Wednesday, October 28, 2015


I just finished reading a crime fiction book that made me want to write something really good. The language was rich, the story solid and a little scary, and the characters deeply human. But what really grabbed me was that the book had depth and soul. It had at heart a sense of morality.

I was thinking about what inspires me not just to write, but to write a better book, like that one, to reach inside to what I really think is important and mix it into a story in such a way that makes me proud of what I’ve written.

For years all I wanted was to tell a story good enough to get published. Now I realize that I was not being true to myself and certainly not working to my highest aspirations. There’s a huge gulf between “good enough” and “good.” More and more I think about how to bridge that gulf.

I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of books that were good enough.  I don’t require that every book I read be the best example of art and craft in its category. So what is it that gets into me and makes me want to go beyond what I think of as simple entertainment and to write an inspired book?

I don’t think it’s the desire to be famous, or rich. There are plenty of rich and famous authors whose books I don’t admire at all. And some little known authors whose work I have tremendous respect for. Also, I don’t always feel the drive to step it up. Sometimes just writing a good, solid book is fine.

Does the drive come from competition? I doubt that as well. For some reason anytime I read Truman Capote, I feel the inspiration to do better. But imagining that I could compete with him would be plain foolish.

I think in some way it has to do with the reason we write to begin with—the desire to connect. I want to write stories that make people recognize their world in my prose—to recognize themselves and people they know, and to recognize the dilemmas we all face , whether we do it with courage or cowardice. I want readers to feel that the time they spend reading my books is not throwaway time, but hours well spent. I want them to remember little bits of things and recognize the human condition common to all of us.

John Gardiner wrote an entire book, On Moral Fiction, in which he addressed some of what I’m talking about. I fear that he would have sneered at my desire to write “moral” crime fiction.  His was a more high-fallutin’ world. But when I read the work of some of the best crime writers I know that the best writing transcends genre—and inspires me to do the same.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Taking a Break

Everyone needs a break now and then, and this week I am in Tahoe with my sister and a friend. It's a quiet time of year here in this resort area. Too cold for summer sports and as yet there is no snow. So instead of sitting in traffic due to treacherous weather conditions, or because the summer crowd has packed in, we had little traffic to contend with. As you can see, the leaves are turning yellow and orange.

Today it was windy and cloudy at the lake

But I enjoyed myself enormously and feel like it was worth the trip.

But folks, even if I am in Tahoe relaxing, enjoying the scenery, napping, drinking a little wine, and going for walks.....I edited twenty-five pages today.

Tomorrow is another day, and now we are going out for pizza! I'll be back on the job next week.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I'm Buzzing

Last night I asked my book club if they had ever read Tim Hallinan’s books. Some of them are not mystery readers, but I told them that Tim’s books are up there with some of the great “literary” genre writers—John LeCarre, Dennis Lehane, and Alice Sebold, to name a few. These are writers who fully embrace the mystery genre, but who add a philosophical and lyrical depth that many writers of genre fiction don’t strive for. A few of the women wrote down his name. That’s the sort of thing that creates buzz.

I hardly ever get off an airplane or leave a social event without having recommended books to people. If someone asks me what I write, I tell them and try to be aware if their eyes glaze over. If that happens, I ask what they like to read, and take the opportunity to tell them about books they may like. If someone likes cozies I’ll tell them about Rhys Bowen or Tracy Weber or Leslie Budewicz. Thrillers? I recommend Gayle Lynds or Marc Cameron, or Mark Greanley—I was just on a panel with them at Bouchercon and thoroughly enjoyed each of their books.

Do you like thrillers with a touch of sci-fi? Patrick Lee—what an imagination the guy has! Or there is always The Martian. I’m amazed that there are still people who never heard of it.

And I’m always keen to slip in a word for my fellow-writers at Seventh Street Books. Lori Rader-Day writes a solid mystery in the great tradition of whodunits—and has a fresh new Anthony award to prove it. James Ziskin writes a “historical” series (who knew the 1960s were historical?) from the viewpoint of a young female reporter—and has an Anthony nomination as well. Allen Eskens is a multiple award winner. I loved his first book and can’t wait to read his second.

