Recap Chapters – Mission Impossible

 

Recap sequences (according to Wikipedia) are the “in previous episodes” narrative device used by many television series to bring the viewer up to date with the current events of the story’s plot. It is usually a short 20 – 40 second montage of important scenes.

Recap chapters are a similar device, that could be used in series books, at the beginning, to bring readers up to date. Note: You won’t find this phrase defined in a dictionary or discussed on Wikipedia as we are using it.

I thought of this subject for today’s discussion, because it is something I am considering for book #4 in a series. The book is currently out for beta reading, and I am getting multiple questions from readers who have not read the first three books and are interested in information from earlier books.

Two posts worth reviewing, that are relevant for today’s discussion:

Terry’s recent post on “Reminders or Repetitions” – https://killzoneblog.com/2021/03/reminders-or-repetition.html

And Sue’s post on “Tips to Create a Series Bible” – https://killzoneblog.com/2020/12/tips-to-create-a-series-bible.html

Series books need to stand alone, so readers can read them in any order, but we need to provide those readers with the knowledge of what came before so they are not confused. And frankly, readers of previous series books often need some reminders. In general, this can be handled in one of two ways: tell before (a recap chapter) or weave the reminder into the telling of the current story.

As I thought about this dilemma, I wondered what techniques other authors have used. Are there any other choices? So here is the thread of my search to educate myself. First some definitions (based on discussions in Wikipedia):

Foreword – usually written by someone other than the author. Tells readers why they should read the book. Usually signed. 

Preface – usually written by the author, and tells how and why the book came into being

Introduction – a beginning section to a book, article, or essay which states the purpose and goals of the following. More likely used in nonfiction to introduce the reader to the main topics and prepare readers for what they can expect. Used in some classic children’s literature, where it is used as a preface. The only thriller with an introduction I could find on my shelves was Nelson DeMille’s Wild Fire. And there it was used as a preface.

Prologue – the opening to the story, establishes the context and gives background details, often some earlier story that ties into the main one

Appendix – in the back matter, used in nonfiction, gives useful additional information, but even without the rest of the book is complete

Blurb – a short description for promotional purposes on the cover or in an advertisement

As I initially thought about these choices for “recapping,” it seemed to me that the preface, the prologue, and the blurb were potential tools. I was curious to see if any authors were doing recap chapters. I googled “in previous episodes” and found “recap sequences.” When I added “books,” I found an interesting discussion – http://bestfantasybooks.com/forums/threads/how-much-to-recap-at-the-start-of-a-new-book-in-a-series.2934/page-2 – from 2016, discussing recap chapters at the beginning of  books. The discussion boiled down to a disagreement between those who liked a recap chapter, and those who didn’t.

I would insert here that this discussion was in the context of the fantasy genre, and might change the discussion because of world building, the limits to the magic in a specific series, unusual characters and beings, etc. Thrillers and suspense might generate an entirely different discussion. That’s what we’re doing today.

In any case, in the above blog discussion, the minority wanted their recap “woven into” the story.

The majority preferred a recap chapter at the beginning, leaving the “reminding” out of the way for the present story. I was surprised at the results.

Some interesting comments from the discussion are worth repeating:

“Recaps and summaries are what lazy writers do for lazy readers.”

(Having a recap chapter) “spoils the immersive experience” that should begin at the beginning of the first chapter.

And, beginning to read a recap chapter as the first chapter means the “countdown to terminal boredom has started.”

By the end of the discussion, the host decided in favor of a recap chapter in his WIP. Here are a couple of his comments:

Writing the recap chapter was “really useful to me as the author to reorient myself. By trying to sum up the story thus far it reminded me of what the audience needs to know for the plot to make sense…”

(The recap chapter) “was the best option by far” and he “was surprised that more authors don’t do this. Yet I can’t think of one author who has.”

As I thought over the comments in the discussion, I began looking for ways to keep everyone happy – that is, all readers happy. And I was reminded of the “prison of two ideas,” meaning we always have an infinite number of choices, and we do not have to be locked in to only two choices. So, I came up with some additional options for you to consider for target practice. Shoot them down, or protect them from destruction.

“Series Preface” – The preface is placed in the front matter, before the story begins. Readers can choose to read it or skip it. Placing it in the front matter keeps readers from getting bored if they don’t want to read it, and prevents the stopwatch from beginning on that “countdown to terminal boredom.” In this location, it could be kept brief, with just enough material to bring the reader up to speed for the current book. It could also be used as a blurb to entice the reader to read the earlier books in the series.

“Series Appendix” – The appendix is used in nonfiction to make additional information available to the reader and to refer to other sources. Why not use it for a place the reader can look when they want answers to questions about earlier books in the series? Being in the back matter, it definitely won’t get in the way of the reader anxious to begin the book. Being in the appendix, the author could get as extensive as he/she wishes, allowing for readers with extensive questions to find answers or references. The material could be organized in multiple different ways. And, again, if the material is organized by book (previous series books), this would be a way to make the material both “recap” and blurb.

