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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

 
The Trouble with Sub-Plots
 
Sometimes the sub-plot causes more trouble than the main plot.

As most of my fans know, the seven Lena Jones mysteries were all based on real cases, and the eighth, DESERT RAGE – due out mid-October – is no exception. While the book’s main plot concerns IVF, (in vitro fertilization, a specific version of “test tube babies”), the subplot delves into Arizona’s troublesome death penalty.

The only state in the U.S. that executes more convicts than Arizona is Texas, which makes Arizona the second-ranked legal killer in the U.S. Startling, yes, but you’ll notice that I described our death penalty as “troublesome,” which seems a rather insufficient word considering the fact that we legally kill people in this state. Yet “troublesome” is the correct word when writing a novel. Because, as I found out in my research, it’s really, really hard to kill someone. Legally, that is.

Back in what people like to call The Good Old Days, Arizona hanged its Death Row inmates. The method worked perfectly until 1930, when convicted killer Eva Dugan was accidentally decapitated during her hanging. The hangman had miscalculated Eva’s weight and the height of the “drop,” so when he hit the lever to lower the trap door, Eva’s body dropped -- but not her head.

In 1934, when Arizona recovered from its collective shock and started executing people again, it joined the ranks of states using the gas chamber, although some critics of the new method grumbled that cyanide pellets were too merciful for convicted murderers. Proponents of the death penalty grumbled even louder in 1992 when – after a brief flirtation with the electric chair -- Arizona decided to implement lethal injection. No decapitations, no gasping, no frying inmates, just a quick and merciful drift into eternal sleep.

That was the theory, anyway.  

Theories don’t always work out. Since 2010 the lethal drugs used in Arizona executions included midazolam, hydromorphone, thiopental, propofol (remember Michael Jackson?), and pentobarbital. Any combination of those drugs, when handled correctly, should have been strong enough to kill an elephant. But a snag developed when drug manufacturers, one by one, began refusing to sell their drugs to the state if they were going to be used for executions. So Arizona began hopscotching from drug to drug. Each time the drugs had to be switched, I had to rewrite the execution scene in DESERT RAGE. In all, there were four rewrites. For a one-page sub-plot scene.

Then, in June of this year, came the botched execution of convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood. It took almost two hours for Wood to die, and horrified witnesses said he appeared to have suffered considerable pain.

By then, my book was at the publisher’s, so I called it back. But the long, troublesome task of rewrite after rewrite had finally taught me something. Instead of naming the new compound used by the state, I rewrote the execution scene a fifth time, dropping any mention of a specific drug.

Comparatively, DESERT RAGE’s main plot – in vitro fertilization – was relatively easy to write. After a donated egg and donated sperm got cozy with each other in a Petrie dish, the then-fertilized egg was implanted into the uterus of a soon-to-be birth mother. Nine months later, a beautiful baby girl named Alison was born.

In DESERT RAGE, the beginning of life turned out to be much easier to write about than the end of life.
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P.S. to read more about DESERT RAGE, see post below.
 
 

Thursday, May 8, 2014


You never know when or where an idea for a book will strike. In the case of DESERT RAGE, the 8th Lena Jones Mystery, due out October 7, 2014, that happened as I was walking down the hall at Paradise Valley Community College.

Just a few months earlier I’d quit my job as a full-time journalist at the Tribune (Arizona) Newspapers, but had become bored with so much time on my hands. When a friend told me PVCC needed a part-time writer in its PR department, I thought that might be right up my alley, so I placed a call, and within the week, was working a (supposedly) four-hour-a-day, three-day workweek. By the end of the year, my hours had blossomed to 35 hours a week, but that’s another story.

Anyway, one afternoon I decided to go down to the school cafeteria for a cup of coffee, and while I was walking down the hall, I noticed a new flyer had gone up on the large HELP WANTED bulletin board across from the ladies’ room. The headline went something like this.

WANTED – YOUNG, ATHELETIC COLLEGE WOMEN IN GOOD HEALTH.

The body copy of the flyer went on to explain what the company needed “young, athletic women” for (it was neither illegal nor immoral, yet paid good money), and I found myself fascinated, thinking this would be a great idea for a book. However, since I was in the midst of writing DESERT CUT, I filed the idea away in the back of my mind for later use.

That was nine years and four more books ago.

But last year, the time finally came to write that book. So I did. When I finished it and turned it over to my editor at Poisoned Pen Press, she became every bit as fascinated as I was when I first read that flyer. Of course, I’d added a lot to that skeleton of an idea – a family slaughter confessed to by two young teens, a U.S. senatorial candidate with something to hide, a nasty arson case…

Well, I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s the description that will appear on the inside of the dust jacket. 

