Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thankful for Writers

When I was a kid my mother once said, “Why do you like to read so much?” She was annoyed because I was one of those kids who lay around the house with a book, came to the dinner table with a book, and rode in the car with a book. I even read when I walked!

I don’t remember my answer, but it was probably something pithy like, “I just do.”

Escapism? Learning? Having a good laugh? Having a good cry? It’s all there.

 (Photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell)

So on this lead-up to thanksgiving, I’m giving thanks for the writers who have made my life richer. They have described places I’ve never been and am never likely to go. They’ve introduced me to characters I would either love or hate in real life, and taught me something about what makes them tick. They’ve explained science to me in fiction and non-fiction in ways that expanded my awe of the universe I live in. They’ve made me think hard about the way I live my life and how lucky I am. And about people whose lives are blighted and who managed to rise above it or are sunk by it. They have revealed the lives of people unimaginably different from me by virtue of their skin color or their cultural heritage or their belief systems.

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t read a phrase that makes me pause and ponder: what does this really mean? Makes me wonder how the author came by such wisdom. Makes me feel awe for his or her ability to articulate something I’ve felt and could never quite describe—or something I’ve never felt, and am amazed by.

As a writer I know that people who come up with these stories that make my life richer work really hard, often with little compensation. They spend many hours alone, many hours feeling frustrated that the ideas they started out with haven’t materialized on the page. They feel afraid that they will never produce the work they set out to accomplish. They feel numb when the ideas don’t come. And yet they keep going, reaching, reaching.  I salute them for their courage.

I’m thankful for writers who write deep, serious books, for those who write about history and science and psychology and travel and cooking and art. I’m thankful for those who write humor and fantasy. All of it.

And for this week’s recommendation: Young Americans, by Josh Stallings. This is a roller-coaster of a book—funny, outrageous, a zinger. It’s a caper set in the 70s, with a cast of characters you probably would be totally annoyed with in real life. But in Stalling capable hands, you’ll find yourself rooting for them the same way you do for characters in a Carl Hiaassen novel. It’s hot off the press. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Writer I Hope to Be

“It was only when I realized I was never going to write the book I'd dreamed of writing, nor be the writer I'd hoped to be, that I allowed myself to write the book that was in me -- to write no more, and no less, than that book.”  Quote from Heather Young, written in her post entitled “The Secret of Failure” on The Debutante Ball blog, Oct 6 2015.

This was such a wise and fine quote that it got me thinking about the book I dream of writing. It isn’t as if I ever thought I was going to be the new Virginia Wolfe or P. D. James. But I always pictured the book I would write as being lively and interesting. A book worth reading.

According to my reviews, that’s what I do write. My reviews are consistently good. I get a lot of emails from fans telling me how much they love the books. So how come that isn’t enough? Why is it that I’m not quite satisfied with the good reviews? What is it that craves not just good reviews but raves?

The easy answer is that I’m ego-bound and greedy. But that doesn’t feel exactly right. Yes, I’ve got some ego involved, and yes “more” would be nice. But I think it has more to do with an internal gauge that I want to satisfy and never quite feel that I do. The good reviews and the praise from readers make me feel good, but there is a secret part of me that thinks that’s just people being nice to me. Intellectually I know that’s silly, but my creative side always thinks I can do better.

Here’s how it happens: I’ll write a scene I’m pretty happy with, but then when I go back over it, it doesn’t quite read the way I thought it did. And that happens again and again. By the time the book is finished it’s a mish-mash of all those “not quite right” scenes. All those scenes were once fresh and perfect—in my head.

I suspect that most writers have that niggling inner voice that says, “not quite.” And yet every time I start on a new book, I think, “This one! This one will be brilliant in every way.” I know that isn’t likely to happen, and yet the ideal sits out there tantalizing me. I know I should be satisfied with good enough, but I hope I never will be. That ideal is what drives me and so far it has worked well enough. And maybe next time it will take me where I want to be.


