New Kid In The Zone

by Laura Benedict
@laurabenedict

A few weeks ago, the incredibly generous Joe Moore invited me to blog here at TKZ on alternating Wednesdays. It was an easy “yes” for me because I’ve visited before, and I admire both TKZ’s reputation for excellence and its smart and talented contributors. I toyed with the idea of jumping right in with a specific writing topic, but then I decided it might be better to introduce myself first. So I’ve asked and answered a few questions that will help you get to know me. (Forgive the slightly snarky tone of the questions. Sometimes I’m a grouchy interviewer.)

Let’s start with an easy question. Where are you from?

I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, but grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. I graduated from college and worked in St. Louis, then moved to rural West Virginia where my husband’s family had a dairy farm. After a chilly two-year excursion to Holland, Michigan, we went back east to Roanoke, Virginia, for eight years. Now we live in Southern Illinois, which is an hour closer to Tupelo, Mississippi than it is to Chicago. Setting plays a big role in my fiction, and up to this point I’ve stuck pretty closely to those locations.

When did you start writing fiction?

As a child and young adult, I was always a reader, but I didn’t have the confidence to imagine I could be a writer—amateur or professional. It wasn’t until I was working for A Great Big Beer Company in St. Louis, and found myself tinkering with the professional copy I was buying for sales promotion projects, that I even considered writing fiction. (You’ll note the connection in my mind between ad copy and fiction.) By then I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my forties.

What kind of books do you write?

I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of fiction, and perhaps that’s why I can never find happiness writing about those quotidian epiphanies that are so popular in academic/literary circles. It wasn’t until I wrote my third novel that I really found my voice—and it was a supernatural story called Isabella Moon, about a woman who tries to solve the murder of a little girl while on the run from her psychotic husband. That novel was the first one I sold, as part of a two-book deal with Ballantine. My latest novels are a gothic trilogy set in a haunted house in a fictional Virginia town: Bliss House, Charlotte’s Story, and The Abandoned Heart (Pegasus Crime, October 2016). Despite their pretty covers, they are not quiet books for the faint of heart. As I mentioned, I write short stories as well. They show up in various places and run the gamut from straight mysteries to the horrific and surreal. In fact, my absurdly talented writer husband, Pinckney Benedict, and I edited an anthology series of southern surreal stories called Surreal South. You can take a peek at my website or author page to read more about all of my work.

You look like such a nice lady. Why do you write creepy stories?

I look forward to talking about how I—and other writers—choose stories to write. But as to the why? Sorry. That’s between my therapist and me. As you get to know me better, you might hazard a guess or two—and I just may tell you if you’re right!

Why are the most ragged, dog-eared books on your bookshelf Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca? Talk about a peculiar pair.

I’ve never been one for chasing down celebrities, but I confess I’d love to have had dinner with Daphne and Cormac just to see what they’d make of each other. But—with apologies to every writer here—I’ve found that most writers aren’t so great at talking about or even understanding their own stories. It’s the books that are important. Besides being darned good reads, Blood Meridian and Rebecca both contain elements that appeal to me as both writer and reader: complex, disturbing crimes, unforgettable characters, and settings that are, themselves, active characters.

Pantser or Plotter?

I suspected this question was coming. To borrow a description from my friend, Jordan Dane, I’d say I’m a recovering pantser. Up until very recently, my mantra excuse was, “If I figure out the plot ahead of time, I’ll have told myself the story and I’ll be bored and won’t want to write it.” What I’ve learned—the hard way—is that there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in pondering plot and character before getting into the writing. And there’s much, much more to it than saying this needs to happen, then this, etc. The first inkling of each story nearly always comes to me as a vivid image—usually of a protagonist or a setting. But that’s not a heck of a lot to hang a novel on, and thus the plot often reveals itself with an agonizing slowness that undermines my production goals. I’ll get into this later, but for a long time I bought into the notion that the story was a sacred object, and if I manipulated it, it would become over determined and wouldn’t work.

Do you have an MFA? Have you been educated by highly trained writing professionals?

No, and let me think about that for a moment.

