Friday, August 31, 2018

All About Awards

My latest book in the Lottie Albright series, Fractured Families, was a finalist for the Colorado Book Award. A friend asked me how books were considered for awards in the first place. 

Ha! One of the most humbling processes in this business of becoming a writer is screwing up the courage for BSP (blatant self promotion). There's the awkward feeling that one shouldn't have written the book to begin. A quick walk through Barnes and Noble and one realizes there are so many obviously superior books out there.

In the beginning, to believe your book is deserving of an award is an enormous step. But relax, you don't have to believe anything at all. Just enter the contest anyway.

It's your step to make. I've been the awards chairman for Western Writers of American and judged in all categories. Believe me, you care more about your book than anyone else. It's up to you to enter contests or suggest appropriate entries to your publisher. 

Winning a major award increases sales. Each genre has its own treasured equivalency of the Oscar. For members of Mystery Writers of America, its the Edgar, Romance Writer of America, the Rita, Women Writing the West, the Willa, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, the Hugo and Nebula, Western Writers of America, the Spur award.

And of course there are the biggies, such as the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award.

There are many, many more categories, plus regional awards and specialized awards for particular subjects.

As a former awards chairman my best advice is to follow the rules. To the letter. Perfectly. Most writers can also read. Read the rules, then follow them. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?

The previous chairman told me I would lose my respect for the publishing industry after serving as an awards chairman. It wasn't that bad, but honestly, to this day I cannot speak of certain company without wiping the froth off my mouth. They submitted a terrific book in the wrong category. It was a non-fiction book about school teachers. I called twice and told them it was incorrectly entered as a first novel. I was thoroughly bawled out and it goes without saying, the book was not resubmitted.

Read the rules! A book previously published in another form in an earlier year cannot be submitted for the current contest. The year it's copyrighted prevails. If forms are required, send them. Sign them. Missing information is a common slip-up. So is missing deadlines. So is sending the wrong number of books to the wrong judges.

Submitting books for awards can be really expensive. Many contests require an entry fee, plus a number of books. The highest number of books I've ever had to submit for an award is seven. For some reason, four sticks in in my mind as the average number. And then there's postage costs. Plus the trauma of wondering if your books have arrived at the destination. I always opt for tracking.

When in doubt, enter! You certainly won't win if you don't try. Writing is a rather lonely profession and there's nothing like an award to boost one's ego and bolster one's resolve to get back to work writing the next book.   

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The benefits of writing the screenplay

Over the past year, I’ve had the good fortune of having a Hollywood group (a producer, a writer, a director, and an executive producer who brought them all together) believe Peyton Cote, my US Border Patrol agent and single mom, would make a good TV show.

It’s nice –– in a wave-from-the-shore kind of way.

They worked up a pitch, which I had nothing to do with, and now they’re making the rounds. No bites so far. My role has consisted of answering a couple questions. This is, I’m told, typical.

It’s also a little frustrating: Peyton Cote isn’t a PI or a cop. She’s a very thoroughly-researched (if I do say so myself) character from a division of the department of justice that operates under the radar (some say covertly), meaning learning the ins and outs of the profession takes years. You can’t do ride-alongs (anymore).

I played hockey with a handful of agents and parlayed that into hours spent with those men riding dirt roads along the Maine-Canada border in order to write the series. So it’s odd to sit on the sideline and hear a pitch was created. And then to hear that the pitch was made.

I’m grateful. Let me be very clear about that. After all, if Peyton Cote ever sees a TV screen, it could be a shot in the arm to book sales. But it’s also odd to have no voice in any of it.

While all of this has been going on, I wrote what I hope will be the first novel in a new series featuring a husband and wife team. A large departure from Peyton Cote, this is a novel set at a New England boarding school. With the first book finished, I’m trying to write the accompanying screenplay. The experience is fascinating. I’m reading screenplays, and reshaping a first-person novel into a cinematic story. Characters that had relatively minor roles now have leads. And the first-person voice, so important to the novel, is replaced by action scenes.

Stating the obvious: I have zero experience in this genre. So maybe this is nothing more than a 120-page writing exercise. But if it is, it’s a useful one. One that forces me to re-evaluate the original work, cut out anything not necessary, rethink how the story is best told on the screen, and write it with all of that in mind.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Would Sherlock Be Sherlock?

There’s a movement afoot in my part of the world to rename things. It started with the city of El Segundo renaming its portion of Sepulveda Blvd to Pacific Coast Highway.

Let me orient you a bit. Sepulveda is a very long, generally North/South street that runs for miles and miles. The portion I’m going to talk about starts just south of LAX. From there it runs through the cities of El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, in that order.

For as long as I’ve lived in the area, the street has been named Sepulveda until it reaches Hermosa where it becomes PCH. Everyone’s used to that. Then El Segundo decided to change its portion (about 2 miles) to PCH as well. That means as you travel south from LAX you go from Sepulveda Blvd to PCH back to Sepulveda and finally to PCH again. For us locals it’s not an issue. It’s the same street we’ve always known. But I would think that could be very confusing for visitors to the area.

As far as I can tell the reason for the change is El Segundo felt they weren’t getting enough credit for being a beach city so they thought the name change would signal to everyone far and wide that they were a city along the coast.

Now a realtor in Manhattan Beach has started a campaign to rename the portion of the city east of Sepulveda (that darn street again!) from East Manhattan to Manhattan Knolls. The portions of the city west of that darn street have cute names like the Sand Section, the Hill Section and the Tree Section. These aren’t official designations, just convenient names used by residents and real estate agents to tell someone approximately where a house is located.

Doesn’t make a darn bit of difference to me what these places are called. It doesn’t change how I view them. I’m not that sure it’ll make much difference other people either.

But all of this kerfuffle did get me to thinking about characters and their names. Would Sherlock Holmes be the same character if he had a more ordinary name like John Smith or Ben Rogers? (I pulled those names out of the air; no offense to anyone with those names.) Would Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have given Sherlock the same personality if he’d given him a different name? I have no idea which came first for him, the name or the personality traits of the character, or if they arrived at the same time. I suspect, though, that he knew his character’s personality traits fairly early on.

I know a character doesn’t truly come alive for me until I give him/her at least a first name. But, before that, I generally have some idea of the character’s personality. I do try to pick a name that goes along with them.

For my first book, Fatal Brushstroke, I named the murder victim that my main character finds in her garden, Hester Bouquet. This was a bit of an homage to Hyacinth Bucket, the main character in the British TV show, Keeping Up Appearances. Hester has some of the same personality traits as Hyacinth—she’s always worried about appearances and what people think of her and her family. If you remember, Hyacinth Bucket insisted on having her name pronounced “Bouquet”.

Probably the only character I’ve created in my books where the personality didn’t come first was my main character, Aurora Anderson. I just love the name Aurora so I wanted to use it and Aurora Amelia Anderson had a nice ring to it.

