Friday, August 29, 2014

Lethal Sleepwalkers

Rick's post on Tuesday about encountering his characters in a dream got me thinking about sleep. Sleep has always fascinated me – particularly because I spend the months from May to September sleep-deprived. Summer is not for night owls. Even with shades and blackout curtains, even with the air conditioner turned up to full blast, we are barely settling in when the summer sun rises bright and much too early.

Rick's post also reminded me of a conversation that I had with two friends a few weeks ago. I'm not sure how we got on the subject, but I mentioned the phenomenon I used to experience as a child, much more rarely as an adult. Until Google came along, I wasn't sure what it was called. But even as a child, I did doubt my grandmother's folktale about a witch sitting on the sleeper's chest. When I was all grown up and able to do some research, I learned that the phenomenon is known as "sleep paralysis". As I explained it to my fascinated and slightly horrified friends, one wakes up but can't move. According to scientists it may have a number of causes, including disrupted REM sleep. I've been lucky enough never to experience the version in which one has hallucinations, just those few seconds of being unable to move until my body catches up with my brain.

Sleep paralysis is only one of a long list of fascinating sleep disorders, from snoring and sleep apnea to night terrors. And then there's insomnia. Remember Al Pacino in the movie Insomnia (2002), as a LAPD detective sent to an Alaska fishing village to investigate a murder?  All that daylight and his own guilty conscience. The great Robin Williams played a crime writer in that one.

And then there's sleep walking. Children do it. Night eaters do it. As you may recall, there are also a number of cases of killers who have claimed that they murdered in their sleep. The earliest use of the "sleepwalking defense" in the United States was in 1846 in Massachusetts v.Tirrell. This case is better known as the Mary ("Maria") Bickford case.

Albert Tirrell had left his wife to be with Maria Bickford, a beautiful (also married) brothel prostitute. Bickford was found with her throat slashed in a Boston brothel. Tirrell was seen fleeing the scene of the crime. He was later arrested in New Orleans and brought back to Massachusetts. Tirrell, who was wealthy, hired the famous attorney Rufus Choate. Choate offered the jury two possiblities – that Maria Bickford might have committed suicide or that if Tirrell had killed her, he had done it while sleepwalking. It was an innovative defense based on the claim that Tirrell was a chronic sleepwalker.

Tirrell was acquitted and as recently as 1987 a young Canadian man, who drove to his in-laws house and attacked them, was also able to successfully use the sleepwalking defense. The Lifetime movie about the case is called The Sleepwalking Killer.

However, the sleepwalking defense hinges on the defendant being able to establish that he was in a trance-like state and unaware of what he was doing, without a history of violence or a motive for murder. Here are other cases in which this defense has been used:

"To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there's the rub
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come"
(Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

Although Hamlet was talking about death not the challenges of getting a good night's sleep, the quote seems apt. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Painful Illness

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” —George Orwell, Why I Write; 1947

I typed a lot of words on my work-in-progress today, most of which I’ll either have to take out later or totally rework. But I did it, by damn, and I’m hoping I dug out a lot of slag that has a piece or two of gold in it that I can use later.

When I’m on a roll, I can produce several usable pages in a day, but today there were only one or two paragraphs that I feel confident about.

Some days I can slog along quite handily, but there are days like today when everything I write feels like pure schlock. When that happens, it causes me great agony and despair that I can’t whip up the will to do what needs to be done. I have a bad attitude.

On such days I sit at my desk for an hour staring at a pad of paper, or at the computer with my fingers poised over the keyboard, and … nothing. It’s not even that I can’t think of anything to write. I am always writing in my head, and have done for as far back as I can remember.

All I wanted to do today is clean something, or garden or dust or cook. Brawny tasks which take only muscle and no brilliant turns of phrase. But I have to persevere. So much of writing is just grunt work. Sit and type it out, choose the best way to say this or that, watch the repetition, find the right word, the right sentence.

I never know why one day is better than another when it comes to writing. Why was today so unsatisfactory?

I know! I can always blame a bad writing day on my sensitive nature. Earlier this evening I spent half an hour reading the news online and now I want to lie upon the couch and press the back of my hand to my forehead until my soul is soothed. People are capable of such awful things, and there is no sense to be made of it. Just the titles of the articles gave me the vapors.

Yes, that must be why I had such am unsuccessful day — the news, or the weather, or the stars. It certainly can't be my fault, because I did everything required of me, and yet I couldn't produce anything brilliant, or excellent, or particularly adequate.

But I can see that there is something good going on here. There's a story here that I want to tell, so what else is to be done but try and tell it? Tomorrow morning I’ll get up, invoke the gods and pray for intervention, sit myself down at the computer, and try, try again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In praise of editors

Barbara here. Two weeks ago I wrote a blog about the many conflicting facets of a writer's life – yes, I know, not another one of those – because I was up to my eyeballs in various writerly commitments at a time when most other people were enjoying summer vacation. (As an aside, I can't believe it's already my blog turn again, it feels like only yesterday. All summer long I've been chasing  the caboose.)

At the time I mentioned that I was expecting the edits for my latest Cedric O'Toole Rapid Reads book, THE NIGHT THIEF, to arrive any day. Perhaps because I mentioned it, they arrived the next day, along with the editor's plea that that I get them back to her as soon as possible because there have already been requests for advance reading copies. This when I am deep in the first draft of a new novel and hoping to get as much done before my research trip which starts August 31, and lasts three weeks. When was I to find the time, let alone the right mental mood, to do THE NIGHT THIEF justice?

A good editor poses useful and troublesome questions, pointing out deficiencies and ambiguities in the manuscript that require thought to solve. It's not just a matter of clicking the 'accept' button on a different word or deleted adjective. Those edits are easy and can be fixed while sitting in the doctor's waiting room (as I have done on occasion). There are other edits, usually in the form of comments such as "This doesn't work for me" or "Please expand/ clarify" that present a far greater challenge. Usually by the time an editor looks at a manuscript, the writer has chosen each detail with care and deliberation, and sculpted each word and phrase so that the words and the ideas flow seamlessly from one to the next. Each word is perfect, the rhythm of the whole is perfect. So it is not easy to stick in an extra sentence or paragraph to clarify or expand. It takes reworking the whole section and creating a whole new flow that often feels clumsier and patchier than the original.

The temptation is to reject the comment, to say the section is fine and that surely it should be obvious what is meant. Except that of course, it's not. If the reader misses the point or is confused, it's because the writer has failed to communicate well. Every reader takes away from a piece a unique understanding of it that is partly the writer's intent and partly the reader's experience and interpretation. However, there should be some basic consensus about the writer's intent. One reader shouldn't go away with the idea that Mary is Jane's child, while another reader is sure Mary is Susan's child. It's the job of the reader to be clear, not only about facts but about emotion.

So changes have to be made to make the meaning clear. When tackling a comment from an editor or critiqued, the writer's first step is to ask whether the editor is right. Stubborn pride has no place here. Sometimes the editor is wrong; they read thousands of manuscripts and have argued over lots of words in the past, but it is just possible they missed the boat this time. They might have been reading several manuscripts at once and mixed them up, or had a long delay during the reading so they forgot crucial details.

But objective analysis will usually tell whether the editor has a point and changes need to be made. Sometimes the editor even makes a suggestion, either in words or content, but even in these instances, the writer has to carefully weigh the suggestion. Is it the best way to solve the problem? Would my character do/ say/ act like that? Is it consistent with the story? Make your own changes if you prefer. This too requires much thought.

