From all the Midnight Writers to all of you, best wishes for 2008!
Monday, December 31, 2007
As my husband and I are moving into our new home tomorrow and are staying with my parents during the move, in a house currently occupied by 15 adults, three children, two cats and a dog, (Can you hear the circus music playing as I write this?) I will make my post brief, but fun. :)
We've all seen those New Year's predictions in the supermarket tabloids. Imagine, for a moment, that you are Jeanne Dixon. Gazing into your crystal ball, what do you envision for 2008? What's in store for the writers of MI and the world of publishing?
I look forward to your responses. Until next time, here's wishing you love, health and happiness in the New Year and beyond.
Friday, December 28, 2007
Now, we have plastic organizer boxes featured on Target's endcaps. Closet shoe racks and day planners are displayed prominently at Macy's.
The message is clear.
Get it together, people! It's a New Year!
Come January second, the gyms will be packed. Starbuck's even slashes their orders of heavy cream and caramel sauce for January to accommodate our resolve to get skinny. (They go back to regular ordering procedures in February.)
Okay, I have to admit. I love the New Year. I love the fresh feel, the chance to get it right, to make the changes. I stumbled upon a few of my old New Year's resolution lists a while back and was astonished to realize I'd accomplished some of the big things. Maybe not right away, maybe not in one year, but I moved forward, and now they are checked off. I was once told, resolutions and goals are like navigational devices. Subconsciously as well as consciously, we aim our sites at the path we have mapped out for ourselves.
So, I'll play—
Here's my list for 2008.
1. To write 250 words every single day. (I'll probably do more, but I want this doable with day job requirements.)
2. To finish La Cage aux Foul Play.
3. To effectively promote Little Shop of Murders and BrigaDOOM.
4. To find and hire a manager to assist in P.R., website work, etc.
5. To land appropriate day-job (referred to above.)
6. To hire cleaning lady to free time up for writing.
7. To maintain weight loss (from last year's list.)
8. To make my writing an event of making a joyful noise for myself and others.
So, what's on your list?
Thursday, December 27, 2007
By Tom Schreck,
author of On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery
That's me and Riley.
Riley's a rescue dog--meaning someone gave him up and he needed a home. Turns out some old lady kept him in a cage all day and called him "Rotten" Riley.
Some group of dog people got him but they said he was aggressive and they recommended that he get put down. Besides that he wasn't a pure bred--he's half bloodhound and somehow that made him less than.
Well, a nice woman named Heather thought the dog group was nuts so she adopted Riley and didn't put him down but added him to her collection of 10 unwanted bassets. She put his photo on Petfinder.com, a spot for rescued dogs.
My first dog Buddy had just died suddenly and we had Agnes, a bloodhound and Wilbur, a basset left. When I saw Riley's lineage something inside of me said he's might be for us. When I called my wife she said he was definitely for us and made me call the woman and set up a road trip.
My wife is like that.
Riley became ours and he didn't come without issues. He was aggressive in his own way and bit both of us once or twice when we broke up fights between him and Wilbur but that was a long time ago. He barks when he gets his food and he does this weird thing where he controls which dog gets to go through the doorway first.
He also took and passed his therapy dog test.
That's right--Ol "Rotten" Riley, once on death row, is a certified therapy dog. He goes to the VA Hospital and visits the locked psychiatric ward where's he's known to steal milk, snacks and sandwiches from the patients.
And people who don't smile much smile a little more when Riley takes their milk.
May we all be as rotten.
People like Heather and the rescue groups take care of dogs like Riley and they spend their own money getting them fed, giving them medical care and everything else that goes into caring for a pet. Sometimes they do fundraisers at pet stores and other places. Next time you go past them give them some money or maybe even adopt your own rotten pet.
My very first book signing for On The Ropes benefited the New England Basset Hound Rescue--and even though there were lots of Red Sox fans there I still gave them all the proceeds.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Welcome back from the holidays! The following is a continuation of my interview with Donna Andrews about the writing life. You can read the first part of the interview here.
Q: Which actors would you choose to portray Meg and her fiancé on film or TV?
A: I wouldn't. If anyone ever buys the film or TV rights, I will brace myself to see who they choose and will try not to do what Anne Rice did when she denounced the casting of Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire. Though to her credit, after she saw the movie, she made a great effort to be just as public with her apology to Pitt and her praise or his performance as she had been with her disappointment when he was chosen. But I hope one day to have a chance to follow the advice of whoever said that if a movie studio or a TV network options your book, smile and cash the checks.
I know a lot of people really enjoy the whole game of trying to cast the characters in their favorite books--including some writers with their own books. I just don't get it, so that's probably my least favorite question to have lobbed at me on a panel or at a signing. And I cringe when I say that, because I know some people really love doing it, but trying to get me to join in is like asking a tone deaf person to join the choir. No doubt a profound character flaw. When the huge debates rage over casting characters in popular book—the Harry Potter books, for example, or Lord of the Rings--I'm the one in the corner muttering that maybe we could just wait till we see it before we get up in arms about the casting. Loved Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, but I could probably have lived with Stuart Townsend. Heck, whoever Peter Jackson chose would probably have been just fine with me. Clearly I have no future as a casting director.
So when people ask me whether so-and-so wouldn't be perfect casting for Meg or have I ever considered using what's-his-name to play Michael, half the time I won't recognize the name--especially if it's someone famous mainly from sitcoms, which I rarely watch. And if readers do suggest someone I've heard of, very often it's someone that no, I can't imagine them playing Meg or Michael. But that doesn't mean I would hate it if it came to pass. If they're good actors chosen by a good director who will make a successful movie, fine by me.