Book Recommendation: Someone told me that she likes it when I mention good books I have read, so I’ve decided to make it a new feature of my blog. This week I’m reading In the Morning I’ll be Gone, the third in The Troubles trilogy, by Adrian McKinty. If you haven’t read them, you are missing a treat.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Rich Variety of Crime Fiction

The rich variety of crime fiction

Last Saturday Northern California Sisters in Crime had our Fall Author showcase, with short readings by eight authors whose books have come out between last June and November 1. What struck me as I listened to each of them read was the incredible variety crime fiction offers.

There was a political thriller; a spine-tingling tale based on a true haunted story, a cozy—the kind of fireside story that is intriguing and entertaining without too much in the way of blood and guts; a piece of true noir fiction, a short story; a blood and guts medical thriller and a psychological thriller based on the experiences of the author, a police psychologist. In addition there were two authors who couldn’t make it, one why writes a humorous mystery and another who writes adventure mysteries. And that leaves out a dozen other sub-genres—international thrillers, spy thrillers, capers, small-town traditional mysteries, police procedurals, novels of suspense, female in jeopardy (fem-jep), romantic mysteries, private eye, literary mysteries, historical mysteries, etc.

It’s no wonder that writers submitting their work to agents and editors have trouble categorizing their work. And it’s understandable that that agents and editors tear their hair out wondering what category to dub books they are trying to find a publishing home for and that publicists despair of getting books to readers who will appreciate them. Pushing all these stories into the loose categories of thrillers vs mysteries doesn’t do them justice, and doesn’t help the reader pick out the kinds of books they like best.

It’s a wonderful smorgasbord for readers, but for writers trying to break in, it’s a conundrum. How do you describe your novel in such a way to not only intrigue and agent or editor, but give them some idea of how to market it. That’s a good reason to keep up with what’s selling. You may have written a perfectly wonderful female detective book, but if female detectives are not popular at the moment, you’re out of luck.

Unless, that is, you use creative labeling. If you know that the female private eye market is saturated, think of another aspect of the book that you can point to. Is there a romance in the book? Are romantic suspense novels all the rage? Call it romantic suspense. Spy novels dead in the water? Call it international suspense. Paranormal not selling? Emphasize the detective called in to solve it, and call it a police procedural.

This isn’t a way to cheat. It’s a way to help your agent or editor sell it to the decision-makers. And it’s a way to get your books to the readers who appreciate them. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Every Month is NANoWriMo

I’ve never officially participated in National November Writing Month. It sounds like a wonderful club to be part of, and I always give a virtual high-five to those who sign up for it. So why am I not in that club? Because for me every month is Writing Month.  People often say I’ m very prolific, and there’s a reason for that. I write a lot.

When I had a full-time job, I wrote during lunch and after work. I wrote my first full novel by vowing that I would come home from work and write five pages a day, no matter how late I had to stay up. I once lived next door to a man who worked full time and had a family. He got up an hour early every morning to write. I don’t know how it worked out for him—if he ever wrote his novel—but I admired his dedication.

The story is that Mary Higgins Clark was left a young widow with four children. Working on a secretary’s salary, she knew she was in trouble. So she got up early every morning to write. Judy Greber used to bribe her young boys to give her writing time. Sophie Littlefield said her friends couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t go for a spa day with them or go out to lunch: she had a novel to write. We all know how those stories worked out.

 I don’t mean you have to give up a social life to be an author. But I do mean you have to be serious enough to choose your social life wisely. I’m grateful for friends who know that when I disappear for days at a time and can’t go to lunch and am often distracted it means I’m writing. I recently went to a talk with two authors who are a couple. They talked about how nice it was to live with someone who understood that when you were looking out the window for an hour, it didn’t mean you weren’t working.

When I’m working on a first draft, I set myself the goal of writing 2,000 words a day. Every day. I know that sounds like a lot, but I’ve heard a couple of very successful authors say that for them it’s 5,000 words. Yeah, that means in their world I’m a slacker. These are not beautiful, perfect, or even acceptable words, but they give me something to work with.  I’ve had people tell me they can’t go onto the next scene until they’ve perfected the one before. That probably works for some people, but more often than not, it means they’ve written the first sixty pages or so and have never gone beyond that.

That’s where NaNoWriMo comes in. People force themselves to write enough words every day to have 50,000 words by the end of the month. It’s a good exercise. I know, because for me any month can be November.