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.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Using all the Senses

When I was a new writer, I wrote a short story that I was proud of. I gave it to a friend who wrote short stories to critique. He said he liked it, but that I needed to learn to use all my senses in writing. It was a story set in the 30s, and in it a young boy ran after his father’s horse and buggy at night to find out where he was going. My reader said he wanted to smell the dust as the boy ran after the buggy, he wanted to feel the grit of the dust in his nose and eyes, feel his heart beat speeding up as he ran, hear the squeak of the buggy wheels.

When I write now, I go back to that advice. My first draft is bare bones, letting the characters and the plot lead me to tell the story. When I go back to edit, I pause at each scene and ask myself how I can bring the scene alive with my senses. Is there something I can see, hear, smell, taste, or feel that will help the reader get closer to the characters? Is there something specific to that time or place? Is there smoke in the air? A storm brewing? Has someone been drinking, so another character smells the alcohol on his breath or clothing? Is someone dressed differently from the way he usually does—or from the way everyone else is dressed? Is there a sound present that warns that everything isn’t right?

A conversation or a narrative passage can only take the reader so far. Readers need something specific to ground them. Someone lies down on a bed and the springs squeak, or he groans after a long day, or the covers are too hot. Someone is driving and sees a car stopped by the side of the road, or a dilapidated house, or dead grass in a yard, or a car up on blocks. Every single thing you describe tells the reader where she is, how the place feels, how the characters fit into the scene. Or if a character doesn’t fit in, and why.

In everyday life, our senses work constantly to tell us details about what’s going on around us. If the reader doesn’t have these clues in a story, he doesn’t get the sense clues he needs, what dangers or joys might be in store. As a writer, it’s up to me to provide the clues readers use in their lives to help them understand the fullness of the story.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Dorothy Sayers didn’t; nor did Dashiell Hammett, James McClure, Rex Stout or Agatha Christie. These days P.D. James, Alan Furst and Marcia Clark don’t either.

But Laura Lippman, Louise Penny, Cara Black, Mark Pryor, and Craig Johnson do. And so do the great majority of current crime writers. They write long acknowledgements. They acknowledge those who helped them get background for their book, supported them during the writing process, edited the work, and helped get the book published. They name family, friends, people they’ve paid, and people who helped them gratis.

When the subject of writing acknowledgements came up for my next novel, I wondered if everyone wrote them. I couldn’t remember reading them when I read classic crime novels: They seemed like a relatively new phenomenon. But I had heard for a long time that if someone was looking for an agent, they should look in the acknowledgements in books they thought were like theirs or the name of the author’s agent. I plucked many classic mystery novels from my shelves to check my theory. I was right. Very few past writers acknowledged in any way the help they got from others for their work, much less wrote the long, heartfelt paeans we see in books these days.

Lucy helping me write

I’d love to know why and when this changed. I don’t think it’s because people have become more generous, or more mannerly. Nor do I think it’s because finding a way to get published is any harder than it ever was. It may be easier than ever. Traditional publishers may be harder to find, but getting your book out in front of the public is easier than it has ever been. One reason may be is that the world has gotten more complicated, and writers need help from a variety of people when they research their subjects. In other words, it takes a village

I like to read brisk acknowledgements of the professional support a writer received. But I also like reading the more intimate acknowledgements. I like knowing that Aunt Sally gave an author her first Nancy Drew book. I like knowing the names of the animals who snooze patiently while an author muddles on—and who remind the author when dinnertime rolls around.

I don’t think any less of authors who don’t write them. I doubt that they believe they didn’t get help along the way.

When asked to write an acknowledgement page for my first book, I didn’t hesitate. My biggest problem was paring the list to a manageable, dignified page. To be honest, I would have had to write a second book to fully acknowledge all those who helped me along the way.

I’d love to hear if anyone has any idea about why this trend has become so popular. And why is it mostly mystery writers who tend to do this? Literary writers who write acknowledgements seem to be in a distinct minority, even these days.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Real World

Is there life after book?

