Tuesday, June 30, 2009
In the same issue, Terri Thayer's Ocean Waves is deemed "superb" and "the perfect cozy to keep you company on a rainy afternoon."
Bravo Terri and Elizabeth!
The issue also has photos of Inkspotters Joanna Campbell Slan and G.M. Malliet at Malice Domestic.
I had it partly right. I do often have tea while writing.
Otherwise, the money for beginning authors is not great. I've heard that publishers are happy to sell 5,000 copies of a debut novel, and the author makes about 50 cents a copy. My experience supports that.
As for time, a lot of it is taken in promoting the book. With 100s of thousands of books out there, it takes a lot of leg work to separate yours from the pack. This involves book signings, media interviews, blogging, submitting shorter works to magazines and anthologies, and sending out review copies of your novel. I do it, but it's not writing, which is what I thought I'd signed up for.
That's why I thought the following information was so interesting. It seems writers have NEVER been in their ivory tower, creating literature, and that writing has always been a cutthroat business. Not as romantic as the vision most of us have of authors, but interesting nonetheless. (The information below was posted on a writing listserv, but I'm afraid I can't find the name of the original poster.):
"There has never been an ivory tower for writers. Dickens went on long book tours, reading extracts of his books to audiences. George Eliot, Thackeray and others also did public readings, and went to the various social events arranged by their publishers. Defoe, Swift and company contributed to magazines and satirical publications and also went to social gatherings, like the literary salons arranged by the likes of Elizabeth Montagu.
Childrens' writers contributed to comics and magazines, went to schools and libraries to do readings. Shakespeare appeared in his own plays. Marlowe worked for the government on the side, to make a few pennies. Or were the plays his sideline? The ones who did no promotion of any kind are as rare as hen's teeth. Chaucer worked for the Crown and no doubt pushed his books at his work colleagues and at Court. So I can't think of a time when writers haven't promoted. More's the pity. The ivory tower looks beautiful from here."
It's work, but it's great work. :)
Monday, June 29, 2009
Obviously, Mr. Burnett never met me.
Oh yeah? What about me? I would think less of myself if I didn’t do it. I didn’t set and announce that goal to impress people. I set it to prove to myself that I could set a course, prepare for it, and turn it into a reality. The public arena kept me honest and hopefully motivated some folks to set their own goals.
Well, I did it! And here's the photo to prove it.
It was pretty much the same thing when I finally decided once and for all to write and keep writing until I got published. In spite of naysayers, I plugged on, and look where that determination got me!
For the past few weeks, I’ve been a little aimless. The Mud Run is behind me and I am without a major goal. Sure, I have book deadlines – lots of book deadlines. But those are not goals. Those are contractual obligations. Not at all the same thing. I need a goal.
This weekend I went over some of my prior goal lists, which I prepare every January. These are not New Years resolutions to keep for a few weeks then abandon, but goals to strive for. There are a few that I never hit within the time frame I set. And that got me to thinking. Does that mean the goal is no longer valid? That I’m off the hook because I didn’t reach it in the allotted amount of time? Do goals have expiration dates like milk?
I think not. They are still alive, they’ve just been in hibernation. So here they are, back again, this time until I reach the finish line.
*In January 2008, I declared I was going to lose 100 lbs. by the end of that year. To date I’ve lost 35 lbs., I have 65 left to go. New deadline: June 1, 2010, just in time for the next Mud Run. And yes, I want to do it again.
*In January 2009, I vowed to finish a stand alone novel that year. I’m now committed to spending 4 hours every week working on this novel until it is done. New deadline: January 1, 2011.
Bottom line, if you don’t challenge yourself, you will never know what you are truly capable of doing.
So, who’s with me? What personal goals are you willing to voice out loud and make happen?
Saturday, June 27, 2009
The full list of nominees:
JANE K. CLELAND - ANTIQUES TO DIE FOR
ROSEMARY HARRIS - PUSHING UP DAISIES
ROBIN HATHAWAY - SLEIGHT OF HAND
G. M. MALLIET - DEATH OF A COZY WRITER
RADINE TREES NEHRING - A RIVER TO DIE FOR
ELIZABETH ZELVIN - DEATH WILL GET YOU SOBER
Friday, June 26, 2009
By Deborah Sharp
Here's my latest worry in a long list of worries: Am I over-exposed?
Not in the naked sense. More in the Paris Hilton sense . . . well, considering the sex tape, maybe Paris isn't the best example of the distinction. What I mean is am I too out-there? Between Facebook and Book Tour, my website and blogging, have I already mined even the most mundane details about me?
In the old days, authors used to keep a modicum of mystery. Look to J.D. Salinger for the extreme: No published work and nary an interview in a half-century or so, and they're still talking about him.
I started thinking about this when a small arts & culture magazine in my home state of Fla. assigned a writer to do a profile of me. Great, right? Publicity! I was suitably thrilled.
Until the writer asked me to share ''some details no one has heard ... something new.''
I'm only on Book 2. But already my back-story --- Former USA Today reporter, burned out on the news biz, started writing funny mysteries blah, blah, blah --- has become a bore.
So, either I dig really, really deep for something more interesting; or I start making things up. I'm leaning toward the latter:
Me: ''Did you know I was launched into orbit as part of NASA's Journalist in Space program?''
Reporter: "Really?? Wow!''
