Judging a Book: Like, Really Judging a Book

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My basic grid

Twice in my life I’ve accepted a request to serve as judge for an annual mystery award. The first time was during the 1980s, when I served as one of the five judges to determine the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Mystery Novel. The Edgar is given by the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). The second time was this year (2016), when I served as one of three judges to determine the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel. The Shamus is given by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA).

For the Edgar Award I read approximately 200 submitted novels. There were more than 200 submitted, but some weren’t eligible (mainly because they weren’t mystery novels). The reading and evaluating of those novels was difficult, especially because the novels didn’t arrive at my doorstep at an even rate of, say, 20 a month. Instead, the bulk of them arrived after September — and the voting took place at the end of December. During some days I read one novel all morning long, finished in mid-afternoon, and started another novel in the evening.

For the Shamus Award I read about 20 novels. Here, too, some weren’t eligible (because they weren’t private eye novels). Instead of having a twelve-month reading period, as with the Edgar, I had about a four-month reading period, with voting due at the end of May, 2016. Still, even though in both cases I read each eligible novel from beginning to end, it was far easier to read 20 novels in four months than it was to read 200 novels in twelve months.

The real question in judging books for a contest, however, isn’t the number of books submitted — it’s how to evaluate them while reading, how to remember them, and, ultimately, how to rank them at the end of all the reading.

Conceivably a person reading 20 books in four months could remember what she thought of each and list her top five choices without having taken notes of any kind. She could, for example, stack the books in piles as she read them, the best going in the #1 pile, the good-but-not-best going in the #2 pile, and the others going in the #3 pile. Then, when the time came to vote, she could quickly skim the books in the #1 pile to refresh her memory, then rank them in the order she thought best.

I don’t think anybody could do this with 200 books, though.

And because my first book-judging experience was with the 200 books, I developed a chart and filled it out for each book. I kept the filled-out charts (and not the novels themselves) in three different stacks.

Somewhere along the route of computer upgrades, system upgrades, and word-processing upgrades, I lost the chart I developed for the Edgar judging. But when asked to read and judge books for the Shamus, I had almost no difficulty reconstructing it.

My approach was to read each book from beginning to end, thinking about it as I read. After I finished, I would fill in the chart by marking an X within each box. I also used the space within each box to more accurately record my impressions. To the left end of Average brought that aspect of a book close to Very Good. To the right end brought that aspect close to Poor.

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Not a contender

Above is an example of how I filled out the chart for one of the books. I have left off the title, author, etc., because I don’t want to identify the book, I simply want to use it as an illustration. It was not a contender, as you can infer from my ratings and comments.

Many people think that a book that deserves an award will be so good, so clearly dominant, that everybody will agree and vote it #1. This is certainly possible: there are years in which all the judges vote for the same book as #1. But it’s also possible, and in fact likely, that judges will vote for different books as #1.

The book with the highest number of points wins the vote and therefore the award. That is to say, each first-choice book receives 5 points; each second choice 4 points; and so on down to each fifth choice, which receives 1 point. It’s possible that a novel all five judges rank as #2 ends up being the winner. Therefore, it’s not a matter of simply voting for the novel one considers best, and not caring about the other four. A judge must think carefully about each of his final five choices, and think hard about how he would rank them.

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The book I ranked first

I found that the best way for me to rank the books in order was by evaluating them as I read them, recording my judgements, and then examining both the novels and their charts before voting. Above is my chart evaluation of the novel that I ranked first. It’s also the novel that received the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel.

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The book I ranked second

Above is my evaluation of the novel I ranked second. As you can see by my notes, I thought the novel I ranked second was a good book, but I was critical of some weaknesses in the plot. I might read another book by this author, I might not. But I will read another book by the winner, because her characters and their situations were compelling. And her writing is excellent. She was, by the way, in my opinion the only one out of 20-some authors who wrote a mystery filled with tension. In fiction, tension is essential to a good story. If there’s no tension about what’s going to happen . . . who cares?

Now that the Shamus Award judging is done and the winners in each category were announced at the 2016 Bouchercon, I can put my master grid away. Until, perhaps, I need to use it again.

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Barbara Gregorich does not discuss award judging in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. But she does talk about how to develop characters, plot, and tension, and the importance of the solution.

Use What You Need, Invent the Rest

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It wasn’t until after I had published my first two novels that I realized: (1) People think my hero is me; (2) People think that most of the events in my novels actually happened to me.

For example, because Frank Dragovic, the protagonist of Dirty Proof, states that he doesn’t like pizza for breakfast, all kinds of people have come up to me and said something akin to: “What’s wrong with you? Pizza for breakfast is delicious!”

There’s nothing wrong with me. I happen to love pizza for breakfast. It’s a character in my book who doesn’t like it. That character is somebody I created. I gave him some of my likes and dislikes, some of other people’s likes and dislikes. In fact, to make myself work harder to develop his character, I made sure he wasn’t identical to me. Likewise for other characters, major and minor: I feel free to have them live events that happened to me, and I feel even more free to invent for them their own events.

