Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What happened?

Here are some prickly questions that crop up and that I don't have good answers for:

1)   We’ve all read them-books that start out with a great premise, interesting characters, intriguing setting…and then the book runs off the rails. So what happened? I’m pretty sure that the author didn’t say “oh good, I’m done, I’ll just write anything from here on to the end. And I’m also pretty sure the publisher doesn’t stop reading and say, “okay, we’ve hooked the reader, who cares what happens next?” So what did happen?

2)   You have a great idea for a book. You are super-excited. You start writing and the story roars along. The characters are alive, the plot thrills you. Every time you sit down at the computer, your heart is racing with excitement. And then one day you stall out. The plot seems silly, the characters empty. You try for a while to resurrect your enthusiasm. You take advice about how to move forward, but the book feels dead. Eventually you decide it’s better to put it away in favor of something else. What happened?

3)   You pick up a book in your favorite genre, one that everyone likes, and for you it falls flat. You keep reading, hoping to discover the magic that has enchanted everyone else, and by the time you finish it, you are shaking your head, wondering if it’s you are “them.”

4)   You pick up a book that all your friends made fun of and you love it. You find a sly wit at work, the characters remind you of people you know. Your imagination is sparked and you can’t wait to read other books by this author.

5)   In your writer’s group there is an author who has worked for years and has written a couple of books you think are terrific—and the writer can’t find an agent or a publisher. On the other hand, the person in the group who has just dashed off what you secretly think is pretty thin stuff comes in with a glowing report that she has just landed a three-book contract. Not that you begrudge her good fortune, but you can’t help wondering what gives.

There are a number of ways to answer each of these questions, but the common denominator is that tastes differ. What speaks to one person doesn’t necessarily grab another.  In fact, what may have initially grabbed you about something you were writing may not have what it takes to go the distance. One of the hardest things any writer has to learn is that not everybody is going to like your work—including you. And as a reader, not everyone is going to adore your favorite books and authors.

I’d love for readers to share your ideas about what happened.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Could a writer do what her characters do?

Could you do what your characters do?

The detective is shot in the leg. He can’t stop now, he’s got to get to the woman he loves and save her from the smooth, sweet-talking bad guy who will fool her and take her away and…. He rips his shirt off, binds the wound and hobbles toward his car. Within twenty minutes he is outside the house where she is being held. Miraculously his leg is well enough to…

Or how about this: The female police detective knows something bad is going on. She isn’t allowed to get in to the local FBI headquarters, so if she’s going to get to the bottom of the story, she has  to sneak into the facility. She watches and waits. It’s cold and raining. She’s shivering and exhausted. Finally she sees someone coming out of the building, someone who has been working late. She runs toward the building, jacket over her head as if desperate to get out of the rain. The man leaving is so chivalrous he holds the door open so she can scurry inside. Now she’s inside and she has to find the room that holds the files…

Pretty exciting stuff. But where does it come from? Is this something a writer or a reader could ever think of doing in real life? Ever? What makes writers want to put our characters in dire straits and have them perform in ways we never could? What makes readers want to read about it?

I love action scenes, but as a reader, I can’t picture myself in the action. I know I’m a total wuss and could never find the courage to go after bad guys. I can’t imagine how I would get out of big trouble. As bad as reading about someone who is in a physical confrontation is reading about someone who is trapped. I know if that happened to me that if I didn’t die of fear, I’d have to be institutionalized afterwards because I’d lose my mind.

I’m pretty sure I read these types of books in order to make myself think everything will be okay. I have a real life example. My husband loves sailing, bigtime. I like it okay but was terrified at the idea of going on an ocean voyage and being out of sight of land. Then I read a true story about a woman who ROWED across the Atlantic alone. Next time there was a chance for me to go on a trip where we’d be out of sight of land, I said “I’m in.” If told she could do something like that, I could spend a few hours away from land.

But why do I write stories like that? ? Well, I actually don’t. I write the kinds of books where people have to solve crimes by deduction in an environment where my protagonist knows people’s strengths and weaknesses and is never in real danger. Like I said, I’m a wuss. I read books by writers that I know have never been in the kind of peril they imagine for their characters. So here’s my question: Do they imagine themselves in those situations, and do they think they could do what their characters do?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Making it Real

When I think back on some of the plots of books I’ve really liked, some of them seem utterly preposterous. And yet at the time, I was totally engaged and went along for the whole ride. How does that happen? It’s all about engagement with the characters.

I have read some pretty good books with characters I wouldn’t want to know. Also, if a plot is intriguing enough and the setting well established, you can limp along with so-so characters. If the plot is teaching you something, that can also make up for dull characters.

But the best of all reading worlds is when the characters seemed like real people.

How does an author do that?

I recently had an experience that reminded how it works. I’m working on a thriller. In the first draft, I skimmed over my protagonist, knowing I would go back and “fill in the blanks.” He’s a guy. A guy with a special ops background of some kind. A guy with a girlfriend, and a son, and some kind of bank job. Blah, blah. I figured I would get to know him as I wrote, and that in the next drafts I would build on what I learned about him. I know a lot of western men, and I figured I’d be fine.

In the book there are also Middle Eastern men, Arab Afghanis. I know no one who fits that general description, so I worked hard to find out what these men would look like; the kind of clothes they would wear; the things they could be proud of, angry about, afraid of; their attitudes toward strangers, towards their family members, both men and women; toward their peers and their servants. I tried to find out what their homes would look like inside and out—what kinds of rooms they would have, their furniture. What would they spend money on? I worked hard to picture them not as “they” but as familiar individuals. I struggled to give them believable quirks, likes, and dislikes.