Last weekend as president of Sisters in Crime Northern California, I was responsible for coordinating our booth at the Bay Area Book festival. Thank goodness I turned in my latest book on Tuesday, giving me three days to see to little details like picking up a new banner, having flyers copied, arranging for posters to hang in the booth, learning how sales would be handled, etc.

Photo: Writers participating in the Bay Area Book Festival

It was a big effort, but participating fully in the festival reminded me that there is life outside of writing. I loved hanging out with my fellow writers who came to sell and sign books and to help with running the show. I loved talking to the people who stopped by the booth to ask questions. I had plenty of questions of my own: Do you like mysteries? If so, what kind? Often that sent us off on a great discussion of subgenres, writers we used to like to read and ones we liked to read now.

Some people said they didn’t like mysteries and I immediately asked what they did like to read. That’s because I read all kinds of books, and like to hear about them. I talked to a man who likes alternate history sci-fi, another who likes to read math books! Sometimes I saw my fellow writers looking askance at me for having in-depth discussions of other types of books. Weren’t we there to promote and sell mysteries?

Yes, but there is a method to my madness over and above the fact that I like to talk about books in general. There is still a stigma among some readers of “literary” fiction that mystery novels are somehow lesser—that they are not worth the time it takes to read them. I think that by engaging readers in conversations about books in general I promote the idea that mystery writers are well-read, intelligent people—which is true! And when I can, I gently slip in a suggestion that someone who likes a particular type of book may enjoy reading a mystery novel that is every bit as well written and compelling as “literary” fiction.

Although the weekend was exhausting, I also feel strangely exhilarated. I think it’s because I participated for several hours in the “real world.” People want to know where writers get their ideas, and it is from the real world. Even as I talked to people this weekend, there was a constant hum in the back of my head: Ooo, wouldn’t that be an interesting idea? Or, hmmm, that is a very unusual looking man. Maybe someone who looks like him will be on the pages of my next book.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The End for Real

When is The End actually The End?

Last week I wrote “The End” to my sixth Samuel Craddock novel, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t actually the end. No, I’m not talking about the need to revise, edit, revise again, edit again. I’m talking about knowing I galloped to the finish line leaving little threads of story line unresolved.

I tell myself I’m done. Clues have come together to the protagonist’s satisfaction, the bad guys are dead, or have been marched off to jail, or otherwise punished. The victim has received justice. The police or the detective or the lone avenger has proven his mettle once again. So I’ve done my job.

But wait. What about the subplot that limped to a conclusion? What about the character who was promised something and never got it? What happened to the character who wandered into a scene, got readers’ attention, and never showed up again? How about that titillating scene between the cop and the showgirl? How was their relationship resolved? Has order been restored in the community? That’s what the final chapter is for. After the investigation, the chase, the climax, the arrest, comes the wrap-up.

The resolution chapter has always been the hardest for me to write, not because I can’t figure out what to write. No, the problem is making myself sit down to write it. I’ve already written “The End,” okay? What more do you want from me?

That’s where my writer’s group and my agent come in. “Wonderful book. Love it. You’re not done yet.” I shut my ears and shout “lalalala.” I’m done. I am done. Readers can use their imagination, okay? They’re not stupid. They can figure it out. Their voices continue to nudge me, and grudgingly my voice joins them, “You’re not done.”

Yes, but…I prowl around my desk, play a game on my phone, read a chapter of a book. Then I force myself to open the file and write “Chapter xx.” I type a couple of paragraphs. Oops, better see what’s happening on Facebook. And I really do need to pep up my Twitter use—no time like the present. I descend into gloom, and wander around the house. Finally I remember that I’m almost done. Rejoice. I sit down and write a few more paragraphs. Then I repeat the above about ten times. Write, mess around, pout, perk up, etc.

What is that all about? I suspect it’s that I’m not ready to leave the world I’ve inhabited for the last few months. I love some of my new pals and I don’t want to stop playing with them. I don’t want them to continue their lives without me. It’s like being dead. Or like sending your child off to college, knowing that she’ll come home, but she’ll never really be yours in the same way again.

