Saturday, June 16, 2012

My newsroom mysteries kill off editors .. but corporations are killing off journalists far faster

Sometimes I miss working at a newspaper. I miss the interviews.  I miss finding the stories. I miss the writing. I even miss the burned coffee and the crazy hours.

One day, I missed it so much I made up my own newsroom. I staffed it with a bunch of quirky creative types, and then I developed my hero - a reporter who was extra nosy and particularly vigilant about covering the news.

Then I ... well, I knocked off an editor. Fictionally speaking, of course. I wrapped it all up into a murder mystery, and readers seemed to enjoy it, which I very much appreciated. So I'm writing a sequel.

They're a little far-fetched, of course. But writing them makes me feel good. I actually feel in touch with the industry - to write my stories, I have to stay abreast with what's happening in real life.

Then I read stories like the one I read this week - about so many hard-working, dedicated journalists at the Times-Picayune who've been cast aside like yesterday's news. And I realize you don't really need my mysteries to read about murder in the newsroom.

Corporations  - working in the name of progress - are killing off newspapers far faster in real life.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Give that guy a gun - or maybe a phone - for some added drama

Raymond Chandler once said, "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand."

He was talking about adding tension to a story, of course. I would never doubt Chandler. It worked for him.  And I agree, guys and guns most definitely liven up a scene.

But there are other ways to add dramatic elements, too. My personal favorite? The midnight call.

You write what you know, and in real life, I find few things creepier than being woken from a sound sleep by the chirp of a cell phone or worse, the loud ringing of a little-used landline telephone.

You just know there's something bad on the other end. Your stomach knots, your heart starts pounding. But you have to answer it.

I hate when it happens to me.

But I love to do it to my characters. Because anything, or anyone, can be on the other end of that line.

Even a guy with a gun.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sprinkling details throughout a story can be devilishly tricky

I always found the phrase "the devil is the details" somewhat charming.

It's sounds very dramatic. Sinister, even. In reality, it's hardly that. It's simply a way of describing a situation that's time-consuming and, well, devilishly tricky to finesse.

I'm coming across it now as I try to add some realistic details to Paper Cut, my sequel to Death on Deadline. They're both newspaper mysteries, but in Paper Cut, there's a scene that takes place next to a printing press that's running at full speed.

It's important to me that the reader understand how immense and loud these contraptions are - a traditional newspaper press, after all, is huge - it stands nearly three stories tall. It's impressive-looking, too; a solid strip of paper is woven through rollers in a complex web. Once the press gets up to speed, an offset press can put ink on that paper and assemble the pages in the correct sequence to the tune of up to 70,000 copies an hour

It can be a dangerous piece of equipment. And if someone yells "Stop the presses!" it's a big deal.

I think the tricky part is balance - I want to add enough detail to capture the reader's interest, not lead a  tour. I want drama and ambience ... but there's not a test at the end.

I once read that details are like spices - if you can recognize them and point them out, there are too many. Right now, I'm striving for that perfect blend.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

What, finish a novel? How can I focus with Facebook, YouTube and the guy with the exploding meth lab in his pants?

When I was a newspaper reporter, I wrote very fast. I didn't have a choice. As one of my cranky editors used to tell me, "This page is going out at 8, and it can't go out blank."

(He also had a habit of coming up behind me every 10 minutes, rubbing his hands together and saying in a fake-happy voice, "How's it coming, Majeske??" It was very motivating.)

So you would think that writing fast would be drilled into my DNA. But for some reason, I'm down for the word count - quite literally.

It feels like it's taking me a long time to move forward on my current work-in-progress. Every week, it seems, it's two steps forward and one step back. Oh sure, I've changed the plotline a couple of times and replaced some good ideas with what I think are better ones. I've even added a few red herrings.

But the real slowdown?  I think I have to blame that on my friends and family. Yes, that's right. They're just too interesting - far too distracting. And Facebook? It's deadly. I mean, I have friends who post news articles about criminals who have portable meth labs blowing up in their pants, and a few who send me multiple photos from their latest shopping excursions. Others send me comics, clips from YouTube, new sites to check out and new titles I should be reading. Somebody signed me up for Pinterest.

