You’re A Good Writer

In this season of thankfulness and giving I am reminded of those who encouraged me in my writing. And I would like to express my thanks to them.

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Who could have foretold that the girl who liked to read Nancy Drew mysteries would grow up to write her own stories?

Since I have become a professional writer and do events where I appear as said writer, I am often asked how long I have been writing. I usually say that I got my first writing job on the junior high school newspaper when I was twelve years old.

My listeners smile and understand how that could be. Studious girl… likes to write… becomes reporter for the Francis Scott Key Pointer. But the story has a beginning that started with an ordinary interaction between teacher and student.

I had been in the seventh grade for a few weeks, and our English teacher Mrs. Lineberger was giving back the first test papers of the semester. As she put mine down on my desk, she said what for me were magic words: Anne Marie, you’re a good writer.

I’ve never forgotten her saying that.

Not only was it the first time somebody told me that I was a good writer. But it was Mrs. Lineberger, who said it. And wasn’t she not only the best English teacher in the world, but somebody I felt sure wouldn’t have said something that wasn’t true.

But… there was more to come. During lunchtime Mrs. Lineberger took me down the hall to the classroom of another English teacher, Mr. Cook, who was the advisor to the school paper. She introduced me again with those magic words – a good writer – and Mr. Cook promptly put me to work writing articles for the Pointer. The next year I was appointed the editor.

I can still remember some of the stories I wrote. Since our newspaper came out every other month we concentrated on features. I loved to do personality profiles. The first one I did was about a boy in my home room, Gary, who was a terrific artist. His career goal, however, was to be a bus driver. I sat down and interviewed him, wrote my feature about what I saw as an anomaly, and Rembrandt The Bus Driver was published.

Another profile was written about Joyce, the best athlete in our grade. In the article I predicted that one day she would teach physical education. A few years ago I ran into her at our high school reunion, the first time I’d seen her since we’d graduated. She told me that she had recently showed that very story to her granddaughter who was amazed that I had correctly forecast “that you’d be a gym teacher, Grandma.”

And all this started because I had a teacher who encouraged me to write.

Francis Scott Key School where I got my writing start. (This renovated building looks a lot different than the one I attended.)

Francis Scott Key School where I got my writing start. (This renovated building looks a lot different than the one Gary, Joyce and I attended.)

For the last two years I have been teaching a writing group at the local senior center. I use the word teaching loosely. Because what I do is more along the lines of coaching. Like Mrs. Lineberger, I like to tell my participants when they have written something good.

These seniors are a lively group who enjoy to write in all genres – fiction, poetry, drama, essays. The talent among them amazes me. They draw on their life experiences, their imaginations and their sense of humor. And what continues to impress me is how important writing is to them. My job is to stimulate them to stretch and improve. And they do.

So I’m thankful that my life has come full circle. Where once I needed encouragement to get started as a writer, now I can give that same support to other aspiring writers – of any age.

Thank you, Mrs. Ethel Lineberger and Mr. John Cook, former members of the English Department of Francis Scott Key School in Baltimore, Maryland. I hope I’ve made you both proud of me.

Revising and Revising

I find it worth examining the reason why I had to spend two weeks writing Chapter 19 of Invest In Death, my current Newport Mystery book-in-progress.

My writing method is fairly standard. I begin by making sure I know what I want to say in the chapter I am about to write. How, as the movie people like to ask, does this scene advance the story. Only when I know what I want to say, and believe it makes sense to say it in this chapter, am I ready to begin writing.

I expect the resulting first written draft to be rough, which it always is, and to contain way too many words, which it always does.

My next step is to print what I have written, take my felt tip pen in hand (I alternate using the black one and the red one to keep all the changes easier to decipher) and cross out the many instances of my using more words than I need to express myself. I replace adjectives, adverbs, nouns, including the word just which I find impossible not use at least five times a page.

After this is done, I need to cleanse my mind of these pages so I put them aside and do something else. I may leave my office to check if the dryer cycle has ended and laundry must be folded or if the cats need to be fed. It might even be my lunch time.

Once I’ve cleared out my head, I return to my office and with fresh eyes read the recently written chapter, always finding more words to change, a few paragraphs to move into a different order, and surprisingly a lot more words, even whole paragraphs that need to be crossed out.

