Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson

This month’s book review comes courtesy of a murder mystery set on fictional Seward Island off the South Carolina coast. In Murder Swings the Tide by Linda Shirley Robertson we meet interior designer Maggie Stewart who goes to Seaward for a much needed vacation and to re-evaluate her life. Within her first day, though, she discovers a dead body of a young art student. She clashes with the local sheriff believing he isn’t taking the cases serious despite this being the first murder on the island in quite a while. Deciding to launch her own investigation she enlists the help of several residents. Along the way she enters the first stages of developing a romance with one of the lifelong residents.

Murder Swings the Tide is extremely problematic. Everything from the main character to supporting characters to the plot to the prose to the pacing of the novel, it’s less than 200 pages, doesn’t work for me.

First, let’s start with Maggie Stewart. She’s incredibly irritating, egotistical, condescending, and judgmental. It was very difficult for me to buy her as someone smart enough to solve a murder better than the sheriff. For some reason she believes he’s not taking it seriously and is constantly asking him where he’s at with the investigation. She bugs him with her half-baked theories, all based on conjecture and no real evidence. It’s as if she’s watched watch too much “Law & Oder” and fancies herself some kind of expert.

In the beginning of the book she wasn’t too terrible. But as the murder investigation goes along, the more grating she becomes. For some reason she believes “employing” some of the dumber locals to help her makes sense. Never mind one of them is one of the most unreliable characters I’ve ever read. She’s incredibly judgmental upon meeting many of the locals, viewing them as stupid yokels. She shows her insecurity when meeting a lifelong friend of a guy she’s interested in. Immediately she writes the woman off as a bitch, she is overbearing and abrasive, and concludes the two are having an affair. As written there was nothing to suggest to the reader this is true. Not sure how she came to this conclusion no matter how many times he explains to Maggie the woman was his dead sister’s best friend.

The supporting characters are caricatures. Despite the author living in the south, she still writes many of the supporting characters as negative stereotypes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cast of characters we meet in the local bar (or saloon as it was referred to earlier in the book). Pretty much they are dumb white trash types who need Maggie to save them and show them they can do better in their lives. Even Maggie’s potential love interest is just a caricature; stereotypical rich guy from a well-established family who is firmly anti-development. He’s boring though I do appreciate he’s a nice guy.

The plot is ridiculous, again because of how much of a pain Maggie is. It’s completely possible for a non-law enforcement person to be a competent investigator. Plenty of mystery series feature such characters such as Miss Marple and Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey. The plot doesn’t work because the motive for the murder is thin and the person who committed it suddenly goes into psycho mode. There’s no evidence to support it, other than the scene where the killer pulls the “This is how I did it and if it weren’t for you meddling, I would have gotten away with it!” There’s an unnecessary subplot only vaguely related to the murder in that a couple of people involved she thought were suspects.

The prose of Murder Swings the Tide is incredibly stilted. Too many short sentences. Ordered oddly. As if Robertson was in the draft stages of the story. This doesn’t make for smooth or interesting reading. Descriptions are generic. The dialogue is often silly and makes little sense. When she tries to write in dialect for the locals, she makes them sound stupid and uneducated.

The pacing of the book is all over the place. It starts off at a reasonable clip, but then the last third of the book just plows through things as if Robertson was told by the editor to hurry up and just end it. Unlike a lot of mysteries where there’s tension, this book doesn’t have it. I never felt Maggie’s life was in danger other than in her mind.

Overall Murder Swings the Tide was one of those books I should have stopped reading. It’s a mess and doesn’t work as a murder mystery. One a scale of 1 to 5 pencils, I give it 1 pencil because there’s a puppy named Possum in it.

Weekly Musing: Critique Group Dos and Don’ts – Writer Edition

A component many writers groups offer are critique sessions. This is a time set aside where an agreed upon number of pieces, be they a short story, poetry, or chapters from a novel, are submitted to the group for feedback. While the person critiquing the piece has a responsibility to be honest and fair, the author bears some responsibilities when submitting the piece. Below are a few things I’ve noticed within writers groups I’ve been a part of. Seemingly simple things I wish every author would do as it would set up critiques to be about the content instead of other issues.

So here are some suggestions for an author when submitting work for critique:

Don’t submit an unedited draft – First drafts are garbage. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, doesn’t matter if you’re a published author or not, your first draft is going to be a tangled mess of ideas. Because you are still trying to figure out what the story is, it’s not the draft to submit to your critique group.

What I mean by unedited is at very least clean up the grammar and spelling as much as you are able to. Most writers struggle with grammar and spelling. There are plenty of books, websites, and classes to help improve.

If I’m reading a piece and I have to stop to remind you put a period at the end of a sentence, to capitalize where appropriate, how to use (or not use) a semi-colon, etc., then I can’t concentrate on the story itself. When it comes to the story itself please go through your rough draft at least once to organize your thoughts. Make sure scenes are in some kind of order. Submitting a draft and admitting it’s in no particular order, and it’s not intentional or experimental, is frustrating as the reader. It’s not my job to cobble together the sequence of events.

Format the manuscript in the industry standard – It is easy to find via a simple Google search of what Standard Manuscript Format – Short Story and Standard Manuscript Format – Novel  looks like. Often publishers will even include a link on their Submissions page. NOTE: Times New Roman or Courier New are the accepted fonts.

To make life easier for you and for any potential reader, format your work in the industry standard from the very first draft. You can even set up a template in Microsoft Word for this. As a reader it’s frustrating tapping the writer on the shoulder to remind them of something as simple as Standard Manuscript Format.

