Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Reminder to Self

Reminder to self: Your writing life is supposed to be enjoyable, and sometimes even fun.

A few recent things brought on this reminder.

1) Last week I went on what was supposed to be a mini-vacation, and ended up being more work than play.

2) I’ve noticed a decided lag in upkeep in my house. I used to move things around and enjoy reorganizing. It’s starting to look like a museum around here.

3) I haven’t entertained in ages. I used to entertain a lot, and I find myself neglecting to invite people over.

4) Last night I had a critique from my writer’s group and all night tossed and turned, worried that I’ll never be able to really the manuscript right. Although this morning I felt more sanguine, I didn’t like that feeling that I must get it right immediately.

5) I have intended for weeks to go see the new Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and the Berkeley Art Museum. I realized that somehow I never find the time.

6) I find myself feeling beleaguered, thinking of all the things I have to do to write and promote books as some kind of treadmill.

Is that enough? What it points to is that I am burying myself in my study every day, working. I have always preached the virtue of spending some time away from writing each week to refresh myself. And I’m not practicing what I preach. When I’m away from my desk, I constantly worry that I should be doing something: working on the new book, editing the old book, arranging a book tour, figuring out a promotion schedule, updating my website, sending out a newsletter, reading a book I’ve neglected to read, taking care of Sisters in Crime business, taking care of MWA business, writing a short story or article, and on an on.

What this calls for is new resolve. I’m determined to look at the world with fresh eyes—not the sunken eyes I see in the morning with dark rings surrounding them. And to do that I have to go to the museum, entertain friends, get new curtains in my kitchen, move paintings around, listen to some music, try a new recipe, call a friend I haven’t talked to in a while, read a book that has nothing to do with writing mysteries, take a day off. In short, smell the flowers!

Here are some flowers for you, too:

Enjoy your day! And take some time off to smell the roses.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What's in a Name

One of the dumbest things I ever did was name my first book in the Samuel Craddock series, A Killing at Cotton Hill. Not that it isn’t a perfectly good name—but that it’s long. After that, my publisher wanted me to name every book with the same cadence and the same “intent.” That is article-noun or gerund-preposition-proper name. That actually makes the naming a little easier, but what I never figured was how tricky it would be when I write short biographies. Usually when a writer attends a conference or has a reading event, she is asked to provide a short biography of 50 words. By the time I list a few of my books in my bio, half the 50 words is used up.

So when I sat down to write the psychological suspense novel I have in mind, I thought for once I would make the title short. Then I realized how easy the “formula” makes it for the Craddock novels. For a stand-alone, I had no such guidelines, and it’s hard.

What an author wants to convey in a title is a sense of the type of book it is, and a sense of the “intent” of the book. First, people approaching the book should know it’s in the broad “mystery” genre. A reader who picks up Ulysses knows what they are in for. But so is the reader who picks up “The Ulysses Solution.” Someone who picks up a book entitled, “The Brokered Tangent” would be disappointed to find it’s about a muffin lady who solves crimes in her spare time. Likewise, “Miss Lisa’s Moment of Mystery” will baffle readers expecting a cozy mystery and finding instead that’s it’s a thriller about an international conspiracy in which there is a lot of kick-boxing. Although it might actually be fun to confound expectation, it won’t win the author loyal readers.

The issue of intent means giving the prospective reader a sense of what the book might be addressing without giving away too much. Girl on a Train is a brilliant name for the book because it isn’t just about what she saw from the train, but that she inserts herself into the story. One good trick is to use the name of the protagonist in series titles, with a clever turn of phrase that gives a hint of the story. James Ziskin’s Heart of Stone comes to mind, a sly play on the name of Ellie Stone.

Then there is the issue of adding a touch of ambiguity. That’s the hardest trick of all. Would Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs have been as intriguing if it had been entitled, “FBI Agent Saves Brave Girl From Monster?” Would Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice have been as enticing if it had been, “Aging Sherlock Holmes Takes on an Assistant?”

I’ve been playing with the title for the book I’m beginning, trying to come up with something intriguing, but not too revealing. I’m thinking of calling it Just Like You. I’m hoping “You” will become the new “Girl.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Jump, Turtle, Jump

The deck is cleared: my “finished for now” manuscript is off to my writer’s group, emails are caught up, and my husband is out of the house for a few days.

Ideas for a fresh, exciting new book are written up and ready to go. Not exactly an outline, but a few pages of synopsis. Looks like it could be a winner. Really a great idea with good characters.

So, let’s go! What? “Let’s Go!” What do you mean? Start writing! Just jump right in there. Doesn’t have to be brilliant, remember? You’ve got a scene in your mind. You know where it is, who the scene will focus on, and what happens. So….GO!

Folks, it’s like getting a turtle to jump. Ready, get set, jump. Yeah, I didn’t see it either.

I danced around the page all day long. Played some word games, remembered some things I urgently needed to buy on-line, made a phone call. Found a few pieces of paper on my desk that needed to be moved from one spot to another. Made a list.