This is probably related to the fact that I've never been able to see the point of writing fan fic. I know some very talented writers who have done it to learn their craft, or who continue to do it for their own amusement. Once or twice I tried my hand at it, but I just don't get it. There's only so much fun I can have playing in someone else's fictional world before I feel compelled to go off to play in my own.
Which, until and unless I make an unexpected career change, is the printed word, not film. So I've accepted the fact that if a movie or TV series is made based on one of my books, it will be the director's vision of the characters, not mine. And I'm cool with that.
Q: What are your writing habits? Do you aim for a set number of pages a day, or hours at the desk?
A: Writing habits? I'm sure I have a lot of bad ones, like my tendency to--oh, wait, we're talking about how I write, not what. Whew!
For me, writing a book falls into three phases. The researching and outlining phase is difficult, because it's hard to tell when you've actually accomplished something and when you've been running down rabbit trails chasing stuff that won't ever make it into the book. Though it's dangerous not to let yourself run down those trails, because until you reach the end of them, you have no idea which ones are dead ends and which ones open up great vistas of information that you need for the book. I always feel relieved when I can declare myself in the draft stage--which occurs either when I have a working outline that I'm happy with or when I reach my self-assigned drop dead date for starting the draft.
In the draft phrase, I go by word count. I know myself well enough to predict that if I scheduled myself to write for a certain number of hours, I would quickly find a way to fritter some large portion of them away with less critical writing-related tasks, like pondering just the right word for the sentence I'm writing, revising and reworking a page that already works perfectly well for a first draft, or researching some minute bit of information I need to make a scene more accurate. And most of the time, the right word, the fifth or sixth revision, the tiny fact--they're not essential when you're in the draft phase. In draft phase, I know I need to keep moving forward--like sharks that are supposed to die if they're not swimming.
So at the beginning of the draft phase, I do a spreadsheet that shows how many days I have till my self-imposed deadline, which days I'm going to be working--I try to be realistic and not schedule myself on days when I'm traveling, for example, or on Christmas day--and how many words I'm supposed to write each day. And then I sit down every day and try to meet my quota. The rotten thing about being in the draft phase is that every morning I have that quota staring me in the face. And the great thing about being in the draft phase is that as long as I complete that quota, I allow myself to call that day a success, no matter what else went wrong or how many other things I blew off. It's very comforting, knowing that if I just do my quota, day after day, I will emerge at the end of the draft phase with a decent draft that I can begin polishing into a solid book.
The third phase is the revisions and polishing phase. I usually cool the book, read it through and fix anything I see wrong with it, and then get a few trusted friends to read it and beat me up about anything that doesn't work for them, so I can fix it by the time I need to turn the book in. There are two challenges in the draft phase. The first is figuring out a way to see the book I've been working on for months with fresh eyes--every writer is familiar with how easy it is to overlook the most glaring mistakes because you've seen the book too often and see what you expect to see, not what's there. And the second is making yourself think of it not as a finished book but as a draft, so you won't hesitate to open it up, put everything on the table, and do the work that needs to be done to make it better. I'm always looking out for techniques for doing that more effectively.
Q: Do you have a special time or place where you write?
A: The place is on a computer, preferably my regular computer at my desk, though I have written on my laptop in various places during my travels--including in airports while waiting for planes; in hotels at the end of the day during a convention or signing tour; even in a McDonald's while taking a break in a driving trip. When I'm in draft mode, I like to settle down at my desk around 9, 10, or 11 a.m.--and work till I finish my quota. Not without a break--I'll break for meals and snacks (though I'm just as likely to fix them and eat them at the computer--I go through a lot of keyboards). And I'll come up for air to read email or take care of small household tasks. But the more I can just focus on working until I finish my quota, the better it goes. If I finish in a few hours, maybe I'll keep going and built in a cushion against a day when life interrupts my plans. If it takes me till midnight to finish the day's quota, I try to keep coming back to it until I finish. I try to build some wiggle room into my schedule for a book, so I can renegotiate my self-assigned deadline and quotas if life throws me a curve, like an illness or a family crisis. Note that there's a difference between my self-assigned deadline--when I want to finish a solid draft so my critiquers can read it--and the publisher's deadline, which is when the manuscript has to be in New York. Ideally, I want to have that good draft finished six to eight weeks before I need to turn it in.
Q: What is next for Meg and Michael?
A: It's not a big secret that they've been creeping toward matrimony. (Anyone who doesn't like spoilers should stop reading now.) At the beginning of Penguins, Meg and Michael are planning to elope, so one of the mysteries in the book is whether anything will happen to derail their plans. I imagine eventually I'll be giving them kids, but in the meantime, I'm inflicting a random two-year-old on them. In /Cockatiels at Seven/, the book that will come out in 2008, a friend of Meg's drops off her son, Timmy, asking Meg to take care of him “just for a little while.” I'm not sure what most people's definition of “just for a little while” would be--when it comes to babysitting a two-year-old, I think somewhere between five minutes and a few hours. So the next morning, when Meg's friend has not returned to collect Timmy, Meg goes looking for her--and stumbles across several possible crimes that could account for her friend's disappearance.
I confess, this idea came directly from my own experience with my nephews, who turn four in December. I am the original doting aunt, but I can't imagine how the parents of small children actually get anything done. So one day while I was watching the boys, it suddenly occurred to me that I wanted to do this to Meg. That's how a lot of my books start. I see or hear about something bizarre and exclaim, “Oh, I've got to do that to Meg!” Writers are sadists sometimes.
