Monday 28 July 2014

The backseat review

Writers love a good review, that goes without saying. We also despise a narky one and, as I've blogged before, it can leave us quivering messes constantly second guessing ourselves and threatening to give it all up, such sensitive souls as we are.

But what to do with the 'backseat review'?
That's what I call a review where the reader tells you what to do next, where to take the characters and what they expect. In no uncertain terms, they make it clear they want more of one thing, less of another.
In other words: you're driving the wrong bloody way!

Passionate readers are my favourite kind, let's get that clear from the start. Better to have a fanatical reader who bosses you about than a reader who stumbled upon your book, read it half-heartedly and couldn't really give a toss. They're welcome, too, of course, don't get me wrong. But gee, a little passion is a wondrous thing.

However! With passionate readers comes a caveat: they not only think they own the characters, they believe they own the plot.
I recently enjoyed reading a review from an extremely passionate reader who was a little miffed that all her favourite Ghostwriter Mystery characters, especially Oliver, were largely absent from my latest book Words Can Kill. In this tale, Roxy packs her bags and heads to Europe to hunt down her ex-boyfriend, Max. He's gone missing, his Berlin flatmate has shown up murdered, and a cryptic text tells her Max's life is hanging by a thread. Roxy's good friend, and Max's sister Caroline, does tag along, but that's not good enough, not for this reader at least.

She desperately wants Roxy to return home. She wants her to trawl the familiar turf of Sydney, her motley mates by her side. And I get that. That's what made her fall in love with my books in the first place.

But it's also what makes them a little boring for me as a writer.
I travel a lot. I love exploring new terrains in my books and not just because my holidays are tax deductible, although that's an added bonus. I think it makes the copy more interesting, more textured and colourful. And it makes me a better writer.

I also love creating new characters and can get a little over the old ones. In fact, I got dreadfully bored with Roxy and Max's relationship. I felt it was verging on snoresville, hence the ending of my latest book.

This reader vehemently disagrees. She was not happy, she begged me to take Roxy home and deliver up all her favourite characters again. She even wants Max and Roxy back together and I almost wonder if she'll settle for anything less.

Will she desert the Ghostwriter Mysteries if I don't do as I'm told? And should that even matter?

My question to you, dear blog reader is this: How seriously should a writer take an avid fan's concerns? She's just one person, after all. Does she speak for all, or do the other readers (the hundreds who did not seem to have any problem with any of this) feel differently? I honestly don't know.

What's more, isn't it my book? Isn't it up to me where Roxy goes and with whom she goes there?

How important is one person's opinion when every reader counts (and when that one person is, perhaps, your biggest fan)? I don't know. I don't want to lose her, but I won't be directed from the sidelines either. It's a fine line.

In any case, it's too late now. This lovely reader is not going to be happy. I'm midway through Roxy's sixth adventure and she's already headed out of town, up the Australian coast. What's worse, she's headed off alone. (Although, thanks to this reader, I am considering some last-minute tweaks. Maybe a few of her friends will join her up the coast? Maybe she'll return to Sydney sooner than I had planned?)

Should I be doing any of that, just for one reader, albeit a passionate one?

It's an interesting question and I'd love to hear your thoughts. Jot me a comment below.

In the meantime, happy—involved—reading everyone! (And thanks to that beloved reader who has given me pause for thought.)
xo Christina

Sunday 20 July 2014

The truth hurts (but it's friends I'm worried about!)

I live in an extraordinary part of Australia brimming with a motley collection of hippies, yuppies, rednecks and bogans. 

There are lots of single parents, successful musos and artists, a smattering of celebrities, too many cashed-up types, a cluster of the poor and disadvantaged, a bunch of ordinary mums and dads, one or two psychopaths, and some genuinely good sorts.

It really is a magnificent melting pot and, for a regional area, a unique one at that. Which is why it would make great fodder for a crime novel.

So why, then, have I NEVER set a single book in this area? What's that about? 

Not knowing the answer to that question (and not really asking it of myself), I decided to set my latest Ghostwriter Mystery #6 (my 8th book) in this area. Of course, I didn't call it Goonengerry. I'm not a complete idiot. I've given it a fictional name, and I've just begun to create a collection of characters who vaguely resemble the people that I know. After all, why not? It'll be fun to write and brimming with some of the most honest characters of Roxy's life.