One could get really creative here with references to a website with “Sue’s Series Bible.” I have read that some of J. K. Rowling’s success was due to an extensive website where she kept readers busy while she was writing the next book.

“The Whole Enchilada” – And, not to be a prisoner of two ideas, an author could use a combination of the “series preface” and the “series appendix.”

And, just think. If this is actually something new (maybe it isn’t), and it catches on with fiction writers, we here are TKZ could say we were part of its creation. At least we could lay claim to the inception of the two terms, “series preface” and “series appendix.”

 

So, now, dear TKZ family, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to defend the tradition of weaving previous events into the fabric of the current story, champion a new garment to refresh our memory before we admire the current story, or break free from the prison of two ideas and invent something entirely new.

Take aim, and shoot down the ideas, or tell us if you like them. Give us your reasons, pro or con. If you have other ideas, please tell us and give a defense of your idea. Put on your “What if?” hat and let the creative juices flow.

Recap chapters:

  1. Have you used them?
  2. Can you think of a writer who has?
  3. What do you think of a recap chapter as chapter #1?

“Series preface” and ‘series appendix”:

  1. What do you think about a series preface?
  2. What do you think about a series appendix?

What better ideas do you have? Please give a rationale and defend them.

 

As always, should you or any member of your writing force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow all knowledge of your actions.

+10

Out With Them!

 

By Elaine Viets

I was listening to a talk radio show when I heard something like this:

“You’ve given us a lot to unpack here, Bill,” the host said. “Destructive weather events are becoming the new normal in these uncertain times.”
The guest blathered, “Yes, we’re all in this –

No! I switched off the radio before he finished saying, “We’re all in this together.
I’ve learned to live with many of the old cliches and misused words. I no longer cringe when someone says, “Irregardless.”
But these uh, uncertain times have spawned a new and even more annoying crop of cliches. They’re infesting our language like termites. My husband Don is tired of listening to me gripe. But I can tell you, can’t I, dear reader?

Here is my list of words and phrases I’d like to see banned. I hope they don’t creep into our conversation – or worse, our writing.

UNPACK. Usually suitcases are unpacked – we remove the contents and put them away. But lately unpack has been used in another way: to consider, to analyze, to reveal. Webster says that use is legit, but it rubs me the wrong way. Never mind that Shakespeare himself used it, during Hamlet’s rant (uh, soliloquy):

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab

PROCESS. After you unpack something, you need time to process it. “After my mother died, it took a long time to process her death.” What the heck? Are you a computer?

EVENT. Here’s another one that gets me. A tornado trashes an entire town, killing innocent people and destroying their homes. And what does the media call it? “A weather event.”
Why? Do you sell tickets to a tornado?


LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL. Something we’re not seeing these days, but the media keeps saying it’s there. This phrase has been around for maybe two hundred years. Some sources say it goes back to the 1800s and was used “in a letter by English novelist George Eliot.” John F. Kennedy made it popular in the mid-1960s when he talked about Vietnam. The phrase can be either one of hope – or despair.

 

GIVE 110 PERCENT. Mostly said by corporate types. Can you folks even add?

BAD OPTICS. PR speak for “this looks bad.” For instance, “Widgets Inc. cut ties with their foreign supplier when they found out the supplier used child labor.” Did Widgets care about those toiling tots? Heck no. But they were worried what their customers would think.

EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON. Usually said after some especially senseless tragedy. Often followed by another favorite phrase: “thoughts and prayers.”

Covid has spawned a crop of cliches:

IN THESE UNCERTAIN TIMES. A euphemism for “in these hopelessly screwed-up times.” And unless we’re fortune tellers, almost all times are uncertain. We can’t see the future.

IT IS WHAT IT IS. A mental shrug. An annoying way of saying, “I don’t want to do anything about it.” Politicians as far back as George Bush have used it and it’s the favorite excuse in sports. Your Dictionary says, one famous example was when the coach of the US hockey team at the 2006 Winter Olympics excused his team’s “lack of rest by saying, ‘We’re going to do the best that we can. It is what it is.’”
If it will make you feel any better, other languages also have versions of this, according to Your Dictionary: “In Persian, ‘Fihi Ma Fihi’ means the same thing and was the title of a famous work by Rumi, a 13th century writer. In Spanish, the phrase ‘Que será, será’ means ‘what will be, will be.’ This is a somewhat more optimistic twist on the idea.” Doris Day made that phrase into a song.

LESS THAN. In mathematics it means smaller. Four is less than six. But the term is less than satisfactory when it strays in to everyday language. It’s wrong to make people feel “less than.” Less than what?

LIVING MY BEST LIFE. Oh? You get more than one? Lucky you. Like it or not, I’m already living my best life – now.