In the poem below, which I wrote in 2010-11, some of the events happened to me, and some didn’t. I’ll explain after the poem itself.

 
Crossing the Skyway: 1968

The Greyhound drones, Madison to Cleveland,
ferrying the poor, a few of them students destined
to demonstrate against the state-spawned war, fewer

thinking about French students on strike, fewest conjugating
French verbs for practice. Laboring toward the Skyway,
clever construct of Mayor Daley to circumvent laws

prohibiting toll bridges on land, the bus lurches
up the long, high arc of roadway. Belching black smoke
it slows, jolts, stops. In the back a wraith-like stranger

in worn denims and cowboy boots looks up from the marks
he’s been carving into his saddlebag and summarizes:
This animal done staggered.

The hindered and jostled board a replacement and continue
to their destination, as does the state continue to wage war,
not just that war, but more wars, repeats of wars, wars

that were, wars that are, wars to come. L’etat, c’est maw.
Despite its Vietnam defeat, despite race rebellions,
despite assassinations, the state survives, cruising

its own skyway, declaring the good life for all.
But the century turns and the bus begins to lurch —
capacity overloaded with cluster bombs, war planes,

battleships; engine clogged with devalued currency,
costly bailouts, bankruptcies; tires blown by unemployment
and homelessness. The skyway, too, is crumbling, potholes

more than roadway, and as the black smoke of human misery
spews out the bus sides, a specter awakens, pulls a dusty
Marx from his saddlebag and repeats: This animal done staggered.

How much of this poem actually happened? My bus ride from Madison to Cleveland happened. My fellow riders were students and working class. Some were indeed going to a place where they could take a bus to Washington DC to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland to join friends and together we would take one of the antiwar-rally busses to DC.

The Greyhound did indeed break down on the Chicago Skyway, exactly like my poem describes it. In the back of the bus was a man dressed in a cowboy shirt and jeans and cowboy books. He had with him some sort of leather satchel that looked like a saddlebag, though I’m not certain it was. He did indeed utter, This animal done staggered.

You can see why such an event would imprint itself on my mind. It stayed with me, and eventually it came out as a poem.

arton2400How much of this poem didn’t happen? Well, the bus I was riding broke down in 1965, but in the poem I changed the date to 1968. Why? Because by 1968 the war had intensified, with President Johnson sending more and more American troops to try to quell the Vietnamese liberation struggle. By 1968 more and more students and others were protesting the war. In May of 1968 French students rose up in rebellion against capitalism; French workers staged general strikes. In the poem I wanted to tie the US protests against the war to world-wide events: hence the 1968 date

The cowboy-type character in the back of the bus was not carving marks into his saddlebags (at least not that I was aware). But I wanted an allusion to Karl Marx and to his famous statement that “a spectre is haunting Europe” (hence I made the stranger wraith-like). For Marx, that specter was communism. It was the specter of an economic system yet to be born.

When the event of crossing the skyway on a doomed bus happened to me, it was finite: it occurred, a replacement bus was sent, and the event was over with. But in the poem I move from the skyway event through the next forty years, ending in the awakening of the forgotten, dormant, wraith-like stranger who now, instead of making marks, pulls Marx out of his saddlebags, offering to the world once again the analysis that capitalism has not only outlived its usefulness, but has dragged us all downward, downward into unemployment, poverty, and war.

In poetry and in fiction, writers use what they need (from what really happened) and invent the rest — in order to tell the particular story they want to tell.

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“Crossing the Skyway” is the title poem in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.

Plot: The Steps of Struggle

In fiction writing there’s an endless debate over which is more important when you’re coming up with a story: character or plot. Personally, I don’t believe that one comes before the other, but that’s because when I’m planning a story, character and plot (as well as setting) come to me at the same time. I can’t create characters without at the same time creating their struggles — and their struggles and actions are the plot.

More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle, in his Poetics, explained what plot was: a series of causally related events. Aristotle considered plot the single most important element of drama, and he believed that it was plot which had the ability to arouse emotion in the audience.

Strictly speaking, it’s the characters’ actions (their taking steps that become elements of the plot: A, B, C, D, etc.) which arouse emotion. Characters alone, doing nothing, do not arouse emotion. But characters acting do.

Plot is a series of events that constitute a chain: each event is linked to another through cause and effect. In a linear novel, Event A causes Event B, which causes Event C, which causes Event D, and so on down the line.

But even though plot events need to be understood in linear order, they need not be presented to the reader in that order. For example, in my novel She’s on First, the first event is baseball scout Timothy Michael Curry sitting on the bleachers in a college stadium in Pennsylvania, watching the Liberty Bells play a game. That could be considered Event A . . . except that the story gives an immediate flashback to a Little League game several years earlier. This event (let’s call it Event B), appears to be the cause of Event A. But about two-thirds of the way into She’s on First there are more flashbacks, revealing that Event B was not the precipitating event. It, in turn, was caused by previous events.

