Friday, November 28, 2014

Reflection on the Friday After

This was an especially memorable Thanksgiving. It's been a peaceful year for our family and we all gathered at my daughter Michele's house. All six grand-children were able to come and two step-grandchildren. A number of friends showed up. And stayed. There's an informal understanding that whoever hosts one of our holiday events should not expect an exact head count.

As usual there was an abundance of food. After the meal, some drifted to the TV to watch games, some played cards, and some just visited. There are always books passed around because we're a family of readers. Bookworms are sprawled on chairs and sofas reading their latest favorite.

There was a ridiculous number of really large dogs. During the evening the talented Crocketts brought out the musical instruments and various combinations of singers joined in.

There are so many things I am thankful for. Some small and deeply personal. Some shared by others and quite universal.

I feel guilty sometimes that in blogs and comments made by writers--myself included--that we talk about the trials and tribulations of writing. The truth is, we are an especially happy group of people whose minds are occupied by what want to be doing more than anything else in the world.

In addition to the physical process of writing, I especially appreciate a number of people who ease the way. I'm grateful for the Type M bloggers and Rich Blechta in particular. Rick, our blogmaster, does an outstanding job of keeping the group organized and is very, very kind.

One of my biggest blessings is my agent, Phyllis Westberg, who understands the meaning of an old-fashioned word--integrity.

I can't believe my luck in having Poisoned Pen Press as a publisher. The group gives outstanding support to its authors. They publish four books a month and are always available to help a really diverse collection of authors.

I'm in awe of all the interesting people I meet. I'm grateful for the wonderful events and conferences and the panels that contribute to my understanding of the craft.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday. We pause on this day to give thanks and ease the way for families who are having a rough year. Here in Loveland every effort is made to furnish meals to needy families and provide help for those needing assistance.

As a nation, I pray that we will continue to be conscious of our many blessings.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Admitting ignorance and other random thoughts on Thanksgiving

This past weekend, I attended the National Conference of Teachers of English with thousands of my closest friends. The event ran Thursday through Sunday in Washington, DC, with workshops and lectures every 90 minutes. It was exhilarating and exhausting.

I learned a few things about the book industry I didn't know. Among them, young adult authors are enormously popular with teachers. The lines for signed copies would have led you to believe the Beatles were at the event. I also learned just how ignorant I am: aside from Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling, I know of few other YA authors.

It was Stephen King who said (I paraphrase) if you're not in touch with the popular culture of your times, you're missing out. I'm missing out, so I picked up a few titles and will dive in.

In other news, I was thrilled with a couple milestones this week: the Mystery Guild selected Bitter Crossing as a book club choice; and my agent sold audio rights for all three books on my current contract.

Audio books might not mean as much to some as they do to me. As a dyslexic, I love audio books. I still have boxes of books on tape in my garage. Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexics helped me get through graduate school. My love of books and writing was certainly fostered by audio books. So the sale means a lot to me.

I have much to be grateful for on this day, mostly my wife Lisa and our three daughters Delaney, Audrey, and Keeley.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Promote That Book!

My book, Fatal Brushstroke, was officially released November 18th so I’ve been busy promoting it both online and in person. This is a new experience for me, but I’ve seen plenty of other authors promote their books so I’ve taken some inspiration from them and have come up with a few ideas of my own. Here are some of the promotion methods I’m using this time around. I’m trying to do as much as I can while still making sure I have time to write and finish the next book:
  • I’m a member of the Los Angeles chapter of Sisters in Crime. We do a lot of library events throughout Southern California, so I gave my information to our Speakers Bureau Director so I could be considered for events. Several months before my book was officially released, I was on a panel at a library near where I live. It was a great learning experience. If you have something similar in your neck of the woods, be sure to take advantage of it.
  • I attended my first Bouchercon in Long Beach a few days before my book was officially released. I was on a panel, Add Spice to Your Crafts, featuring authors of mysteries that involve hobbies. I was also part of the new author breakfast where I gave a 50-second spiel about my book to a room full of attendees. Both were great experiences, but I realized afterward I never took any photos. Lesson learned: take photos to share on social media platforms. Luckily, the moderator of our panel, Dru Ann Love, wrote a great account of her Bouchercon experience that included a photo of the panel I was on. Check out her account here. Fellow Henery Press author, Gigi Pandian, also blogged about her experience at B’con. She snapped a photo of me at the breakfast and posted it on her blog. Check out her account here
    My book in book room at B'con. It's real!
  • I’ve also had an opportunity to partner with fellow Sister in Crime, Diane Vallere, on a 4-stop tour of Southern California bookstores.
    (We call it the Paint and Polyester tour. The protagonist in her latest book, Suede to Rest, is named Polyester. My protagonist is a tole painter.) Both books are craft-based cozies so they’re a good fit to promote together. With 7 books under her belt (some of them self-published), Diane has tried a number of different methods of promotion so there’s a lot I can learn from her. I feel lucky to be able to draw on her wealth of experience. Partnering with another author on a bookstore tour has been great. And I’ve been better about taking pictures during the tour so I now have photographs to post online.
    Diane and Sybil at Mystery Ink
  • In addition to the in-person appearances, I opted for a 2 week blog tour that commenced the day after my book was officially released and is still going on. Type-Mer Emeritus Hannah Dennison told me about Great Escapes Blog Tours. Lori Caswell puts together free 1-2 week blog tours for cozy authors. All I had to do was give her details about my book, write some blog posts, and answer some interview questions. She took care of finding the appropriate blogs for me to visit and setting up the events. This was such a relief for me not to have to do all the work myself. I cannot speak highly enough of Lori. So, if you’re a cozy author, contact her and see if she can help you out. (By the way, Hannah will be back doing a guest post here on Type M the weekend of December 6th. Be sure to visit and see what she has to say.) Lesson learned: If you don’t know how to do something ask an author who has gone before you.
  • I sponsored a couple Goodreads giveaways of ARCs of my book both right after I received the ARCs and right before the book came out. I reached 1000 people I might not have otherwise. For me it was worth doing.
  • Other random things I’ve done: (a) given bookmarks advertising my book to my hairstylist who passed them out to her other customers. (I didn't force this on her, she volunteered.) I’ve since discovered a number of them have bought the book. (b) given bookmarks to friends and family who have passed them out to people they thought might be interested. (c) held a launch party celebrating my book’s release. Besides being loads of fun, I did sell quite a few books. (d) written guest posts on a few other blogs in addition to my blog tour.
  • For the future: Since my book’s protagonist is a tole painter, I’m looking into ways to reach that audience. The college I attended has an alumni magazine so I’m planning on writing a blurb for it announcing my book’s release. (Yes, I know I should have done this before, but sometimes things just have to wait.)
That’s my take on promotion as a new author. I’m always looking for new ideas. What methods do you use to promote your books?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The flexibility of English

I typed the above title for my post this week with trepidation. I mean, instead of one of my weekly ramblings, it could be the title of a doctoral thesis. I will endeavor to be more brief – and quicker in production!