Even more substantive than the comments in the text are the general editorial comments at the end of the piece. By definition, these are "big picture" concerns that require in-depth thinking about the whole as well as careful thinking about what small changes can be made to specific scenes to make the story better. Once again the first question is whether the editor is right. A good editor is a fresh set of eyes on a story that is too near and dear to the writer to permit objective evaluation. The writer may think his main character is loveable, but that may not come across on the page. Sometimes writers are too subtle, sometimes not subtle enough.

At the end of the exercise, if both writer and editor have truly given the story the detail and attention it needs, the story will be much the better for it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The wonder of dreams

I had an exceptionally odd thing happen to me last night. As I’m sitting here writing this post — back home in Toronto once again — I’m still having trouble getting a grip on my experience.

You see, I had a dream about the two main characters from my novel-in-progress. Actually — and more accurately — I had a dream in which I interacted with them.

I haven’t been spending as much time working on my novel as I would like (and believe me, I would like nothing less than full time with it) and it’s been a struggle. I know a lot about them but haven’t really become comfortable in their presence, if you know what I mean. It seems a struggle to get inside their heads, and being the omnipotent narrator, this is sort of a must, don’tcha think?

I do get occasional glimpses of their innermost beings, and in order to keep moving forward, I just do what I can, knowing that eventually it will all fall together and I can go back, by then knowing them well, and fix up these earlier scenes in the book where I’m still struggling.

Then my unconscious got to work on me.

Trust me, I have never experienced anything like this before, and it was profound. Never has a single character from any of my novels or stories appeared to me in a dream. Yeah, I go out for walks and talk to some of them to work out a plot point or to choreograph a troublesome scene so that they fit comfortably in it, but it’s all clearly imaginary.

This was quite different. Here were Charles and Alex, big as life and completely real, working with me to discover the whereabouts of something. That part of the dream was unclear, as these things often are in dreams. Charles lives on the Hudson River near a village called Cold Spring, so the location sort of looked like that. Having just returned from nine days in that area — and having spent the first nineteen years of my life in and around Westchester County — I know it well. I kept stealing glances at them, thinking to myself, “Yeah, I got that right. Alex does look like that. Charles had a deeper voice than I expected, though. My dream was just ultra real like that.

At first, we were in a car. Alex at the wheel since Charles doesn’t drive. I was in the back seat and they were both peppering me questions. That morphed into a scene where we were right along the banks of the Hudson in a wooded area, searching under bushes and reeds near the water. I kept saying things like, “I’m pretty sure I left it around here. I feel so stupid for not remembering where I put it.” They were very kind not to point out that I was stupid. I know that took a lot of forbearance on Alex’s part. She definitely lacks patience.

There isn’t too much more I remember about the dream, but I woke up with the profound feeling of having actually met my two characters in the flesh. Since this novel is the start of a series (I hope!), it was a very important moment for me.

First rule of any series: the characters have to seem like real people — or you’re dead in the water.

Now they are real.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Signings and dedications.

John had a very interesting post last week about doing a signing, particularly when he wrote about his answer to the question 'Was it worth while?'  I think every author would agree with his assessment that it was, however many books wee sold, because of the two people who had driven such considerable distances to meet him and get his signature.  It's one of the best things about writing a book - finding readers who care about it that much.

But that sort of book signing is almost always an ordeal, not only because of the terror of sitting for two hours alone at a table in a bookshop and having everyone walking past trying to avoid your eye. Worse than that is when they stop to speak, pick up a book, look at it, then put it back down again and walk away. Worse still is when they pick it up then realize they don't actually want to buy it but are embarrassed to reject it and hang around making nervous small talk and looking anguished, hoping that someone else will stop so that they can put it down and slip away without you noticing.

Worst of all, I find, is signing a book for someone I know who looks expectant, waiting for me to add some personal, amusing and meaningful one-liner to the usual 'best wishes'.  Nothing is more certain to make my mind go completely blank.

Even the official dedications in my book aren't very imaginative - to husband, children, relatives, with all my love/lots of love/much love/love, as appropriate - but I do appreciate and admire the witty dedications of others.  Some of my favorites follow.

PG Wodehoue:  'To my daughter, Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been written in half the time'

Jane Hope, writing humorous books about her experiences as a young teacher:  'To 4B, without whose lack of cooperation this book could never have been written'  and   'To King Herod, the most misunderstood man in history.'

Joe Abercrombie: 'For [my daughter] Grace - one day you will read this and be slightly worried.'  (This really struck a chord with me; a visiting granddaughter looked at a copy of Bad Blood, my most recent book, and said disparagingly, 'It doesn't have any pictures, does it?'  I do wonder what she'll think when she's old enough to read it!)

Gillian Flynn: 'What can I say about a man who knows how I think and still sleeps next to me with the light off?'    (Now that I sometimes wonder myself!)

I'd love to hear any you've written, or enjoyed.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Back in the saddle

If you are a writer, then you're about deaf from all the shouting and wailing in the publishing-biz echo chamber. If you're not a writer, then count your blessings that you don't have a clue what I'm talking about. After a five-book run with Harper-Collins, they decided not to renew my contract so in 2010 I became what we writers call, an orphaned author. I had other ideas I wanted to explore--steampunk, military-action--but got side-tracked into ghost writing and never finished one of my manuscripts. While I may have forgotten about my vampires, apparently I have fans who didn't, and I kept getting emails telling me to get off my lazy ass and write another Felix Gomez adventure. Meanwhile, the whole ebook, self-publishing world exploded. Several friends managed to jump on that train and made enough money to shuck the day job. And I have other friends who've made squat with their ebooks. Since I didn't have a publisher, and frankly didn't look for one, I figured it was my turn to get sucked into the self-pub ebook sausage machine. I did get some experience with a novel that I co-wrote, and the results swing between challenging and hopeful (taking the positive view). I finished my sixth Felix Gomez novel, Rescue From Planet Pleasure, and commissioned an artist who created an awesome cover. I was all set to pull the trigger and dive right into the self-pub mud puddle when at Comicpalooza I stumbled across the WordFire Press booth. WordFire is a small house run by Kevin J Anderson and Rebecca Moesta. Besides publishing their work they also feature a stable of excellent writers such as Peter Wacks, Quincy Allen, Heather Graham, and Frank Herbert (yes, the Dune guy). What impressed me was the enthusiasm of the staff. I compared their slick presentation with the staid and complacent Barnes&Noble booth where I signed. That got me thinking and I approached Wordfire to see if they were interested in signing me on. Which they were. One of the bennies in the self-pubbed route is that you get to keep all of the royalties your book makes, which can be as much as 70 percent. Then again, all the headaches in making the book available--paying for editors; getting the manuscript in the various ebook formats; designing a cover; arranging for print editions--are yours alone. If I signed with WordFire, I'd have to split royalties. But they would take care of the manuscript prep and publishing minutiae. One caveat of my contract was that I wouldn't get an advance, a keystone of a legitimate deal in previous years but not no more. Interestingly, the terms of my contract with WordFire are almost identical to what's in a contract a good friend got from Harper-Collins! He's not getting an advance either! Check back in six months and we'll see how I'm doing.

Go Ahead, Cheat on Your Genre

We are delighted to welcome Susan Sundwall to Type M as this weekend's guest blogger. Susan is a mystery writer who sets her stories in and around Albany, New York. Her first mystery, The Red Shoelace Killer – A Minnie Markwood Mystery, was published in late 2012. Her second book in the series, The Super Bar Incident, was released in August. She lives in Valatie, New York, with her husband and adopted stray cat, Sister Agnes, whose demeanor suggests she is channeling a convent dweller from the dark ages.

Susan shares with us the pleasures of cheating – all in the good cause of become better writers.

Go Ahead, Cheat on Your Genre
By Susan Sundwall

Think about the word, genre.  It’s a bit snooty sounding. And right now you’re saying it to yourself just to test my supposition, aren’t you? It means kind or type. When someone asks what kind of writing I do, most often they’re thinking genre. But their asking frequently stumps me. My second mystery was just published so you’d think I’d answer “mystery,” but the word tends to stick in my throat.