In addition to putting your piece in the accepted industry standard, make sure you understand how to properly denote a scene break. Sometimes I see blank lines in between paragraphs. I have no idea if there’s a formatting problem that wasn’t caught or if there’s a scene break. I know I’ve read several novels where this was how a scene break was noted, but the industry standard is three *, sometimes you’ll see three # used, centered with double-spacing before and after. Also, learn how to use Window/Orphan Control.

Clearly note chapters – I’ve read a few pieces where it wasn’t until several pages into the story I came to a page saying “CHAPTER TWO” that I realized everything I read up to them was chapter 1. For me this changes how I read and analyze the piece. When I read a short story I’m looking to see if it’s a complete story. When I’m reading chapters from a book, I’m looking for something else. Does this chapter tell me a piece of the larger story? Should it be in the novel and at this point? Is there too much backstory? Am I intrigued enough by the character(s) to keep reading? Make it easy on your reader, note those chapters.

 

Putting your work out there for others to read and critique is a nerve-wracking endeavor. Your heart beat speeds up. Your hands get clammy. Sweat breaks out on your brow and/or your armpits. Your stomach is in knots. It’s a big step as you let others see what you’ve been working on for months or years. To make it easier on yourself, put forth your best effort. Correct the grammar and spelling, format the piece correctly, and learn to self-edit. I want to focus on your story. I don’t want to be distracted by easy fixes, things all writers must learn to do unless you want your work to be rejected without being read. It takes a lot of work to edit and revise. For many writers it’s not their favorite thing in the world, but it’s a necessary evil. Make the critique of your work easier on yourself. Allow the reader to focus on the content and how to help you improve.

Weekly Musing: Under Pressure

This musing is going to be more of a rant session. Over the past few months I’ve noticed more than a few things which didn’t used to bother me now do. Most are things I can ignore, but some annoy me so much I’m struggling to get past them.

Gripe #1: Stop with all “You Should Be Writing” memes. I don’t care which steely-eyed, vaguely threatening pose of a celebrity you’re using, just stop it already. Stop trying to guilt-trip people. Yes, I’m looking at FB, but that doesn’t mean I’m not writing. Taking breaks are good no matter what your profession is. Your brain and body need to recharge and sometimes looking at cat videos helps. Or maybe that particular time of day you’re scrolling through social media isn’t when your brain is ripe for writing.

I know the memes are meant to be humorous, and I do see it as such, but the message it sends is clear: You’re a lazy SOB. Why aren’t you writing at this moment? Don’t you know you’re not a real writer unless you spend uninterrupted hours banging out words? You’re taking a break? Yeah, right. Don’t believe you. Get back to work!

Somewhat related are memes and infographics humorously trying to show the percentage of time a writer spends actually writing vs. staring at the wall, looking at cat videos, distracted by social media, binge watching any TV show, etc. You get the point. Again, these are funny, yet like the memes telling me I should be writing it sends a similar message.

Gripe #2: Word count updates. I get it. You’re justifiably proud for writing 2,000 words on your WIP. Or that you’re 45,000 words into your new manuscript. Or perhaps bummed because you had to cut 10,000 words. But must you brag about this frequently? Fantastic you’re writing. I am too, let’s be honest, most people don’t care or don’t understand what the big deal is.

Out of curiosity a couple of years ago I tracked my word count. It was fascinating, yet also a little discouraging. Seeing days with 0 words made me feel as if I hadn’t done anything. I felt like putting notes next to those days explaining I was doing research, or was ill (I tend to be one of those people who when sick, their brain just shuts down), or some life thing came up. Though when I saw what my daily average was, I still felt as if it wasn’t good enough. Not compared with writers I know who are flat out machines. I’m not a machine; I don’t work fast due to being a perfectionist.

Because it made me feel guilty, I decided to never track my words again. Hell, I don’t even know how many words my current WIP is. Only short stories do I pay attention to the word count because I need to know for when I’m searching for a place to publish it. What matters most to me is to work as much as I can that day. Realizing, too, that research counts as writing. Or that my subconscious is working. Pen to paper isn’t the true tell of the tape.

Gripe #3: Group think. A pattern I’ve seen in a lot of writing advice is how writers should, no, need to seek out others’ input. I agree we shouldn’t completely write in a vacuum, but I see people going overboard turning a work into a group project. I’ve seen in my critique group, and unfortunately actively participated in this, where as a group we discuss different ways a writer can fix their story. It goes beyond constructive criticism or answering specific questions the writer has.

This is why I have a slight problem with the idea of beta readers. I’ve beta read for a couple of people and it’s a lot of work. What I have to constantly remind myself is are my suggestions related to the work or what I personally would do different? Is this suggestion helpful for the author? If the author asks specific questions, are my answers constructive? Of course a beta reader can be helpful if a writer is struggling with something and asking for help isn’t bad. None of us are great in all areas.

I see writing as an individual expression. When it gets turned into a community piece it risks losing the writer’s voice. The writer is the one who knows the story and knows the characters. Sometimes too many people reading and responding to a manuscript confuses the writer and muddies the narrative. I’m concerned with all this outside input modifies an author’s individual voice and style to conform to what is “right”.

This concern about group think is one of the main reasons why I don’t participate in write-ins. Besides not really getting any work done, I simply cannot concentrate with that many people around. It messes up my ability to immerse myself in my story’s world. Also, I’m a pretty independent person, a perfectionist, and a massive introvert. It’s great people ask for help when stuck. But I worry about are you fixing it to please someone else?

 

These gripes have made me realize we writers need to be kinder to ourselves and each other. We are bombarded with noise on every aspect of writing. It gets to people in a negative way, losing its helpful intent. We need to put less pressure on ourselves. Writing and publishing are already stressful enough without added external forces trying to guilt us. Writing is a job, yes, and must be treated as such, but it’s not the only thing in life. So let’s stop giving the impression it is and that to do or think otherwise makes you less than legit.