Things You Must Not Do, #3: Talk About Work-in-Progress

A more experienced novelist gave me a hard time once for talking too much about the story I was working on. To be fair, I'd dumped ten minutes of exposition on him — too much by anyone's standards. "You should never talk about your work-in-progress," he said. "Put that energy into writing, not talking." 

Some writers leak details of their ongoing work for publicity reasons. That's a different matter. The concern this writer had was that, by talking, I was satisfying my urge to tell the story. The chatter served as a release valve, bleeding off the pressure until I could safely return to procrastiation. 

Since then I've published five books and spent a lot of time with aspiring writers. I see them doing the same thing I used to do, and I give the same advice. Don't talk about what you're working on; work on it. Then you won't have to talk about the story because the story will do its own telling

Sep
13

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Things You Must Not Do, #2: Disrespect Your Reader

In her essay “Imagination and Community,” Marilynne Robinson laments the fact that so many writing students come to her classroom with a cynical view of readers:

“A pretty large percentage of these fine young spirits come to me convinced that if their writing is not sensationalistic enough, it will never be published, or if it is published, it will never be read. They come to me persuaded that American readers will not tolerate ideas in their fiction …. They are good, generous souls working within limits they feel are imposed on them by a public that could not possibly have an interest in writing that ignored these limits — a public they cannot respect.”

While I doubt that my creative writing professors in grad school considered me a fine young spirit or a good, generous soul, they shared enough of Robinson’s sensibility never to instill or reinforce a disrespect for readers. Indeed, they helped train me to be a reader — the kind on whom (to borrow from Henry James) nothing is lost. My indoctrination in cynicism came later, when I came in direct contact with publishing professionals.

“You don’t understand the Reader,” they would tell me. “She can’t follow these complicated sentences. She doesn’t know these fancy words.” She — it was always a she — does read, technically, but her reading habit was nothing like the lofty practice I had come to revere. It sounded more like watching television. Her books needed to be predictable, unchallenging, and simply written. “She’s not like Us,” they would say, not one of the cognoscenti. She was more like a mark, the dupe we were unloading our product on. For they were speaking, of course, about Consumers, not Readers. 

“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” H. L. Mencken observed. And all the cynics in publishing said, “Amen.”

So much of the how-to culture surrounding writing makes these unflattering assumptions about the reader. Years ago, I worked with a marketing professional who always referred to the hypothetical customer as Joe Six-Pack. (The surname was a reference to his choice of beverage, not his abs.) A similar way of thinking informs a lot of writing advice. Follow the formula. Don’t make the reader stretch. Use bold colors and bright lights, because the “reader” can change the channel any moment. 

Paradoxically, the same people who spread this depressing orthodoxy also lament the deluge of formulaic crap that’s submitted to them in response. Originality and depth still win, even if they are undreamt of in the cynic’s philosophy. Robinson again:

“A writer controlled by what ‘has’ to figure in a book is actually accepting a perverse, unofficial censorship, and this tells against the writerly soul at least as surely as it would if the requirements being met were praise to some ideology or regime. And the irony of it all is that it is unnecessary and in many cases detrimental because it militates against originality.”

Here’s the reassuring thing. For all the cynics out there, publishing is stlll a business for idealists. Refuse the perverse, unofficial censorship and you find kindred spirits, people who are equally tired of treating readers as if they needed everything handed to them on a plate, pre-digested in simple, Anglo-Saxon words. My advice? Don’t write for the market; write for the reader.

The how-to culture may warn you not to pay the reader too much respect. It’s wrong. Disrespecting your reader is one of the Things You Must Not Do.

 

Things You Must Not Do, #1: Respond to Critics

One of the lessons drilled into me during grad school: a writer doesn't respond to critics. Let your work speak for itself. Once you start trying to explain it, you've lost. To explain is to demystify. To explain is to do the reader's job for him. And so on. In writing workshops, we were never allowed to join the conversation about our work. "Just listen and learn." I remember people sitting on their hands, putting the silent finger over their lips, anything to stop the words from flowing. A good discipline. 

