Saturday, April 25, 2009

You Just Can't Please Everybody

At an informal library event involving several authors, I got to
talking with a lively older woman. She asked what I wrote, and after
I'd told her, she asked, "Do you take the name of the Lord in vain in
your books?"
"Well," I said, "Some of my characters do use strong language,
including taking the name of the Lord in vain, but never just for
effect. I try to tune in to the way different people talk, and
anything they say needs to be appropriate for them and for the
situation in the story. They don't use four-letter words just for
effect. Same for violence and sex. They've all got to be integral
to the needs of the story."
The woman's smile got even brighter. "Oh, you can use all the
four-letter words you want in your books," she said. "And put in all
the gore and kinky sex you'd like. But I can't read books that take
the name of the Lord in vain."
Lesson learned. You write what's in you, the way it comes. Try to
tailor your books to please everyone, you'll be publishing blank pages.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Outlining Plots and Characters in Mystery Novels

The last few days, there's been a lively discussion on the DorothyL Digest ( about whether authors should outline a novel before writing Word One, or fly by the seat of their authorial pants. The responses confirmed a long-held opinion: no two writers approach their stories in precisely the same manner. Here's what I wrote:

For my first couple of mysteries, I tried to outline the plots and describe the characters in advance. But then, practically as soon as I started to write the story, the characters ignored all my a priori efforts. If anything, what I'd put down beforehand held me back.  So for the next four books, I became a pantster, started with a character or two, and a general idea of where they were going. Still rough sledding - first drafts took forever, and rewrites were extensive.
For my current book, I decided to try a middle approach. I took my initial characters and my general sense of direction, and wrote just a few lines about what they were going to do first, and next, and after that. Finally, after about five or six scenes, I hit a wall, and that's when I started writing the first draft. The characters fleshed out the skeleton very nicely, and as I approached the roadblock, I found I could look ahead from there. So again, I wrote short descriptions of scenes as far as I could see. I'd call it a Carrot and Donkey Approach. Four sequences, and I finished the first draft in about one-third my usual time, and then rewrites went at least twice as fast as usual, with many less drafts. The pudding that's THE RAGTIME FOOL should be in for the editor's proof in about a month.  
I guess we just keep learning. That's one of the great things about writing. You never know it all - at least I don't.
One more thing: to keep track of events and people as they develop, when I finish each chapter, I write a short summary of what happened, so as I go along in the first draft and with rewrites, I have a linear record of who did what to whom, and when. I'd be lost without that.

If there's one constant, it's this: published authors write regularly and frequently. But there don't seem to be any hard-and-fast rules on just how best to go about it. It's trial and error, with more than the occasional tribulation.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Rich Egan's Missouri Ragtime

When I go to bookshops to talk about THE RAGTIME KID and THE KING OF RAGTIME, people ask me whether they can buy CDs so they can actually hear the music I've been referring to. Usually, I give them the names of a recording or two of classical ragtime, music by Scott Joplin, Joe Lamb, and James Scott. Great music, but there's more to ragtime, and it's readily available.
Scott Joplin's goal was to transform the rough-and-ready folk ragtime music of the 1890s and earlier into a classical form, to be played strictly as written, preferably in a concert hall, rather than in a bar or a brothel. But the prototype also developed along other lines, the most prominent of which is usually called Missouri, or midwestern, ragtime, a more boisterous music, but with a prominent days-gone-by feeling.
Richard Egan of St. Louis is a pianist-composer-historian whose playing taps heavily into the nostalgic mode. Rich has two CDs available: FROM THE LAND OF RAGTIME (Piano Joys#PJ006) and LOWLAND FOREST (Piano Joys#PJ023). Listen to them, and you'll come away with a comprehensive feel for ragtime music today.
Just about everyone has heard Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," and "The Entertainer," but on the Lowlands Forest disc, Rich plays four lesser-known Joplin pieces, "The Sycamore," "Eugenia," "The Rosebud March," and "Pleasant Moments," and one by James Scott, "Sunburst Rag." You'll also hear midwestern/southern/country rags from a hundred years ago, such as Charles Hunter's "Tickled to Death," and modern pieces in that mode by Tom Shea (a wonderful player-composer who died far too young in 1982), David Thomas Roberts, and Rich himself. There are a few pieces by Brun Campbell, The Ragtime Kid; if you don't want your feet to tap when Rich plays Brun's tunes,  you'll have to tie them down. Then there are the outright barnburners, like "Old Dan Tucker/Bingo" and "You've Been A Good Old Wagon But You've Done Broke Down," which will take root in your brain and not give you respite for days - not that you'd want it to. And  if you think nostalgia ain't what it used to be, take a listen to Rich's rendition of "Slippery Elm Rag."
Rich Egan's playing is the antithesis of the old pizza parlor style: gussy it up and bang it out. This guy is sensitive to every emotional component of ragtime, and is in every sense an interpreter of the music. Give him a listen. You won't be sorry.