Me: ''Yep, the earth looks like a blue marble from way up there.''
As members of the Florida media for many years, my TV reporter hubby and I know journalists around the state. I've been lucky to get some stories out there on my funny, Fla-set Mace Bauer Mysteries. But in the process, have I become eye-rollingly predictable? Oh, please. Not her again!
When I was a cub reporter in Fort Myers, Fla., one local artist (nameless here) was a relentless self-promoter. He managed to get the News-Press to write about him even in the absence of anything newsy: "Artist X has begun to think about a new project . . . ''
Finally, the editor enacted an X-ban: ''Unless X is shot during a crack deal gone bad while he's dressed in drag, we're not writing another word about him.''
Which gives me an idea of ''something new'' to share with that writer for the art mag:
''Did you know I used to be a crack dealer?''
''Yep. I shot a man in Fort Myers once. I was dressed in drag . . . ''
What about you? Are you out there promoting, Paris Hilton-like? Or are you holding on to your mystery, Salinger-style?
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Apologies for my late arrival today, I've been limping around trying to meet some writing deadlines. I say limping because a few days ago I tore the meniscus of my right knee in a freak trampoline accident (don't ask), so now I'm brandishing a cane and hobbling around my office. I'm told these things can be repaired (I'll find out more at a doctor's appointment today) or can even heal on their own, but I'm neurotic enough to fear the worst.
Maybe they're going to put me under and turn me into a cyborg. If they install a better processor in my brain so I can write faster, I'd be OK with that. That is one of the ironies of the writing world. When you're first trying to get published it seems to take forever. Years, perhaps, to write the manuscript. Months to find the right agent. And once the book sells, publishing moves at its own glacial pace, so the book your editor is really excited about, the one you just sold, won't hit the shelves for at least another year. Patience is not a virtue in my book, but stamina surely comes in handy.
But once you're on the publishing treadmill, deadlines loom and time seems to speed up. I'm still in denial that it's June, even though my new novel JUMP is on the shelves and I'm touring, but it hasn't registered because I had these grand plans to finish my next manuscript by now. I was going to tackle two or three other writing projects by the Summer, as well, but now that it's arrived I'm revising my forecast for a Fall delivery. And yet, if I really sit down and look at a calendar to remove the days of travel, family trips, editing, and conferences, it's practically September. Suddenly this slow-moving industry has me sprinting towards a finish line, which only becomes the starting line for the next race.
Have to get this leg fixed, because I really need to pick up the pace.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
A book club is a great place to find out what attracts some readers to a book and repels others just as fast. It’s rare for the entire group to agree on every aspect of a book. The first hint of trouble is usually that one of us didn’t buy into or like the premise of the story. Or worse, didn’t take to the main character.
In the course of these discussions, I learned some of the club members read the book’s pages out of order, most often when they can’t get into the story or find it confusing and want to know where the story is going. A few even admit to more than once reading an entire book in reverse page order—and enjoying it more that way!
This revelation was a shocker. I’ve only recently matured to the point in life where I am willing to put down a book I’m not enjoying. In many, many years past, I would read it to the end no matter what, maybe skimming along as much as possible.
But I always, always read the book’s pages in order. For me, it’s cheating to read the end first. If I read the last page first, what do I have to look forward to? I like a story where I wonder how it’s all going to turn out, where I’m reading to learn where it’s all going. I prefer the journey and a destination or two, preferably a surprise destination. So much the better if a little unexpected twist occurs at the end, where reading the pages out of order would ruin the whole effect.
Now let me give you a big hint: I try to write the kind of books I enjoy reading. To receive maximum value, For Better, For Murder should be read in the order the pages are numbered. If you pick up the book in the library or bookstore, read the back cover. Read the first few pages. Please don’t read the last page. If the storyline intrigues you after reading the back cover and the first few pages, take the book home and read the story from start to finish.
But if you read the last page first or my whole book in reverse, please keep it to yourself. This time I really don’t want to know.
Monday, June 22, 2009
I leave for the East Coast and ThrillerFest on July 5 – that’s in less than two weeks.
Every few days my agent is sending 50-100 pages of my latest manuscript back to me with his comments neatly inserted by Word in the right-hand margin. I curse him as I read them, not because they are bad or misguided, but because he is hitting the nail on the head with each one. (I’m kind of sorry for cursing him now. He told me he’d come down with some illness and he’s accused me of voodoo powers.) Anyway, I’ve been busy rewriting at the local café that serves as my sanctum sanctorum. (Compadre Barry Eisler discovered me holed up there on Saturday. One can’t hide from him – he’s ex-CIA. OTOH, that means he can keep a secret.) My agent is supposed to have a polished manuscript in his hands by the time I board the plane.
But Friday I received the proofs of my next book, Smasher, from my editor at Midnight Ink. To stick to the publication schedule, which has it showing up on bookstore shelves in October, I need to review changes and make any necessary edits before getting on that plane. That’s priority #1.
In the meantime, the CPU between my ears is grinding away on a background task – coming up with inspiration for my next book. I do have a wispy cloud of an idea. But since it has a historical setting, I have research to do. On my East Coast trip, I’m flying first to Boston where I’ve made an appointment with an archivist to look at papers and correspondence relating to the people and period I’m interested in. He was quite accommodating even when I told him I was researching a novel. When I was in grad school in history, I used to love reading old letters, diaries, and meeting reports. We’ll see if I still do. And we’ll see if the archives inspire a plot.