I am by no means a language specialist, but I’m always struck by the myriad of ways things can be said in English and turn out to have much the same meaning. I’m sure that can be done in French or Italian, etc., but I have heard people with more linguistic skill than I possess make much the same comment.

I deal with trying to change the length of sentences or phrases all the time in my day job of graphic design. Sometimes I don’t have the luxury. The copy I’m handed has to stay the way it is and it’s up to my skill and creativity as a typographer to make it all fit and look good (and looking good is the real trick as well as a complete pain a lot of the time).

(Now, what you just didn’t see behind the scenes as I worked on the above paragraph, was that I had to change up some of the words. In this case it was all to quickly polish the prose. The ‘as well as’ in the parenthetical phrase was used to replace an ‘and’.)

Quite often I’ll look at a particularly long sentence when revising a manuscript, and the first thing that crosses my mind is, What the hell were you thinking when you wrote that mess? My second thought then is, Do you even need it? Generally, the answer is yes. There’s some sort of information that needs to be included.

(My first choice for ‘included’ which closes the above paragraph was ‘in there’. Upon reflection it seemed a bit too casual.)

With my two most recent publications, The Boom Room, and Roses for a Diva, I was faced contract stipulations on word limits, so using smart word choices was more important than normal. With the added requirement of simple, clear two- and three-syllable words for Rapid Read books (The Boom Room is one of these), you can see how critical flexibility in vocabulary can become.

I like to think I have a pretty extensive vocabulary, but faced with many books from the 1800s and early 1900s, I have to read with a dictionary at my elbow. Last time I read a book by E.M. Forster, I had to look up about an average of one word per page.

The problem is that the vocabulary in everyday use has been steadily shrinking for a number of years. Those unfamiliar words in Forster? They’re no longer in general usage (if they ever were). I mourn their loss.

But I won’t be using any of them. Why? Because I don’t think the average reader wants to read one of my novels with a dictionary at their elbow. If I were writing “literature”, I would be more tempted to pepper my prose a few obscure words (if only to annoy reviewers and professors of literature).

Successful writing these days seems to require an immediacy that precludes long, multi-phrase sentences and obscure words.

Within those sorts of restrictions, I’m glad that our choice of words in English is still fairly wide. Want an interesting exercise? Get your hands on a thesaurus from eighty or a hundred years ago, and compare it with a more modern one – meaning one that has been updated to reflect current vocabulary and word usage. The difference between the two is quite striking.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Engraved: Canadian Stories of WWI

By Vicki Delany

I am a crime writer. I write novels and novellas of crime fiction.  I am not a short story writer, although I wrote a few of those when I was starting out as we are all told we should do.  I sometimes incorporate real history and real places into my work, but I do write fiction.

But I decided to step out of my comfort zone one time when I had a story to tell and someplace to tell it.

When the call went out from the Canadian literary publisher Seraphim Editions for creative non-fiction stories about World War One, I immediately knew I wanted to take part.  I had never written creative non-fiction at all. 

Why not give it a try, I thought.

I had a story that needed to be told.

All of his long life my maternal grandfather, Henry Hall, had been a keen reader and had an intense interest in everything around him, people and politics in particular.  When he got older and his eyesight began to fail he found he couldn't read as much as he had enjoyed in the past.  But he could write letters and he wrote long letters to his grandchildren full of observations about the current political situation, and news of all the other members of the family. Then, over one year, he began adding tidbits about his memories of the past in letters to one of my cousins.

She saved all these letters and bound then into a book. Fascinating reading, and I’m delighted to be able to share them with my own children.

My granddad (far left) and his brothers

So young
In particular he wrote about his time in the trenches in France and Belgium in 1914 – 15. He didn't write much about the fighting or the battles he’d been in, but about him and his “chums” wandering the countryside.  His intense interest in everyone and everything around him, comes out loud and clear in the letters. One central story is how he’d decided he had to get rid of his standard-issue Canadian Ross Rifle (which was very second rate and eventually became a political scandal back home) and get a better one. So he set about to steal one.

And that became the grain of my story for Engraved: Canadian Stories of World War I.

About all I had to do was to add dialogue as I imagined it might have gone, a bit of colour (or lack thereof actually, considering we’re talking about the mud of the trenches) some weather.

I’m proud that Bernadette Rule, editor of the anthology, liked my granddad’s story, and I’m proud to be featured in that marvellous book. It looks at the war mostly from the point of view of people you don’t hear much about: army nurses, family back at home, and ordinary soldiers. It forms them all in to a powerful book with a message of pacifism and hope.

So far Engraved is only available in trade paperback, but can be found at all the usual sources. If your library doesn’t have a copy, why not ask them to get one?  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

When Opportunity knocked, I said, go away

America is the Land of Opportunity. While we seek opportunity, sometimes it is thrust right at us and even when the chance to get ahead is this obvious, we might fail to see what fate has dropped in our lap, gift wrapped.

Years ago, during my call up from the Army reserves for Desert Storm (the easy war against Iraq), in the latter part of my deployment I was stationed in Washington, DC. My boss, another reservist, a lieutenant colonel from Utah, suggested that while we were in DC, we should visit our congressional representatives and say hello.

At the time, I lived in California. I called my local congressman and senators, all Democrats. Interestingly, the common response from every office was, "Are you calling to contribute to the congressman's campaign?" Well, no. "Then why are you bothering us?" When I explained that I was returning from the war overseas, the reaction was a big yawn. My congressman from Fresno did agree to meet and I arrived all spiffy in my Class As. One of his assistants told me the congressman was running late. And late. Later still. He never bothered to show up.

My boss had better luck arranging visits with his reps, all Republicans I have to add and none of them asked if we were there to contribute money. I tagged along to visit Senator Orrin Hatch, then the third-most powerful man in the US Senate. Senator Hatch's office looked like an executive suite in a five-star hotel. His secretary was an older, very professional woman who wore a red dress and lots of gold jewelry. She led us to the senator's inner sanctum. I remember black leather furniture, glass cabinets filled with expensive gratuities, and a trophy wall of photos showing the senator with celebrities and honchos of every stripe.