No matter how complex the order of telling a story (and She’s on First is of very minor complexity — there are some super-complex novels out there!), the chain of events that form the plot can be reconstructed in linear order, joined by cause and effect.

master_mediumI highly recommend Robert Kernen’s book, Building Better Plots. He defines plot in this way: “The arrangement of events in a story to elicit a desired effect on the audience. A series of events organized to progress from inciting incident through rising action to climax and finishing with the resolution.” Aristotle, who felt that drama should achieve an intended effect on the audience, would have agreed. Good writers create plot points that reveal who their characters are.

Another good book on plot is Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. When I first encountered this book many years ago, I thought that a book which compressed all plots into one of twenty types couldn’t possible help me.

I was wrong. Writing a novel is a complicated business, one that requires rethinking, restructuring, and rewriting, and during that process it’s often necessary for the writer to remind herself what the story is about: What is the basic plot? During that complicated process, it often helps to question the basic nature of your plot. Are you writing a Quest plot? An Escape plot? A Rivals plot? A Riddle plot? Or maybe an Underdog plot? According to Tobias, each plot requires a certain structure. His book helps you understand that structure and develop it.

The fact that plot events are related by cause and effect gives a novel great continuity. The plot events, and the character choices based on plot events, help expound the novel’s theme: the observations the author is making about life.

Writers to whom plot comes first don’t necessarily neglect character. They trust to the plot to reveal character.

UnknownAn example of how good plotting can result in greater character development is the example of Earl Derr Biggers. Back n the 1910s Biggers was a very successful novelist of popular fiction. He was, as well, a playwright and collaborator on other plays. In 1920 he and his family took a long vacation from New York through Canada, down into California, and, finally, to Hawaii. There, lying on the beach at Waikiki one day, Biggers came up with the idea of “how to commit the perfect murder.” He was so excited by this that he wrote to his editor about it.

It would be four years before Biggers found the time to return to his “perfect murder” plot, but when he did, he of course created the characters who would carry out the plot. One of the characters Biggers created was Chinese-Hawaiian police detective, Charlie Chan. This character became popular around the world, from Sweden to China, and places between. The Chan novels were translated into 33 different languages.

From a plot, Biggers was able to create a character who became bigger than the plot.

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Barbara Gregorich discusses different aspects of plot in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Behind That Curtain: Richness and Texture

In previous blogs I’ve analyzed my fourth reading of Earl Derr Biggers’ first two Charlie Chan novels, a series of only six books due to Biggers’ early death.

Technically speaking, Biggers didn’t have a series after he wrote The Chinese Parrot: he had a sequel, which does not yet equal a series. But Biggers did write a third Chan novel, Behind That Curtain, and thus created a series. In The House Without a Key: Four and Counting I mentioned that Biggers didn’t yet fully know his protagonist, Charlie Chan. In The Chinese Parrot: Biggers’ Big Decisions I analyzed the decisions the author made as he wrote a sequel and moved toward a series.

Behind That Curtain illustrates that by his third mystery Biggers was totally in control of his plotting and his characters, particularly his protagonist. It is, I think, a flawlessly plotted and written book, rich in texture.

9780897335843In music, texture is the richness of all that’s going on at the same time that melody and beat are occurring. In literature texture (or lack of) is the manner in which all the different parts of the work combine to produce a final effect. A story with texture is a story with multiple threads  woven together: these could be threads of plot, character, allusions, foreshadowing, or repetition. A story with texture contains vivid language; contains characters whom the reader is engaged with and remembers vividly; contains conflicts that are interwoven so that when events and character converge at the end, the reader feels something like — Yes, this was wonderful! I could feel it coming. Reading a textured novel is the literary equivalent of rubbing a tightly-woven wool tweed between one’s fingers. The nubs and ridges, the rise and fall, the zig and zag of the cloth offer great sensual pleasure. So, too, does a textured novel.

In my first three readings of Behind That Curtain, starting with my first reading at the age of sixteen, I can’t say that I consciously noticed the texture. But in my fourth reading, this was what I noticed most: how Biggers wove a very satisfyingly textured book out of plot, character, and language.

PLOT — Of Bigger’s first three mysteries, this one is the most ambitious plot-wise. It involves a murder from 16 years ago, a seemingly unrelated disappearance from 15 years ago, and a murder that occurs early in the book as the first two events are being discussed and re-investigated.

Behind That Curtain features four separate investigators, only one of them a member of the San Francisco Police Department. (The story is set in San Francisco.) The other three consist of humble visitor Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police Department; Sir Frederic Bruce, retired Scotland Yard inspector; and active Scotland Yard Inspector Duff. These investigators are on the trail of different crimes, and they approach them in different ways. Sir Frederic wants to solve the disappearance case above all. . . and that is what gets him murdered. Captain Flannery of the SFPD wants to solve the murder of Sir Frederic and pooh-poohs the other cases. Charlie Chan wants to solve the meaning of the single clue that Sir Frederic left behind. And Inspector Duff seems to want to study Charlie Chan as well as catch the murderer of Sir Frederic. That’s a lot of investigators pursuing a lot of paths that, the reader hopes, will end up with one solution.