Er, not so fast.
As I began creating my characters, I started to worry. Then I began to panic. Normally, when pumping a story with life, I pluck a name out of thin air, add some interesting or portent hair colour, body type and personality flaws, then before you know it, I've got my victim or villain, suspect or passer by.

80,000 words later, it's done and dusted and I've had one hell of a ride.

Not this time. 
This time I am realising that creating characters out of thin air is so much easier, and a hell of a lot safer, than trying to hide real people in a pretend universe.

I really, really want to use that self-righteous hippie who pretends to be spiritual but is tediously self-obsessed, those arrogant yuppies who wish they were spiritual but can't see beyond their shiny BMW, that neurotic guitarist and his snotty-nosed wife, those lovely farmer folk and the sweet family who live next door, the local newspaper guy whose arrogance is baffling, the naive young groupies who are headed for a fall, and the caring community types who rarely get a gong but deserve so much more.

So many colourful characters, so little wordspace! They live and breathe around me, and I want them to live and breathe in my next novel.

The thin, true line
Yet the brakes have gone on. Big time. I realise now, 10,000 words in, that I am treading a very fine and dangerous line. It's tempting to not just borrow from the people around me, but to recreate them right down to the colour of their clothes and the swing of their hair. They do it so well, I want to reflect that in this novel.

Yet I can not. It's a small town, after all. And the last thing anyone needs (least of all my friends, neighbours and family) is to recognise themselves in my next novel.

For the first time in my fictional career, I really understand why all good books begin with a qualifier:
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Yet in this case, it may be the whitest of lies. Unless I back up a bit, that is.

I want my characters to be real, but I don't want to hurt anyone (at least not in real life), nor do I want to ostracise the people around me and make life difficult for my hubby and boys who must live and breathe in this community.

Will one of my characters make it tricky next time we go to the local shop? 

Will anyone even notice?

It's a conundrum that I am still working out. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, how you (or the authors you admire) manage to breathe life into characters without sucking the life blood out of the people you (they) love. Send me an email or jot a comment below.

In the meantime, happy reading everyone (and may you never see yourself in a novel, at least not in a bad light!)

xo Christina

Monday 14 July 2014

When a 'Mean Girl' strikes (ouch!)

I received a pretty nasty email last night. 

It was from a reader, a regular one by the sound of it. She was taking me to task, in no uncertain terms, for using a certain line 'too often' in my books. The line is fairly benign, can't quite understand why it's caused her such angst, and how that angst has forced her to not only seek out my email address but to pen a very demoralising and outright nasty letter.

She's entitled to her opinion. I should be grateful, I know, that she has even bothered. I'm sure she thinks she's 'helping'. But it got me thinking ... what kind of a person does that? 

And have they any idea what kind of a person I am?

Sensitive souls

If you're a creative type, like me, you will know the answer to that question, without ever having met me. I am a writer. Sometimes I wish I wasn't. Gee my life would be easier, and downright more lucrative, if I had a strong drive to be, say, a banker. Or a clerk. Or even a waitress. I'm sure I'd earn more, and probably feel a lot better about myself.

Most writers, by their very nature, are sensitive souls with non-existent egos and endless vulnerabilities. It seems a contradiction considering how we throw our words about, but many of us are one really dreadful review away from chucking it all in.

We feel life differently to many others. That's why we write. We see the nuances in every upturned eyebrow and casual throw-away line. We pick and plot our way through the world. We feel things so intensely we have to get it down, we have to share it with the world lest we implode. If we didn't, we'd just get on with our lives and be happy with our lot.

Instead we question and quiz and plot and play — all with words, which we hope will delight and explain and go some way to making sense of this crazy world.

Even the greats

Every writer is full of neuroses, even the greats. Read any interview, witness any author/poet talk and this is abundantly clear—from Sylvia Plath to Agatha Christie. At some stage we all read our work and think, 'Oh my God that's a load of drivel, why do I even bother?'

Maybe it's fleeting—Harlan Coben once said, "At some point in every novel, I fear that I will never be able to pull it together"—or maybe it's a constant battle. The great Tennessee Williams is quoted as saying: "I don't believe anyone ever suspects how completely unsure I am of my work and myself and what tortures of self-doubting the doubt of others has always given me.”