This was the first time I'd ever had a private meeting with such a political big shot. Senator Hatch oozed power and charisma and yet he made it seem like the colonel and I were doing him a favor by taking time out of our lives to visit him. Man, this guy was slick.

He asked my boss and me if there was a favor he could do for us.

Now, to put this in perspective. Lobbyists pay hundreds of thousands of dollars just to sit with a man like Senator Hatch. Not only did we have an hour of his time, he was asking us if there was something that we needed. Within a few weeks I was about to get mustered out and sent home, a jobless veteran. Could I have used a favor from one of the most powerful men in America?

Fuck yeah.

So what did the colonel and I do?

"No," we both answered, "we don't need no favors."

I'm sure that Senator Hatch secretly rolled his eyes at these two clueless goobers in front of him. So he asked again, "Are you sure I can't do something for you?" Wink, wink. Hint, hint.

Meanwhile, my inner Mario must have been picking his nose because the outer Mario answered. "No, I don't think so."

For a third time, Senator Orrin Hatch, a man with his hand on all kinds of levers in the US government, asked us, "Are you sure I can't do anything for you?"

And for the third time, the colonel and I shuffled our feet and replied, "Aw shucks, Senator, we don't need nuthin." Our time was up. We shook hands with our host and left. I imagine that after his secretary ushered us out the door, he said to her, "Goddamn, weren't those two a couple of dense dumb asses."

So dense that it didn't dawn on me until much later, when I was struggling to find any kind of work, that I once had a US Senator offer me the golden key of opportunity and I had said, "Thanks, but no thanks."

Friday, November 21, 2014

Food, Exercise, and Writing

I admit it. I would be a great hypochondriac. Luckily, I'm usually too busy to think about what my body's doing until something happens to remind me I should be attending. That happened this morning. I woke up with a topic for today's blog post – crime theories in crime fiction – and my scribbled notes ready beside my lap top. I sat down, looked out the window at the gray morning, and felt my energy draining away. Along with that loss of energy went my enthusiasm for my post. I spent twenty minutes trying to get it to come together and finally gave up. I decided to have some breakfast to see if that would help.

A famous cereal company would be pleased to hear me say that a bowl of their little O's (with almond milk and a banana) did wonders for my mood and got me back to my laptop. Or, maybe it was the big mug of green tea with honey and lemon that did the trick. In any case, I had breakfast and I was ready to write. That got me thinking about how good nutrition – as opposed to the half-dozen miniature candy canes I munched last night - and exercise might improve my stamina and concentration. Would eating right make me a better writer? Would putting on my running shoes help to garner great reviews?

Somewhere in my bookshelves, hiding from view right now, is a book that I bought years ago. I can't remember the title, but the book is advice about nutrition and exercise for writers. As I recall, the author (herself a writer) advocated sensible strategies such as taking a break from the keyboard to go for a walk and eating healthy meals at the table rather than gobbling snacks in front of the computer. Of course, by now, we all know what we should be doing. But knowing and doing are two different things (my cliche for the day). 

However, I think I may be saved from myself by Harry, my new cat. According to his vet, Harry (weighing in at 19+ pounds) should lose 2 or 3 pounds. He's hefty even for a Maine Coon mix. I don't think Harry understood the discussion we had right in front of him. But now that he is on prescription cat food for his finicky stomach, he seems to be naturally gravitating toward getting more movement into his life. Sure, he likes to sit and look out the window and have a nap in the sun. But he gets up and stretches. He strolls through the house. And now and then, he jumps up and does a dash into the next room. Harry is ready to play any time I reach for the laser light. Only a few minutes at a time – when he's bored, he strolls over and indicates he's done – but Harry is getting up and moving. He's an eight year old, but he is calling on his inner kitten. Want to bet which one of us is going to be looking slim and fit when he goes in for his three month weigh-in?

It is not New Year's Day, but I hereby pledge to spend the next three months getting into shape – fruits, veggies, and healthy protein, exercise at least five days a week, get 7-8 hours sleep. . . can't wait! Three months from now, I'm going to be in shape and ready to write my way onto the best-seller list.

On my way to buy new running shoes (well, walk/run shoes). . .I will not stop for a nap first. I'm a writer on a mission. . .not to be outdone by a cat.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thanksgiving. Already?

I've spent the past two weeks holed up, writing furiously on the next Alafair book, trying to get the first 100 pages in some kind of order so I can send it to my editor for her approval sometime shortly after Thanksgiving. I barely check my email or Facebook or any other electronic media. My house is badly in need of a dusting and a sweep. Meals have been slap-dash affairs. I'm in a bit of a panic because I can't see how I'm going to get this all to come together. In other words, same-old same-old.

And – oh yeah! Thanksgiving is next week for us United Statesians!* This morning Don and I grabbed brunch at a salad buffet restaurant and discussed the menu for the first time this season. Thanksgiving has been something of a problem for us for the past several years since we (mainly he) has so many dietary restrictions. We've been vegetarian for the past thirty-five years, though I've relaxed my meatlessness a lot lately when I'm not at home. Sometimes it's just too much trouble to ask what is in the soup. On top of that, Don is supposed to avoid too many oxalates, so no greens, rhubarb, strawberries, beans or pumpkin. Since the cancer operation, no refined sugar or pure fruit juices, either, and certainly no artificial sweeteners. Stevia is all right, if it's pure stevia leaf and no dextrose.

Have you ever tried to make a non-pumpkin, non-sugar pumpkin pie? Believe it or not, it can be done. Don has become an expert stevia-sweetened pastry chef. He can make a "pumpkin" pie out of pureed butternut squash and stevia which I defy you to tell the difference between it and the real thing. It's the spices that make the pie, I think.

Substituting squash for pumpkin is no big deal, anyway. Ever tried sweet potato pie? My grandmother used to make pies out of the most unlikely ingredients. Whatever she had on hand. Apple cider vinegar pie tastes like apples. One of my favorites was her Ritz cracker pies. I haven't had that since...well, practically forever. The crackers dissolved into a pudding-like consistency. I don't know how she did it.

