Tag: novels


Reading on a Jet Plane

Alexia Gordon I just had time to unpack from Crime Bake before I hit the road again, this time traveling for my day job. Between waiting to board the plane, waiting for the plane to take off (I think I spent more time taxiing on the runway than I spent airborne), and the actual flight (which I spent crammed into an “upgraded” seat so cramped if I’d puffed out my cheeks I’d have hit my seatmates) I had plenty of time to get some reading and writing done.
Pen and paper are my go-to travel writing tools—much easier than a laptop to whip out at a moment’s notice, no danger of equipment failure (I suppose my pen could run out of ink but I can fit a dozen pens into less space than a power cord), no need to search out a power outlet, and no need to stow for take-off and landing. My travel reading varies. It’s almost always paperback, lighter weight than hardback, and no need to power it on or plug it in or put it away when the flight attendant passes down the aisle checking seatbelts and seatback uprightness. Size matters—it has to fit in my personal item. This trip, I chose a mass-market (about 4” x 7”) paperback book because it fit into one of my tote bag’s slip pockets.
I prefer to bring a book with me from home but sometimes I take the chance of finding a good read in the airport bookstore. I found one of my favorite novels, Han Solo at Stars End, this way. These days, the airport booksellers offer as many hardcover bestsellers as the neighborhood bookstore. Once upon a time (within my lifetime—my age is showing), back in the day before airports did double duty as shopping malls, the choice was more limited. “Airport novels” were a thing. Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, defines an airport novel as, “a literary genre not so much defined by its plot…as by the social function it serves.” Hidden among questionable assertions about what makes a novel an airport novel (the Wikipedia article on the topic contains several assertions that sound more like pejorative opinion than objective statements and has been flagged as containing original research and needing more citations) is a workable definition: a mass market paperback of a length that will last for an entire journey, is fast-paced and entertaining, and that won’t require the reader to consult any reference material. Also referred to as beach reads, TV Tropes describes these books as “the junk food of the literature world”. I think the description is unfair—just because a novel doesn’t aim to win a Pulitzer doesn’t make it “junk food”. I will grant that airport novels tend to be “light” reading. After all, when you’re dealing with crowds, delays, surly staff, cramped conditions that would have animal rights activists protesting if animals were subjected to them, overpriced food and everything else that has turned modern travel into an ordeal to be endured instead of an adventure to be enjoyed, do you really want your reading material to remind you the world is rotten or require the same level of concentration it takes to navigate airport security?
Novels designed to meet the needs of travelers pre-dates air travel. The French coined the term romans de gare and the Dutch called them stationsroman when train travel was the primary mode of mass transit. What’s your favorite travel read? Do you think airport novels are the literary equivalent of junk food? Do you ever buy novels from airport booksellers? Or is your travel reading all electronic? Or are magazines and crossword puzzles more your idea of travel entertainment? Leave a comment on the blog or head over to  Missdemeanors ‘ Facebook page to join the discussion. 

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This past weekend I was a workshop leader at the New York Pitch Conference. I’m in charge of the women’s fiction/literary fiction/memoir group, so I get to hear many wonderful stories. Many that I hope to read in book form at some point or another. I am continually awed by the diversity of stories out there. Just in my group there were people from India and Ghana and Lebanon and England. Professors and Ph.Ds. People who’ve survived some terrible things and others who’ve survived Hollywood. People who seem very polished and people who are scribbling notes on bits of paper. Mothers and daughters and some really odd people. It’s also fascinating to me how individual this publishing business is. Every editor reacts to each pitch in a different way. The very same pitch will be met with enthusiasm from one editor and blank indifference from another. They like for you to have a large social media presence. They like to know you’ve worked hard on your story–whether by studying writing or having pieces workshopped by beta readers. They like for you to have good comps. They like all these things unless they don’t really care because they like your story so much. Or they like you so much.  Or they like your shoes. It’s a mystery.  But I’m happy to report that almost every member of my group got a request from an editor, and most got more than one. Now the next part of the process begins, the revising and waiting and hoping. Fingers crossed!    