Monday, December 24, 2007
The 21 novelists that make up the InkSpot blog hope you'll visit us often in the coming year. Be sure to share your comments on our daily posts. We invite you to read our award-winning, best-selling thrillers and mysteries. But most of all, wherever you are, we hope you enjoy this special time of year with your family and friends.
From all of us, we wish you a very Merry Christmas from the Midnight Writers at InkSpot.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
I won't go back. I, like Joe Pike with his red arrows on his shoulders, will always drive forward. Daunted for sure. But at the end of this year and the start of the new one, I recommit myself to driving forward.
Some of us have had setbacks this year on this twisting road called being a published author. Myself included. But then I think back on how far I’ve come along the road and I should be pleased. But I know the road ahead is long and uncertain. That’s why I’m hoping that you will join me on my journey – I could use a little company. That you too will recommit to taking the journey, long and twisted and uncertain as it might be.
So what do you say? A little road trip anyone?
My roots are gray and have grown out about 2 inches, my pedicure is way overdue, and my nails are chewed to the quick. I don’t see any time in the immediate future to get my hair colored and cut, or my toes painted and nails filed and buffed. And hey, it’s much easier to pick up Burger King or order a pizza than prepare something healthy. So, like my hair, nails, and toes, the diet will just have to wait until the new year. The fat will keep me warm this winter anyway. I can find an excuse for anything. But come January 1, all that will change . . . well maybe January 2, after all I’ll be up late on December 31 and might be too tired to usher in changes in lifestyle the next morning. So, January 2nd it is. I’ll get up early and walk, eat a small bowl of oatmeal with soy milk, write until noon, make a salad for lunch and drink green tea, go to the spa, get a massage, pedicure, and manicure, return to the computer to write, formulate a dynamite marketing plan, eat something vegetarian for dinner, relax with my hubby, get a good night’s sleep. Then on to January 3rd. Yep, that sounds like a plan. What do you think?
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Here in the Northeast we have been blanketed by lots of snow. It will indeed be a White Christmas.
The other evening in the midst of yet another snowfall, I bundled up into my gear and headed out to shovel. The snow was light and fluffy, the kind that's easy to push along. The outdoor Christmas lights twinkled between snowflakes.
After I finished shoveling and since I was still nice and warm from the physical effort, I brought the dogs outside to romp around. It was fairly late in the evening but I knew there was one place I had to go. I walked towards the woods.
I stood in the middle of the woods and remained still for a long time listening to the sound of the snow as it gently fell through the trees. There is a particular sound it makes almost like a tinkling of bells as it glides down. There is that and silence - an unbelievable silence marked by stillness and solitude.
Our everyday lives are so filled with noise and bustle that we sometimes forget what silence sounds like. Many of us live dual lives as writers who still work "day" jobs. Many of us balance hectic schedules and fight deadlines that suck the life out of us. Some of us juggle all that with the added stress of caring for families. But whenever I'm pushed to my limit, I remember the woods on a snowy evening. I remember that there are places I can go to that are quiet and still.
Things happen out there. In the lack of man's presence, the woods become a playground to animals who explore its pristine paths. The snow brings much needed shelter to animals who hunker down against raging storms. The moonlight shines across open fields and casts shadows between trees. But most of all, there is peace.
You guessed it: I made the wreath. I CRAFTED it.
The simple answer is that I saw a similar one at the Liberty Bar in San Antonio. A century-old establishment skewed at an alarming Pisa-esque angle. Which means that if you set your purse on the floor it could keep on slidin' til it comes to rest under the spurs of that half snockered cowboy at the end of the bar. The menu, however, is damned-straight fabulous.
I had the cactus growing in my back yard.
I had all those wooden shish-kebob thingies gathering dust in my kitchen drawer.
And (most significantly) I had the luxury of TIME.
Because (and here’s the real answer to the question “why”):
I’m between writing contracts.
Mai Tai to Murder has been successfully launched, and my new series proposal (an inspirational romance) is under serious consideration by several publishing houses. Very exciting. But, still, it’s strange for an author to be in a limbo-land without deadlines. Though I love the heady sense of anticipation and new options (cue the West Side Story showtune, "Something's Coming" . . .) I find that my natural creative juices need to be satisfied. I MUST be CRAFTING something. Anything (obviously). I've always been that way. And over the years, this itchy need has spawned a vast number of strange things: felt fabric mice dressed in Camelot costumes, a gingerbread re-creation of my hospital emergency department (complete with Santa OD'd on brownies) , Edward Scissorhand-like topiaries, cookies shaped into smiling armadillos, that great carrot cake for a quarterhorse's 16th birthday party . . . . okay, I’ll stop before I scare the bejeebers out of you.
So, question: If you couldn’t write, what other CRAFT would call to you? Or, before this writing gig snared you, where have you found creative outlets? Any lamentable "masterpieces"?
And, oh yeah, is it just me, or do my cactus buds look a LOT like pimento-stuffed green olives?
Sunday, December 16, 2007
By Joe Moore
Amazon recently announced the introduction of their new Kindle e-book reader. If you visit the website and watch the promos including the impressive endorsements from James Patterson, Toni Morrison, Anita Diamant, and others, you’ll see that this is a cool device. Yes, there’ve been other e-book readers in the past, but this one has some special features that are unique. Besides the light weight, large storage capacity, and “electronic paper” display, the thing that really got my attention was its wireless capacity to download from anywhere without the use of a PC, cell phone, or any Wi-Fi hotspot connection. Wireless download from just about anywhere is included in the cost of the device. It’s also got a built-in dictionary, wireless access to Wikipedia, and other nifty features.