There's a certain loftiness to this rule that seems incompatible with our age of author accessiblity. To my ears, it sounds a bit like an eighteenth century country lord admonishing his offspring. "A gentleman does not engage in trade." Even so, there are plenty of examples from recent history to reinforce the point, authors engaging their critics only to make themselves objects of ridicule. For the most part, responding to critics seems to be a self-defeating strategy. 

And yet, it's so tempting. With the proliferation of customer reviews and book bloggers, airing your opinion about a book is easier than ever. That's great for writers, who tend to be publicity starved, but it's a two-edged sword. Noboby has spent more time thinking about your book than you. Nobody wants to talk about it more. But you can't. Not in that venue.

Answer the critics on the page and let the words speak for themselves. 

 

Sep
10

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Alone in a Room With the Rest of the World

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Writers develop strange work habits. Maybe it's the isolation, all those hours alone with no structure to the work day apart from what you provide on your own. One of my eccentricities kicks in whenever I begin a new book: I can't get started until I've re-arranged my office space. Sometimes the change is minor — clearing the surfaces, moving old reference material out to make room for the new stuff. This time it involved moving my desk to face a different direction and piling the desktop high with a bookcase and shelf. 

The re-decorating is all done, so it's time to write.

Aug
27

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Review: Daniel Woodrell’s The Outlaw Album

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Earlier this month, Books & Culture published my review of Daniel Woodrell’s short story collection The Outlaw Album. The fiction review is a form unto itself, a genre I greatly admire. When I have the opportunity to write one, I try to make it count, focusing on books that awe me as a writer, authors who have taught me something. Woodrell is one of them. Here’s an excerpt:

The Outlaw Album is full of such men, in thrall not so much to moral dilemmas as to brooding existential preoccupations—hard experience has knocked them loose from a fringe existence that was dislocated to begin with …. What makes these people interesting isn’t their otherness. It’s the way they combine what we once were with what we have become. And their stories illustrate how crime fiction has changed, concerned more now with the consequences of the mystery than its solution.


Follow the link for more: The Outlaw Album. For more reviews and other nonfiction, check out the Published Elsewhere list in the righthand column.

Publisher’s Weekly Gives Starred Review to Back on Murder Audiobook

This is exciting. Publisher's Weekly gave the audiobook edition of my novel Back on Murder, read by Mel Foster, a starred review this week:

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The review reads:

Mel Foster delivers winning narration in this audio edition of Bertrand's mystery novel about burned-out Houston police detective Roland March's quest to solve two seemingly unrelated cases: the disappearance of the teenage daughter of deceased mega-church pastor and a gang shooting on the wrong side of the tracks. As he works the two cases, March must also confronts his own emotional baggage and work to rebuild both his career and his marriage. Foster perfectly captures the author's larger-than-life world: gritty law enforcement digs, mean streets, affluent suburban enclaves, evangelical congregations. Foster's attention to character traits and dialect makes for an across-the-board satisfying listening experience; he manages to evoke place and identity without descending into stock caricatures. Several depictions stand out in particular, including the charming but steely female head of the city's missing persons unit and the gruff, chain-smoking local medical examiner, who happens to be March's brother-in-law. Foster also provides an especially effective rendering of a devoted–if sometimes overly eager — youth pastor who joins March's investigation.

Congratulations, Mel! Mel narrates the second book in the series, Pattern of Wounds, too. I'm thrilled with how well received the audiobooks have been!

 

 

Read the Book That Doesn’t Exist

If you've read my Roland March novels, you're familiar with The Kingwood Killing. It's a 2003 true crime book by journalist Brad Templeton, covering March's most famous early case. The problem is, even though characters in Back on Murder and Pattern of Wounds refer to the book often, it doesn't really exist (any more than Templeton does), which means you can't read it.