I’ve never juggled three books at once this way. Jim Patterson must be able to handle a lot more than that (co-authors probably help,too), but then his brain is probably a later model with a faster processor and upgraded memory.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
I like being on Facebook, although I do know now more about some people from high school than I did in high school when I saw them every day. I enjoy the photos of faraway nieces and nephews taken by friends who can't seem to stop taking pictures. I like hearing about the NY Times article I missed on the hive connecting Microsoft, Pillsbury cookie dough and Mr. Big.
Some people seem to use Facebook as a motivational tool. A virtual life coach. Eight days without sugar, a post will read. Working on my sixth consecutive day of zumba. Going on two weeks of 5000 words a day. I took my daughter to dance lessons, son to karate and wrote six scenes in the car at stop lights. Folks around me are writing more, eating less sugar and torturing their bodies in ways I can't imagine.
But it's sanitized, suitable for PG viewing version of our lives, isn't it? We only talk about the positive things. It's easy to begin to feel inadequate on Facebook. My updates aren't as witty as his, nor as inspirational as hers. I get grouchy when too many people wish me good morning or happy mother's day. Maybe it's time for a bit more honesty.
FB status updates you never see. I ate six donuts and could throw up right now. I washed my child's mouth out with soap for saying a bad word. I changed lanes six times in a quarter mile, sending a middle-aged woman in a Prius onto the shoulder where she belonged.
I robbed the Seven Eleven. I embezzled two thousand dollars from my employer to pay a gambling debt. I went to the Bunny Ranch for the weekend.
I'm not going for a walk. I won't make this deadline. I'm watching the Real Housewives of New Jersey marathon. Again.
What about you? What Facebook status update would you like to see?
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Thursday, June 18, 2009
I don’t know if any of you have ever sold a house, but if you haven’t I have one word of advice: Don’t. It’s a major pain in the tushy. First of all, you have to fix all those little things you’ve let slide. Our house is for sale in preparation for our move to Washington DC, and I’ve been sharing my home with a constant stream of workmen. One particularly memorable day, I had a radio interview at the same time we had someone trimming our bushes, putting drywall in the garage, and fixing a small chip in our granite countertop. And of course, there were the cleaning ladies. You can't sell a dirty house.
Now radio hosts are pretty good sports, but they really like to hear their guests. They’re picky about it, actually. So, for the sake of peace and quiet, I took the phone into the farthest corner of our finished basement, the dreaded storage room with its closet built over the top of the sump pump. There, in blissful silence, I joined the queue for the recording.
Ten minutes to air time. I decided that a little Down Dog action was a good idea. Then I moved into Child's Pose. Nothing like a good yoga pose to get you focused and relaxed. Except I forgot that the carpet in the backroom hasn’t been cleaned in years. So. as I rested my head on the floor, my nose started to run like a water spigot.
Five minutes to air time. I needed a box of tissues…fast. I jogged out of the storage room. I made it up the stairs. I dodged the cleaning woman pushing the vacuum sweeper. Ducked into a bathroom. Pulled out tissues. Ran back downstairs.
Three minutes to air time. I am panting like a dog and mopping my nose. Time to review the interviewer’s instruction sheet. There it was: “We might ask you to read from your book.” Crud. Who knew I needed a copy of Cut, Crop & Die? I raced out of the storage room. I tucked the phone under my ear and searched my desktop, which looks approximately like a paper recycling bin after a tornado hit it. Found the book. Ran back to the storage room.
Two minutes to air time. I forgot my reading glasses. I run back upstairs. The man fixing the granite wants to discuss it with me. I can’t stop. He’s being paid $175 for a house call to fix three little chips. I pause long enough to watch. To one chip he applies the tip of a Sharpie black marker. Then he spits on it. Oh, goodie. This is more than I wanted to know about granite repair.
One minute to air time. I race back down to the storage room. I lock the door. I hear the host talking.
30 seconds to air time. A dull roar begins overhead. The cleaning ladies are now running the vacuum on the wooden floor directly above me. I could be standing behind a jet at Lambert Airport and it would be quieter.
15 seconds to air time. The doorbell is ringing. The dogs are barking in the next room. They are determined to protect the home that won’t be theirs much longer.
5 seconds to air time. I can’t even hear myself think. There’s the barking, the doorbell, and the roar of the vacuum overhead. I look around frantically for a quiet spot. I have only one option.
I gave an entire radio interview standing inside the closet with one foot on each side of our sump pump. Need I share that it smelled like a sewer?
You know, being an author is really glamorous stuff. Or so I’ve been told.
You know how it is…you’re writing and you’re probably trying to get this character clear in your mind and so you describe him. Ad nauseum. Here’s an info dump on Uriah Heep (pictured): He had orange, Tang-colored hair, a pointed chin, and a tall stature. His whole demeanor was suffocating and cloying in nature. His jerking, clumsy walk and repulsive manner was decidedly off-putting. He was tall and pale and his … blah, blah, blah.
The problem is that readers don’t really like to have a huge amount of information dumped on them all at one time. But gosh, it’s easy for us writers to pen it in. We’re trying to picture our character and want to recreate this picture for our readers.
