Friday, September 30, 2011


Frankie here. Sorry for being a little late.

I'm finally home after being on the road for six days (airports, rental cars, pouring rain, a board meeting, the Writer's Police Academy, a conference on crime, media, and popular culture, eating too much junk food, trying to remember my room number in each new hotel). Each time I find myself doing one of these trips (thankfully, not often), I have greater respect for writers who do weeks-long book tours and all the other "road warriors." I came to this last trip on the heels of Bouchercon the week before, so I'm feeling pretty exhausted. I'm looking forward to having this weekend to catch up and get back to editing my manuscript.

As I was thinking about my post today, I realized my brain was not functioning. No topic came to mind, only the several bits and pieces that happened to be rattling around, inspired by my travels and my reading on planes. Actually, something else came to mind as I was turning on my computer -- and waiting five minutes for it to warm up and growling at it. My computer -- let's call it "Stan" -- is getting old. Five years or so, nothing in people time, but ancient in computer technology. Stan has reached the point where he starts up slowly in spite of my high-speed internet. He comes on, creaks, groans, and eventually gets to the place where I would like him to go. After that he's fine. But it's those first five minutes. . . I also have a laptop. We'll call him "Zake." Zake is the flashy young sports car to Stan's aging family sedan. But except when I'm in my easy chair working, I would rather be at my desk using Stan. . .if not for the fact that he is now so slow that I end up yelling at him before we get started.

That brings me to the insight I had this morning. Maybe I yell at him not only because I have been brainwashed into expecting everything in seconds but because Stan reminds me too much of me. Yesterday evening I was in line at the supermarket. Behind me, in the next line, the check-out clerk and her bagger had a free moment. The bagger (a young woman with multi-colored hair) was telling the checkout clerk, that she (the bagger) had stopped celebrating birthdays. She was dreading the one coming up in three months because she was going to be 30! The clerk giggled and agreed that was definitely "really old". She (the checkout clerk) had another ten years before she would be that old. The bagger told her with the solemn wisdom of age to enjoy her 20s while she could. I almost turned around and made a comment about enjoying their 30s and 40s. But I managed to keep my laughter to myself and retreat with my dignity almost intact. Which brings me to what occurred to me about Stan this morning. I haven't bought a newer, faster, flashier desk top computer because it would feel like putting poor Stan out to pasture. I imagine him sitting there somewhere in a pile of junk where computers, too old to be recycled, are tossed. I am going to have to learn to be patient with Stan until I can convince myself that I have not somehow betrayed a fellow baby boomer by shutting him down and turning him over to my computer tech for a replacement. I'll have my tea while he's warming up. . .at least for a little while longer.

I've also been thinking about High Noon. At the conference I just attended, I presented an academic paper about honor, duty, and the lawmen in High Noon, a western, and Donnie Brasco, a crime drama based on the true story of a former FBI agent who spent six years deep undercover with the mob. I've been thinking a lot about Will Kane, the marshal in High Noon. I've seen the movie at least a couple of dozen times. Each time I'm caught up again in the narrative of the lawman, who, as Tex Ritter sings, is torn between "love and duty." As a protagonist, Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) is one of my models for a character who is both vulnerable and heroic. Watching him struggle with his fear -- torn between grabbing his new wife and getting the heck out of Dodge (or rather Hadleyville) or proving he is "a man" by staying around until Frank Miller arrives on the noon train -- is a fascinating character study.

Vertical farming and hope. I'm reading a book titled The Vertical Farm by a scientist named Dickson Despommier. My editor gave it to me because I'm working on a book set in 2019. The theme of the book is that we can reduce our environmental footprint as a species, help the planet to heal, and ensure a steady food supply by moving from rural farming on depleted land using pesticides that pollute our water supply to vertical farming inside buildings in our cities. It's a fascinating book. I mention it here not only because it's worth reading but because it reminded me of something about myself as a writer. I need hope. Even though my book is set in a future that will undoubtedly be filled with more natural and man-made disasters, I don't want to spend time in a world without hope. So my book -- my parallel universe -- will have crime and murder and all the dark things we love in our mystery novels. But it will also have a city that is building vertical farms. Luckily, I do have a wealthy industrialist in the book who can generously offer to invest in the project. The question is what does he expect to get for his investment in the city. . . Oh, well, even hope has costs attached in crime novels.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Looking for Story Ideas?

Many of us lead busy lives, and writing, although a priority, shares top billing with other aspects of our lives. When I am writing a novel, getting my work done each day is manageable--once the story is started, I jump on the train each morning and take the ride. But when I am between novels, I try to write short stories. And I always find this more challenging because I am constantly forced to seek new ideas. (Obviously, I have the utmost respect for poets.)

This week, I'd like to offer a writing activity that I use to help me generate ideas and material. It may help you start a story.

I have often said I begin with a character because I believe plot to be a direct result of character. For this activity, I Googled "people in conversation," "people in conflict," and "watching a conversation" to find photos I thought might present interesting fodder for conflict and characters.

Here I have attached three very different photos that offer characters in unique situations. Choose the photo you find most compelling and consider the following questions. Then run with a narrative.

1. Who are these people?
2. What is the relationship between each character?
3. The viewer is dropped into a story seemingly mid-sentence. What is taking place? And what are these conversations about?
4. What is their back-story?
5. What conflicts are present? (For instance, in each photo the respective characters seem to present a unique emotional range. What leads to each reaction?)