Speaking of family recipes, I contributed a recipe for my aunt Loreen's chocolate gravy, as well as a little writing and a little relationship advice, to a wonderful new cookbook edited by Lois Winston called Bake, Love, Write: 105 Authors Share Dessert Recipes and Advice on Love and Writing. The cookbook is available on Kobo, iTunes, Nook, and Amazon, in paper and as an ebook. You might come up with something new and fabulous for Thanksgiving. What could be better?
* Many years ago I was checking into a hotel in London, and in the space on the form where I was supposed to put my nationality, I wrote “American”. The clerk looked at it and said, "don't you think that's arrogant? What about Canadians and Mexicans? They're from the Americas, too." To which I replied, "What do you suggest? United Statesian?" Yes, he was rude, but dang it, I never forgot that, and now whether I say it or not, I think United Statesian every time.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A community of friends

I got my first personal computer in 1988 and my first internet connection in 1995. Since then, the reach and usefulness of the world wide web has increased exponentially. For a writer, it's an absolute boon. I can't even remember half the agonies of researching material before the internet age. Trips to the library, long hours spent pawing through index cards in the catalogue, trying to guess the keywords under which the material has been filed, travelling up to the designated floor with a list of book and articles, squinting at long, arcane call numbers only to realize that the desired call number is missing. Hunching over a stack of books in the library or carting them home to pile on the coffee table. Thumbing through newspapers and microfilm, cold-calling experts with a list of questions...

Much of this information is now at our fingertips, a mere Google search away. And the ease of internet research means that I research small pieces of information that I would not have bothered to in the past. I would have glossed over the details or made them up. Need a particular brand of hunting rife? In the old days, I would have simply called it a rifle. Now I can call it a 308. Need to know a good name for a 65-year-old woman from Newfoundland? There's a website for that too.

I have used the internet for city maps, Google street view and satellite view, for images and videos of everything from poison plants to motorcycles to icebergs. I have watched YouTube videos of whitewater canoeing, dog tracking, and shrimp fishing. As a psychologist, I used the internet to gather the latest information and network with colleagues far more easily and effectively than through books and published journals. I think all professions have found that the internet has revolutionized their practice.

Through social media, the internet has changed our connections to the world as well. There is a great deal of hand-wringing about how people today are more connected to their phones and iPads than to each other and to the world around them. The art of conversation is dead, the quiet appreciation of nature is a lost art, and so on. There's a lot of truth to this, but I have also found surprise benefits. I have reconnected with old friends, built stronger relationships with family members in far-flung places, and have even built a community of "cyberfriends" with whom I have an interest or quirky outlook in common. I know people who have cyber friends to play Scrabble with, or some other online game. These friends mustn't replace the daily friendships with those around us, but as the number of people living alone increases, and as we get older and more housebound, this cyber community is an increasing source of comfort and fun.

And it doesn't stop there. Occasionally I combine the two ways in which I use the internet by putting out a call to my Facebook friends for information I can't easily tease from Google. I hope that somewhere, someone among my friends will have the answer or know someone who has the answer. A while ago I asked what kind of handgun a small woman would be likely to have stored in her kitchen in the country. Sure enough, I got not only the answer but also a link to the photo.

This past week I put out the call to my Facebook friends and family from Newfoundland, hoping to find out about blackout regulations and Bonfire Night activities during the Second World War. This was a harder question because none of them had been alive at the time, but I got some excellent memories, details and connections that will help me move forward. Others from nearby New Brunswick chimed in too, and it generated an enjoyable bout of reminiscences for everyone, quite apart from my research needs.

The internet and social media moves information and connects ideas with incredible speed and versatility. Grapevines had nothing on Facebook. I don't know where it will all end. Twenty years ago, when I was just contemplating the leap to primitive dial-up, I could never have imagined what Facebook, Twitter and email would bring. What do you suppose the next big leap will be?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Story time

One of my fondest memories of childhood is being sick. (Huh? Where’s the fun in being sick?) Why? Because my mother would read to me. And the sicker I was, the more she’d read.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to read. I learned to do that when I was five. What made being really sick special was the simple act of being read to. My mother told stories to us over lunch when I was really little. It’s one of my earliest memories. My brother is two years older than I, and I clearly remember story time where my sister (two years younger) was not around. She may have been napping, but my mom’s stories were about my brother and me, or at least two children that were a lot like us: Eduard and Richard, the little Swiss boys, or Eduardo and Ricardo, the little Spanish boys (you get the drift). I know my sister wasn’t involved because I remember being severely put out when my mom’s stories began to include “and little Lynette”. So, I could not have been much older than three.

Anyway, back to being sick. I had all the usual childhood illnesses (mumps, measles, strep throat, flu, terrible colds. My mother would have to stay home with me, of course, and since I was bedridden, there wasn’t much I could do. Of course, I’d read to myself, but the special time was when mom would appear in the doorway with a book in her hand.

The most memorable time, she had a brand new one bought just for me. It had a lovely cover and its title was Uncle Wiggily in the Country by Howard R. Garis. (I still have it.) I loved the stories in that book. I’m sure my mother did, too, since it was episodic (the book was a collection of his stories published every day in newspapers in the early part of the 1900s), so she could read me a satisfying little story, then disappear off to do whatever she was doing. After lunch, I’d get another story, and if I was really lucky, another mid-afternoon and one after dinner, possibly with my dad reading (that was really special. When Uncle Wiggily appeared I was sick for a number of days, so we made it a good way into the book before I got better.

Funny thing is, I still enjoy being read to. I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling. Nobody does it much for me anymore, but it is a lovely thing when it happens. And remembering this, I am always up for reading to someone else.

Today is my grandson Jackson’s very first birthday. We babysit him one or two days a week and it just so happens he’s with us on his special day. I plan on reading to him when it’s time for his nap. Uncle Wiggily will be on the menu, and even though he probably doesn’t understand anything I’m saying, just the tone of voice will be enjoyable to him. I know because we read to our two boys just about every night, starting in infancy and continuing until they were three or four. It was a special time for all of us and fondly remembered.

We have lots of books to share with Jackson in the coming months, but years from now, maybe he’ll remember his very special day and a very special book (to his grandfather, at least). I would love nothing more than for him to become an avid reader.

With that in mind, maybe you should read this.

Or get someone else to read it to you! Sorry, but I’m already booked…

Monday, November 17, 2014

Starting Out

My last post was about finishing a book. Now, after a respectful pause and a wonderful holiday in Turkey, my mind has turned to the new one. The idea has been tugging at my sleeve for months now, like a kid getting impatient because his mother is talking to someone else and ignoring him. Now at last I feel I’m ready to give it my full attention.