Ferociously ambitious U.S. Senatorial candidate Juliana Thorsson has been keeping a secret.

The horrific slaughter of a prominent doctor, his wife, and their ten-year-old son inside their Scottsdale home brings Thorsson to Private Investigator Lena Jones. The slain family’s 14-year old, Alison, and her boyfriend, Kyle, have confessed to the murders. Thorsson wants to hire Lena to discover if Alison is telling the truth, but before accepting the job, Lena demands to know why a rising political star wants to involve herself with the fate of a girl she’s never met. Desperate for Lena’s help, Thorsson reveals her explosive secret – that Alison is the candidate’s biological daughter, a fact she’s kept hidden for years. But that’s not all. Thorsson then confides something even more unusual than a mere hidden pregnancy, something that could ruin her political plans forever.

Suspecting that Alison’s parents had secrets of their own that could have led to the murders, Lena finally accepts Thorsson's assignment. But interviewing those who knew the family well soon puts Lena -- now a strong defender of the two teens -- in danger of her life.

Fast paced, probing, and filled with the trademark twists of the Lena Jones series, Betty Webb is unsparing of her characters yet writes their stories with wit and compassion.  

That’s just a teaser. As I said, the book debuts October 7, and I hope you like it.

Oh, and by the way, there’s a writing lesson to be had here. Writers must always, always pay attention to everything the world – right down to bulletin boards on college campuses – because the world is where our ideas come from.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Method Acting for Writers


  
Something strange happened yesterday while I was writing – or, rather, attempting to write – a scene in a new Lena Jones mystery. The scene didn’t work; it just lay there, stagnant and stinky as a four-day-old cod fillet.

Here was the original set-up. P.I. Lena Jones is interviewing the next-door neighbor of a murdered family. The Scottsdale, Arizona, neighborhood is pricy and the homes accordingly elegant. The neighbor – who was out of town during the slaughter, and can prove it -- is not a suspect, but Lena thinks he might be able to give an overview of the family’s activities in the months leading up to the murders. I had originally planned to write the neighbor as one-half of a married gay couple, an affluent, educated, art-collecting nice guy who had nothing but good things to say about the dead family. Because I believe in setting the “scenic” part of a scene, I went into great detail about the interior of the neighbor’s house: white leather furniture, a wall-sized painting by de Kooning, a sculpture by Giacometti, etc. As the interview continued, the man’s partner came into the room. He, too, was an affluent, educated, art-collecting nice guy who contributed more warm-hearted stories about the deceased family.

The scene didn’t work. It was dull as dirt. All that niceness -- ick! Where was the conflict? Where was the tension?

As I sat there staring at the computer screen, an idea popped into my head. Why not take the same house and the same elegant furnishings, but turn this neighbor into someone you would not ordinarily associate with such tasteful, high-art surroundings?

The minute the idea popped into my head, so did a new character. For the few hours, I pounded out a scene that was surprising, unsettling, and even a bit scary. My fingers flew over the keyboard, typing in this new character’s startling dialogue and some very creepy body language. There was incredible tension in the scene because an ethical and personal conflict now existed between my P.I. and the new character. Lena was repelled by him – and also a bit frightened. Yet she needed to stay in that elegant house alone with him in order to get information about the murdered family.

The weird thing about all this is that I don’t remember writing a word of it. I was so lost inside that creepy new character’s head that I, as an individual, ceased to exist.

When Hubby (it should be noted here that he’s a psychologist) came home from work, I told him what had happened.

“You had an out-of-body experience,” Hubby explained. “It's the same type of experience that method actors use to create their characters. You forgot about yourself and what you originally wanted to do, you forgot about your own ideas and expectations for the scene. Instead, you got deep down and dirty into the mind, heart, and soul – or lack thereof – of this new character. When you disappeared, he emerged. That’s why the new scene works so well, because it wasn’t something you, as you, created. You were channeling him, and he created the scene – not you.”

Creepy.

This morning over coffee, we continued to talk about yesterday’s odd experience.