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Learning From Imaginary People

At its best, a novel can be a masterclass on life. My favorite books have taught me about myself. More importantly, they’ve allowed me to see myself in others and recognize others in me. They’ve exposed my limited experience and asinine assumptions, and have challenged me to learn more, listen more, and become better.  Most writers I’ve met feel similarly. Often, such feelings are the source of our deep love for story telling. So, my question this week to the MissDemeanors is What Life Lessons Have You Learned From Fiction? Here are our answers.  Cate: At around age eight, Harriet The Spy helped clarify my then budding ambition to become a writer. I pretty much thought Harriet was me with a less well-guarded notebook. Catcher In The Rye’s Holden Caulfield reflected my own teenage angst and frustration with the adult world, and it made me realize that getting through life requires acceptance and change. You can’t fight everything without going nuts. Thanks J.D. Salinger. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon (all of which I read in high school) helped me develop a broader sense of empathy and gave me a sensitivity to other female experiences in America. This was particularly important for me at the time as I was developing my own cultural identity, trying to determine what it meant to be biracial in America and what experiences I could and could not connect with given that my black heritage is often belied by my appearance. Recently, Margaret Atwood’s fiction has served as an reminder to remain aware of the greater political landscape in which I live. Bouncing along in my self-absorbed bubble may be bliss, but it also makes finding myself in a dystopia a hell of a lot more likely. Paula: Emerson’s essays taught me to think, the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales taught me to dream, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn taught me to laugh no matter what. Shakespeare and Jane Austen taught me that people are funny and tragic and generous and terrible and evil and noble and true. Mysteries taught me plot and red herrings; romance taught me meet cutes and happy endings. But I learn just as much writing as I do reading, especially about myself. Tell a story well and you can’t help but reveal yourself, warts and all. I just got my notes back from my editor on my new novel and I was so worried about the plot, but he said the plot was fine, though the relationship between the heroine and the hero needed work. Now that really is the story of my life. Robin: Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen and Steve Martin taught me to embrace absurdity. Joan Didion’s Hot Flashes warned me about what laid in store (spoiler: she was right, “flash” is a misnomer). Dean Koontz taught me that humans can be the scariest monsters. James Herriot made me want to be a veterinarian when I was 10 yrs old, until the vet treating my family’s dog invited me watch a surgery and I fainted. I second Paula’s comment – I learn more about myself by writing fiction. What I’m willing to say and what I’m not, how much better my work is when the words make me uncomfortable. I’m writing a YA thriller at the moment and I cried after finishing the first draft of more than one scene. Tracee: Reading Tolstoy made me a lifelong Russophile, Dickens secured my love of history. Mysteries taught me plot and clues and red herrings (which also apply to real life) and thrillers made me realize that I am not a thrill seeker in any way. Anything I’ve ever read has taught me that there are many perspectives and situations that are not my own – some I wish were, and some I’m thankful are not. No lesson is perfect, but fiction taught me that sometimes you don’t get a second chance – but sometimes you do. Susan: Dickens taught me that life has insane highs and lows, and you’re always better off if you can try to find some humor in any given situation. I’m reading The Nightingale now and it’s teaching me so much about bravery and the importance of knowing your values and speaking up for them. Anne Tyler, Louise Penny and Richard Russo showed me the value of community. And Agatha Christie. I always wanted to live in St. Mary Mead, and I suspect I chose my village, and Maggie Dove, for that reason. Reading has also shown me that although it’s a big world, most people are motivated by similar concerns, and I try to keep that in mind when I meet new people. Michele: I read Elizabeth George Speare’s historical masterpiece, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, when I was nine and learned that even in the 1600’s people suffered from feeling different, an invaluable lesson for someone on the brink of adolescence. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opened my eyes to a world where people lived very differently than in the world in which I was growing up. To Kill A Mockingbird inspired a sense of social justice in me and showed me how one good lawyer can make a difference. Jane Austen taught me that romantic comedy has been alive and well for centuries and how important it is to be able to laugh at yourself. Mark Twain’s lesson was that good humor serves you well in life. Louise Penny has recently touched me and made me appreciate how comforting and inspiring a good story filled with fallible humans can be. Alexia: Alice in Wonderland and Nancy Drew taught me that girls could have adventures, too. 

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B.O.A.T.S. (Based on a True Story)

 I heard information today at work that made me say to myself, “That would make a great movie.” (No details here–it’s an active project.) It got me thinking about other true stories that would make gripping fiction. The art world provides a plethora of material suitable for a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller. Art isn’t nearly as sedate as those 6th grade field trips to dim, musty museums led you to believe. A search of Artsy turned up an article about an agoraphobic photographer who uses Google Street View to take screenshots of the people and landscapes she encounters in her virtual world travels. What if she grabbed a screenshot of a crime committed thousands of miles away? What would this homebound woman do? A deeper dip into Artsy’s archives turns up several articles on the hunt for, recovery of, and restoration of Nazi-looted art. What’s been described as the world’s greatest art theft has already inspired novels, movies, and TV shows: Portrait of a Woman in White, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Woman in Gold, and episodes of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Father Brown, and Agatha Christie’s Marple, to name a few. Newspapers and magazines often feature stranger-than-fiction stories. The Telegraph and Business Insider report on professional mourners hired to grieve at funerals. (Rent A Mourner is a legit UK-based business offering “discreet and professional mourners”.) Turns out, this isn’t a new thing. Mourners for hire date back to ancient Greece and are traditional in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They’re called moirologists and in 1910, in Paris, threatened to go on strike, complaining of not being paid living wages. Imagine an experienced moirologist noticing something odd about the deceased she’s been hired to mourn. An unusual Mark on the body? A bruise not hidden by the undertaker’s makeup? A face she recognized? I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the Internet and good, old-fashioned eavesdropping as sources for strange-but-true material. Last week I listened, fascinated, as the man at the table next to me recounted how his brother witnessed a massacre during a coup and developed PTSD so severe he suffered violent outbursts that eventually led to a life-or-death fight with the storyteller. Literally life-or-death. Think broken bones, manual strangulation, and bystander intervention. Drama fit for a Man Booker prize. Google “can’t make this stuff up” and get 18 million hits: links to newspaper articles, listicles, blogs, and Facebook pages. Here’s a recent one from FB: a woman breaks into a celebrity’s house (Drake, if you must know) and steals Pepsi, Sprite, Fiji water, and a hoodie. What if an obsessed fan broke into a celebrity’s house and found Nazi-looted art or witnessed his idol committing a crime? What life-imitates-art stories would you like to see fictionalized?

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Why does it take so long?

I’ve been working on my current novel for five years. Thinking about it for ten, or even more. I remember that when the idea first hit me,  I was out to dinner with my husband and we had to go home because we had a babysitter. My daughter is now planning her wedding. So that gives me some orientation.  Of course, I haven’t been working on it non-stop for all these years. During the time I’ve been working on this one, I wrote another book, about India, and then my two Maggie Dove books. Still, the story for this one has been running like an undercurrent through everything I’ve done, and when I run into old friends they always ask, How’s that book? I know I’m not alone. Several of the students in my novel writing class have been working on the same manuscript for years. They’re working hard, thinking, revising. It’s great to be with them because we’re a sort of support group for each other.  But why is it taking so long? Partly because I chose a subject that I didn’t know much about, but wanted to, and in order to feel qualified to write about it I had to study and learn. Partly because the characters were complicated to me and I had to spend a lot of time trying to understand them. Partly because it took me forever to figure out the right point of view, but once I did, everything fell into place. Also, it took me a very long time to understand how the crime could be committed.  But now that I’m almost done (I think) I’m really pleased. I’ve given it my best shot. I think it warrants all the time I’ve spent on it. Or I hope so. How about you? What’s the longest you’ve ever worked on something?   

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How Much Rejection Is Too Much

We’ve all heard the stories of writers who had their debut novels rejected dozens of times before they ultimately became best sellers. Or, more often these days, novels that were rejected only to achieve rousing success after being self-published. I love these stories! But a downside to them is that they often urge writers–and have encouraged me–to keep spending money shopping work that should be put in a drawer.  Every writer has trunk junk, those novels that served as course work in our own, free, MFA programs. If you have a book, you know what I’m talking about. That coming-of-age book filled with exposition or stilted dialogue. The thriller where, maybe, there was a giant backstory dump for the first five chapters before the action started. The mystery where we couldn’t get the plot right or kept forcing characters into situations that didn’t grow naturally from their personality profiles and back stories. The “great story” that had, basically, no real genre and didn’t qualify as literary.  Sometimes, trunk junk is resurrected. But, more often than not, it stays in a drawer, an embarrassment to the writer who has since learned better. In the worst cases, it never goes into the trunk and the writer keeps laboring to get it published even though his or her time would be better spent moving on to the next, publishable, story.  So, how many rejection letters should a writer stomach before moving on? After querying and being rejected by every agent in that year’s annual agent guide for my first novel before moving on to my next novel, which got an agent, I have some thoughts. Number one is forget cold calls. Go to a couple great pitch conferences, get critiqued, and then try to attract the attention of an agent who has seen your face. If, after doing this a few times, you still don’t have any takers, put the novel in a drawer and move on to the next one. The next one might sell. And, if the first is really that great, you can publish it when you’re better known with a proven track record of sales.  I’ll add an asterisk to this advice. If you, marketing maven, have the power to personally publicize your self-published work thanks to, say, a large blog following or hook-up with local radio stations or personal level of celebrity, then go for it. You might be the success story that inspires us all to keep writing in the face of rejection. 

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POV In Setting A Scene

Clouds loomed over the ocean, a gathering black mass in the darkening evening that gradually assumed the shape of a ghostly pirate ship moored to the horizon. Light crackled in the dense fog like the flash of light before cannon fire. The expected blasts never sounded. The squall, visible as day over the dark, still water, was still too far away for thunder. Lightening can be seen for fifty miles or more, though. The storm was silent. But it was coming.  If I were writing a new thriller, this is how I might describe the electrical storm my husband and I witnessed last night in the North Fork of Long Island. The tone is foreboding. The clouds are likened to a pirate ship; the lightening flashes to cannons. Pirates and war are never welcome. The POV character describing the storm is not an optimist. She or he is anticipating something bad happening. Perhaps there’s something in his or her past that explains this sense of dread. Perhaps he or she just senses something about to go awry in the future. Either way, the person seeing this storm is not in a romantic comedy. In real life, I’m in the midst of a family vacation. The worst I am expecting is a tantrum or two from my four-year-old. If I were to describe the storm as myself, I’d use very different language. Something more like this:  Thick clouds settled in on the horizon, a blackout curtain hung low enough to allow the first stars to peak from above. I snuggled deeper into my husband’s side, placing my head on his pectoral rather than his sunburned shoulder. I remembered the opera. We went every year for my birthday. I loved the drama of it all. The heavy curtains. The ornate chandelier. The vocal acrobatics. This might be better.  The clouds began flashing as though behind the curtain a thousand papparazos snapped the performers photos.  Anticipation thrilled through me followed by a pang of motherly guilt. The kids would miss quite a show. Maybe I should wake them? Then again, they could spoil this. They were young enough to be scared by lightening, to fear the sudden thunder cracks or complain about the quickening wind, unable to fully understand that the steady brush against our skin was the only reason anyone could be outside at this feeding hour. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums rage against the dying light. Any other way, we’d be eaten alive.   Not tonight. The lightening flashed. The sky whitened like daylight and then switched to black. God flicking the switch. Night. Morning. Night. Morning. Every strike was better than fireworks. Brighter without the battering of my ears. The storm was far away enough to enjoy. Close enough to smell. The air held the fresh scent of electrified oxygen. I inhaled the atmosphere and leaned deeper into my spouse’s side. It would be at least an hour before the rain. We would enjoy every minute of it.   

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