So here are a couple questions for all of you writers out there. Does it matter what you name your characters? Does the name influence the personality traits you give them or is it the other way around?

#

In other news, the phantom seems to have left my car. (Knock on wood!) No more mysteriously opened windows. It was pretty hot when the “peculiarities” happened so I figure the phantom didn’t want to be left in the car with the windows rolled up. Now that it’s cooler, it’s happier. That’s what I’m going with, anyway.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Creating characters: that sinking feeling

by Rick Blechta

What is the most important part of the creative process in writing a novel?

Some might say the plot; some might say the characters. I feel the correct answer has to be the latter. You could have the best plot in the world, exciting, innovative, edge-of-your-seat thrilling, but let’s face it, the characters tell the story, and if they’re no good, you’ve got a dud of a novel on your hands.

Tom’s excellent post yesterday talked about the importance of characters being under stress, and that’s a very good point. What I remember from a university class on writing is that “characters must change over the course of a novel.” What would cause those changes? Stress certainly would be critical in that.

My post last week was about Nero Wolfe and that caused me to think about digging out our old paperbacks from a carton in the basement. My wife saved me the trouble by purchasing two double-novel paperbacks for the first four Wolfe stories. First thing I’ve got to say is that Rex Stout was a damned fine writer. Even though these novels were written in the ’30s, they still hold up really well for the most part, even though society has changed so much.

But second is, while the characters are splendid, you could tell that Stout hadn’t fully formed them yet. Archie Goodwin and Wolfe are fairly well set, but the secondary characters aren’t. Example: Inspector Cramer actually smokes his cigars — in Wolfe’s office! That’s a small detail, but Stout used his cigar-gnawing to very good effect in later books.

I’m currently wading through what I hope will be the first book in a wildly successful series. (Hey! One should always hope.) It’s been tough and I’ve re-written the front of the book four times now because, to be honest, it just hasn’t felt right. I work best by feeling my way rather following an outline, and I also know how critically important it is to get the main character(s) correct in the first novel of a projected series. The thing I’m worrying most about is pacing. How much character development stuff needs to be shared in those critical first hundred pages?

Since I’m feeling my way forward with the characters as well as the plot, and I’m writing a thriller, you should be able to see the conundrum. The plot has to move like stink — but it’s the characters who will make it believable.

Then I read Tom’s post this morning and one comment really struck home: “Finally, my editor said that in the first hundred pages…NOTHING HAPPENS!” And for a writer, that is a surprisingly easy thing to do.

Back to the novel. Hmmm… I’m now thinking I’ve got the same problem and I’m going to have to go back again and set things up anew.

I have a plan for accomplishing what I need, but more about that next week!

Monday, August 27, 2018

Stress

Henry James said that plot is characters under stress.

When I began working on my second Geneva Chase novel, Darkness Lane, I sent the first hundred pages to my editor at Poisoned Pen Press. In it, Geneva is sober, cooking meals for her and Caroline (Geneva’s ward) in their warm, cozy kitchen, and she’s sworn off married men.

In the first chapter, I wrote about an abused woman who waits until her drunken husband has fallen asleep and then covers him with gasoline and lights a match. By the time the police arrive, the fire department is vainly trying to put out the blaze and the husband is long past screaming.

The cops find the woman standing on the curb with a plastic cup filled with Merlot. She looks at the officers and says, “I’m just toasting my husband.”

A page later, we find that a fifteen-year-old high school girl has gone missing. She happens to be Caroline’s best friend.

A good start? I thought so.

My editor, in her diplomatic but honest way, sent back a critique essentially saying that she could see how I was putting the puzzle pieces in place, but Geneva, my protagonist, was too suburban.

Oh my, God, I’d made her boring!

My editor went on to say, she hoped that the part of the abused woman torching her husband wasn’t being used as a ‘billboard’, a ruse to bring the reader into the story but once you’ve past it, no longer is part of the narrative.

Oh my, God. It was!

Finally, my editor said that in the first hundred pages…NOTHING HAPPENS!

Oh, my God. She’s right!

Two weeks later, I’d rewritten that first hundred pages. After review, my editor came back and told me that the first hundred pages are dark and it feels like everything is right on the edge of disaster. Keep writing.

Whew!

I put the characters under stress. I made the abused woman a secondary plot line, something that would merge with the disappearance of the high school girl. I brought in two characters from an earlier book I’d written but was never published, bad guys—really bad guys.

Geneva had to have it coming from all sides. Teenage Caroline became a pain in the ass. The publisher of the failing newspaper where Geneva is working is threatening to sell the publication to a media conglomerate, screwing his employees into the ground. A teacher at Caroline’s school disappears at the same time the high school student has gone missing. Geneva discovers the body of the student’s father, brutally murdered.

Geneva starts drinking again.

Characters under stress.

Australian writer, Ian Irvine said, “Conflict forces characters to act in ways that reveal who they are – and nothing tells us more about characters than how they deal with their troubles.”

He goes on to say, “Stories are about adversity. Happiness can be the ending of the story, but it can’t be the story itself. Why not? Because happy characters don’t want to change. Happiness doesn’t force the characters to act and thus reveal themselves and, if the characters are having a good time, the reader is not.”

Plus, stress and conflict create plot twists. When I write, at some point, the characters take on their own lives. I’m along for the ride. They seem to create their own dialogue, move through a scene without my guidance. And just like real life, things happen that I didn’t see coming. Some of my best plot twists just seem to have happened on their own.

Crazy? You bet. But aren’t all writers a little nuts?

And because your characters are under stress, it can feel uncomfortable to write the scene. It’s painful, not because it’s bad prose, but because your characters are struggling with the obstacles that YOU’VE given them. They’re your characters. You created them. You’re making them suffer.

Overcoming dire obstacles under stress is what draws the reader into your story, advances your plot, and makes your characters more sympathetic.

Have a great week and I hope to see you at either/or the Poisoned Pen Press Mystery Conference in Phoenix over Labor Day weekend and/or at Bouchercon, September 6-9 in St. Petersburg, FL.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

A Vampire in Cowboy Boots

My newest novel is just out, book 7 in my Felix Gomez vampire-detective series, Steampunk Banditos: Sex Slaves of Shark Island from WordFire Press. This story has been ten years in the making. When the steampunk craze started I totally dug it and couldn't wait to craft my own take on the sub-genre. My agent at the time wasn't keen on steampunk and considered it a flash in the pan. I had just signed a contract for books 4 and 5 of the series, plus I had started on a graphic novel and so I let the idea languish for a while. Years, actually. Meanwhile I saw steampunk books zooming in sales. Part of the attraction was that science fiction had temporarily lost its sense of wonder and steampunk had all kinds of dazzling spectacle. But the sub-genre never grew much beyond its tropes. There were several bestselling books but steampunk failed to attract a mainstream audience. Hopes were pinned on a breakout steampunk movie to really inspire the masses but all those attempts fizzled. The authors I knew who were identified with steampunk eventually shed their corsets and goggles and moved on. But there's still enough of a following who revel in a quirky alternative world, providing the story is good. Which I trust mine is.



