Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Fond Farewell to the Dame

Well, kids, that's it for Agatha Christie. I hope that you found something interesting to use for your own work from this bestsellingest of authors.

Stuff that I'll take away:

1. You don't have to be all organized in your notebooks. I know that seems like a really silly thing to take away, but I beat myself up constantly about "not being more organized" or "not completing a notebook"...if I do, great (it's a nice feeling) but I'm gonna use the notebook as I need the notebook. If I need to vent about how something is going, I'm gonna. If I need to sort out a character arc, I'm gonna do that. Posterity be damned, the notebooks are for me and I'm gonna do what I wanna do.

2. A book a year is doable. If not two. =)

3. Write what you like, because if it's even remotely're gonna be stuck writing it. A pen name served for Christie...but there's still only six of her Westmacott novels vs. dozens of Poirot/Marple/other mystery creations.

4. Live a long time. You can write more books.

How's about you guys? Anything you particularly admire about Christie?

On Friday we're starting Jack Kerouac, the only American on the scene this year, so do you have any questions about Kerouac you'd like me to look into for you?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tuesday Post of Accountability!

Okay, so I've decided to add in this as a new blog feature.

I've been doing Random Posts of Accountability...but I realized that I only posted those when I had done something. (Was I gonna post about doing nothing? Don't think so.)

Now, every Tuesday you will be subjected to regaled by the writing progress I have made over the last week. But! I insist that I not be the only one exposing myself sounding off. Let your comments reflect what kind of suffering butt-kicking you have done too!

What I have done this week (6/21-6/28):

1. I am handwriting and then typing in the first draft of my current WIP, called The Line, which we will now codename TL. This week I finished five chapters, injured my right index finger because I have not done so much handwriting in forever, iced said finger, and plunged onward. Basically, I'm psyched that I'm pounding out so much material.

2a. On Thursday I hit a road bump when I got to a chapter (Chapter Nine, for anyone-who-may-be-curious's sake) that refused, I'm saying REFUSED, to work like it was supposed to. I glared at the page for a while then decided that I would reread the handwritten stuff from where I'd left off and lo! There was the problem staring me right in the face in Chapter Four.

2b. I've just recently decided to rework as I go, and it goes in cycles like this: Write it to about 50-60 handwritten pages, type in those pages (editing what goes into the computer), have Shane read it and make notes (he's already so tired of the damn story!), write more pages while Shane reads, and at some point enter in the changes that Shane recommends. I've discovered that reworking as I go works well for me...and when I hit a snag in the write 50-60 page handwriting part where I'm creating new stuff, it's probably because I haven't looked at the earlier parts enough. I've lost the thread.

3. Completed the critiques for my writing group--though they sadly went without handwritten line critiques like I normally do because I chose to use my damaged finger skills for writing my own stuff. (Sorry dudes.) They'll have to suffer with quick circles, underlines, and question marks for line critique.

Your turn. What'd you do?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Two Different Ends to Two Different Series

I just finished reading Curtain, Poirot's last case. (I promise I won't give away the end.) And recently I'd also read Sleeping Murder, which is Marple's last case. In both cases the books were written years (decades) before they were published.

Also in both cases the sleuths are still sharp, still the same old human-observers, and still fun to read.

But, oh, how the sleuths are treated differently by their creator.

Miss Marple is the same as always. The story hinges on the case itself being unique. A "murder in retrospect." The idea of a murder in retrospect is that the case has laid dormant, but still has the power to affect people. I think that this was a very poetic way to end the Marple series.

Inspector Poirot, however, is not the same as always. He is much older, wheelchair bound, and his comically dyed hair seems that much more pitiable, according to his buddy Hastings who returns for the final act. The end of this series is cyclical in a more direct way than the end of the Marple series. Hastings returns. The whole thing takes place at Styles -- which has been transformed into a hotel. The characters take their old bedrooms. The difference is in the characters and not necessarily the plot.

I'm not certain how I feel about this. I've read in various places that, like Arthur Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie got tired of writing about Poirot. She apparently preferred writing the Miss Marple series, even though there are almost twice the Poirot stories/novels out there in the world. Somehow I sensed that preference much more in the final books than anywhere else where it's easy to compare the two (like in the first books--but those are always much more hopeful anyway, aren't they?)

Marple gets to be whole and the hero. Poirot, still heroic, gets a ton more difficulties added to his plate.

Do authors have to be fair to their series' characters? As an author, of course I say no.  After all, we're only human and we will inherently like one character over another. It can feel monotonous to write one character over and over again, and if we don't feel particularly close to a character, or we don't identify with a character, they're harder to write.

Seems to me, as Christie got older, she would naturally identify more with her spinster, sharp-lady creation than her foreign, male counterpart. It only makes sense.

But authors also have to answer to their fans, and as a fan, I'll admit to being a little bothered by--what I am perceiving as--the unbalanced aspect of the two endings. It almost seemed mean. The end was written way before it was she knew what was going to happen to Poirot for years before the readers got to see how could she avoid the images of Poirot incapacitated in her head?