But the deadline looms, and other stories are nagging to be written, so finally I finish the chapter, rejoice because it really, really is finished, go through the manuscript one more time looking for overused words…..The End.

Last night I sent Samuel #6, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, off to my editor.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Final Edits

My sister is writing a novel, a debut effort. She hopes to be done with the first draft sometime this summer. She told me she loves watching her story unfold on the page and loves having the characters do surprising things. She belongs to a writer’s group that sounds like a perfect blend of writers who are serious and who take each other’s work seriously. I have fantasies of the two of us being published authors. But she and I both know she’s got a long haul before her book is ready to send out.

 (My multi-talented sister is an artist--this is one of her paintings, set in the area I used as a model for Jarrett Creek)

In anticipation of being done with her first draft, she asked me if during the editing process I find that I have to take out and add whole chapters. I told her that although I may not have to take out whole chapters, I often have to take out or rearrange big chunks. In fact, I’ve never known an author who didn’t. By the time you finish a first draft, you have redundancies, story lines that petered out, loose ends, characters who need to be reined in or pumped up, and a whole lot of terrible grammar.

I often have problems with the end, having to add scenes or even chapters. I think, like a horse going home to the barn, I start galloping toward the end and begin to summarize. Later, when I read what I’ve written, I realize that what was in my head hasn’t necessarily made it onto the page.

I’m now almost done with the third edit, and I think I’m coming down to the wire. The major glitches have been addressed, the arc of the story and the chapters completed, the loose ends tidied, the character arcs resolved, the story lines finalized. Or have they? I always find that when I go back over a manuscript “one more time”, I still have tidying to do. There will be a character I left hanging, or a story line that didn’t quite resolve. One more pass turns into two, three, five more passes. And then I’m done.

But wait! There’s one more pass. I call it the “golden words” pass. I have to find out many times I have used the golden words that I love: “About, just, almost, somehow, seems….” That one last pass is vital. Golden words are often placeholders for the thing you are really trying to say, or are used as lazy adjectives. “She was just fine” not only reads as well if you say, “She was fine,” but is actually stronger. Placeholder words slow down the action and make prose sound hesitant.

I promised my agent I’d have the manuscript to her this week so I can get it to my editor by June 1. So now…one more edit.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Writer's group critiques

I was thrilled to hear that my writer’s group loved Samuel #6. But of course what that means is that they loved it in general. In specific they had many comments and suggestions. The good part was that the comments and suggestions were along the line that I had already figured needed to be done.

When you get critiques you have a few possibilities:

1) Everyone will love it and have nothing but glowing comments. Dream on! Has this ever happened in the history of writer’s groups? I can just hear Laura Lippman’s critique:  Jeez, Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore. Can’t  you ever write about anything else? Or how about Michael Connelly: Bosch is such a downer. I mean couldn’t the guy ever have a cheerful moment? How about Rhys Bowen: Georgie, get a job, for heaven’s sake! Always with the impoverished royalty bit.

I don’t care how brilliant a writer is, there are always going to be people who want their writing to be different. You have to be on the lookout for people who don’t like your voice, your topic, your setting, and so on and not be swayed from your intentions.. A really good member of a critique group will read a piece at face value, trying to put aside personal prejudices and to help the writer improve based on what she is trying to achieve.

2) Everyone will hate it and send you out the door and tell you never to return. Admit it: that’s what most writers are afraid of. But just like #1, that’s very unlikely. No one in the group may wholeheartedly like everything about what you’ve written, but most people will find something that appeals. One person may love the setting, another loves the plot, another the voice. And sometimes you will get a reader who truly loves what you’ve done. Yes, treasure that person, but remember, he isn’t the reader you will learn from. You learn from the reader who gets what you are trying to achieve and who gives you advice that will both support you and help you move toward your goal.

3) People will be divided down the middle. It used to drive me crazy when half my writer’s group would love what I had written and half would tear it to pieces. I didn’t want to ignore the critics, but I also didn’t want to throw out what I had written. I knew deep down that there was some good and some bad in my work, but how was I to know the difference?