Until now, that is. Here's the story: during the writing of Pattern of Wounds, in order to keep everything straight, I found that I needed to write The Kingwood Killing, too. Not in its entirety, thank goodness — just thirty-odd pages' worth of excerpts, enough to tell the story. Now I have posted these excerpts online at the new www.jmarkbertrand.com.

Will reading this add to your appreciation of the books? Absolutely. There are some hidden nuggets in the excerpt that will fill in some blanks. Also, you'll get to read the transcript of a key moment in Donald Fauk's confession to March on September 11, 2001. This will add some layers to their conversation at the end of Pattern of Wounds. Enjoy: THE KINGWOOD KILLING.

Inside the Series

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With the release of the third Roland March mystery, Nothing to Hide, just two weeks away, I've posted the mother-of-all-interviews on my new site www.jmarkbertrand.com. It's a round-up of all kinds of questions I've been asked about the books, along with much more detailed answers than I usually give (since I'm one of those writers who prefers to let the story speak for itself). 

Is this a series or a trilogy? When do the novels take place? What are the real events that inspired some of the storylines? All these questions and more are answered "Inside the Series."

RT Book Reviews: Nothing to Hide is a “stellar novel”

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There's not a romantic bone in the novel — nor, some would argue, in the author himself — but when I read the RT Book Reviews notice about Nothing to Hide, my bodice just about ripped. You see, the RT stands for Romantic Times, 
which reviews a variety of genres including mystery. Here's what they had to say about my book:

Bertrand’s third police procedural featuring homicide detective Roland March is intricately plotted and thoroughly engaging. The action starts on the first page and doesn’t let up until the last. The cast of characters is large, but Bertrand does a great job keeping their identities clear-cut and easy to follow. Reading the first two books in the series is helpful, but not crucial, for the enjoyment of this stellar novel.

This is the first print review of the book I've seen. Now I can stop holding my breath and let the feeling return to my extremities. (I've got to stop joking about this bodice thing.) Plus, I have a new respect for the word stellar. Expect me to use it often from now on.

May
21

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Bond. James Bond.

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I grew up reading Ian Fleming’s novels and watching all the James Bond movies, though I had the misfortune to come of age during the safari-suited Roger Moore era and subsequently didn’t get the appeal of the Connery films until I’d grown up. After seeing Daniel Craig in Sword of Honour and Layer Cake, he almost seemed too cool and too good for Bond. However, I love what he’s brought to the role … something akin to what we thought Timothy Dalton was doing (but realize in hindsight he wasn’t, because it just wasn’t possible back then, not for Bond).

After seeing Casino Royale four or five times, I found Quantum of Solace a disappointment. It was fine for what it was, but felt a bit like a return to form. Now that the trailer for Skyfall is out, I’m curious to see which of the two earlier films it most resembles. We’ve waited long enough, so hopefully it’s good. 

My taste in spy thrillers tends to be more cerebral than action-oriented. Given my love of John le Carré and The Sandbaggers, a bunch of explosions and gadgets really aren’t my thing. But James Bond gets grandfathered in on account of those afternoons when, as a twelve-year-old, I found my dad’s old hardcover copy of The Man With The Golden Gun and was hooked.

May
21

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Listen to Roland March!

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Time for an update. I mentioned in October that the first two Roland March novels were being made into audiobooks. Brilliance Audio is the company producing the books, with award-winning narrator Mel Foster reading. They are available as CDs, MP3 CDs, and downloads from all the usual sources — Amazon, B&N, Audible.com, and so on.

The audio version of Back on Murder is available now. They're in production with Pattern of Wounds now. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Nothing to Hide will make it to audio, too. In the meantime, if you're the type who prefers to listen to fiction, enjoy!

The Title from Hell


DSC_0003Above: the finished mauscript, circa 2011.

From the day a manuscript is turned in to the book's publication a year or more later, book titles have a funny way of changing. Both of the novels with my name on the cover that released in 2010 got fresh titles before publication. Beguiled, co-written with my friend Deeanne Gist, was called The Deceitful Welcome when we handed the manuscript over. I remember sitting across the conference room table from our editor as he politely said, "Umm … no."