Reading the pages aloud usually comes next with – you guessed it – more crossed out words and replaced vocabulary.

All this revising of my draft generally takes two or three days. With Chapter 19, unaccountably, the process I’ve described wouldn’t end: I couldn’t stop revising. As the days wore on I was beginning to feel like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. The more I carried the words away, the more there seemed to be too many of them, and the wrong ones at that.

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I came to feel like the sorcerer’s apprentice as I furiously deleted words from my draft.

 

For a week I wrote and re-wrote, revised and edited. I had to resort to using a green felt tip pen because I had so made so many corrections on my draft. The more I worked at it, the more dissatisfied I was with Chapter 19. Yet the concept of the chapter, what I wanted the scene to contribute to the book, was exactly what I wanted. I just wasn’t finding the right words to communicate my ideas.

I began the second week of working on the intractable chapter.

In between revisions I washed all the scatter rugs in the house. I frequently went out to see if the mail was here even though the window in my office overlooks the mail box – I can not only see the mail truck when it comes, but hear its distinctive acceleration as it circles around our cul-de-sac. The cats got fed extra food.

Then, it began to happen. At last I was beginning to feel that I was wrestling Chapter 19 into shape. Finally the words coming out of the characters’ mouths – it is primarily a scene between two of the suspects – started to sound like what I had wanted them to say all along.

The infamous Chapter 19

The infamous Chapter 19

As I write this, I am now finishing up the draft of Chapter 20, a process which has taken only my customary few days of work and the result of which generally pleases me. I am definitely relieved that I’m not losing my writing grip.

When I stepped back to ask myself why Chapter 20 fell into place so easily and #19 didn’t, I discovered something. The action in #20 focused on my three continuing characters: Caroline, my amateur detective; Hank, my police detective; and Caroline’s mother-in-law Louise.

And this is what finally led me to what realize what caused my problems with Chapter 19.

Although I had created my two suspects and given them the obligatory bios all the characters get, it came to me that I didn’t know Scott and Jason as human beings very well. When I look back on my first drafts of Chapter 19, I realize that I was still in the process of getting to know them. I was writing a pivotal scene in my story, and I hadn’t known how Jason and Scott were going to react. I had thought I knew, but it turns out I didn’t.

It was only when I got them talking about several aspects of the case that I was able to work out meaningful actions and reactions. I had to hear them talk to one another so I could hear in my head that what these two men were doing in the chapter wasn’t working. With my countless rewrites their dialog and actions improved. They began to be the characters I wanted them to be.

Now going forward in the book, Scott and Jason are stronger and definitely more interesting. I’m looking forward to writing the next chapter in which they appear, singly or together. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say for themselves.

Everybody Writes

The news that prol basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written a mystery book shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did. Everybody, it seems, is writing a book.

Several years when I had my photograph taken for the cover of my first book, the photographer recommended that I have the lenses taken out of my glasses for the shot.

When I went to the optician to have this done, the technician who took care of me asked me why I was doing this. When I told him it was for a book cover, he promptly told me that he was writing a novel, a thriller. Without any prompting he proceeded to tell me the plot which centered around the United Nations. It was a good story, and I congratulated him on its promise.

Now Abdul-Jabbar, along with co-author Anna Waterhouse, has written Mycroft Holmes, a mystery featuring Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft set in the period when he was a young man newly graduated from Cambridge University.08artsbeat-kareem-articleInline

Of course this is not Kareem’s first book. He previously has published his autobiography and is also the author of several children’s books. This new mystery, published by Titan Books, is the first in a planned series.

I gather from the pre-publicity that Sherlock has only a cameo appearance in Mycroft Holmes. The story centers on Trinidad, where Mycroft’s friend Cyrus Douglas was born. The two go to Trinidad to investigate mysterious goings on, which include spirits, disappearances, and corpses with the blood drained from them. Sounds juicy. I can’t wait to start it.

Of course not everyone famous is writing books. Last week while I was in Baltimore I was fortunate to be there during the Baltimore Book Festival. A visit to the exhibit tents was certainly in order, and I enjoyed a sunny Saturday at the Inner Harbor checking out books and meeting writers.

There can't be too many books at a book festival.

There can’t be too many books at a book festival.