So why Steampunk Banditos? When I finished book 6 in the series, Rescue From Planet Pleasure, I thought I was done with the main story arc. Plus there were world-building elements that bothered me and I was looking for a way to discard them. Then it hit me to do a mashup of sorts, to put my Felix in the steampunk world I had set aside. As I constructed the plot I referred to a map and what did I notice in the Gulf of California (formerly the Sea of Cortez), but Isla Tiburón--Shark Island. How could I not have that place in my story? Truthfully, I planned to not emphasize the steampunk aspect by titling the book simply as Sex Slaves of Shark Island, until my publisher pointed out that the title would trip spam filters and several distributors might also object. So I hung the original title back on the book. My cover designer from Planet Pleasure, Eric Matelski, offered to work on the new cover. The obvious feature would've been a woman in a cage but that seemed too exploitative. So he and I went back-and-forth and interestingly, almost simultaneously arrived on an image focused on handcuffs and chains to portray a sex slave. The sharks circling menacingly was a given.

As I wrote the manuscript I found that my plan to streamline the story elements seriously backfired. What happens is that Felix is switched with another Felix in an alternative world. He arrives midway in an on-going adventure so the challenge was to build his relationships with the other characters. A big change is that now his side-kicks are not fellow vampires but humans. Though the female lead, Hermosa Singer, lacks supernatural powers, she has such a tornado of a personality that she practically wrenched the plot out of Felix's hands. And mine too. Since I love mysteries, be prepared for plenty of hidden agendas and double-crosses. Buy your copy here.


Friday, August 24, 2018

There Goes Summer

I am in that transitional time of year, when summer "ends" because school is about to begin.
I don't regret the passing of the season because I am not a hot weather person. I love cool, crisp autumn days. What I will miss is the sense of freedom that summer has brought since I was a child. I may be the teacher now but I still feel the same joy in May when the last class ends and the same longing for just a few more weeks of  vacation when it's time to go back.  It's always takes a month or so to get back into "school mode".

That said, it isn't as if I took the summer "off". I used the three months to do research and write. I finished my first draft of my nonfiction book on dress and appearance except for some tinkering I need to do before Monday. I finished a short story I promised to contribute to an anthology and sent it off to the editor. I'm working on the other short story I need to finish before the end of the month. And I can finally see the shape of the 1939 book.

And -- picking up on the discussion we've been having here -- I resolved my concept versus character dilemma. I did that today. This afternoon. I realized I need a prologue. Not a first chapter. An honest to-goodness prologue that sets the stage and provides context. I'm going to do that with a prologue spanning a week in the lives of three real people -- Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR, and J. Edgar Hoover. What they were doing that week in February foreshadows the events and issues that are about to have a major impact on my fictional characters. I wish I had realized this a month or two ago instead of spinning my wheels trying to figure out how to introduce the main characters and also provide that context.

On the other hand, I did get to know the characters better as I was trying different points of views and experimenting with different beginnings. So the time was not wasted. I just wish I had more summer vacation writing time. But the looming first day of classes forced me to launch my August clean-up at home and in my office at school. I found some notes to myself that were really useful buried under piles of papers and books.

Three days and counting. But I'm going to make the most of what's left of my summer -- an afternoon off to read a book, a nap on Sunday afternoon, and some work on my website to get up those discussion questions that I didn't do the first time around for the reissue of my second Lizzie Stuart book, a Dead Man's Honor. I may even get the new shower curtains hung. 

And come Monday, I'll remind myself that it's a brand new (academic) year full of possibilities.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

She Needs a Dog



My work in progress is beginning to take shape. This is a relief, because the WIP is the first book in what may become a new series for me. Over the past 13 years, I have written ten books in the Alafair Tucker series, which is set in the 1910s and features a woman with ten children. The first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, took place in 1912 and the most recent, Forty Dead Men, took place in 1919 and dealt with the aftermath of World War I. I’ve reached 1920. Most of the children are grown by now, and for some time I’ve been wondering about how their adult lives turned out.

So...in order to satisfy my own curiosity and shake things up a bit, I decided to follow one of the children into the Roaring Twenties and see what became of her. As it turns out, she left Oklahoma altogether and had a really exciting life.

A new series set in a new location and era means lots of research, and it also means that I have to get to know a whole bunch of new characters. As my blogmates have been so ably discussing over the past week, a good plot is an excellent thing, but memorable characters are the most important thing if you want your readers to keep coming back for more.

When I started out on the new book, I had what I though was a complete cast of characters ready to go, but as I write, new characters keep suggesting themselves. It’s interesting to see how every new character’s very presence affects the tale, just as the insertion of a real person into a group changes its entire chemistry and dynamic. Adding a new character into a book that is well underway gives me a jolt of writing energy. It’s amazing how little it takes to make big changes in the way a story unfolds.

This is not the first time added a new character in the middle of the process. Whenever I have done such a thing, it has been as though the character was on the sidelines the whole time, like a relief quarterback, just waiting to jump into the game and throw the winning pass. Usually it’s a person, but sometimes it’s an animal. I was busily typing along on the MS when it struck me like lighting that my heroine needs a dog, and that dog is going do something that saves the day. In my fourth book, The Sky Took Him, I added Ike the cat after the entire story was written. I had to go back and sprinkle Ike’s presence through the novel and it was a lot of trouble. And yet, I don’t know he did it, but that cat tied the action together with a big red bow. He was a magic character. I can only hope that my new guy has the same juju.

When you create new characters, either for a series or a stand-alone, you may feel a bit like God, making people behave like this or that and causing all sorts of unpleasant things to happen to them.  But no matter how much you think you’re in control, eventually some miracle happens and the characters develop wills of their own and don't listen to you any more.  I think this is not an uncommon experience for writers.  After a while, you can't force characters to respond to the action in the way you want them to any more than you could force a real person to do what you want.  When this happens, you know you've succeeded.  If your character behaves like a living person, then your readers are going to care about her like they would a living person.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The trouble with quirks and flaws

Can you take one more post about characters with flaws? It's a fascinating topic, but one that risks becoming a cliche. How many reviews and blurbs begin with the phrase "a flawed but likeable hero"? It seems as if nowadays the main character MUST have flaws in order to be weighty enough to carry a story or a series (not to mention land an agent or publisher). Those flaws are supposed to give them a uniqueness and humanity that sets them apart from the million other heroes striving to solve mysteries and save the world on the shelves of fiction. Sometimes in addition to flaws, the characters have "quirks" bestowed upon them by authors hoping to make them even more unique. Some quirks are endearing, such as feeding homeless cats, whereas others are more serious, like giving a character OCD or autism, for example, which somehow gives them special powers.