“You’ve often wondered why you can write two separate series that are so different in tone, from the first-person point of view by two protagonists who have nothing in common,” Hubby said. “But the answer’s easy. You’re using the same method -- method acting, if you will -- that you did in writing yesterday’s scene. When you’re writing Lena, for instance, you become her. Lena, because of her difficult childhood in all those abusive foster homes, trusts no one. She has compassion for crime victims, but her compassion doesn’t extend to allowing anyone to get close to her. Because of her global mistrust of the human race, Lean’s personal relationships – the few that she has – are a mess. She lives in a perpetual state of anger, is always close to the breaking point, and she has an itchy trigger finger. This is a dangerous combination, and that’s why readers either love Lena or are repelled by her. But regardless of all her mental and emotional issues, Lena has a strong, unwavering mission in life – to bring justice to the dead.

“Teddy, the zookeeper in your Gunn Zoo books, is just the opposite. Because she was given so much love as a child, she likes just about everyone. She trusts people – at least until they prove themselves untrustworthy – and she loves both her fiancĂ© and the animals she cares for at the zoo. Her personal circumstances are a little unusual: a houseboat for a home; a self-centered, multi-married, clotheshorse of a mother; and an embezzling father on the run from the FBI who is always turns up just in time to wreak havoc in her life. But for all this, Teddy remains an uncomplicated woman with only one major tic: her mission – besides protecting the animals at the zoo -- is to not become her mother.” 

 And yes, Hubby continued, when I write these highly divergent characters, I totally immerse myself in them the same way a method actor immerses himself in a role. I put myself and my own personality aside, and instead, I live, breath, move, and speak like that character. For all intents and purposes, I am that character.

Which is what happened yesterday. I was so busy being my new character that I put aside all my previous plans and simply “channeled” the new guy. I didn’t force my ideas about character on him. Instead, I slipped into an altered state of consciousness and let him tell his own story, thus surprising the holy living hell out of myself.

Stephen King once said, “If the writer can’t surprise himself, how can he surprise the reader?”

King was right. But there’s an irony here. And it is…

Only by losing yourself can you find your story – and your most intriguing characters.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Weepy Female Characters


Besides being the author of several mystery novels, I also review books for Mystery Scene Magazine and teach creative writing, so you could say that books comprise a large section of my life. When a character trend emerges – or disappears – I notice. Yet in my thirty years of professional writing, teaching, and critiquing, I am continually plagued by one character stereotype that just won’t go away.
The weepy female.
The novel’s genre doesn’t seem to  matter: literary, mainstream, mystery, thriller, sci-fi, Western, or (of course) romance. Regardless of the book’s genre, the cast list usually includes at least one female character who bursts into tears on a regular basis, whether from joy, sadness, fear, shock, or frustration at missing the last pair of Tommy Choo knock-offs at Macy’s Spring Shoe Sale.

Why, for God’s sake?
In an age where women have been cleared for combat, and are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan minus arms and/or legs, why this continuing insistence on weepy female characters?

When one of my students recently turned in a suspense novel where the female protagonist fainted twice and cried eight times (I counted), I took her to task for creating such a stereotypical character.
“But everybody knows women cry a lot,” my student answered.

Intrigued, I asked her when was the last time she’d cried, but after several moments, she said she couldn’t remember. She wasn’t much of a “crier,” she admitted.
“I’m not, either,” I said. “Nor are any of the other women I know. Maybe we tear up while watching a sad movie, but we don’t have time do that in real life. When a real life problem come along, we deal with the situation, we don't cry about it.”

I told her to rewrite each crying scene so that her protagonist never shed a single tear, regardless of what was going on in the scene. And to take out the fainting. While not happy about this, she finally agreed to do it. A few weeks later, she handed in the rewrite.

Guess what?

When all the facile blubbering had been removed, my student had been forced to write more deeply, to delve more completely into her character’s psyche -- to actually deal with her heroine’s emotional and intellectual complications instead of avoiding them. Gone were the dull, knee-jerk tears, gone was the cheap and easy sexist stereotyping. The result was a complex, many-layered heroine who dealt much more realistically with her internal demons while grappling with the book’s already complex, many-layered male villain.
The heroine had transitioned from a shallow, cardboard character into someone memorable. Someone real.

The world has changed and our female characters must change with it. We are no longer living in the Victorian age, where -- because of too-tight corsets -- women actually did weep and faint, although I’m sure it happened much less often than writers of the time would have us believe. We are now living in the 21st century, where real-life women shoulder their assault rifles and head off into combat.
And they’re not crying about it.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The True Story Behind THE LLAMA OF DEATH

People are always asking writers where they get their ideas, a question so hard to answer that a few wiseacres just give up and say, “I buy them at Wal-Mart.”