There were tents populated by romance writers, poets, authors of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, young adult, children’s literature and comics. Cookbook authors, a poetry slam, art work in the process of being created onsite. Such a lively  and diverse scene. Lots of families with children enjoying a happy look at the creative world.

Baltimore, where I was born and nurtured, has a great literary heritage. We claim Edgar Allen Poe as our own. I remember being thrilled, as a teenager, to learn that F. Scott Fitzgerald lived and wrote in Baltimore while Zelda was a patient at a local psychiatric facility.

In high school I did my term paper on H. L. Mencken. Russell Baker’s autobiography Growing Up definitely influenced my own attitude toward life.

At the festival I spoke with a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore who has joined with several fellow alumni to start their own publishing company, Double Cross Books. Their books, fiction and non-fiction, looked interesting, and I bought a short story anthology by Dewey N. Fox called What Did You Think Would Happen?, which I am reading now.

I also managed to collect an armload of other books to bring back to Connecticut with me.

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This picture has nothing to do with writing, but it has everything to do with Baltimore. These little beauties frying in the pan are thin slices of white scalloped squash (they are also called patty pan), grown on a Maryland farm. If I am lucky enough to be in Baltimore at the right time of the year I can find them in the farmers market. Dipped in egg and cracker meal, and sautéed in peanut oil, these delicious patties take me right back to my Baltimore childhood.

There were many speakers at the festival, and it was a pleasure for me to see so many writers talking about their writing. And also to witness the audiences who were eager to hear more about books and the writing process. I expect many were writers themselves.

Now that I am back home I am eager to resume work on my novel. Writing is a solitary occupation, and it always feels good to be reminded that I am part of the larger community of people who write. The writers who need to write, who continue to challenge themselves to create. It’s nice to remember that we are all in it together.

And I really do like it when people take the time to tell me about what they are writing.

Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie was born 125 years ago today. While there have been many authors of detective stories since the genre was first created, it is hard to argue that Mrs. Christie isn’t the most famous.

She produced mysteries for 85 years. Her 80 books (includes both full length novels and short story collections) have sold billions of copies. It is hard to research a number on exactly how many due to the many editions and translations which have been published. A number between two and four billion copies is used.

And don’t forget the plays. The Mousetrap has been running continuously on the London stage since 1952 – where I personally have seen it several times. I’ve also watched some pretty good performances of this whodunit in community theaters on this side of the Atlantic.

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Agatha Christie at work. Here she is typing, but she began her career writing in long hand. Later in life she made use of a Dictaphone.

Where did Agatha Christie’s talent come from? The story of her first attempts at writing has been often told. While recovering from influenza, the young Agatha was encouraged by her mother to try writing down the stories she liked to invent. She enjoyed writing, but found it frustrating. During the next several years she persisted and eventually found her way to detective fiction.

By all accounts Agatha, an only and solitary child, was a prolific reader who had also been read the books of Charles Dickens (her favorite was Bleak House) by her mother. At the age of eight she discovered Sherlock Holmes. More than one critic has noted the parallels between Sherlock Holmes/ Dr. Watson/ Inspector Lestrade, and Christie’s characters: Hercule Poirot, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp.

In 1916 Christie began writing her first mystery: The Mysterious Affair At Styles, which introduced Poirot to the reading public. The novel was not published until 1921 (copyright: 1920); the manuscript had been rejected by six publishers before The Bodley Head decided to consider it.

It took eighteen months before the decision to accept the book was made by The Bodley Head and Agatha signed her first publishing contract. The terms were 1) no advance; and 2) no royalties until 2,500 copies had been sold. Also, The Bodley Head had the rights to her next five books! It is worth noting that sales of Styles did not reach the 2,500 mark, and the only money Christie received from her first published book was 25 pounds from the magazine serial sale.

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The Crime Club jacket for Sparkling Cyanide (1945). When Agatha Christie signed her first publishing deal with The Bodley Head in 1921, she didn’t know how to negotiate favorable terms for herself. But in 1930 she became one of the first authors in the new Crime Club series begun by the London publisher Collins. Her first book The Murder At The Vicarage had an initial printing of 5,500 copies.

Her second book The Secret Adversary (1922) was a thriller about espionage. Christie said it was easier to write than a detective story.