I know, life isn't fair. But this is fiction, cozy mysteries as a matter of fact, and it can be more fair than real life.

The reading for me was a bit jarring, I'll admit, and my impressions are probably just that: impressions. After reading Sleeping Murder, my expectations for the Poirot story were different than what I was presented, so it took some adjusting. In the end, as Christie shows with Poirot, it is all about mind over matter. (Something Jeffrey Deaver explores with his Lincoln Rhyme character, right?)

Plus, he goes out with a bang:
"Poirot deserves his place in crime fiction history and this was certainly achieved on his death in 1975; Poirot became the only fictional character in history to be honoured with an obituary on the front of The New York Times!"~from the Agatha Christie website

What do you guys think? If you have parallel-style characters, is it fair to expect fairness in their treatment? Or does the difference imply implicitly that you should present differences?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Those Little Bits of Insight

"'I was thinking,' I said, 'that when my time comes, I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice. Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.'"
~The Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage, discussing the necessity of mercy when considering a person's fate
by Agatha Christie

I think that readers appreciate smart writers. Writers who can tell a great story are heroes without saying, but the ones who can also show a reader something about the world are remembered and returned to. Readers like writers who can make them think -- not just about the puzzle in a mystery, but about the bigger world. Whether or not we agree with the writer.

Agatha Christie does that, in my opinion. I haven't picked up one of her books yet where I wasn't thoughtful at the end. The line above is the one that stuck out the most for me in Miss Marple's first case. It reminded me of a Maya Angelou quote that goes something along the lines of "Don't pray for justice because you might just get some."

Great stuff to meditate on. Ya know?

I have read far more Agatha Christie than I anticipated while working on this mentor section. (Yep, I'd never read a word of hers until I did this....) A great part of that reason is that, every now and then, she brought me up short. Not to sound too cocky, but that doesn't happen very often. (But it does happen.) I like it when someone can do that. I like being knocked around as a reader.

It's a tricky thing to do without sounding preachy, these insightful bits. As it is, the one quoted above runs along that line...I just happen to agree with the vicar/Christie in the thought process presented here.

In my own stories, I don't think I have pearls of wisdom like Christie's. Part of the reason is my GREAT fear of sounding preachy in fiction. =)

(Or, you know, in blogs.)

In the end, I'm pretty sure you have to let the story tell itself, how it wants to be told. The little insights, and the big ones, will grow organically. Right? That seems to be the best way to do it. Like the vicar's relates directly to the story being told. What is justice? How should it be delivered? Is mercy ever an acceptable alternative to inevitable 'justice'? Justice is definitely a theme in the book and the quote is all about justice.

Didn't even have to look far for that one, huh?

Plus, I think you have to emphasize the convictions of your characters. Declarative statements make stronger quotable material.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever been preached to in a story? Has any writer consistantly impressed you with their pearls of wisdom?  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thursday Reviews: Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie (A Mentor Review!)

Sleeping MurderSleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was written waaaay before it was published in 1976. It sat in a deposit box waiting for the light of day. So there may be some inconsistancies with the rest of the series...but Miss Marple is not a series that you have to read in-order, in order to enjoy it.

That being said, I can see why this book was slotted for the end. The crime is two decades old, a "sleeping murder" or a "murder in retrospect" that is triggered by the main character's (Gwenda) childhood memories. Today we'd call a case like this a 'cold case'. By utilizing a murder-in-retrospect as the central mystery, Christie creates a reflective element that enhances the book itself, and also her series in general.

Let me clarify that last statement a little bit. Miss Marple is a character who has solved, and survived, many different cases. At the opening of this particular case, she is hesitant to wake it up. "Let sleeping murder lie." But there's no way the two main characters, Giles and Gwenda, will let it rest. It doesn't matter how old the case, it needs solving. Miss Marple, of course, joins them in the investigation in spite of her reservations.

By focusing on this type of case, Christie seems to emphasize that no case is unimportant, no case it too old to ignore, and therefore, all of Miss Marple's cases are important, and no book or puzzle is too old to ignore. As a final book, Sleeping Murder gives the Marple stories a certain gravitas. It's worth reading just for that.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Literary Portion of the Detective Novel

Strange that I should be talking about the accusations leveled against genre and literary writers when, lo, I come across an article by George Grella entitled “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel,” published in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, which contains an example of exactly the type of rhetoric aimed at genre writing in general, and the mystery genre in particular that I talked about on Monday:

It is one of the curiosities of literature that an endlessly reduplicated form, employing sterile formulas, stock characters, and innumerable clichés of method and construction, should prosper in the two decades between the World Wars and continue to amuse even in the present day. More curious still, this unoriginal and predictable kind of entertainment appealed to a wide and varied audience, attracting not only the usual public for popular fiction but also a number of educated readers.” ~George Grella, “Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel”

In this 1970 article (see? this debate can be picked out of any year, any era), Grella attempts to explain the ‘curious’ appeal of detective fiction in particular. The article proceeds to explore the potential reasons for the popularity of the detective novel. Grella looks at, and ultimately discards, the ‘puzzle defense’ (readers like a puzzle, even super-educated ones) and the resemblance of the detective story to the Greek tragedy, and he latches onto the idea that detective fiction is a modern comedy of manners.