So is the Kindle the one? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s a sure sign of things to come. Especially if a giant like Amazon gets behind it. The biggest hurtle that the Kindle and similar devices have to overcome is the technology itself. A book is probably the most ingenious storage device ever invented. Why? Because the basic format has not changed in thousands of years. And a thousand years from now, someone can pick up a book printed today and read it. There’s no guarantee that the technology supporting the Kindle will last a decade. What if batteries are suddenly no longer made to power the Kindle? What if the format is no longer efficient to archive the written word? What if a new device comes along that holds a thousand times more data at a fraction of the cost? What if it simply isn’t manufactured anymore and you still have one that needs servicing.
Remember 8-track audio cassette tapes? Betamax? 78 RPM phonograph records? VHS? Heck, it's even getting hard to find a CD anymore now that MP3 has come along. How about CRT video monitors? Anyone you know still have one now that the cost of LCD flat monitors are approaching the price of a McDonalds Happy Meal? If the device that's needed to play the media is not preserved along with the media, you're out of luck. There's no chance of that happening with books because they are their own storage device.
But before we cast judgement on e-book readers like Kindle and say they're a passing fancy that will quickly go the way of the rotary dial phone, let's revisit a few pieces of innovation from the past that didn't catch on at the beginning.
"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."
-- Western Union internal memo, 1876
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
-- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
"640K ought to be enough for anybody."
-- Bill Gates, 1981
"But what... is it good for?"
-- Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip
"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
-- Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
-- David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s
"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible."
-- A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp)
"So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.'"
-- Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer
"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
-- Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Holiday Book Giveaway
Jess Lourey is giving away both copies of her 2007 Murder-by-Month Mysteries, June Bug and Knee High by the Fourth of July, to the first ten Left Coast Crime registrants who email her at email@example.com. Email quick! This is your chance to feel like you still have a little Santa in your life.
Today is the last day to enter Bill Cameron's Give a Dog a Home Holiday Sweepstakes.
Friday, December 14, 2007
I'm a bit late posting today; lots of people have been posting here about the stress of holiday obligations, the need to get things just right, to be appropriate for the season. Often it's motivated by a need to not let the family down.
Added to this, if you're a writer, is all of that other stuff that you didn't think that being a writer would involve: the stress of deadlines, the onerous (and expensive) task of promotion, the feeling that if you're not doing something right now you're probably failing in some way--failing to reach a potential audience, failing to make a sale, failing, failing.
Well, I don't believe in that conflict any longer--I think it's an illusion, and I'm backing away from it. Somehow I've kept this holidays relatively serene; last night I watched my son in his final Christmas Concert (they end at third grade). It was sweet, and poignant, and real. It's what I want as my priority. I sat and watched fifty children perform "Stille Nacht" with sign language, accompanied by harmonic strings. Fifty children touching their closed eyes to indicate "sleep" and fifty children sweeping their little hands toward the domed ceiling to represent "heavenly." I realized, in that instant, that it doesn't really matter if I get out all the Christmas cards, or scrub every floor, or even do some sort of picture-perfect holiday thing like caroling door to door. No one, other than me, is going to remember anyway.
The same is true of my writing. If someday I'm writing blockbusters, that will be a lovely accident, but it's not going to happen as a result of me putting all of my energy on promoting and taking it away from my family. Ultimately, the world will go on with or without books by me, sad as my ego might be to admit that.
In the meantime, though, I can make an impact in the present with the people who are with me now, and in a sense I think that focus will make me a better writer in the long run.
Am I existential today? I'm curious to know what other people might say.
In any case, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa. :)
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Well, duh. (I didn’t say that, but I thought it!)
My husband and son are avid poker players, but I’m the REAL gambler in this house. A poker play is over in minutes. I labor for months—years—and don’t know if I’m holding a winning hand. Even after the book is done, there’s no guarantee the public will fork out good money to own it.
So, yeah, my complaining friend had a point. As my agent says (with a laugh), “All writers are insecure.” But who wouldn’t be? How many people labor without any surety of reward? The creeping doubts run deep in this business. And I’m particularly vulnerable right now because of a new work-in-progress. I’m grinding away thinking, “Maybe I’m just wasting my time.”
When author-friend Sharon Shinn asked me, “How’s your writing coming?” I didn’t hold back.
I said, “See, I’ve written this YA (Young Adult) book that might never see the light of day. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, but I just HAD to write it.”
Sharon shrugged. She explained that when she’s written a manuscript on spec, she tells herself: “This is a story I wanted to write, and if it doesn’t sell, I’ve written what I wanted to write. Now I’ve learned something, and I have more experience.”
Then she takes whatever is good from that book and applies it to her next endeavor. Once the story that was nagging her is “out of her head,” and on paper, she can move on. Her course of action must have merit. Check out http://www.sharonshinn.net/ She’s had an extraordinary career, written twelve novels, and manages to work full-time.
She’s right. I wanted to write that story, and by golly, I did! I freed up a whole section of my head to move on to other ideas, such as the marketing plan I’m completing for Paper, Scissors, Death (September 2008). Check out the way-cool cover. (Kevin, you ROCK!)
As often happens, the Universe decided to make SURE it had my attention. Right after my talk with Sharon, I happened upon a YouTube video of Paul Potts.
Potts was a salesman at Carphone Warehouse in South Wales. His whole life he dreamed of being an opera singer. But his career wasn’t getting any traction. He dithered about entering Britain’s Got Talent, a televised talent show judged by Simon Cowell. Potts couldn’t decide. He flipped a coin. He “won” the toss and became a contestant.
You have to see this to believe it. Trust me…this might be the lift your heart needs:
Paul Potts sang the song he had to sing. He just kept singing it until someone noticed. (Did you catch the sly looks between judges? Ho Ho Ho, indeed!)