My first Roland March novel was called The Suicide Cop originally. After a grueling brainstorming process (during which my editor Dave Long and my line editor Luke Hinrichs helped me come up with dozens of possibilities only to have them shot down one after another), we finally settled on a workaround. The book was divided in three sections, the first of which was titled “Back on Murder.” We swapped the section and book titles, titling the novel Back on Murder and the first section “The Suicide Cop.”

I wrote the second book with the title Pattern of Wounds already in mind, and that’s the way it stayed … after another lengthy brainstorming process. Score one for me!

My luck didn't hold. The working title for the third book was The Devil of Matamoros. I like that, but my editors worried that it didn’t peg the story quite right. (Not to mention the implications for South-of-the-border tourism.) Plus, now that the first two March novels had three word titles, I’d established a pattern — and hadn't I already used an 'of' in Book 2?

The notepad came out, a list of alternatives developed. My favorite: Ain’t No Grave, from the Johnny Cash song. But have you ever tried to convince English majors that “ain’t” is proper English? It ain’t easy, so in the end the book became Nothing to Hide.

Whatever you call it, this is my most ambitious story so far. It releases in July, but you can read the opening here. Nothing to Hide, like all of the March novels, is available to order online, too.

May
17

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Reading Balzac: Part Mystery, Part Tragedy

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There’s a soft spot in my literary heart for Honoré de Balzac. For one thing, he added that de to his name so he could sound more aristocratic (and got away with it). For another, he was a fiend when it came to his coffee, a sentiment I can get behind whole-heartedly. But the greatest thing about Balzac was the crazy scope of his writing project. All his novels, taken collectively, constitute La Comédie humaine, the mother of all interlinking stories, a social document in fiction which (unlike so many social documents) is actually enjoyable to read. 

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I have Balzac on the brain for two reasons. First, with the publication of my third Roland March novel looming, I find myself contemplating the ways in which the three books are really one long project. Not three novels each in three parts, but one novel in nine parts … discreet episodes in a single story world.

Not that I’m comparing myself to Mr. B. The beauty of his accomplishment is that the main character in one novel becomes a minor character in the next, crossing both time and genre. The closest parallel today might be the miniseries, only you’d have to imagine a really meandering one with the patience to follow a background character through the side exit into the world in which he’s a protagonist.

My second reason for mentioning Balzac is that I’m reading him again. This time I’m diving into The Gondreville Mystery, collected in a little tome entitled The Mysteries of Honore de Balzac, the tenth volume in a series called The Classics of Mystery published by Jupiter Press. This has been my midnight reading for several days now, and I’m enjoying it immensely. 

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The truly sad part of the story is that I have a much older, nicer copy of the book, sharing the same cover with The Chouans (above). Only I can’t read it. When I rescued this complete set of Balzac from a Palo Alto bookseller four or five years ago, I thought my days of Balzac deprivation were over. As the intro to the Classics of Mystery volume notes, finding the great man in English translation isn’t easy. I’ve tried him in French, but my grasp of la langue française isn’t up to the task.

Unfortunately, these beautiful books suffer from a terrible case of leather rot (I think the conservators call this “red rot,” because when you touch them, your hands come away red). I didn’t realize it until too late. Frankly, I would have bought them anyway. In some far off time, I imagine having them restored or rebound. Until then, I mainly just gaze at them, dreaming of what might have been.

 

Spies, Drug Lords, Nutjobs, and Dante: Read the Opening of Nothing to Hide

If you're reading this, do me a favor: check out the first two chapters of Nothing to Hide. It's the third of my Roland March novels, and the opening chapters are now available on Scribd (which you can scroll through below). Read 'em and feel free to share them, too.