One in particular that I want to buzz you with is a chilling psychological thriller that just came out—The Hollow Man, by Mark Pryor. Pryor writes a wonderful, gentlemanly series set in Europe with a diplomatic corps protagonist. The Hollow Man couldn’t be farther from this. It is about a sociopath who realizes something is missing in his psyche and has worked hard to fit in. When something in his life goes awry, his true nature is revealed. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend it. Will this little bit of buzz matter? Who knows? All I can do is tell people about the books I like.

I don’t know how word of mouth propels one good book and never catches with one equally as good. Most writers despair of this strange algorithm. I recently read a Macavity award-winning author whose book blew me away, and someone told me that not everyone loved the book. On the flip side, I have stopped reading a few popular books midway through because they simply didn’t engage me.

I’m itching to talk about books that I’ve been asked to blurb and that will come out in the spring—but that will wait for another posting. Happy reading, everyone!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Desire to Hurry

I thought by now I’d be done with the thriller I started writing a year ago last June. In part it isn’t all my fault. I had a problem with shoulder surgery this summer that set back my writing. But that’s only part of the problem—if there even is a problem.

I’m impatient. That’s a given. I know I’m not the only one who wants to hurry along the process of creating a book, but I may be one of the worst. But at some point I’ve had to realize that being impatient does not serve me well as a writer.

Here’s how impatience shows up. I have a germ of an idea for a plot, and characters begin to step up. I write a few chapters and they go along nicely.

Then, after a while, I feel really satisfied because I have 50,000 words that seem to have sprung from nowhere. I’m pretty sure things are going to roar along. That’s when I make my mistake. I decide to read what I’ve got—after all, I’m way over halfway done. I settle in for a good read…and it’s awful. The plot I thought was pretty good turns out to have ghastly holes that I’m not sure I’ll be able to fix. Every single character sounds like ones I’ve read before. I know at that point that I was kidding myself—that this was a terrible idea for a book, that I’ll never finish it—in fact, maybe it’s time to stop writing and become a….well, anything but a writer.

What to do?? Do I plow forward, hoping by some miracle that it will all come together and make sense? Do I go back to the beginning and start reworking what you’ve got, shoring up the plot, fluffing up the characters? Do I have someone I trust read it, hoping it isn’t as bad as I think? Or do I abandon the whole thing?

I’ve tried each of these solutions, and the only one that works for me is to slog forward, setting a daily word count for myself. I remind myself that a beginning draft is an exploration, not an opportunity to write down finished thoughts. And somewhere along the line, the characters rescue me. They wake up, yawn, introduce themselves to me and tell me how the plot should actually unfold.

The trouble is, this takes time. I can rush it to a certain extent, but the process is the process.

When I finish, then it’s time to start all over with that notorious process called editing. I try to remember what I had in mind from the beginning. I begin to understand what the plot holes are and how they have to be plugged. More often than not, it’s because I haven’t actually fleshed out the characters and without characters the plot points don’t come to life. With that in mind, I let the characters evolve into their potential, honing the plot, filling in the setting so that it reflects the characters and plots…

Finally I am finished…again. And this time I have what is a real first draft. It needs more work. And I want more than anything for the damn book to be done. I want to hurry it along because I want to see the whole thing be what I envisioned when you started out. I want to present it to my agent. I want people to read it. Not only that, but I have another book tugging at the back of I mind.

But it won’t do to hurry, no matter how much I want to move along. If I am going to be true to the original vision, I have to keep going over it—sharpening, filling in, exploring side issues, doing final bits of research. Without all this work, what I have is just a shadow of the book I thought I was going to write.

It would be nice to have a magic wand that I could wave and have it all turn out the way I wanted, but that’s not the way it works. At least not yet. If anyone is holding that magic wand, pass it over!