Monday, March 22, 2010

Dissection: Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man

Hello, my lovely, lovely readers!

Today, we're kicking off what I hope will become a vital part of Word Wanderings, and that's our book dissection segment! Nothing will help one learn the craft of writing better than taking a book, splaying its pages open, and peering behind the words into what makes the book work. Now remember: what is to follow are my opinions (and trust me, with a name like Liberty, I do have quite a few of them!) Feel free to chime in and dissent as you feel the need--I openly welcome it as long as you don't get too snarky. I'm going to try not to do too many plot spoilers, and will put in red letters anything I feel may be a plot spoiler so if you haven't read the book, you can skip it.

I've chosen for our first dissection Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man by Claudia Mair Burney. This book is published by Howard Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) and falls into the CBA arena. Admittedly, I read very, very few CBA-published books, typically non-fiction. So, this was a change for me. In the past 10 years, I've only picked up one other mystery author who publishes in the CBA realm, and that's Brandilyn Collins. (As a teen, I was a huge fan of Patricia H. Rushford, but haven't kept up with her career since I hit college.)

My overall impressions of this book were good. The main character is Amanda Bell Brown (named after the author's great-grandmother) and since one of my MC's also shares the name Amanda, I instantly liked her. One thing that was different, for me, was the fact that the MC is black. Not that I have racial preferences when I read, but the only other black MC I can recall reading about in recent history is Alex Cross by James Paterson. I did enjoy the diversity of the cast of characters. Amanda's former boyfriend/pastor is white. The man she's interested in dating (Jazz Brown--no relation) is half-white/half-black. Quite frankly, this is refreshing to me--there's not a token whatever in the book. And, it looks more like America in the cast (not sure how it reflects Detroit, where the book is set--I've never been there.)

Now, let's dig a little deeper.

Where characterization is concerned, I see a lot of good things and a few bad things. All of the characters are well defined, and seem to have their own roles. Amanda's former-boyfriend/pastor, Rocky, is a sweet puppy-like guy who's still in love with her. I really like his character, even though it seems a little superficial--he does seem to be used as a plot device to a degree, even though his role is vital, especially when it comes to the new man in Amanda's life--Jazz Brown.

Jazz is a police lieutenant who is at the scene of a double-homicide that Amanda's pathologist sister, Carly, gets called to on Amanda's 35th birthday (and since Amanda and Carly are together, Amanda gets to go along for the ride.) Jazz is attractive and immediately drawn to Amanda--always a good thing in the romance department. He's got his own demons, mostly stemming from his ex-wife who ran off on him, and is uncertain about having another romantic relationship. (I might mention that Jazz is Catholic, and some Catholics I know have major issues with the whole divorce/remarriage issue--not all, mind you, but some for sure.)

Amanda herself is a complex woman who is a forensic psychologist, but has her share of demons in her past that she hasn't completely dealt with (seems a tad ironic, but okay.) Having a cousin in my own life who's getting her psych master's degree right now, I know a big part of being a psychologist, at least from what my cousin's told me, means dealing with things from your own past--things that could make you vulnerable or blind to those you're treating. (At one point, Jazz does question how she got her degree without dealing with these issues--score one for Jazz!) And seeing as a healthy chunk of those Amanda deals with come from cult settings, and she's a survivor from one who hasn't dealt with the resulting issues that came from that, I find some of what she does or how she handles things a little... odd. (Amanda is one of those character's I'd love to see Jeannie Campbell of The Character Therapist analyze.)

One of the other issues in the book that really kicks the Jazz/Amanda romance into high gear is the fact Amanda's struggling with endometriosis--and desperately wants to have a baby. In fact, she agrees to work with Jazz as a consultant on the double-homicide after he offers her five grand as a consulting fee--the exact amount she'd need to be able to have in-vitro fertilization performed (a fact which Carly, her sister, told Jazz.) What I did find a little hinky about this situation was how quickly after meeting that Amanda told Jazz about her condition. While I'm not the world's most private woman out there, and, admittedly, I've not been faced with the situation of having a biological clock ticking combined with a serious condition that affects reproduction, I'd think telling a potential love interest within hours of meeting them that you're desperate to have a baby would be a major turn-off. Jazz doesn't hardly blink when she tells him, though. Even before I started thinking about using this book in an dissection setting, I did a double-take.

