What I learned at Killer Nashville

I was on three panels at Killer Nashville Mystery Writer’s Convention (August 22-25), where JACKAL: A Jessica James Mystery was a finalist for a Silver Falchion Award for best suspense.

Of course, it was great to hear the legendary Joyce Carol Oates talk about the writer’s life and some of her books. And David Morrell’s presentation on writing Rambo and writing comics was fun. Alexandra Ivy talked about how to write sex scenes—good to know. And, Lori Rader-Day was entertaining, as always. Thanks to Clay Stafford for putting on such a great convention!

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[David Morell & Clay Stafford, Joyce Carol Oates & Clay, Alexandra Ivy, Lori Rader-Day]

Being a a professional student (ie. a college professor), I did my homework. Before talking about Women’s Fiction, Subplots, and Writing Dialogue, I did research and spent time thinking about each topic. I learned a lot from my fellow panelists and from the other panels I attended throughout the weekend.

I don’t know about you, but I find these conventions pretty intense—it feels like an alternative lifetime is crammed into four days…Like when Captain Jean-Luc Picard lives out forty-years as the flute-playing scientist, Kamin, before returning to the Enterprise to realize only minutes have passed for the rest of the crew.

So what did I learn from my life at Killer Nashville? From attending past KN cons, I knew it was easy to make new friends at Killer Nashville.

Although I’d met him before, I learned Roger Johns has a wicked sense of humor and knows how to play an audience. He moderated our session on writing dialogue.

On the dialogue panel, I learned that Alexandra Ivy writes her novels first as screenplays and then goes back and fills in the rest, Mike Faricy knows a lot of Irish swear words, Dana Carpenter imagines her scenes as movies first, Lynn Willis loves y’all and all y’all, and Jim Nesbitt isn’t as intimidating as he looks with that big hat.

We agreed that dialogue should be realistic but not real because if you just record the way people talk, it would be deadly boring. I think of Alfred Hitchcock trying real blood in Psycho, but deciding it didn’t look real, so he used chocolate sauce instead. You have to make it look real, a condensed or crystallized version of reality—the chocolate sauce version.

writing dialogue panel

[Mike Faricy, Alexandra Ivy, Dana Carpenter, Roger Johns, Lynn Willis, ME, Jim Nesbitt]

For my part, I talked about using dialogue to create conflict. Not just the obvious argument kind of conflict, but internal conflict. I love to use to dialogue to show how what a character thinks or desires is in tension with what she says. I think of the funny scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall when they are having a serious conversation about art and we see subtitles telling us what they’re really thinking: “I wonder what she looks like naked?” “I hope he’s not a schumk like all the rest.”

It also fun to use dialogue to create misunderstandings. Ian McEwan is the master of misunderstandings in dialogue… think of Atonement or On Chesil Beach.

You can use dialogue to add humor and picturesque language or sayings.

We talked about making each character’s voice unique by giving them unique speech patterns or associating certain words with a particular character. I go back and do this when editing. I reserve some turns of phrase, and even some verbs, for particular characters.

The women’s writing panel was kind of weird because none of us really write women’s fiction as it is traditionally defined—although it was fun to talk about possible intersections of crime writing and women’s fiction. I think of my Jessica James Mysteries as more feminist noir than women’s fiction.

One of my recent favorites that might fit the bill as both crime and women’s fiction is the fabulous The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. I love that novel!

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[ME, Saralyn Richard, Amy Rivers on the women’s fiction panel]

The subplot panel was a lively discussion of how to use subplots and the relation between subplots and main plots. It was fun to hear how others use subplots to advance their stories. I like to use subplots to modulate both the tone and the pace of my novels. You can use subplots to develop characters, build suspense, and add humor to an otherwise serious subject (like campus rape, or human trafficking) to lighten the mood.

But the hardest lesson I learned is one I’ve learned countless times before, but tend to forget—maybe like the so-called amnesia after childbirth that allows you to consider having another baby—What goes up, must come down.

After spending an intense weekend surrounded by people, coming home alone to my quiet house is depressing. It’s weird. While I’m at the convention, I’m full of excitement and joy. It’s scary, but fun. Then, when I get home, I’m a complete basket-case and can barely function. Thank God for my cats, Mischief and Mayhem.

wimsey and mayhem

What about you? How do you cope with the postpartum depression of conventions? Asking for a friend…

 

 

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Write Funny

Kelly Oliver, Award-winning author of the Jessica James Mysteries

When I was in graduate school (a million years ago), a guy invited me over to his place for a dinner date and served Chardonnay and Captain Crunch cereal. To be fair, he was living on a grad student stipend and had to economize, and Captain Crunch did double duty as the entree and the dessert. Had he served Oat Bran or Shredded Wheat, he would have had to spring for dessert…and it just wouldn’t have been as funny.