But detective stories were her forte, and once she started she was prolific. A new Agatha Christie usually appeared at the end of every year, just in time for Christmas and holiday gifting. Royalties also increased with her popularity. In 1976 she was paid $1 million for the American paperback rights to Sleeping Murder, the last book in which Miss Marple appears.

Christie novels are not high brow, and their author has her critics. But the fans outweigh the fault finders, and I proudly count her as my favorite crime author. Her style of writing influenced mine, and I learned a lot about writing a mystery by dissecting her books.

I love her use of red herrings. She always has numerous suspects, and she will lead you astray from time to time in your pursuit of determining the guilty party. But she always plays fair. Everything you need to know is laid out in the story. You just have to pick out the bits that are relevant to the crime as opposed to what are the red herrings.

For example, one of her devices is to give you a clue to the murderer’s identity early in the plot. This is at a time when you, the reader, are still getting acquainted with the characters in the book. You are happily reading along, blissfully paying no notice to that key clue in the first chapter.

I draw your attention to A Murder Is Announced (1950).

Dora Bunner is the resident house guest of her childhood friend, Letitia Blacklock, whose late sister Charlotte was also a friend of Dora’s. Early in the story Letitia, whom everyone calls Letty, is addressed as Lotte by Dora. Your eyes move unwittingly over Dora’s slip of the tongue, much to your later chagrin when the killer is unmasked at the story’s end.

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Actor David Suchet is one of many performers to play the role of Hercule Poirot. Agatha Christie insisted that an image Poirot not be used on her book covers.

In Cards On The Table (1936), the wealthy Mr. Shaitana is murdered in his own home by one of the guests at his dinner party. The several guests are playing bridge while he sits in a chair by the fire where he is stabbed. One of the four card players had the opportunity to murder their host while he or she was dummy in the bridge game and could get up and leave the table.

Poirot must deduce which of the bridge players is Shaitana’s killer. Again you, the reader, follow the investigation, accepting at face value the clues to the killer’s identity given in the narrative. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the solution to this crime is much more complicated than first appears.

Peril At End House (1932) is another favorite Christie. Nick Buckley, a young woman who owns a run down seaside estate, tells Hercule Poirot that someone is trying to killer her. Poirot witnesses with his own eyes a bullet which barely misses Nick’s head and leaves a hole in her hat.

You, the reader, think you know what’s going on. Afraid not. This is another Christie plot which will confound you, but the keys to the unexpected solution are once again right there in the pages of the book.

I’ve always liked The ABC Murders (1936). Mrs. Ascher of Andover is the first of the victims in the alphabetical list of serial killings where the victims’ names and the places of their residence both begin with the same letter of the alphabet. So are these ABC murders the work of Alexander Bonaparte Cust, the traveling salesman who is conveniently in all the alphabetical cities on the same day as the murder of the alphabetical victims?

What do you think?

Remember that characters can lie.

When she began writing, Agatha Christie asked a Devon neighbor, novelist and poet Eden Phillpotts, to read one of her manuscripts. He thought she had talent and wrote her a letter with some valuable advice, which she followed her entire career:

“Try and leave your characters alone, so that they can speak for themselves, instead of always rushing in to tell them what they ought to say, or to explain to the reader what they meant by what they are saying. That is for the reader to judge for himself.”

How about you? Are you a Christie fan? I’d love to know your favorite novels and why you enjoy them.

 

Writing With Cats

I grew up a dog person. Now I’m a cat person. This change happened when a cat was introduced into our young marrieds’ household by my spouse. It was only fair. I had swooped in with the pound puppy first. He followed by bringing home the stray kitten hanging around his office building’s parking lot.

That was the last dog we owned. Once she exited our lives there was no interest in replacing her. I was hooked on cats who followed by the carload.

Knick, a grey tabby, was our first indoor cat and one of my favorites. Early on we had tried bringing in a pal for him, but he would have none of it. After he had been given up by his family for adoption, he had spent six months in a shelter where he lived in a large room with about twenty other cats of all ages. I should have realized that a roommate was not on his wish list once he moved in with us.

Instead Knick was content to hang out with me as he followed me around the house. I adored being numero uno. I talked to him constantly, and I’m sure that cat understood a lot of what I was saying.