This is my most ambitious novel to date: there are spies, drug lords, Dante, conspiracy nuts — wait, did that say Dante? Yes, it did — and it all gets started with some decapitation and degloving, as you'll discover:

Nothing To Hide

Dayne Sherman Makes the “Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to Country Noir”

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Dayne Sherman may sound like a character on Treme, but he's a real-life novelist and librarian turned political gadfly in my home state of Louisiana. His first novel, Welcome to the Fallen Paradise, was named by Booklist as a Best Crime Novel Debut of the Year, and earned an even rarer honor: an Amazon review by yours truly. Now Booklist has honored Dayne again by including his book in the May issue's "Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to Country Noir."  Maybe it's time for a re-read. (And if you haven't read Fallen Paradise yet, the e-book is just a buck, so why not?)

In the meantime, here's my take on the book circa 2006:

They call Louisiana the "sportsman's paradise," but in this case paradise is fallen. The grave-digging opener put me in mind of Wise Blood, and chapter after chapter Sherman delivered on that promise with plenty of corruption and ol' time religion. The novel rings with authenticity. Baxter Parish is a place where the fringes are mainstream. As wild as Moxley gets, and as extreme as the Tadlock response can be, I never once doubted the truth of it. Jesse Tadlock returns home with dreams of the garden, only to find a serpent bent on devouring him. The story may be simple, as an earlier review noted, but the emotions underneath are complex and stirring.

I stand by every word. The book also includes perhaps the best revivalist preacher scene I've ever read. That's saying something. While I've never had the pleasure of meeting Dayne in person, we've kept up over the years and he was kind enough to send me a signed Tim Gautreaux novel, which I'm reading now.

“Faux Fancy” Writing

A long time ago while visiting Germany, I discovered a paperback copy of Paul Fussell's book Class: A Guide Through the American Class System and stayed up all night reading it, cackling with delight the whole time. Some of his terms entered my lexicon and never left — for example, "prole gap," to describe the distance between an ill-fitting suit jacket's collar and the back of the wearer's neck. While the book is tongue-in-check enough to be dismissed as entertainment, Fussell puts his finger on quite a few real phenomena, including the way middle class aspiration to status can result in absurd behavior … and speech. 

One of the things I noticed in the early days of the Internet was how, when engaged in virtual squabbles, a certain kind of person tends to lapse into quasi-Victorian rhetoric. "You, Sir, are no Gentleman!" The assumption being that this is how the better sort of people talk. This rhetorical style outs the aspirations of the people who engage in it. I think of it as "faux fancy" talk. People do it thinking they'll be perceived as more educated, more suave, more intelligent than they are. Sadly, the effect is rather different.

The same thing applies to some aspiring writers. They know "good" writing is supposed to be beautiful in some way, and they aspire to be good writers. So they fancy up the prose. No word is too polysyllabic or archaic for use, and the actual meaning of words fades to insignificance. The main thing is that they sound fancy. You could write, "Her face flushed," but why do that when you can wax eloquent like so: "A cherry red flush burst forth upon her formerly lily-white cheeks"? 

Like faux fancy talk, faux fancy writing stands out because it's a poor imitation of the thing to which it aspires. Often, it is an attempt to write according to a set of perceived "rules" which the writer does not understand.

"Don't use passive verbs," some well-meaning instructor will recite. And the student, not understanding that there are instances in which passive verbs are not only acceptable but preferred, not realizing that the rule has more to do with overuse, will contort her sentences to avoid ever having to write was. (Ironically, the same teacher who wants to cross out all the being verbs might know enough to tell the same student never to embellish a dialogue tag. Your characters should never just be, the resulting scheme suggests, but they should never do more than say.)

The cure for faux fancy writing is first-hand knowledge of good writing. When the student realizes through reading that the great novelists the teacher venerates don't follow the teacher's rules for greatness, she can decide which example to follow. Unfortunately, aspiring writers are not always diligent readers. It shows when you try to read what they write.

