The Language of Deceit

“…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma…”

~ WINSTON CHURCHILL

Ever notice something funny?  How many people have you ever asked a question, only to have them ask another question in response?  Usually, they repeat yours back at you.

“Where were you at ten o’ clock last night?”
“Where was I at ten o’ clock?”

“What are you doing in here?”
“What am I doing in here?”

Welcome to a more detailed look at using deceptive dialogue to give clues about a character.  I find it hard to believe that anyone who isn’t in managed care can hear a question like this and not understand what it means.  That leaves us to draw the conclusion that they have no good answer, and are stalling for time until they think of one.

I suspect that most writers wouldn’t write a piece of dialogue like the examples above, because they think that readers will see it as laziness in the author.  Certainly, they can if you overdo it, but all things in moderation, as I’ve read somewhere.

Consider the examples above:  The first is being asked by a detective of the character who he thinks might be the criminal.  The criminal doesn’t want to say, “I was murdering John Smith.”  Maybe he didn’t, but he also doesn’t want to say, “I was holding up the corner liquor store.”  Or maybe he was in bed with his partner’s wife.  He won’t want to say that, either, so he’s going to play for time while his mind frantically races to cook up a story that he can support later.

And who are the players in the second example?  Has a brother invaded his sister’s bedroom, perhaps looking for her diary?  Is he older and used to bullying her?  Maybe he’s younger, and she dominates him pretty badly.  Are they middle school-age?  High school?  College?  Maybe they’re adults, and live in separate houses, and she finds him in her personal space.  Why is he there?

Or maybe they’re both someplace they aren’t supposed to be, perhaps their parents’ bedroom.  Or maybe a detective has caught a uniformed officer poking around in the evidence room.  It could be a military situation, or two crooks before or after a job.  Where is this conversation going?  The possibilities are endless.

The point is that answering a question with a question is far from bad writing if you use it correctly and sparingly.  You can readily see how, using the above examples in a wide range of situations, you can speak volumes about a character just by having him repeat a question that he’s been asked.  The reader will immediately flag that character as someone suspicious, and watch him like a hawk from that point on.  You can lead said reader wherever you want from there, and he will eagerly follow, looking for the next breadcrumb.  That, my friends, is immersion at its finest, and you all know that immersion on the part of your reader is the holy grail of writing.

This will be a short post this week, and not because I can’t think of anything else to say.  There are some chestnuts that I want to drop clean for you to pick up and examine without a lot of background noise and clutter, and this is one of them.  Take this concept, think about it, modify it for your own use, and look for places to slip one in.  The effect on your readers will show up in your comments and reviews, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be amazed at the results.

View from the Blimp

Since we last met, I have become a freelance cartographer of sorts.  I shared the new map for the Port Reprieve anthology last week, and I am now working on a polished map of Railroad City for William Jackson’s series of the same name.  The map will be as detailed as a map can be for a Kindle display, and it is both time-consuming and pain-inducing, bringing on muscle fatigue and occasional cramps from fingertips to elbows.  In addition, time I spend on this map is time I would be spending on The Darklighters, although  I am plotting, planning, and making the occasional note as I work.  William is a very good friend, and I never want to say no to friends, but I’m going to have to limit this to one or two a year if these last two are any indication.

Speaking of The Darklighters, I still have slots for beta-readers.  I’m going to try to create something if not unique, at least unusual in the world of steampunk.  Read the completed story above, and if it holds your interest, join the team.  Free books and shout-outs are on the table.

In Other News…

If you happen to be in the New Orleans area this Friday, May 25th, you might want to include a visit to Boutique du Vampyre at 709 1/2 St. Ann Street to meet multi-faceted author David Lee Summers, and pick up your signed copy of one of his four vampire, New Orleans, or just generally creepy books, “creepy” referring specifically to The Astronomer’s Crypt, which I reviewed here.  Make it a visit to remember!

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Readers of recent posts will know that good friend and talented author Karen Carlisle has a book release party coming up next week.  I’ll be covering that in detail on Saturday’s blog, but while you’re waiting, catch her interview by Amanda Howard, true crime and crime fiction author.

And that’s 30 for this issue.  I’ll be back Saturday with another edition of Blimprider Times; who’ll be in the spotlight this week?  Until we meet again, sing your song so the back row can hear you!

What Did You Write That For?

“Any writer overwhelmingly honest about pleasing himself is almost sure to please others.”

~ MARIANNE MOORE

I have had a long and preponderantly happy life, and a good deal of that happiness has come from my writing, and the response of both friends and strangers to it.  I’m a guy who dropped out of school after 11th grade, joined the military and had a big adventure while learning what they could teach me.  Returning to civilian life, I continued to write, my four years in the navy providing a rich mine of characters, locations, and situations as grist for my mill.  As an author, I am technically, I suppose, self-taught, as I couldn’t afford college or writing retreats.  I did have the wherewithal to discover, seek out, and filter what spoke to my developing style into a concise library from among the thousands of how-to-write-books books that are available, so in that sense, you could say that I’ve been taught by the best, from Evan Marshall to Stephen King.  In spite of all this, when I began to finish books and seek publication, America’s acquisition editors proved to be the one group that I couldn’t crack, and I managed to collect rejection slips from more publishers than most people know exist.