Working at home as most writers do, Knick was great to have in the office. He would warm his fur by the slider which let in the afternoon sun.

In between his frequent cat naps I talked to him about my writing. ‘Where was I going with this scene,’ ‘could this character be stronger’ stuff. I talk to myself a lot when I write, but this didn’t qualify. I was talking to someone who was listening to every word I said and who looked at me while I was talking.

After Knick died three years ago we were slow to consider acquiring another cat.

Then last year, after we had moved to a new house, we started talking kittens. Two sounded fun, one for each of us. We hadn’t had a kitten since the summer that a neighbor driving around our neighborhood was holding up a black and white kitten to ask if we had lost a kitten. We hadn’t but we ended up giving her a home with our family.

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Archie (left) and Amanda (right) spent their first weeks with us preferring the cozy confines of the laundry room. Little did I know that once they began to explore our house that my office would hold limitless fascination. Amanda looks a lot like our old cat Knick.

Yes, two kittens seemed the right move for our new household. So I went online and quickly found them: a tiny brother and a sister from a litter deposited on a local vet’s doorstep.

So now I am comfortably settled in my new spacious office in our current home. The cute-as-can-be kittens are a year old. I am writing a book.

How’s that working out for me?

If you come to my house and knock on my closed office door, this is what you will hear.

“You can come in. But don’t let those #@%^ cats in here!”

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Archie enjoys napping on my desk. I’m sure that he thinks I really don’t need to get to that file folder anytime soon.

That office sofa and chair, nicely decorated with fluffy pillows and furry throws hold no attraction for Amanda and Archie. Sitting in the windows, enjoying the best of the weather, is so, so boring.

But my cats beg to come in the office. What is the attraction?

Simple. They are still kittens. Kittens like to play, and my desk holds endless delights for them.

There is the tangle of wires and cables under the desk. Who wouldn’t want to chew on those and pull so hard that the printer cable disconnects?

Who wouldn’t want to walk on the keyboard, deleting any number of letters from the document displayed on my screen? How about thumping the touch pad to change what is shown on the screen?

The heat emanating from the screen is so pleasant that it makes the space between the screen and the portable keyboard the perfect place to settle in for a snooze.

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Amanda doesn’t understand why I prefer typing on the keyboard to rubbing her ears.

And is cat hair good for a keyboard?

If I hear Siri talking, I know that Archie is standing on my cell phone. Did you know that the little circle below the screen on an iPhone is very responsive to the press of a paw?

So the cats are barred from the office. But does it end there?

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Gifts are delivered throughout the day for me. Today we have the old slipper, the old sock, and one of several catnip mice on the premises.

Of course not. They sit on the other side of the door and howl, the perfect atmosphere for a writer’s concentration. They leave me presents. Since they are indoor cats, these gifts are not the usual small animal prey from the yard, but a selection of their toys brought from other rooms of the house.

And I do have visitors who ignore my restrictions, and upon entering, say, “There’s somebody here who wants to see you.”

From time to time, the sight of their cute little faces melts my resistance. O.K., I think. I’ll let them in. Every month they get older, and their kitten playfulness has to end one day.

All I have to report is: not yet.

Library Panels Attract Readers

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The Norwalk, Connecticut Public Library supports writers and readers through regular events such as this Mystery Lunch held this month at its main location.

It’s always fun to meet readers and talk about mysteries. When libraries put on programs which bring authors and readers together, it’s an enjoyable time for all.

Last week, here in Connecticut, the Norwalk Public Library hosted five of us mystery writers as part of their ongoing AuthorSpeak series.

These programs are the effort of the library’s director of information services, Cynde Bloom Lahey. Cynde,  a veteran Connecticut librarian works tirelessly to make her library an important element of the community it serves.

Cynde schedules several of these AuthorSpeak events each month, building a following of readers who come regularly to hear authors talk about their recently published books. Sometimes a single author speaks; other times a panel will share the podium. Refreshments are served, and if you are lucky to come to a program scheduled at noon, there is a lunch!

Our panel consisted of three of our Women of Mystery bloggers – Dorothy Hayes, Deirdre Verne, and me, Anne-Marie Sutton. We were joined by Mark Rubenstein, a thriller writer whose new novel is The Lover’s Tango, and Jan Yager, who writes with her husband Fred. They are the authors of Untimely Death, among other books.