Travels with Jack and Jill

For the past six weeks I have been travelling around Canada’s east coast doing research on a very different writing project. In the process I’ve managed to miss two Type M postings altogether and am barely skimming under the deadline for this one. I could blame a hectic travel schedule, packed agenda, dubious internet access, or just plain too much fun. However I think prolonged traveling is like entering an alternate universe. Your real life recedes. Without daily routines, regular contact with family and friends, access to online social media and the daily newspaper, you feel as if you’ve slipped the bonds of earth, surly or otherwise. It’s a marvelous rest, in fact. I didn’t give a moment’s thought to my plunging RRSPs, the Ontario election, the weeds in my garden or even my looming book deadlines.

I did, however, have my own sources of grief. I was traveling with my sister and three dogs. One was a 95 pound white golden retriever, one was a ten-month old Nova Scotia duck toller in the throes of her very first heat. The third was a 12 year-old, rather deaf and arthritic duck toller who always lost out to the other two in any contest such as the race to the comfiest seat, water bowl or toy. All three provided a nice contrast to the BLACK seat covers of the rental car. Anyone with long-haired dogs knows what that means.

But it’s the car itself that was the greater source of grief, along with the GPS that was supposed to help. Because of the afore-mentioned dogs, their crates, our gear and camping equipment (yes, you read that right. We camped with three dogs in the same tent), we had to rent a large vehicle, and for some reason SUVs are cheaper than minivans. My sister and I drive nimble, fuel efficient, baby cars, and when we first laid eyes on our GMC Yukon, we nearly fainted. Black with menacing tinted windows, it looked like a drug dealer car. We practically needed a forklift to get ourselves up into it, and then it was clearly designed for a muscle-bound man, not a rather small woman. If we lowered the driver’s seat enough to touch the floor, where the gas and brake pedals were, we couldn’t see over the steering wheel.

As we manouevred our way out of town, we were grateful that other cars seemed to get out of our way. Basically, you aim this thing down the middle of the road and hope that you don’t take out cyclists, joggers or little cars on either side. We started off calling it The Behemoth, but then the GPS came into our lives. Anyone who’s ever used a GPS knows they are bossy and strident. They are often wrong but won’t ever admit it. Because of her posh British accent and her insistence on running our lives, we wanted to call ours Moneypenny, but that proved too much of a mouthful. “Shut up, Moneypenny!” just took too long. She became Jill, and her companion in torture became Jack.

We spent most of the six-week trip in Newfoundland, the absolute worst place to be stuck with Jack and Jill. For one thing, Newfoundland is full of hills and coves and cliffs. Its roads are narrow, twisty and bumpy. It was hard enough to keep Jack on his own side of the road (with a ditch, ocean, or cliff inches away) without rounding a blind curve or cresting a steep hill into an oncoming car. For another thing, gas prices are about twenty cents a liter higher on The Rock than on the mainland. The first time I filled up the gas tank, after what I thought was a ridiculously short drive, I nearly died of shock. Jack LOVES gas. And he has a gas tank twice the size of my baby car’s, which meant that the pump registered triple digits every time I filled up. There is a reason that Newfoundlanders, despite their remote, twisty, uneven roads, drive Honda Civics and Chevy Cavaliers. I almost never saw a full-sized SUV – the choice of Kanata soccer moms – on the streets of Newfoundland.

Jill made her own contributions to our gray hair. She had a very imperfect grasp of Newfoundland geography, and even when she actually knew where we were going, she had a tendency to lose satellite reception at the worst possible times. Two instances come to mind. En route to the ferry, we detoured off the TransCanada Highway to find a historic lighthouse on the west coast. We wanted a place to let the dogs run and one last glimpse of the stunning Newfoundland coastline. Afterwards, we programmed Jill to return to the highway, and she chose a little route which ran along the coast line following a very thin line on our map. We thought that might be pretty and it was only 5 kilometres long, so even if it was slow going, it would be picturesque and we would soon be back on the main highway. Right?

Turns out it was an old railway trail that had been covered with stones and gravel to make a very rough track for quads and snowmobiles. It was the width of a bike path, giving Jack about two inches clearance on either side. Which would have been manageable except when there was water or boulders on either side. Or tiny plank bridges across saltwater marshes. There was no room to turn around and no way to back up, at least with our level of skill. After several white-knuckle moments, with the end almost in sight, we came across a pick-up stopped in the middle of the track in the middle of a causeway. Water on either side, no way to get around it. We had to back up and do about a twenty-point turn to turn around and go back over the plank bridges and washed out gullies to our starting point. All the darkness and fog rolling in, and the ferry time nearing.

There were plenty of times we learned to ignore Jill, and if she got too insistent, we would unplug her altogether. But nowhere was she crazier than trying to get across the bridges between Dartmouth and Halifax. These are made by road engineers gone amok anyway, and they were beyond Jill. Once she sent us 25 kilometres out of our way to go around the harbour by land. But my favourite Jill moment was when we had spent about fifteen minutes trying to find the entranceway to the main bridge through Halifax’s riddle of on-ramps and overpasses, with Jill bleating useless instructions from beneath our purses and maps. Finally I spotted the bridge directly ahead and with a crow of triumph I gunned Jack down the middle lane. We were going to get home after all! At which point Jill told us to drive 900 metres and do a u-turn. Which meant we would traverse the harbour as we wanted, only to turn around practically as we touched land, in the middle of six lanes and bombing traffic.