A relatable character with depth and flaws that give them humanity and create a quiver of tension –as in, "Oh no, is he going to screw this up again?"– is the centre point of a good story. If the reader doesn't engage with the hero, they will not engage with the book. But there's a risk that writers are using flaws and quirks as a substitute for real depth. Making the character an alcoholic or an abuse victim allows the writer to push certain well-worn buttons that create an instant, but superficial connection. Moreover, many of these standard flaws have themselves become cliches. In fact, the alcoholic, divorced, embittered cop is one of the most overused cliches in the business. It takes a very skilled writer like Rankin to get beyond the cliche. Unfortunately as standard flaws become cliches, writers are forced to forage farther afield in search of bigger and better flaws.

Real depth means layers of ambivalence and past experiences that inform how the character reacts on the page, even if the writer never tells us about those underlying influences. It means knowing your characters as well as you know your family; knowing how they will react, knowing how they feel in every situation you put them in, however mundane, and then allowing them to surprise you by doing something unexpected from time to time. Real people are often but not always consistent, so characters need that freedom too.

Some writers achieve this by creating detailed backstories and character sketches before they begin. Others get to know their characters along the way and then add depth and nuance in later drafts. I suspect most good writers do a combination. The experiences the character goes through at the beginning of the book will change them and affect how they react in later scenes. That's one reason I have trouble with outlining ahead of time. When I write a scene, I try to slip into that character's skin so that I feel, see, and experience that scene as they would. That's why I always try to walk in my character's shoes and experience the things I'll put them through, including subjecting myself to winter camping in order to write THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY.



This "walking in their shoes" feeling doesn't occur during outlining, at least to the same depth. Only once I'm in that character's skin can I truly imagine how they will react, and that will inform how the scene unfolds. I may end up the scene in a very different place than I had planned (in that hypothetical outline), but if I've done it right, it should feel real, credible, and human to the reader.


My characters end up being flawed – Amanda Doucette can be reckless and infuriating, and Michael Green is always forgetting his family obligations  – but those traits grew out of my constantly asking "what would they do next?" as I am writing. It allows me the most delightful surprises along the way and helps the characters to evolve and grow. Michael Green in NONE SO BLIND (tenth in the series) is a very different person from DO OR DIE. Amanda is also growing. I think this evolution is one of the strengths of a series. Readers want to engage with an interesting character, and they want to follow along in their life and watch not only what happens to them, but also how they change.

Inching towards perfection, but never attaining it. That would be the end of the series, not to mention boring.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Old Friends

by Rick Blechta

Mavor Moore (l) as Wolfe and Don Francks as Archie
First off, I’m referring to books as old friends in this post, and readers, all of us have these I’m sure. You know the sort of book you reach for when you’re sick or depressed, the ones that have a real resonance for you, the book that would accompany you to a desert island. These are the sort of books that you can slip into like a pair of comfortable slippers.

In the case of crime fiction, those old friends might come from a very large family. With Sherlock Holmes, or Miss Marple or any number of series, you could be sick for several months (God forbid!) and still have lots of reading material.

This past summer, in casting around for audio books to listen to on one of our many trips to the New York City area, I stumbled on a webpage with all thirteen of the Nero Wolfe radio plays produced in 1982 by the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Gold mine!

Starring Canadian actors Mavor Moore as Wolfe and Don Francks as Archie Goodwin (and they are both utterly fabulous in their roles), the plays were fully dramatized and had terrific casts made up of acting veterans of the day. When they were first broadcast, I can remember hurrying our two sons to bed so I could give my undivided attention every week when the next one was on the air. These dramas are something I’ve remembered so fondly for many years. Around 1998 I actually contacted CBC to find out if they were available for sale. No dice. While they apparently were available from a company called DH Audio, they no longer seem to be available. (I’d be more than happy to purchase them, so if you happen to discover where I can do that, please let me know.)

But here’s the bottom line on this one. My “old friend” is available as free listening (or downloading if you know how to do it) from this website: https://archive.org/details/NWolfeCBC. Give a listen if you will.

Who knows? You may find a new “old friend.”


Monday, August 20, 2018

Developing Character

I was interested in John's post last week, talking about character-driven versus concept-based writing. The books I enjoy most have always been the first of those, so it's probably inevitable that the ones I write come down on that side. Indeed, once I have the character and the environment set up I do have exactly the feeling John mentioned: that even between times, when I'm not there, they go on with their own life.

It started me thinking about how you begin to set up a character with a life of its own. Before I ever start, I like to know a great deal about their background, probably much more than will ever appear in print. I want to know where they've come from, what they've done, their likes and dislikes, their upbringing and genetic inheritance.

It's been interesting having that on my mind this week when I've had my grandchildren visiting. They live a long way away so I don't see them every day, just about six or seven times a year, so the differences as they grow are very visible. They're aged 11, 9 and 7, just beginning to develop their own ideas, but you can still clearly see the inheritance both of looks and abilities. One has her father's beautiful brown eyes and scientific interests. The boy has his paternal grandmother's auburn hair and his maternal grandfather's mathematical ability. The third one has big blue eyes like her mum and likes writing stories which I like to think just might come from me. It's a genetic cocktail which contains all sorts of other components from ancestors I've never even met.

But then you add in, for instance, place in the family. The oldest one, like my older sister, has a highly developed sense of responsibility; the youngest one very much sees himself as being there to be looked after. (And, confession time, as the youngest in my family, I do still, even at my advanced age.)

Then you chip in the outlook of their parents and their philosophy of child-rearing (an awesome success, given the kids' behavior – I am a very lucky granny). This will be a huge important influence, especially on their happiness and well-being, but nothing is certain and as they grow up and become independent, they could react to it positively or negatively.

This is all the sort of stuff that I need to know about my characters before I set out and on that I can base what will happen to them and how they will react. In writing a book you can do that.

With grandchildren not so much. For they, as Kahlil Gibran put it, 'dwell in the house of tomorrow which you cannot visit, even in your dreams.' Frustrating, and fascinating.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pitch Perfect or Perfect Pitch

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how TV shows are pitched, and, subsequently, thinking of the differences between TV content and the material I typically put in my novels.

Obviously, there are similarities between TV series and book series, but the differences, I’m learning, are striking. And most of them have to do with content.

As a reader, I’m all-in on character. Give me a compelling character, and I’ll watch him take out the garbage or sit with her in a cafe as she reads. The plot is secondary. When the great man himself was writing the books, I would buy each Robert B. Parker Spenser novel each year –– would eagerly await it, in fact –– to see what the characters have been up to since we last spoke. TV is different. Characters need to be compelling, yes, but there’s only so much time between commercials. So content carries the viewer. Plot. Tension. And the content needs to be current and relevant.