There’s a hesitation there because I don’t want this asker to think that’s all I write – I’m broader than that. I don’t want her to think that’s all I read, either. Yeah, I’m broader and, dare I say, more beautiful than that because of the poetry. It’s true I always have a mystery waiting on the table, under the lamp, but often, in a mad fever of rebellion, I’ll give in to my cheating heart. So here I confess, with Hank Williams and his guitar serenading me.

Books like Kalad Hosseini’s,The Kite Runner, and A Thousand Splendid Suns, seduced me into the historical fiction genre with its violent beauty, ancient cultural patterns, and the universal revulsion for cruel injustice. In like manner Lisa See’s, Snow Flower and The Secret Fan, pulled me in and begged me to experience the old Chinese practice of foot binding. It was dreadful and fascinating and sent me searching like a mad women for authentic images (which I found). It also made me cringe and give thanks for being born elsewhere and in another time. Hugh Howie’s, Wool, whipped me below the surface of the earth and made me wander through a future where everyone lives like a mole. Science fiction. I rarely read it but I could hardly lay Wool down. I tried. Then, every time my Kindle gave up the ghost on one installment, I zippy quick downloaded the next. So what if it was two in the morning? This is what cheating does to you and I’m not sure I’m ashamed. If you’re judging, hang on a minute. I’m calling Lucy in to do some ‘splainin’.

After the pleasing, near erotic, diversion of any number of other genres I scamper happily back to Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Lee Child, and Elizabeth George – old flames, brief passions, or current crush all from my long days of delicious mystery reading. I’m excited. I feel like I have things to tell them; tales and imaginings from these other worlds I’ve discovered. I’ll gladly grab their hands and set out the picnic blanket if they’re only willing to listen, to broaden out, too. Where can we go for a glass of wine and good brie to discuss the dark secrets revealed in the back alleys of nineteenth century London? Do they have any idea how strangely wonderful Tibetan butter tea is? And then, what kind of dirty secrets might I pull from these masters about their wildly popular inspectors, detectives, or bumbling skip chasers? And who have they cheated on – these purveyors of murderous humanity? You tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine. The game is afoot.
Once we’re settled down and begin courting true insight, another phenomenon bubbles up. In veering off (a gentle term for cheating) into other genres writers can become green with envy in so many productive ways. At first we chasten ourselves for not coming up with this brilliant plot twist or that sublime syntax more readily than Mr. #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Self flagellation looms. But in short order we get mad – as in mental – in a way far greater than simply red in the face. The mind whirls. The pen flies. Our writing scales new heights and heads for Alpha Centauri because our cheating heart has brought home the goods. And when, at last, that pen is laid to rest, we collapse into sobbing.

“Why didn’t I stray before? What was wrong with me?”

The old flame, brief passion, and current crush smile. What I didn’t know is that they know what it’s like – they’ve cheated, too. And so they forgive, hand over a hanky, and fill my wine glass. Sure, I’m no longer pure, but I’m better, wiser and more able to forgive myself and others. The glorious blooming must come next. It’s a wonderful thing.

And if, deep down, you also have a cheating heart, you know exactly what I mean. Old Hank and I really want to talk to you.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Surprise

The Hoxie Elks Club gave me a ficus plant when my husband died. It was a lovely, but modest little plant that I took with me to Colorado when I moved here to be closer to our daughters and grandchildren.

The plant grew and grew. I'm quite sentimental about it. It quite literally came to symbolize Don's approval of my move. Every time I look at it I think of all the friends I had in Hoxie and the fierce energy it takes to maintain a small community. It takes a lot of hard work to man organizations when the population is declining. I love unity of small towns and the way we can all pull together when someone needs help.

One of my all-time favorite writing projects was the Sheridan County History Books. I edited these books and our books were unique because all the work was done within Sheridan. County. We actually had our own commercial book-binder in the area. A local artist designed the covers. Several contributed original art. We found a lot of old pictures and the stories were absolutely wonderful.

It was especially gratifying to see the wonder on some the contributors faces to learn details about their families that they had not known. The hardships and the sorrows of homesteading. The bonding with their relatives through collecting information.

This experience, of course, became the foundation for my mystery series. Oh the stories people told me behind closed doors. This project was a gift. A surprise. It came out of nowhere when Don bought a livestock truckline and we moved to Hoxie. The local historical society was looking for someone to tackle organizing and editing the history books and I was delighted take on the work.

I wasn't feeling well today and didn't get my writing done--which always makes me even crankier.But I had found a wonderful lady who owned a small gardening business and would re-pot Don's ficus plant. It's huge! It would take both of us to wrestle it into a new pot. I was tempted to wait until I felt better. But I went ahead because we had already postponed twice.

Then I had another surprise. A gift. We chatted while we worked and when she learned I was a writer, she asked if I would be willing to speak to an organization she belonged to. Would I ever! It was the American Association of University Women. They sponsor a terrific event every fall. I was enormously flattered.

I was reminded once again of how some wonderful opportunities come out of the blue and it's not always necessary to "make" things happen. That mentally is a trap authors fall into right now. We are oppressively aware of everything we could be doing regarding social media or promoting our work on-line.

I'm especially appreciative of gracious little jolts--the surprises--that come my way despite my bumbling.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Singing about Signings

John here, on the heels of my first Bitter Crossing event, a signing at the South Portland, Maine, Books-a-Million. The store staff was fabulous, the event was fun, and it was great to see some old friends and meet a few new ones.

For me, signings are far from my natural habitat. I've never craved the spotlight, and a signing, after all, is a far cry from what, as the proverbial line goes, "got us there" – the solitary act of writing. In fact, writing is one of the least public activities I can imagine. (I'm typing this post at 4:35 a.m., wearing torn gym shorts, with my dog snoring at my feet.)

With Yvonne Cote (middle) and Florence Eaton,
who drove 3.5 and 2.5 hours, respectively

Some writers make signings look easy, chatting up everyone who walks through the door, even giving customers the hard-sell, or approaching customers in the isles: "Hi, I see you're looking for a mystery. Well, I'm the author of…." I applaud those who can do it. But that's not me. I'm the guy at the table, offering the simple, "Hello, I'll be happy to answer any questions you might have about my book."

If you are a writer who needs public validation, a book signing can be a long two-hour experience, because for every person who stops to talk, there are five who walk by the table. I read an interview with John Updike during the latter stages of his career in which he said he stopped doing signings altogether. Some writers feel like they are on display, don't like that feeling, don't need any additional promotion, and simply don't do them.

Most of us, though, know that self-promotion is a necessity in the 2014 world of publishing. For instance, I love doing interviews – face-to-face, radio, TV, or electronically. During a Q@A, I can talk about the writing and research process and even other people's books. The focus is the work itself, not the author – or at least that's my mindset.

So where does all of this leave me? Appreciating the people who attend my signings.

At the end of a signing, I'm usually asked if I thought it was a success. Not sure I know enough – or care enough – about the business aspect of writing to have a definition for a successful signing. I do know that one woman drove three-and-a-half hours to get a signed book from me on Saturday. She called the store to make sure I wouldn't leave when she got stuck in traffic. Another couple drove two-and-a-half hours. That's two book sales. Given the average royalty scale, that means I probably earned $2.

But that isn't what it's about.

Three-and-a-half hours in the car to get a signed copy?

If that had been the only book I sold all day, the event would have been a success.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Adventure Begins

Life is a series of adventures, some of them more exciting than others. At least, that’s how I like to look at it. Today marks the beginning of a new adventure for me, my first blog post on Type M. I’ll be here every other Wednesday, taking over Hannah Dennison’s spot. (Thanks to Hannah for suggesting I do this!)

