Plot twists

This little video portrays in a few seconds the tension we try to achieve in a manuscript. We have only a couple of opening lines to grab a reader’s attention and have them wonder, what’s going on? And then we surprise them. If this was a fictional short story, we’d fall in love with the characters. How wonderful that it’s real!

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Writing by committee …

The problem with using external readers is that they often provide conflicting advice. I’ve sent my historical fiction manuscript (ms), Famine Bay, to several. Some liked the plot device; others didn’t. One suggested I rewrite the entire manuscript to change the point of view; that ain’t going to happen.  I had readers who suggested I put in more backstory about the main characters, and after I did, other readers who suggested I take it out.

That’s when the process gets frustrating.

I remember doing that to The Beggar’s Opera — revising it to meet the whim of every agent who gave me feedback, only to have them all pass on the book anyway. Seventy revisions later, when I did get an agent, he suggested undoing some of the things I’d done at the suggestion of other agents.

So …. rather than try to sort this out on my own, I’ve passed the ms along to Alexander Schultz, a freelance editor, for feedback. Alex has worked on three of my books for Penguin Canada and Simon and Schuster Canada. He knows where and when to push me and also knows that I prefer to be told how to “improve” something that isn’t working rather than “remove” it. I think he’ll be worth every penny


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A Literary Analysis of The Beggar’s Opera …

A Belgian graduate student, Alexandra Sanchez, wrote a very interesting article recently in which she  compared the world view expressed in The Beggar’s Opera  to that of Leon Padura in his mystery novel Pasado Perfecto.

It’s a very compelling analysis. Distilled to its essence, she concludes that my perceptions of Cuba (its poverty, and communism) as an outsider reflect an inherent Western supremacy and  that Paduro, a native Cuban, doesn’t really mention these things: they’re a given. Overall, she finds his work more sympathetic to Castro and communism.

I think an outsider writing about another culture will flag things that strike them as inconsistent with their own world view and therefore of interest. So I agree with her: I mention all kinds of things, including the history of the island, that Paduro doesn’t.

But if you read the second book in the series, The Poisoned Pawn, I’m pretty critical of western institutions too (this is a theme that gets further developed in Hungry Ghosts and Umbrella Man, yet to be published). I think that’s a result of my human rights background, which may in itself make the reviewer’s point.

Anyway, here’s a link to the Google translation of the article, Poetics and Politics and the so-called Ethnic Detective.  (I wish I read Dutch, but one of my readers, who is Dutch, says it’s impeccably written). If you do read Dutch, you’ll likely find the original article of interest: here’s the link.

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How about an art exhibit related to a book series?

The more I think about the idea of an art exhibition running hand-in-hand with the launch of a new book, the more I like it. I was initially thinking of something where artists might donate their work, but that’s a huge ask. Instead, imagine a book launch that promotes not just an author, but the imaginations of readers who are talented enough to draw/paint the emotions the book evokes in them?

An art gallery in one of the villages in the Eastern Townships has done something similar with respect to Louise Penny’s wonderful series; I think it’s brilliant. Take a look and let me know what you think. I’ve contacted my artist pals to see if they might be interested in taking a run at the Inspector Ramirez series; after all, what could be more evocative than Cuba?

I always have my launches at a local art gallery; I think it would be super cool to have the launch and an exhibition of art based on the book (or books) at the same time. If you’re an artist and you’re interested, let me know: I can arrange to get you an advance copy. Hungry Ghosts will be out at the end of June, with Simon and Schuster.

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Wanted: artists!

UPDATE:   See my next post. I’m now thinking that instead of a silent auction, there should be a themed exhibition of art related to the series. So I still want artists (I’ll get you a free book for inspiration), but I want you to be able to display your work and get paid if it sells! Kind of a win-win situation, don’t you think?


The next book in my Inspector Ramirez series, Hungry Ghosts, will be out next June, and I’ve been thinking that for the  book launch, it might be fun to try to get have some art related to the Inspector Ramirez series donated and hold a silent auction. We could auction off the art and  donate the proceeds to an appropriate charity. Maybe something related to the missing and murdered Aboriginal women, since that’s a huge part of the plot. Or one of the many organizations providing relief to Cuba.

I’ve always had my book launches in an art gallery; I’m sure we could get a good crowd. What do you think? Anyone in? The series is set in Cuba but Hungry Ghosts has a big part of it set in northern Ontario on a reserve, so that ought to push some creative buttons. Can’t give tax receipts, but I can give anyone who participates a book!

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Dealing with criticism.

As authors, we put our work “out there.” Not everyone likes it, anymore than not everyone we meet will like us either, or we them. But I think it’s important that we pay attention to readers’ criticisms. We can learn a lot from them.

My book, The Poisoned Pawn, was recently panned on one of the discussion threads on the Absolute Write Water Cooler, an online chatroom that I belong to. (The person who read it felt strongly enough about it to start a new thread!)

The criticism levied against it (that it’s an info-dump) spawned a very interesting discussion in which a number of authors talked about the differences between info-dumping and exposition, and how we sometimes overdo it.