NEW NORMAL. The new normal not only isn’t normal, it’s not even new. Wikipedia, for heaven’s sake, points out that every time we have a major crisis, we dig up that term and dust it off. It seems to have appeared the first time in 1918, right after World War I. Henry A. Wise Wood spelled it out for us: “How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?”
Pundits have been working variations on that theme after the 1990s Dot-Com Bubble, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, September 11 attacks, the aftermath of the 2008–2012 global recession, and now – the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The New Normal” was a TV show and country singer Cooper Alan even has a love song called “New Normal.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poBwXChcvCY

So which words or phrases are driving you nuts in these . . .um . . .difficult times? Go ahead. You can tell us.

**********************************************************************
Now out! DEATH GRIP, my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery. Kirkus magazine says, “Viets produces chills with a murder hunt turned on its head.” Buy it here: https://tinyurl.com/ya9q9tfm

+9

Avram Davidson And Closure

By John Gilstrap

I’ve alluded many times here and during public presentations that my one and only creative writing teacher (in 1977) did more to harm my future writing career than he did to help it along. That experience hardened my thoughts on such classes and drove me to the world of the self-taught writer. The punch line in this section of my presentation is that the cranky old guy died before I had a chance to show him my first published novel.

I never mentioned the instructor’s name in public because I thought it would be unfair to him and his family. After all, he was quite well-respected among science fiction writers (and short story writers in general), and I’m confident that my experience was unique.

So, imagine my surprise when I received this email out of the blue:

Hi John,

My Name is [his name].  Avram Davidson was my Godfather.  Long story but I would love to schedule a call.  I understand you had him as a professor at William & Mary?

The URL for his email appeared to be from a law firm. My first thought: Oh, crap. Schedule a call? Could there possibly be an upside to that? So I wrote back:

It’s rare that I get startled by an email. I guess the world truly is small. Nearly half a century has passed since I last saw your godfather, though he was indeed my instructor when he was writer-in-residence at W&M. May I ask what you’d like to talk about?

His response:

Thanks for getting back to me. The short of it is I inherited Avram’s literary estate recently and I am getting my arms around it.  I started a podcast and I have been interviewing authors who knew Avram.  I really wanted to interview a student of Avram’s to see what he was like as a professor. I found a picture of [fellow student at the time] and that he was a student.  I am sad to say he passed away a few months ago.  His wife mentioned that you were a student so I wanted to see if we could connect.

I’ll be honest with you here. I didn’t realize how raw a wound this was until I started weighing the pros and cons of even responding further. What would be the point, right? Then again, forty-plus years is a long enough time to get over things, and on balance, I’ve done okay in this writing world. I think the godson’s efforts to keep Avram’s memory alive and vivid is truly a noble mission, and there is no doubt that I interacted with Avram in a way that I would want to know if I were the godson. I won’t share the entirety of my response, but here are the pertinent parts:

Here’s my dilemma: Avram hated my work. He told me, in fact, that I had no talent and that he had no interest in hearing from me again. Given the work in evidence at the time, I suppose he had a point. I assure you that I harbor no ill will for him lo these many years later, but he really hurt my feelings at the time. In fact, my final discussion with Avram derailed my projected writing career for well over a decade.

That last sentence is as unfair as it is factual. Avram delivered the truth as he saw it. The fact that I absorbed it as a gut punch was on me, not on him. I know that he meant no harm. Now that I’m 23 books and four screenplays into a 25-year career, it’s entirely possible that my success (whatever that means) is tied directly to his giving me, well, something to prove.

So, I’ve shown you my hand. I’d be happy to participate in your podcast, but you need to know that it would not be an elegy to your godfather. Nor would it be a hit piece. I was a 20-year-old dreamer from a troubled background with a love of confrontation. I wanted to write commercial thrillers in the vein of Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsythe at a time when Rod Mcuan and Richard Bach were all the rage. Avram loved edgy, experimental writing, and I was exactly not that.

Whether we do this thing or not, here’s what I want your takeaway to be: Avram made an impact on his students. He made a difference. A week rarely goes by when I don’t think back to those sessions in his tiny, underlit apartment, sipping sherry while noshing on cheese and crackers. And Herman, the dog. He was a sweetheart.

In crafting that response, I discovered something: Whether I like it or not, Avram Davidson truly did give me something to prove. In thinking back on that class experience as a whole, I realized that I made some long-lasting friendships. Of all the classes I took over my four years at William and Mary, his is without doubt the one I remember most vividly.

Is this what closure is–a concept that I’ve never much believed in?

I’ve since spoken at length with the godson on the phone, and our conversation was delightful. I learned that Avram Davidson was a doting godfather and a very nice man–when he wasn’t cranky, as he was occasionally wont to be. He was, you know, human. I cannot wait now for the opportunity to reminisce in the podcast.

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is closure.

+13

What Kind Of Writer Are You?
Wild Cook Or Precise Baker?

By PJ Parrish

I love to cook. I love the whole process of finding a new recipe or riffing on an old one. I love shopping for ingredients or adlibbing and using say dill for chives. I love making a hot mess in the kitchen, knowing that a detour can sometimes lead to delicious surprises, like the time I subbed dry vermouth for wine in a chicken recipe and it made for the best meal we’ve had in years.