Jill was silenced for the duration of the day. Based on our adventures, I have a few tips for the east coast traveler. Take the smallest vehicle you can manage, and match the upholstery to your dog’s hair. If you must take a GPS, don’t park your common sense at home. Remember, maps don’t lie. Usually. Except when they don’t tell you about one-way streets or overpasses or little gravel tracks that look like roads…

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I have seen the light!

A few years back on Type M, we had a wide-ranging discussion on the topic: to outline or not to outline. It’s something that writers tend to talk about when sitting around in the bar at conventions, too. Everyone has an opinion and they're generally pretty polarized to being on one side or the other. I have always been on the side of “let the story develop in its own way”, meaning that I was firmly against outlining. It may sound silly to some when you’re actually saying, “I enjoy stumbling around in the dark when I write,” but good things often happen when you write this way and I enjoy immensely the thrill of something completely unexpected happening to my stories.

At least, that was my thought on the subject until last night.

Next week is the release date of a novel I wrote for Orca Book Publishers out in British Columbia. It’s for their Rapid Reads series. Fellow Type M member, Barbara Fradkin, already has released a novel in this series. The premise is simple: write a good story for adults with literacy challenges, be they poor readers or those for whom English is a second (or third or fourth) language. Also on the back burner is the idea that a skilled reader could pick up the book and read it cover-to-cover on a one-hour flight, for instance. It required a very stripped-down, simplified construction, but the editor demanded a high standard of writing within these confines.

How does this background fit into today’s blog topic? Easy. For the initial submission to Orca, I had to write a sample chapter or two, but also submit a chapter synopsis for the rest of the story.

I can’t say that I enjoyed working on this. Frankly, it felt an awful lot like doing homework. It did prove, however, to be a godsend because I had a “floor plan” to work from. Since I was trying to do this writing assignment quickly (limited time because of other work commitments), things proceeded smoothly and quickly. I began to see the possibilities for efficiency that came with doing synopses.

Nagging at me, though, was the fact that I might not see other possibilities for my storyline because of the synopsis. That is entirely possible. Not having worked this way enough, I’m not sure what effect a plot synopsis will have on the serendipitous flashes of inspiration that can and often do transmute a story dramatically for my original vision of it.

Currently, I’m working sporadically on a full-length novel and I ran into one of those frequent forks in the road. Do I send my protagonist this way or that? Every writer runs into this, some of us frequently. In the past what I’ve done is to pick the fork that looks more promising and continue on my merry way. A few times it’s become obvious after a few more chapters that I made the wrong choice. That often meant that I’d spent a lot of valuable writing time marching down a blind alley.

Last night, I came to a fork. Do I go left or right? After thinking about possibilities all evening and again this morning, it suddenly dawned on me that a good tool to use in order to discover which path might bear the better writing fruit (to hopelessly mix metaphors) would be to do a few chapters’ worth of plot synopsifizing* for each path and then make my decision.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I think maybe a few chapters’ worth will make it clear, and once I see which way I’m going, I might well throw it out or ignore it, but at least I’ll have the security of knowing I took the best fork and I’m not out there wasting my time as I follow my plot thread.

At least that’s what I’m hoping will happen...

*This is a word I just made up. Please feel free to use it, but I would like the following credit attached to it, please: “Word Creation copyright 2011 by Richard M. Blechta”. If that seems too long, just send me a dollar each time you use it. ;)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bedazzled, Bewitched and Bedraggled

Bouchercon has come and gone. Like Dorothy, of Oz fame, it was like being  caught up in a tornado, then  dumped again on the Kansas plains again. Yes, I still tell people I’m from Kansas as though my life in Colorado is a sojourn, a side trip. It’s the emotional truth. My heart is still in Kansas. And if clicking my ruby slippers doesn’t work anymore, Toto and I will find another way home.

I love writers conferences and am dazzled by the people I meet. The thought-provoking panels and discussions help me improve. There’s this perpetual search for Dumbo’s Feather, alluded to in Stephen King’s book On Writing. Even after being published, there is a sense that some one person who is extremely successful, some magical author, will impart their secret, that special technique, that will enable us to soar too. As writers, we all yearn for Dumbo’s Feather.

Most of the writers I meet don’t look like Hollywood stars. That’s comforting, somehow. I’m always struck by how nice they are.

Panelists are excited about their work and the next book. They are all so vibrantly eager to tell us about their books.  We’re bewitched by their confident enthusiasm. Over and over, I’m struck by the number of writers who urge the audience to “write like themselves.” This point is hammered home time and again by editors, who say they can fix a book, but they can’t supply a voice if it isn’t there.

 I’m intrigued by the hordes of fans lining up for autographs at certain author’s table. She’s a very pleasant woman, without a trace of glamour. Ironically, I’ve never read one of her books. I vow I will the moment I get home.

In panel after panel, writers who talk about their journey, tell of hard work, and that the main requirement is persistence. The people who don’t understand that learning to write is a process always surprise me. Craftsmanship requires practice. We learn about plotting, characterization, narration, description, pacing, structure, marketing, and voice. Attending conferences shortens this process.

Conferences can be grueling. By the end of the week, I’m paneled out. Overwhelmed by people. This time the bedraggled feeling started with bad airplane arrangements that cheated me out of attendance at any of the Sisters-in-Crime meetings. Taking a shuttle to the wrong Renaissance Hotel compounded the mistake. I’m a panel junkie, so I didn’t get to see much of St. Louis.  

Because of my weird half-life as a historian, deciding on conferences every year is painful. I can’t go to them all. I would never get any writing done, and would end up flat broke.