At the same time, as a reader, I don’t like being introduced to a character and not have at least a general impression of him. Is he old or young? Is he educated? Attractive? What’s his relationship to the protagonist? If I can’t find out this information quickly, I start shuffling through the pages to try to find a description so I can at least have an idea who this guy is.
So…what can we do? What’s just the right amount of information and description and what’s the best way to share it with the reader?
The best method seems to be a combination of direct and indirect characterization. With direct characterization, you provide the reader with the information (this is the blond hair, blue eyes, devilish grin part.) Direct is the ‘telling’ approach. With indirect characterization, you let the reader draw their own conclusions: based on character dialogue, his internal musings shared with the reader, and other characters’ observations about him (the ‘showing approach.’ )
Showing is definitely the more time-consuming of the two, but I like it better. It’s a great way to mislead the reader, too—nice if you want to make them think a character should be admired and then later have the character’s true colors show.
On a personal note, this is my first blog for Ink Spot. Thanks to everybody for welcoming me into the group!
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
When my husband and I were engaged, I said something both emotional and unfair: that I wouldn't marry him unless he quit smoking. I doubt that this was true, but he took me at my word and quit cold turkey on January 1st, 1988. I remember sitting with him in a downtown Chicago restaurant, watching the sweat from his palms drip onto the table during that very difficult weekend of withdrawal. He did that for me, and for himself, and he hasn't smoked since.
We were talking about that today (I dragged him away from his beloved Sun-Times), and I said I thought it was rather remarkable that he had been able to simply stop smoking, when so many of my friends and relatives can't seem to do it.
He thought about it, and said, "I think quitting smoking has to be about something bigger than just wanting to do it."
I thought that was very meaningful, and naturally I thought it related nicely to the world of writing. Writers want to write, of course. But that great book, that successful book, will have to be about more than just wanting to write it. Bruce Barton once wrote that "Nothing splendid has ever been achieved except by those who dared believe that something inside them was superior to circumstances." I think the writer must feel this; while the tendency might be to think that what he or she is creating is not good, is not working, is not going to be successful (writers do talk themselves down, don't they?), the reality is that writers have a unique opportunity to succeed and to affect others. They must find in themselves what is superior to their circumstances.
Meanwhile, I asked Jeff to verify his quote. "What was it you said about smoking?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said, still reading the paper. "But I know it was super profound."
Hey, I never asked him to give up his ego. :)
Monday, June 15, 2009
Author of the Duffy Series
I got to thinking about how we all align ourselves by groups.
I've been doing a lot of different things with lots of different people. The one consistent thing is people tend to organize themselves by some sort of characteristic or interest. It fascinates me.
Yesterday I was in Manhattan after officiating some boxing at Madison Square Garden. It was the Puerto Rican Parade day and the fights featured fighters from the island.
Almost 18,000 were dressed in red, white and blue and cheering in Spanish. The city was covered in flags from Puerto Rico.
Passionate, demonstrative people.
I hung around with fight people. Folks in the fight game talk a lot about heart, skill, training and who is better than the other. They don't get intellectual much which is kind of nice.
I drove up to Albany and went to the Gay Pride Festival to see some friends. Beautiful day and people who celebrated just being who they are. That probably comes from a history where they faced danger--physical, emotional, occupational and who knows what else--for being who they are. That was fun and people seemed really nice.
Last week and for the last four months I've been going to basset hound rescue events. A group brought together for people who are really into dogs that drool, that have short legs, long ears and don't do anything people tell them to do. They laugh a lot, aren't particularly focused on being neat and organized and they don't seem to take life very seriously. Having a dog with those characteristics that your life revolves around probably does that to you.They also get very sad about dogs dying or, worse yet, being mistreated and they tend to romance things.
Because of the hound events I missed the Lake George Elvis Festival. These folks are into Elvis and Elvis stuff. They include people who make their living impersonating Elvis. These folks really, really enjoyed Elvis Presley and draw meaning from just about everything he did. Some get angry at those who impersonate him while others become huge fans of the people whoa re really good at acting like Elvis.
I'm at the day job now and I've worked with social workers and human service people my whole life. They tend to concern themselves with other people but also they take their own thoughts, issues and life in general very seriously. They tend to talk about feelings more than boxing people.
I've gone to quite a few things for writers in the last few years. Writers seem to take what they do very seriously. They tend to see themselves as unfairly treated and they tend to obsess on whether they are good enough. They are often clever and like to dissect writing. Sometimes they are boring and tedious at the same time.
I teach college at night and I am married to a teacher. Teaching is tough because if you don't feel like it you still have to do what you do in front of people--often immature teens, immature young adults or immature older adults. You can't just sit at your desk and, I don't know, say, write a blog. Teacher's also complain about the end of the year and how it can't come soon enough while the rest of the work force doesn't have an end of the year--it's all the same crap all the time.
I work with fundraisers and they're a different lot. They're bubbly and very much like sales people. They move from job to job often which is kind of weird in that they are supposed to be passionate about what ever cause they're asking you for money for.
There's also Yankee fans, Red Sox fans (who I hate), political people, cops, musicians, computer people and lots of other folks I bump into all the time.
I guess we have to be in groups. I'm not the type of guy who hangs out with lots of friends but over the years I've drifted into being part of all sorts of groups. I like being part of lots of different groups because being in just one gets boring.
People who devote their whole lives to just one affiliation fascinate me. They tend to get a lot done but they're usually rigid and boring.