Let me introduce myself. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and now live in Southern California. After years in the computer industry, designing and writing code, managing programmers and projects, I turned to a life of crime writing. Maybe you’ve read one of my short stories. My work has appeared in Mysterical-E and Spinetingler Magazine as well as several other online mystery magazines.

The big adventure for me this year is having my first novel published. Fatal Brushstroke, the first book in the Aurora Anderson mystery series set in the world of decorative painting, will be released by Henery Press Nov 18. I’m now learning about Goodreads, blog tours, author pages, book contracts . . . all the stuff you need to know to be a writer today.

Like most writers, I love books. I remember clearly the day my adventure in reading began. I was five. I’d just started kindergarten. I found a book on the classroom shelf that had pictures in it of pigs and a wolf. I wanted to know what was happening, what those black marks on the pages said, but I couldn’t yet read. (At that time you learned the alphabet in kindergarten and how to read in first grade.) I didn’t want someone to read it to me, I wanted to read it myself! I wanted to know what those three little pigs and that wolf were doing. Sure, I could figure out the basic story from the pictures, but it just wasn’t the same. Those marks on the page were saying something important. I could tell. I remember being so frustrated.

Out of that frustration a reader was born. I’ve had my nose in a book ever since, pretty much reading everything in sight. The library was my favorite place growing up. Like so many before me, from the comfort of a chair I traveled to mysterious places and spent time with historical figures. I learned about hot air ballooning, falconry, and Esperanto. I cracked the case along with Encyclopedia Brown and fell through the rabbit hole with Alice.

Now I’m happy to have the opportunity to write stories for others to enjoy. Which reminds me, that second book is due in a few short months. Better get back to it.

See you in a couple weeks,


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Grabbing time and space to write

Right at this moment, I’m writing my weekly Type M post from a rather bizarre location: The Cloisters, that museum of buildings and art of the Middle Ages located at the northern tip of Manhattan. It’s one of my favourite places in New York City. The summer day is perfect by anyone’s measure (unless you prefer rain, snow, or hurricanes) and it’s a pleasure to sit here on a bench in the shade in the Bonnefont Garden, one of three outdoor areas the facility features. Now, if only all the other visitors would disappear. Places like this seem to demand solitude.

I enjoy getting away from home to do some writing. I’m also generally more successful when I write away from my usual cold, dimly lit garret. It has nothing to do with “getting away from it all”, either. There’s something about a change of scenery that seems to encourage my creative juices to begin flowing.

My ideal writing excursion would be to rent a villa somewhere in Italy or possibly France and write a novel from start to finish. I don’t have any trouble focusing on the task at hand the way I do at home, despite whatever local temptations might be at hand. A quiet location with a reasonably comfortable seat would be all that I’d need. Under such conditions, it’s no problem for me to write for six, seven, or even eight hours a day. While not strictly necessary, a good high-speed internet connection would also be helpful for researching those pesky plot details that always seem to be cropping up.

In the evening, it would be a pleasure to make a nice meal or perhaps enjoy dinner in a local restaurant. The rest of the hours before bed could be filled with some reading – not crime fiction, though. It’s my hard and fast rule to never mix writing crime fiction with reading it – unless I want my prose to start resembling some other writer’s.

Someday things may work out that I could attain this little piece of personal heaven. Until then, I’ll have to be content snatching little “glimpses” of what it might be like – wherever I find them.

Like here at The Cloisters on a sunny afternoon in August. And now, back to the novel-in-progress…

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Dreaded Typo

By Vicki Delany

I now its good but is it rite?

My spell checker picked up exactly one typo in the above sentence when there are, in fact, three major ones.

Thus proving that you can’t rely on spellcheck to help fix your errors. As well as missing things, spell checker can be out and out wrong. 

So, what’s a writer to do? First, of course, read your own stuff carefully.

But even that isn’t good enough. Everyone knows that you can’t edit your own work. When you read your own writing, particularly something you have read over many times before, you don’t see what is actually there: you see what you THINK is there.

What brings this to mind is an interesting article I read explaining how this works.  It’s not a bug: it’s a feature.
What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard to Catch Your Own Typos

Essentially, our brains are so efficient that we don’t need to re-read every word of what we supposedly already know:

We don’t catch every detail, we’re not like computers or NSA databases,” said Stafford. “Rather, we take in sensory information and combine it with what we expect, and we extract meaning.” 

In short, you may think your manuscript is perfect and error free. Your spell-checker might even agree with you. But it isn’t, if you haven’t let someone else have a read of it.

My advice to beginning writers is often to join (or form) a critique group. A good critique group can help you fix sticky plot points, point out character inconsistencies, question what’s going wrong. All that as well as provide a friendly community and an impetuous to keep on writing.  But a critique group isn’t always the best to do your copy editing or proof-reading, not if they are focused more on big picture items like plot and character.

On the other hand, you don’t have to pay a professional editor, unless you want a professional standard of editing.  If you are planning to send your manuscript to publishing house editors and agents, it doesn’t have to be perfect. But it does have to be as good as it can be. You don’t want that editor or agent to be constantly drawn out of the story by all the spelling and grammar mistakes, do you?

All you really need is the ‘average reader’.  The sort of reader who can spot an error in:
He is was a big dog.

If you are not looking for feedback and constructive criticism, you can even ask your mom!

If you really can’t find anyone to help, back to the above article:

Stafford suggests that if you want to catch your own errors, you should try to make your work as unfamiliar as possible. Change the font or background color, or print it out and edit by hand. “Once you’ve learned something in a particular way, it’s hard to see the details without changing the visual form,” he said.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How To Successfully Succumb to the E-Book Universe by Guest Blogger Brendan DuBois

It's a pleasure for me to introduce my good friend – and one of the genre's best story writers – Brendan DuBois. Brendan has published 16 novels and more than 120 short stories. His works have earned critical acclaim, including starred reviews and translation into several foreign languages and published in Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Italy, South Africa, Japan, Estonia, and Poland. His series of mystery novels featuring Lewis Cole is set on the New Hampshire seacoast; the latest novel in the series, Fatal Harbor, was recently released. He resides in Exeter, New Hampshire, with his wife. 
Brendan's tales have appeared in publications such as Best American Mystery Stories of the Century (which included the likes of Raymond Chandler, O. Henry, Flannery O'Connor and John Steinbeck), and in such magazines as Playboy, Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
These stories have earned him the 1995 and 2001 Shamus Award for Best Short Story of the Year from the Private Eye Writers of America; three nominations for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story from the Mystery Writers of America; the 2007 and 2010 Barry Award for Best Mystery Short Story of the Year; the 2005 Al Blanchard Crime Fiction Award from the New England Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. His short stories have also been extensively anthologized, including the 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1995 editions of The Year's Best Mystery & Suspense Stories, as well as the 1995 and 1997 editions of Year's 25 Best Mystery Short Stories, and the 1997, 1999, 2001 and the 2003 editions of Best American Mystery Stories, and the 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 editions of The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories.
As an aside, he is also a one-time Jeopardy! game show champion.

Here, Brendan will share something he's been helping me with for five years – how to make money in the e-book business. 

You can learn more about him by visiting


Although I love science and science fiction, and stories of technological prowess make my soul sing — I once went to Florida to see a space shuttle launch (an incredible experience) — in truth I’m a bit of a Luddite.

My first two novels were written on a typewriter, as well as twenty or so of my first short stories.  In 1989 I got my first Apple computer, and since then, I’m always a few years behind in getting the newest and latest computer. If it works it works, has been my philosophy. I got on Facebook a few years after it became incredibly popular, and my cell phone has a flip-top, and I’ve probably sent a half-dozen or so text messages in my entire life.