I like this idea because, as Grella puts it: “the detective novel's true appeal is literary.”

Literary? Whoa. What?

Okay, he’s not saying literary like Literary vs. Genre. But the argument that the appeal is literary – meaning it’s not the puzzle and it’s not the catharsis that a reader gets and it’s not the vicarious thrill of violence – implies that there’s something about the stories that should be studied. Popular appeal aside. The novels themselves are worthy of exploring…and they have a tradition.

That gives some weight to Christie’s work that’s not from the Populace. It gives us a place to start dissecting a little closer. In that frame of mind I came up with some questions to think about the next time I read Christie in particular, and detective pieces in general:

1. Who is the hero? Is it the same as the sleuth? If they are different, how so? What role does each character play? In Christie, I’ve noticed that there’s often a character that is easy to cheer for – and it’s not always Poirot or Marple, though we like them, their safety and prosperity is not necessarily the reader’s main concern. She builds select characters and tells their stories.

2. Is the place a factor in the story? Does its history add weight? How familiar are the characters with the setting? Do they move around the ‘stage’ gracefully? What purpose does the setting serve? Does it trap? Does it offer answers? With Christie, a lot of times it’s easier to figure out who the villain is if you pay attention to how she describes things. The last few books I’ve been able to pick up on the villain not from any clue that Christie understands, but through the language she uses to describe how things are.

3. What ‘literary’ authors have written books with a similar structure? (Grella points out Jane Austen. And I see the limited settings, the interactions of the characters, and the gossip-laced ‘evidence’ all playing a part in Christie’s novels, as well as Austen’s – and no one knocks Austen.) Wodehouse is king of the comedy of manners…but his is not considered literary, mores the pity. =(

I realize it reads like a list of book club questions…but I think that close readings will reveal that there is more than meets the eye. (Appropriate for mysteries, dontcha think?)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Opinion Piece

A recent post, and the comments that followed, on Nathan Bransford's blog reminded me of an article by David Ropeik that I'd also recently come across via The Huffington Post regarding the professionality (is that even a word?) of today's book reviewing culture.

Basically, book reviews have turned into something that Just Anyone Can Do. GASP!

Being an active member of the Goodreads site, and having posted quite a few of those same reviews here on this blog, I thought this was a fascinating topic.

Sites like Goodreads and the ability to review items on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble have inundated the web with lots of opinions. I'm not surprised that professional critics take a certain amount of umbrage at the ease in which the populace can speak out on literature...and the amount of opinion expressed at pieces of "non-literature" as well. And I agree with them to a certain extent. Critics and literature professors have worked and studied in the written word much longer than the average joe. Gotta give them their due. They have dedicated their lives and work to the study and understanding of this portion of the world: the book portion. These guys have spent countless hours, countless more words, and countless amounts of money trying to figure out what makes literature tick. That's nothing something to be tossed away slightly.

However, I am not an uneducated buffoon. I do think about my reviews and I do try to create an argument for why I may or may not have enjoyed a piece. And I am not alone. the majority of people who take the trouble to write a review, take trouble.  Sure, there are quite a few people out there who use the comments section of blogs and review space to lambast the writers with unfair diatribes that often contain grammatical errors, spelling errors, and rhetorical holes that you can drive a truck through, but these are not the majority. In fact, I think most people understand to ignore this kind of behavior. A well-written review, whether in favor of a piece or whether unfavorable, stands out. So, I am definitely in favor of bloggers, Goodreads reviewers, Amazon reviewers, Barnes and Noble reviewers, talking about books.

I'm also in favor of authors encouraging readers to talk about the books they have written. After all, they spent lots of time creating those pieces for our reading's only fair to let them know whether or not we did get any pleasure from the work. Bransford's current contest (full disclaimer: I was the winner of Bransford's Teen Diary Contest and have had my work critiqued by I like the guy)--with the promise of an Amazon gift card redacted after several commenters felt uncomfortable with the idea of potential 'payment'--is now a common contest: a signed copy of the book. While I think that this is a legitimate way to promote a book, it does raise the question of reviewers' veracity.

Can the book world be saturated with manipulative or false reviews?


Of course it can. But will it happen because of contests? I don't think so. This is such a tiny portion of the reviewing world. I think that reviewers react strongly, and  negatively--and review more--when the opinion of the general population is loud (I'm sure Stephenie Meyer gets blasted a lot harder than she would if everyone didn't scoff at shiny vampires), or the opinions of immediate friends are strong, or they take a personal exception to the author rather than focus on the work.

What do you guys think? Do contests for reviewers negate the effect of reviews? Is it a good way to build an audience? Do you use review sites or do reviews on your blog? Why? What do you get out of doing the review?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Genre vs. Literary: It’s Not a New Debate

"I cannot say that I have at any time a great admiration for Mr. Raymond West. He is, I know, supposed to be a brilliant novelist, and has made quite a name as a poet. His poems have no capital letters in them, which is, I believe, the height of modernity. His books are about unpleasant people living lives of surpassing dullness."
~The Vicar Leonard Clement in Murder at the Vicarage, discussing his impression of Miss Marple's nephew, the renowned novelist Raymond West; by Agatha Christie

In my opinion – that’s a pretty good burn from Christie to the literary establishment.