That night I learned two things: Captain Crunch is one of those things best left to childhood memories. And, cereal is about as romantic as cat litter.

wife feeding hubbie

Humor is tricky because sometimes it’s a matter of taste…. And not just when it comes to cereal. Some people get the joke, others don’t. Some people get it but think it’s stupid. And some people are just plain offended.

But, done well, humor is worth the risk.

What makes a story funny?

Funny words.

I’ve read that words with “K” sounds (Captain Crunch) and hard consonant sounds are funny. Maybe that’s why when I was born, my parents named me Kelly. It’s true that some words are funnier than others. Colonoscopy is funny—unless you’ve ever had one—Endoscopy, not so much. Cucumber, Twinkie, and Okra are funnier than Bread, Butter or Jam.

Oddball lists.

In a list, an oddball can be funny. She was well versed in the philosophies of Plato, Nietzsche and Winnie the Pooh. His favorite desserts are Black Forest Torte, Cherry Gateau Basque, and Pop Tarts.

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Funny Comparisons.

Surprising comparisons, metaphors, and similes can be funny. “With cleavage so deep it could tutor philosophy” (Harlan Coben). She stuck to him like a tick on a rangy deer. She stuck to him like a sequin on a ball gown. He stuck to her like a Velcro on a training bra.

Are there any issues that are off limits to comedy?

A couple of years ago, I was pitching my first novel, WOLF in New York City, and when I told a group of young women authors about the subplot and themes of date rape, party rape, and rape drugs, and I said it was a humorous mystery, some of them were appalled. They didn’t see how rape could ever be funny.  Obviously, I agree.  Rape can never be funny.  Books, on the other hand (even books that take on serious topics like rape), can be funny.  In fact, humor often helps us deal with difficult subjects that might be too hard to face without it.  Think of John’s Green’s treatment of cancer inThe Fault in Our Stars.

 Comedy = Tragedy + Time.

Humor releases tension and anxiety, which can help the pacing of your suspense novel. Humor makes it easier to deal with difficult issues. Mark Twain says, “the secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” And self-deprecating humor can be some of the most cathartic to write. Having a sense of humor can help get through the darkest days.

Use Humor to Tell the Truth.

Mark Twain also calls humor “the good-natured side of truth.” Humor can lighten the mood of your story. It can help you modulate the pace. But it can also help you give the reader new insights. Funny anecdotes are most effective when they have a deeper meaning.

My husband is from Puerto Rico. He likes to tell the story of his encounter with a giant rat in his college dorm. It was the middle of the night and he’d gotten up to pee. As he made his way down the hall to the bathroom, the huge rat ran across his path. He freaked out and called campus security. When the officer arrived, he asked, “How’d you get into Yale? Haven’t you seen a possum before?” In his telling, the possum takes on a deeper meaning and becomes a symbol for his own status as a fish out of water.

Possum

You can see why I married him instead of Captain Crunch.

Who needs drugs?

New studies show that laughter triggers endogenous opioid release in the brain.  Hey, endogenous opioid release, that sounds funny… even without a K sound.

Use humor to add some fiber to your story!

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Kelly Oliver is the award-winning (and best-selling in Oklahoma!) author of The Jessica James Mystery Series, including WOLF, COYOTE, FOX, and JACKAL. Her debut novel, WOLF: A Jessica James Mystery, won the Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for best Thriller/Mystery, and was a finalist for the Foreward Magazine award for best mystery. Her second novel, COYOTE won a Silver Falchion Award for Best Mystery. And, the third, FOX was a finalist for both the Claymore Award and Silver Falchion Award. Look for JACKAL, A Jessica James Mystery September 25th. Why wait? It’s available for preorder now and on sale for only $1.99 until launch day!

When she’s not writing novels, Kelly is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and the author of fifteen nonfiction books, and over 100 articles, on issues such as the refugee crisis, campus rape, women and the media, animals and the environment. Her latest nonfiction book, Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from the Hunger Games to Campus Rape won a Choice Magazine Award for Outstanding title. She has published in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has been featured on ABC news, CSPAN books, the Canadian Broadcasting Network, and various radio programs.

Learn more about Kelly and her books.