So there you go. But having said that, I find myself in the unusual position of having twenty-four of my works (novels, anthologies, non-fiction articles and short stories) up for sale on the Kindle, Nook and Smashwords e-book platforms.

How did that happen, you might ask? The simple answer: fellow authors were doing it and were getting money and recognition. Not a bad combination, and I wanted in on the deal.

But it did sound daunting, and I delayed for months before diving into the e-book pool. Yet I kept on going back to thinking, hey, if they can do it, why can’t I?

And yet, the daunting remained. Heck, I didn’t even own an e-book!

But one quiet day in my office, I decided to go to the 800-pound gorilla that’s Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing empire, and found that it was…


Absurdly easy.

I mean, really easy.

So I took a deep breath and dove in.

But before I did that, I made a key decision which was vital, and which I pass on: Don’t try to upload a book-length manuscript your very first time out.


While working with Kindle is easy, there is a demon out there, and that demon is called Formatting.  Many a strange thing can happen twixt a manuscript and an e-book, and you can’t believe what whacky things can occur while converting one of your works. Bad paragraph breaks. Odd-sized fonts.  Weird line spacing.

Which is why you don’t work with a book first. It will drive you mad and discourage you, and the ultimate joys of e-book publishing will forever be beyond your grasp.

So what I did was to take an original short story, and upload that. The story was only a dozen or so pages, so when I worked with it, I could fiddle with font sizes, paragraph breaks, and all that good stuff.

And you know what?  I did it even without having a Kindle, because Amazon has an on-line viewer that duplicates what a Kindle page looks like. So by uploading your first attempt — short story or small non-fiction piece — you can see how it will look on a Kindle without having one at hand. And if it looks funky, you can go back to your original document and make the necessary adjustments to make it look fine.

From there, everything fell into place. Other authors’ experiences showed that for shorter pieces, like short stories or magazine articles, the best selling prices was 99 cents. For book-length projects, the proverbial “sweet spot” was a price of $2.99, which meant it was an attractive price for readers, and with an average royalty of $1.97 per book sold.

Having an attractive cover is also very important, and lately, Amazon has made that easy as well, with a cover design program as part of the Kindle set-up that offers numerous cover options.

One word of note, however, is when you decide to enter the e-book universe, Kindle will ask whether you want to have an exclusive agreement with Kindle. There are some upsides to this — you get a better royalty rate from some overseas markets — but it also restricts your distribution. There are two other e-book platforms out there — Nook from Barnes & Noble and Smashwords — which offer other markets. I always do better via Kindle than Nook or Smashwords, but I figure the trade-off is worth it, by getting the widest possible exposure to my works.

And I find it does eventually pay-off. My first conversion to a novel took almost an entire month. Now it can take about a week. And you don’t need any fancy conversion programs; all three platforms will accept your manuscripts in a Word .doc format.

One more thing: there are many professional editors out there who will assemble an e-book for you, and that just might work best for you. But I’m a crusty New Hampshire Yankee who likes to pinch pennies and do things for himself. So keep this in mind… if you pay someone $400 or $500 to make an e-book for you, you’ll need to sell 200 or 250 copies of your e-book before you start making a profit.

And how much profit? Well, as in anything, your mileage may vary, but with all of my works up for sale, I can sell on average 150 to 200 books a month. That’s not quit-your-day-job money, but it’s a nice income stream that can introduce new readers to your works without much effort on your part.

And I still don’t own a Kindle!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Lizzie Borden, Enigma

The protagonist in my amateur sleuth series is named "Lizabeth 'Lizzie' Stuart". When I was looking for a name for her I thought Lizzie suited her personality, but I also liked the idea of having my crime historian share her first name with a 19th-century accused murderess. I was sure that my Lizzie -- who was named by her grandmother -- would have been fascinated when she discovered the Lizzie Borden case. That might well have been what first drew her to criminal justice as a discipline. The Borden case and the mysteries that surrounded it would have given her that first experience of doing historical research as she read old newspaper coverage of the case. But it was Lizzie Borden herself -- Lizzie, the enduring enigma -- who intrigued -- still intrigues -- my sleuth.

I have to confess that I was weaving my own experience with Lizzie Borden into my protagonist's biography. Lizzie was not the reason I became a criminal justice professor/crime historian, but I did learn that nursery rhyme about the murders when I was a child ("Lizzie Borden took an axe . . ."). It wasn't until years later that I learned that the number of "whacks" that she allegedly gave her mother and father were greatly exaggerated. But I still recite that nursery rhyme to my students when I want to jog their memories about the case. 

I'm writing about Lizzie today because I spent yesterday reading the New York Times coverage of the case. The Borden murder case received extensive "breaking" news coverage because of the unique elements of the case -- wealthy banker and his wife murdered in their home in a busy neighborhood on a summer morning with no one aware of what had happened until the man's daughter discovered the father's body and sent the maid running for help. From the beginning, questions abounded. How had the daughter and the maid heard nothing when Abby Borden, the wife, was killed upstairs in a guest bedroom? Where had a murderer hidden until the father came home and stretched out on the sofa to take a nap?

There were other suspects -- the visiting brother of Andrew Borden's first wife, the mysterious strangers reportedly seen arguing with Andrew Borden and his wife at their door the day before or climbing over a fence into the Borden yard or encountered by a farmer in a field four miles away. But in the end, as the police checked out these leads -- discovered the uncle had an alibi and two of the strangers were not viable suspects, discovered a small boy had lied  -- attention began to focus on Lizzie Borden. Her sister, Emma, had been away from home. Bridget, the maid, had no motive for killing her employers. But Lizzie, a "spinster" in her 30s, who had loved her father, was also known to have been frustrated by his frugality. She was known to have resented -- perhaps hated -- her stepmother. Lizzie had gone to a pharmacy to try to buy prussic acid to clean a sealskin cape. Lizzie, it was later allegedly by the prosecutor, might have intended to poison the victims, but been force to turn to more violent means when the pharmacist refused to seal her the acid. In fact, the family had reportedly all been feeling ill on the morning of the murder -- bad mutton or Lizzie's tampering with the food?

But when I turned to the New York Times articles yesterday, it was because I was interested in Lizzie's clothing. One of the enduring mysteries of this case is how Lizzie -- who was acquitted of the murders but is still at the top of most people's list of suspects -- how could she have committed two bloody murders and then been seen shortly after the last with no blood on her clothing. In a made-for-TV movie about the case, Lizzie (played by Elizabeth Montgomery, best-known as "Samantha" in the sitcom "Bewitched") commits the murders in the nude. I spent the day reading the coverage of the matter of Lizzie Borden clothing. There were some wonderful period details related to a closet the women used for their dresses. This became a major aspect of the testimony by Lizzie's sister, Emma. According to Emma, she had returned from her travels in the aftermath of the murders. She had needed another hook in the closet for the dresses she was hanging up and discovered an old dress of Lizzie's taking up one of them. The dress was smeared with paint, and she had -- Emma claimed -- asked Lizzie why she hadn't burned the dress. As a friend of Lizzie's later reluctantly testified, Lizzie did burn the dress in the stove a few days after the murders. This was somewhat unfortunate timing because the prosecution later argued that the dress had been the garment Lizzie Borden wore when she committed the murders and the stains had been blood not paint. But as one of Lizzie's defense attorneys noted, it was a matter of frugality to burn old clothing rather than pay the rag man for collection. The seamstress who had made the dress was also called to testified. She told of her stay in the Borden house while she sewed some dresses for the women. The dress she said was made of cheap material, and Lizzie had put it on as soon as it was made. It was intended to be worn around the house. The dress had become smeared with paint when workers were painting in the house.

In another reminder that these murders took place in 1892, there was the testimony from police officers when they were questioned about the thoroughness with which they had searched through the women's clothing. Could they have missed a bloody dress hanging in a closet or in a trunk in the attic? Reading the newspaper accounts of their testimony, the officers were in less than total agreement about how well they searched. They were also poor witnesses when called on to describe the gown that Lizzie Borden was wearing when they arrived at the house. In fact, Lizzie Borden had several blue gowns in different shades and patterns and this become a matter of confusion for everyone, including Bridget, the maid. But all of the witnesses did agree that there was no blood visible on Lizzie's clothing when the neighbors and the doctor and the police arrived at the crime scene. The clothing that was collected and sent to the prosecutor's expert -- a college chemistry professor -- proves useless as evidence. If Lizzie Borden had committed the murders what she had worn -- perhaps one dress over another -- and how she had carried out her quick change or cleanup, remained a matter for conjecture.

But she had been charged with the crimes, and after a year-long process that involved an elaborate preliminary hearing and a grand jury, finally went to trial. For my purposes -- the clothing and crime book I am writing -- I was interested in reading again about Lizzie Borden's attire during the trial and her courtroom demeanor. However, the coverage reveals -- as scholars have discussed -- why Lizzie Borden was acquitted. The jurors (as in the OJ Simpson case a hundred years later) needed to be convinced that Lizzie was guilty beyond a reasonable double. She was a upper-middle class white woman who seemed to have led a blameless life. Perhaps she had gone insane, but there was nothing to indicate that in her courtroom demeanor -- except perhaps her calmness and occasional laughter. But that was explained by her family physician, who testified he had been sedating her since the day of the murders. This was the testimony that allowed the defense attorneys to have her statements made during the inquest excluded during the trial. Those statements had been full of contradictions -- understandable if she was drugged at the time. Of course, one of the three justice presiding over the trial seemed inclined to favor the defense. Whether or not he believed Lizzie Borden innocent, it was also true that he had been appointed to the court by one of Borden's attorneys -- a former governor of the state of Massachusetts. This may have influenced the justice's charge to the jury in which he seemed to challenge the case put forward by the prosecution. But by the time the case went to the jury, the prosecution had already suffered a number of defeats. Public opinion was clearly in support of Lizzie, the martyred daughter, and against the bumbling police and the prosecution who had gone forward with the case. When Borden was acquitted, the spectators cheered and grown men wiped away tears.

Free, Lizzie went home -- or, at least, to stay with friends until the crowds around the Borden house dissipated. Later, she and Emma bought another house. The Times reported this story. Newspapers would go on to report, Lizzie's troubled life following her acquittal -- her involvement with theater people that scandalized Fall River society, her estrangement from Emma, her kleptomania. For years, the press would cover the anniversary of the murders. A hundred years later -- after plays, novels, ballets, short stories, and an Alfred Hitchcock episode based on the case -- scholars conveyed a conference to look back at Lizzie Borden. There was discussion about her motive for murder -- perhaps not just the desire to inherit half of her father's fortune -- perhaps jealousy inspired by an improper relationship between father and daughter. After all, he had worn only one piece of jewelry, a ring that Lizzie had given him, and she had hated her stepmother.

One of the the theories at the time was that Lizzie had killed her stepmother in a fit of rage. Then she had been forced to kill her father because of what she had done. She had known that he was a stern man, who would not have helped her to cover up the murder of his wife. Or, perhaps, the murder of Abby Borden had been done with cold deliberation, killing Abby first so that her relatives would not inherit Andrew's estate. Both murders a matter of greed on the part of a woman who had wanted a different life.

Whatever happened that August morning, Lizzie Borden remains an enigma. Both my protagonist and I remain intrigued by her. The case proves the enduring power of an unsolved mystery. Such cases also provide us with insight into another time and place. The sketch of the house done by the engineer brought in by the prosecution, the details of the women's lives, the information about such matters as milk and mutton -- all useful for those of us who write mysteries that draw on or are set in the past and those of us who study the crimes as scholars.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Last week I got hold of a fabulous book on the act of creating, written by one of my favorite historical novelists, Steven Pressfield. It's entitled Do The Work : Overcome Resistance and Get Out of Your Own Way. It's a little tiny thing, less than 100 pages, but like all of Pressfield's writing, it is pithy as hell and right to the point. The blurb for the book says that it is "an action guide that gets down and dirty in the trenches." One of the first things he suggests a writer (or any artist/creator) must do before he begins is determine what the work is about. After I read that sentence, I had to put the book down and ponder for a minute.

Do The Work
Steven Pressfield

You see, I'm right in the middle of the first draft of a novel, and the best I can say is that it's about...150 pages long. I have a fabulous set up, great characters, some fantastic scenes. I have a point in mind. But I haven't killed anyone yet. I know where and when the killing should occur, but I don't know who my victim is. This is something of a problem for a crime novelist.

A few weeks ago, there was a thread on one of the mystery writers' discussion groups concerning victims. Why, one author asked, are most victims in mysteries horrible people? Why then would anyone care if the killer was caught? Interesting question. It made me think back over my seven mysteries and consider who I have killed, and why anyone cared. Thus far, my victims have been: 1) an old buzzard who had it coming, 2) a sad case, 3) a member of the family, 4) another member of the family, 5) a couple of haunted young men, 6) a guitarist in a mariachi band, 7) a really, really bad guy.

Of the slate of victims, only two were terrible people whose deaths left the world a better place. None of the rest deserved their fates. So the point in most of my mysteries is to find justice for those who met a tragic end. However, why would a reader care who killed the bad guys? Does it have to do with the simple intellectual challenge of solving the puzzle? Does it have to do with making sure an innocent person isn't implicated? In my most recent book, Hell With the Lid Blown Off, the victim is awful but all the suspects are perfectly lovely people. No matter who gets fingered, it's going to be sad. Or is it?

So who am I going to kill this time? One of my characters is going to have give me a really good reason to do him in.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A juggler's life

Barbara here. The last few blogs on Type M have essentially been about balls in the air. Keeping track of them, wondering who put them up there, worrying whether they will land on our head. Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for everyone's lives in the hectic, multi-tasking world most of us live in today.

It is certainly a metaphor for a writer's life. My children have all grown up and moved away, I have retired from my full-time professional career, and yet still my life is running full tilt. Either that, or my mind and body are not as nimble and efficient as they used to be. I prefer to think that's not the case! But I can't imagine running a household of children and working a full day on top of my current workload.

Here I am in the dog days of summer – August, that lazy month when people are on holidays, lounging at the lake, or sipping mint daiquiris on the patio. Not me! At least I am at the lake as I write this, listening to the rain pattering on the steel cottage roof. But here's a sample of the balls up in the air.

I am currently rushing to write most of the first draft of my latest mystery novel before my research trip to Newfoundland in three weeks. It's a tight race. When writing a first draft, I discipline myself to write at least one scene a day, typically writing for 3 hours in the morning. Every day, seven days a week (although I admit sometimes I cheat). Why do the first draft before the research, you wonder? Because I don't know what the story is and what information I need to research until I have written at least a rough story. There will be lots of holes in the draft, and the information that I learn on my trip will no doubt change details, but I hope the bones will stand up.

At the same time, I am also gearing up for the release of my latest Inspector Green novel in October. Although it's still summer in my head, fall is lying in wait around the next corner. Book tours and signings have to be set up, launches have to be planned. Invitations, venues, media... I have to update my website, my publisher's website, and the Crime Writers of Canada website to include all these new events. Stay tuned for the Toronto launch on October 7th and the Ottawa launch on October 29th.