I gave the first 100 pages to my writers group to find out what was working and what wasn’t. Although I shouldn’t have been, I was surprised when they all said the Afghani characters were more interesting and more believable than the western characters.

What that means is that the better characters are those that an author has worked hard to get to know as individuals. It’s not enough to know that my protagonist is “a guy” who has elevated training of some kind that gives him the ability to overcome the obstacles in the plot—it’s more interesting to know why he sought that special training, what he has done with it, and where’s he’s going. Not A guy, but THE guy. He’s someone specific, with traits that come out of his experiences; that makes him behave certain ways in certain circumstances based on his pasts, his fears, his dreams. That’s when the character becomes real.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Pluggung Away

Many of you may know that I had a difficult last half of summer. On July 13, I had shoulder surgery and became one of the two percent who suffered nerve damage in my arm as a result. No! This is not a whine about poor me. It’s about moving right along.

For the first few weeks I was in pain and grumpy as hell—feeling sorry for myself, imagining scenarios in which I would never again be able to use my right hand, thinking of ways to get revenge on my doctor, etc. I worried that I’d get carpal tunnel problems in my poor overworked left hand, blah, blah, blah.

But I’m a writer and the first thing I wanted to do was write. I had set myself the goal of getting back to work, even in a limited capacity two weeks after the surgery. I don’t remember exactly how long it was after the surgery that I actually faced my computer one-handed, but I did. I’m no martyr—I didn’t  set impossible goals or make a fuss internally if I didn’t reach a goal, but I  tried to do a bit each day. One day I was grumping that I hadn’t done anything productive in forever, and suddenly I thought, “Wait a minute, you goose, you’ve gotten a lot done.” Then I tallied up what I had actually accomplished in the last few weeks, and realized I was plugging along and accomplishing little bits of this and that—writing a weekly blog, doing edits on the thriller I finished the first draft of just before the surgery, and yep, writing my weekly blog. It all added up to a respectable amount of work.

Also I have been going over the edits suggested by my copyeditor at Seventh Street Books for the book that comes out January12, The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake. Yes. January 12, which means…YIKES! It’s time to get my promotion calendar going. Time to do all those tedious, necessary tasks that must be done if I have a chance of getting the books into the hands of readers. I realized a while back that promotion is not about me, me, me. It’s about wanting people to have the chance to read a book I worked hard on and that I’m proud of. If they don’t know about the book, they won’t get a chance to read it. Thus, promotion.

I’m lucky. I like talking to people, reading aloud, traveling to bookstores and libraries and book clubs. But those gigs don’t set themselves up, It would be nice to be one of those authors in the rarefied world of big publishing who get their tours set up and paid for by their publishers, but alas that isn’t me. It falls to me to set up the opportunities to talk to people about my books, to write to the bookstores and arrange the travel, notify magazines that have interviewed me in the past, try to get radio interviews, etc. These days the trend is to have more than one author at bookstores, so it also means finding out who has books coming out that would likely be interested in sharing author time with me.

So time to plug away a little harder. And by the way, I’ve typed this into the computer using both hands. Turns out that there are hand clinics that make these amazing contraptions that allow people with limited hand usage to do all kinds of tasks. I’m ready to get to work!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Organizing emails

Update: Last week I casually asked whether people kept a messy desk or a tidy desk. Whoa! Who knew people would be so passionate about the state of their desk?  They are, and messy won by a huge majority. But what really interested me was that many people don’t use a desk at all. And some have multiple desks—including one woman who keeps a messy one and a tidy one. And by the way, after I posted the blog, I cleaned up my desk. Alas, it’s already on its way to messy again.


In keeping with the theme of messy/tidy, I have a question for everyone: How do you keep your important emails sorted? I lose a lot of time every month trying to locate emails that I either received or sent with valuable information. During the search, I’m cursing people (including me) who tack an important piece of information onto the end of an email about nothing in particular.

Example, Subject line: My sister is getting married! The email contains all the juicy details and at the very end, the writer says, P.S. Joe Jones at the Mystery is Grand bookstore wants us to do a reading in August of 2016. Interested? The next couple of emails discuss the how, when and what about the event—but we never change the subject line. Five months later, I realize that the event is looming and I can’t find the emails. Sometimes I can’t even remember who the other author was.

Sure, my intention is to put it on the calendar the very minute. But just as I open the calendar my husband needs something right now or the dog throws up, or I suddenly realize I’m late….and the calendar loses.

And what about the reservations I make for a hotel at a conference, and they send me a nice confirmation. Do they send it with the name of the hotel? Sometimes (bless you, Hyatt). But then you get those hotels that are oh-so-coy. Their email address is something like, and the subject line is  “Staying 2 nights.” Thanks. That makes it 100% impossible to find your stupid confirmation. UNLESS I have been clever enough to flag it.

Which brings me to the email flagging system. It works pretty well as long as I:

1) Actually use it every time
2) Weed out old ones that are no longer needed
3) Use the right color of flag for the particular email.

What I end up doing is printing out a hard copy of important emails, which works pretty well as long as I do one of the following:

   1) Print it out
2  2) Make a hand-written note of what it actually pertains to (see cryptic email names and subject lines above)
    3) Don’t lose it
    4) Don’t misfile it.

I think I might start forwarding the information to myself with revised subject lines, which should work fine as long as I do it.

Any suggestions?