My Peyton Cote series stars a female US Border Patrol agent, who’s also a single mother. I can do a lot with that in 80,000 words. What’s her mother like? What’s her learning-disabled son dealing with at school? Why’s her ex such an asshole? And where’s this new relationship with the State Trooper going to go? Was that comment at work a gender-related micro-aggression?

But the demographics of readers (and, as a teacher, it pains me to say this) is different from the typical makeup of the TV viewer. When was the last time you saw a teenager on the train reading a book? Peyton Cote on TV needs to be newsworthy, her conflicts timely. That is, she needs to be someone we might see dealing with issues we hear about on the news. On TV, Peyton’s gay sister might also be one of Putin’s spies, something Peyton won’t find out until season three. And that new man in Peyton’s life, the State Trooper we all love? Well, the gay sister is seducing him to learn something about a Maine politician. A stretch? Maybe, but you get the point. Timeliness and relevance trump character. In fact, that quaint northern Maine town where Peyton is stationed? Well, that might be home to Chinese spies. ISIS is old news.

Anyway, all of this has me thinking. How much can I add to my books? Where do I draw the line between character-driven work and concept-based work? And, more importantly, where will you?

I’d love to hear others weigh in on this topic.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Investigation Discovery Channel

When I’m on vacation, time seems to stand still. Then I get back and reality sets in and I realize I have a blog post to write with no idea what to talk about. I figured I’d think about a topic when I was on vacation but did I? Noooo!

I could talk about my trip up the West coast of the U.S. Not much to say there other than it was hot everywhere and California, Oregon and Washington all seem to be on fire.

Or I could talk about the phantom that has suddenly taken up residence in my car. I lock the car and everything seems to be hunky dory, windows rolled up, etc. Then I go back to it later and find the doors still locked, but the windows rolled down. Kinda creepy.

Instead, I think I’ll talk about my recent obsession with the Investigation Discovery Channel. Have you all seen this channel? It’s a gold mine for mystery writers. Just full of reality crime shows. Some of them are a bit cheesy, but I’ve found several of them worth watching.

I had never heard of this channel, and didn’t realize I received it as part of my cable package, until a friend told me she was appearing in one of the episodes of Nightmare Next Door as a crime commentator. That’s when I discovered I received the channel and the obsession began.

I don’t watch all of the shows just some here and there, but I’m still rather obsessed with ID. Some of the show names are a little too much for me: Fatal Vows, Evil Lives Here, Evil Kin, Deadly Dentists... I mean, how many dentists are there involved in crimes that they can create an entire series about it? I did watch an episode of Evil Kin, though, since it talked about a Kansas case that Charlotte has discussed in some of her blog posts – the Bloody Benders. It was quite interesting.

The shows I particularly like on ID are People Magazine Investigates and Breaking Homicide. The former covers fairly recent high profile crimes and the latter pairs a former police sergeant with a forensic psychologist to re-examine cold cases.

The most recent show I’ve started watching is The Coroner: I Speak For The Dead. I probably wouldn’t have watched it except one of the actors who appears in the reenactments in the shows lives in the same apartment building as a friend of mine so I became curious. The crimes all come from the files of Dauphin County, PA coroner Graham Hetrick.

Sometimes watching these shows triggers an idea in my head that helps me solve a plot problem or come up with a new character. Plus I do find the cases interesting.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who is obsessed with this channel. There’s a contest currently going on for a chance to win a walk-on role called ID Addict of the Month. I think I’ll skip it though it would be fun to appear in one of their shows.

Have any of you watched this channel? Any favorite shows?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Walking the fine line between “flawed” and “annoying”

By Rick Blechta

If you haven’t read Tom’s excellent post from yesterday, you might want to drop down below this post to check it out. It brings up some important points in basic character development.

His post, as often happens here on Type M, inspired mine for this week. As all writers do, I’m always concerned that people can relate to my characters. They can be good or bad and readers can respond to that, but the last response I want from them is indifference, or maybe incredulity. So far I’ve never been called for the latter, but have swung and missed on the former.

I totally agree with Tom that characters need some sort of flaws to remain interesting over the course of a novel, much less through a whole series. Adding flaws to characters is something that’s not all that difficult. The big questions are: How far does one take it? And how far is too far?

I can’t remember the title of the novel, and besides it was written by a friend so I wouldn’t tell you, but I sadly could barely finish the book because the character had flaws that I found completely irritating to the point where I wouldn’t have minded if he’d come to a quick and gruesome end. Not a good thing in the first novel in a projected series.

Way back in the dawn of time here on Type M 2006, I wrote a post about a situation that arose in writing my fourth novel, Cemetery of the Nameless. I was well into the novel (probably around page 70) when I realized I did not like my protagonist one little bit. He was irritating, to be honest. I didn’t set out to make him that way, he sort of took on that mantle all on his own. And no matter how I tried to change him, he kept whining. Not good.
I did consider killing him off early on and then letting someone else take over as the protagonist. That might have even been an interesting writing exercise. Problem was, I only felt comfortable writing in first person at that point, and the difficulties to get my novel out of this mess using this plot device seemed, well, strained and a heck of a lot of work.

I eventually decided to “recycle” a character from my second novel, The Lark Ascending, and even though she tended to be “difficult” too, at least I didn’t find her annoying and her addition to the cast really allowed me to take the story to another level.

The problem is, what if a writer doesn’t recognize that they’ve made the most important character in their story annoying? And worse yet, what if the book’s editor has the same issue?

I suspect this is what happened with my friend’s novel. I do know he would describe his protagonist as “crusty, opinionated and irritable but endearing” and my response was he’s also dead annoying. Needless to say, I didn’t read any more of the series.

I’m sure a lot of us ink-stained wretches spend the dark hours of the night worrying about stuff like this. I know I do.

Monday, August 13, 2018

What's Wrong with You?

The lead character in both Random Road and Darkness Lane, Geneva Chase, has been described as:
  • Dysfunctional, yet remarkably endearing.
  • A likable if flawed heroine readers will want to see more of.
  • Flawed but dedicated heroine
Geneva Chase is tall, blonde, attractive, on the edge of forty, and athletic. However, she’s an alcoholic, she’d been married three times (one less than Hemingway), and when we meet her in Random Road, she’s hooking up with a smarmy married attorney. Genie is a reporter working for her hometown newspaper in Fairfield County, Connecticut. It’s not where she wants to be, but she’s drank herself out of every other good journalism job she’s had. For Genie Chase, there’s nowhere else to go.

She’s kind of a train wreck. But she’s smart and a snarky smart-ass and readers seem to relate to her. Especially the smart-ass part.