I hate to bake. I hate the precision of it. I hate the math required to make a souffle rise. I hate having to follow exact directions with no room for error or surprise. The last time I tried to bake a cake I almost burned down the kitchen because I didn’t have any parchment paper and thought — “Wax paper! Why not?”

Cooking is an art. You’re not bound by limitations. If a recipe calls for “a little wine” you don’t sweat it; you just make sure you have enough for the glass you drink while you cook. If a dish calls for shallots, you know you can use scallions in pinch. And if it tastes a little flat, add more garlic! Your errors can become triumphs.

Baking is a science. You are bound by its laws. And deviations usually mean disasters. Like the time I brain-farted and used baking soda instead of baking powder then wondered why my biscuits came out like hockey pucks.

Good cooks often make lousy bakers, and vice versa.

Part of this is basic human psychology. I hate being told what to do. I’m not good at following “you-must” directions. I also hate that if something is not coming together as it should, it’s because I didn’t understand the chemistry.

Does this have implications for writers? I think so. The cook vs baker paradigm applies to how we approach our way of doing business, as pointed out by Damon Brown, who writes a blog on start-ups:

  • Certainty vs. agility: “Bakers” aim for certainty, repeating a process until it is virtually guaranteed to produce the same result, while “cooks” focus on agility, adapting and maximizing to new circumstances as quickly as possible
  • Routine vs. schedule: “Bakers” get energy from routine, knowing what they are going to do and when they are going to do it. “Cooks” thrive under a to-do list that provides guidance but is flexible enough for improvisation.
  • Precise measurements vs. slight variations: “Bakers” love precise measurements, thriving in the beautiful details. “Cooks” prefer room for last-minute insights once they are deep in the process.

You can probably guess that I am devoted pantser. I never outline. I plan oh, maybe four chapters ahead and often deviate from that as the plot moves me. I don’t keep any records of word counts and have no set goals for daily or weekly output. As a newspaper reporter, I was a captive to hard deadlines and I seldom missed one. But as a fiction writer, I find I have to roll at my own odd pace — sometimes I can turn out 5K words in a torrid heat. Other days I can barely manage a tepid page.

Being a cook-writer does have its problems. Recently, I had to toss out two chapters because I had fallen in love with a secondary character who had led my story off the rails. But a baker-writer friend of mine recently had to start his book over because, ten chapters in, he realized that he had dutifully followed his outline into a plot cul de sac.

I sort of envy those of you who keep to a set schedule or word count. I get that it imposes discipline and engenders the deep satisfaction of accomplishment. I’ve tried to do this, but I just can’t.  When forced to a schedule or word count, I get resentful and crabby. Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy? No, and don’t make her or she’ll bite your head off.

Perhaps there is something to be gained from both the “baker” and “cook” models. We cook-writers might benefit from trying to outline, if for nothing else than getting the bad ideas out of our cluttered heads and into the cruel light of day. We cook-writers can also be lazy or procrastinators in absence of any deadline. But you baker-writers out there might benefit from being more open to the unknown path even if it feels like it’s going to lead you off a cliff. Maybe you need to build in room for agility over certainty.

Maybe it’s just a matter of recognizing your own personal style and making your writing model more aligned with it. Neither cook or baker is right or wrong. What’s wrong is thinking you have to be what you aren’t.

I will leave you with one more thing to chew on. Here is my favorite chicken recipe. I think I got it from France magazine years ago. It’s super easy but very impressive. I guarantee you will have clean plates. Rock on, bakers!

Creamy Chicken Thighs 

Serves 4-6 but you won’t have anything left over.

1/2 lb. thick-cut bacon, sliced into small pieces. Don’t use gawd-awful turkey bacon. Plain old Oscar Meyer will do but any quality unflavored (ie no “applewood smoked” or such) is best.

8 boneless chicken thighs, skin on

2 onions cut up into thin slices.

3 large cloves garlic. Can’t ever have too much garlic.

1 cup of dry white white. Yes, you can use something cheap.

1 cup chicken stock. Whatever you have handy, even from a can. I keep Better Than Bouillon my pantry.

1/2 cup heavy cream. No, don’t sub milk or worse 2% milk. We’re going for creamy here not healthy.

2 tbsp Dijon mustard. That grainy stuff works best. 

1 large tomato diced up.

4 cups of baby spinach. But adult spinach will work.

1 tbsp thyme. Don’t leave this out..it gives it a nice kick. You can use dried bottled herbs.

2 tbsp lemon juice. I just squeeze one lemon in when the time comes.

In large pot over medium heat, cook the bacon until brown but not too crisp. Use a slotted spoon to take it out and set it on a plate so you have some bacon grease still in the pot.