The answer lies in listening carefully. Don’t just hear what you are afraid a critic is saying. And don’t just hear what you hoped a reader would appreciate. Listen to the actual words. Write down what people say. If necessary, ask them to clarify. And then let the work sit for a day or two.

And then trust your instinct. You may not want to admit that you knew all along that something needed another look, but you know deep down. You have that, “darn it, I thought that would slip by” moment. If you let it slip, you are doing yourself and the person who worked hard to help you a disservice. That’s why you are in a writer’s group, after all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

To Group or Not?

                                                                           Should I jump in?

Not everyone wants to get advice from a writer’s group, and not every writer’s group works well for every writer. But if you do decide to pass your work by some other writers, there are things you need to consider.

Writer’s groups come in all shapes and sizes. They have various numbers of members, meet at different intervals, and critique any number of pages. In some groups everyone submits a certain number of pages for each meeting. In others one person submits a substantial chunk. I personally prefer to submit a whole novel, or at least a big chunk because I want to know how a novel is working overall for readers. But I know others who prefer to work in 20-page increments, revising one scene or chapter until they feel good about it before they move on. It’s important when you decide you want to join a writer’s group that you choose one that has a structure that supports the way you work.

It’s especially critical that you join a group whose members respect each other. I’ve heard horror stories about group members who try to rewrite people’s books, who give nasty critiques, who argue when people try to provide honest critiques, and who don’t manage to read others’ work while expecting other members to spend time on theirs. You have to be able to trust that the members of the group have your interest in mind as well as their own, and that they can give and take honest criticism. It’s just as crucial to get real, honest feedback as it is not to get overly critical feedback. A reader should give both positive and constructive comments. It does the writer no good to only hear only bad news—it crushes the spirit and makes it hard to approach the manuscript editing with enthusiasm. But it also does no good to only hear how wonderful a piece of writing is. You don’t join a group just to get strokes.

I happen to belong to a group of four writers, and I’m the only crime writer in the group. The reason it works for me is that the others have respect for the kind of work I do, and even if they aren’t mystery readers, they understand the genre and critique my work according to my intention, not just for their reading preferences. I learn a lot not only from their critiques, but also from what they write and from the critiques they get.

At one time I belonged to a group of all crime writers and I really enjoyed reading their work and getting their feedback. Unfortunately the group stopped being the best fit for me. When we formed the group, the process was that we each submit an entire manuscript, which meant with six writers, one writer’s turn only came around every six months. It worked fine when we were all unpublished and did have not have deadlines, but once people started writing under contract, it was impossible to wait several months for feedback. That group still gets together on occasion to catch up with each other. It didn’t disband because of bad feelings, but because it stopped meeting everyone’s needs.

Because I have a June 1 deadline, I had my critique last week. It was very satisfying because what I heard was that the book works well overall and that it needed some editing. There were no surprises in terms of what needed to be done, and I’m already ripping through it beefing up the parts that weren’t up to par.

Next week I’ll talk about that “beefing up” process.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Real" Editing

Now for the Real Editing

The first read-through of a first draft can be a jolt. I don’t know about other writers, but I sometimes come across intriguing threads that I never developed. I may have a vague recollection of what triggered the idea, but just as often my reaction is, “What was I thinking?” It’s fine if I realize the thread doesn’t fit what the book became. I simply extract the thread with great care (think of the game of Pick-up Sticks), and make sure I haven’t left loose ends.

But sometimes I think the idea should have been developed. In that case, I stop and think about the ramifications on the completed book:

1) Will incorporating the thread resonate throughout the book? Does it require a complete rewrite? If so, do I have time to make it work?

2) Does it change the intention? Is that a change that I’m happy with? Will I be disappointed with the book if I don’t do it?

3) Will the new thread strengthen the book? If I can’t answer that question, is it something that might be more suited to another book in the series? Is there a less disruptive change I can make that will get the same point across?