 I loved meeting more of my Poisoned Pen Press buddies at St. Louis and came back energized by the gathering of talent present at Bouchercon. I met Type M’s own Frankie Bailey, and Poisoned Pen authors Jeffrey Siger, Fred Ramsey, and Carolyn Wall. It’s always a pleasure to talk with Sandra Parshall and Ann Parker.

Next year, I’ll start agonizing again over choosing conferences. I hate to miss any of them. The bedraggled feeling is a small price to pay for the benefits gained.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Role of TV

I have watched more TV in the past two months than I have in the past two years. As a judge for this year’s Edgar Award for best TV episode, it is my duty (or so I keep telling my wife) to watch hour after hour of fantastic TV shows.

I cannot help but recall the words of Norman Mailer, who said the only thing negative about TV’s affect on kids is the commercials. Mailer insisted that television shows, just like books, offer narratives that (when done artfully) force children to think and consider significant issues. Of course, he like all of us, wanted kids to read more, but his main problem with TV was that the narrative (and the viewer’s attention) was broken every 10 minutes, leading to kids who were not capable of focusing on anything (including books) for more than 10 minutes at a time. (I probably am living proof of his attention-deficit theory.)

I have found the dissection of TV episode after TV episode to be extremely insightful—from a fiction-writing standpoint. Author Les Standiford once told me he learned a great deal about writing fiction when he attended a screen-writing course. Similarly, seated on my couch (a tough job, but someone…) I have been forced to grasp the three-act form and to really consider the impact of each act on the viewer/reader.

Like any good student, I have brought this to my own writing. Struggling with a short story I began this summer and drifted away from to work on something else when the going to got tough, I returned to it with a new sense of plot and a renewed sense of clarity. After all, one of the things I love about the craft: you never stop learning—and you never know where the next lesson might appear.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What's in a Blurb?

Whilst languishing on a Hawaiian beach recently, I was thrilled to have a chance to catch up on my reading. I read four whole books, one of which was a historical mystery I’d been asked to blurb. 

I don’t take this responsibility lightly. Has anyone ever felt let down by an A-list author enthusiastically endorsing a fellow author’s book only to discover the book in question was really disappointing?  Maybe it’s just me, but when that happens, I lose a little trust in the-author-who-blurbed. 

Fortunately, The Stratford Conspiracy, Michael Mallory’s latest adventure in his Amelia Watson series was a joy to read and utterly hilarious. For Sherlock Holmes aficionados’, Amelia was Dr. John Watson’s little known second wife and in this incarnation, a terrific amateur sleuth.

My biggest fear was that my blurb would not do Michael's work justice. Luckily, I had my handy blurb checklist close by which I will now share with you. I have shamelessly stolen from several sources, some of which come courtesy of Claire Carmichael (aka Claire McNab), my all-time favorite writing instructor from the UCLA Writers Program.

So – without much ado, here it is: 

Establish the genre and time period immediately e.g. historical mystery. 
Write in present tense, third person. 
Write down five descriptive words that catch the essence of the main character. 
Name three elements in your novel that the reader will find fascinating. 
Introduce your compelling protagonist. 
State your main character’s dilemma. 
Be succinct and vivid. Use striking images. What clues and buzzwords can you use—“spine-chilling” “a treasure trove” “a laugh a page” etc. 
Does the blurb capture the book’s essence and tone? Remember that a book blurb should promise a “good read.” It is not a synopsis. 
Who is your reader and what would they like to know? 
Why is this a must read novel? 

And finally … 
What makes you pick up a book? 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Censorship through corporate fear

The following is from the Globe & Mail, a Toronto newspaper, and was published last week:

“Daniel Loxton, an illustrator and writer, created a children’s book so outrageous, so outlandish, so controversial no American publisher dared touch it.

“It does not depict nudity. It does not contain curse words. It does not include blasphemy. The love scenes, such as they are, involve males with females.

“It does include a straightforward explanation for the complexity of the natural world through a simple scientific theory.

“‘So many of the publishing professionals I was talking to were leery,’ he said. ’When push came to shove they declined to publish the book. Several did indicate to me it was too hot a topic.’

“The book wound up being published by Canadian-owned Kids Can Press, which also expected objections from creationists.

“So far, the book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, an illustrated primer written for readers in Grades 3 to 7, has generated more prize nominations than controversy.

Evolution is one of three young-reader finalists in the Lane Anderson Award for Canadian science books...

“Mr. Loxton’s book is also a finalist in the Norma Fleck Award for Canadian children’s nonfiction. Earlier this year, Evolution was a finalist for the prestigious Silver Birch award.”

I was left with a slack-jawed, “Huh?” hanging from my lips. Someone has written a book that a small minority of people might object to? (The bolding above is mine.) It’s good enough to be nominated for some pretty prestigious awards but publishers in the US were afraid of stirring up these people and so refused to publish it? Even a week later, I’m still shaking my head.

You’d figure in the 21st Century we’d be more enlightened than that – or are we descending back into the Dark Ages? In this case, though, it’s not governments or the church that are doing the censoring, it’s corporations. I checked it out at a local bookstore and it is a lovely book, one any budding scientist would love to read through. There is nothing remotely objectionable in this book, nothing really that should be controversial, except that some people seem to think that the earth was created 6000 years ago, that dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time that man did, and that all the scientific evidence that blows those beliefs out of the water is somehow bogus. And yet these loudmouths have scared the bejeebies out of people who should know better.