Do protagonists need character flaws? I think they do, unless your character is either Superman or Jack Reacher. Both incredibly popular and both perfect.

But I think flaws make characters more believable and relatable. Believable because everyone in real life has character flaws and we can relate to people who make mistakes and sometimes make bad decisions. Not that we’ve ever done anything silly or stupid.

Who are some of my favorite characters and just how flawed are they? One of my favorites is Ian Rankin’s retired Detective Inspector John Rebus. He smokes too much, drinks a bit too much, and his personal life is a mess. Oh, and he’s grumpy and Scottish, let’s not forget about that.

Sherlock Holmes, of course. Annoying, arrogant, insufferable, smokes a pipe, and is a coke addict.Yet the character is an evergreen icon.

How about Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch? He’s in a constant state of conflict with authority. But don’t we like that in a person? Harry is always stickin’ it to the man. A good quality unless he works for you!

Let’s give a shout out to the flaws infesting Nick and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, and heavy drinking Rachel Watson in Girl on the Train, and the kick-ass heroine Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  

My personal flaw is I haven’t figured out how to work in the word “Girl” into any of my titles.


Those are literary characters with flaws, but television has long jumped on the bandwagon. Nurse Jackie was a drug addict. Tony Soprano was a homicidal mobster. Walter White cooked meth. Flawed, flawed, flawed, but we rooted for them, wanted them to win somehow, maybe grow and overcome their problems.

A friend of mine called me when she’d finished reading Random Road and told me how much she enjoyed Geneva Chase.  Then she said something that surprised me. She said, “I like her because I know she’ll never really be happy.”

Is that a relatable flaw?

With Geneva, she’s very self-aware. She knows she has a problem. Using the character’s point of view to show they have insight makes flaws more palatable.

Early on a writer can make a character more likable in spite of his/her flaws. Geneva’s life is a mess, but she has a dog that she adores, a terrier named Tucker. Who doesn’t like puppies?

Or if you have a villain? Bad guys are way cool to write. They’re the ones who are going to kick that puppy. Bad guys will be a whole other blog subject.

As your characters are working through the mystery you’ve created for them, their flaws often get in their way, impeding them, creating tension, adding to the crisis. Isn’t that what a novel is all about?

Enough about character flaws.

Time for shameless self-promotion. On September 2nd and 3rd, I’ll be at the Poisoned Pen Mystery Conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, Arizona. The guest of honor is Ian Rankin (notice how I mentioned Detective Inspector John Rebus earlier in this blog?). I’ll be on two panels on Monday, September 3rd, along with many other wonderful authors—Sleuths and the Media, and Unconventional Women.  FYI…I’m the only guy on that last panel. That’s going to be interesting.

Then, at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, Florida, I’ll be on a panel on Thursday, September 6th, discussing Journalists in Fiction.  https://www.bouchercon2018.com/schedule/panels/

If you’re attending either of these conferences, please look me up. I’d love to meet you!!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Women Killing It! A Crime Writing Festival


By Vicki Delany


A couple of years ago, Janet Kellough (author of the Thaddeus Lewis historical mysteries and the speculative fiction novel The Bathwater Conspiracy) and I were moaning about the sad state of affairs in the Canadian literary festival world: Canadian female crime writers are almost never invited to these things.

Non-Canadian female crime writers seem to be invited. Male Canadian crime writers get invited now and again. But rarely Canadian women.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the general disregard the ‘literary’ world has for crime writing. Most festivals invite a mix of bestsellers as well as local authors, certainly short story writers or poets and the up-and-coming in the ‘library world’. But when and if they invite crime writers for some reason all they seem to want are the international bestsellers. 
And, for whatever reason (yes, I do know of exceptions so please don’t write to me saying, “But what about…” ) those are not often Canadian women.

Being the sort not to just moan about problems, Janet said, “Let’s have our own festival.”
And so we did. Our first attempt was such a success, we’re doing it again.
August 31 – Sept 2 is the 2nd Annual Women Killing It Crime Writers Festival in Prince Edward County Ontario.

We’ve invited eight Canadian female crime writers, of various decrees of fame and notoriety, and one other to be the featured local author.  

We’ve tried for a full variety of both women and writing, and I think we’ve archived a great balance. A dark and gritty police procedural, the lightest of cozies. A writer most prominently known these days for her award-winning short stories, and another who’s made a splash in the world of Young Adult Fiction. A big name author and others less well known. TV producers in Hollywood and a retired teacher in Regina. A historical novel and one set in a future, where things are the same as they are today… but not quite.

Last year’s workshop was so well attended (overly-well attended, as we didn’t like turning people away) we’re having TWO this year. I’ll be leading Page One Chapter One: how to start your novel with impact, on Saturday morning.  The Sunday morning, Gail Bowen will give a workshop on Ready, Set, Write! outlining the pre-writing process you need so that you end up writing the book you want. 

Friday evening meet all nine authors at a table-hopping event, where you can get up close and personal with each of the authors and engage in some fun quizzes and enjoy refreshments.  

Saturday afternoon we’re having a proper afternoon tea and four of the mixed-sub-genre authors will talk about their work or perhaps read a bit.

Then Saturday evening, it’s time for more refreshments and a panel discussion on “The Word In Which We Live” in which the four grittier authors will talk about the setting of their books and how they see their novels fitting into the real world in which we all live.  We’ll be having two auctions during the evening, in which attendees can bid for a chance to see YOUR name immortalized in fiction.

All events are within walking distance of downtown Picton, Ontario.

I hope some of you can join us.  For more details go to:  https://womenkillingitauthorsfestival.wordpress.com/

Each event is $30 and tickets are available at Books and Company in Picton or at  https://www.eventbrite.ca/o/women-killing-it-collective-17332980451

A Darkness of the Heart (A Joanne Kilbourn Mystery)Creep: A B.C. Blues Crime NovelMarinating in Murder (A Dinner Club Mystery)The Bathwater ConspiracyThe Agency: Rivals in the CityThe ShowrunnerA Friend of Mr. NijinskyOperation BabyliftIn Like A Lion



Friday, August 10, 2018

Free Associating

I'm in Philadelphia tonight -- a quick trip and home tomorrow. I realized earlier today that it's my Friday to post. I have nothing in mind. I've had a long day of train travel and driving around the city, and I'm tired. The other part of this is that when the writing is going well switching gears makes me nervous. I'm afraid I'll lose my flow.

So having nothing in mind to write about, I decided to try free associating. The television is on in my hotel room, and I decided to change channels and write about the next word I heard. The next word was "beer."

Now, I don't drink beer -- except my mother always claimed that she and my father taught me to walk by sending me toddling back and forth between them hoping for a sip of beer from the cans they were holding. I've never been sure whether she was joking. Neither of my parents were party animals. But it is true that like most couples of their generation, they did have beer in the house. I just can't imagine that I was so anxious for a sip that I would allow myself to be manipulated like that. If they had ever given me a sip, I would probably have had something to say about the bitter taste of the stuff.