Every day, I also have to attend to social media – Facebook, this blog, etc.– to keep myself connected with readers and friends, and to promote the upcoming events. This Saturday, for example, I am doing a reading with my good friend Vicki Delany in Perth Ontario at the Perth Classic Theatre, as an opener for their mystery play DIAL M FOR MURDER. I must find time to post a notice about it. If you live or vacation near Perth, come on down!

And somewhere in the middle of all this, I am waiting for an additional ball to come flying out of left field, in the form of the edits of my latest Cedric O'Toole mystery, due out from Orca Books in the spring of 2015. When they arrive, I will have to step out of my Newfoundland world and set aside my promotional efforts of NONE SO BLIND, in order to reconnect with Cedric O'Toole. When we write, we truly enter the worlds of our characters and our story, so jumping in and out is no mean feat.

In between, of course, I have to eat, sleep, and find time for friends and family. Sometimes I wish time would slow down just a little. But what a privilege it is to be doing what I truly love.

So then I think, the rocking chair can wait.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Old snapshots

My dad is second from the left.
Two years ago, I found a plastic bag filled with old photos, dozens of them. My recollection is that my mom gave them to me many years ago, and at that time they didn’t mean all that much, so I just shoved them someplace they wouldn’t be in the way. My mom’s and dad’s generation are all gone now (my dad’s 104 birthday would have been next Sunday) and I only have vague recollections of many of the people in the photos. Some I’ll never identify at all.

With a new grandson, I’ve been thinking of the future a lot, and I realized what a great present I’d been handed. A number of the photos of my mother’s side of the family had been notated by her on the backs. Thank heavens for that. One photo, probably taken around the 1880s shows my maternal grandmother’s family sitting around in their parlor. I knew my mother’s aunts, of course, but I’ve never before seen a photo of my great grandparents. There are a lot more like that. My father’s side of the family wasn’t as helpful.

Of course, any questions I have on the really old photos will never be answered now, so it’s up to me and my generation to put down as much information as we can so that, sometime in the future, our descendants will be able to look at them and know a little bit more about the family’s past. I’ve been trying to spend a few minutes every day scanning a dozen photos and writing down my annotations, not only on the back of each photo, but also in a document where I’m trying to leave more information and “clues” for future Blechtas.

While doing the fourth group last night, it suddenly hit me that my project was very much like laying out a novel before you begin to work on it. A writer must set up all the clues (or as many as you have at that point) in the right places for keeping the story moving ahead smartly and the reader involved. I know very little about a lot of the people in my photos, but in studying the things around them, their expressions, the way they’re dressed, I’m getting small clues as to who they might have been. That’s very much what a leading remark, a strange happenstance, or something unexplained each provide in the development of the plot of a crime fiction novel.

I also can’t resist trying to put stories to the photos I’m scanning. It’s unavoidable, really, being a storyteller. Who were those people with my dad onboard a ship headed to Europe in the summer of 1928? Why are they even in the frame? What was their connection to my 18-year-old dad and grandfather? Two obviously worked on the ship (one might even be the captain). The black gentleman is very interesting. Where was he going and what became of him in the tumultuous years that followed?

Answering those types of questions is what novel writing is all about, whether the person existed in real life or is a mere figment of a writer’s imagination.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Tidying the Desk

I’ve just tidied my desk. We’re going away on holiday and as I closed down my work files I actually looked at it and was shamed.

It’s quite a novelty to see the surface. Glass, hmm? I’d almost forgotten. It looks good now – well, respectable anyway, with three neat piles of papers, all the pens collected in mugs, the notebooks in a stack, the scraps of paper I jot down ideas on neatly stashed away in the Tiffany box I keep for the purpose.

But I know perfectly well that when I come back to work again the fine state of order won’t last. Not only that, I don’t want it to. With a neat, tidy desk I feel rather the way Piglet felt when Kanga forcibly gave him a bath: he wasn’t happy until he’d rolled down the hill and got back to his comfortably grubby color again.

For the years when I worked at the kitchen table, or in a corner of the bedroom, I always blamed that for my untidiness. When I had a study of my own, and a place to put things, I claimed, it would all be different.

Now I do, and it isn’t. Like hens, I’m happier deep litter, with all the bits of paper around me and readily to hand. I do admit it may take me time to find what I want but the only time I really lose things is when I’ve made an effort to tidy them away. I guarantee I’ll be scrabbling around for stuff when I get back, after this latest bout of virtue.

I know one very successful writer who not only has to have her desk tidy, she can’t begin to write until she knows that the cushions in the sitting-room are lined up on the sofa.

Maybe that’s the secret. In which case, I’m doomed.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Guest Blogger Eileen Goudge

Things That Go Bump in the Night

This weekend Type M welcomes guest blogger Eileen Goudge who began writing at age eight, and went on to publish thirty-two novels for young adults, thirteen (and still counting) of women's fiction, as well as numerous short stories and magazine articles, and one cookbook. Eileen and I were once in the same Simon and Schuster catalog and she talks about the changes in the publishing world.

I’m a worrier.

I don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s generally confined to the wee hours. If I wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, it starts with “Did I remember to email so-and-so?” and rapidly escalates to global warming.

 The middle-of-the-night fears tend to revolve around Amazon rankings and such. But when I joined the ranks of self-published authors, after 25 years of being traditionally published, the worry needle crept a little further into the red zone. I still have a publisher, Open Road Media, which makes me a “hybrid”—not unlike that venerable cross between horse and donkey, the mule. An apt metaphor, because I’m stubborn as mule, according to my husband (said with fond exasperation). Once I get an idea into my head… My idea was to write a mystery, after 15 women’s fiction novels, two of which I was blessed to have on the New York Times bestseller list. Mystery is my first love, starting with the Nancy Drew mysteries I devoured under the bedcovers at night by flashlight. I even published a YA mystery Who Killed Peggy Sue? at one point early in my career. Through the years, readers have remarked on the mystery elements in a number of my mainstream titles. The Second Silence is, at core, romantic suspense. And Woman In Red, with its storylines in both present-day and the WWII era, has at least one body buried in unmarked grave.

The first book in my Cypress Bay mystery series, Bones and Roses, grew out of a walk on the beach. I was visiting my hometown of Santa Cruz, California and thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could be here, by the ocean, all the time?” I live in New York City, and though it has its own charms, it ain’t the beach. Moving back to Santa Cruz wasn’t an option, but since the bulk of my days is spent writing, there was no reason I couldn’t create a fictional seashore town that I could visit whenever I chose.

Okay, so the words “vacation destination” don’t normally conjure images of bloody corpses, but that’s what can happen when you combine two loves—in this case, my love of mysteries with my hankering for sand between my toes. You get something that resembles Frankenstein’s monster. In a good way.

The idea took off, and in a year’s time I had rough drafts for the first two novels of my Cypress Bay mystery series. I decided to self-publish. The series seemed to lend itself to that. And a number of my author friends had encouraged me to enter the “brave new world” of indie publishing. “Jump in, the water’s fine,” were the words used by one author-friend. So I jumped.

The writing was the easy part, as it turned out. It was all the other stuff I fretted over. The 2 a.m. worries went from global warming to “oh my God, WHAT was I thinking?” I couldn’t possibly do it all. I had barely mastered the basics of social media! Being traditionally published, I was the publishing equivalent of an adult child still living at home with her parents. What did I know about metadata or hiring one’s one editor or book designer? The first time I heard the acronym BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) it sounded like a scary medical procedure.

I reminded myself I didn’t know anything about child rearing, either, before I gave birth, and yet I somehow managed to raise two children. Little by little I got a handle on the indie publishing thing. I assembled a team and learned the basics. Mostly what I learned was to find talented people and delegate. I now have an amazing “dream team,” which I guess makes me the publisher of a small press with just one author.