I hope these corporate lackies who rejected this book feel good about their decision. And I hope this book sells millions of copies. That would be the best revenge for their spinelessness.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Aline here. A writer friend once said to me that she wished she could unscrew her head, to get a rest from the permanent churning of ideas that went on inside it. I try to find holidays which give me so much else to think about that there isn't room in my head for anything else, and this time I found the perfect destination.

St Petersburg. Of course I knew about the amazing buildings, had seen pictures, even, but nothing prepares you for the dazzling reality of palaces of white and green and blue and gold, and onion-shaped domes with turquoise and red and gold, and fountains and cascades with statues of gold, and the hushed interiors of churches with Gregorian chants and icons of gold, and gold and gold and gold, everywhere. The grandeur and the insane extravagance that led to plots, assassinations and ultimately revolution, make you gasp in amazement. And yet, the history of what we were looking at was in its way stranger still

It was our first visit to Russia. We had long wanted to go, since our daughter had a wonderful time at Krasnoyarsk University in Siberia (despite temperatures of -40 degrees – strange girl!) but we didn't know what to expect, were a little nervous, even. And yes, it's true that the Cyrillic alphabet is incomprehensible, that the Russians don't smile readily, that the ubiquitous policemen carry guns (always alarming for Brits!) and look as if they wouldn't hesitate to use them. The housing is drab and middle-class families live in cramped apartments, but the designer shops in the city centre are witness to growing prosperity. Our beautiful and brilliant guide felt free to be extremely rude about Putin – something she said she wouldn't have dared do ten years ago.

The buildings which are the glory of St Petersburg, though, tell an astonishing story. You might expect that under Communism those monuments to a decadent monarchy would have been demolished, but far from it. They were a source of pride to the new Russia, a demonstration of the wealth and prestige of the state, and so they were preserved. Until the Nazis came.

Like that other over-ambitious European, Napoleon Bonaparte, Hitler's triumph in Russia was short-lived. But before they left, they took their revenge on the palaces – the Hermitage, the glorious Catherine Palace, Peterhof with its fountains to rival Versailles and scores of others – by shelling them into tragic ruins. With millions dead and so much destroyed, thee was bitterness even in victory.

Yet phoenix-like, the palaces have risen again. The photographs showing the meticulous restoration are very moving: the matching of the decoration from sketches and records, the painstaking copying of painted ceilings, the jigsaw work on the floors of patterned wood, the miles and miles of gold leaf applied. The domes shine out once more, the rooms sparkle with chandeliers and mirrors and Peter the Great's fountains give a whole new dimension to the word 'bling'.

They say that travel broadens the mind. I can only hope it has, because at the moment my creative thoughts are having to jostle for space!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Meaning of the Word “Gone”

This has been a tough couple of weeks all around. My husband has been dealing with more medical tests for a mysterious ailment and we've been to more doctors than you can count lately. He's feeling okay, though, and while I'm sure this all stems from his Year of Bad Health, it's nothing like that particular ordeal. Stuff like this seems to happen in September, it seems. The end of Summer and the beginning of Fall has been difficult for my family for many years. Our father and one of my sister’s children died suddenly – years apart, but both on the day before school started.

When my father died, I was nineteen, and I remember thinking that until someone you love dies, you don’t really know the meaning of the word “gone”. It means more than just physical absence; it’s a hole in the universe. The entire world you knew is sucked into it, and you come out the other end to find yourself on an entirely different planet. No matter how much you hate it, you’re going to have to live there for the rest of your life.

So you do the best you can, like it or not, to build a new life, because what else can you do? And you do build a life, and you’re even happy again, eventually. But nothing is ever the same again.

Years ago, I was a department head at a university library while a new wing was being built on the building. My departmental offices and reading room was to be relocated to the new wing, but my very large, closed, special collection of books was to stay in the old building. (A “closed” collection, for the uninitiated, means that the public is not allowed into the book stacks. You have to look up what you want in the catalog, and the staff person goes and retrieves it for you. And, yes, it’s a pain.) The idea was that they would knock a door in the wall between the old and new sections, providing us access to our books.

Then, one fine day, the director called me in and told me that there wasn’t enough money left to put in the door. so we were going to be left with our offices and a reading room in one building and the books in another and no way to get from one to another without a ten minute trip from hither to yon. This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that I sat in the director’s office watching the walls melt, feeling like I had Dali to the left of me and Kafka to the right, stuck in the middle again. After a long, passionate discussion, he promised to reconsider (ya think?), but when I left his office, I was so frustrated and wrung out that I went back into the stacks and burst into tears.

Naturally, one of my colleages stumbled across me, and alarmed, asked me what was wrong. I babbled out the door story, and he listened sympathetically. There was absolutely nothing he could do to help me, so after standing there helplessly for a minute, he clapped me on the back and said, “Well, have a nice day,” and left. It was so absurd that I laughed.

The Great Door Incident was only rediculous, not tragic, but I mention it because of what that colleage did for me. He listened to me and sympathized, and even though he was really helpless, he made me laugh. He didn’t change the situation, but he gave me strength.

By the way, I did get the door. However, the world with all those lost loved ones in it is gone forever, and we survivors are still trying to make a home on this new planet.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Greetings from St. Louis

Frankie here. I'm in St. Louis attending Bouchercon, the international mystery conference. I arrived on Wednesday and discovered (a) it was raining and I had remembered to bring my umbrella, and (b) I had not packed a warm jacket. Luckily the sun came out on Thursday. Lesson number 1, which conference attendees often forget -- check the weather forecast one more time before leaving home and pack with list in hand, especially if you're doing it at after midnight as you contemplate your early morning flight.