I do like the Budweiser Clydesdales. I watch the Super Bowl every year for the continuing saga of the trainer and the horses and the dog next door owned by the woman who meets the man. . .

The only beer I've ever tasted and liked was a beer I had in Toronto years ago when I was visiting a friend I had met in Spain. Or maybe it was a lager. Or ale. I don't quite know the difference. But it was rich and full and not bitter. I've never been able to have whatever it was again since I lost track of the friend who might have told me what I had.

That reminds me of losing track of people. I was telling another friend about another family story -- a relative that my mother lost track of and always wondered about. I need to write a short story for an anthology and I'm wondering if I can use that. Maybe I'll have someone walk into a bar or tavern and order a beer. . .

I'm not sure what will happen after that. Maybe the missing relative worked in the bar . . .

Enough free associating. I'm going to write this down and think about it for a bit. So this exercise did serve some purpose after all. I have occasionally tried this when I was stuck for an idea while in the midst of a book. But it never worked this well before.


Thursday, August 09, 2018

My Ideal Day, Redux

Chopper view of last week's haboob about to devour my house

Back in 2013, I wrote an entry for this blog called "My Ideal Day", in which I described said ideal day. It went like this:

MY IDEAL DAY
"I wake at 5:30, refreshed and energetic after a restful night's sleep, full of good dreams. I go out on the back porch, where I sit among the trees and flowers and watch the sun rise, my mind empty. As soon as the sun is well up, I take a brisk nature walk among the junipers. I have a nice breakfast of coffee, croissants, and jam while reading the paper (fortunately the news is all good today) and dashing off the crossword.

After my leisurely breakfast, I sit down at the computer and write. The words cascade onto the page, each one a gem. In three hours I have ten pages of pure gold that will require very little editing. My husband and I head out for our favorite bistro where we have a light lunch, after which we stroll over to the independent bookstore and spend an hour or so browsing. We make a quick stop at Trader Joe's or Whole Foods and pick up a few fresh items for supper.

When we get home, I'm bursting with ideas again, so I head back into den and write for another couple of hours. It's hard for me to stop when suppertime rolls around, but my husband has whipped up quite a gourmet feast for us I quit writing in the middle of a sentence so I can take up right where I left off tomorrow. Don and I laugh and chat through supper, then after cleaning up, we sit together on the couch and watch a '40s noir movie. I take a shower, then read in bed for a while until I fall into a restful sleep, looking forward to tomorrow."

TODAY, in 2018, I woke up thinking about that entry. My days have not been ideal lately. They've just been actual, life-living days with a lot of strange occurrences and goings on. But, my, have the fates been giving me material to write about. To refresh your memory, Dear Reader, last time we met I told you about my husband's accident. He took a header into the kitchen wall and broke his upper arm in two places. This happened after he had to have emergency eye surgery, which messed with his depth perception. This happened a mere few days before I was supposed to fly to Oklahoma to do a couple of library events that had been in the works for months. Cancelled. So the past two weeks have consisted of doctors' appointments and nursing duties, and unexpected time to work on my manuscript. Don's hanging in there, thanks for asking. Kind of. His right arm is in a sling so he can't write or drive or dress himself.The splint is heavy and he can't sleep well, he's still a bit unsteady on his pins from the eye surgery, so he's very careful about how he moves. I told somebody he walks sort of like Tim Conway's little old man. He's seeing the orthopedist again this Friday and we hope he can get a smaller cast. We're managing all right, but we've had a lot of practice.

It's summer in southern Arizona, too, so it's hot, hot, hot. It was 114º F (45.5 C) yesterday, but not so bad today at 105º F. (40.5 C). At least we're used to it. July and August are our stormy months, and we've been enjoying spectacular dust storms. We had one last week that was the worst I've every experienced, and I've seen some doozies. Fortunately we had just gotten home from a trip to the store when it blew in. One minute it was clear and the next minute you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. We're cautioned to pull off the road when one of those blows in, because you could plow into somebody in a minute. And good luck if you have asthma.

Still, things could always be worse. I'm not getting as much writing done as I hoped, but I am getting it done.

I understand that Mercury is retrograde until August 18, which means stuff goes sideways for a while. I can't say I'm a big believer in astrology, but I'll happily blame it all on Mercury.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

In pursuit of the perfect title

Barbara here. It's the August long weekend, and it's hot, sunny, and gloriously lazy. I am sitting on my dock by the lake, far from the bustle and obligations of city life. I am working in a desultory fashion, reading research books for my next Amanda Doucette novel, which is still a mere twinkle in my imagination but as of yesterday possessed of a title. It's always a thrilling moment when I hit the combination of words that make the perfect title. Sometimes it happens before I even know there's book ahead. PRISONERS OF HOPE was a title in storage for years until  I finally had the idea to go with it, and now the finished book will be released in October of this year.


Sometimes the title comes during the writing of the book. At some point I write a phrase or a character says something, and I think "There's the title!" This happened in one of my Inspector Green novels, when halfway through the book, Green and his sergeant are discussing suspects, and Green says "But what about the fifth son?" FIFTH SON was perfect. Sometimes I wait in vain for the epiphany and at the end of the first draft I am still at sea. I fiddle and worry and turn phrases and words over in my mind as I go about my day. In desperation I may eventually throw a bunch of theme words and descriptors into a Google search, enter "Quotations" and see what pops up. THIS THING OF DARKNESS, a quote from Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST, was discovered that way.

A book is never finished until it has the perfect title. A title should capture its essence or hint at a major theme or conflict. It should match the mood and voice of the piece. It should give the reader some idea of what lies inside. Titles with puns are popular with cosies but would be inappropriate in the gritty mystery/ thrillers I write. Punchy, one-word titles like FEAR hint at bare-bones thrillers, also not the type of book I write. Mystery titles should hint at mystery, rather than romance, horror or science fiction.

Sometimes the quest for a title becomes an urgent matter when the publisher demands one for promotional purposes or when the media puts you on the spot by asking what the name of your next book is. You could always say I don't know, but that's a promotional opportunity lost. HONOUR AMONG MEN was conceived when a newspaper reporter asked about my next book. I had already started researching PTSD among our soldiers but as yet had no idea of the plot or conflicts, but that phrase popped into my head on the surge of adrenaline the question provoked. It was a classic military phrase, and ended up suiting the story very well.


So back to that languid day reading on the dock yesterday. I was reading a beautifully written and illustrated book called ALBERTA THE BADLANDS, which was peppered with snippets of poetry by an early fossil hunter in the area. I came upon this quote from "A Story of the Past", by Charles H. Sternberg. "The rains of ages have laid bare the ancient dead."