Season the chicken on both sides generously with salt and pepper. Add the chicken to the pot and brown it on both sides, about 15 mins. Don’t worry if it’s not cooked thru cuz it gets cooked more in the sauce. Take the chicken out and put it with the bacon.

Cook the onions in the remaining fat until brown and soft, about 10 mins. Add the garlic for 2 more mins. Add the wine and deglaze the pot. This just means you scrape any bits off the bottom. Add the stock, whisk in the cream (yeah, a whisk works best but use a spoon if you must). Add the tomatoes. 

Bring the sauce to a soft boil then turn down the heat to med-low. Return the bacon and chicken thighs and simmer, no lid, until chicken is cooked through and sauce gets a little thicker. This should take about 25-30 mins.

Try the sauce and add salt and pepper if you think it needs it. It’s up to your taste buds!

Last minute before you get ready to serve: Stir in the spinach and cook until it’s just wilted, about 3 mins. Stir in the thyme and lemon juice. 

I like to serve this in a deep dish plate over any kind of noodles, like pappardelle or good old Muellers egg noodles. But you can serve with rice or taters if you like.

Bon appetit!

 

+5

When Opposites Attract

Foils and antagonists are two types of characters that serve different functions. An antagonist or villain works in direct opposition to the protagonist or hero. The antagonist presents obstacles to thwart the hero from achieving his or her goal. The foil, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily working against the hero. A foil’s qualities simply differ from the hero’s.

The hero and foil often work together, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The key difference between the foil and antagonist is that the antagonist’s actions oppose the hero while the foil’s character traits create conflict. Also, a foil shines the spotlight on another character’s personality traits and/or flaws, without necessarily thwarting their plans. When done right, however, there will be conflict!

The term “foil” came into its current usage as a literary device from the concept of putting tin foil behind a gemstone to make it look more brilliant. The foil character works in the same way—to add credibility to the hero or to spotlight his or her faults.

Opposing personalities add a great deal to a story. Pairing these two characters can transform a ho-hum scene into one with explosive conflict. But we need to—dare I sayplan these character traits in advance. 😉

Conflicting personalities rub against one another, which allows the writer to maximize slower moments within the plot. After all, if everyone in the scene “plays nice,” we risk boring the reader. With a bit of character planningoh, my, there’s that word again—clashing personalities lead to conflict-driven scenes.

If the hero dances on the edge of the law, the foil might be hyper-vigilant about following rules of any kind. If the hero never follows directions, the foil might be a map enthusiast. If the hero’s loud and extroverted, the foil might be shy, quiet, and reclusive.

Positioning the foil and main character in close proximity will draw readers’ attention to the hero’s attributes. A story could have more than one foil. In my Mayhem Series, I created a foil for my hero and another for my villain.

By crafting opposites, these characters’ scenes crackle with tension. Foils show the hero’s and/or villain’s strengths and weaknesses through friction. Remember to include the element that ties the two characters together, a believable bond that’s stronger than their differences.

Since Garry mentioned my video excerpt in the comments on Thursday, I’ll include it as an example of the foil/hero relationship. Don’t worry. There’s no need to watch the entire video (unless you want to). You should recognize the opposing personalities pretty quick.

Have you used a foil in your story? Please explain. Or: What’s your favorite fictional foil/hero relationship?

As bloody, severed body parts show up on her doorstep, Shawnee Daniels must stop the serial killer who wants her dead before she becomes the next victim.

But can she solve his cryptic clues before it’s too late? Or will she be the next to die a slow, agonizing death?

Preorder for 99c on Amazon.

Releases April 20, 2021.

+8

Writing Hardboiled Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Would there be a Mike Romeo without Race Williams?

Scholars are pretty much in agreement that the first—and for a couple of decades the most popular—hardboiled series character came from the typewriter of the prolific pulp writer Carroll John Daly. His PI, Race Williams, appeared in over 70 stories and 8 novels, up until Daly’s death in 1958.

Today Race and Daly are all but forgotten, having been overshadowed by writers like Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald. I think this is a mistake. The Race Williams stories, though not on par with Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Hammett’s Continental Op, are still a fun, juicy read—exactly what America was hankering for during the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression.

Race Williams made his debut in the December 1922 issue of Black Mask. He became the prototype of the hardboiled private eye, with these features:

  • First-person narration, with attitude
  • Lots of action
  • Cynicism
  • Dangerous dames (the femme fatale)
  • A dearth of sentimentality
  • Violence to end things, usually from a gat

It’s clear that Daly’s style and popularity influenced Chandler, who took the PI story to its heights. And because of Chandler we’ve had a long line of popular PIs, including Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone.

Mickey Spillane, creator of arguably the hardest of the hardboileds (Mike Hammer), and at one time the bestselling author in the world, said Race Williams was his inspiration. In fact, in the mid 1950s he wrote a fan letter to Daly, who was living in obscurity in California. The letter said, in part:

Right now I’m sitting on the top of the heap with my Mike Hammer series, but though the character is original, his personality certainly isn’t. Sometimes I wonder if you’ve ever read some of the statements I’ve released when they ask me who I model my writing after. Maybe you know already. Mike and the Race Williams of the middle thirties could be twins.