Not only are there four different investigators in Behind That Curtain, but almost every one of the many interesting suspects is guilty. Of something. This, too, makes for texture.

Woven into the story are the plot elements dealing with Charlie Chan’s strong desire to return home to Honolulu to see, for the first time, his newly born eleventh child, a son. What should be a direct matter of Charlie’s boarding the weekly ship that sails for Honolulu is anything but easy, anything but direct.

CHARACTER — The decisions that Biggers made in writing his second mystery novel bore fruit in this one. In The House Without a Key we learn that Charlie Chan is highly intelligent, highly respected by those he works with, proud of his heritage, and willing to call out those who treat him in a racist way. In The Chinese Parrot we see more examples of Charlie’s pride in his heritage, learn more about his patience, and learn about his relationship with other members of the Chinese-American community. We also learn about Charlie’s ability to hone in on “the essential clue.”

In the third novel Biggers developed even more of Charlie’s character, so much so that we begin to feel deep empathy for this good person and good detective who is is not perfect. When employing a tiny bit of fakery to get the information he wants, Charlie is outsmarted by a young Chinese-American Boy Scout. When he is about to board the ship to Honolulu, eager to return home, Charlie allows himself to be manipulated into staying after the Assistant District Attorney coldly states that Charlie is leaving because he’s not smart enough to solve the case. Chan knows that the words are meant to goad him into changing his mind. He doesn’t want to change his mind . . . but he can’t let this statement go unchallenged. His pride is not only in his heritage, but in his own abilities.

Chan is a man who does the right thing, even though the matter is not his responsibility, and even though he wants to be on board that Hawaii-bound ocean liner. There is a certain weight and sometimes a certain sadness to a character who always does the right thing, even though doing so runs against his most fervent desires. Out of the first three Chan novels, this is the one that gives us the most texture in Charlie’s character. Each time I read the novel and come to its final paragraph, I feel tears in my eyes.

“Aloha,” he called. “Until we meet again.” His fat face shone with joy. The big ship paused, trembled, and set out for Hawaii.

LANGUAGE — Biggers was an above-average writer in his genre at the time. His stories are laced with great wit, with clever plotting, with foreshadowing, turnabouts, and dozens of misdirections. His sentences are more than serviceable: they do their job of moving the story forward while at the same time helping create the flavor of the setting and characters.

87c8d93b34e60b34717d82d37a5f667dIn Behind That Curtain Biggers wove deep texture into the story through the use of language, primarily the language of Charlie Chan’s aphorisms. These observations on life, these words of wisdom, this advice on how to live — these things form the warp through which the rest of the story is woven.

That Biggers realized the importance of Charlie’s aphorisms to characterization, to plot development (they make the reader think), and to language is evident when you realize that the first novel has perhaps a dozen aphorisms; the second has about the same number. Behind That Curtain has three times as many sayings as either of the first two books: more than the first two books combined.

Biggers added the large number of aphorisms to his third novel, and to each of the subsequent ones, because he realized that in doing so he was adding significantly to the texture of his art. Among my favorites from Behind That Curtain are the following:

• Muddy water, unwisely stirred, grows darker still.

• It is always darkest underneath the lamp.

• Guessing is poor business that often leads to lengthy saunters down the positively wrong path.

When it came to his craft, Earl Derr Biggers did not guess. He knew what elements and qualities were required to tell a good story, and he employed them well.

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Barbara Gregorich employs both music and texture in her mystery, Sound Proof.

The Hard-Boiled Mystery: American Influence

In The Golden Age of Mystery: British Influence I wrote about how I was influenced by reading hundreds upon hundreds of British novels written during the first Golden Age of Mystery (roughly 1920-1940). At the same time, I also read American mysteries written during the Golden Age.

Earl Derr Biggers, creator of Charlie Chan (novels, not movies!) published his first mystery, The House Without a Key, in 1925, and the sixth and final Chan novel, Keeper of the Keys, in 1932. Biggers’ Chan novels fit perfectly into the Golden Age. Like some of Christie’s Poirot novels, they’re set in exotic places. They often contain an element of romance. And, the crime is cleverly planned, in keeping with the Golden Age tradition. Only careful observation of everything and everybody leads Chan to the solution.