As this book (the first in the Miss Marple series) was published in 1930, I think it’s safe to say that the debate of quality between genre stylings and literary stylings is not exactly new.

During Agatha Christie’s publishing phenomenon, and during the Golden Age of Mystery in the 1930s, there were other writers at work. (I know, shocker!, considering her domination of bookstore shelves…even today it’s hard to get a new mystery in edgewise because her books take up so much room.) You may recognize the names of Christie’s contemporaries during this period: Virginia Woolf (who was thrilled that her sales numbers went over 1,000), James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and one of the probable targets of the above quoted passage e.e. cummings – a poet who used no capital letters in his work.

Does directing a zinger like the one quoted above mean that Christie was being catty towards the literary establishment?


But I think of it more as a participatory comment. Let me explain what I mean by that.

All writers – regardless of what we write, or how we write it – are concerned with where they fall in the “lit” spectrum. Genre writers defend their writing constantly from criticism (or worse, non-criticism indicating that the work is not worth commenting on). Accusations towards this camp include, but are not limited to, “It’s formulaic, thus predictable. It’s easy to read. The themes are simple or absent. There is no experimentation with language. Characters are cut-out.” And so on. Basically arguing that genre is easy in every sense of the word and is therefore not worth noting.

On the other end of the spectrum are the lit writers. Accusations against this establishment are pretty rife too: “It’s boring. The characters are navel-gazing whiners. The language is too ‘flowery’ – why do I need every detail of the wallpaper? The story is slow. The characters unsympathetic. The scope too narrow.”

So, I think Christie was sounding off against her own critics when she slid this gem in, and she continued to speak out like that later with Ariadne Oliver, her literary doppelganger.

I hate to say it, but it’s probably going to keep going on like that. Papers will be written debating the literary merits of X, Y, or Z. G will be ignored by critics entirely. S will be acknowledged, but in a small, two inch review in a dying magazine. Depressing, huh?

Well, perk up. It felt that way when George Eliot wrote “Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists” (and George Eliot is a lady novelist…just not a ‘silly’ – read: genre, particularly romance – novelist). It felt that way when Agatha Christie wrote the above passage. And it will feel that way through the times we write. Check out the Franzen-Picoult-Weiner debate for today’s variation.

The thing is, we’re writers. So, whatever you’re writing, write it to the best of your ability. Then write something new and do better. Be prepared to defend yourself either way. Because you’re going to have to defend yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write. Young Adult, mysteries, the next Pulitzer winner, the next Nobel Laureate, whatever – every last one of them are assaulted and every last one of them will have to answer the Who What Where When Why of their work.

Christie chose to put a few well-placed words in her bestselling books. Millions of eyes have read those words. She participated in the debate. And participation is good.

Even if it is a little catty.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Happy Birthday to Shane!

It's the hubby's birthday today. I'm sure you'll forgive me if I keep this short and start partying early?



Have a great weekend!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thursday Reviews: Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad SaysSh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On Writing a Memoir Via Twitter:

A creative idea that is surprisingly well-executed. Halpern's Twitter feed, Sh*t My Dad Says, is a great idea for a twitter feed in general, and translated well into this short memoir in particular. I was concerned upon picking this up that it would be just a listing of super-self-referrential quotes, but Halpern manages to dodge that by putting plenty of his own life-experience in. He gives context, and that is an added bonus.

On Reading This Book During a Little League Game

It was very meta. There's a part where Halpern talks about his experiences in his own Little League.

And that was my favorite part, not only because I was on the stands at my son's baseball game at the time, but because it showed Justin Halpern (the author) understanding, as an adult, what he did not as a child. Young Halpern doesn't understand why he's forced to practice with the smelly kid. His dad shows him, via a confrontation with another parent...which is still not uncommon in the world of youth sports...that the kid is a talented player with a rough life, and that you should look past appearances to find out the truth.

I also think that this is the whole point of this book: looking past appearances.

On the Point of This Book

There's a lot of cursing--but if you pick up a book titled Sh*t My Dad Says and you're not expecting that...well, I can't help you.

However, the cursing is just the outward appearance.

The stories and quotes are about being yourself, learning from your mistakes, living an honest, straightforward life, and shooting for your dreams. Halpern's dad, throughout all the cursing, all the lessons, obviously loves his kids. Justin Halpern is somewhat self-deprecating, which makes him come across a little slow, but it has to be that way, right? Otherwise his dad's Words Of Wisdom wouldn't ring like they should.

(And we inherently understand that Halpern's lessons got through, right? If not, there wouldn't be this book, the sitcom, etc. Gotta read between the lines, see past the appearances, and all....)

On the Author Working for

Not surprising.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


A book was recently released called Agatha Christie’s Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making, by John Curran. Check out Curran’s deal: he got to spend hours in a room, pouring over handwritten exercise books, reading page after page of difficult notes, deciphering faded pencil marks, and losing his eyesight while reading Christie’s plots in her own writing.