A couple last thoughts on characterization, then I'll move on to the mystery and a couple final thoughts. Amanda has several flashbacks--back to times when she was heavy into the cult thing. While these in and of themselves are good, even beneficial to the back story and feeds into what happens towards the end, the first one or two were extremely jarring to me. Part of that was content--even as a typical ABA reader, I was caught off-guard by the graphic nature of the scenes. But, I think what really got to me was the fact that they started occurring so deep into the book. (The book is 291 pages, and the first flashback started on page 94, so right about 1/3 of the way into the book.) While I'm not going to dictate how a published author is to write their books, and I'm certainly not going to argue with an agent or publisher (at least, not unless they were my own!), my own personal feelings where flashbacks are concerned is to start them early enough in the book so they don't accost your reader. Ideally, I'd prefer to see this in the first 50 pages, depending on the total length of your novel. Definitely in the first 1/4. Though, there are times when this is nigh impossible. I do think that it was possible to move the first flashback a little earlier in the book, however.

Okay, mystery time!

This is one of those mysteries that is, to me, a little light on mystery and rather heavy on the romance/characters, so this will actually be brief compared to the novel I wrote above. I guess if I wanted almost straight mystery, I'd pick up a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker. However, I do love my character driven mysteries. (Yes, I'm digressing. Moving on!)

This mystery centered around a double-homicide. The vics are two males, presumably killed by strychnine poisoning, and, it later is discovered, were members of a cult. One of the vics' father's owns the house they were murdered in. All of this, minus the definite cult part, is about all you learn about the victims in the first 1/2 of the book. I'm  exaggerating some, but it seems that the first half of the book is really all characters, characters, characters, then the second half is more, 'oh, yeah, I've got a mystery to solve here'. To me, a definite bad point. (One side-note: I found that I laughed really hard through the first half of the book, then about that half-way point, there was a definite shift, and while there were still a lot of laughs, things got a lot more serious.) Late-edition addition: Though, upon a re-read just prior to publication, I did actually see a lot of subtle clues in the first half feeding into the ultimate solution. They are there, it's just still heavy on characterization.

One good thing was that the ultimate bad guy was introduced by name before the 1/3 point. One bad thing was that other than one statement from Jazz that Amanda was a suspect because she'd been to the house before and recognized one of the vics, there were no other discernible suspects brought on scene prior to this point or for a few chapters after. Something I've learned in my various readings is that you should bring several suspects into the book as early as possible and begin giving them reasons behind killing the victim(s). But, the killer definitely should be onstage sometime before the 1/3 point, so at least here, Ms. Burney did follow the "rules". Also, the mystery gets dropped in your lap within the first few pages. Some books wait chapters to get to the body, but not this one. Since so much of the next 10 chapters or so are focused on the characters, this is good for the mystery lover--you know those victims are there and there's a mystery to solve!

My final thoughts

I've been actively working on a critique of a friend's book and an edit of my own book as I read Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man. I found several things in the book that made me think differently about my own project. First, the inner dialogue for Amanda was phenomenal. In fact, at times, it was over-the-top. But, because this has been an area several people have pointed out to me as a potential weak area with my own Amanda, I was sitting up and taking note. After reading this book, I honestly feel that my own Amanda will finally start showing herself some more as I finish up the edits to my project and get it ready to make the rounds with some carefully selected agents.

As a rare CBA reader, I was jarred by how much Biblical teaching went into this book. I didn't disagree with what was said (at least nothing comes to mind) but I was honestly surprised at how much teaching was in the novel and how many Scriptures were mentioned, repeated, etc. Since I've been working on another project that will go more towards the CBA market, this opened my eyes and made me see the potential I have to grow in that book.

If you haven't read Murder, Mayhem & a Fine Man you can purchase it at for $11.10.

Well, if you've stuck with me this far, thank you! I know this has been a rather lengthy post today, but I hope you've found it beneficial. If you've read the book, please feel free to chime in below. I really love to read your comments, and will respond as I can.

Until next time,

Monday, March 08, 2010

My Favorite Resources

I thought today I'd share with you some of my favorite places on the web that have really made me think about my writing and how to improve it. While this list is nowhere near comprehensive, I hope the sampling provides you with some new places to visit frequently.

Agent/Editor Blogs

The Rejectionist -- This isn't an agent/editor blog per se, however this person is an assistant to what I suspect is a major NY agent. His/her rants are quite comical at times, but usually right on the mark, especially if they share any quotes from queries they've received. This person does seem to be mildly obsessed with Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, and will occasionally go into spurts of talking like him. (One of the categories that they regularly post in is We hates it precioussss.)