THE ANCIENT DEAD. Perfect.

I only hope my publisher agrees. Now my story has begun.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

These days, can a thriller plot actually be too outrageous?

by Rick Blechta

Many years ago now, I remember hearing of a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a group of terrorists who hijack a plan and crash it into the US capitol building in Washington. I remember thinking at the time, How ridiculous. That could not happen!

Well, it did in 2001, and while the home of Congress was spared, two massive buildings in New York City came crashing to earth and a section of the Pentagon was destroyed.

No one in power seriously thought about the effectiveness of weaponizing commercial aircraft. No one seriously thought cars and trucks would be used for the same purpose, either, yet just this thing has been quite effective numerous times to our great sorrow and tragedy.

Now here’s the kicker: the book referred to in the first paragraph was declined by several publishers. All of them said (in effect) that the major driver of the plot was just too outrageous and subsequently unbelivable. I wonder how those publishers felt after 9/11?

I was sitting with some author friends recently and we discussed this topic. For about an hour, we amused ourselves with more and more outlandish plot devices. Some of them were utterly ridiculous, but two or three made us grow silent. Finally I said about an idea that on the surface seemed laughable, “Someone could do this. It could work.”

I won’t tell you what it was, because it was an “out there” idea, and I don’t want to supply anyone with any ideas. The outcome could be just too horrible.

But since the whole world seems to be going crazy, what’s to stop someone from releasing a doomsday device?

Thrillers provide a great, white-knuckle reading experience, but if fiction suddenly became reality, would we be able to deal with it?

I’ve just laid out one sort of plot device. What if my plot dealt with an enemy nation that tried to subvert the government of the United States by means of hacking into the election system and changing results so the candidate of its choosing would be elected president?

Nah. That is just too ridiculous…

Monday, August 06, 2018

Apology

Aargh! I've had a frantic week of house guests, I have the copy-editing for my new book, Carrion Comfort, to do and my family is descending en masse any time now.  If I don't make the two separate birthday cakes for the double birthday of my daughter and granddaughter, it won't be the end of the world - it'll be worse than that.  So I'm afraid this is it.  Sorry, guys!

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Weekend Guest Tracy Clark


I'm delighted to welcome Tracy Clark, this weekend's guest blogger.
Tracy's novel Broken Places, featuring former Chicago Police detective turned PI Cass Raines, was released in May 2018.  Borrowed Time, book two in the Raines series, will be published next year. Tracy can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and on her website tracyclarkbooks.com.

Take it away, Tracy!





The Writer's Mountain

I’m neck-deep in rewrites for the third novel in my Cass Raines PI series. It’s going well. Today. Tomorrow? Who knows? That’s what I want to talk about. The writing process. That mercurial, quicksilver-ish, sometimey thing that blooms like a hothouse orchid one day and withers on the vine like a desiccated strawberry the next.

Maybe you guys are used to the ebb and flow, the ups and downs, but I’m only two and a half books in, so I’m constantly amazed that this writing thing isn’t getting any easier. I mean, you’d think it’d get easier. You’ve written two books, you got it done, so why is book three just as hair-pullingly impossible? Where’s my bell lap? The end of the rainbow? At what point can a writer say with confidence, “I got this, people. You need another book? No problemo. I know how to do this. Bam. There you go. Another book. You’re welcome, world!”

I’ve been thinking about the writing game a lot lately while muddling my way through book three, wondering where I took a wrong turn, knowing I’ll need to go back and save myself from embarrassment. Writing, I have decided, is a lot like mountain-climbing. Stick with me here.
The valiant climber of mountains starts off with the vigor of Sir Edmund Hillary—new rope, strong enough to suspend an elephant, at least for a time, new climbing shoes, those fancy little fingerless gloves that look so cool on Tom Cruise in those Mission Impossible films. The brave, dauntless climber is fresh, committed, intrepid, determined eyes fixed on the mountain in front of her. The summit is the goal, and she means to get there by hook or by crook. She starts up. All’s good. Then the mountain gets steep, the footholds iffy. Too late to turn back now, you’re up too high. The rope begins to fray. You call on Jesus. Those kickass climbing shoes get worn down and the gloves, cool on the car ride up, don’t do a thing for your bleeding, blistered fingers. You climb. You struggle. You retrace your steps when you can’t find a way through. Where is Tenzing Norgay, you ask. But don’t look down, don’t think about your trembling knees.

Somehow, sweat drenched and spent, you reach the top. You’ve made it. You did not give up. You did not falter, well, maybe you faltered a little bit, but though the effort was not graceful, you clawed your way to the end. You can now stand there at the summit, arms held high in victory, and breathe in the smell of sweet success. Surely nothing will ever be more difficult than this climb. You have arrived. You conquered the mountain!

Then you turn around and behold a vast mountain range—mountain after mountain after mountain. Your arms fall to your side. The smile of victory melts away and reality sets in and sinks to the pit of your stomach like a paving stone. You’ve climbed this mountain. There are dozens more. You will have to blister your fingers again, scrape your knees on jagged rock, fray the rope. Again.
That’s writing.

When you conquer one mountain (one book), the victory lap is short, because the next mountain looms. I’m new to the climbing thing, but I’ve already been asked more than once how I do it. How do you write a book? My answer is simple. I have no idea. I just climb, and I keep climbing till I run out of rock. The fact that I waltz knowingly up to the next mountain and do it all again, knowing what I know, is either a true testament to my mental instability or a confirmation that I was born to be a writer, just like Michael Phelps was born to swim or Muhammad Ali was born to knock a guy’s lights out in twelve rounds, or less. I write because I can’t not write.

Some days I write like the wind, scampering up that mountain like a freaking ibex, some days I waste paper and time and shave years off my life expectancy. That’s writing too.

I’ll eventually get to the top of the mountain I’m climbing now, but it won’t be seamless. I’ll breathe a sigh of relief when I’m done, though, and, hopefully, the story will be a good one. I just wish that reaching the top of Writer Mountain worked like a video game where you beat the challenge and then are powered-up with magic apples that make you a writing god, an expert, Superman. Maybe for some it does? Hope springs eternal. For me, I’m still writing myself into corners and getting myself out. I procrastinate. I write five pages, and then tear up two. Mountains are treacherous.

I’m sitting here now writing this blog post, eyeing Judge Judy on television. Some woman bought her new boyfriend of less than three weeks a car, and then he promptly broke up with her and now she wants her money back. I have pages to get to, but I’m not going anywhere until I find out what Judge Judy has to say about the whole thing. That’s writing too. It doesn’t take much to derail a work in progress. I’m also wondering about Tenzing Norgay. Wouldn’t it be great if every writer had a Tenzing Norgay?

Anyway, wish me luck. I wish the same for all of my fellow writers. Up the mountain we go!