I’m never that snarky, probably because I don’t have to be. Where my Lena Jones mysteries are concerned, I take my ideas straight from the newspaper. Human rights abuses in Kenya? Hey, they’re happening right here in Arizona, too – enough of them that I could write a hundred novels and not cover even half the world’s (and Arizona’s) crimes against humanity.

But it’s a different case with my Gunn Zoo mysteries. For those books, I lean heavily on my volunteer work at the Phoenix Zoo. Lucy the Giant Anteater lives there (her real name is Jezebel), and so, at one time, did Wanchu the Koala, who was on loan from the San Diego Zoo. But every now and then...

I actually have a photograph of the moment the idea of The Llama of Death came to me. My husband Paul and I were attending the Renaissance Faire, held each year in Apache Junction, Arizona, and as I passed the Queen’s Royal Privies, I made a pit stop. When I emerged, my husband was across the way, grinning at the screen display on his digital camera. He called to me, “Hey, Betty, come see this!”

I did. Thus The Llama of Death was born.

Paul had taken a photograph of a sour-looking young woman, dressed in Renaissance trollop garb, leading around a llama with a toddler on its back. The toddler was thrilled, and so, apparently, was the llama. The llama’s ears were up, and he had a big, smirking grin on his face.

“As I live and breathe,” I said, giggling at the picture. “It’s the Llama of Death!”

When my husband began to laugh, I realized I had just come up with the title of my next Gunn Zoo mystery, a book I couldn’t wait to write. You see, I had a history with llamas.

A couple of years before Paul took that wonderful photograph, I was still a reporter with the Scottsdale Tribune, where every fall, my editor “volunteered” my services at the Arizona State Fair. Usually this meant becoming one of the media contestants in the goat-milking contest, but after submitting to such a humiliating exercise for four years straight, I rebelled. “I’m not milking another goat!” I told him.

“No problem,” my editor replied, almost amiably. “I’ve put you down for the llama race. Wear your running shoes, ‘cause you’re gonna be running an obstacle race while leading a llama.”

I don’t run, and my most strenuous daily exercise is making coffee in the morning, but I know determination when I hear it, and my editor was determined to make me take part in some sort of animal activity at that bloody fair. From what I’d heard about llamas, they were genial creatures (goats aren’t as genial), so when race day arrived, I laced up my new running shoes and headed over to the llama track.

Turns out, some of those llamas were pretty big. I’m not (I have to stretch upwards to make five feet). Intimidated by the giant, hairy quadrupeds, I chose a small brown and white llama as my running partner. The llama wrangler told me the little guy’s name was Lil’ Al, and that he had a sweet, placid temperament.

Deciding it might be wise to make Lil’ Al’s acquaintance before we headed to the track, I walked up to him, held out my hand for him to sniff, and said, “Hi, Sweetie.”

Lil’ Al and I got along like a house afire. After spending a few minutes talking to him and assuring him that we were going to be BFF, he nuzzled my neck said something that sounded like, “Maaaaa!”

Then he tried to eat my hair.

Hair-eating propensity notwithstanding, Lil’ Al ran well. And so did I, surprisingly, mainly because I had a llama hot on my heels, and that little llama had decided to show the big llamas who was who on the llama-racing circuit. Lil’ Al and I jumped over hay bales, waded through a kiddie pool full of water, rushed past a squealing pig, faced down an angry-looking goat (probably the one I’d tried to milk the year before), and we ran and we ran and we ran.

We ran so fast that even on our collection of six short stubby legs we finished second out of a field of twelve. When the “winner” was disqualified for spitting on a competitor, Lil’ Al and I were bumped up to first place.

We were the champions! (Cue Queen song here)

I hadn’t seen Lil’ Al since that day, but as I gazed at the photograph my husband had just taken at the Renaissance Faire, I realized that it was time to immortalize my furry friend.

I started writing The Llama of Death that evening, and six months later, I typed “The End.” In the book, zookeeper Teddy Bentley takes Alejandro, the Gun Zoo llama, to a Renaissance Faire, where the child-loving llama spends a blissful day giving children llama-back rides. All appears to be going well until the local wedding chapel owner playing the part of Henry VIII is found dead in the llama pen, and…

Oops. Better not give away too much. I am in the business of selling books, you know.

I wish I knew where the real life Lil’ Al is now. If I could find him, I’d tell him the critics are as beguiled by him as was I. Publishers Weekly said, “Animal lore and human foibles spiced with a hint of evil test Teddy’s patience and crime solving in this appealing cozy.” Library Journal wrote, “Webb’s third zoo series entry (after the Koala of Death) winningly melds a strong animal story with an engaging cozy amateur sleuth tale. Set at a relaxed pace with abundant zoo filler, the title never strays into too-cute territory, instead presenting the real deal.” The Llama of Death was a hit.