Evil Editor -- I haven't quite cracked the nut on this one yet. It seems most of the time, the posts break down a persons plot and explains why it won't work. Other times, it's a query letter. A few comics are spread throughout. Regardless, I usually get some nugget from reading the posts.

Query Shark -- In my opinion, this is one of the best teaching tools for wannabe published writers. As she receives worthy queries, Janet Reid critiques submitted queries and explains why they don't work--or why they do and why she'd request additional chapters. If you want to put your query through the ringer, though, be sure to read EVERYTHING that's been posted, or you'll quickly be rejected! And, read the rules, too. It gets you into good practice for when you start submitting your work.

Miss Snark's First Victim -- If you're not familiar with Miss Snark, and admittedly, I'm not, you may find the title of this blog a bit odd. However, when you get into the meat of this blog, you'll find it very helpful--I have. Once a month, this blog hosts a 'mystery guest', which is a literary agent. You're invited to submit the first 250 words +/- of your completed, polished novel if you fit the requirements. Then everyone can critique your work--including the mystery agent. At the end, the agent is revealed, and s/he selects a few works they want to see more of, so you have an opportunity if you're one of the lucky few to pitch your book. If you don't get picked, you still get some good advice. I put Homebody through the paces there in November.

Rachelle Gardner -- Okay, I'll admit it. At the moment, I think Rachelle Gardner is my dream agent. Of all the agent blogs I follow, and the agents I follow on Twitter, I think she's probably one of the classiest. Reading her blog posts, you can really tell that she truly cares about the people she represents, and respects authors in general (not that other agents don't). Her blog is always helpful and thought provoking. Now if I can just craft or edit a book that she may be interested in! Homebody and Cora's Song are too rough around the edges, and I think Beyond Dead, once it's edited, will contain too many sci-fi elements. *sigh*

Author Blogs

K.M. Weiland's Wordplay -- K.M. has become a good cyber-friend, so I may be a little biased, but I truly think her blog Wordplay is fabulous. Each Sunday, she posts on a topic pertinent to becoming a better writer. Regardless of the topic, she makes you think, even if you don't think the topic is applicable to your particular style of writing. Her companion podcast is also superb, and you can find it (and subscribe!) on iTunes, or listen to it on her site. She's also begun a new Wednesday feature with a video podcast.

AuthorCulture -- Along with Linda Yezak and Lynnette Bonner, K.M. Weiland also writes for AuthorCulture. These three ladies always have something interesting to say, and frequently use examples from their own projects. At the end of the month, they share a roundup of resources they've uncovered over the month that may help you, and you sure don't want to miss Fabulously Fun Fridays at AuthorCulture--it's like a box of chocolates; you never know what you'll get!

777 Peppermint Place -- Linda Yezak, pre-published author, shares about personal goings-on, but most often about her writing life. Whether it's regarding her adventures of rewriting her book, finding an agent, or mulling over her diet, her posts are always fun.

The Graveyard Shift -- Non-fiction author and former cop Lee Lofland's blog is always informative, especially if you're writing crime fiction. He reviews episodes of ABC's Castle, detailing why things wouldn't work from a cop's perspective, but also details topics pertinent to those writing crime fiction, or are even just curious about how things work. His book, Police Procedure & Investigation was published through Writer's Digest Books, and is extremely helpful. He also is a member of a Yahoo! group on writing crime fiction, crimescenewriter.

Miscellaneous Blogs

The Character Therapist -- Writer and Licensed Therapist Jeannie Campbell has one of the most unique blogs for writers out there. She posts twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Every Tuesday, she selects a character sketch or outline from her readers and puts the characters on the couch, so to speak. She takes your premise as a guide, then tells you from a psychological point of view why your characters would or wouldn't work. She'll also give you ideas to tweak your characters to bring them in line with what would be acceptable behavior if they're way out of line. Thursdays, Jeannie tends to go through various psychological maladies and how you could use them in your writing. Like Query Shark, be sure to read the rules, though there aren't as many and they aren't as strict as The Shark.


Some may say that Twitter isn't worth the time, however I've found that I learn a lot from following agents and authors on Twitter. Some of the time it's just a nodding, 'I'm going to file that away'. Other times, it's an aghast open mouth thinking 'what where they thinking?' (These are usually from seeing something marked #queryquotes -- a very good search to save!)

Since time is running short, here's just my top 10. You can find more by following me, @righter1 and either my list 'Important Folks' or 'Agents'.

@WolfsonLiterary (she may not have started #queryquotes, but I think she's the queen now!)

So, I've shared mine. How about you? What are some of the resources you couldn't live without online?

Until next time,

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