My mother was a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner, who created lawyer Perry Mason and published The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933. Between 1933 and 1973, forty-six Perry Mason novels were published, the titles all starting with The Case of the. I read maybe a dozen of these. After a while they all seemed alike to me — though I did enjoy the way each novel ended with a courtroom scene in which Mason exposed the murderer. I think that Gardner was particularly good at such endings because he himself was a practicing attorney.

toomanywoman2Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are one of my favorite mystery series. Individual titles that I regard with admiration are The Red Box, Too Many Cooks, Some Buried Caesar (love it!), Too Many Women, In the Best Families, and A Family Affair. And although The Black Mountain isn’t one of my favorites, I do love the fact that it takes place in Montenegro and that Archie and Nero must hide in a haystack.

Stout published the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, in 1934, so he falls directly into the Golden Age of mystery. He published his last, A Family Affair, in 1975. Even though he started writing during the Golden Age, wrote throughout the hard-boiled age, and even into the modern age, Stout wrote short, clever-solution stories in which most of the characters were two-dimensional. I think of him as a classic Golden Age writer who just kept on producing.

Dashiell Hammett wrote during mystery’s Golden Age, but he represents the beginning of a new style of mystery — the hard-boiled — and is decidedly not part of the Golden Age “style.” Hammett’s most famous novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), carried on the hard-boiled detective type he had created in his first novel, Red Harvest. The detective in Red Harvest is called the Continental Op, named after the agency he works for. The detective in the second is Sam Spade. Hammett is considered a great mystery writer, credited with creating the hard-boiled detective and an “American style” mystery with three-dimensional characters and gritty details.

The hard-boiled detective novel dominated the 1940s. Raymond Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, was first introduced in The Big Sleep in 1939. With imperialist nations on the verge of a second World War, the intellectual mysteries so prominent during the Golden Age gave way to a more realistic, more hardened type of detective fiction. And this fiction would begin to approach mainstream fiction in its concern with plot, character, setting, motivation, and theme. Chandler’s The Big Sleep, for example, was considered by many critics to be a mainstream novel that just happened to be a mystery. Mysteries of the Golden Age, on the other hand, confined themselves to being short, focused works. The writers of hard-boiled mysteries paved the way for modern mysteries of the 1970s through today.

51z2zsixJ+L._AA300_While most Golden Age mysteries are solved by an intellectual confrontation at the end, in most modern day mysteries there’s a physical confrontation at the end. And while I am very drawn to the intellectual solutions in Golden Age mysteries, I confess that in both of my mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, there’s a physical confrontation at the climax. I can reconstruct my thinking as I was writing those endings: I thought that in most cases a murderer would react physically and thus have to be confronted in the same manner.

In modern mysteries there’s more opportunity for the reader to feel an emotional involvement with the hero. Emotional involvement with fictional characters helps develop empathy toward other human beings: the fear or pity or love or hate we feel for a fictional character helps us see that others are perhaps not so different from us as we thought they were. Modern mystery writers are huge on emotional involvement. And I doubt there will ever be any going back to a time in which reader involvement was purely intellectual.

The downside (it’s a downside for me, though I don’t know if it’s a downside for others) is that the modern way of emotional involvement with detective heroes seems to be to load them down with baggage — ex-lovers, murdered children, murdered spouses, — that follows them from book to book like the black cloud follows Joe Btfsplk. After a while this gets tedious. Very tedious. That’s when I turn to the Golden Age Hercule and Charlie and Nero for a breath of fresh air, a shouldering of responsibilities without focusing on the baggage.

As a modern-day mystery writer, I’m strong on emotional involvement. But I’m equally strong on intellectual involvement, and I especially value the classic elements of Golden Age fiction, such as the use of small clues sprinkled throughout (playing fair with the reader) and the revelation of the “least likely” villain in such a way that it all makes sense at the end. In Sound Proof there isn’t a roundup of suspects as in a Golden Age, but rather a modern-day ending in which the detective and the murderer confront each other. My lifelong reading of mystery novels, about half of them Golden Age and half of them modern, helped me with all aspects of Sound Proof — but particularly with planting the clues.

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Barbara Gregorich wanted to use a planting machine for the clues in Sound Proof, but couldn’t find one that worked. So she planted the clues herself.

Wherever She Is, There’s a Title

Titles aren’t just words to be taken literally — they carry all kinds of emotional and cultural attachments with them, and that’s why they’re often changed. The Swedish title of Stieg Larsson’s first book was Men Who Hate Women. In the United States the title was changed to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish title sounds too much like nonfiction, and it doesn’t suggest character or even intrigue the way the English title does. But I’m assuming that the original title appealed to Swedish readers.

Translation isn’t the only place titles are changed — they’re often changed at an editor’s desk or in a marketing department brainstorming session. Almost all publishing contracts reserve to the publishers the right to title a book, because publishers feel that they know far better than authors what types of titles sell, and what types don’t.

That is a title’s first job: to help sell the book. And when it comes to fiction, a title has a second job: to resonate with the reader, especially at book’s end, when the impact of a well-chosen title hits home. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is an excellent example of a title hitting home. I remember reading this novel when I was twenty years old, thinking the title meant one thing as I was reading the book . . . then reaching the end and being stunned by its other meaning.