I don't think people are one thing. I think it is cool when people do lots of stuff and think more than one way. That's why Duffy is both a tough guy fighter and a sensitive social worker. A bar guy, a basset guy and an Elvis guy.
What about the characters you like?
Saturday, June 13, 2009
G.M Malliet will be participating in a group signing with various Virginia authors tomorrow, June 14, from 2-5 PM.
Location: Barnes & Noble Booksellers
1851 Fountain Drive
Reston, VA 20190
Teen - Elizabeth Scott
Mystery - Donna Andrews, Ellen Byerrum, Ellen Crosby, G.M. Malliet, Sara Rosett
Nonfiction - Joe Jackson
Romance - Elaine Fox, Donna Kauffman, Candice Poarch, Emilie Richards, Kathleen Giles Seidel
On June 27-28, G.M. will also be attending the Deadly Ink mystery writers' conference in Parsipanny, NJ.
Friday, June 12, 2009
I am at the part of the writing process I call "Settling in."
I'm at the very beginning of my tale, and really I'm just noodling about on scraps of paper with character names and place names and a very rough idea for a setting and a plot. I'm drawing maps and schematics and, most of all, just trying to get a feel for the story--waiting for that feeling of contentment to arrive, a feeling that is hard to put into words. I only know that when it's there, I'm on the right track. There's an atmosphere that feels right, and that, I hope, will translate into making the reader happy.
The Washington Post used a quote from William Butler Yeats just the other day that nicely describes this:"Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams, Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round."
I suppose I'm aiming to surround the reader in a cozy atmosphere--a restful feeling, much like that created by the photo illustrating this blog.
There is a selfish motive behind all this conjuring effort. (This effort that looks suspiciously like procrastination but is, I've come to realize, integral to the whole crazy business of writing a book.) Apart from trying to make the reader happy, I know I'm going to be spending a lot of time in the coming year with my head inside my story, and I want that place, whatever it is, to be a good place to go. A fun place that I can't wait to visit each day. If I can visualize this place in my mind - the house or village or castle or whatever it is - and clearly bring up its colors, sights, and smells, then I know the story will at least keep me entertained for the long haul.
The characters come as the "real" writing begins: I only know that I first have to set the stage for them to appear.
And as Cricket pointed out the other day, the weather and time of year are integral to the story. That, in my case, also has to be decided before the characters can take the stage.
Question for the scribes: Do you plunge in and see what develops, or do you set the stage first?
Image of The Lee, Buckinghamshire copyright Aurelien Hayman - from the comprehensive and full-of-eye-candy-for-the-Anglophile Midsomer Murders Site.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
by Felicia Donovan
Having worked for many years in the microcosm of law enforcement, I always found it fascinating how different one co-worker's office space could be from another's. Beyond the individualized "decor" that reflected individual personalities and tastes - photos of the kids stuck to a bulletin board vs. mahogany-framed photos carefully displayed - the one thing that always stood out is the amount of noise each person seemed comfortable to work with.
For some, this meant the constant crackle of a police radio that was piped through the phone system and could be toggled on and off. For many others, it was music. For others still, it was talk radio.
My office remained mostly silent. I've always admired those who can work with a fair amount of background noise, but I'm not one of them. I've been assured by many that having music constantly play in the background is the only thing that allows them to concentrate, but my brain apparently isn't wired to think and listen at the same time. Trouble is, my brain automatically switches into "listening" mode as soon as there's other noise, especially music, so I can't seem to multitask without tripping up. This seems a particularly cruel way for my brain to process considering how much I love music.
What about you? Noise or no noise and what kind?
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
It's a common question for writers:
Where do you get your ideas?
I used to get my ideas from local, independent, mom-and-pop idea stores. Back in the day, it seemed like there was one on every corner. You'd wander in, not quite sure what you were looking for, and some nice--and knowledgeable--idea clerk would come over, chat with you for a while, then walk you over to a certain shelf and select the perfect idea.
Why, that's it! How did you know I wanted something in an 80,000-word mystery with a twenty-nine-year-old male protagonist who works in a sandwich shop?
But the indies were overwhelmed by the big-box chain idea stores. Cavernous warehouses full of ideas. You could get lost for days, wandering the aisles looking for that hard-to-locate gem. But try to find someone who really knew ideas to help you? Fuggedaboudit! (Of course, the prices were appealing. Everyday Low Price: Ideas - Twelve for ten cents.)
Then the Internet arrived in a big way. You could go on-line, browse a catalog from the comfort of your own home, and order an idea (hey, order two--save on shipping!) to be delivered to your doorstep. But I never seemed satisfied with the quality of the ideas, and you couldn't hold the idea in your hands and give it a good squeeze to see if it was robust enough. After all, you were going to be with this idea for months, even years. You and that idea better be a good match.
So I was left with only one option. I had to think up my own ideas.
Once I started, I couldn't stop. Ideas flowed from my head like words from Joe Biden's mouth--nonstop, and some even made sense. I couldn't turn off the idea spigot. And it's still spouting ideas to this day.
The deluge of ideas presents a different challenge--trying to determine which ones are worth pursuing. (I can hear all the writers out there, saying in unison, "Ah, there's the rub.") Many, if not most, of them I talk to have tons (tons!) of ideas. It's time that's in short supply.