Another Reason to Say Merci to France

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It’s happened again. Turns out the French introduced me to another noir classic without my knowledge. I’ve already written about the first time, when Francois Truffaut’s film Confidentially Yours (which I’ve always liked) turned out to be based on a novel by noir great Charles Williams, The Long Saturday Night. Now, thanks to the new Library of America volume of David Goodis novels, I have belatedly discovered that the half-remembered Gerard Depardieu movie Moon in the Gutter, which I muddled through in college, desperately wanting to like it, is based on a Goodis novel of the same name.

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First things first: thank you, France. We gave you back the key to the Bastille and called it quits. But you keep giving and giving. A friend of mine once wrote a novel that couldn’t find a publisher here in the United States, but it was published in France. My response: “That is my dream.” They don’t call me Bertrand for nothing. 

Franophilia aside, as I creep through the chapters of Goodis’ novel late at night (which is the best time for reading noir), I find myself wondering, “Where have I been all my life? Was I not paying attention?” Suppose everything I’ve ever liked turns out to be based on a book? (Fine idea.) Suppose they’re all books by famous authors I’ve somehow managed not to read? (Embarassing notion.) And I call myself a writer. 

There’s more about the Goodis volume in the Wall Street Journal, including some hard-boiled recommendations I’ve added to my to-read list. 

Apr
16

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Pattern of Wounds Nominated for Best Suspense

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In a live ceremony this morning, the finalists for this year's Christy Awards were announced. Pattern of Wounds made the cut in the suspense category. Winners will be announced in July, and needless to say, competition is fierce. The other finalists are last year's winner Steven James, whose novel The Queen is racking up an impressive (and well-deserved) list of nominations, and Brandilyn Collins, who has been an encourager to many writers, myself included, and is long overdue for the recognition. "It's an honor just to be nominated" may sound like boilerplate, but in this case it also happens to be true. 

The fact that I was a Christy judge myself in years past makes this particularly meaningful. I did it twice, and if my own experience is anything to go by, the judges will have read a staggering number of entries to arrive at this final selection. My hat is off to them. It's a lot of work! 

The Policeman’s Tortured Psyche

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Norman Mailer, in a letter to William F. Buckley, Jr. quoted in The New Yorker, wrote this:

“I’m not the cop-hater I’m reputed to be, and in fact police fascinate me. But this is because I think their natures are very complex, not simple at all, and what I would object to in your speech if we were debating is that you made a one-for-one correspondence between the need to maintain law and order and the nature of the men who would maintain it. The policeman has I think an extraordinarily tortured psyche. He is perhaps more tortured than the criminal….”


Advice for Aspiring Novelists

Once upon a time, I dispensed lots of advice to fellow writers. I still do, one on one. But I stopped blogging about the writing craft when it became clear that the people who are interested in that sort of thing are other writers, not readers. The question comes up often, though, so I'm going to take a crack at summarizing all my best advice. Here goes:

1. First, read good novels

You don't learn to speak a language fluently in the classroom. While you can pick up the rules and rudiments there, to become truly proficient, you have to listen to people who speak the language well. The same is true when it comes to writing fiction. The single best thing you can do (and the single most enjoyable) is to read good novels. 

Reading bad novels will teach you plenty, too, but it won't inspire you to excell. When you read a bad novel, you end up thinking, "I could do that." You begin to write with the idea, not of doing your best, but of improving on the crap that passes too often for fiction. This is like watching a bunch of awkward kids at Little League practice and deciding to go for the Majors. 

So what's a good novel? It's the one you read and wonder afterward, "How did he do that?" Pose that question and stick with it until you come up with an answer. That'll teach you better than anything how to write a novel.

2. If you must read a how-to book, make it Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer's Workshop

I'm not saying it's the only, or even the best how-to book out there, just that it's the best summary of the essentials, and includes an annotated bibliography in back that will guide you through the rest. I spent years in an excellent MFA program, and I don't think I learned anything of value that isn't covered by Koch to one extent or another. Think of this book as orientation. 