Seriously? My concentration level can't compete with that. I'm doomed. I obviously need to go away for a week (or two) in a remote cabin with no WiFi.

Or maybe I'll just call my old editor and have him yell at me for awhile. It might be good for both of us.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

If you don't use the correct words, no one will take you seriously ... for all "intensive purposes," at least

A long time ago, at a newspaper far, far away, a manager decided to try an experiment.

When my section editor left for another job, the boss decided to hire someone from a non-traditional field to fill her spot. You know - not a journalist, not a word person.

"Let's get someone who thinks differently," he said to the other managers. "Let's shake things up."

He found someone with an advanced degree from a top film school with a lot of interesting ideas. His idea could have been a good one. Only the new editor didn't quite have a keen grasp of the English language.

For example:

"We just need to conversate (converse) and we'll get along, " the new guy told the team.

"Good idea," he told me one day. "It's passed mustard (passed muster) with the boss."

And my favorite: ..."For all intensive purposes, (intents and purposes) this project is done."

I guess I'd never realized before how incredibly important the right words can be. But now I'm hyper-vigilant. I know the mayor is "eager" to return to his job - not "anxious." I know there's been a "slaying" downtown - not a "murder" (at least not yet).

I also know now there are experiments, procedures and um, failed attempts. And I've realized that if you're not using the correct words, it doesn't matter how many degrees you have. No one will listen to anything you say - or write.

Monday, April 2, 2012

You have the right to remain silent ... don't you?

I thought writing mysteries would be a piece of cake. I mean, all you need is a good guy, a bad guy and an intriguing puzzle, right? Oh, and a motive and a few red herrings. And of course, some basic knowledge of the criminal justice system.

Wait, wait, wait - what was that last one? Yep, that's right. I mean, when exactly should that villain be arrested? Or that good guy who's being framed -  how long, exactly, can you keep him at home before he should logically be sitting in the county jail?

Those are just a few of the unexpected questions I've run up against writing my latest mystery. Because - confession time - I'm not a criminal. I've never even gotten a parking ticket. Well, one time, I parallel parked really badly and someone left a note on my windshield that showed a cartoon Mickey Mouse flipping me off, but I don't think that counts. So when it came to writing about arraignments and bail and murder charges, I was a little lost.

I wanted a main character to have evidence against him, but not too much evidence. I wanted things to look bad - but not too bad. I was wading in pretty deep.

Luckily, I have friends and relatives who are attorneys. I have an author friend who took pity on me and sent me a Police Enforcement Code book. And I've been reading articles like "How the Wheels of Justice Turn" and doing lots of research.

It's been slowing things down a bit, but I don't mind. It's helping the plot immensely, and besides, I feel like Columbo. But you know, there's just one more thing . . .

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I want your opinion on this story - and I want your opinion to be that you love it...

I asked my husband to take a look at my Work in Progress the other day and to offer his honest opinion. He did.

"It's too slow here," he said, pointing to a specific chapter. "I think you need to go back to thinking like a journalist."

What?! I was mortified. Offended. Miffed. Disappointed. How could he not see my genius? How could he not realize how wonderful  my words were, see the beauty in my prose?! What was he, crazy?!

Then I took a few minutes to cool off, and read over the chapter in question. I reviewed his comments in my head and realized, that, well,  he was right. That chapter was indeed moving too slow. It didn't have a journalist's edge. It needed work.

I also realized that I'd fallen into an age-old writer's trap. I hadn't really wanted his review, I'd wanted his validation.

 Critiques can be hard to hear. But they're necessary. Vital, even, to move a story forward. Sigh. Type, type, type. Back to the drawing board.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Old boyfriends and dead editors - how much information is TMI?

Should I tell you about the old boyfriends, the hometown, the murdered editor? Or wait a minute - how much information is TMI?

That's a quandary I'm wrestling with as I work on the sequel to Death on Deadline. In a sequel, much background information is too much? How much will help, and how much will hinder?