Whatever it is, however strong our self-doubt, to slam that ability to finally "pull it together" (and produce a work you can actually sink your teeth into) with a bitchy comment, while totally justified perhaps, can wither something so easily inside us all. You need to know that.

Speak out, by all means

I'm not saying you have no right to criticise. If authors want the praise—which we do, and often!—we must also accept the criticism right along with it. I know that, Harlan and Ian know that. I'm just saying, be careful how you criticise.

I have received plenty of wonderful gushing emails, I'm not short on praise, and I respond to each one like they've sent me a glass of water in a parched desert. They inspire me, they keep me thriving. I have also received the occasional critical one, but I have been equally as appreciative. I'm often told I use too many profanities in my books, but I stand by them. My stories are largely set in Australia and Aussies swear like bloody troopers. I thank the critic and get on with my life.

A few books back, a fan wrote to tell me how much she loved my work but had found some spelling errors and wondered if I was keen to know? I was! She has since edited several of my books and I can not thank her enough. That kind of criticism is valuable, it's imporant, it's appreciated. What's more, she did it with a kind heart and a helpful soul. She wasn't out to hurt me, she was out to help.

A sting in the tail

The email last night only had one intention. This person was clearly frustrated and wanted me to feel her pain. Well done, Mean Girl, you achieved just that. (You probably had a point, you know, but you did it so viciously, your point got lost amidst the pain.)

Please be aware, as you press 'Send' and get on with your life (one that probably doesn't involve writing novels and putting them out there for others to judge), that a nasty tone and a mean rant actually demoralises us. It doesn't help. It may even stop us from writing all together. And if, like Ms Mean Girl, you profess to reading all our books, why risk killing them off? Luckily, I'm made of sturdier stuff.

(Still, for every 10 positive reviews I get on Amazon and the like, I get just one slightly nasty, slightly tetchy one. And it's that one review I remember. Sad but true. It's the reason I have largely stopped reading my reviews, despite the fact that most are so wonderfully supportive. Almost every writer I know does not read their reviews for that very reason. It's usually the negative ones that stay with you, whether you like it or not.)

So tread gently, folks. We're human, you know? That's why you have a book to read in the first place.

Be a kind reader this month.
xo Christina

Monday 7 July 2014

A sweet place to bump someone off

So I'm wandering through a towering, Scandinavian pine forest towards a rippling blue cove and all I can think about is murder. What a stunning place to bump someone off!

Later, while staring up at the ancient bell tower I consider hanging someone from it, or should I just lay their body strategically underneath, a reindeer grazing nearby?

I'm on the tiny island of Sandhman, part of Stockholm's archipelago and it's frightening how quickly my thoughts turn to all things murderous. Really, this Swedish island is idyllic. Serene. The very last place you would expect such violence. And yet there my mind goes. I guess it's the unexpectedness of it that's so appealing, the incongruity of murder in such a peaceful setting. I know it'd make a great plot device for a future Ghostwriter Mystery.

There's just one problem and I'm not talking about my sad, twisted mind.

It's all been done before, damn it, and by someone with a lot more authority than me. Or at least I think it has. If only I could read Swedish.

Product DetailsThe one who came before

Swedish author Viveca Sten has been coming to Sandhamn since she was a baby. Every damn summer for decades. And she's based a bunch of crime novels on the island.

She beat me to it, and I expect she's done it much better than I could ever hope to—because she has such an intimate knowledge of the place. How could she not?

I'd be cranky with Ms Sten if I wasn't so intrigued. I long to read her novels, to see if her mind lingered on murderous thoughts at the same spots that mine did. How did she pull it off? Did she use the bell tower? How did she describe that apline forest? Was the murderer a local, the detective a ring-in like Roxy?

So many questions, so little chance of ever having them answered, unless of course I take up Swedish. You see, as far as I can tell Ms Sten has not had her books translated to English. And why should she? She's a popular Swedish author, living thousands of miles away from me.

But gee I wish she would.

For now, I can only imagine where Ms Sten's tales took her and try to give mine a different twist. Because I'm not put off one bit. I still intend to get Roxy across to Sandhamn and place her life in jeopardy somewhere in that spiky forest.

It's too serene a location to pass up.

xo Christina