Four of our panelists at AuthorSpeak in Norwalk, Connecticut: (left to right) Deirdre Verne, Jan Yager, Anne-Marie Sutton, and Dorothy Hayes. Missing: Mark Rubenstein.

Four of our panelists at AuthorSpeak in Norwalk, Connecticut: (left to right) Deirdre Verne, Jan Yager, Anne-Marie Sutton, and Dorothy Hayes. Missing: Mark Rubenstein.

Dorothy spoke about her latest novel in the Carol Rossi Mystery series, Broken Windows. Deirdre announced that her second book in the Sketch in Crime series, Drawing Blood, is available for pre-order now. I gave some background on my Newport Mystery series, including the most recent, Keep My Secret.

During the program we heard about Deirdre’s adventures in dumpster diving as part of her research for her books. Mark, a psychiatrist, shared some of his experiences as an expert witness in criminal trials.

Of course, it is always the question and answer period that brings out good information. Dot discussed the pro’s and con’s of having her main character marry for the first time at the age of 47. I admitted that having to spend a lot of time in Newport to promote my book isn’t such a bad deal for a writer.

Some of the readers who attended are writers themselves. The Norwalk Library has a writing workshop called Resolved to Write which meets weekly. Participants agreed that they benefit attending the author events at the library. As writers ourselves, it was good to be in their company and hear about their own aspirations and accomplishments.

Everyone is grateful to Cynde and the staff at the Library for hosting our event and wish her luck for the future success of AuthorSpeak. I know all of us love our libraries and are always pleased to participate in any programs which bring writers and readers together.

Ken Follett’s Books

Several years ago, early in my career as a writer, I discovered Ken Follett, the prolific British writer of thrillers and sagas. About the same time, Albert Zuckerman’s book Writing the Blockbuster Novel came to my attention.

Why are these two events linked? Because Zuckerman uses three books to illustrate how a blockbuster novel can be created, and Follett’s book The Man From St. Petersburg is front and center in the dissection. (The others are Gone With the Wind and Garden of Lies by Eileen Goudge.)

Although Ken Follett’s publishing career began in Great Britain, it was Al Zuckerman who became his agent and introduced him, with great success, to American audiences.

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The British author Ken Follett

 The Man From St. Petersburg is set against the backdrop of the events leading up to World War I. The plot, which according to Zuckerman went through multiple revisions, is tight. Once you’ve read the book – or before if that’s how you approach these things – read the outline summaries of all versions which is contained in Writing the Blockbuster Novel. It takes revising to a whole new level.

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This Ken Follett thriller tells the story of an all-women team in the British Special Operations Executives (SOE) during World War II.

 

My favorite Follett book is not one of the more popular ones, however. It’s Jackdaws, the story of an all-female team of British operatives who are parachuted into France to help the Resistance just prior to D-day.

World War II – think Eye of the Needle is a favorite time period and setting for Follett’s stories.

You’ll love the women characters in Jackdaws who are well drawn and with whom you will quickly identify.

Ken Follett’s current novels are the popular books in his best selling series (and I’m talking many, many millions of copies here) called The Century Trilogy. I started reading the first one, Fall of Giants, this past winter. The trilogy novels are not thrillers, but rather long historical sagas. The second and third in the series are: Winter of the World (set before and during WWII) and Edge of Eternity (begins with JFK’s election).

The lives of several families, some rich, some poor (British, American, Russian, and German) are intertwined in the trilogy’s narrative over the course of the twentieth century. This time frame explains the need for three books as these characters manage to be everywhere history was made in the 1900s.

Ken Follett recently described his writing style in the pages of The New York Times. “I have a rather plain and direct prose style. For me the words should be like a pane of glass that you look through, not at (italics mine). Decorative flourishes are few. I learned that style on newspapers.”

As a result, his books read rapidly. I hesitated to take A Dangerous Fortune with its more than 500 pages on a recent short vacation. I shouldn’t have worried. I finished it in three days. Not one of Follett’s best, by the way, but nice nineteenth century English setting and several characters ‘you love to hate.’

And Follett’s popularity means most of his books have audio versions, always a relaxing way to ‘read’ a novel.