But I’m nor going to indulge it, allowing it to frolic about all over the place. It’s time to talk tough. One of the best pieces of advice for a writer when it comes to plot is ‘Make it then try to break it ,’ so I’m doing what they call a ‘due diligence’ check in legal circles.

I’ve got to be absolutely sure that it’s complex enough  to carry the weight of a whole book. An untested inspiration will collapse in a dispiriting way – around chapter five, usually, once the initial impetus has faded. That's a lot of time wasted.

It’s particularly important for a writer like me because I never have a book plan that’s set in stone. I think I know what's going to happen at the end but more often than not I’m wrong. I like it that way; if the twists and turns fool me I think they will probably fool my readers as well. And I’m in good company on this – Ruth Rendell doesn’t choose her murderer until quite near the end on the theory that if she doesn’t know who did it, the reader can’t guess.

As a result, it gets a bit tense in the middle there when I’m not absolutely clear about the next step and the old four-in-the-morning, it’s-useless-and-so-am-I routine starts. I have learnt to say firmly, ‘Trust the story. Now shut up and go to sleep.’ And it works; the story has always drawn me along, until things start falling into place.

So at the moment I’m testing it to destruction. There’s been some superficial damage, but so far the central structure seems sound. Fingers crossed!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Marni Graff: Giving Life to a Series Character

Frankie’s guest blogger this weekend is Marni Graff. She asked me to publish this for her because she’s off galavanting at Bouchercon this weekend — the lucky stiff! —Rick

Marni Graff is the award-winning author of The Nora Tierney Mysteries, set in England. The Blue Virgin introduces Nora, an American writer living in Oxford. The Green Remains and The Scarlet Wench trace Nora’s move to the Lake District where murder follows her. In process is The Golden Hour, set in Bath, and premiering in Spring 2015 will be Graff’s new Manhattan series, Death Unscripted, featuring nurse Trudy Genova, a medical consultant for a New York movie studio. Graff is also co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer on writing groups and critique techniques. She writes crime book reviews at and is Managing Editor of Bridle Path Press. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff runs the NC Writers Read program in Belhaven. All of Graff’s books can be bought at or at and are available as eBooks.

I’ve always been a voracious reader, and because I also read for a crime review blog, there is always a stack of books on my TBR pile. Once I find a writer whose work I enjoy, it’s my habit to go back and read his or her books in the order they were written to see the expansion of the continuing characters. When I decided to write mysteries, I knew a series would allow me to stretch and grow my characters in the same way I’ve enjoyed the growth of those readers whose books I reach for again and again.

When I developed the character of Nora Tierney, an American writer living in England, I made her reasonably young to allow for years of change as I decided on her “bible—” the history of her life that may or may not make it to the page. This background helps me know Nora better, and gives me a feel for how she would react in certain situations. I’ve found the two most important things I have to know for any character are: what they want the most, and what they fear the most. And sometimes it’s the same thing.

As a former journalist now writing children’s books, Nora loves research of any kind and is an information gatherer. I gave her an insatiable curiosity, which leads to her snooping, and a strong sense of fairness and justice, both of which contribute to her tendency to become involved in murder investigations. Nora has been known to lie at the drop of a hat if it will further her gathering of what she considers important or necessary information. She sees these fabrications as harmless. The detectives whose investigations she runs across don’t necessarily agree.

While there is a specific theme for each mystery, the underlying thread of all the books is how the choices we make affect our lives, and Nora’s background had to have some kind of kink in it that has ramifications for her now. Nora still suffers guilt from her father’s death in a sailing accident. A teenager at the time, she’d turned down his offer for an evening sail in favor of a date, a reasonable thing for anyone of that age, until a squall capsized his boat. She carries the unreasonable idea that if she’d gone with him, he would have survived. This has had an impact on her relationships with men. She’s often confused about her feelings for those she cares about and has difficulty becoming too attached, shying away from commitment.

I threw in a real kicker in the first book, The Blue Virgin, one that has had ramifications for me as a writer and obviously for Nora. Her back-story had her unhappily engaged to a workaholic scientist. Nora was on the verge of calling the engagement off when her fiancé was killed in an accident. Fast-forward to the current action in the book weeks later, and she discovers she’s pregnant and has to decide whether to keep the baby as a single parent—those choices we make who decide who we are, hitting her full force. This is in the midst of trying to prove her best friend, artist Val Rogan, is innocent of a murder charge in the death of Val’s partner, Bryn Wallace. The book is set in Oxford, where Nora is packing up to move to Cumbria. But first, she is determined to clear Val.

Saddling Nora with a child to raise alone in the future gave her many challenges and responsibilities that thwart her natural desires as her instinct to strike out has been seriously curbed. During the second book, The Green Remains, Nora is living in the Lake District and heavily pregnant. I had to keep in mind Nora’s physical condition and how that would impact and interfere with her ability to snoop actively when she stumbles across a body at the edge of Lake Windermere. The theme here is the depth of a mother’s love, and as Nora faces her impending fears of motherhood, that is echoed in the plot that unfolds.

In The Scarlet Wench, with her son six months old, a theatre troupe takes over the lodge where she’s temporarily living with her illustrator and his sister. While the troupe are there to stage Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, a series of escalating pranks will result in a murder Nora is determined to solve. I had a time writing this one as I needed to always account for the normal demands of a new mother with an infant, as Nora tries to solve a murder with her baby on the premises. The theme here is how different people have different levels of commitment to relationships, part of the plot that is echoed in Nora’s budding relationship with Detective Inspector Declan Barnes. As always, I’m looking for readers to see growth and development in Nora as she makes her way in the world I’ve created for her.

I’m writing The Golden Hour this fall, which takes Nora and her son to stay with a friend for a week in Bath for her to attend an author event at Mr. B’s Reading Emporium, a real bookstore in the heart of the city where Jane Austen once lived. The theme here is: “Where is home?” as Nora must decide where she will put down roots. On this trip she’ll have the help of her friend to take Sean for walks when she’s busy, but where will the mystery come from? I can promise it won’t be the usual three-murder cozy format, but you’ll have to read it to find out what I’ve planned for Nora’s next adventure.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Bouchercon and Other Perils

This is sort of a travelogue and an inside glimpse of what goes on at Bouchercon — the biggest mystery conference. There's no doubt writers who are really talented at meet and greet have a distinct advantage over those of us who need some "alone" time to recharge. It's the difference between introverts and extroverts.