If the answer is that I think the book will be better for incorporating the stray idea, I make notes on how to weave it in, and continue reading. I’ve had the spooky experience of thinking I didn’t work a thread into the story, only to find that I did, and that all it requires is some judicious adding or subtracting of sentences to make it stronger.

In this edit, unless I think the book is a complete failure, I don’t make more than cosmetic changes. For example, if I find a paragraph that is weakly developed, I might rewrite it. But mostly I make notes to remind myself where I need to take a hard look at some section I’ve written. The notes can be anything:

11) Miss X doesn’t pop off the page. Why?
  2)  Do I really need the scene with the pig?
33)   Have I sufficiently researched how this kind of autopsy would proceed?
  4)  Does this character come across the same way she did in Previous books?
I 5) Is the action in this section realistic? Is the language going to offend anyone unnecessarily?

I also take note of scenes that I got caught up in. Sometimes that means the scene really works. But sometimes it means that I think I’ve made the scene work, but actually my vision of it is what drives my reading of it. I note that I need to go back and read those scenes dispassionately, making sure my words match what is in my head.

And after this read, I hope I have a few more days to let the manuscript rest, to give my subconscious time to tell me what I still need to do. Next week: the writer’s group.

Book recommendation:  The Steel Kiss, Jeffrey Deaver. I like Deaver’s writing. He writes a good, solid thriller, without reverting to the kind of outrageous, over-the-top action that puts me off in some thrillers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Editing Interrupted by Life

First draft written, I know that the next draft needs work and am ready to look at it critically. I've taken time off to let the manuscript settle in, and now it’s time to start editing. Uh, oh. Not so fast. Clouds on the horizon in the form of jury duty--a case that will last three of the precious six weeks I have set aside for editing. Three weeks of 9-5. Three weeks of unexpected duty.

It doesn’t have to be jury duty; it could be anything that suddenly makes your editing life a lot harder. A parent gets sick and you have to fly across country to take care of him. Your house floods. You get a horrible cold. It can be anything. Bottom line: Life intervenes.

When I set out to edit a first draft, I like to read the manuscript all the way through to get the overall picture of what needs to be done. I jot down ideas as I read, but basically I want to experience the story the same way a reader would. But reading beginning to end means I need a big chunk of time to get the continuity (or lack of).

Being on a jury, there’s no way I can get a chunk of time to do that read unless I’m willing to get up at 3AM and read until 9AM or start reading at 5PM and stay up until I’m done.  Or I could wait until the weekend, which means giving up days I had counted on for editing.

So it looks like I’ll have to approach it differently, or tell my editor that I need extra time. I’ve never failed to meet a deadline, and I don’t like the idea of doing so now. I suspect what I’ll do is forego the full-time read through and instead read in chunks. Not my ideal, but then nobody gets their way all the time.

The important thing in this post is to realize that not everything goes according to plan when you are writing. On the writing side, you can get bogged down in research, or your editor has concerns about some part of the book, or you aren’t satisfied with it and can’t figure out why. And then there is the “life” part. Lots of things can go wrong and throw you off, but the professional writer has to figure out a way to muddle through. Of course I’m not talking about a major setback—death, health issues, or disaster. I’m talking about those little bits of life that make you veer off your perfect plan.

I’m writing this in the jury room. Those of us on the jury have been here all afternoon waiting to be called to the courtroom. It’s interesting to see how many people don’t do much of anything when the time stretches out. I’ve been reading Jeffrey Deaver’s The Steel Kiss, and finally decided that at least I could write a quick blog.

And now for the good news. At 4:20 we were called in and told our services were no longer needed. Oddly, several of us expressed some disappointment. We had already bonded. I liked the people chosen for the jury! But now the little glitch in my editing has been cleared and tomorrow morning I’ll begin reading the whole shebang!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Last week I talked about recognizing the need to edit your work. This week I will talk about how to begin.