I’ve put a small sign above my computer. It says: Paul Potts.
How about you? What keeps you motivated? How do you handle the downside of being a writer? What keeps you "singing the song" or writing the story you need to write?
PS Have a Merry Holiday and a prosperous, healthy and happy New Year.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Minnesota has long been associated with Scandinavian culture. For those not of this culture, this may seem overblown. It is true that Scandinavians have had a disproportionate influence on the state, as indicated that from the 1880s to the 1990s, Rudy Perpich was the only governor who was not at least partially of Scandinavian descent. In my home town, the percentages were rather like this: Norwegian, 70%, Swedish, 29%, and the Meyers. By 1900, the second largest Swedish urban settlement in the world after Stockholm was Minneapolis/St.Paul, with Chicago a close third. Only Oslo had more Norwegians than the Twin Cities, and Fargo was probably in the top ten Norwegian cities in the world. Because of the transient nature of immigration, these population figures are, of course, estimates. It was said, without too much hyperbole, that by 1910, one could walk from the Red River Valley of Minnesota to eastern Montana stepping only on land owned by Norwegians. The Irish claim the largest percentage of citizens who came to America, but the Norwegians were second and the Swedes were third.
I am a product of Scandinavian Minnesota, although as a Swede I was a pathetic minority in my home community. Of course, as children we were not aware of any difference, but I do remember my mother commenting on some transgression of a neighbor and forgiving him with kind “Oh, well, he’s Norwegian, you know.” My parents spoke Swedish at home only when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were talking about. “Minnesota Svensk” became, at least in some areas, a rather unique hybrid language. I recall my parents arguing: “That’s Norwegian, isn’t it? No, I think that’s Swedish.” Some of the words I thought I had learned from them turned out to be neither. Palmer Knutson, of the Otter Tail mystery series, is of the same age and heritage as I am (what an odd coincidence). He knows a little Norwegian, can speak in a brogue when he wants to, and understands rural life. His home town, Fergus Falls, was part of the “Park Region,” a secondary settlement of Norwegians, made up of sons or younger brothers of the earlier settlement near Decorah, Iowa, who took homestead lands in the 1870s. Scandinavians were among the more assimilable immigrants – white, protestant, not prone to civil disorder – who were generally welcomed and were courted by land agents representing the railroads. In keeping with the Lutheran theology of sola scriptura, they were also almost entirely literate. And this is what Palmer is – better read than most, possessing a good education, Lutheran, and a man who enjoys his lefse. Unlike the dour Scandinavians of Europe, however, he has a sense of humor.
I enjoy reading mystery novels set in different parts of the world. I would guess some of the people who will read this have read the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo which were set in Stockholm. A more modern series, the Kurt Wallender books of Henning Mankell, are set in Southern Sweden. Swell books, but not a barrel of laughs. I have also read three or four Norwegian mystery novels. As we say, Uffda! They are well written, but as cheery as a steady diet of Knut Hamsun. They are just the kind of novels that can prepare one for suicide! I didn’t want some ultra introspective sleuth dissecting world conditions, I wanted a cop who could catch a killer. Now, as we all know, only the English can find real humor in homicide (witness the Charles Paris books of Simon Brett), but if I can lighten up a Norwegian character, I will have performed a service for which I should be knighted by the king.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
It seems writing like American politics –no, I'm not going THERE folks!--
can be divided into two camps: those of us who outline and follow our roadmap and those of us that follow the words through the maze, trusting the story breadcrumbs to lead us through to The End.
I think in mystery it helps immensely to have the puzzle organized before you get two hundred pages in and realize the serial-killing shoe salesman belongs in a different book.
And then you wake up screaming because you have a killer shoe salesman in a book about genetically altered homicidal butterflies.
Not that this has ever happened to me or anything.
Because I outline.
Lately though, I've noticed a disturbing trend:
I get my outline all meticulously planned, and then about forty pages in, I have to ditch it because the breadcrumb trail left by the words takes me elsewhere.
This usually happens right after the opening murder in one of my Kate London Mysteries. I go down the story track, following my outline like it’s I-75 headed right to Florida, and something doesn’t feel right. Being stubborn as all get out, I keep going for several weeks. Or, more honestly, I avoid writing because I am stuck, write a little and get aggravated, whine a lot, and stare at the computer screen. Eventually I get moving and write through it.
Once I do that, I begin to realize I need to back up and try a different path. Then the words unlock and the story takes me. I throw out some scenes, back up and let the words lead for a while until I find the new path. Then I revise my outline, because, well:
And because I just can't sleep with that shoe salesman in my head.
Monday, December 10, 2007
But here’s the thing. All three of that Holy Trinity write about private detectives who solve mysteries and rescue maidens as part of their job. One of Chandler’s books is even titled, Trouble is My Business. When it comes to my own scribbling, I like writing not about someone who seeks trouble, but someone whom troubles ambush. You know, a poor schmuck whose comfortable existence is shattered by an unexpected crisis. I find inspiration for that kind of story not from any particular book, but instead from movies, from Alfred Hitchcock movies, in fact.
In a prototypical Hitchcock film some unsuspecting soul (often Jimmy Stewart) gets embroiled in a crisis. (Here are five of my favorite examples: A tourist stumbles upon the key to an insidious spy ring, ("The 39 Steps"), a tennis pro strikes up a conversation with a psychopath ("Strangers on A Train"), a small town woman discovers her uncle is a serial murderer ("Shadow of a Doubt"), an invalid sees a murder across the courtyard ("Rear Window"), an advertising executive is mistaken as a secret agent ("North by Northwest").) By the end of the last reel, no matter what initial reluctance has been shown, the protagonist has discovered unexpected resourcefulness and courage in doing the right thing.