I know. What a great deal! I’m so jealous.

Curran put all of his interesting discoveries into this book. I’m not going to go into all the deets (mostly because you should go buy this book for your-own-self to peruse at your leisure) but I do want to talk about the thing that was most interesting to me: 76 notebooks.

Yeah, that’s a lot, huh?

Apparently she was neither neat nor orderly in keeping them either. Notes for some books are mixed into notes for others, which are all mixed with packing/grocery/Christmas lists. Christie used the notebook closest at hand to plot, write treatments, jot ideas, or list housekeeping details.

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty disorderly and I’ve always felt guilty for it. If I didn’t label/date my diaries or if I forgot to write in it once I started a diary, I felt like the world was going to end. I beat myself up.

In January, when I was reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries, I started keeping another one…only I told myself that I didn’t care if I didn’t write every day. If I wanted to jot down other people’s quotes, I could. If I wanted to I could whine about writing, or plot stuff, or do exercises. Whatever. It’s worked well for me. I don’t date pages, but I am trying to fill one notebook at a time – and I’m almost done with the first one.

Sounds pathetic, right? Almost done with the first one.

Well, if we count how Agatha Christie kept notebooks, haphazard and without organization…I think I might be able to take her. I’ve filled cheap spiral notebooks with lists, plots, outlines, first lines, random thoughts, blog ideas, character names, etc. And, to the detriment of future scholars (who will, of course, study my work with the same interest and passion as Curran has done for Christie) I’ve tossed a lot of notebooks out.

Some of Christie’s notebooks were filled, others only had ten pages. This makes me feel better as a writer. Less unfocused.

I’m gonna stick with my more ‘disciplined’ notebook keeping for the moment – mostly because I want the satisfaction of completely full notebooks. But it’s nice to know that the bestsellingest author was creating at all times, with what she had on hand. Makes me want to go write stuff!

How’s about you guys? You notebook keepers? Or computer screen fillers?

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Pen Name Game

Agatha Christie is a household name. It’s understood that she wrote ground-breaking mysteries.

Mysteries are not the only stories she wrote. Under the nom de plume of Mary Westmacott, she also wrote romances. Six to be exact: Absent in the Spring, A Daughter’s Daughter, The Burden, Giant’s Bread, Unfinished Portraitn, and The Rose and the Yew Tree. These are difficult books to get a hold of, but through the auspices of Google books (all controversies aside, it’s pretty handy to have around) I managed to get a preview of one of them: Absent in the Spring.

While looking at the book, it struck me that Christie shifted her writing style, along with the genre, but only slightly. These books were not as popular as her mysteries, and it would be easy to point to the genre shift as the dominant reason that the books didn’t do as well. But part of the questionable popularity may be because of Christie’s use of a pen name.

Popular recommendations (like these from Kristin Nelson, Nathan Bransford, and Miss Snark) say that a writer should use a pen name in the following cases:

1.) Sales of current books aren’t going as expected and your name would influence future sales negatively.
2.) You have an ugly name. (Okay, I made that one up.)
3.) Multiple authors working together.
4.) You're trying to get a job.
5.) You are writing in a genre that is different from your ‘regular’ genre.

All those reasons seem to me to be legitimate, and I don’t question that these six books were definitely a shift for Christie. And reason number five seems to be the reason that Christie used a pen name – and I’m gonna run with that assumption. Which makes me wonder if using a pen name was necessary.

After all, Christie was a bestselling author, I don’t think that shifting genres would have cost her too much. It probably would’ve assured selling more copies. The jump between the romance genre and the mystery genre is not a huge leap, as evidenced by hundreds of books on the shelves today. Janet Evanovich, Catherine Coulter, J.D. Robb, Tami Hoag, and Charlaine Harris are just a tiny sampling of writers who blend and split those two particular genres. Catherine Coulter doesn’t use a pen name when she switches it up. But J.D. Robb is known in the romance world as Nora Roberts. And J.D. Robb’s sales jumped when Roberts was ‘outted.’

The trick to keeping all the work under one name is to establish trust with that name. No one’s gonna laugh at James Patterson for writing a romantic novel because they know his brand. His fans trust that he’ll tell a good story. Same with John Grisham switching out of the lawyer world to the sports world.

Agatha Christie is probably the most trusted author of the century – especially if we’re going by sales. I think that readers would’ve gone with her if she wanted to tell a different kind of story.

So, have you guys played with pen names? What was your reasoning?

*** In response to a couple questions by my buddy Deb, I have found out the following information:
According to Hercule Poirot's website (it's a good one, you should check it out if you're a Christie fan!) Mary Westmacott was revealed to be Agatha Christie in 1949. That's quite a few years after her first published Christie novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles(1920). And I have no idea what sales-impact that had on either the Christie books or the Westmacott books.

Also, according to the same website: "The Westmacott novels were simply written for "fun," to put it loosely. Christie had said in her autobiography that she wanted "to do something that is not my proper job," i.e., writing detective novels. She said she wrote the first, Giant's Bread, with a "rather guilty feeling" and enjoyed the project she had undertaken."