So wherever you are, Lil’ Al…

Thanks, Sweetie.





Tuesday, November 20, 2012

That Pesky First Chapter



Writing Chapter One can be hell. When beginning the first draft of a novel, Chapter One is almost always clumsy, confusing, vague, and written with all the expertise of a college freshman whose brain is fried on a combination of ganja and energy drinks. In fact, these first chapters are such miserable messes that most newbie writers feel compelled to fix them before they move on to Chapter Two.

Then Chapter Three, then Chapter Four, then…

“Oh, the hell with the thing!” the newbies wind up screaming before storming away from their manuscript, possibly forever. “This book just doesn’t work.”

To which I say, “Of course your book doesn’t work, because you didn’t write it. Instead, you wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote your first chapter until it died in your own hands. You were so obsessed with getting Chapter One ‘just right’ that you ignored your novel.”

And that’s a shame, because in the end, that first chapter will probably be cut anyway. It’s worth rephrasing. First chapters are usually cut from the finished manuscript.

Why? Because by the time the newbie writer has finished his manuscript, his book has taken on a shape and maturity he didn’t have when he was slaving away on Chapter One. The final chapters of his book are more universal in scope, deeper in tone, and more assured in craft than anything he could possibly have accomplished when he began his manuscript. Somewhere along the way, between page 50 and page 410, the writer grew up.

Am I speaking from experience? I sure am. My critique group has been operating for two decades now, and during all those years, I’ve watched attacks of Chapter One-itis kill many a newbie writer’s dreams. I’ve seen the same thing while teaching creative writing at various workshops across the country. Too many newbie novelists with truly great ideas just can’t move past Chapter One.

But it’s not only the newbies who fall victim to Chapter One-itis. It can happen to seasoned pros. In fact, it’s almost happened to me.

My 13th book -- The Llama of Death -- will be released on January 6, and I am here to tell you that all my first chapters were eventually cut from my final manuscript, including Llama. In my first chapter, I’m always flailing around, trying to find the novel’s “voice,” trying to clarify my ideas while at the same time introducing various characters. And my poor protagonist? In my first draft of Chapter One I find myself explaining over and over how my protagonist got to where she is, what her life was like before the book started, and why she feels compelled to solve crimes.

This clumsy flailing around is par for the course at the beginning of a first draft. At that point, I’m so insecure about my story that I tend to explain things to death. Therefore, Chapter One comes out overcrowded, over-described, stagnant, and dull. Nothing much happens in those pages – instead, it’s all cerebral in-the-head stuff, muddled and fatally passive. In short, Chapter One reeks.

No problem. I never try to “fix” Chapter One while writing the first draft of a novel. I leave the ugly thing to stew in its own juice while I move on to the first draft of Chapter Two. Then I write the first draft of Chapter Three. Then… You get the idea. I never look back. I don't “fix” the mess I left behind in Chapter One until I type THE END on the very last page of my manuscript’s first draft.

Once the first draft is completed, then, and only then, do I go back and address the problems in Chapter One. And what a surprise I find waiting for me! As it turns out, Chapter One no longer fits into my book. You see, once my story caught fire, it headed off in a different direction than I’d originally intended -- a better, more creative direction. Chapter One now looks like a donkey’s head stuck on a Thoroughbred.

So I just dump the nasty thing.

Then I write a brand new Chapter One. But while doing so, I often receive another surprise. I discover that what had originally been Chapter Two works even better as Chapter One, because Chapter Two has more action and less in-the-head stuff. I also learn that my later chapters handled most of the necessary explanations, so they weren’t necessary in Chapter One anyway. Therefore, my old Chapter Two – now evolved into Chapter One -- sizzles. All it needs is a light rewrite to start the book off with a bang, instead of the dull thud that my clunky old Chapter One delivered.

My point here is that you never know where your story will go, so why bother torturing yourself trying to perfect a chapter that will wind up in the trash anyway? Don’t let yourself succumb to Chapter One-itis. Write the darned thing fast and dirty, then move on to the rest of your book, because that’s where the magic is going to happen.

To reiterate: don’t try to fix that subpar Chapter One until you’ve finished the entire first draft of your manuscript. Then go back and write the wonderful Chapter One your book deserves.

X X X

P.S. If you found this helpful, continue on to the article about the Shadow Self.