Eventually, at about 4:00 I made myself put some words down. Not many. Couple of hundred. Immediately I ran into a problem with the relationships between characters. Made a chart of who is who, which was very satisfying.

This morning more of the same: Jump, you sucker, jump! Turtle sat there. I did some reading. More phone calls. More games. More sighing. Ate some blueberries. The crazy thing is that Facebook is the perfect way to waste time, and although I did do a little social media, I found it super boring.

Which tells me that I needed to do all that weird dancing around the computer to start the book. For whatever reason, I had to look at that blank page: I had to peek under the shell of the turtle, let him wander around a bit, and eat some lettuce.

A few more lines went down and then I thought, “Wait! I have to have a working title.” Talk about an opportunity to procrastinate! I looked through Bartlett’s Quotations, stared at the books on my shelves, wrote down random words, wrote some phrases, tried some possible titles, and rejected them all. Finally put one word at the top: Reunion. And then I started expanding on the few paragraphs I had written yesterday. I changed some names to better reflect the characters. I moved them a little farther along, thought some more about what the relationships were among the characters in the scene. Got a couple of the characters to joke with each other. Discovered that one was anti-social, one was resentful, one calculating.

Before I stopped tonight, I had over 2,000 words. Some relationships got set up, a few haracters talked to each other. A couple of characters startled me.

Okay, the turtle didn’t exactly jump, but at least it ambled off the finish line. Maybe tomorrow that sucker will leap for the stars.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Plotting While You Play

I killed a lot of people last week. Here’s how it happened:

I spent five days on our sailboat in Long Beach. I am not particularly fond of being on a boat. Five hours is fine. Five days? Not so much. Especially when the day after I arrived we took the 5-hour trip to Catalina and I got soundly seasick.

But boating is my husband’s passion, so every now and then I give in. Those reading this who love to sail will say, “Oh, boo hoo, poor you.” Yeah, I get that all the time. Still. Seasick? Bored out of my mind? Yep. And don’t even mention those old salts who smugly say to my husband, “Put her behind the wheel! She just gets seasick because she doesn’t like not being in control (or because she’s afraid or whatever).” No, sweetie, that isn’t it. I just get seasick.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. Mooring off the town of Avalon was delightful.  Everyone is in a holiday mood and the town models a Mediterranean seaside village, a jewel off the California coast. So we had a great time while we were there. And the sail back was fabulous, with the wind in the perfect direction. Which is great for a while. But five hours of looking at the water and chatting? If I could read, I wouldn’t be so annoyed. But I get seasick if I even think about reading. One of our friends who came with us said, “I didn’t realize we couldn’t read while we were sailing.” Some people might be able to, but we were among those who can’t.

I have yet to figure out why sailors love to be on the boat for hours at a time staring at the water. In my experience sailing is hours and hours of boredom punctuated with the occasional moment of delight—and the rare moment of terror.

So what’s a writer to do? Plot. Plot. Plot. And for as mystery writer that means Kill. Kill. Kill. As it happened, my agent wrote me a few days before I left for the trip to say we needed to give my publisher a couple of synopses for new books. One of the plots I already had laid out, but I had to think about the other one. And I also have been laying out a psychological thriller, so I got a chance to roll that around in my mind. So, it isn’t all bad, as you can see from the photos!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Take Yourself Seriously

A few days ago someone on Facebook asked writers to please give one line of advice to beginning writers. “Take yourself seriously,” is mine. It’s my mantra to myself because I wasted so many years not doing it.

When I first started writing, I treated it like a lark. Like so many beginners, I thought writing must be easy—unless you were writing Moby Dick, in which case it was probably hard. But since Moby Dick had already been written, I didn’t have to go there. But look at how easy Jane Austen made it look. And Eudora Welty with those nuggets of short stories. Look how you could breeze through Elmore Leonard and Dame Agatha and Elizabeth George. Right? Right? Must have been easy to write because they tripped so easily through the eye and into the brain. I’d take nwriting classes in which my prose was almost always praised. Piece of cake.

So I started writing a novel. And at some point I reached a hard spot in my novel. What to do? What to do? Abandon it in favor of another book that was going to be fabulous, that’s what. So I started another book.

Finally I finished a novel and it seemed good enough. That’s all I was asking for—good enough. But publishers sent rejections. Not good enough. Okay, now I knew more. I’d write another one. Good enough! No. And then another. And another. And all this time I was not taking myself and my writing seriously.

Here was my magical thinking:
1)   If I just knew the right person, I could get a foot in the door.
2)   If I could just write something “good enough” an editor could fix whatever wasn’t working
3)   If I could just write a book that happened to catch a wave of a popular theme, the book would be snatched up.
4)   My writing is good, the details should take care of themselves.

Meanwhile, I gave careless consideration to all the real things that needed to be addressed: voice, character, plot, structure, setting. I was pretty good at each of those things—hadn’t everyone in workshops said so? But I had someone gotten the impression that these elements were the by-product of writing, not the heart and soul of it.

What I mean by not taking myself seriously is that I was not requiring a serious attitude about the one thing I wanted to accomplish—to become a published writer. In the parlance of education, I was an under-achiever. The thing is, I put in a lot of hours—and I thought that’s what was meant by “taking myself seriously.”