A recap of what I've done so far:

Wednesday afternoon, rushed to hotel and checked in. Changed from traveling clothes and headed by taxi (rain and distance) to the Sisters in Crime workshop "SinC into Great Writing 2011." Heard great keynote speaker and then sessions on the pros and cons of different types of publishing options (e.g., traditional,e-publishing, self-publishing). The afternoon ended with a session by Marcia Talley and Ellen Hart on "being Kindled" (i.e., a guide to e-book publication). After dinner, we heard a funny and inspiring speech by Meg Gardiner. She told us about how years of hard work, an agent who believed in her, and a serendipity (Stephen King reading her book on a flight to Europe) had figured into her career. Meg's speech was followed by a session on marketing.

Went back to hotel and got much needed sleep after early morning flight.

Thursday morning, Sisters in Crime board meeting, followed by lunch with fellow board members, Cathy Pickens and Marcia Talley.

Thursday afternoon, signed in at conference, visited table for Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, New York and got our cool orange baseball cap when I registered. Also had the pleasure of saying "hello" to my fellow Type M for Murder blogger, Charlotte, when we crossed paths in the book dealers room.

Thursday afternoon, attended a couple of panels, talked to people I knew in hallways (one of the fun parts of attending a conference).

Later, attended publisher's reception, spent pleasant couple of hours talking to writers and touching base with my editor.

Rushed back to conference hotel in time to catch the end of the opening reception for Bouchercon and be present when a friend won an award.

Back to my hotel and to bed.

Friday morning, up really early to write a few words here and about to rush out the door again to attend the SinC breakfast.

Saturday morning, will be on panel on "law, justice, and society" in the mystery. Looking forward to that -- great fellow panelists, and Sara Paretsky will be our moderator.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Teetering on Twitter

Over the past two weeks, with the launch of my updated website, I have been exploring Twitter. I am surprised at the ease of it (I have posted photos, made announcements, and comments) and likewise surprised to learn that people are using the social-media site to keep in touch in a manner similar to my typical use of e-mail.

I have long been a fan of flash fiction and am in awe of Hemingway’s famous six-word story, which he is said to have called his best work: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Do the six words constitute a title? A summary? Do they establish an opening line to a longer work? Perhaps, you can answer yes to all. That is because those six words, six simple words that when dusted off and put together offer so many unanswered implications that they create one of the all-time great open-ended stories.

This brings me back to Twitter and my preliminary perusal of it. I am intrigued by the challenge of saying something substantial in 40 words. (I have probably yet to do so.) And I have seen everything from actual insights, to spelling that would horrify any English teacher, to blatant mass-marketing schemes (of which I, too, am guilty). I have had great difficulty finding people (writers mostly) to follow. Are they using it? If so, how?

I am teetering on Twitter and up for any suggestions.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Writing a background article for your publicity package

A few weeks ago, I started a short series on preparing a publicity package. Here’s the second part. Sorry for the long delay. Life sort of got in the way...

All authors except the big fish in the pond pretty well have to come up with their own promo materials these days. Some enlightened publishers will help out with this, but many won’t or can’t do a top drawer job of it. Believe me, it is in an author’s best interest to be able to put a very professional face on all promotional efforts.

Case in point: you finally get a local newspaper or maybe even one of the large regional papers to show some interest in you and your new book. The first thing they’ll ask for is your promo package. They don’t want to see something you’ve cobbled together at the last moment. If you can hand over a pro-looking package, you’re saying something extra about yourself, beyond the content. You’re saying that you’re a pro, too. Of course it looks better if you can refer them to a professional promotional agency, but if you want to go that route, you have to know that it’s going to cost beaucoup dollars and results from your investment can be, to say the least, wildly uneven. My feeling is to do it yourself, certainly until you’re not going to be spending your entire advance against royalties (and then some) on hiring a book promotion specialist.

On to the background article. What you’re going to be doing here is writing the article you’ve always wanted to see about yourself. You’ll need history/background about you, your writing, your books (especially the new one!), and I usually leave some space at the end to work in a local connection/colour if at all possible. Remember though, that this is a sales piece. There’s no place for false modesty here. You can always make up some sort of story about who wrote it for you if you’re uncomfortable about tooting your own horn in this way. (Don’t fib and make up a story about a previous publication. Another media outlet is very likely to look up an online version.) As stated at the top: make it the article you’ve always wanted to see about you and your writing. Make it compelling, interesting and as unique as possible. It's not hard to do. After all, you write fiction more than likely, don't you? ;)

I’ve been told that a background article can be up to 2000 words (a full-page for a newspaper, roughly). In other words, don’t worry about your piece being too long. They’ll take what they want and tailor it to their needs. One happy thing that can happen is they are just on the lazy side and run the article as you’ve sent it, a real bonus. I usually send the piece as a Word document since pretty well everyone can handle that. Use a common typeface like Times or Helvetica so it won’t open all weird because they don’t have the same fonts on their system.

You should also send (if it’s in print form) a good-quality author photo and a cover photo of the book. It should be in colour if at all possible. If you’re sending the promo package in electronic form, the above two images should be high-resolution for printing, that is 300 dpi (Dots Per Inch) at 100% size. Send it as a JPEG since that file size is smaller. Their design people can handle any conversions needed for outputting.