I think the power in the Hitchcock formula is that the audience can identify with the protagonist. “Hey,” we might think, “I wonder how I would react if caught up in a spy ring or if the target of a serial murderer.” I know when I submerge myself in writing, it’s this idea of testing whether the main character has what it takes that drives the story forward.
In the private detective novel, main characters don’t change much; they do their job. In the Hitchcockian crime novel, main characters may lead a boring life at the outset, but by the end they have grown and become heroes.
Saturday, December 8, 2007
Tom Schreck will be signing On the Ropes, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery Saturday at The Bookhouse in Albany.
Wilbur, his 85 pound basset hound will be there in a Santa suit...and he won't be happy about it.
One week remains in Bill Cameron's Give A Dog A Home For The Holidays Sweepstakes. To win your copy of Lost Dog, or just to learn more, visit Give A Dog A Home. Contest ends December 15, 2007.
Friday, December 7, 2007
It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not referring to Christmas or the New Year. I’m referring to my annual deadline of January 2nd to submit the latest Odelia Grey novel to Midnight Ink. For the past three years, that deadline has loomed as bright as the New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square and has fallen just as heavy and with as much anticipation, not to mention the occasional swig of alcohol.
I’m often asked if my career as a paralegal has prepared me in any way for my career as a writer. The answer is absolutely and in many ways. As a paralegal, I am trained to research, to write effectively, to organize materials and thoughts, to be flexible and to manage time. But the major skill I’ve learned has been to work effectively under pressure and produce the best possible work under almost impossible deadlines. In law, deadlines are both calendared and unexpected. It’s not unusual for a boss to walk into my office and drop something on my desk and say it’s needed in two hours. And it’s not unusual for more than one boss to need a project in the same time frame. You don’t quibble, you just do it, no matter what hoops you have to jump through or sacrifices you have to make.
It’s the same with writing. To not nail a deadline would be unthinkable to me. The only time I’ve not met a writing deadline was two years ago when I found myself in the hospital in mid-December for emergency surgery. My editor graciously granted me a two week deadline, but no more. Even recovering from surgery, I hit the extended deadline.
Several months ago, I was on a panel with an author who talked about missing her deadlines. She didn’t seem concerned about it, but at the same time she whined about how sloppy the editing had been on her book and how it almost didn’t get released on time. Well, duh! What did she expect?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about publishing in the past few years, it’s that, unlike law, it moves like a snail with a hernia. Deadlines aren’t given arbitrarily. The publishing house requires that long lead time to complete everything they need to insure the timely release of a book with all the bells and whistles that go with it, like reviews and publicity.
It’s a fact that I do some of my best writing under looming deadlines. My brain seems to get lazy and lose its edge if it has too much time to think about what I’m doing. Whether it’s writing fiction or legalese, my creativity is definitely sharper when I feel alligators snapping at my ass. It should be downright ecstatic next year when I begin juggling two series and producing two novels a year with deadlines six months apart.
I’m 24 days away from my deadline for Epitaph Envy and still have about 80 pages to write. Piece ‘o cake! I might even have it done early.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
This time of year always feels frantic to me, and this December is no exception. My deadline for the third book in the Sophie Reynolds Homecrafting Series is looming, I’m editing another manuscript, and the marketing for the first book in the series, Lye in Wait, fills hours every day. Still, keeping my head above water would be manageable if it weren’t for all this holiday business.
The problem is that Christmas can get so out of hand. This year, out of desperation, I put my foot down. One day for shopping (it was a very long day, but still). Only three kinds of cookies (okay, two kinds, plus peanut butter fudge). We aren’t throwing a party this year, and only attending three. And the decorating: I gave myself four hours. No outside lights…and no tree.
So it’s festive, but pretty simple around our house. It feels good. It’ll take less time to undo come January. And that’s less time away from my desk, all over again.
However, believe it or not, I’m not just griping about how Christmas is interfering with my precious writing schedule. I am doing that, of course. But not just that. Because when I was power pawing through the bins of ribbon and lights and various geegaws that only see the light of day once a year, if that, I found this:
See, when I was a little kid, my Dad would tell me stories. Mom and I always said he should write them down, but he never did. These stories featured a little boy and a little girl and their adventures with a witch who lived in the woods. The witch was named Dame Dustinschniffin, and she had a cat named Hapsel. Every time Dame Dustinschniffen sneezed, which she did with great frequency due to terrible allergies combined with an almost OCD tendency to clean, her cat Hapsel changed colors.
That was the very simple structure in which dozens of tales were developed, first by my father alone, and then I joined in and helped to make up the stories. “What if…” he’d say, and off we’d go. “And then…and then…” It encouraged my imagination, but I had to keep to the rules of the world we’d created. The characters stayed the same, but they had understandable arcs as they learned new things in the course of their adventures.
It was my first series, and I loved it.
As for the candle-twirly thing in the picture. Christmas morning, eight-year-old me hurried out to the tree in my jammies, only to find this contraption. I had no idea how it functioned, but I immediately recognized the characters from our stories. My reaction was to demand where my parents had found such a thing.
Santa, I was told, with a grin and wink. It was very irritating. I was sure no one but my parents and I knew about Dame Dustinschniffen et al, and Santa was a myth. I bugged them for days. Did you have someone make it? Was it something you found that just happened to fit the characters? Did you make it yourself? Have you had it for a long time and made up the characters to fit the thingie?