Other spots to check out regarding Christie and her nom de plume: 

Rosalind Carr, Agatha Christie's daughter talks about her mother's use of a pen name.

A bibliography of Agatha Christie Writing As Mary Westmacott with descriptions of the six Westmacott novels.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Young Marple? Jennifer Garner? What?

In late March, the Huffington Post announced: Jennifer Garner to Play Miss Marple. Yes, that Miss Marple. The Miss Marple of Agatha Christie's brain. The Miss Marple who has been a spinster for years and years.

Result: Much OUTCRY! Check out MTV's movieblog: Jennifer Garner Not to Play

Now, for the record: I'm not really opposed to the idea.

Though, I have a few thoughts on the idea of a reboots/remakes/rewhatevers.
1. The reboot/remake/rewhatever needs to keep its integral relation to the original.
Let's take the Smurf movie for example. I have not seen this movie, but based on the previews it seems like the producers/writers/whoever-in-charges missed the fact that these are fantasy creatures, set in a fairy-tale like world. That's the only reason they are not as ridiculous as they could be. Putting them in New York? Really? Wouldn't the story have been as good (if not better?) in the fantasy world they already exist in? You can't take away something like that or it seems, well, stupid.

To make Miss Marple young is a verrrry questionable thing -- but it can still be made integral. After all, Miss M. had to be young at some point. She had to gain the observational experiences that make her so gifted as an older character. A young version would be interesting in that regard.

2. The reboot/remake/rewhatever should not be back-to-back with the original.
For example, Spiderman.  I recently learned that they're doing a reboot. Why? Sure, that last movie was not the best (and, actually, if they'd just struck the Sandman bit, it wouldn't have been so convaluted--one bad guy too many, people!), but it sure wasn't the downfall of the franchise.

Miss Marple hasn't had a blockbuster series/movie in a while. It's about time for us new generations to find her.

3. (and this may seem contradictory to #1, but isn't): If you're going to do it, own it.
Batman. Been there, done that, right? Yet every time a new director or new vision comes to it, it seems to improve. Michael Keaton's Batman was light years ahead of Adam West's. And the Christian Bale reboots have been Oscar worthy. If you watch the three different Bats back-to-back, each of them has their own distinct feel and look...yet all of them are still Batman.

Seems like the idea of making Miss Marple young, and casting Alias ass-kicker Jennifer Garner to star is something that you'd have to own, if you're going to do it. I think that Garner is a talented enough actress (loved her in Juno and The Invention of Lying) it would be interesting to watch her play a young Miss Marple -- because, let's face it, it'd have to be Miss Marple's personality that shuts down the suitors if she's got Garner's face....


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Other People's Rejection Letters: 150 Letters You're Happy You Didn't GetOther People's Rejection Letters: 150 Letters You're Happy You Didn't Get by Bill Shapiro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's a little post-it on the cover that reads: "Relationship Enders, Career Killers, and 150 Other Letters You'll Be Glad You Didn't Receive." Sooooo true.
Listed in this book are foreclosure notices, job rejections, etc., which you would expect to find, but aren't very personal except to the person who, of course, received them. Those touches add a universality to the book -- we may have not gotten this specific rejection, but we've all got one somewhere with our name on it.

The "Relationship Enders" are probably the most annoying portion of this book. Change the names, and they could all have been written to the same person. I found myself skimming these letters, and not feeling a whole bunch of sympathy for either the writers or the recipients...mostly because the letters read like the stuff I hear on morning radio, or Dr. Phil. Mostly I wanted to yell GROW UP! to both parties.

That aside, there are some real doozies in here: F. Scott Fitzgerald blasting his daughter (it was downright hateful--glad he wasn't my pops), Jimi Hendrix and the military (he had the audacity to play guitar!), Eleanor Roosevelt telling the Daughters of the American Revolution to shove off, and Arthur Gonzalez's artwork over his art rejections.

You will laugh reading this book, and while I didn't cry at anything--there were a couple that took my breath away. Shapiro juxtaposed the letters well, so you're not bombarded with too many Relationship Enders all at once. My only issue with the structure of the book is that the explanations for the letters are at the end and not within immediate 'reading distance' of the letter itself. I don't think that the book would've lost anything with the brief explanations placed with the letters.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Observant Character

The key to Miss Marple's sleuthing is her insight into human behavior. Regardless of the violent act that has occurred, there is a simple, human reason/motivation behind it. By observing people and comparing those observations to other observations of human behavior in her history (which Miss Marple has quite a store of....), Miss Marple manages to click all the pieces into place.

I think the key word is "observant." -- Note the use of the word over and over again in the above paragraph. =)

The whole reason readers want to follow Miss Marple's mysteries is her skill at observing things. It's a trait she shares with Poirot, though her style of observation is more relateable, in my opinion. It indicates that the only thing keeping us everyday folk out of the sleuthing world is the ability to pay attention.

Regardless of genre, I think readers appreciate a character who can pay attention. As a reader, I certainly don't like spending time with a character who is navel-gazing or whining and, all the while, this other, more interesting stuff is going on. I think that kind of behavior makes an unlikeable character. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Character Who Got Away…Maybe

The first Miss Marple novel is Murder at the Vicarage. It’s narrated by the Vicar Leonard Clement and the entire story centers around a murder that – as the title so elegantly shows – happened at his vicarage (a.k.a his home…talk about a rough night!). The reader is introduced to his family, spends time with his ‘flock’ of neighbors, and goes along with him as he works with the local constables to solve the mystery. It seems that Clement is set to be a main character in much the same way as Hastings in the Poirot novels.

Yet it is Miss Jane Marple, one of a plethora of nosy widows/spinsters in the small village, who gets an entire series. I mentioned before that Clement is a character who had to go – his wife is pregnant, he has a steady job of tending to the misfits in town, and, probably the biggest reason, if murders keep occurring in his small village, he’ll be held responsible. After all, how can a spiritual guide be any good if his villagers keep killing one another?

There’s a pretty large publishing gap between the Murder at the Vicarage and Marple’s second novel appearance in The Thirteen Problems. A little over a decade, though she does appear in short stories along the way.

These things tell me that Miss Marple is probably a character who got away from Christie.

What I mean by that: Imagine Christie sitting there with her notebooks, working out how a vicar will solve the case – and out pops this old lady who snoops and pries and annoys the main character. To top it off, she solves the case before cops and the makeshift sleuth of the vicar. I’m guessing Marple played a bigger part in that case than Christie originally meant and, lo!, she continues to do so through short story after short story and novel after novel.

As a writer, can you see these kinds of characters coming? Agatha Christie wasn’t an old spinster when Miss Marple showed up…so it’s not like with the Ariadne Oliver character – by which I mean there wasn’t some kind of self-referential statement being made about Christie. Who could’ve predicted that such an unexpected character would show such voomph and audacity?

We’ve all read the books that say “Let the characters speak for themselves,” or some author lamenting the way “That character was supposed to be the bartender.” I have no idea if this is the case with Miss Marple – whether or not she was intended to be a very useful side character, or whether she was supposed to take over, only Christie can tell us…but I have my suspicions. If you guys know of a spot where she said “Yes, Miss Marple was to be my piece de resistance!” Please let me know – or vice versa.

In the meantime, has anyone gotten away from you as writer? I’m working on a novel right now and an upstart young doctor has come onto the scene and I’m thinking “Where the heck did this dude come from?” Guess I’ll find out….

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Guardian is on a Roll

I just found this fascinating article about one of our previous mentors, Virginia Woolf, by Michael Cunningham -- who did such a beautiful job portraying her in his own novel The Hours. Cunningham talks about his own writing journey and his mom:

Virginia Woolf, my mother and me

Plus, if you've missed V.S. Naipaul's scandalous remarks regarding writers of the female persuasion, (ahem, we apparently are sentimental and have a narrow view of the world, plus we're never master of our own house....) you can check them out here and, should you wish to take the quiz go here.

I'd be really interested in hearing about your quiz results...I got six outta ten, but I don't count missing Nicholas Sparks...Okay! Okay! I take that back....=)

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Character Who is You

We’ve spent the last few days talking Poirot, and next week I’m gonna talk Jane Marple, but today I wanted to talk about a recurring character in Christie’s work who has been noted to mirror Agatha Christie herself: Ariadne Oliver.

Ariadne Oliver is a sixty-ish woman who writes mystery novels about a foreign detective named Sven Hjerson. My introduction to her was via Cards on the Table, reviewed yesterday, in which she was one of the sleuths. I’d heard that Mrs. Oliver participated in this book, which was the main reason that I picked it up – I wanted to see if she had, indeed, written ‘herself’ into the book.

With any writer who creates a ‘version’ of him/herself there’re two ways it can go: 1. The author will poke fun at herself. 2. The author will create an idealized version of herself. (A tendency I think that is used by younger, more inexperienced writers.)

***Note: Strangely enough, The Autobiographical Novel doesn’t generally have a meta-character problem – since everyone in the book is ‘real’ there’s generally a sense of balance vs. the completely made up novel where Self Becomes Superhero.***

Agatha Christie definitely pokes fun at herself. Ariadne Oliver is the funniest character that I’ve come across in a loooong time. She sticks her nose in where she doesn’t belong. She jumps to conclusions in serious cases, and she writes in a room that can only be described as a Bird Room.

Poking fun at yourself is a delicate proposition. You can’t make yourself look like a bumpkin, but at the same time you can’t look too full of yourself. The best way to do it is wait until you have some kind of public persona – a public caricature, if you want to think about it that way. Christie, for example, was super-well-known before Cards came out. So bringing in all the clichés of a well-known mystery author was easy. They’re probably nosy know-it-alls at parties – and Mrs. Oliver is. They probably want to jump into actual police investigations – and Mrs. Oliver does. They’re eccentric, hence the Bird Room.