Yours was the first and only style of writing that ever influenced me in any way. Race was the model for Mike; and I can’t say more in this case than imitation being the most sincere form of flattery. The public in accepting my books were in reality accepting the kind of work you have done.

Side note: this effusive praise got into the hands of Daly’s agent, who began a lawsuit against Spillane for plagiarism! When Daly found out he was incensed, and fired her. He was actually delighted with Spillane’s letter because it was the first fan letter he’d had in 25 years.

Speaking of Spillane, and his lifetime sales of around 225 million books, what explains the popularity of Mike Hammer? According to Prof. David Schmid in The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, the factors are:

  • Hammer’s absolute conviction about matters of good and evil
  • the way he keeps his promises
  • his brutally effective approach to problems and challenges
  • his impatience with the system
  • his fondness for vigilante justice

Most of these factors are baked into my own Mike Romeo series. To them I’ve added some unique elements, which is a key to writing any current hardboiled hero. You want to pay homage to the past, but you also have to make it feel new and fresh.

I look back and see a clear line of influence:

Carroll John Daly >> Raymond Chandler >> Mickey Spillane >> John D. MacDonald >> Mike Romeo

So the question of the day is: can you discern a line of influence in your own writing? How far back does it go?

+15

Preparing for the End of the Story

Photo Courtesy of Neptune Society, Inc. All rights reserved.

I recently attended three funerals over the course of a week. One of the deceased individuals was a month short of 90. The other two were much closer to my age. Of those two, one had an open casket. He looked good, but…you know. I had shared a number of meals and consumed a number of beers (when I did that type of thing) with the gent and seeing his empty vessel displayed in an open casket functioned as a wake-up call for me.

I decided to start pre-planning my funeral arrangements, or lack thereof. We talk of wills and trusts and of getting one’s affairs in order for the inevitable day of departure and the time that follows. What often gets lost is what is to be done in the minutes and hours that follow a death. The wishes of a deceased are sometimes noted in a will but a testamentary document isn’t usually looked at until weeks after passing. Telling your survivors ahead of time, with something in writing other than in a will, is an absolute must. I wanted to be cremated (and still do) without ceremony or recognition. Given that we are in the Age of Google, a quick search for “cremation” almost immediately in my devices being inundated with pop-up ads, emails, and phone calls from area funeral home representatives. This kind of browned me off, to be honest, though if you really want a lot of attention, google “housepainting.” That aside,  I was further upset by the refusal of the people contacting me to send me a price list concerning their services, insisting that I instead come to their offices for such information.  I know why. Funeral homes upsell. It is what they do. It is how they are able to stay in business. They have very high overhead and offer a service that almost no one else wants to perform. I just didn’t want it. 

I eventually as a result of my research contacted Neptune Society, a national organization that arranges cremation. I did this for a number of reasons. I wanted to be cremated. I contacted them, as opposed to them reaching out to me. They were upfront about their pricing and services. A friend of mine who would have found a problem with them if there were a problem to be found had personal experience with them (once removed of course) and strongly recommended them.  Their local office is on Cemetery Road(!) in a nearby suburb. And… they offered me a free lunch at a local restaurant where I could attend a seminar, even after I indicated to them that I would be using their services.

I showed up on the day and time appointed at a local sports bar with a few other crusty customers of the age where one wakes each morning with roughly equal amounts of surprise and regret. The other attendees eyed me uneasily across the table for a few minutes while I listened to them carp about the lunch choices (“I usually have a drink with lunch. Can I order a drink?”) and tut-tut about the cost of the services (“When my husband had this done ten years ago it cost less…”).  I silently promised myself to never be that obnoxious when I reached their ages. I learned over the course of the next hour that I was the oldest one there. You live and learn, even as you approach the end of the story.

The folks from Neptune Society were very nice and didn’t try to upsell me (“for just a little bit more, we can arrange a celebration of life for you”) or cross-sell me (“Don’t you think that a nice commemorative ribbon to match your urn would be a nice touch?”) as many funeral homes do. Their sales pitch was so low-key that it wasn’t an infomercial at all.  I was able to enter into an agreement with Neptune Society that afternoon and I became officially “pre-planned,”  meaning that my arrangements were paid for and my wishes set in stone. One item which was offered but not pushed was the “Travel Protection Plan.” I purchased it. The Travel Protection Plan is like “AAA-Plus” for a deceased, only better. If you have AAA or another roadside assistance service you are probably aware that there is a limit as to how far your car will be towed at no cost to you. If the towing mileage exceeds that limit there is a per-mile charge. It is not calculated in pennies. The same holds true for dead bodies. The general industry standard for funeral homes, at least in Ohio, is that if you die outside of a thirty-mile radius of your home the odometer starts ticking. Neptune Society has a seventy-five-mile radius, but with the Travel Protection Plan there is no mileage limit, even if the covered individual is out of the country. What this means is that should I pass away far from home Neptune Society’s sweet chariot will swing down and take me home at no cost.  The thought of my sons traveling to wherever I might be and doing a Weekend at Bernie’s trip to bring me back made me chuckle, but only initially. I paid for that and a storage box which I have taken to calling my “forever home.” Done. And done.