You’ve finished your first draft (at least you typed “The End”). Now comes the important second step:  letting the work sit for a while. I call this percolating, or maybe stewing, or maybe even agonizing. But it’s an important step, even if you only have a day or two to step away. There are a couple of reasons to let the manuscript sit. First, you are too close to the work. You have lived with the characters and the story for so long that it’s hard to separate what you know internally from what you’ve actually gotten onto the page. Sure, you’ve thought of several things you forgot to include, or you’ve thought of a nice little twist you can add. Take notes about these. But give yourself a chance to forget what you think you know, so you can go back to the work with a fresh eye. You need to be able to approximate the experience a reader will have when she reads the book for the first time.

Second, you need to give yourself a chance to celebrate and rejuvenate. Celebrate the fact that you have managed what millions or people dream of doing and never get around to—you’ve finished a book. I remember a bookseller once giving a talk in which he said, “It’s hard to write a book—even a bad book.” His point was that people should be kind to writers. My point is to be kind to yourself. You know there are some awful lines in your first draft. You know there are characters that haven’t come alive, there are scenes that don’t quite work, research you need to do to make sure you’ve got something right, and descriptions you have to include. But you have written a whole lot of words, and some of them are good ones. Celebrate!

As for the rejuvenation part, studies have shown that taking time off is good for people’s work. Their products get better, they come back with renewed vigor, and the end result is better.

During this time you don’t have to forget about the book. Things will pop into your head that you know you meant to include, new ideas will pop up, and you will question whether you actually wrote something that you thought you wrote. Take notes. Do a little research if you must. But don’t obsess about it. Let yourself have time to take a deep breath. Start notes for a new project. Take a real day off—go to a museum, or go shopping or to the beach, or to lunch with a friend. This will prepare you to soar when you jump off the cliff into the editing process.

Book Recommendation:  On the advice of fellow author Tim Hallinan, I read Dead is Better, by Jo Perry. What a wonderful book! It’s witty and wise, and sometimes poignant. It’s one of those rare books that made me think, “How in the world did she think up something like that!” As one of her quotes in the books says, “Even in the grave, all is not lost.”—Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Editing 101

Optimism vs. Pessimism

This post is a lead-in to the subject of editing. I finished my first draft this week and will soon begin the task of getting my golden words whipped into shape. It’s a process that has taken me a long time to work out—maybe longer than it should have. Part of it has to do with my attitude.

Someone recently complained to me that she had gotten a bad review. She quoted a negative line from a review by a well-known reviewer. I told her I didn’t remember that. So I went to the review site and looked it up. Sure enough, at the end of a long review full of praise, there was one line of criticism. In the next line the reviewer said that didn’t take away from her overall enjoyment of the book. And she recommended it.

I was surprised that she had memorized almost word-for-word the one negative line in that review. I’m not delving into the psychological reason for this. What I am interested in is the difference in outlook. I took the review to be positive, while she focused on the negative.

I have a lot of writer friends. It strikes me that there is a certain percentage of them who by nature look for the negative. And some who refuse to see anything negative at all. I fear that I am in that latter Pollyanna group, and I don’t think it’s any more useful than being in the Poor Pitiful Pearl group. In between are people who look reality in the face and benefit from it.

I'm embarrassed to say that when I first started writing, I always thought everything I wrote was terrific. I know others who have that attitude, too. Like many of them, I was puzzled why agents and publishers didn’t see the value in my work. Gradually I came to understand that I couldn’t simply pretend that there were no problems in my writing.

Now I keep a list of things to look for that I know are my weaknesses and that I tend to overlook in my excitement about having written something I like. I have a list of words I know are “place keepers,” words that I use to avoid digging deeper into the scene. When I go back through and find phrases like “this thing,” or the words “about,” or “just,” I am alert to what I’m skirting. I’m amazed at how often a scene suddenly becomes much longer because located the stock phrases I used to describe things that need much more attention. In my early writing, I ignored those warning words.

I’ve been in writer’s groups with people with the opposite problem. They can’t see any value in what they’ve written. When they revise, they often throw out the good with the bad. Although I have never had that problem, I suspect that they could find ways of alerting themselves so they will avoid throwing out the good with the bad.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on this subject. Do you consider yourself an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist?