Sunday, November 26, 2006

Stick a fork in it

From Charles:

Ask a dozen authors how they go about writing their books and you’ll get 20 different answers. Some are strict outliners, some go at it by the seat of their pants, some race through the manuscript in weeks, spending months on rewrites, others go along at a snail’s pace, getting it right (or a version of right) the first time.

I started writing Relative Danger for something to do and honestly never thought it would get finished. Rose and I were living in Kuwait and despite all the great times we enjoyed there, I still had oodles of time every night for reading. Back then Kuwait did not have many bookstores and the couple they did, specialized in books from England, priced as if each book flew in on its own, first class. There was a used book exchange rack in the teachers’ lounge (wonder if it’s still there?) and it was loaded with massive tomes from Clive Cussler, all staring über-manyly man, Dirk Pitt. Now a little bit of Dirk Pitt goes a long way for me and after, oh, three thousand pages or so, I was longing for a hero that was a bit less perfect. Not finding one on the shelves, I set out to create my own. That’s how Doug Pierce was born. Based in part on my life-long pal Rick Roth and on Todd Haines, a teacher I met in Kuwait who became a dear friend, Doug is my answer to Dirk Pitt – an average guy who is a heck of a lot smarter than folks give him credit for. When I set out to write the story, all I had was a premise and what I thought was a neat ending and over the next five years I stumbled my way through until one day I realized it was done. The rest, as they say, is publishing history.

With my next book I tried a different approach. I started with detailed character bios, I plotted out every single scene on 3X5 cards, color-coded for easy reshuffling, and I set myself up with a writing schedule, which I kept posted above my desk. This is what all the writing books said I should do, so I did it. I finished the book right on time and…it was flat. The premise was good, some of the characters were memorable and a few of the scenes were, I must admit, excellent. But overall the book just didn’t come together. Time to start over.

I knew I wanted to set a book in India so I hauled out the biggest map I could find. Sitting with that map I planned a trip that I thought would be interesting. Any trip would have to start in Delhi since that’s the Indian city I knew best (or thought I knew best). Since I love the hectic mess that is Jaipur, I knew it would have to go through there, and since I wanted a Bollywood connection I had to get to Mumbai. I knew early on that it would be a story about modern India and that would have to include the high-tech world and that meant Bangalore. Tying it all together was, of course, India Rail, my favorite way to travel, bar none. Using a red marker and this map, I plotted out the story – the main ideas, anyway – and that’s what I used to write the rest of the book. (Although I was finished the manuscript before I read his book, I owe a great debt of thanks to Peter Turchi, author of Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. He changed the way I view writing and I cannot recommend his book strongly enough.) The finished product of this map-first approach is Out of Order and if it’s not on your shelves, it should be on your holiday wish list.

Over a year ago I brought home a 10-foot long piece of butcher paper and hung it on the wall. I drew a line down the length of paper, breaking that line into 3 equal sections, the 3 acts of my next book. Using pictures I cut from magazines, I illustrated the backbone of a story that had been in my head since I watched the footage of the tsunami devastating the Thai beaches I had come to love. Over the next month I rearranged these pictures until the story felt right. Stepping back, I could see the entire book – the different characters, the action sequences, the reflective moments, the conflict and the resolution – all in pictures without a single word. To me the book was already done, all I needed to do was write it.

Yesterday, I wrote the last sentence of that book.

I’m not big on revising. I sweat every frickin’ phrase and word choice the first time through (which may be why I average a whopping 200 words a day). Sure, there’ll be some revision – I’m human, it’s in our genes – and I’m sure my editor will have lots to say, but in a many ways, Noble Lies, the tentative title of this Thai adventure, is done.

This afternoon I hung up a new sheet of butcher paper.

You think a blank computer screen is intimidating…

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Was that a party or what!

What a party!

Was that a great party or what! And is this a relieved hostess or what?

Yesterday’s Afternoon of Murder at the Moonshine Café (www.themoonshinecafe.com) was a huge success. At first I was afraid that no one would come, and then I was afraid that we’d be turning people away. But to start at the beginning.

My great friends, Jan and Paul Toms, are partners in a fantastic little place in Oakville, Ontario called the Moonshine Café. Think 1960’s, think early Dylan, think Kerouac, think coffee house. Add a liquor license and you have the Moonshine.

Their rasons d’ être is music, everything from drop-in-and-jam sessions to professional groups are at the café seven days a week. They’ve had poetry readings, but never a novel event.

Paul asked me if I’d like to have a signing or something at the café. But I’d already had the launch of Burden of Memory at the (sadly) now-defunct Scene of the Crime bookstore not too far away. I figured that we’d only get the same bunch of people out. Whereupon I thought of having a much bigger event, and inviting other authors to participate. I looked for a combination of writers I love, with much different styles, and tried to put together an event.

Please believe me, I can’t organize a two-car parade. Nor would I have thought that I might try. And there I was, trying to pull together a six writer afternoon.