KindleCover-SOFSome writers put no titles on their books until they’ve reached the end, but most, I think, have working titles. I always have what I think of as a working title. In the end, that changes probably 50% of the time, sometimes due to me, sometimes due to the publisher.

My working title for my first novel, She’s on First, was Bases Loaded. I recognized that “bases loaded” was a trite phrase, and I fully expected the publisher to change my working title. But when my editor called to say they were going to change the title to She’s on First, I was upset. Mainly because she’s at short, not on first! Of course I understood the allusion to “Who’s on first?”. . . but I still didn’t like the title.

So my editor asked me to send every title I could think of, to see if would change the minds of the marketing department. Here’s what I sent. (And you will correctly conclude that my list didn’t change the publisher’s mind.)

Brand New Ballgame
No Easy Out
Brushback
Hit Away
National Pastime
Scuffed
Bring the Runner Home
Rough in the Diamond
The Residue of Design
Within the Lines
Inside the Strike Zone
Clearing the Bases
Contact Hitter
Infield Dirt
Ball in Play

After four or five years of living with the She’s on First, I made peace with the title. And here’s the rub. Whenever I teach this topic in a writing class, everybody, without exception, prefers She’s on First to any of the other titles in my list— which indicates that the publisher was right. (So maybe those marketing departments really do know what they’re doing!)

It’s always a good idea to brainstorm working titles for your book. Write down all word associations that come to you. Write down opposites. Think of poems, concepts, key lines from the book. Think of what grabs you as a reader. You might have to come up with 30, 40, 50 possible titles to get one you really love. And then — the marketing department might change it.

But then again, they may not — and that would indicate they believe your title will help sell your book. The Crown marketing department must have liked my title for my first mystery, Dirty Proof, because they left it intact. And I self-published the sequel, Sound Proof, so I titled it what I wanted to!

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Titles are on the outside, plots and themes on the inside . . . if you want to know what it might be like for a woman playing in the major leagues, read beyond the title of She’s on First.

The Golden Age of Mystery: British Influence

Mysteries written during the Golden Age of Mystery, roughly 1920-1940, influenced all mystery readers and writers who lived then. And even now. I’m sure it influenced me, mainly because at one time I read hundreds of mysteries from that period, and these stories helped shape my idea of what constituted a satisfying mystery. (And perhaps even what didn’t.)

90599-86823Agatha Christie epitomizes the Golden Age of mystery. Such is her influence (particularly in plotting, her forte) that she is still the best-known mystery writer in the world. Many scholars date the beginning of the Golden Age with the 1920 publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie’s first novel. Not only did this novel introduce the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (he of the egg-shaped head, drinker of tisanes), it also introduced “the little grey cells” he employs to solve mysteries.

I think of Poirot’s little grey cells as a symbol of Golden Age mysteries, for these novels stressed the intelligence of the detective, his/her ability to observe and deduce, to solve intricate puzzles, to see inconsistencies and contradictions, and, often, to possess arcane knowledge.

16322I’ve read each Agatha Christie novel at least twice, and some I’ve read three times. My favorites are all Poirot novels, particularly The ABC Murders and Murder on the Orient Express. I can recall the very first time I read Murder on the Orient Express, when I was in my late teens. At some point I muttered out loud, “This is ridiculous! They couldn’t have all done it!”

English intellectual Dorothy Sayers wrote poetry, plays, essays, literary criticisms, and translations, including a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. She also wrote the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels. I love these, particularly Strong Poison, Murder Must Advertise, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. But I find the Scottish dialect in Five Red Herrings difficult to read. In addition, the intense use of time tables makes the solution of the mystery less than riveting. While The Nine Tailors is a long book, and tells me more about bell ringing than I might want to know, I nevertheless liked the mystery and its solution. Sayers’ use of timetables is very much a Golden Age characteristic. As is the arcane knowledge about bell ringing.

Philip MacDonald wrote mysteries in the 1930s and onward. He’s best known for his novel The List of Adrian Messenger, published in 1959 and made into a movie in 1963. The book was very Christie-like in its plot. A seemingly unrelated series of murders turns out to be very related indeed: somebody is killing all the men who were prisoners of war in the same camp in Burma. John Huston directed the film, which featured well-known actors in disguise — Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Mitchum among them.

Philip MacDonald was even better known for his screenplays than for his novels. He wrote the screenplays for Charlie Chan in London and Charlie Chan in Paris; for several Mr. Moto film; for an Agatha Christie movie, Love From a Stranger; and he did an early adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca for screen. In addition, he wrote TV scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and for Perry Mason.

imagesNgaio Marsh was a New Zealand writer who moved to England in her early 30s. She wrote 32 novels featuring Roderick (Rory) Alleyn, a detective on the London Police squad. Because Marsh was interested in theater and painting, many of her mysteries feature artists and/or the stage. I think she plotted well and wrote well, though, compared to Christie’s, her plots don’t move as quickly. (Compared to Christie’s, few plots move quickly.)