3. Read "Planning a Novel": Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The thing that prevents most novels from being written isn't poor writing, it's poor planning. Back in 2007, I wrote a series of posts called "Planning a Novel" outlining my own method. Think of the planning process as the time you spend (a) learning your story and (b) figuring out how to tell it. A lot of the work you do during this period won't end up in the finished manuscript. That doesn't mean it's wasted. The goal of planning isn't to map everything out in advance; it's to know your material so well that you can take it in whatever direction the story wants to go. 

4. If you want more of my advice, read through Crime Genre and Write About Now

Here at Crime Genre, I occasionally break my own rule and write about craft. Before this, I wrote almost entirely about craft at a blog called Write About Now, which went dormant in 2010. (Prior to that, I wrote a dedicated blog for writers called Notes on Craft, which isn't online anymore. Not to worry: some of the best material was reposted at Write About Now.)

5. One last thing: Don't put too much stock in the "rules"

Grammar is one thing, craft is another. Now that there's an industry that exists to educate (and profit from) aspiring novelists, an unparalleled volume of how-to guides are being written, most of them based not on fresh experience but on a regurgitation of earlier how-to guides. Often, these sources will inform you about the things you must do — or not do — in order to sell your work. 

You won't sell your novel by following a set of rules any more than you'll fail to sell it by breaking them. If only it were that simple. The fact is, many of the rules are either helpful observations that have been misunderstood and misapplied over time (like "show, don't tell"), or particulars drawn from one writer's success then universalized (such as the notion that if you write in the style of James Patterson you will sell a similar number of books). Try to tune this stuff out.

To Novelists: “Spread Yourself.”


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Here's some writing advice from John Le Carre — from one of his characters, anyway. The editor Mencken in The Honourable Schoolboy, giving some parting wisdom to Jerry Westerby before the latter embarks on his trip to Hong Kong. His ostensible reason for going is journalism. His true reason is to spy. But there's some hope he'll make progress on the novel he's supposed to be writing, hence the advice:

"Mind my saying something?" Mencken repeated. "Longer sentences. Moment you journalist chappies turn your hand to novels, you write too short. Short paragraphs, short sentences, short chapters. You see the stuff in column inches, 'stead of across the page. Hemingway was just the same. Always trying to write novels on the back of a matchbox. Spread yourself, my view."

Le Carre wrote that about thirty years ago. Reading it now, when novels read like screenplays and movies have become a compilation of video game cut screens, even journalistic brevity probably strikes us as verbose. I can't help feeling nostalgic for a time when the problem with newspapers was that they were too succinct rather than too wordy. 

Which is probably why this post at Criminal Element about "Patterson Syndrome" cracked me up: What's Killing John Doe: Patterson Syndrome and Summaries. When I flip through a book and find a page spread like the one pictured above, back on the shelf it goes. Why? I simply don't have enough time to invest in such a fast read.

Roland March Audiobooks!

This week I received word that Brilliance Audio will be producing audiobook editions of the first two Roland March novels. That means you'll be able to listen to Back on Murder and Pattern of Wounds. The ink is still wet on the contract, meaning I have no idea when they'll release, but I'm pretty excited. 

And scared to death. Since the stories are told in first person with Roland March narrating, whoever reads these books becomes the voice of March.

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When I read from the books myself, alone or in public, there's always a nagging reservation. My voice isn't March's, not at all, and I have no gift for pretending otherwise. I like the way I read, but nobody's going to mistake me for a hardboiled Houston cop. I'm just an author reading a story. I don't become the character. 

A good narrator really bonds with the character. Whenever I think of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux, it's Will Patton's voice I hear in my head. Robert Hardy's narration on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books made them a pleasure to experience (not to mention rendering the ones Hardy didn't narrate impossible to love). 

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So I'm waiting with bated breath and fingers crossed to see how the March novels turn out. I know one thing: it's going to be crazy listening to them for the first time.