Photo courtesy of Al Thumz Photography. All rights reserved.

The surprise for me was how relieved I felt about making the arrangements, or lack thereof. I told my children that if they wanted a visitation to come to see me while I’m alive. If they want to celebrate my life, take me to Twin Peaks. It’s too late once that rusty gate swings open and I tapdance through. I also gave each of them a copy of my Neptune Society card so that when the time comes things would be taken care of promptly. 

All of this thought and consideration about death and its immediate aftermath of course sparked within me an idea for what I think will be a heck of a story with the potential to be much darker than The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. That brings us to you, my friends. Have any of you pre-planned your funeral? Have you thought about it? Do you know what you want? Or is the topic like that closet that you haven’t opened in years and are afraid of what you’ll find (or what will find you)?

 

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Writing Into The Dark

Okay. I expect some typer’s tension from this touchy topic. Plotters gonna hate. Pansters gonna say, “Yay!” And page-by-page cyclers with outline notes gonna go, “Meh. Nothin’ new. Was doin’ this all the time.” Writing into the dark, that is.

What’s writing into the dark? No, it’s not sitting in a room with the lights off and blindly searching for the keys. It’s a writing method that’s been around a long, long time and it involves going beyond seat-of-your-pants production.

That’s right. No outline. No vision. Just as I’m doing right now with pure exploration. Sure, I’ve done my research for this piece and have some crib notes of key points. I can’t imagine writing anything without some knowledge of what the post, essay, short story, novella, novel, or tome is going to be about. At least anything logical, that is.

Back up a sec, Garry, and explain plotting, pantsing, and page-by-paging for the newbies.

Plotting writers make detailed outlines of their work before they start. It’s like making blueprints for a house, and they rigidly follow those plans to a successful conclusion. Sure, there are a few change orders along the way, as there always are in house building. But for the most part, the end is always envisioned before breaking ground and starting construction.

Panster writers literally build by the seat of their pants. They also want a house built, but they love the freedom of working without permits or even drawings, except maybe on napkins. They dig a metaphoric hole, fill it with words, and fly at it—one word at a time until they hit “The End”. For some, pansting works. For others, it doesn’t.

Page-by page cycling? That was a new term to me. It’s outlining as you go, or cycling back to correct mistakes every page or so. It was news to me until I got introduced to Dean Wesley Smith (DWS) and read his book Writing Into The Dark. Or was it?

Two things aligned at the same time to get me going on “writing into the dark”. One was from Harvey Stanbrough who’s a regular commenter here at the Kill Zone. Harvey is a prolific writer, to say the least, and he PM’d me to say, “Check out Writing Into The Dark.” Harvey also told me to check out Heinlein’s Rules for Writing, which I did, and that’s material enough for a whole other post. At the same time, I was video chatting with my good friend and UK indie writer, Rachel Amphlett. Rachel also recommended I read Writing Into The Dark as it’s become her novel-writing method.

Writing Into The Dark opens with Dean Wesley Smith saying this:

He spoke to me, and Dean kept me hooked in the book until the end. What I got out of Writing Into The Dark is realizing I’ve evolved or morphed over time from a plotter to a pantster to a page-by-page drafter who’s learned to speed things up through a process Dean Smith calls “cycling”. I have to say I’ve found my stride, and I’m very comfortable drafting an entire book by outlining as I go.

Before drilling into what page-by-page, cycling, and outlining-as-you-go entails, I want to deal with a very important part of the dark writing method. Dean goes into a bit of brain science and how it applies to plotters and pansters. Plotters generally apply the critical part of their thinking process. They want to know exactly what route they’re taking in driving through the story. Pansters apply creative brain function. They thrive on allowing creativity to flow by putting the creative side first but still allow the critical brain to keep watch. Critical brains stifle creative brains every time.

Dark writers say “Fu*k it. Critical brain stay home. Me ’n ole creativity here are goin’ for a ride and hang on to yer hat maggot, ’cause this is gonna take yer breath away!”

In Dean Smith’s writing method, he goes hard and fast with only short glimpses in the work mirror. He writes a page or two at a time (page-by-page), then quickly looks back, fixes whatever, and moves on. This he calls cycling through the manuscript. Write a page or two, cycle back, fix or edit, and do it again. Throughout his page-cycle rhythm, Dean keeps a notepad at his side where he jots down ideas and story points. This is his idea of an outline.

Besides reading Writing Into The Dark, I watched a video presentation Dean gave to a writers conference about his process. I also read an insightful interview with him, and I’ll snip some conversation from them. I feel Dean Wesley Smith is a master of dark writing technique (He’s written hundreds upon hundreds of books and pieces) so I’ll let him have a few words right here on the Kill Zone stage.