See you in print!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The End of Summer

Summer is coming to an end and I can't say I'm sorry. It seems like half the people I know have just returned from or are just about to go on a fabulous trip to somewhere--Ireland, Alaska, England, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hawaii, Iceland, even the Sudan! But here I sit, having just enjoyed the hottest August ever recorded for the Phoenix area. And that's saying something.

At least I am finally making some real progress on the new book. I've reached that stage where the book is beginning to write itself. You know how it is. When an author begins to write a book, she has an end in mind, and she plugs doggedly in that direction. But eventually she reached a point where the characters begin to take over, and they lead her in directions she never thought of. Graham Greene, author of The Quiet Man, The Comedians, and Our Man in Havana, among others, had it right when he said that "there comes a time when your character does something you wouldn't have thought of. When that happens, you know he's alive, and you leave him to it."

It is a fascinating process, especially when my story ends up in an exciting and interesting spot that I wouldn't have known existed until my characters took me there.

I have several book events scheduled for October – Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe with Mara Purl on the 11th, a talk for the Brandeis University group at a Barnes and Noble on Shea Blvd in Scottsdale on the 17th, and I’ll be teaching a mystery-writing class for the Avondale Writers’ Conference in Avondale, AZ, on October 29.

In the meantime, I hope to finish the new book by the end of the year and continue contributing to the blogs (don’t forget to check out my new gig at the Poisoned Pen Press blog on the 27th of every month.) If you're passing through Arizona in October, on your way to your exotic summer's end vacation, I'd love it if you'd stop by and see me at one of my gigs.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

A New Season

Leaves are falling early (thanks in part to Irene), students are arriving on campus (and bringing their glorious sense of teenage hope and eager anticipation), and I am hard at work on a new writing project.

It must be fall.

Spring routinely gets touted as the season of hope, but for educators (and for this writer), fall is the season of beginnings. I try to launch a new project each fall—a story or a longer work—and this autumn an idea for a novel arrived.

As I delve deeper into this new book, I am contemplating the structure of the novel. The first scene, featuring the protagonist, is written in first person, present tense. However, the narrative needs to have multiple points of view; these secondary characters are written in third person, past tense. I don’t consider the first-to-third-person POV switch troublesome for readers; however, the leap from present to past tense has me nervous. Will it put the spotlight squarely on my protagonist? Or will it prove to be jarring for readers? The goal of writing in present tense in this case is to add immediacy and thus tension. It is too early to decide if I should keep it or change it. When I hit the 50-page mark, I’ll get feedback and see what my first readers say.

On the business-of-writing front, as the publishing industry slows down in late summer, I anxiously await word regarding another manuscript already submitted. I try to worry only about what I can control, which is another way to say, Just write, and let everything else work itself out. The best example of this is James Lee Burke, a guy who, for my money, is among the best prose stylists working today. Burke’s The Lost Get-Back Boogie garnered 115 rejections spanning ten years before it was sold—and that drought came during a time when the fiction market was relatively good. He continued to write other novels during that dry spell, never doubting, continually submitting—and writing, writing, writing.

As Fitzgerald wrote, we “beat on, boats against the current” and look forward to a new writing year.

A bit of random news: I sold a short story, “364 Days,” to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (publication date TBA), and my new Website is up and running. I’d love to get the Type M readers’ thoughts on it.


It is Friday August 26. I am actually packing to leave for Hawaii (well, multi-tasking as I am writing this at the same time as packing). Since I am away for two whole glorious weeks, this is a little photograph of where I will be on the Big Island. What's more, I am not taking my laptop. Can you believe it! A true escape. I will of course be taking pencil and paper just in case I am overcome with inspiration.

By the time you read this, I will (hopefully) have enjoyed a fabulous book signing at Kona Stories in Kailua-Kona. Mixing business ... with pleasure!

Monday, September 05, 2011

Aline here. I'm just fresh from doing my workshop session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I'm always fascinated to know the backgrounds of the people who come to these and this time it was a varied bunch, including an established author who'd been dropped by her publisher, two who'd written children's books and wanted to move into crime; one who'd won a newspaper award for the first chapters of a crime novel but had decided she didn't want to write crime after all and had come along for, as she put it, 'catharsis' to confirm that she was right and even one whose girlfriend had bought him the ticket because he'd once said he'd like to write a book.

The one who intrigued me was a thin-faced middle-aged man who said what he wanted was to put more 'I' and 'me' into what he wrote. I wandered if this meant that he was a journalist, forced into objectivity by his trade, but no, he said. He just wanted to get more of his personality into his writing. It was perhaps significant that he said nothing at all in the whole hour and a half, and that there was no interaction at all between him and his neighbours, even before the session started, and after it finished he walked straight out again.

Finding your 'voice' as a writer should be the most natural thing in the world. We all have a speaking voice that our friends recognise even when they can't see us, and loyal readers should feel the same sense of recognition when they pick up another of our books.

But when we set pen to paper – or, more likely, fingers to keyboard – all sorts of other influences come in. We want our books to sell - would they sell better, perhaps, if they were more like Dan Brown's or PD James's? Even reading another impressive writer can have its effect; if I've had one of my regular Jane Austen sessions I find myself going all 'truth-universally-acknowleged-ish'. It's worse with Henry James, when my characters start saying heavily significant things 'beautifully'.

When I'm deep in one of my books, I don't read other crime novels for that reason. For better or worse, I want my readers to hear my own writing voice.