Approximately a hundred and fifty years ago, I got a B.S. in Business Administration with a major in finance. I didn’t take a single writing class until I was well into a promotions career with the subsidiary of A Great Big Beer Company in St. Louis. After I took a couple undergrad creative writing classes, I talked my way into a grad fiction workshop and was promptly and roundly mocked for my plot-heavy stories. The professor said they were too old-fashioned to be published. Ouch. But being a contrary sort, I decided to forge ahead. I understood that I wasn’t trained to write literary fiction (which I consider a genre, not an end-game—more on that later, too), and after the workshop experience, I wasn’t much interested to learn. So I read more than ever (classics, literary and commercial fiction and non-fiction) and wrote even more. I wrote short stories and entered many, many contests. In 2000, I discovered a Joyce Carol Oates story in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and told myself that if she—one of my literary idols—wrote for EQMM, then I should give it a shot. They published my story, The Hollow Woman, in their Department of First Stories in 2001. (My third EQMM story, The Peter Rabbit Killers, is in the recent July issue. And you can listen to me read The Erstwhile Groom on their Podomatic website.)

When I decided to write novels, I swallowed my pride and took a couple of independent studies and workshops to give myself some deadlines. I know I learned at least as much from the other participants as I did from the teachers. Of course, the best teachers are always books themselves.

Do you know anything about independent publishing, or are you strictly about traditional publishing?

When the great publishing purge of 2009/2010 occurred (does anyone else remember that, or was it just my personal cataclysm?), I was dropped by my publisher. I panicked and pouted for two years, but I also kept writing and, after my next novel didn’t find a traditional home, I delved into the brave new world of independent publishing. My husband and I started our own small press and put out my third novel in ebook and paper. Since then I’ve published my backlist, a Bliss House short story, and a couple of anthologies. There’s more on the way.

I’m a big believer in using the right delivery system for the right story. And never giving up. I’m happy to share what I know, and am always anxious to learn from others in the business.

Do you have a day job, or do you just sit in your house and write all day?

For the past twenty-four years, parenting and writing have been my competing jobs. I homeschooled my daughter at various points up until high school, and am now partially homeschooling my sixteen year-old son. My mornings are for writing business, promotion, research, and/or social media. Homeschool is in the afternoon, then I write before dinner and into the wee hours. I have raging ADHD but can’t write on medication, so staying at my desk to write is a major act of will for me.

If you follow astrology profiles, you already know that my early July birthday makes me a Cancer, and Cancers are often introverted homebodies. Though I do like to get out and meet readers and socialize at conferences and book festivals. If you’re wondering what I’m currently up to, let’s get together on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and at my website.

Do you teach writing, or do you just write?

I’ve taught at many writing workshops over the years, including the residential Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop at Hollins University, and the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. I’ve also done many smaller writing workshops for both children and adults.

What do you bring to The Kill Zone party?

I bring my love for the written word along with me, and my enthusiasm for sharing what I’ve learned with emerging writers. I bring my curiosity and hunger to learn and adapt. Also, I always have chocolate to share, and occasionally even a salad in my purse.

I’m thrilled and delighted to be here, but that’s enough about me. Tell me a bit about yourself and what brings you here.

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What Makes a Novel a Page Turner?

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell

When you get right down to it, what is it that readers love most about the reading experience? I think it can be summed up quite simply. It is the emotional pleasure of being so engrossed in a story that they must turn the page to find out what happens next.