The pub date for Bones and Roses was August It’s available now on Amazon. Here’s what it’s about:

From home invasions to cheating spouses, Rest Easy Property Management owner Leticia “Tish” Ballard thought she’d seen it all. Almost four years sober after flambéing her real estate career in an alcohol-fueled blowout, she’s finally in a good place in her life when the discovery of skeletal human remains rocks her world and plunges her headlong into solving a decades-old crime. Now she must delve into the darkness of her own past, including the one-night stand gone horribly wrong with Spence Breedlove, who happens to be  the lead detective on the case. When the truth comes out at long last, Tish finds herself pitted against an enemy who will stop at nothing in a fight for her own life.

I still worry. Will my women’s fiction fan base follow me? Will my Amazon ranking resemble the numbers for the national debt? Will new readers find me before global warming melts all the e-readers on the planet?

At the same time, I’m thinking, “Hey, I did it.”

Friday, August 08, 2014

Tag! I'm it.

There's a game of tag going on and I'm it on Type M. One of my favorite authors chased me down and presented four questions. They seemed easy enough, at first, but they turned out to be hard to answer. 

My tagmate is a fellow Type M'er Barbara Fradkin who is best known for her award-winning police precedural series featuring Inspector Michael Green. There are nine books in the series with the ten to be released this fall. Barbara has a PhD in clinical psycology and after more than twenty-five years as a child psychologist, she retired in order to devote more time to her first passion, writing.There are nine books in the series, with the tenth to be released in the fall of 2014. Do or Die introduced Inspector Green in 2000. The sequel Once Upon a Time (2002) was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' of Canada's Arthur Ellis award for Best Novel, while both Fifth Son (2004) and Honour Among Men (2006) won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel in their respective years. She often draws her themes from her own experiences as well as from issues that trouble her. She has explored topics ranging from war crimes to child sexual abuse to love gone awry.

Here are Barbara's questions: 

What am I working on?  

I'm working on my fourth mystery, Fractured Families. All of my books are set in Western Kansas where my intrepid historian turned undersheriff, Lottie Albright, always has to deal with old cold cases that are actively connected to new murders. Fractured begins in one of the most fascinating settings in Kansas--The Garden of Eden. Lottie is always simultaneously involved in complex family relationships due to her older husband's children from a previous marriage.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

The Lottie Albright series is set in Kansas, for one thing. It's not a venue writers just naturally gravitate toward. But I think Kansas is the most interesting state in the union. As William Allen White, one of our finest early newspaper editors once said, "Everything of importance that happens in this country, happens first in Kansas." But the interrelationship between murders and new murders is hard to pull off. The books always involve social issues too--so making sense of the plot keeps me very busy. 

Why do I write what I do?

I'm a native Kansan with a flaming state loyalty and have always been fascinated with this state. I have always lived in small rural towns, so it's no wonder my series is set in a fragile community bent on blowing itself sky high. I edited the Sheridan County History books and was mesmerized by the family secrets that were whispered to me in private after contributors turned in their sanitized stories for the history book. There was intrigue and murder galore. Family relationships are usually the root of all evil. Never mind money. Having a penchant for solving complicated problems, I find that crime fiction is the ultimate challenge. 

How does my  writing process work?     

Very poorly! Surely there is a better way. It's like feeling my way through a dense fog. Almost everything begins with an image of person in a particular setting. Unraveling who or why this person is there and why my mind clings to it begins with the old or the contemporary part of the story. I begin in longhand and flail back and forth between that and the computer. I call this miserable draft my pink draft be cause it's "Pink with Promise." The second yellow draft is surprisingly effecient because "The Light is Beginning to Dawn." I tack a chain of events page for each chapter up on a cork board, My "True Blue" draft straightens out all the language and inconsistencies. 

Now, aren't you glad Barbara asked?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Happy New Year!

It’s early August, or the end of the year.

Bitter Crossing, the first novel in the Peyton Cote (single mother/U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent) series, hits shelves this week. Reviews for Bitter Crossing are rolling in; the spring 2015 Peyton Cote novel, Fallen Sparrow, has been turned in; the catalogue copy is finished and e-mailed to the publisher as well; the cover art has been created (but the pain-in-the-ass author reviewed it and made suggestions, so it’s not yet completed); and I’m scheduling fall events.

If I were a businessman or a banker, it would be the end of my “fiscal year”. But I’m a writer, so there’s one more item on my to-do list: plan the 2016 novel, the marathon that will dominate my free time for the next six to 12 months.

I’m not an outliner as much as I’m a note-taker. A month ago, I wrote a short story featuring Peyton that I liked (and submitted). I think there’s something there to be explored further, so it will serve as the scaffolding for the 2016 novel. I wrote the opening scene of the book (no title yet), and that, too, seems to hold up, so now I need to sit back and take notes.

During an interview with Mystery Scene, author Sue Grafton once said, “Mysteries are about the psychology of crime and the psychology of human nature.” I worked the sports desk at a daily newspaper (while majoring in English and playing hockey) in college and covered the city desk for a daily paper upon graduation. So when I “plan” a novel, I literally work through the novel in terms of Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Why is always the most important – and most interesting – of all the questions.

Why is equivalent to character motivation. If I read a novel and question the plot, it’s because, for me as a reader, the character's motivation didn’t hold up. Nothing previously presented in the book made me think this character would genuinely act (or react) in this manner in relation to the events sequenced in the book. Therefore, to me, character motivation is the most important thing to consider when writing a novel. And motivation stems directly from a character’s backstory (I’m a nurture-trumps-nature guy).

So this week, with an opening scene that seems to work, I will stop and take copious notes on the characters in my 2016 novel and try to figure out why they will do what they will.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

When the narrator goes WAY off the reservation...

A friend just sent me a clip of a short film that’s won numerous awards and been selected for a number of film festivals. I noticed that right away. I also noticed that it was self-described as “Just another period western meta comedy short film”. Both things certainly caught my attention and whetted my appetite.

Note: I’m including the link to the film, but with one very strong caveat: some of the things said in it are pretty raw – funny, but raw (not to mention wildly politically incorrect in a few places). You don’t need to watch it to get the gist of the rest of my post today and I’m hesitant to include it in fear that some might be offended. With that in mind, here goes: The Gunfighter.

Okay, if you’ve watched the short, you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t (and you’ve shown admirable restraint!), the heart of the story is that the film’s narrator can be heard by all the characters (as a disembodied voice). This narrator reveals all sorts of things the characters don’t wish to have revealed, but it’s their responses to the revelations that truly provide the comic thrust as the voice manipulates all of them to his own ends. The results are pretty hilarious – to my warped mind, at least.

Anyone who writes in third person – or even first person, to some extent – must become a narrator to the action. By going into our characters’ heads and voicing what we find, we help tell our story. This brief film is all about the “sacred covenant” between the writer and the viewer getting short-circuited, the balance of nature, as it were, being upset. We all try to remain neutral and not stick our own thoughts into action, but try as we might, sometimes the temptation is too strong. Sometimes we also don’t realize we’ve done it. Hopefully, our editors catch it!

Those who know me understand that I have a perverse sense of humour. Sometimes I go horribly out of bounds (Vicki Delany knows firsthand about this!), but that’s why I found the short so funny. It is sort of a one-trick pony, but because the format is brief, it works very well. It’s the ultimate “narrator inserting him/herself into the story.

So, I’m sitting here wondering if a novel could work if some of the characters could hear the omniscient narrator. Would it necessarily have to be funny, or could it work if it was serious? The narrator would have to be in more than one of the character’s heads or a reader would just think this person had mental issues. I would have loved to see the late Kurt Vonnegut get his hands on this idea and run with it. It would have been right up his alley.