To this day, they won’t tell me. I still wonder, and I still don’t have a clue. It’s a mystery.
Turns out I love mysteries, too.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
It’s holiday party time again. You’re dressed to the nines, your shoes are shined, hair in place, and have told the kids not to wait up. On your way out the door, you realize that you’ve forgotten to buy a hostess gift! Digging through your pantry, you decide that the $5 bottle of red wine you bought for cooking purposes only or the box of chocolates from the drug store are not going to cut it as a gift. Now, you’re going to have to stop and buy flowers or a plant or something expected like that. Instead, here’s a list of books you can give as hostess gifts.
For Hosts With Young Kids – Wrap up The Sneaky Chef by Melissa Lapine. I’m not up on the scandal, but the rumor mills claims that her book and Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious have similar recipes. In that case, I’d opt for Lapine’s as she’s a nutritionist.
For The Couples Party– How about combining the movie Love, Actually with Dinner Dates: A Cookbook for Couples Cooking Together by Martha Cotton
For The Hostess Who Loves to Bake – Wrap up Bubby’s Homemade Pies by Ronald M. Silver, Jen Bervin, and Elizabeth Zechel. Recipes from Bubby’s in NYC along with Crate and Barrel’s Pie Spice Trio (comes with Pumpkin Pie Spice, Apple Pie Spice and Finishing Sugar in cute glass jars for $10.95)
For The Macho Host – The Sopranos is on DVD, but the killer cast could be on the hit list of your friend’s stovetop with Entertaining with the Sopranos by Carmela Soprano, Allen Rucker, Michele Scicolone, and David Chase. Give them this book with a bottle of Italian red and you might be invited to a future mafia dinner – yo!
For the Hosts With Little Time – This one’s easy. These folks need Barefoot Contessa at Home: Everyday Recipes You’ll Make Over and Over Again by Ina Garten or Giada’s Family Dinners by Giada De Laurentiis. Wrap these with some pasta tongs or a vintage pair of salad servers and you’re good to go!
For The Grill Master – Let them dream of summer with a jar of BBQ sauce or some meat rub from Williams Sonoma. Pair one of these goodies with Weber’s Real Grilling (Weber’s) by Jamie Purviance and Tim Turner or How to Grill: The Complete Illustrated Book of Barbecue Techniques by Steven Raichlen. They’re both great!
Presentation – I love to give away cookbooks wrapped in a beautifully patterned dishtowel. (See photo from Real Simple in which they use this technique for wine) I then get a wired ribbon and attach a wooden spoon, red rubber spatula, or holiday-hued measuring spoons to the gift. A handwritten note written on the back of a recipe card makes the perfect finishing touch.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
It’s Tuesday, which strikes me as the perfect day of the week to talk about a topic of momentous import to us all: pet peeves.
But since this is a blog post and not the Oxford English Dictionary, I’ve decided to limit myself to my two peeves. I want you all to have a chance to get out of here before lunch, after all.
So here they are: first-time sex and hackers. One of them has to be about sex, because that way people will find us on Google who had no idea they were even looking for us. It’s a marketing thing, really. In fact, some may assert that’s a peeve of their own. “Hey, are you marketing at me? I came to read a blog post and here I am being lured into reading books by a big long raft of writers. (Help, help, I’m bein’ repressed.)” Something like that.
But that’s not my peeve. If it’s your peeve, you’ll get a chance at the end of the post to give me my comeuppance, especially if you arrived here via a Google search for “magnificent man-thing.” Look at it this way, at least I’m not marketing to you via spam, such as the one I got this morning from “Counterfeit Diamagnetic Deerkskin” (who would name their child such a thing? Besides Tom Cruise, I mean?) Counterfeit offered to make me a “pornstart,” which was a compelling offer, but had nothing to do with my pet peeves. Except maybe the sex part. And that’s what I’m talking about here.
Okay, so what’s the deal with sex scenes in novels? Particularly first-time sex sex scenes.
I was reading a novel recently, a very good novel in fact, when suddenly I was confronted with a mighty, tumescent, sweat-soaked computer hacker. This guy could hack anything. And when I say anything, I mean not only banks and the NSACIAFBI, but also (probably, since this wasn’t specifically mentioned) into the picture and movie section of dozens of porn web sites offering you instant access for only $24.95 per month. Which, if that’s what you came looking for via Google, sorry, but we’re not talking about porn. We’re talking about pet peeves and crime fiction. Serious business. But you’re welcome to stay. And buy our books. (Help, you’re being repressed.)
Now, you probably have many questions, the first of which is, “Bill, are you drunk?” and the answer to all those questions is yes. But you’re probably also wondering about the hacker thing and what it has to do with first-time sex. As if hacking a porn site wouldn’t explain it.
The thing is, the super hacker reminded me of another book I read recently, one which had another thing which, like super hackers, seems to appear just a tad too often in novels — if you ask me. Which you might if I gave you the chance to get a word in edgewise.
And that’s this.
Where were we?
Oh yeah, first time sex. So I was reading this book a few months ago, and He and She have an “encounter” on an “island” and performed an “act.” Okay, they hooked up in a bar, went back to the dude’s hotel room and went at each other like folks might have done in a movie called “Snakes in Elaine.” * tick, tick, tick * (Sheesh, they had sex.) And the moment of consummation arrived, as they so often do. And it was great. I mean, it was incredible. The man? He had the stamina of a marathon runner and the self-control of a zen master. The woman? She moved in perfect rhythm with her partner and was able to communicate without words just the right moment so the man knew to release the hounds (as it were) for utter and perfect simultaneous bliss. It was as if they had known each other for years, knew each other’s every need and nuance. It was as if they were born already a synchronized, well-lubricated machine. I mean, this couple had been humping since the dawn of time and by golly we were gonna read about it.
