MISS DEMEANORS

What's in a name?

 It’s time. Madame XYZ and Monsieur ABC need names. Real names. My main characters are named the moment they appear on the page – after all, their name says something specific about them, not least importantly what region of Switzerland (or the world) they are from. A name can hint at age, social or economic situation. A first name might be traditional or modern; ‘plain Jane’ or something to make half the population cringe. That’s not to say I haven’t changed a major character’s name at close of writing. I’m not alone in this, legend has it that Margaret Mitchell used Pansy O’Hara until it was time to publish ‘Gone With The Wind’. Would Pansy have made the splash that Scarlett did? In my case, Agnes Lüthi started life as Micheline. Is she better as Agnes? Yes, I think so. Still, it was a big change. But today is minor character naming day. The groundskeeper and tow-headed 10-year-old boy get to keep their parts and therefore they get a name. I am sure I will spend more time on this than it deserves, on the other hand, a name says it all…..

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The Dreaded Word Count

  Does it help to count? The first 1,000 words of a new book are the hardest (and the most thrilling when they are DONE!). No more blank white page. You know where the story starts (in this draft at least) and you’re off and running. The next ten thousand slip by, then you re-group. Move through with edits and the beginning is richer, more detailed (in my case, real names for minor characters in lieu of Monsieur ABC and Madame XYZ). Thousands more words. Yippee!  On the other hand, there are days when you edit and see the words disappear. 32,032 is now 27,501. Yikes. I frantically do the math: How did I cut 16%? Why? A blood-letting. Now I question my judgement: maybe I didn’t need to trim that scene, cut that chapter, edit that description. There have been darker days:  When the manuscript was complete and in the hands of the publisher and I knew deep down in my heart that I needed to cut several characters and trim trim trim (okay, surgically remove) an entire theme or two. It felt dangerous. What if I couldn’t fit it all back together again? This was major surgery, none of your outpatient stuff. In the end I learned a good lesson…. Just do it. Have a plan—this isn’t willy-nilly cutting to see what happens—and keep track of what is cut and moved, and what is now missing and will have to be redistributed to other characters and descriptions. But do it. After I cut and redistributed and in-filled I ended up with a few thousand more words. By then the word count didn’t matter, but it illustrated that if I aimed for the best book the rest would follow. I’m trying to keep this in mind….. and not care that today’s work feels like driving in reverse. 

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What to do with your book trailer

So, you have a book trailer to promote your latest mystery or thriller. What do you do with it? I ran into this problem today when my cousin, a multimedia producer, and I finished the book trailer for The Widower’s Wife. (See Trailer Below) Aside from posting on the obvious places–your web site and your Amazon author page–where else can this kind of media live? I make a list of book video bloggers on YouTube and send them the link to the trailer in hopes of interesting them in reviewing the book. I also post on bookreels.com, a book trailer site, and submit to book bloggers who are considering a review.  Sometimes, a book blogger will post the trailer along with the review or leave it up on the site as a teaser to his or her commentary.  I also put it on the video sharing sites like Vine and send it out to my email list.  Where do you put your trailer?   

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Breaking The Rules

 In grade school, my English teachers insisted upon three things: two spaces after a period, all sentences must have a subject, verb and object, NEVER start a sentence with “but.” These were laws. Breaking them meant deductions on your paper, often stamped atop the document in red with an accusing circle highlighting the offending sentence.  As a thriller writer I can say with gusto that all “laws were meant to be broken.” Authors aim to have a conversation with readers through their point-of-view characters. When I’m in a character’s head, I endeavor to write the way they would think–with a bit more editing. Few people think in proper sentences. Declarative statements and words are thrown into the mix of subject-verb-object complete thoughts. Actual dialogue trails off… Here’s a sentence from Ulysses: “God, isn’t he dreadful? he said frankly. A ponderous Saxon. He thinks you’re not a gentleman.”  “A ponderous saxon” is all a subject. But, it’s a good one.
And, that prior sentence started with “but.” Take that fourth grade. 

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What scares you?

  So much of writing is scary. Should you write down those thoughts? Will your family think you’re crazy?Should you send your work out to an agent? What if she thinks you’re crazy?Will anyone buy your book? What if all the reviews are one stars? So much of publishing makes me nervous, but I vowed to myself, when I turned 50, that I would try to say yes to everything people asked me to do, which is how I came to take part in a reading at the Parkside Lounge last Thursday night. This was an event fraught with anxiety. First of all, it was in the East Village in NYC.  Once I get south of 14th Street and the numbers go away, I just have to accept that fact that I’m going to spend an hour lost.  I carefully mapped out subway directions. Dragged my sister-in-law and a friend into a subway, which wound up being un-airconditioned. It was 100 degrees. My make-up dripped onto my lap.  Then there was the place itself, which was, exactly as I feared, much cooler than I am. (I’m not speaking of temperature here, but of a state of mind.) The walls were red (I think). There was a pool table in the bar. The emcee was a very cute young man who reminded me of Lin-Manuel Miranda. And there was I to read about the Sunday School teacher who is the protagonist of my cozy mystery. But not yet, because first there were three hours of other people reading. (I was the headliner, either because I’m that good, or because I harangued the most people into going.) First up was a man writing about his first time using a condom. Then came various other intense and very moving pieces. Then came a woman describing an intimate relationship with an ice cream cone, and then came me, talking about Maggie Dove. I went up to the stage and the light shone right into my eyes. I’m a teacher and used to relying on visual cues. When people start looking down at their cell phones, I know it’s time to move along. So it was weird to be in a cocoon of light.  Anyway, I started to read the first chapter of Maggie Dove. Suddenly everyone got quiet. You know that feeling when people are really listening to you? It’s a nice feeling. When I was done, everyone applauded. Sincerely, I felt. Afterwards I got an e-mail from someone who had been there who had been one of my students several years ago. She was so excited to hear about my book, had written one herself. Wanted to reconnect. The next day I got this group photograph, and as I looked at it, I thought how much fun the whole thing had been. Writing is about saying yes.   But now I think I’d like to stay curled up in my office for a bit. At least until Thursday, when I have a reading at Bryant Park. How about you? Have you ever done anything scary? 

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Writing in Stolen Moments

Sunday morning. The sky outside my car window is straight out of a Monet painting. Waves of cicada songs swell from the wooded lawn around the parking lot, overwhelming the electric guitar crunch wafting from the open windows in the building behind me. My six-year-old daughter is somewhere inside, jamming on the bubblegum pink Fender that we bought her when she decided Taylor Swift was more of an idol than her mother. I am sitting in the passenger seat with an open laptop. These are the stolen moments in which I write blog posts. Novels demand more extended periods of silence. When working on a book, I start writing at nine a.m., as soon as I return from dropping my kids off at their respective schools and walking the dog. When writing, everything else waits. The cooking. The laundry. The constant cleaning. A half-hour mid-day break is for walking the dog and moving my cramped legs. I swallow a green juice while circling the block or shove a cereal bar in my mouth. I’d be a good customer for soylent. Eating takes too much time.After I return to my manuscript, I work until 3 o’clock sharp. Unless, of course, I am in the midst of penning a particularly good or difficult sentence which takes me until five after the hour, resulting in a mad dash to the car and a rash of apologies to a nursery school teacher for lateness, yet again.  Once my kids get home, I am a full time mom: ferrying them to activities and play dates, sitting beside them at the kitchen table explaining the directions in workbooks or conducting science experiments or building snap circuits. I am cooking—constantly. Cleaning—constantly. At eight p.m., they go to sleep and I spend time with my husband while, likely, folding laundry. Around ten thirty, he sleeps. I edit. Sometimes, I miss being a journalist. Then, I was in an office by eight a.m. and returned home at seven. No one wondered what I did all day. No one questioned the worth of my efforts since, after all, I was earning a salary that put a precise value on an hour of my time. I never had to justify why, despite being “home,”  I really couldn’t make the latest school fundraiser. But, I would always miss writing more. Telling stories is part of who I am. So, though it’s a beautiful Sunday morning, I’m content to sit in the passenger seat of a hot car, banging away on a laptop.   