Although I'm very introverted by nature, I'm not a shy person so I'm somewhere in between those who find crowds threatening and attendees who bound up to the nearest stranger and make a new friend instantly. It's a wonderful opportunity to hand out post cards and tell people about a book. I'm always the most comfortable one on one, so I joined a lady at a table on the patio and had a great conversation. We were joined by a debut writer I had met last year. She immediately whipped out post cards. Mine were up in my room in my back pack! See what I mean when I say some are simply born naturals?

I went to the Sisters in Crime forensics clinic yesterday. It was terrific. They had expert speakers from California State at Los Angles who had written books about crime scene investigation. I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

This year we are at the Hyatt Regency at Long Beach, California. It's one of the most gorgeous hotels I've been in. It has a newish feel and someone really put a lot of thought into the design. The rooms have lovely bathroom fixtures with full mirrors surrounded by superb lighting. But it's the physical space of the community rooms that sets this location apart. There were no equipment breakdowns for speakers. All of the mics work, and that often is a weak spot in preparation. There are around 2000 people here and they are all easily accommodated.

I ran in our blogmate Frankie Bailey (almost literally) and told her about my most embarrassing moment. I had ordered room service this morning and set my tray outside the door. The door slammed shut and I stood there in horror (key less) in ratty old pajamas and fuzzy old socks. I couldn't see any way out of my mess except to tromp down to the very public main desk and get a new key. Yes. In front of all the sharp looking mystery writers milling around.

I set off for the elevator and spied a wall phone that connected to the front desk. They sent a security guard to my floor and all was well.

More later about this conference. Frankly, I've never been to any conference where I didn't meet someone new that I enjoyed. I always learn a lot.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Not Losing the Thread

I've reached that part of my year where my life annually takes on an added dimension – hockey season – and I'm fighting to keep a bunch of different balls in the air.

Bitter Crossing is out, Fallen Sparrow (June 2015) is in production, and I'm chipping away at the 2016 novel, trying to carve out a few hours each day to do so.

Adding something to my day feels like setting the fourth and final ace atop the already-teetering house of cards: you hold your breath and hope the wind doesn't blow.

Creatively, I try to accomplish a lot in a little time. Part of that means, for lack of a better description, not losing the story's thread, remembering where I was going when I finished my last writing session. Easy, you say? Take notes? Outline? Done. Tried that.

This is different. Eighty percent of what I'm talking about is mental. There's a great line (I forgot who said it) about a writer "writing for twenty-three hours a day and typing for one." I'm talking about keeping the story in your head, so it's not only there when you hit the keyboard for your next session, but it's actually progressed – in your psyche – before you do so.

I'm sure every writer with a day job struggles with this and has a technique to fight it, and I'd love to hear them all. My iPhone is filled with various voice recordings, thoughts that come to me as I go through my day, walking around campus, waiting in line at the grocery store. (“Dad, do you have to talk to yourself like that? It's embarrassing.”)

Talking to yourself in public isn't so bad. After all, isn't it a dad's job to be embarrassing?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bouchercon, Here I Come!

For the next four days, I’ll be attending Bouchercon in Long Beach, CA.

This will be my first time at this particular mystery convention. I’m not a complete conference newbie. I’ve attended California Crime Writers Conference several times, even co-chaired it one year. We’re talking a fairly intimate conference with 150-200 attendees. Last May I attended Malice Domestic for the first time. That’s about 800, I think. But Bouchercon. From what I understand, we’re talking a couple thousand people. 2000! It boggles my brain. I’m hyperventilating now just thinking about it.

My first book, Fatal Brushstroke, comes out the Tuesday after B’con so this will be the first conference where I have a book to promote. I’ve done my prep work for the two events I’m scheduled to participate in—the new authors breakfast on Friday where I’ll have 50 seconds to pitch my book and the Add Spice to Your Crafts panel on Saturday moderated by Dru Ann Love with fellow panelists Barbara Graham, Jennifer McAndrews, Camille Minichino and Clare O’Donohue where we’ll be talking about murder and our favorite hobbies.

Although I’m looking forward to both of them, the two events worry me a bit because they’re both early in the morning and I’m not a morning person. (I cannot emphasize this enough: I am not a morning person!) On the plus side, they’ll be over with before I get a chance to worry too much about them and I’ll have the rest of the day to enjoy myself.

Since the convention is taking place in my neck of the woods, I’ll know quite a few people there. That’s great except that, after looking at the schedule, I’ve discovered a number of my friends are participating in panels at the same time. It’s like trying to choose your favorite child!

I’m also looking forward to spending time with friends I haven’t seen in a while and getting to know some of my fellow Henery Press authors who are scattered around the country. And I’m also hoping to meet some of my cohorts here at Type M.

All in all, I expect to have a good time, though I’m sure I’ll be quite tired after it’s all over. If you’re attending B’con and you see someone wandering around looking a little glassy-eyed, that’s probably me. Stop and say hi. I’d appreciate it. Bouchercon, here I come!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A place to write

It’s at this time of the year, when the bare bones of the earth are revealed as everything awaits the arrival of winter, that I look at the back of our yard and imagine something. It will never happen as long as we live where we do because our house and property are small. Every square inch is accounted for and precious. I could no more give up any of it than cut off an arm. In the very back we have our small vegetable patch and next to it grape and clematis vines cover a fence and there’s our peach tree. Underneath that is a covered swing where we can sit and look out over our water garden and the yard beyond towards the house. In summer we live out here. It’s our living room and very enjoyable. How can you give something like that up?

But if we had another ten feet, I would indulge myself in a heartbeat. What do I want?


Or this:

Or maybe even this:

When I started researching this post, I didn’t realize how many other wordsmiths wanted something like a writing shed at the bottom of their gardens, too.

It wouldn’t cost much, especially since I have the skills to build it and I have a couple of sons who would be willing to pitch in where needed.

Believe me, I have this doped out completely. It would be six-and-a-half feet wide and ten feet long. Its only window would look down the yard and right in front of it would be my desk. It wouldn’t have to be fancy. As a matter of fact, a dressed piece of plywood would do. I’d want it to fold down.

My shed would possibly have electricity, but a small wood stove would be my ideal, in which case I’d use candles or lanterns for lighting. For such a small space, though, wood heating might prove to be too much. How small a wood stove can you get, after all? With modern insulation, not much heat would be needed for a shed this size.

I’d like to have a comfy chair where I could read and edit. A small bed for an afternoon siesta wouldn’t be a bad idea. And that would be it.