And the thing is, that happens all over the place. Every time I encounter a first time sex scene in a novel, it’s almost always cosmically great sex. At first I thought it was probably a guy writer thing, but then it occurred to me that like 8 of the last 10 mysteries I’ve read have been by women. Now, not all of them had sex scenes, but those that did had the basic theme nailed. The man “takes” her. (Where? To the movies? Dairy Queen?) He’s a turbo stud. She’s multi-orgasmic. They wonder how they lived without each other for so long.
And half the time one of them is a super hacker. Hack into anything. Now, I happen to be a hacker myself. Not too long ago I hacked a hole in the back yard with a pick axe to plant a butterfly bush, which promptly died because it turns out our soil is made of ceramic. Hence the need for a pick axe. But the point is I know about hacking, and I know that you don’t just dial 4-1-1 on your wireless telephone and ask for “hackers.” They’re not everywhere, certainly not as ubiquitous as the “magnificent man-things” (go Google!) which penetrate so many “she-holes of bliss,” or whatever the kids are calling it these days.
So here’s my question: what’s up with that anyway? Aren’t mystery novels allowed to have ordinary first time sex? Bad first time sex? Awkward I-can-never-face-you-again-and-oh-crap-where’s-my-wallet sex? Why is it always “he took her and their lives would never be the same” sex? And what if you need access to someone’s secret computer files but there wasn’t a hacker to be found for five hundred miles (because they’re busy surfing porn)? Would that be so bad? Maybe you have to just take your pick axe in there and bust the bad person’s computer open the old fashioned way? It’s not like you have to worry about being caught. The bad person (note that I am using gender neutral language to allow for the fact that even women can be eeevil) is off having great first sex with some stranger they met at a beach bar on a Caribbean Island while . . . well, anyway, you know where I’m going with this. And am I peeved.
Monday, December 3, 2007
December 3, 2007
Stephen King came up with what I think is probably the best description of the writing process. He said that it’s like being an archaeologist. The writer sees something sticking up out of the ground. Maybe it’s the leg bone of a dinosaur. Maybe it’s a potsherd. Maybe it’s a brick wall.
It’s probably a vague notion, an outline of an object, whatever. But the writer can see that there’s something there and he starts digging.
Sometimes, King said, it’s a full-blown novel. Sometimes it’s a short story.
And sometimes, King noted, the writer breaks it while trying to get it out of the ground.
As I mentioned last week in one of my comments, over the years of writing I’ve had some projects that either wouldn’t come out of the ground, or I broke them getting them out of the ground. Sometimes I think they were just broken. I went after a dinosaur bone (yeah, I know, the archaeologist metaphor has shifted to paleontology—sue me!) thinking I had a complete skeleton of a T. Rex and what I actually had was, well, a bone. And maybe not a dinosaur bone at all.
I rarely have problems writing 50 to 100 pages on a project. If it dies before page 50, I was just fooling around and it was never meant to be written (by me, anyway). But when I work on a project for 100 to 150 pages and it dies (broken, to belabor the metaphor), well, that’s a pain in the posterior, no doubt. I hate that.
I think there might be a variety of reasons for it, though. I’m ambitious as a writer and sometimes I bite off more than I can chew. I’m a guy who’s only traveled to Canada, but sometimes I want to write some country-hopping thriller or adventure and I get bogged down in research. This was most notable in an adventure novel I tried to write twice, which was stillborn both times when the main characters hit the Congo.
Does that mean I should travel to the Congo to research the novel? Not necessarily. I’m open to travel if the money was there, but I’m not sure I would venture into the hellhole of Congo.
Sometimes some stories just don’t work for you as a writer and I think these stillbirths are the reasons. You just don’t have the skill to get them out of the ground in one piece.
I also think it is sometimes just part of the process of being a novelist. Sometimes you just have to try an idea and see if you can make it work. And sometimes if you abandon a project and it’s still calling to you, you can go back to it and complete it later at a time when you have more skill, insight or, perhaps, the time is just right.
Case in point, my novel, DIRTY DEEDS, my first published novel. It died somewhere around page 100. I gave up on it. I don’t even remember why. Lack of faith, maybe. About six months later, fishing around for some project to start, I picked up the uncompleted manuscript, started reading, got caught up in the story, and finished it off in a couple months and it was published by the second editor to see it.
These days, I’ll do what I call “boring drills.” In other words, I’ll intentionally start a project to see if it takes off (see if I get bored with it—get it?). If it does, great. If it doesn’t, eh, I’ll know by page 15 or 25 if it’s capturing my attention. None of them are bad ideas and none of them are poorly written, but if there’s one thing I’m slowly getting the hang of, it’s that just because it’s a good idea for a novel doesn’t mean I’m necessarily the right person to write it. Or that I’m the right person to write it at that time.
How about you guys? Any incomplete stories that you’re just waiting for the “right time” to work on? Sad little unfinished manuscripts that from time to time make a little bleat from the hard drive or filing cabinet: “I’m lonely, won’t you come finish me? Please!”
Oh yeah, I almost forgot. One aspect of King’s metaphor that he didn’t mention. Sometimes you abandon a dig site because your funding dried up. Shit happens, Kemosabe.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
Give a Dog A Home for the Holidays. Bill Cameron is giving away FIVE copies of Lost Dog this holiday season. To learn more and to enter to win, just fill out the form at Give A Dog A Home by December 15, 2008. Five winners will be selected at random and the puppies sent out the following week. Other prizes are also available.