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Atmosphere and Authenticity

Setting the scene… in my case Switzerland. How much is too much; how much is not enough? I have several friends who don’t ever finish their great American novel, often because they keeping digging in for more detail, more perfection, just more! (Even more editing, which often means ‘less,’ then they need ‘more’ again. Argh!) There is no magic formula to finding the balance between setting the scene and overburdening with detail, a writing reality that I am contemplating today as I develop several minor characters. (Confession here….. they develop in situ, meaning the draft is well underway but the characters are shifting as the plot develops). Because Switzerland draws residents and visitors from around the world each of these characters very deliberately comes from a different country and a different culture.I have the good fortune to be in India for the moment and am concentrating on a character from that country. I’ve visited India many times and have a sense of ‘my man’ but each time I speak with someone a little detail is added, or a detail is questioned. It is easy to slip down the rabbit hole and have more backstory than is necessary and I feel myself asking: is this enough?  In the end, the magic formula is likely all the details that we as writers think of before mentally paring to just enough for the reader to visualize. This allows the reader room to insert their own experiences and dreams. That said….. maybe I should go speak again with my hosts, learn a little more, and add a few more details to ‘my man’!  Follow me at www.traceedehahn.com  

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Continuing a series after the big reveal. Case Study: Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot is my favorite television show. About mid-way through the first season, writer Sam Esmail reveals–SPOILER ALERT–that the main character, Elliot, suffers from a form of schizophrenia. The protagonist, Elliot, and the antagonist, Mr. Robot, are the same person!  Some critics argued that the show would have difficulty after such a big reveal. How could Esmail ever again surprise the audience post pulling the Palahniuk card? Won’t the viewer get bored watching Elliot battle clearly defined demons?  Season two started this week and I think Esmail has answered those questions with a resounding No. As long as the characters are interesting and have new challenges that allow them to evolve, it’s easy to watch and wait for the next big reveal.  The key is the confidence the audience has in the writer to take us to new places. As Esmail wrote, “A con doesn’t work without the confidence.” And what’s a series except a long con–a story that continues to confound our expectations with each new plot twist?  

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Writer's Best Friend

Writing is a lonely job. Your only friends are the voices in your head and, if you’re a mystery writer, at least half of those voices are not the kind of people you want to encounter on the street. The other half are supremely stressed out about something dramatically awful. As a domestic suspense writer, I often feel that I spend all day sympathizing with someone who is having the worst day/week/month of their lives. It’s exhausting. And, after I’m done spending all day with my main character-in-crisis, I need time to recharge before I deal with people who expect me NOT to act like someone who has been talking to a woman running from, say, human traffickers.  Wine helps me destress. But nothing compares to my dog.  If I am writing an intense scene, my dog seems to know. He’ll come by and put his head on the knee not balancing my laptop, reminding me that no matter where I am in my head, my physical person is safe in my house with a furry companion. Petting him after a marathon writing session brings me back to reality. Walking him gets my muscles moving after sitting for hours, hunched over a laptop. Apparently, moving major muscles helps the mind. (More research on that here.) So, here’s to my dog. You’re cheaper than a shrink and you work for food.   

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What makes a good villain?

I hate serial killers, and not just because they murder people indiscriminately–though that’s bad. I hate them because I don’t find them interesting. Uniformly, they have a vaguely disturbed childhood or mental illness that spurs them on a bloody spree. They are as much victims of circumstance, in some ways, as their actual victims; just as unable to control their evil fate.  The best villains, in my opinion, have more varied motives. They kill one person because a combination of threats to their livelihood, sense of self, or personal safety made them act violently. Then, they kill more people to cover up the initial killing.  That’s what made Walter White in Breaking Bad such a great villain. His back was against the wall and he made an immoral choice that promised easy money. Then, he made another and another until he was scarface with chemicals instead of coke.    

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