“Writing fast, writing a lot, and keeping on submitting changed the way I look at writing,” Dean says. “It changed my mindset. It taught me to trust my instincts and trust my voice. I left my voice in my stories because I didn’t rewrite everything into dullness. Rewriting kills your voice and your natural ability to tell a story.”

Dean goes on to say, “I hated the idea of writing sloppy, so when I realized something needed to be fixed, I went right back and fixed it. I developed the habit of cycling back every few hundred words and doing minor revisions, all the while keeping a handwritten outline of points beside me. But when I get to the end of the story, I leave it alone.”

Here is some advice from Dean Smith for emerging writers. “Focus on the story and moving ahead. Write more. Learn. Have fun. Keep learning and experimenting. Stop making it so serious. This is entertainment, so entertain yourself and have fun.”

I know there’s a lot of truth in Dean’s words because dark writing is working for me. I outlined the ever-living sh*t out of my first novel. It was planned like the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Slowly—over time—I loosened up a bit. But things changed, big time, when I spent two years writing cranking commercial web content for my slave-driving daughter’s online writing business.

That meat grinder doesn’t allow for much outlining. Not if you’re going to make money, that is. It’s research, write, proof, ship, and do it all over with a new topic that you’re really not all that hyped-up on. I wrote about everything from gastroenterology to bruxism to naturopathy treatments for foul-smelling vaginal secretions on a health & wellness site — to stainless steel vat technology in the hipster cottage brew industry.

Trust me. You want to get through this stuff as fast and with as little or no pain as possible. To survive and pay the bills, I got wired on dark writing. And I brought it with me when I went back to novels. Because you’re my friends, I’m going to show you my current writing method which is almost as dark as my subject matter and soul.

I’m working through a based-on-true crime series and releasing a new product every two months. Average lengths are about 52K words, and when I’m on a roll I write 900 to 1,000 words per hour. On a good day, when I’m not sidetracked by squirrels or severely hung over, I get-in about 3,500 words. So the calculator computes I draft a new book in about 15 writing days or 55 writing hours.

I don’t pre-outline anymore. I do exactly as Dean Wesley Smith does, and I didn’t know was it was called until Rachel and Harvey told me to read his book. Whadda ya know? Dean and I have something in common.

My outline emerges as I write chapter by chapter. I know where the story goes and how it ends because I lived in or around these crimes that I’m currently writing on. You gotta cut me some slack on internally knowing this series, but I’ll do the same on the next, which I plan to do in upcoming City Of Danger. What I do is keep a running log, or flow chart, on 11×17 paper. I’ll post the images so I don’t have to do any more describing than necessary. It’s the old picture being worth a thousand words thing.

See how my outline-as-I-go has evolved? I didn’t post pics of my first two in the series, In The Attic and Under The Ground. I didn’t use one for Attic, and I’ve lost the one for Ground. When I look at the progression through From The Shadows, Beside The Road, On The Floor, Between The Bikers, Beyond The Limits, and to my nearly-finished WIP At The Cabin, I see my method slightly changing. Hopefully, improving. I’ll let you know if it ever gets perfected, but don’t hold your breath.

You’re probably wondering what all those blurry swiggles and stimbols are. I outline-as-I-go from left to right and enter the chapter (scene) number, the date and time locaters, main plot points, the chapter word count (in red), and the overall story word count (in red) as it progresses scene by scene. That’s it. That’s how I keep track of a book’s gestation. The rest is mostly in my creative side except for research downloads and general hand-noted points similar to an editor’s style sheet.

I used to do second-day editing where I’d go back over the previous day’s works, but I gave that up for what I figured out is cycling, as Dean Smith calls it. Once I get to the end, I run it through Grammarly and clean it up. Then it’s off to my proofreader who does a remarkable job of finding issues, even teeny-tiny mistakes. Oh, BTW, I write each chapter/scene on a separate Word.doc and assemble them into one full manuscript as I do the Grammarly edit.

That’s it. I’m not saying my way of writing into the dark is right or wrong. It’s just an option I thought I should share. You do what works for you, but make sure you do one thing right. That’s to keep on writing and putting it out there, just as Heinlein’s rules prescribe.

It’s your turn, Kill Zoners. Am I out to lunch with this reckless behavior? Have you tried dark writing? Tell us in the comments what your style is, and your outlining experiences are.

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Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective—an old murder cop—who went on to another career as a coroner handling forensic death investigations. Now, Garry’s returned from the bowels of the morgue and arose as an internationally bestselling crime writer. True story & he’s sticking to it.

Garry is also an indie publisher currently finishing a 12-part, based-on-true-crime series detailing investigations he was involved in. Garry Rodgers runs a popular blog site at DyingWords.net and messes around on Twitter. When not writing into the dark, Garry spends time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s Covid free infested southwest coast.

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