Is that the same, though, as wanting to project your personality? I had an uncomfortable feeling about that silent, detached man, who seemed to be talking about a self trapped inside that was trying to communicate and didn't know how. It wasn't the appropriate forum for writing as therapy and I wouldn't feel qualified to take that on anyhow. It made me wonder, though, how often the urge to try writing comes from more than just wanting simply to tell a story.

Saturday, September 03, 2011


In these days of electronic communication, the idea of censorship is almost passe, since it’s now almost impossible to keep people from getting hold of and reading whatever they want, which of course doesn’t keep people from trying. I’m sure every author and avid reader has more or less the same attitude toward censorship, that being that it’s a bad,bad thing, and that the antidote to unsavory ideas is not less talking, but more talking.

But here is an interesting question for an author - how much do you censor yourself, and why? Of course, we all keep our target audiences in mind, and try to write material that will not offend them so much that they won’t buy our subsequent books. We don’t want to be killing any kitties or puppies unless we absolutely have to for the integrity of the novel. Nor do we wish to go too far beyond the language/sex/violence parameters set by our publishers or agents or editors lest they decide no longer to publish us.

But there are times when the story you are telling just calls for something shocking, or it won’t ring true. My self-censorship problems have to do with the mores of the times and the place I’m writing about in my current series. In 1910s Oklahoma, there were a lot of common and wide-spread attitudes that we in the 21st Century would find unsavory in the extreme - casual racism, even among people of good will who would never knowingly harm another person of any color; assumptions about women and people of other ethnicities; the treatment of children. Can you imagine what would happen today if a parent took a belt to a whiny child in the grocery store? In 1915, it would be expected. Language, too. Words that today would give the hearer a stroke were tossed about with abandon and nobody batted an eye. And I don’t mean just epithets, either. My grandmother, a farm wife with the straightest laces you can possibly imagine, used all kinds of what we would now call scatological words. In her society, crude words for excrement didn’t have nearly the cachet they now have, probably because people were up to their knees in it every day of their lives.

But I don’t want readers to judge my characters by modern standards and thus think less of them. Nor do I want to present early 20th Century societal shortcomings in a way that makes light of them or seems approving. So how do I deal with the reality of the time and place? Very, very carefully, let me tell you.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Playing All the Roles

Frankie here. School has started again, and I’m shifting back into my nine month a year schedule: academic research/writing during the day (on the days when I don’t teach); mystery writing at night.

Regarding my mystery writing, I’m getting a little concerned because I should be working on the revisions that my editor suggested for the new novel. Instead I’ve started doing research again. It started innocently enough. I went on the Internet to look for images of a futuristic building I wanted to describe. That reminded me of a book I’d bought but hadn’t read.

I am now two-thirds of the way through that book and feeling the urge to read at least two or three others. Research mode. That alluring state of mind when that little voice is saying that if you keep searching – keeping following the tantalizing leads – you’re find that one fact that will rock your fictional world.

But what I really need to focus on now is my last chapter. That is what my editor wants me to work on. So I need to break out of my recycle back through research mode that could go on for days or weeks.

Last night, to distract myself, I pulled a bunch of writing books off the shelf. I was flipping through James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers when I got to strategy 41, titled “Apply the Spencer Tracy secret for creating memorable characters.” Tracy’s secret and the secret that Bell suggests writers apply to character creation is “Think about being you as the character” (italics in the original).

Bell suggests this approach – with the writer playing all the roles – as a way of not only understanding but actually experiencing the characters’ emotions.
So I’m going to stop doing research and spend the weekend playing all the roles as I read my manuscript aloud. I always read the manuscript out loud sooner or later because it is so important to hear the words. But I have to admit it isn’t a process I enjoy. Sometimes I end up mumbling the words. But could be if I let rip my inner actor, I’ll not only have more fun, but actually be able to mine for material I can use in expanding that last chapter.

Even better, if I go to the locations here in Albany and act out the scenes playing the characters. . . . next post from a mental hospital if I’m mistaken for a raving lunatic. But we have to do what we have to do for our art.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Living (or Writing) the Dream

John here. Last week, I was off the grid (this week, I rode out the hurricane and suffered through an extended power shortage). I was in the woods of northern Maine. (I’ve attached a couple photos here: Keeley, 2, preparing for the day and the view Mount Khatadin from the camp, which has been in the family nearly a century.) I caught no fish, drank too much beer, but I also plugged away on a short story and wrote what I think will be the first scene in a new novel.

Of course, anytime I begin a new book, I recall what Tony Hillerman once said: He had a desk drawer full of first chapters. Thus, in the grand scheme of things, writing the first scene of a novel is the equivalent to taking the first step of a marathon—there is no guarantee you will ever finish it. But we’re writers. We believe blindly (in spite of many rejections, for most of us) that we have something of value to say and (requiring even more blind faith) that someone will pay us for it.

Therefore, I remain optimistic. I really think there is something in this scene, something that I can run with. For starters, I have several intriguing (at least to me) characters and a solid conflict. And those who have read my previous posts in which I routinely claim to never know where I’m going when I start a book won’t believe this, but I also have the plot. Believe it or not, it came to me in a dream that left me awake at 2 a.m. and so disturbed I could not get back to sleep. I saw the protagonist and watched as he discovered a murder in progress. The scene will serve as my novel’s back-story.

I’ve gotten characters from dreams before but never a storyline. I’m curious to see how the writing process plays out. The important thing to me is that I’ve got a protagonist I like a lot, one around whom I could write a series.

Fingers crossed. I’m off and running.