Writing a thriller has long been an idea in the back of my own mind. But I’ve hesitated, wondering if I could pull off the fast pacing of a thriller. Reading Follett has taught me that a thriller writer must also rely on developing characters with whom readers identify and creating big, dramatic questions to engage them.

Since Al Zuckerman’s book has some words of wisdom concerning the technique of thriller writing, I think I’ll re-read that this summer. And I’ll certainly pay attention to his tips on writing a blockbuster novel… I hear the money’s good!

 

 

All Publicity Is Good Publicity

Every author likes to see her name in print. And I’m no exception. That’s why I was pleased to receive an email a few months ago from Newport life magazine asking for some information about my latest book, a few quotes, art work, etc. The staff member on the other end of the email informed me that my third book, Keep My Secret, would be included in a small feature in their July issue called HOT SUMMER READS.

A few days ago the magazine arrived in my mail box and I eagerly thumbed the pages looking for the summer reads story. There it was on page 17, right next to a photo of Miles Davis and a story about the release of a new box set of his work, his performance sixty years ago at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival being one of legendary proportions in the music world.

Alas, no picture of Anne-Marie Sutton, nor shot of the Keep My Secret cover.

In fact, I didn’t see my book’s name at all as my eye fell on the list of books at the bottom of the article, and my immediate thought was that I had been left off. It took another half a minute to realize that the second paragraph of the piece was all about me!

Former Newport resident and author, Anne-Marie Sutton, who pens The Newport Mystery Series, returns this year with her third installment, Keep My Secret, in which the protagonist, Caroline Kent, continues to run the Inn at Kenwood Court, while trying to uncover the truth behind her friend’s murder. Throughout her series, Sutton weaves her characters through a web of clues in recognizable Newport places and spaces. Sutton explains that the island’s bucolic scenery and bustling city make the perfect backdrop to any mystery. “The city is such a rich setting for my stories. I have my choice of so many places to use for scenes in the books.”

So I did get some good publicity in a magazine which is read all over Newport by locals and visitors alike. And time will tell if this nice bit of press notice increases my sales. It certainly has increased my self-esteem, especially now when I think of it – I am sharing a page with Miles Davis. Not so bad.

Now if only my fame in Newport will last the same sixty years for which Miles is remembered.

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Just me and Miles hanging out on the pages of Newport life magazine this July.

 

On Writing Well

The death of William Zinsser a few weeks ago sent me back to re-reading his book “On Writing Well.”

The book was first published in 1976, and I came across it about ten years later. It was not part of my formal education, but I credit it with being a key component of my self-education.

Zinsser’s book was written to help writers of non-fiction, but as a fiction writer, I found plenty to help me with my work. Maybe it’s because I started my writing life as a journalist, as did Bill Zinsser.

William Zinsser, author of the writing guide "On Writing Well," which has sold more than 1.5 million copies. A journalist, he also had much success as a teacher of writing.

William Zinsser, author of the writing guide “On Writing Well,” which has sold more than 1.5 million copies. A journalist, he also had much success as a teacher of writing.

As journalist, I learned to write quickly and accurately, to grab the reader with that first sentence/lead and keep him and her interested. Most of all I learned to write clearly. Writing Clearly could be the alternative name of “On Writing Well” because that is what Zinsser emphasizes continually.

Nobody ever stops reading good writing, he advises you. And I have remembered that and sought to be guided by that statement. The chapter on The Sound of Your Voice reminds you that learning what not to do is as important on learning what to do.

I also like a phrase which appears early in the book: “Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.” That’s why writing for yourself is where I try to begin. But I also know there is an audience of readers out there, and I can’t forget their needs. But first and foremost, Zinsser advises, write about what interests you. Your reader can tell when you don’t care.

There are a lot of great pillars of wisdom in the book. I’ll throw out a few.

The beauty of the short sentence.

Last sentence of each paragraph needs to be strong.

Most adverbs are contained in the meaning of the verb which they modify.

A writer is always working.

Read your work aloud.

Clichés are the kiss of death.

Words with too many syllables sedate us.

I’ve enjoyed other topics in the book. Writing the first draft, which Zinsser calls ‘raw material’ is a good section to read. He tells you that your first effort will have ‘ragged edges’ and ‘flabby sentences.’ I keep this in mind when I look at my first draft and wonder if I can ever make it say what I want it to say.