Edmund Wilson, an American, had little regard for Golden Age mysteries. In his famous critique, “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” (The New Yorker, 1945), Wilson, an author and critic, claimed that Golden Age mysteries were subliterary. He called the reading of such mysteries a harmless vice and said that people were addicted to them the same way they might be addicted to solving crossword puzzles.

Mah-jongg tiles from the 1920s

Mah-jongg tiles from the 1920s

Puzzles is a key word when it comes to Golden Age mysteries. Many who read these novels compared them to crossword puzzles, in that the reader is given cryptic clues that she or he can use to solve the mystery before the detective solves it. It’s interesting to note that the Golden Age of mystery grew and flourished during the same time period (1920s-30s) as did the crossword puzzle (first printed in the New York World on December 21, 1913;) as did Mah-jongg (first sold in the US by Abercrombine & Fitch in 1920); and as did contract bridge (Vanderbilt rules set in 1925). One of the similarities between mystery novels of the Golden Age and the these games is that they all require use of the intellect: the faculty of reasoning.

It would be coming full circle for me to say that in my mysteries, Dirty Proof and Sound Proof, I was so influenced by the British Golden Age mysteries I read that I wrote a puzzle mystery.

But I didn’t.

Because, much as I admire the puzzle mystery (particularly when it’s turned into a stage production, which seems to emphasize the puzzle aspect even more than a novel does), I also admire realism, a certain degree of hard-boiled sleuthing, and emotional involvement with characters. More about these in a future blog.

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In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies I offer chapters on “Plot Complications”; “Casting Suspicion”; “Planting Clues”; and “Disguising of Motive, Means, and Opportunity,” as well as other mystery-writing topics.

Where in the World Am I?

Cook's ships,  Resolution and Discovery, Tahiti

Cook’s ships, Resolution and Discovery, Tahiti

Before John Harrison invented the marine chronometer, British ship captains had a very difficult time figuring out where they were, longitudinally speaking. Some explorers sailed the seven seas and discovered new islands . . . but were unable to find the islands on a return trip. That’s because they didn’t or couldn’t keep accurate records and descriptions. In many cases, they didn’t know where in the world they were.

Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy never had this problem. It was said of him that once he discovered something, he could always locate it again. Captain Cook mapped Newfoundland and was the first European to reach Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. Cook kept accurate records and was a highly skilled cartographer.

When you write fiction, make sure your readers know where they are. Depict your setting in a way that would have made Captain Cook proud.

Setting is very important to me — not just the setting I as a writer create, but setting I as a reader crave. And while some books on the craft and art of writing argue that setting can be emotional as well as physical, it’s physical setting that draws me in. A few examples of novels with gripping setting are Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses; John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer; William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!; Paulette Jiles’ Enemy Women; and Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg.

Books on writing the novel stress the importance of establishing setting in the very first chapter. Some advocate the very first page. Establishing the setting is the major way the writer makes the reader comfortable within the book: the writer places the story, and thus the reader, somewhere definite. The reader knows what place she or he has stepped into. I personally hesitate to step into novels in which I have no idea whatsoever where I am. Not out of fear, but out of lack of interest — if I can’t identify setting, then I feel that things are happening in a vacuum.

When you’re writing a novel, it pays to be aware of both macro and micro setting from the very beginning: it’s somewhat difficult to go back, in a rewrite, and create a setting that resonates with the reader. In Absalom, Absalom! the macro setting is the Antebellum American South. The micro setting is Thomas Sutpen’s plantation.

When I’m writing a novel, I draw a diagram of the landscape (micro setting) that the characters walk and talk in. That setting might be a room, a building, or, as in the case of Sound Proof, a farm. Here’s the diagram I drew for Mary Ployd’s farm and festival grounds. (Robin Koontz improved my initial drawing so that I could use it within the pages of Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.) While writing Sound Proof I kept this drawing above my computer, so that I could glance at it every time I needed to. If Frank Dragovic walked out the back door of the farmhouse, I knew that he had the vendor area ahead, the showers, vans, campers, and tents way off to the right, and the barn to his left. The creek separated the pole barn from the rest of the property, and so on. Knowing these things helped me envision Frank walking the grounds, looking around. It helped me imagine what he would feel, what he would smell, what he would hear.
Sound Proof Setting

As I wrote, I made a few changes in the buildings. For example, I moved the pigsty further from the vans and campers, and closer in the direction of the pole barn, though still separated from the pole barn by the creek. I needed to do that because I wanted Frank to stumble across the sty when he was returning from the pole barn after the big storm scene. Aside from a few changes such as that, this diagram helped me see and feel my setting very clearly.

I hope that when people read any of my novels, they experience the setting and thus know where in the world they are.