So how do you determine which ideas are worthy of your time and energy? Which ideas will make the best books?
- Write out the pros and cons of each idea, then do some kind of cost/benefit analysis?
- Write a synopsis for each and see which comes easiest?
- Make a visit to your palmist?
- Go straight to the marketplace and ask your agent or editor what you should work on?
- Throw the ten most intriguing ideas into a hat and pick one at random?
- Pick whichever idea lends itself best to having a vampire protagonist? Or a boy wizard?
- Choose the idea most similar to the last Michael Connelly book?
Any other ideas? I'd settle for a single good one.
Monday, June 8, 2009
Never start a book with the weather, Elmore Leonard tells us, and it's a dictum I adhere to religiously. I do, however, have two notebooks full of observations about nature that I mine in order to lend credence to the atmosphere of my novels. Things like what the air smells like at night in the middle of October, or after the first rain in August or all the damn time in January. How snow behaves, what's blooming when, how the air feels against your skin, how the birds sound at four a.m. in the spring versus the fall. Mostly tiny things, mere seasoning for the primary flavors of plot and character.
But my nature journals are all from the Pacific Northwest. My current work in progress is set in Colorado, where I live now. In the final climactic scene(s), one of the rocks I'm throwing at my long suffering protagonist is weather. Really bad weather. I've researched the air flow patterns, what happens inside the kinds of clouds common to the area, what circumstances create hail and tornadoes, but I lacked the little, unusual details that make a storm a specific storm.
Sunday morning I'm working in my office. The room darkens. The sky has turned to mercury. Huge, isolated drops of rain splat against the pavement outside. Then the deluge hits, accompanied by an almost conversational rumble of thunder. I abandon my computer, make a cup of tea, and go out to the covered front porch.
The lightening is constant. A yellow streak zigzags overhead, and the thunder roars like a jet engine moving from west to east for a long three seconds. Another flash sounds like a rifle shot, complete with the dopleresque zchwinggggg of an old-timey western. The rain turns to hail.
The ground squirms with quarter-inch ice pellets. I walk out from the overhang to see if they hurt. Not too bad. My neighbor, the mechanic, runs out with an umbrella to cover the rose bush his wife just planted. He sees me and stops. I wave. The hand he lifts in return is tentative. That's okay. They've wondered a little about me ever since I asked him how to cut a brake line without getting caught.
The hail increases to half an inch in diameter. At that size it officially stings like hell. I run inside to grab a notebook. When I return to the front porch a wave of crisp fragrance hits my nose. First I identify mint. The hail has pummeled the patch of spearmint into the ground, muddling it as if for the world's biggest mojito. A wisp of licorice joins in, from the sunset hyssop bushes by the driveway. Then the lavender scent of the smashed bee balm leaves. I run through the house and throw open the door by the garage to look out at the herb garden. Again, the smell of destruction is amazing: oregano, tarragon, sage, rosemary and thyme fill the air.
I inhale deeply until I realize I'm going to hyperventilate if I don't knock it off. It's wonderful. It's terrible. The sound of my pen scribbling is lost in the rattle of the ice pellets that continue to fall.
There will be a lot of work, cleaning up and replanting. The huge pink peonies are lost, their dowdy, blowzy blooms lying like dead fish in the bark mulch. And I won't have to worry about eating salad for a few days; those delicate leaves have been reduced to green mush.
For now. It's early in the season, and I cling to the hope that with a little help, nature will bounce back in her inimitable way. In the meantime, I've got some of those telling details that I wouldn't have otherwise. Will I use all of them? Of course not. It's not a scene about a storm -- it's a scene about someone trying to get away from a crazed murderer.
If Ian Fleming or Isaac Asimov were alive today, I think they'd be fans of this website. It updates the world on all things robotic, including the latest in humanoid androids. (Click on "World's Greatest Android Projects")
My favorite is the New Asimo, who looks a bit like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon--except that on the website he is having breakfast with his--what's the term? Owner? Host? Fleshly companion?
Honda's new android can walk, run, hold your hand, even bring you drinks on a tray. He/She weighs about 119 pounds.
I wonder if the future will bring the sort of social isolation that will make us want to hold hands with our robots. And yet, despite my misgivings about what effect robots will have on the future (I Robot, anyone?), I must admit that if there were ever an affordable robot that would clean my house, I would wait in line overnight to get it. And someday when I'm suffering from empty nest syndrome, maybe Asimo and I can get in shape together.
Will my Asimo and I, assuming I ever have one, be walking down the street alone? Or if the day came when Androids were a common sight, would we all be seen with them, while they helped buy our groceries and threw us frizbees in the park? Then again, if the Androids could do all of our jobs, wouldn't that encourage people (at least people like me) to give in to their agoraphobic tendencies and stay inside their houses, playing virtual society on Facebook while the Android did the tedious task of actually socializing with others?
In any case, the World's Greatest Android Projects looks like a Science Fiction dream come true. And now that it's true, what will it mean?
Thursday, June 4, 2009
By Deborah Sharp
If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one to do a Facebook status update, does the tree really exist?
Let me blog about it, collect some comments, Google it to find out if anyone else is blogging about it, check some Yahoo groups to discover whether a fallen tree is coming up in any threads, and get back to you. I'll post my conclusion as a status update on my Facebook page.
Is it just me, or is this stream of e-chatter drowning out real life? I'm sure scads of Facebookians lead dramatic, interesting existences. I just don't happen to know them. And I'm definitely not one of them. I mean, here I am staring at computer screen with a picture of a virtual tree. Been a while since I've hiked in a forest among actual trees.
I confess: I've ''hidden'' my most boring FB friends (none of you guys, of course). Even so, I get quizzes, promotional links, and endless updates on the mundane details of daily life. People are shopping. They're eating. They're cleaning up after eating. I even got an update that said so-and-so was breathing.
Oh, wait. That last update was me. My bad.
I'm a professional writer. Even if I'm not fascinating, I can make it sound like I am. And it won't require me to get a real life. I'll just lie. Who's going to stop me? The Facebook police?
In reality, Deborah Sharp is crouched over the kitchen table in ratty gym shorts, obsessively checking her cyber-vitals: email, Facebook, Amazon ranking (Darn. Still not in the Top 10.)
But here's what my Facebook friends may read:
Deborah Sharp . . . is sharing a private joke at the White House with President and Mrs. Obama
. . . is riding a bull in the Women's Professional Rodeo
. . . is preparing to pilot the space shuttle Endeavour
So, if a more interesting Deborah Sharp exists on Facebook, does she truly exist?
What about you? What's your fantasy status update?
I’ve just finished a manuscript and am setting it aside for a month. Back in the day, before artisan breads were available at every grocery store, I made a lot of bread. Rye, whole wheat, raisin, cinnamon, challah. I never got bored making bread. Because it’s all about what you add to it.
The thing about bread is that it only has four or five major ingredients. You need flour, you need yeast. The yeast needs sugar to help it along. Oil is added. A pinch of salt. Whether or not you add caraway seeds, or walnuts or swirl in chocolate, it’s up to you.
All books are made up of the same ingredients. Characters. Plot. The leavening agent is the author’s voice. That’s the thing that can make a book rise above the rest. Raisins added might be in the form of crazy subplots, or a flight into another era. Seeds of quirky characters and fun facts pique our interest.
It’s all about what you add to it.
Bread dough is tough. The more you pull it and push it and knead it with your knuckles, the better. Up to a point. If you stop too early, you risk having dough that is not light and chewy. Too late and you’ve got a hard rock on your hands. You learn from experience what that point is. You’ve ground it under the palm of your hand just enough. The bread feels pliable, compliant, elastic. The only way to know is to make lots of bread.
A manuscript is like that too. There are a lot of holes in my manuscript right now. It’s unreadable in fact. But this is my sixth book. I know when to stop pushing and to just let things rest.
Bread needs to rest. It helps if it has an oiled top, is covered with a cotton dish towel and put in a warm place to rise. I’ve done that to my latest manuscript.
Before too long, I’ll pull it out, slap it on the floured board and give it another round of kneading. It’ll be ready to shape into its final form at that point.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
You may think I picked Valerie because she’s getting a lot of press lately. In reality, I picked her before all this press started, and, as a result, it’s been a little stressful.
I picked Valerie because I wanted someone who had been on television when my characters were children. Her girl-next-door image from One Day at a Time and her attractiveness fit Jolene Asdale. And some days Jolene can only take life one…day…at…a…time. The symmetry of it all was perfect—or so I thought.
My first hint of trouble was a note from one of my critique partners. It said “what if the reader doesn’t know who Valerie is?” I thought this might be my critique partner’s subtle way of letting me know she had to look up Valerie on Wikipedia. I brushed this concern off—we all use Wikipedia.
Then, a month after I started sending out queries to agents for this novel, I was pushing a grocery cart through the store when I spotted Valerie on the cover of People magazine. I rolled closer, only to read about her undesired weight gain. My first thought was—okay, I can’t tell you my first thought. But my second thought was that I had written a size eight character that had, according to the report, blossomed to a size fourteen. Not the desired imagery at all.
I studied the picture of Valerie at size fourteen. I thought about the fact that the average American woman is, I believe, a size fourteen. I decided Valerie still looked fabulous. I rolled my cart away.
It seemed like less than two months later, I’m in the grocery store checkout line and Valerie was gracing the cover of People again, now a slimmed down size something. Once again, she looked fabulous. I mentally thanked her for being a team player.
A couple months ago, Valerie’s on People magazine in her size six bikini with belly button ring, looking fabulous yet again. However, my character Jolene Asdale would never wear a belly button ring. She wouldn’t want the pain and wouldn’t see any reason for it. She prefers her belly button covered; she doesn’t like drafts. She doesn’t like to exercise and would never run unless chased.
It’s too late to talk to Valerie about being a team player. I’m going to have to say it’s all fabulous. That’s all I can do.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
What I read about BookExpo America prior to going lowered my expectations. Maybe that was a good thing. I wasn't disappointed at the show at all. In fact, it seemed crowded and vibrant to me.
The only other BEA I attended was in D.C. just before Dot Dead came out. There’s no time like the first time. I was just incredulous that people would queue up to get me to sign their books. Margery Flax, the monarch of Mystery Writers of America, orchestrated an experience I’ll never forget.
(Left to right) Ken Isaacson, Hank Phillippi Ryan, moi, Margery Flax, Lee Child, Chris Grabenstein, Alex Sokoloff
Still I signed again in the MWA booth, this time the book was Smasher and I was seated between pal Alex Sokoloff and the elegant Hank Phillippi Ryan whom I’d never met. With Margery and husband Steve running the show, things were bound to go well. We had fun, the books didn’t last long, and I managed to pick up a tube of the lip balm that Hank was passing out.