During his distinguished teaching career both at Yale and The New School, and while reading his students work, Zinsser would bracket unnecessary words. While his students were first annoyed to see so much cut from their efforts, at the end of term they were self-editing and writing much more crisply all by themselves.

Zinsser once spent an hour deciding which two travel destinations he would use in the following sentence of one of the lead paragraphs of a travel article he was writing about a trip to Timbuktu. He wanted to emphasize that he and his fellow tour members were not opting for the conventional vacation choice.

“Names like Venice and Versailles didn’t bob up in our accounts of earlier trips…”

While Venice and Versailles might seem obvious choices, in Zinsser’s first draft they were London and Paris. He considered changing the twosome to Rome and Cairo, Moscow and Madrid, among others. But not quite what he wanted to share with the reader to describe the usual global haunts.

Venice came first to his mind as it conjures us a picture of crowd-infested streets and canals. Then perhaps Vienna, a must-see capital for European tourists. Still not quite right, and Zinsser was going to spend as much time as he needed to get the right word.

By hour’s end, he did hit upon the right word: Versailles. And he was ready to move on with his article.

And I like the way he described the process: “When I finally wrestled them [the opening paragraphs of the travel article] into place, I felt confidently launched.” Wrestled. How often do we writers wrestle our words into the proper place. Every time I do, I think of William Zinsser.

William Zinsser writes about his own life.

 

Happy Valley For A Writer

I hope I’m not giving away my age when I say that I remember when I used to watch Netflix on DVD’s. Those – I believe the right adjective is ubiquitous – red and white envelopes which used to appear regularly in my mail box. Binge watching used to mean subscribing to the plan which allowed you to have more than one disc at a time. I mean, how else could you have watched The Wire? Do you honestly think I could have waited days for another disc of episodes to come in the mail?

With the advent of streaming, everything has changed. No more runs to the post office to speed up the arrival of the next Netflix disc. The next disc will load in eighteen seconds. Bless you person who came up with that feature.

As a mystery writer, my viewing habits tend to go heavy on crime series. And I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for British mysteries. You can watch a lot of them on PBS but definitely not everything that is out there. And certainly you usually can’t watch more than one episode at a time!

I’m always happy to find a new streaming series, and the one I’ve just finished watching is a British mini-series called Happy Valley. The main character is a police sergeant named Catherine Cawood, and her patch is a gritty part of northern England where drugs and despair dominate the environment. BBC did the original shows which Netflix bought for its own programming.

One thing I like about British TV is the preponderance of women officers in the police shows, a lot of them at the Superintendent and Inspector level. I’ve often wondered if that is a true picture of the state of British policing. Or does it exist because some clever marketer understands the desire of women like me to watch shows which feature women in prominent authority roles?

When we first meet Happy Valley’s Catherine Cawood she is at a children’s playground, holding a fire extinguisher and trying to talk an addict out of setting himself on fire. “Keep him talking” is her directive and so she tells him about herself.

I’m forty-seven. I’m divorced. I live with my sister who is a recovering heroin addict. I have two grown up children. One dead, one who doesn’t speak to me. And a grandson.

The first question the addict has is Why doesn’t he speak to you?.p10714895_b_v7_ab[1]

Sarah Lancashire who plays Catherine has done a lot of film and stage work in Britain. The role is perfect for her. The show’s writer, Sally Wainwright, is also the writer of the popular Scott & Bailey series, which features two women as police officers in Manchester, England, and has been showing on PBS channels. With two women as lead characters – Rachel Bailey and Janet Scott – Scott & Bailey has the double whammy of the police unit’s having a female Detective Chief Inspector, Gill Murray.

Having exhausted Happy Valley’s six episodes, I’ve been in search of another streaming offering. Happy to report that I have found it, a French police procedural series called Witnesses. So far I’m finding the plot is strong, and the characters engage me.

Witnesses_les_temois[1]Two of the recurring characters are women – Lt. Sandra Winckler, and Police Chief Maxine Dubriel. The dialogue is in French, with English subtitles. But unlike a lot of shows on the smaller TV screen, the subtitles are easy to read. Plus it’s a great opportunity to recall all that French I studied in school and don’t get to use.

D’accord?