My first novel, She’s on First, set in the world of baseball during the 1970s, is now available on both Kobo and Kindle, as well as Amazon.com Continue reading

The Fox on the Box

FoxOne of my most exciting and rewarding writing experiences occurred thirty years ago, when I worked as a freelance writer-editor for School Zone Publishing Company. After I wrote many 32-page activity books for School Zone, I was asked to help develop a Start to Read series of ten books, each full-color, each 16 pages long. And each with a strong story. One other requirement: the total word count had to be approximately 50-100 words a book.

Was I daunted?

No.

I dove into the assignment with enthusiasm. Perhaps, having been subjected to the Dick and Jane books when learning to read, I was thinking I would write a story with, well, story. A hero who wants something and faces obstacles in getting it. Conflict! Climax! Resolution.

In 50 words.

Right.

it's magicSo I plunged into the mission, feeling my way. The first story I wrote was Up Went the Goat, about a goat who climbs a mountain, wreaks havoc at a camp site, then scampers back down the mountain. That took seven sentences totaling 38 words. Of course each picture book is a collaboration between the words, which tell part of the story, and the illustrations, which also tell part of the story. Words and pictures together tell the full story. Up Went the Goat was illustrated by Robert Masheris.

Emboldened, I wrote another book about a creature wreaking havoc: a fox who is most inconsiderate of a box. The Fox on the Box was told in six sentences totaling 36 words. This story was also illustrated by Robert Masheris.

From there I went on to longer books in the series, such as Sue Likes Blue, a whopping 131 words. The books were highly popular and are still available today, though mainly in ebook format. I still receive occasional fan mail from 5- and 6-year-olds about the books. In fact, I receive fan mail from 35-year-old parents who remember that the very first book they ever read was one of the Start to Read books I wrote — and now their children are learning to read using the same book. This is awesome to me: to know that books I wrote so long ago still live in the hearts of those who read them.

Autographing Start to Read Books, San Francisco, 1984

Autographing Start to Read Books, San Francisco, 1984

In addition to writing children’s books, I write for adults. In baseball circles, I’m known as the author of Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball and/or the author of She’s on First. In mystery circles I’m known as the author of Dirty Proof and Sound Proof and, I hope, my recent book, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

But if you look at what’s selling in children’s ebooks here and in Europe, or if you log into Goodreads and search for me or my books, what you’ll see is that I’m known as the author of The Fox on the Box.

And that gives me a good feeling.

The Line Between

Line BetweenMy father was born in Croatia (which a few years later became part of Yugoslavia) after his father left for the United States. Almost fourteen full years went by before my father saw his father. And yet, our family album contained this photo of my grandfather, my infant father, and my grandmother, standing side by side.

Don’t believe everything you see. My father explained to me that two different photographs were taken, one in Croatia, one in the US, and then they were composited into one photo, so that both my grandfather in this country and my grandmother and father in another country could each have a family portrait. My father told me that many immigrants had such photos made. Apparently there was a desire for such photos, and up sprang the clever services that provided them.

The line separating my grandfather “here” from my grandmother and father “there” was more formidable than the invisible line in the photo. The wide line of the Atlantic Ocean separated them. To cross that line, money had to be paid as passenger fare on one of the Cunard Lines immigrant ships. After fourteen years of digging ditches in Pennsylvania and working in a foundry in Ohio, my grandfather, Marko Grguric, earned enough money to pay for passage for his wife and son. Thus my grandmother and grandfather were finally reunited, and my father got to meet his father.

SS Berengaria, Cunard Line immigrant ship that my grandmother and father emigrated on

SS Berengaria, Cunard Line immigrant ship that my grandmother and father emigrated on

More than once my father shared with me the story of his childhood in a small village in the mountains of northern Croatia. He was a child who yearned for his father and later, as a young boy, he craved to leave the place where he was always hungry.

I wrote a picture book telling the story of my father’s childhood, and I titled the manuscript The Line Between. For years I tried to sell this manuscript to editors at various publishing houses. The rejection letters I received contained a mixed bag of comments, ranging from “compelling” and “well written” to “immigration stories are tough to sell” to “too quiet.” There were also outright “not for us” responses and no responses at all.

Just as in my father’s childhood, so in publishing there is a formidable line. In publishing, that line separates what editors deem right for the company they work for and what they deem not right — the “not” including a wide array of manuscripts ranging from poorly written to poorly told, to stories that are well written and well told but won’t earn a profit. For most editors who rejected it, The Line Between was a well written story that was “quiet” and therefore would not, in their opinion, sell.

All writers I know of have unpublished manuscripts stored somewhere: file cabinet, box in the basement, or computer. I am no exception, and The Line Between is not the only unpublished manuscript on my computer.

Like many writers, I don’t give up on a story I believe in. A Confederacy of Dunces took sixteen years before an editor bought it. Louis L’Amour collected 200 rejects before selling his first book. And so I continue to submit The Line Between to picture book editors.

I just hope that selling the story to an editor doesn’t take fourteen years.