Eventually I got to the right workshop, in which the words “take yourself seriously” was described in a way that hit home and I understood that I had to write from my brain, not just my instincts. Maybe I needed all those years of failure, all those “almost” books, before I was ready to hear it. But boy, did I waste a lot of time and energy before that.

So I’m saying to anyone sitting down to write a story, whether it be your first or your twentieth, whether you’ve published or not: take yourself seriously. That’s the way it works.

Book Recommendation: Attica Locke's Pleasantville just won the Harper Lee prize for legal fiction. It's a phenomenal book. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

New Horizons

Next January my sixth Samuel Craddock book comes out, a prequel called An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock. I love Samuel and the citizens of Jarrett Creek, and I hope to continue to write about them for years. When the first one came out three years ago, it was a dream come true. The first book got a lot of attention and was nominated for some awards. The books continue to be popular, get terrific reviews and attract happy readers. I’m pleased with my publisher and with the whole experience I’ve had.

That said, I want to expand my horizons. I am working on a thriller, and it is finally beginning to look like a viable book. Writing it has been a steep learning curve. Even though both small-town chief of police novels and thrillers come under a general heading of “crime fiction,” they are very different types of books. The thriller demands more action and a wider venue. I’ve had to learn a lot about another country, about the subject of the book and about a different set of protagonists. Who knows whether it will have the same success as my series, but I’m moving forward.

But there’s more. I am intrigued by the psychological thrillers I’ve read and would like to try my hand at one. I have an idea for another thriller. And I would even think of starting another series.

                          At Thrillerfest with award-winning thriller writer Taylor Stevens.

I look at Catriona MacPherson, who writes her delightful Dandy Gilver historical series, but has put written amazing psychological book after another. Or Rhys Bowen, who has two strong historical series going with completely different protagonists. John Sanford. Steve Hamilton. Tim Hallinan! What they all have done is branch out at some point to new territory.

The problem I have is not where can I get ideas, but which one to tackle first. I still have two half-finished books that were started around the time the first Craddock book came out. I still like the idea of both of them. The fact is that it takes time not just to write a book, but to promote it. I am lucky to write fast and to be able to write full-time, but the idea of writing two or even three books a year, plus articles and short stories, is daunting.

I would love to know how other writers decide which project to tackle first. Does the publisher demand it? Their agent? Do they follow their own instincts and write what excites them? If I did that, I’d be writing three books at the same time. They say that Isaac Asimov wrote four books at a time. He had four desks, each facing a different direction. He would work at one desk for a while, then move on to the next desk and a different novel. Apparently he could keep them all straight.

I think I could keep them straight—different voices, different plots, different intentions—but would I have time for a real life? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Conference rules

Two years ago I attended my first Thrillerfest as a debut author. International Thriller Writers celebrates new authors as if they have just discovered a cure for cancer. So although I felt a little intimidated by all the honchos at the conference, I was in a haze of delight.

                                          Bay Area Thriller Author Alan Jacobsen and me 

Last year that changed. I thought the big time authors held themselves aloof from the peons and were inaccessible, and there was a certain cliquishness to the conference. It was clear who was in the inner circle. The rest of us were wannabes—even those of us who have well-established crime fiction books.
One of the problems is that at other conferences the big name authors are sprinkled through the panels, so that they hobnob with everyone. For some reason at this conference the big names tend to be packed into panels together, which gives them an air of invincibility and leaves panels held in parallel to theirs sadly lacking in audience. And it makes the name authors seem unapproachable.

It looked like this year was going to be the same. Even though I am self-confident and feel like I can talk to just about anybody, I felt intimidated and unable to approach authors I admired. And then I remembered the first rule of conferences: wade in and talk to everyone. Find people to converse with that you have something in common with. Are you both writing about small towns? Is the author writing something you are intrigued by and know nothing about? Are you curious about their background? Find something to talk about. Introduce yourself to people, even if it’s just to say hey, I enjoy your books.

The second rule: Don’t wait to be invited to a meal—invite someone you want to get to know better. For some reason, I always assume everyone already has plans. I was happily surprised to find that people were thrilled to be asked. Suddenly the conference became intimate and more interesting. Here’s the strange part: when I was talking to people I found common ground with, suddenly I became more interesting. Writers I had felt intimidated by stopped to chat. A few even shared some of their current challenges.

The last rule was for me alone. Last year, I drank too much. I took the “see you in the bar,” too literally and ended up feeling fuzzed headed and grumpy a couple of days. This year, I decided that water was my friend. Sure, I had a glass of wine or a drink, but that was it. And I discovered that the next day I remembered what was said the previous evening. It also meant I slept better and I felt more energetic and upbeat. And one unintended consequence is I came away with a heavier wallet—those NY drinks can be expensive.

This is a cautionary tale for everyone attending conferences of any kind. Did you notice the questions I gave as examples? They were all “you-oriented,” not “me-oriented.” You’re going to have more fun if you see it as a voyage of discovery.