First Look at Nothing to Hide

The word is out, so I've decided to share a little bit about the third Roland March novel, Nothing to Hide, which is coming out in July 2012. This installment takes March into the twilight world of the paranoid conspiracy thriller. It also reveals his "origin story." But the question on a lot of minds is, what color is the cover? Back on Murder was yellow, Pattern of Wounds was red, so if you know anything about the traffic laws, you probably won't be too surprised by this:

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Can I confess what may seem like a superficial trait? I love "sets" of books. If you toured my shelves, you'd see that some of us do judge books by their covers. Books by the same author should look like they go together. These do, which fulfills my little fantasy nicely:

Books1and2and3Here's the back cover copy on Nothing to Hide: 

Publishers Weekly calls J. Mark Bertrand's writing "gritty and chilling." He returns once more to the streets of Houston for another twisting mystery featuring Detective Roland March. This time, a new case is launched by the discovery of a headless corpse … only the investigation quickly becomes complicated when a blood sample analysis brings a phone call from the FBI. 

    The body was an undercover agent working to bring down Mexican drug cartels. The feds want the case closed rather than risk exposing other agents in the field, but March can't abide letting a murder go unsolved. And he doesn't have to dig long to figure out something isn't right. Someone is covering something up, and it seems that everyone has something to hide. Maybe even March, as the case soon intersects, unexpectedly, with the murder that led him to become a homicide cop, all those years ago. 

The bare bones listing at Amazon is up, which means Nothing to Hide is available for pre-order. I'll be sharing plenty more about the book in the months ahead. 

Hot Off the Presses

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The broadsides are done! 

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After last week’s printing session, I had printed my linocuts and run a few trial prints with the type underneath. The registration was fine, but I had a problem with slurry — little ink lines dragging across the paper. There’s a huge amount of trial and error involved in getting a print perfect, and I’m not always a patient man. This week, I locked up the type vertically to eliminate the slurry, then struggled to get the type aligned correctly. The Vandercook I was working on had a few issues.

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Sometimes the text came out with a forty-five degree tilt, sometimes it came out level with the artwork. The simplest fix was to run the paper through at a slight angle, which meant attaching it to the grippers atop the cylinder all askew. Getting a consistent skew was the challenge! 

Once the text was on the page, it was time to pull out the loupe. I used quite a bit of packing (paper underneath the page to be printed, intended to raise the height and improve the lead type’s contact), which made for a deep impression, and some fuzziness around the debossed letters.

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The type was 18 pt. Goudy Modern. Combined with the traditional red-and-black coloring, this lends the broadsides an old school charm. Although the paper size is 10″ x 10.5″, and the intention is to trim that extra half inch to create perfect squares, you can see I’ve aligned everything on the lefthand size of the page. Once the classroom broadside exchange is done, I’m going to slice the sides off of the prints that remain, giving me a nice long-and-thin broadside. 

So that’s the project. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along. No doubt this will be the first of many letterpress endeavors. My next class will be an introduction to platen presses.

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Normal Author, Crazy Author

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A normal author, when he’s revising a novel, will print out a proof copy. It’s a simple stack of 8.5″ x 11″ paper. If he’s fancy, he’ll slap a mock-up of the cover art up front. Like so:

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The Devil of Matamoros was my working title for the third March novel, which will actually be called Nothing to Hide. You get the idea, though. 

A crazy writer can’t stop there. He typesets the entire manuscript, formats it in printer’s spreads, then prints the book out in eleven 32-page signatures. With linen thread and a needle, he stitches these together. Like so:

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This is a trial run laser-printed on 24 lb. copy paper. Since it was 8.5″ x 11″ to begin with, these signatures are folded against the grain of the paper, which is why they curl up a bit. Next time around, I’ll cut down some nice Mohawk Superfine 11″ x 17″ sheets, which will give me letter sized paper with long grain instead of short. 

Still, it’s a text block. And it’s really cool to flip through:

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The next step for the crazy author is to make a cover and bind it. My revisions are close to done. Once they’re finished, I’ll make an updated reference copy. Maybe I’ll go back and create a matched set of the March books, entirely written, printed, and bound by the author. 

Or maybe that would be too crazy even for me. We’ll see.