Apparently, reading instructional manuals written by great authors isn’t quite the same as sitting in their classrooms, reacting to their lessons and being able to ask pertinent questions, yet in spite of this, with the exception of those editors, virtually everyone I have been able to get my work in front of professes to like it a great deal.  It began with friends, family, and coworkers, when I would hand them a manuscript and say, “Tell me what you think.”  I found an extended audience in writing.com, when I joined back around 2011.  I began the construction of Beyond the Rails, shared every story there, and scores of strangers loved it.  When I discovered CreateSpace in 2013, I published the first six stories as a book.  Reviewers and critics ate it up, and that was all the encouragement I needed.  I have since stepped away from writing.com, and I’ll concede that that could be a mistake, but I felt like I needed a professional-looking “me-only” web page to represent me to the world, so here I am with four books published and more on the way, and with the kind assistance of WordPress, a most professional-looking page to represent me to the world.

So, given my background, what is the secret of my success?

“Success?” you ask.  “But you never inked that big contract with a publisher.  Where is this success you speak of?”

Well, success has as many different meanings as there are people seeking it, and my success has been vindication, validation of the fact that I really can tell a good story that can hold a reader’s interest from the first hook to the final victory.  I get three or four Emails a day about my work; Stephen King gets three or four thousand, but I’m happy.  Like most writers, I’m essentially a private person, and I’m not sure I’d do well if thousands of people were clamoring for interviews, TV appearances, convention panels and the like.  Monetarily, sure, but there are other measures of success besides money, and to me, having that little intimate group of fans, and a few book sales each month lights my heart with joy.  In essence, I had a long, productive career, I have a better-than-adequate retirement package, and my days are devoted to my loving family; I’m not sure I’d enjoy being yanked out of here to put on a Halloween costume and strut around some hot, crowded convention over a long weekend.  But being appreciated as a writer?  There are few rewards that approach that feeling.

So how did a barely-educated high school dropout reach this point?  I’ve put a lot of thought into this, and I think the answer has to be by writing what I love.  I was a child in the 1950s, and we weren’t well-off.  One of the things I vividly remember was a near-weekly trip downtown to hit the Goodwill and Salvation Army stores.  As a young child, I always picked over the toy bin to see what treasure some anonymous little kid had parted with, but as I got a little older, I developed a love of reading, and if there’s one thing that thrift stores have in burgeoning abundance, it’s books.  Back in the 50s, I was poring over shelves and bins of books written in the 30s and 40s, and even then, I loved action and adventure.  But books in those days, even books aimed at adults, could be read by children, because they weren’t dripping with gore and torture scenes, the women didn’t fall into someone’s bed every time they tripped, the heroes were heroic, and the villains didn’t have to have some redeeming quality.  I began to miss those books as I grew to adulthood and they fell out of favor with whoever decides what books make it to our bookstores, and since no one else was going to write them, I decided I would write them myself.  My surprise was complete when my modest modern audience embraced them like they had never seen them before!

I think there’s a moral here somewhere, something that writers can take away and use, and I think it might be to write what you love.  Not what you know, what you love.  If you write the stories you love, and let that love of your chosen type and genre show through on the page, you will have won 90% of the battle…  At least, that’s my experience.

In Other News…

I have already mentioned the fine work of Bryce Raffle and David Lee Summers in the short life of this site.  Today I have the pleasure of directing you to the place where you can find both of these upright gentlemen together and interacting.  Allow me to present the latest edition of Dead Steam, Bryce’s blog, where he interviews David about his career as an author.  Very much worth getting to know these two, and as an added bonus, you might find a new read or two among his eleven novels, eighty-five short stories, and fifty-five poems.

Well, that’s it for me.  Join me again Friday for a Blimprider Times where I’ll feature a site that I’ve found entertaining, and bring you up to date on what’s been happening around the intergalactic airship of your mind.  See you then!

The Needs of the Many

“Writing is one of the few professions left where you take all the responsibility for what you do.  It’s really dangerous and ultimately destroys you as a writer if you start thinking about responses to your work or what your audience needs.”

~ ERICA JONG

Liberating words from a famous author, you may think, and yet your audience has needs if you are a fiction author, and if you won’t provide them, they will find an author who will.  Bold words from a nobody, perhaps, but let’s look at what goes on during the creation and consumption of fiction.

The initiating event in any work of fiction is its creation.  You, the author, sit at a keyboard and string words of the English language together to create a story.  “Story” is a catch-all term that we can take to mean the whole package.  You create a premise, a plot, characters, actions, you give them setting, context, dialogue, and if you’re very good, and very lucky, all of these disparate parts come together in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, and we call it a story.  But even now, it isn’t complete.  To reach completion, it needs readers, readers who like it, who tell their friends that they should read it because it’s a good use of their time, and they’ll gain something intangible from it.  And readers have needs.

Needs you have to meet.  When you create this world, no one but you knows the first thing about it, and it is your challenge to let potential readers into it.  Readers need to know how it works, they need to know who inhabits it, they need to know what these people want, and what they’re willing to do to get it.  Needs.  If your story is going to be remembered as being really exceptional, they also need you to hold some vital information back, to keep it from them, to let them speculate.  On the other hand, some stories do best when the readers are given more information than the characters have, thus building tension and dread for the disaster that those characters can’t see coming.  “Don’t open that door!” their minds scream at the character.  “Don’t look in that crate!”  But of course, they do, and the moment that they do, and the reactions that they have, are completely under your control; did you meet the reader’s need?

Back during my stay with writing.com, the Mystery Newsletter highlighted the incomplete Stingaree as an Editor’s Pick.  I never would have known it, had it not been reviewed by a reader who told me she found it there.  Then a week later a different editor of that same newsletter featured Brass & Coal as an Editor’s Pick.  As more experienced mystery readers became aware of these steampunk romps, they gave me some indication that my Mystery chops are legit, but that’s beside the point.  See, I never thought of myself as a mystery writer, but apparently some experienced mystery readers and/or writers do.  Has this colored the way I approach my stories?  You bet your sweet acidophilis it has!  Now I’m thinking in terms of foreshadowing, red herrings, MacGuffins, and all the other tools of the mystery writer that I’ve never had to pay any attention to before.  But now, not only is it necessary, but I firmly believe it will improve my overall Craft.

It is my contention that not only do you have to accommodate the needs of your readers, if you hope to have any, but that the delicate balancing act of too much or too little meeting of those needs begins to vie with richly-drawn characters as the most important aspect of fiction.  Some might want to call this “pacing,” and I can see where it’s related, but this is really more like “presentation.”  Here is this world I’ve created.  I want you to come in and enjoy it, so I’ve decided to show you this, and withhold that, and with that information, you have to parse out what’s going on, who’s interested, and why, and alternately shiver in fear, and quiver with anticipation as you make your way through it.

That is your challenge as a writer, and compared to that, all the others fade to insignificance.  It’s a dangerous tightrope to walk, and a balance that must be achieved from the first page and held to the last…  And just when you thought you had it all figured out, here’s this whole new skill to learn… and I should digress here to point out that I’m leaning hard on seventy, and have been writing for sixty years!  Getting this right is going to require the ability to read your own story like you’ve never seen it before, to ask, “would I be surprised, gratified, terrified, or whatever else might be required at this point, if I was seeing this for the first time?”  You’ll have to arrive at an accurate answer, and incorporate your solution on the page in a way that will satisfy every reader’s needs.  Sort of brings a whole new meaning to the concept of proofreading, doesn’t it?

So this is my theory, and it’s a fairly new one for this old writer.  I call it the Presentation of a story, and it can best be described as “How much do you tell, and when do you tell it?”  What do you think, is it legit?  Is it something that needs to be addressed by conscientious authors, or am I just starstruck after having been unexpectedly defined as a mystery writer?

Thoughts?  Opinions?

View from the Blimp

It gives me great pleasure to announce that A Visit of State, the first story in The Darklighters collection, is finally complete (the first draft, at least) and ready to read by clicking on the appropriate tab above.  The Darklighters is planned as a series of five independent novellas (20,000 words ±) connected together by an overarching story arc.

A Visit of State will be the only one that can be read here for free, but if you like the story and would like the opportunity to read the rest of the book as it is being written, then contact me and tell me that you would like to join my beta-reading group.  As a beta-reader, you will receive each scene as it is completed, and possibly other materials as seem appropriate, and what I will ask in return is that you notify me of any errors that you spot, from typos to plot holes.  These are things that I most decidedly don’t want to appear in my finished product, and the more eyes on the project, the better.  I envision six to ten, but I can accommodate a few more than that.  Names and web addresses of those who have them will appear in the acknowledgement section of the finished book.

Looking forward to working with some of you!

In Other News…

When an unsuspecting reader receives The Call and undertakes the journey that is writing, he or she is often an almost literal babe in the woods.  There are myriad lessons to learn, from plot format to character creation, building worlds to building networks, and for the most part, all these readers know is that they like a certain kind of book, and their approach is to sit down and write one similar to it.  But much like magic in the world of Harry Potter, the finished book you have just read is the tip of the literary iceberg, and gives no hint of the vast world that supports it.

It can be an agonizing journey that takes decades to master.  But a relatively new friend of mine, Liverpudlian author Richie Billing, has gathered 150 pages of advice, tips, tricks, and hacks for aspiring authors, and is offering it for free on his website, richiebilling.com.  If you are about to embark on our Journey, or have recently begun, and already found yourself in a minefield of confusion, click the link and download the guide; an afternoon’s reading will contribute mightily to your navigation skills.