Since it would need insulation for year-round operation, I’d have to finish the walls, but I think I’d like real wood panelling (the real stuff) rather than drywall. There would be art on the walls (probably landscapes) and a calendar. The final thing would be a modest sound system. I especially favour music when I’m editing, not so much when I’m writing. I tend to start paying more attention to what’s going on than I should, which, oddly, doesn’t happen when I edit.

The outdoor finishes would be a cedar shake roof (canted not peaked) with board and batten siding. (What I’d really prefer would be stone with a thatched roof, but let’s be real here.)

I’ve costed it out, and the whole thing could be built for around a thousand dollars (minus the heating which I haven’t costed). I'd leave the shingles natural and stain the board and batten a nice forest green and maybe plant some vines around it.

Being able to disappear to a place like this, shut the world away, and hang out with my invisible friends would be a wonderful thing indeed.

How about you?

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Art of the Cozy Mystery

By Vicki Delany

Did someone mention cozies?

I do believe Sybil did.

I’d like to take that opening to introduce a new cozy writer to the good people of Type M.

Her name is Eva Gates, and here’s a picture. Look familiar?

No, she is not my evil twin (or my good twin). She’s just me.

Eva Gates is the pen name for the new series I am writing for Penguin US. I am going over to the light side, and becoming a cozy writer.

And so far, I am loving it.

As you know (you don’t?, then time to find out) the books I write are mainly middle-boiled. The traditional police procedurals of the Constable Molly Smith series or the slightly darker standalone gothic thrillers.  What most of those books deal with is human tragedy. Broken families, bad people, conflicted cops, traumatized soldiers.

Here’s a line from Among the Departed that I think sums up my approach to the books I write.  

“When I decided to become a police officer I knew I’d have to deal with the hard side of life. Beaten children, raped women, accident victims, blood and gore. But that’s not the hardest part, is it? It’s the goddamn tragedy of people’s lives.”

Now that I’m writing cozies, I’m loving it. It’s great fun to be writing a book just for fun.  But more than fun, these books are about REAL people. Librarians, the people on the library board, the owner of the local bakery, a small-town mayor. Friends and relatives are close and loving and supportive. They are shocked, shocked, when murder interrupts their peaceful lives. They don’t have tragic lives and are stunned when bad things happen.

And then they, in the person of the protagonist, are determined to solve the crime, clear the innocent-accused, and put things back to rights.

In many cases the author uses whimsy and humour to do that.  Because there is a lot of humour in most people’s lives, isn’t  there?

And, as Sybil pointed out, there are usually pets. Cozies are heavy on pets because it helps the reader relate to the characters.

By Book or By Crook is now available for pre-order. Pre-orders are important for writers, in creating a buzz and letting our publishers know people are interested in this book.  If you want to pre-order the book, either in paperback or in e-book, here’s a couple of links.,

Friday, November 07, 2014

Here's Harry

In my book The Red Queen Dies, a Maine Coon cat appears in one scene. Only one scene, but I spent a lot of time doing research on Maine Coon cats because I became fascinated with the breed. A couple of weeks ago, I adopted a Maine Coon mix. His name was Tyson. I changed it to Harry.

Harry zonked out.
Harry comes into my life as I am about to begin that nerve-racking process that we have all talked about here. The galleys of What the Fly Saw, the next book in my near-future police procedural series, were mailed out to me today. Now, I need to begin working with my publisher and my publicist to make sure people who might review the book receive copies.

This book is my seventh mystery (five in my Lizzie Stuart series, two -- now -- in this new series featuring Detective Hannah McCabe). I still don't enjoy marketing, but I am getting better at making a plan and following it. Except this time Harry intervened.

I hadn't planned on adopting a cat from a local shelter right before Bouchercon. But he was there on the website and I went to see him. I came home the next day with a cat. . .a cat who I quickly realized had an upset stomach and wasn't eating. I found a vet clinic specializing in cats and took him in the next day. He was back there again a couple of days later, still not eating. I got him back again last Saturday. I've spent the past few days adjusting to a curious 19.5 lb cat prowling around my small house. This is quite an adjustment for a dog person. But Harry is a dog-like cat.

Since he can't read this and defend himself, I am going to blame Harry for the fact that I didn't get around to ordering the postcards that I planned to take along to Bouchercon. The postcards with the cover that I really love.

I did leave ordering the postcards rather later. But I really planned to get it done last week. And that brings me to my point. A good marketing plan requires not only a list of tasks one intends to do. It also requires a calendar -- ideally a calendar with extra time built in to allow for life's events such as getting a cat. I am now going to sit down with my list and assign completion dates that will carry me up to March 5 and the book's official publication date. That includes registering for Left Coast Crime and Sleuthfest.

As for Harry, the Maine Coon cat who appeared briefly in The Red Queen Dies is mentioned in What the Fly Saw. I think Harry may just become my official mascot. After the vet bill for his stressed out tummy, the least he can do is pose for a few photographs. And I'd better put a date for taking those photos into my calendar or they could go the way of the postcards that still have to be ordered.

I am going to be more efficient. I am going to make a calendar and follow it. So help me, Harry.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

The End

A few days ago, Charlotte wrote about how disappointing it is to read a book that has no particular end. (check it out here)

One of the best pieces of advice I ever saw on the subject is this: A great beginning will make a reader want to read your current book. A great ending will make her want to read your next book. No matter what “genre” it is.

One thing I believe makes a mystery novel satisfying is that usually justice is done in the end, which doesn’t always happen in real life. Of course, justice doesn’t necessarily mean that the killer is caught, or goes to jail, or is even punished. Justice is when the “right” thing happens. Consider Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Mark Twain said that the reader wants good things to happen to the good, and for the evil to get their comeuppance. (I paraphrase).

Regular readers of mystery novels are extremely savvy. They know all the common mystery writer tricks. And a good mystery writer knows that they know. I quite enjoy trying to anticipate what the reader is going to think, and to write in little twists and turns that play wit the reader’s mind. How do I lead the reader astray while giving him all the right clues? He’s learned by reading many mystery novels that the killer is seldom the most likely suspect, nor is the killer often a recurring character in a series.

Should I therefore have my killer be the most likely suspect or a series regular? That technique certainly works for George R.R. Martin. When I read a Game of Thrones book, I am really anxious and concerned that one of my favorite characters will meet a grisly end, because Martin spares no one.

I’m always looking for the least likely character to be the killer, and in one book I wanted the to be killer to be someone who absolutely could not have done it. Yet it has to be plausible. And all that is not easy to pull off. Ask anyone who has ever tried to do it.