The next afternoon I was down in the general signing area and scrawled my name in 150 books in an hour. People were there because they liked the cover, because the Steve Berry blurb enticed them, because they’d read Dot Dead and wanted more (!), because they ran bookstores, and because my line was shorter than some others.
I caught up with lots of friends. The effervescent Kathie Antrim and I ended up on the same plane. She was meeting up with two of my favorite people, Steve and Liz Berry, for a drink. I joined them and then headed out to dinner with my friends Ian and Lexa who tolerate me staying with them when in the City. Other friends I bumped into included the impressive M.J. Rose, the dynamite Houstonians David Thompson and McKenna Jordan, Bobby McCue of the Mystery Bookstore in LA, the italophile David Hewson, New Yorker Jason Starr, and the intense Jon Land. Around the MWA booth got a chance to say hi to Karen Olson, Lee Child, Chris Grabenstein, Ken Isaacson, Frankie Bailey, and Reed Farrel Coleman. (Whom am I forgetting?) Met Meredith Cole whose Posed for Murder came out in February. Lunched with the wonderful J.T. Ellison and her husband Randy who'd been admiring Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon at MOMA. On the way to lunch with them ran into Carol Fitzgerald who runs Bookreporter.com. “You have a book coming out?” she asked accusingly. Yeah, should have let her know. Mea culpa. Promised to email her when I got home. Great spending time with Midnight Ink folks, too. Even said hi to James Patterson who said he’d be at ThrillerFest and we’d talk more then.
On the trip I was even taken out for lunch by my New York agent. Isn’t that how’s this biz is supposed to work?
Once home discovered #2 is mad at me because I met her favorite writer ever, Meg Cabot, and had her sign an ARC for #3. “But it says the book is for middle schoolers and you are in high school,” say I. “Have you ever looked at my bookshelf, Daddy?” retorts she. “I have every book she has ever written.” Wonder when I will get out of the doghouse.
I didn’t wait in line for ARCs all that much. However, I did stop by and say hi to long-time idol and singing legend Judy Collins. I heard Judy sing at the Troubadour in LA when I was, what, 15 or 16. An elegant woman with that wonderful voice which lets you know she has lived a full life.
Reunited! Judy and me.
Saturday night, chum Tim Maleeny and I went out to dinner around the corner from the Javits Center. (See previous post.) It was great catching up. Too bad, the wondrous Cara Black didn’t show. According to a posting on Facebook, she dropped her pink cellphone in the toilet and had no way of getting in touch.
Packing up my stuff to leave on Sunday I broke a glass of my hosts’, slicing open a finger. It took twenty minutes to stanch the blood flow. Of course, that later seemed appropriate as I read Megan Abbot’s Bury Me Deep while winging home. (Megan and I are almost related through marriage: her husband and I have the same agent.) Here’s my comment from Visual Bookshelf: “One of the best stories on the loss of innocence to temptation since Eve and the snake.” Then I started pal Maleeny’s latest, Jump. 50 pages to go. A crazy, mixed-up hybrid of a Donald Westlake comic caper, an Agatha Christie whodunit, and a Michael Connelly Harry Bosch. With ancestors like that, the book was bound to be terrific and has not disappointed.
Home now with a mountain of mail to go through and bills to pay. My must-do immediately list has 14 items. Gotta get to it all! Later.
Monday, June 1, 2009
I just got home from New York City, cradle of contemporary culture, where I was attending the Book Expo America (BEA) along with fellow Inker and scribe Keith Raffel. The three days of BEA were great — a chance to meet avid readers, connect with other writers, and get an inside look at the inner workings (and outer breakings) of the publishing industry.
I also met Elmo on my way back to the hotel. He was much taller than I expected, and his voice deeper than I remembered, though I could barely understand him under all that fur.
Elmo asked me for money so I gave him a dollar, which apparently was much appreciated because he put his arm around me and posed for a picture. When I asked what he was raising money for, he mumbled something that I didn't quite catch, but looking across Times Square at the hastily erected police barricades I wondered if Elmo was raising funds to offset the cost of the President's visit to Broadway for his date night with the First Lady.
My fellow bloggers know that while I don't belong to either major political party I do have equal and unbiased disdain for both of them, have a short fuse when it comes to any discussion related to taxes, and very well might be a closet libertarian if I could just get the skeletons out of there to make enough room. So as I threaded my way past cops working overtime, bomb squad vehicles and cement trucks requisitioned to block off major thoroughfares, it occurred to me that my wife and I, much like the President and First Lady, try to have a date night every week. That gave me an idea. Upon returning home I contacted my Congressional Representatives to see if some of the government's stimulus package could be diverted to my wife and I every week so we could take in a show. I even offered to fly commercial and pay for the babysitter. Thus far I've had no response from either the White House or Capital Hill.
The rest of the trip to New York was uneventful, but it was wonderful to be in a place where you can have dinner well after midnight, where no one wakes up early on Saturdays unless they want the streets to themselves, and where you can always get a cab at any hour, even if the driver doesn't know where he's going.
I also got to have dinner with Keith, so I guess you could call it a perfect weekend.