Writers are supposed to be difficult and temperamental. Let me tell you that in my experience they’re the opposite. I approached Maureen Jennings, Rick Blechta, Sylvia Maultash Warsh, Jeffrey Miller, and Jean Rae Baxter. They signed on with enthusiasm.

I invited friends, I sent out press releases, I chewed my nails. What if no one came? I’d have dragged these very busy, very popular authors out to Oakville, Ontario only to stand around glaring at me.

To cut a long story short – less than ten minutes after the program began, I was getting worried that we would have to turn people away. The café keeps a cluster of chairs outside for smokers: one by one the chairs were carried in. Quite literally, the last patron met the last chair. And this isn’t something fanciful: a licensed establishment has to pay great attention that they don’t exceed the number of people allowed on the premises. Paul and John were counting heads all afternoon.

Because the Moonshine Café is primarily a musical establishment, they just happen to have guitars and a piano hanging around. Jeffrey and Rick were gently persuaded to play during the break. I think I heard something about the smashing of fingers if they refused,

My daughter Alex bought a copy of Jean Rae Baxter’s book, A Twist of Malace. Alex called me this morning to say that she was at work (she’s a paramedic) but was she was still feeling disturbed at the story of Panther. Is that a testament to the power of Jean’s book, or what!

I have so many people to thank. Paul and Jan Toms, of course. John Marlatt for inviting us to his wonderful café. Phyllis Miller and my incomparable mother, Gail Cargo, for handling the money and trying to sort out the book buying despite the fact that I didn’t have a clue of how to organize it. Iden Ford for taking pictures, and helping at the book table. I’ll try to post some of Iden’s pictures later. Helen Brown, who I can always count on for her tremendous enthusiasm of everything literary.

Again, thanks to Rick Blecta, Jean Rae Baxter, Sylvia Maultash Warsh, Maureen Jennings and Jeffrey Miller. Great readers all. And even better writers.

I was asked to do it all again next year. We will just have to see.

Best,

Vicki

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Muncie & Me

Charles here.

Way back in September I posted an entry about how I was looking forward to Magna Cum Murder in Muncie and yesterday I got a note from a reader asking why I didn’t follow up with a recap. Well, gosh, now I have to.

This was my first time at Magna but it will now be a required stop for me. It’s a small conference but folks, it was amazing. There are so many things that made this event outstanding but I’ll limit myself to just a few.

Since it’s a small conference, you get to spend time with the authors and the fans. A lot of time. There’s many opportunities to get together and just chat and, unlike some big conferences I’ve attended, there wasn’t this “please buy my book/please don’t try to sell me your book” desperation to every conversation. Now this is probably true of many small conferences but Magna benefits from its location – smack dab in the middle of downtown Muncie, Indiana. This is great for the conference since there is absolutely nothing to do in downtown Muncie.¹ Now I don’t mean that as some sort of insult (but I can see how you’d read it that way) – there’s lots to do around Muncie if you have a car but many attendees don’t so almost all of the time is spent at sessions or in the hotel bar or restaurant. No one skips the luncheon to hit all the designer shops and there aren’t vanloads of attendees scooting out before the last session is over to hit the nightclubs. People come to Magna to talk about mysteries and that’s just what they do.

The programming played a role, too. All the attendees were asked to read Maureen Jenning’s Except the Dying, a book I gushed about before (and continue to do today) and the program was dotted with different discussion groups that approached the book from all sorts of points of view, some with the author participating, some without. It was a close, critical analysis of a work in common and the level of discussion went well beyond the trivial. There was also a screening of the film adapted from the book and the film’s producer was in the house to give her unique perspective. This one-book focus makes Magna a readers’ must-attend conference.

There were breakfast discussion topics (a welcome change from the same ol’ grab a coffee and sit with people you already know), an author’s luncheon at the Ball Mansion at Ball State U (with faculty members and rather clever students in the Honors Program), academic paper presentations (one of my personal highlights of the event) and an exciting keynote address by someone who is not a mystery author.²

And you can’t talk about Magna without mentioning the woman who makes it all happen, Kathryn Kennison. Warm, friendly and unforgettable, Kathryn treated me like I was an old friend – and so did everyone who put the event together. Whether you’re a fan, an author (published or otherwise) you should make Magna and Muncie your key destination in 2007.

I’ll see you there.

¹Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. There are a few good (small) restaurants, a cute coffee shop, a hopping bar with live music (20s crowd) and the same weekend there was an outdoor adult Halloween party with local bands and lots of beer. But even the biggest Muncie booster would admit that there’s less to do in Muncie than in, say, Chicago, Toronto, Miami or Bristol England, home of other recent mystery conventions.

²Anyone who knows me knows I cringe when I hear someone described as a “hero”, but they do exist and Kurt Muse is one of them. Don’t believe me? Read John Gilstrap’s breathtaking true account, Six Minutes to Freedom.


Muncie & Me

Charles here.

Way back in September I posted an entry about how I was looking forward to Magna Cum Murder in Muncie and yesterday I got a note from a reader asking why I didn’t follow up with a recap. Well, gosh, now I have to.

This was my first time at Magna but it will now be a required stop for me. It’s a small conference but folks, it was amazing. There are so many things that made this event outstanding but I’ll limit myself to just a few.

Since it’s a small conference, you get to spend time with the authors and the fans. A lot of time. There’s many opportunities to get together and just chat and, unlike some big conferences I’ve attended, there wasn’t this “please buy my book/please don’t try to sell me your book” desperation to every conversation. Now this is probably true of many small conferences but Magna benefits from its location – smack dab in the middle of downtown Muncie, Indiana. This is great for the conference since there is absolutely nothing to do in downtown Muncie.¹ Now I don’t mean that as some sort of insult (but I can see how you’d read it that way) – there’s lots to do around Muncie if you have a car but many attendees don’t so almost all of the time is spent at sessions or in the hotel bar or restaurant. No one skips the luncheon to hit all the designer shops and there aren’t vanloads of attendees scooting out before the last session is over to hit the nightclubs. People come to Magna to talk about mysteries and that’s just what they do.

The programming played a role, too. All the attendees were asked to read Maureen Jenning’s Except the Dying, a book I gushed about before (and continue to do today) and the program was dotted with different discussion groups that approached the book from all sorts of points of view, some with the author participating, some without. It was a close, critical analysis of a work in common and the level of discussion went well beyond the trivial. There was also a screening of the film adapted from the book and the film’s producer was in the house to give her unique perspective. This one-book focus makes Magna a readers’ must-attend conference.

There were breakfast discussion topics (a welcome change from the same ol’ grab a coffee and sit with people you already know), an author’s luncheon at the Ball Mansion at Ball State U (with faculty members and rather clever students in the Honors Program), academic paper presentations (one of my personal highlights of the event) and an exciting keynote address by someone who is not a mystery author.²

And you can’t talk about Magna without mentioning the woman who makes it all happen, Kathryn Kennison. Warm, friendly and unforgettable, Kathryn treated me like I was an old friend – and so did everyone who put the event together. Whether you’re a fan, an author (published or otherwise) you should make Magna and Muncie your key destination in 2007.

I’ll see you there.

¹Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. There are a few good (small) restaurants, a cute coffee shop, a hopping bar with live music (20s crowd) and the same weekend there was an outdoor adult Halloween party with local bands and lots of beer. But even the biggest Muncie booster would admit that there’s less to do in Muncie than in, say, Chicago, Toronto, Miami or Bristol England, home of other recent mystery conventions.

²Anyone who knows me knows I cringe when I hear someone described as a “hero”, but they do exist and Kurt Muse is one of them. Don’t believe me? Read John Gilstrap’s breathtaking true account, Six Minutes to Freedom.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Silly Season and Some Inspiration

Vicki reporting in.

Lots happening on the promotional front these days. Rick was signing at Coles bookstore in the Royal Bank Plaza in downtown Toronto last week (If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop by – they’re a super nice bunch there. Tell the manager, Lori, that I sent you). I probably won’t get to his launch party on Thursday so I thought I’d get my copy of his new one, When Hell Freezes Over, then.

A woman was standing at Rick’s table, looking mildly interested in buying a book, but not entirely convinced. I rushed up, and gushed, in my normal soft, dulcet tones (not!) “I’ve been so looking forward to reading this book after I read the wonderful review of it in the Globe and Mail. Whereupon she looked a bit more interested. Not a word of a lie, I just played it up a bit.

On my own promotional front, I was invited to speak at a high school last week. I really enjoyed the experience. There were about 60 students, grades 11 and 12. Most of them didn’t even look as if they were forced to be there. I read a section from Burden of Memory, and they applauded. That was nice.

The crux of my talk was the motivation behind being a writer. I heard somewhere that 10 million people in the U.S. are writing a book or thinking of writing one. And I’m sure that the percentage in Canada is comparable. Whew! Makes you put down that pen or close that computer right now, just thinking of the competition. But if you have a bit of talent, and a bit of luck (or a lot of luck!) then you’re not really competing with 10 million plus people. You are competing with the fraction of that number who 1) actually write the book and 2) do a good job.

I have seen it broken down like this:

1 out of 100 people who say "I want to write a book" actually start writing.
Out of those who write, 1 out of 100 actually finishes.
Out of those that finish, 1 out of 100 take the time to polish it up and send it to an agent/publisher
Out of those that submit, 1 out of 100 will be published

(Thanks to Charles for the stats)

So looking at it that way, if you get that book finished to the best of your ability, and send it out to the wider world, you are not competing with 10 million (and 1 million Canadians). You’re only competing with 100 other writers, and that’s pretty manageable.

So go for it! And remember, once you’re actually written the book, then the hard part starts – see promotion above.

Best,

Vicki