930, I think it’s safe to say that the debate of quality between genre stylings and literary stylings is not exactly new.

During Agatha Christie’s publishing phenomenon, and during the Golden Age of Mystery in the 1930s, there were other writers at work. (I know, shocker!, considering her domination of bookstore shelves…even today it’s hard to get a new mystery in edgewise because her books take up so much room.) You may recognize the names of Christie’s contemporaries during this period: Virginia Woolf (who was thrilled that her sales numbers went over 1,000), James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and one of the probable targets of the above quoted passage e.e. cummings – a poet who used no capital letters in his work.

Does directing a zinger like the one quoted above mean that Christie was being catty towards the literary establishment?

Maybe.

But I think of it more as a participatory comment. Let me explain what I mean by that.

All writers – regardless of what we write, or how we write it – are concerned with where they fall in the “lit” spectrum. Genre writers defend their writing constantly from criticism (or worse, non-criticism indicating that the work is not worth commenting on). Accusations towards this camp include, but are not limited to, “It’s formulaic, thus predictable. It’s easy to read. The themes are simple or absent. There is no experimentation with language. Characters are cut-out.” And so on. Basically arguing that genre is easy in every sense of the word and is therefore not worth noting.

On the other end of the spectrum are the lit writers. Accusations against this establishment are pretty rife too: “It’s boring. The characters are navel-gazing whiners. The language is too ‘flowery’ – why do I need every detail of the wallpaper? The story is slow. The characters unsympathetic. The scope too narrow.”

So, I think Christie was sounding off against her own critics when she slid this gem in, and she continued to speak out like that later with Ariadne Oliver, her literary doppelganger.

I hate to say it, but it’s probably going to keep going on like that. Papers will be written debating the literary merits of X, Y, or Z. G will be ignored by critics entirely. S will be acknowledged, but in a small, two inch review in a dying magazine. Depressing, huh?

Well, perk up. It felt that way when George Eliot wrote “Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists” (and George Eliot is a lady novelist…just not a ‘silly’ – read: genre, particularly romance – novelist). It felt that way when Agatha Christie wrote the above passage. And it will feel that way through the times we write. Check out the Franzen-Picoult-Weiner debate for today’s variation.

The thing is, we’re writers. So, whatever you’re writing, write it to the best of your ability. Then write something new and do better. Be prepared to defend yourself either way. Because you’re going to have to defend yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write. Young Adult, mysteries, the next Pulitzer winner, the next Nobel Laureate, whatever – every last one of them are assaulted and every last one of them will have to answer the Who What Where When Why of their work.

Christie chose to put a few well-placed words in her bestselling books. Millions of eyes have read those words. She participated in the debate. And participation is good.

Even if it is a little catty.

Happy Birthday to Shane!

It’s the hubby’s birthday today. I’m sure you’ll forgive me if I keep this short and start partying early?

‘Kay?

Kay.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday Reviews: Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad SaysSh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On Writing a Memoir Via Twitter:

A creative idea that is surprisingly well-executed. Halpern’s Twitter feed, Sh*t My Dad Says, is a great idea for a twitter feed in general, and translated well into this short memoir in particular. I was concerned upon picking this up that it would be just a listing of super-self-referrential quotes, but Halpern manages to dodge that by putting plenty of his own life-experience in. He gives context, and that is an added bonus.

On Reading This Book During a Little League Game

It was very meta. There’s a part where Halpern talks about his experiences in his own Little League.

And that was my favorite part, not only because I was on the stands at my son’s baseball game at the time, but because it showed Justin Halpern (the author) understanding, as an adult, what he did not as a child. Young Halpern doesn’t understand why he’s forced to practice with the smelly kid. His dad shows him, via a confrontation with another parent…which is still not uncommon in the world of youth sports…that the kid is a talented player with a rough life, and that you should look past appearances to find out the truth.

I also think that this is the whole point of this book: looking past appearances.

On the Point of This Book

There’s a lot of cursing–but if you pick up a book titled Sh*t My Dad Says and you’re not expecting that…well, I can’t help you.

However, the cursing is just the outward appearance.

The stories and quotes are about being yourself, learning from your mistakes, living an honest, straightforward life, and shooting for your dreams. Halpern’s dad, throughout all the cursing, all the lessons, obviously loves his kids. Justin Halpern is somewhat self-deprecating, which makes him come across a little slow, but it has to be that way, right? Otherwise his dad’s Words Of Wisdom wouldn’t ring like they should.

(And we inherently understand that Halpern’s lessons got through, right? If not, there wouldn’t be this book, the sitcom, etc. Gotta read between the lines, see past the appearances, and all….)

On the Author Working for Maxim.com

Not surprising.

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