We’re often advised as authors that we shouldn’t to respond to a negative review, but I thought that as the author whose book was on the table, I should maybe introduce myself.

Have a look at what happened. (Click on the image to enlarge it.) These are extracts: there were lots  of other comments before and after each one, as you can see by the numbers in the upper right corner. It was an informative exchange about the challenge of writing for different audiences and how important it is not to turn readers off.

I think the more important lesson here, though, is that when people are critical of your work, you don’t have to stay out of the discussion:  there are ways to respond that can make the whole experience pretty positive.

(If you belong to AW, you can follow the entire discussion about info-dumping  right here.)



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Pet Peeves – Dialect instead of Dialogue

I confess: I really hate reading books where the authors have decided to write dialogue in dialect. I don’t want to read a book where I have to struggle to figure out what people are saying. As soon as the dialect makes it hard to read, I give up and put it down. (Yes, I know Mark Twain got away with this, but that was a long time ago. Writing in dialect doesn’t work quite so well now.)

There are ways to let a reader know a character’s culture or ethnicity without turning their language into gibberish. Brad Smith does this beautifully in Crow’s Landing, for example: he has a Russian character who “reads” as Russian because of the words he uses and  a few dropped prepositions.

Will Ferguson won the Giller Prize for 419, a story partly set in Nigeria. He told me in a TV interview on my show, Getting Published, that he realized  quickly that he only needed a few Nigerian words here and there to get his characters situated and that trying to write dialogue with an accent wouldn’t have worked.

I tried reading a historical novel recently where all the “you’s” had been replaced with “ye’s” and it drove me absolutely nuts.

One of the best books I’ve ever read is a novel set in the 1400s called The Moor’s Account, which is due to hit bookstores this month. It  managed to totally convey the time, setting, and the different nationalities of characters who ranged from Moorish to Spanish to indigenous without altering the English language; one could imagine the characters speaking with different accents without being smacked upside the head with them.

I am in the final stages of writing  a historical novel set in the 1600s. My characters are French, First Nation, and English. I’ve conveyed their ethnicity and cultural differences by the words they used to describe things and the way they see the world. Their voices are completely different; some are formal, some are youthful, some are skeptical. It’s those voices that tell us who they are; I don’t need to force them into dialect for a reader to know which person is speaking or where they’re from.

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Blurbs: What they are; what they mean, how to get them.

A “blurb” is one of those endorsements that appear on book jackets, kind of like the one line movie reviews we see in movie ads. “A captivating ride!” is the kind of thing you might see. “Brilliantly written, engaging … will keep you up all night!” might be another.

The most useful blurbs are provided by the A-list authors: the Stephen Kings or Lee Childs, for example. The idea is that if Stephen King says he was “riveted” by a book, a reader will be, too. The A-list authors don’t need blurbs anymore to help their sales, but those of us starting out do. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom.

A lot of people think blurbs are paid advertisements. That isn’t true.  I don’t know of anyone who gets paid to blurb a book. Reading a book takes time. Frankly, there are a lot of published authors out there who wouldn’t have the time to do it even if you paid them.

The busier and more successful the author is, the harder it is to get them to blurb your book. Which is why a blurb from a Stephen King or a Lee Child is so great — but also so hard — to get.

I’m at that point now where I get asked from time to time to blurb another author’s book, most often by my publisher, although I’ve been asked by other publishers to blurb their authors’ books too. I almost always say yes, because I love to read, and I figure it can’t hurt to have my name showing up on someone else’s book jacket. It’s another way of getting my own name out there.

Sometimes I offer to blurb a book I’ve really loved without being asked because I love to promote other authors whose work I really like. Those are easy. The harder ones to blurb are where you like the book well enough but aren’t blown away by it. You don’t want to be tepid in your praise (that’s kind of like seeing a really ugly baby and telling its parents how wonderfully interesting it is), but you don’t want to oversell it either, since a blurb reflects on your own credibility.

I usually try to find something to say in a blurb that expresses what I really think.  A book that’s “a great read at the beach” didn’t have me thinking about it for days or months later; one that’s “action-packed” may not have a lot of character development but  could be perfect for the reader who likes that kind of thing.

So how do you get a blurb? You can ask; if you don’t ask, you’ll never get one. But don’t be disappointed if an author you admire says no. Be grateful if you’ve had a chance to interact with them (most don’t respond at all)  and that they’ve taken some of the time from their busy schedule to respond. If they say no, it’s not personal.

Asking for a blurb is a lot like querying, and you can expect to be rejected most of the time so get used to it. You’re usually asking people who don’t know you to do you a major favour. I remember getting a request for a blurb turned down by Jeffrey Deaver who was so kind in his “I’m sorry I don’t do blurbs anymore ” response that it was several days before I realized he’d said no. Lee Child’s assistant was terrific, too: Lee was too busy to blurb books anymore, she said, and besides, in a year from now, I wouldn’t need a blurb; the book would do so well. (Really, how sweet was that.)

By contrast, Henning Mankell’s assistant indicated to me that if he had time, he would read The Beggar’s Opera but would only provide a blurb if he  liked it. I sent off the book, and never heard a word. I’d like to think he ran out of time ….


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