That means there is one thing your story absolutely cannot be, and that is predictable. To the extent that it is, reading pleasure is dissipated. This applies to any genre, of course. 
So one of your goals as you begin to craft a novel is to figure out ways to pleasantly surprise the reader. For example, you avoid creating flat characters. You give us rounded characters, which E. M. Forster described as being able to surprise us in a convincing way.
Another way you create the page turning effect is through the element of mystery. Not just something you find in a whodunit. No, it’s well beyond that. The skillful withholding of information is one of the best things a novelist can learn to do.
Especially in the opening chapters. My rule for openings is to act first, explain later. This simple guideline will greatly increase the readability of your first pages, and even beyond. Leave mystery inherent whenever possible and explain things only progressively. Drop in hints and actions that make the reader wonder, “Why is this happening?” or “Why is she doing that? Feeling that?”
Pull the reader along with unanswered questions, saving final revelations until well into the book.
Our own John Gilstrap does this masterfully in his novel At All Costs. In Chapter One, we see Jake Brighton, by all accounts a highly competent body shop manager for a Ford dealer. He’s going about his business when a heavily armed team of Feds busts in and arrests him. As he’s handcuffed and on the floor:
He fought back the urge to sneeze and tried to make the pieces fit in his mind.
We’ve been so careful.
Careful about what? Gilstrap doesn’t tell us. Not until the final line of the chapter:
He wondered if he and Carolyn still owned the tops slots on the Ten Most Wanted List.
Whoa! Another question raised: What could this outwardly normal and hardworking man have done to be at the top of the FBI list?
Again, Gilstrap makes us wait. For almost a hundred pages. As Jake and his wife Carolyn try to escape town with their thirteen-year-old son, putting a long-ago plan into effect, we are drawn further in by the mystery of their background. (In a nice twist, not even the son knows what his parents have done).
It is only when the chase is on that Gilstrap reveals their hidden secret. By then we care for these people and we are hooked by the action.
Here is an exercise that will pay tremendous dividends for you: Go through the first five thousand words of your manuscript and highlight all the material that is explanatory in nature, that tells us things about the character’s past.
Then step back and find a way to withholdthe most important information. I believe in a bit of backstory up front to help us bond with a character, but not in giving us an entire life history. It’s a judgment call, but that’s what this writing craft is all about. This exercise will help you make an informed choice.
For example:
Rachel had never been the same since her daughter, Tessie, died at age three.
Obviously, this is a major piece of information about Rachel’s emotional state. Instead of coming right out and telling us about it, consider showing us something about Rachel that indicates the trauma without revealing its source. For instance in a restaurant scene:
Rachel reached for the teapot. And froze. The tea cozy had a flower pattern on it, the same one––
“What is it?” Mary asked.
Rachel opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. She noticed her hand trembling in mid-air. She withdrew it to her lap. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Would you mind pouring?”
Only later will it be revealed that the last time Rachel was with Tessie they’d had a “tea party” with a set that looked exactly like what is on the table at the restaurant.
Look for opportunities to keep readers wondering what the heck is going on––in plot, in character emotions, and in the world of the story itself. If you want to see a master at work on all three levels, read Rebeccaby Daphne du Maurier, or see the film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Think back on some of your favorite novels. Do they not contain this essential element of mystery in the opening chapters, and even well beyond?
Note: the first part of this post is adapted from The Art of War for Writers

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The Ideal (Fictitious) Villain

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com

John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, wrote that “most of the interest and part of the terror of great crime are not due to what is abnormal, but to what is normal in it; what we have in common with the criminal rather than the subtle insanity which differentiates him from us.” I couldn’t agree more – for me, it is the commonality rather than the abnormality that makes a villain truly villainous.

Take Doctor Crippen – an unremarkable man in real life, the least likely man perhaps to have poisoned and dismembered his wife or to have been pursued across the Atlantic with a young mistress in tow disguised as a boy. Part of the fascination with this case is the sheer ordinariness of the supposed murderer – and now, with DNA evidence casting doubt on whether the woman whose body was found was that of Doctor Crippen’s wife, Cora, the mystery of what actually happened may never be solved.

In fiction of course, some of the most fantastical crimes that occur in real life can never be used simply because readers would never believe them. Take for example the man who murdered his wife over an affair that happened 40 years before and then left her body as a gift beneath the Christmas tree. Writers have to walk a fine line with villains too, making them both believable as well as intriguing. Are they merely the flip side of the protagonist? Are they an ordinary person pushed to the brink? Or does some deep psychological wound create the monster within?

As a historical mystery writer and fan, I have a preference for the enigmatic ‘villain or not’ character. I still recall the terror I felt as a twelve year old reading Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca late one night when I realized Maxim de Winter may have murdered his wife.
Part of the pleasure of reading Dickens, for me, is his rendition of such memorably odious characters as Mr. Murdstone, Uriah Heep and Steerforth (and that’s just in David Copperfield!)

As for female villains, I love Annie Wilson in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Even though no murder is committed her vitriolic outburst and her ability to mask her hatred beneath sheer ordinariness and subservience made her a perfect villainess in my book. Then of course there’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca and that other Annie in Stephen King’s Misery…now they’re just downright bloody terrifying.

So what makes the ideal ‘fictitious’ villain for you?
Please also join me as I guest blog at Good Girls Kill for Money where I discuss what makes the ideal ‘fictitious’ husband…which is in no way inspired by my musings on villainy…

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