And they all do it for money. There’s a great exchange in Cards (sorry I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment, so I'm winging it) where a suspect’s friend visits Mrs. Oliver and gushes about how great it must be to be a writer. To which Mrs. Oliver replies somewhere along the line that the motivation is always greater when the bills arrive – essentially, inspiration goes to those who need money!

This kind of meta-character only works with a careful balance. I think we all remember looking at our friends during the Ocean’s Twelve movie, wondering what on earth Julia Roberts was doing as a character pretending to be Julia Roberts. Awkward.

So, some ideas on putting yourself into the mix:

• Be somewhat popular or people won’t get the jokes.
• Use some cliché to back you up.
• Don’t over-do it a la Ocean’s Twelve. Being the main character has only worked for Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated…and he still took a strange backseat.
• Definitely look carefully to see if it enhances the plotline. Mrs. Oliver is a very active, useful part of the story. She’s a good foil for the other characters, like Poirot. But if the self-reference is in there just to be in there…think twice about it.
• If you haven’t been published yet, hold off on using yourself. I know they say write what you know, but no one else knows you at this point. They haven’t participated in any of your storylines yet. So to put it in at the outset just seems like ego. And no one will like you after that.

Like all things, I think it’s a question of balance. I just happen to think that this balance is a difficult one to strike without some experience. Anyone else have tips/tricks/thoughts?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Thursday Reviews: Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie (A Mentor Review!)

Cards on the Table (A Hercule Poirot Mystery)Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To put it simply, the title is exactly what this story is about -- the cards on the table. Christie lays out all of the suspects, lays out all of the sleuths, and lays out the crime scene. Christie tells the reader flat out in the Foreward: "There are only four starters, and any one of them, given the right circumstances, might have committed the crime." Everything in the story hinges on figuring out what the true circumstances of the murderous night are...and then you can figure out the whodunit.

The story opens up with the Mephestophelian character of Mr. Shaitana inviting Hercule Poirot to a dinner party, to which he's also invited four murderers who have never been caught and three other 'detectives': Police Superintendent Battle, maybe-Secret-Service Colonel Race, and mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver. At the party there's some Bridge (Bridge being the conceit of the whole book) and the murder of the host, Mr. Shaitana.

After that, it's up to who can play their hand the best--the murderer or the sleuths on the case. Battle, Race, Oliver, and Poirot have different methods which are quite entertaining to watch play against one another. Though the one thing all the interrogators have in common is different ways of playing ignorant. Battle plays the 'fake memory' game: "Oh, yeah, that was back in...?" he asks "1932," answers the suspect. Race digs into their backgrounds via paper. Ariadne Oliver misdirects each suspect toward the others: "Obviously the doctor did it, so you can talk about you, dear...." And Poirot hands them Bridge score sheets and asks them to list items in the room.

In some cases it's out-and-out hilarious. Especially the character of Ariadne Oliver--popularly considered Christie's mouthpiece.

There is a lot of reversing and re-reversing in this story, and there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Every one of the suspects has killed someone and there are witnesses and victims for each one of those side-stories. I admit to getting mixed up, especially with military titles thrown in there. Major Despard is a suspect and Colonel Race is a sleuth and I kept twisting them up for some reason.

In the Foreward, Christie mentions this being one of Poirot's favorite cases though his buddy Hastings "when Poirot described it to him, considered it very dull!" And there is a risk that some readers would find this not-as-exciting as some other Christie books. After all, it is about the psychology of the characters, and to gather the necessary information on the suspects' respective backgrounds can get tedious. But readers who are entertained by the concept of 'profiling' (like me!) will have a good time here.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Working the Setting

So many of the Hercule Poirot novels (and Miss Marple too!)depend upon the setting to contain the story. Often, Christie puts her characters in a small village, brings them into a closed suite of rooms, or, most legendarily, puts them on a train.

Let's look at the pros and cons of this closed-circuit kind of setting:

This tight use of setting means that the suspect pool is limited to the group originally introduced to the reader. There are no off-scene murderers in Christie. Which is what makes her cool. To avoid the deus ex machina sensation that accompanies the solution to a lot of mystery novels, a good use of setting seems valuable.

Setting in a particular place requires that the scenes are automatically related. It creates a flow.

Speaking of flow--it also dodges the sometimes tedious descriptions of place. You only have to describe the Orient Express once. (And, if you're Christie, you only have to draw a diagram of the scene once.)

Details stick out, and therefore are given more weight than if the setting were all the details of the wide world. Dizzying. Significance matters in the details. Whether genre or literary...Emma Donoghue's Room was heightened by the details of her small setting in much the same way that Murder on the Orient Express is heightened by the alibi details of the suspects. The reader notices what wouldn't otherwise be noticed.

It can be claustrophobic. Especially in some of the exotic/historical locations that Christie utilizes, it could be disappointing to the reader to not learn more about such locales.

It's very limiting. There are only so many small town/train/plane/automobile areas, right? And once you've established the setting, the characters have to logically fit into the time and place you've set up. So it limits your characters, it limits the scope (it's really hard to get an FBI agent in there if you need to).

Can you guys think of any other pros/cons to a tight setting?

And now, to entertain you, observe the setting of Agatha Christie's legendary Orient Express take off from the station: