26 April, 2010

OT: Gadgets

Is there an organization for gadget-holics?  I'm in serious need.  I love kitchen gadgets, to the point that I should be granted a special favoured-shopper badge at Williams Sonoma, Chef's Catalog and similar merchants.  When in doubt, my friends and family gift me with cookbooks, utensils and gadgets for every occasion. And I get excited about every single one of them.  At least until the first time I try to use one.

A couple of weeks ago I received a new gadget -- a strawberry huller from my mother -- for Easter.  And,  even though hullers have been around for years, I've never owned one, relying instead on a small paring knife to do the deed. 

Like other "holics", I hoard my gadgets.  At a meeting, I'd have to stand up and admit to having boxes, several boxes, and drawers of gadgets.  Some I love (in the drawers) and some I never use (hence the boxes). But for some reason, I never seem to be able to part with any of them.  What if I needed to stamp my toast with an imprint of the Eiffel Tower and "Bonjour" next week?  If I gave away the hot pink plastic stamp some well-intentioned person gave me, I wouldn't be able to.  Note to well-intentioned friends:  Think before buying.

I do, however, have a sorting method.  Each new gadget is judged on 4 criteria:
1. ease of use/functionality
2. time saving ability
3. storage space required
4. fun factour

In my drawer I have, among other things, 2 Microplane graters (fine and coarse),  a ceramic Y peeler, a strange looking but very effective asparagus peeler, silicone egg poachers (a four cup egg poacher is up for grabs, if anyone wants it), mango and apple slicers, a pastry scraper, a self-cleaning garlic press,  a metal baster with its special cleaning brush, 4 sets of measuring spoons (you can never have too many) and 3 ice cream scoops of varying sizes.  Four sets of tongs, my mandoline, and  spaetzle maker are too big to fit.

The boxes are  bigger and scarier.  I could have (should have) a kitchen gadget garage sale.  I have a bean splicer which works, but doesn't really seems to serve any good purpose.  I have 6 egg separators (anyone need one?),  but I much prefer to just run the egg through my fingers.  I have a syringe for injecting liqueur into strawberries and a larger one
for infusing meats; an herb chopper -- actually 2, one electric and one hand held -- but neither can beat a good chef's knife.  An egg cuber (for making square, hard boiled eggs), corn kernel cutter, mini mezzaluna, teapot spout sponges in assorted sizes and colours,
something that is supposed to tell you if your meat is fresh or not (supposedly takes a bacteria count at the touch of a button),and a spinning spaghetti fork are also crammed in the box. And of course, the toast stamp. And that's only the first box...

But I digress.  The strawberry huller is a keeper.  It was super
easy to use, worked exactly as stated and, in terms of time, 
neck and neck with my knife.  And a lot less messy. It was also,
I admit, fun. It's going in the drawer.  If I can just find space....

20 April, 2010

Day 29 - With a little help from my friends

Last weekend was Murder 203, Connecticut's own Mystery festival.  Held on Saturday at the Easton Library and on Sunday at the Westport library, it's a wonderful way to re-energize your spirit and your writing.  The two-day event is packed with panel discussions, book signings, raffles and a silent auction at Saturday night's cocktail party.

This year's guest of honour was Mary Jane Clark, author of the Eliza Blake and Sunrise Suspense Society series.  Hank Phillippi Ryan, put on her reporter "hat" and interviewed Mary Jane.  The hour flew by, filled with amusing anecdotes and useful insights.

Mystery 203 draws not only published authors, and the hopeful (like yours truly), but also avid fans who come to meet and mingle with their favourite mystery writers.  I was surprised by the number of non-writers, many of whom had driven long distances to be there.  

There were lots of great sessions to choose.  Topics included:
  • Research: balancing facts and fiction,
  • Women writing males characters,
  • Men writing female characters,
  • Amateurs on the case,
  • Professionals on the case,
  • Contemporary women detectives, and
  • Crime fiction ripped from the the headlines
  • to name a few. 

Sunday's schedule closed with a presentation by Paul LaRosa, discussing his latest book Seven Days of Rage: the Deadly Crime Spree of the Craigslist Killer, and a panel of book reviewers, including our own Hallie Ephron, sharing their views on the mystery marketplace.

I love attending these conferences. I always come away with renewed energy and resolve to finish my manuscript, helpful hints, and new friends. As I listen to the panelists and speakers, I find myself jotting down notes about my current book: have Kenzi read contemporary mysteries in her spare time and quote her favorite authors. Or have neighbour be an expert in some field that will help solve the mystery.

The authors who give up their time for Mystery 203, and other conferences, deserve a huge round of applause and appreciation. They share their craft and wisdom selflessly with us. You guys are my heroes! Hopefully, some day, I'll pay it forward.

    12 April, 2010

    Day 21 - What's your POV?

    Taxes are done and in the mail, so I'm back at my keyboard writing again and it feels good to be here.  I'm still struggling with the plot.  There are some gaping holes and inconsistencies that I need to work out, but I'm up to 20,000 words.

    When I wrote my first MS, I couldn't decide between first or third person point of view (POV).  There are pros and cons for each.  It's most common (but not a rule) for a mystery to be in one POV only.  And, as Donald Murray, my esteemed university journalism professor pointed out, third person POV close can feel as intimate as first person when done well.

    That said, I tried both and discovered something interesting: I cannot write third person.  It just doesn't work for me.  That's probably a cop out, and if I tried harder I could do it, but it just feels unnatural -- like wearing someone else's clothes. (I almost said underwear, but that's just too weird.)

    I struggled through a couple of chapters before declaring myself third-person challenged.  When I write first person POV, the words flow (okay, dribble out).  That is not to say that there aren't times when I wish I could switch to 3rd person, to sneak in a different point of view or heighten the suspense, but frankly, I'm not that skilled a writer. 

    If you write in multiple POV -- and some authors do it very cleverly -- it has to be for a really good story reason, and it has to be consistent throughout the book.  You can't just go jumping into different characters' heads because you want to share some information or a clue with your reader.  That's cheating.  And bad writing.

    Some writers can pull off multiple POVs in the same book.  I've read mysteries where author reveals the antagonist's POV just once or twice, letting the reader into his mind.  If done well, it's very effective, but there has to be a system, and a reason, as to when (and why) you switch the POV.  POV, like everything else in the book, has to advance the story and plot, not just be convenient.  Multiple POVs, when poorly handled, is often the writer trying to include things that the main character would have/could have/should have seen, and not a coherent plan for the whole book.  This distracts or annoys readers, and who wants to alienate their readers?

    It might be different if I were writing a hard-boiled mystery, where the main character is usually flawed in some way.  Traditional, or cozy, mysteries depend on the likability of the main character.  IMHO, it's easier to like someone when you feel closer, and first person POV is as close as you can come! Sorry, Don, I'm just not the third-person intimate type.

    So what's your opinion?  And your POV style? 

    08 April, 2010

    Give me a break!

    Today's blog is short, and has nothing to do with writing, unless I can work the insanity into my story somehow.

    Every so often, an article on the 'Net or in the paper (yes I still read a hard copy newspaper) just pushes my button and I have to vent. It's usually about the lack of a dog park, or some other anti-pet ordinance, in our otherwise civilized town, but this time it's something a little more delicate: bathroom facilities on airplanes.RYANAIR, a no-frills Irish line, is planning to charge passengers to use on-board toilets. If you're old enough, you probably remember when places like Grand Central had both "free" and "pay" toilets.  If you were smart, you coughed up the 25 cents for the ones they cleaned, nominally, a couple of times a day.

    RYANAIR is planning to make its toilets coin-operated, forcing passengers to fork out a pound ($1.65) or a Euro ($1.44) every time they want to "spend a penny" in the sky.  Their logic: they can remove one or two toilets from each plane and add additional seats, lowering the fare by 5%.  Like that's really going to happen! This from an airline that already charges $33 per bag.

    Did I mention that the ratio of toilets to passengers will be 1:200?  I've got enough Irish blood in me to know that if I were a stewardess on Ryanair, I would never accept a "courtesy" bag or other container from a passenger in the future.

    I'm proposing we all band together to form a new organization - STOPT - The Society to Outlaw Pay Toilets.Are you with me? If not, I'll see you on Amtrak where you can still get breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack at a reasonable price, carryon your laptop for free, and use the bathroom!

    05 April, 2010

    Day 14

    Total word count: 8,477 (including deletions)

    I had a kind of epiphany this weekend – bad pun since it was Easter weekend – but it was the other kind of epiphany, the “EUREKA” kind.

    I’m reading Chris Roerden’s book, Don’t Murder your Mystery.  I’ve picked it up several times before, reading bits and pieces, but never cover to cover.  This time I’m really reading it, word by word, digesting the advice, seeing how I can apply the Find &Fix Clues at the end of each chapter to my own writing.

    My “eureka” (the first of many, I"m sure) came when I read what she had to say about descriptive passages, using an economy of words to describe people and places, and, most of all, avoiding information dumps.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa.  I looked at my first MS and (I’m blushing, here) I am guilty of dump after dump.

    I was particularly taken with Roerden’s idea of “timed release,” of selecting one key feature or attribute for the character’s first action, and saving the rest for later.  It seems obvious when you look for in it a well-written book; less obvious when you’re writing your own first book.

    Sunday (after cooking a lovely rack of lamb and fresh asparagus), I took red pen in hand and mercilessly cut out fluff words, then whole paragraphs.  Does my reader need to know the house is a Victorian?  No?  Then out it goes.  Does my reader care what color dress the secretary is wearing?  Hardly.  Out it goes.  Does the doorman's baldness impact the plot? Strike it.  Does she need to know the contents of the medicine cabinet?  Yes, that's a clue; it stays in.

    I’m only part of the way through the manuscript, which is now 3,000 superfluous words shorter.  And, IMHO, it’s made a huge improvement in the mystery.  I’m no longer stopping the action just to stick in some facts or details which never appear again and have no impact on the plot.  I’m not distracting the reader and, best of all, I’m not giving said reader an excuse to put the book down.

    It’s been painful.  I find myself hesitating before swiping the red point through that prose I so carefully composed.  Thank goodness there’s no law against verbicide, no matter how justified (or whatever you call murdering your own words) or I’d be doing hard time.  It’s tempting to just cut the word/sentence/paragraph and paste it into a new document, preserving it for future use, but I’m resisting the seduction.  Good riddance to bad prose.

    Roerden’s examples were so obvious; I don’t know why I didn’t get the point before: when you stop to describe something, you’ve stopped the action, the reader, and the interest.  Amen.