How much does the reader really need to know about protagonist America Miles to understand the mystery she's embroiled in now?

I want the sequel to stand on its own. For me, there's nothing more annoying than picking up a book and finding out you don't know what the heck is going on because it's not the first book in the series.

But like with any relationship, the more you know about someone, the better you understand their actions. Does it make a difference that the "someone" is fictional?

So I'm treading lightly, with carefully placed transitions, a few remembrances and a trip or two down memory lane.

I feel like I'm walking a tightrope between the past and the present. I just hope I can keep my balance.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Planning evil deeds in a newsroom is not an easy task

A newspaper is a really hard place to commit a dastardly deed - even fictionally speaking. I discovered this recently as I was writing the sequel to my first book, Death on Deadline.

Death on Deadline is a light-hearted mystery novel that centers on a crime that's committed in a newsroom. I don't want to give it all away, but suffice it to say that there's a nasty editor whose

days of slicing and dicing the copy of reporters is numbered.

Anyway, in the sequel, which I'm working hard to finish and is tentatively titled Paper Cut, I decided to off yet another person in a newsroom. (Apparently I have issues).

But because of the circumstances, I needed someone to find the body. You know, because it's a MYSTERY. In Death on Deadline, the editor was pretty much killed in plain sight - the killer was just that sneaky.

Not so in Paper Cut. Someone needs to actually find the victim - which means the newsroom has to be EMPTY. I never even thought of the difficulty of that scenario when I was plotting my victim's demise.

Because here's the thing: Newsrooms are never empty. If I were a killer, I would never feel confident that I had my victim alone in one. There's always a reporter, editor, photographer or copy editor wandering in, checking a schedule, eating a sandwich, writing some copy or bringing in equipment for repair.

It took some serious rewriting, and a lot of creativity to make it work. I might have to find a new venue for my next foray into fiction.

Monday, January 16, 2012

No good ideas today? Fry up a batch of bacon!

Other people get great ideas in the shower. I get mine frying bacon.

I don't know why. Maybe it's the mesmerizing sizzle. Maybe it's the fact that I'm just a captive audience for so many minutes - watching, flipping and adjusting the slices so they don't scorch - in a peaceful kitchen so early in the morning.

And it's not brain surgery.

So there I stand, sipping coffee, and I can hear the kids giggling downstairs and the dog causing trouble in the other room but here in the kitchen it's nice and quiet.

I start thinking.

My new book will take place in the Bible belt. Wouldn't it be interesting to have a character in my latest book who quoted Scripture constantly?

Should I include "The Cheshire Cat" in my "Great Smiles in Art" presentation that I'm giving to the third graders this week? It's not technically art ... but I bet they'd love it.

I wonder if I could have a book launch party at a real newspaper?

Should I be making cinnamon rolls to go with this bacon?

You get the idea - Pretty soon, I'm pretty motivated for the day. I don't make bacon every morning, of course. But now I'm thinking, maybe I should.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Jim, James, John ... help! I'm suffering from character drift!

So I failed miserably at NaNoWriMo this year - you know, National Novel Writing Month. I barely even made a dent in a new project. But I did do something right - I ordered the book "No Plot? No Problem" by Chris Baty, the original founder of the annual program.

It's a great book - it's funny, motivating, filled with lots of tips and writing tricks. And through it, I found out that I'm not only one who suffers from a little something that Chris refers to as "character drift."

Maybe you suffer from it, too. It occurs when a character starts off as a Tim, then becomes Tom, and finally ends up as Jim. For me, I've found it happens not so much with first names, but with last.

With my latest project, poor Betsy McMichaels in chapters one, two and three became Betsy McWilliams in chapters eight and nine. Of course, as long as you know you do it, it's easy enough to watch for - now I keep a list of my characters posted - easy to see and check.

You know, I should have known I had a tendency toward character drift. After all, in ninth grade science, I was assigned a semester report on codeine and ended up doing a big report on cocaine.

I still got the credit, but it just wasn't the same. The teacher looked at me like I was high on both.