I always enjoy some moral ambiguity, as well. Should a murderer get away with it, even if the victim deserved it? Maybe he did, but I wouldn’t imply that if the murdered guy is bad everyone in the book should just say, “good riddance”, and go on their merry way.

When I begin a book, I usually know where I want the story to go. It never ends up there. Where it does end up is as big a surprise to me as to anyone. It’s usually better than I had planned. I feel like if I can surprise and delight myself with an ending that fits perfectly, I’m on the right track. The reader may even want to pick up my next book.

On another subject, I am the latest  author to be the lucky subject of an interview on Barbara Leavy's Crime and Culture Forum. I hope you'll have a look. Every human being stands at the apex of a history lived by his or her own relatives . It was  interesting for me to discover that much the story of America that I learned in school was created by my very ancestors. That discovery led to the creation of my Alafair Tucker series. Click here for the link.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

What's in an award?


This is a favourite catch phrase in the book business. It's right up there along with 'critically acclaimed' and 'best-selling'. All are used so often as to lose the impact they are meant to have. Critically acclaimed by whom? Your Aunt Zelda? By the internet blogger who'd just discovered the greatest way to get new books? Best selling where? And by what criteria?

These phrases are meant not only to impress the reader but to help them to select, among the thousands of books in the store or online, those books that might be worth reading. 'Someone has judged this book better than all the others.' 'Millions of people have read this book, so it must be good.' Dubious yardsticks indeed.

Given the sheer volume of books now flooding the market, especially with the advent of alternative publishing models, some assistance in separating the wheat from the chaff is very helpful to readers. In the past, publishers themselves served this function; if the book was good enough to get published, it had passed the first filter. But today, with publishers squeezing their lists and opting for books that promise the most commercial success, excellent books are being rejected. And at the same time, authors both good and bad are opting to bypass the traditional publishing route altogether. Self-publishing has never been easier and more appealing. How to know which are worth at least a peek?

Enter the awards, the best seller lists, and the myriad of self-appointed peer reviewers. Of all these, awards are perhaps the most seductive. They have retained a degree of objectivity and respect that the others are losing by virtue of overuse and manipulation. An award is something. It means someone has singled out the book for excellence. However, not all awards are created equal, and the distinctions are often lost in the chorus of praise.

Some awards are juried, which means that a small group of experienced book people (usually 3 to 5) has read all the books submitted and has chosen the top five and the winner. The validity of the choice depends in part on the book actually having been submitted (there is often a cost involved, so some publishers don't submit every book), and on the the preferences of the jury. Having sat on these juries, I can say that whittling down the pile is easy but choosing the final five and especially the winner involves a lot of discussion and compromise. Rarely is the choice unanimous. But at least there is a process to evaluate quality. The Giller, the GGs, and the Arthur Ellis Awards are examples of these.

Other awards are voted on by fans - either those who attend a particular conference or read a particular magazine. Sometimes the vote is open to the general public. In all these cases, the results are strongly influenced by name recognition, and to some extent by the ability of the author to get out the vote. Appeals to nominate their book flood social media sites when such contests are being held. Authors who are less well known or less well connected have little chance of ending up on the list.

Some awards are a hybrid. They are voted on by members of a select group in the book industry, such as booksellers or librarians. In these cases, lesser known works will get noticed although name recognition and popularity play a role too.

There are those who think awards are inherently biased, or pit author against author, or reward the bland and less controversial. There are those who think literary excellence is so subjective that any hierarchy is arbitrary and meaningless, that art shouldn't be a contest. I suspect that the objectors have never sat on a jury or had their book nominated. Winning may be somewhat arbitrary, but being a finalist is an accomplishment.

Awards matter. Not just to readers trying to select good books but to the authors who are nominated. When my first book, Do or Die, didn't make the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel shortlist, I was disappointed and suffered through the usual self-doubts about my ability to write. I did not dismiss the list or the award as meaningless or biased, but instead asked myself how I could make my next book better. Competition is healthy. The next book did make the shortlist for Best Novel, and I subsequently went on to win two Best Novel Awards for later books. I have also have a number of other nominations for short stories and novellas.

Awards are an affirmation of our writing. In a profession where we spend much of our time in solitary confinement, solely responsible for the product we are making, awards are a thumbs-up that we have succeeded in our quest to tell a good story. Particularly when the awards are judged by either our fellow writers or by industry professionals, they are important validators. Not getting on a shortlist may mean nothing, but being a finalist does.

Why am I going on about awards right now? Because on November 12, I will be attending the Ottawa Book Awards ceremony at the Shenkman Arts Centre. The Whisper of Legends has been shortlisted for the fiction prize, and I am thrilled to pieces. In all the years I have been writing, and despite many excellent crime books being written by Ottawa writers, none of us has ever cracked this list before. It is a milestone of sorts, hopefully signalling the breaking down of barriers between mainstream and genre fiction to recognize that excellence crosses all lines. As does extremely bad writing.

In the literary world, awards can mean huge monetary prizes (the Giller is worth $100,000), a surge in sales, and the difference between a book succeeding or failing dismally in the marketplace. The prize money in genre fiction is almost non-existent, and the surge in sales is probably modest at best, at least here in Canada, but the validation to the author is priceless. I am honoured to be up for the Ottawa Book Award, and although I have my fingers crossed to win, the nomination is affirmation enough.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

To create, you must first create space

The big band in which I play trumpet has had a steady first-Monday-of-every-month gig for the past 10 years. (That in itself is a spectacular achievement!) Last night was no exception to the rule. We played well and you all should have been there. Plan to do better next month, okay?

But that’s not what this post is about.

I had a chance conversation with someone I don’t know. The leader of the band mentioned to the club patrons that I have a new novel out and suggested they all buy it (wouldn’t that be nice?), and on coming off the bandstand after that particular set, someone came up to ask about the novel.

I gave my usual spiel plus some added details about my musical life and credentials and we had a nice chat. Obviously someone who doesn’t read a great deal, he then asked a question that I’ve been pondering ever since: “Isn’t it tough being alone so much in order to do your writing?”

I was going to answer, but then I stopped for a moment. I’ve never found being alone and surrounded by silence to do some creating (whether musical or literary doesn’t matter) to be anything but a blessing. Solitude for me is always welcome.

I have a leg up on a lot of artistic creators (how’s that for a phrase?) since I used to teach instrumental music to middle school students, band instruments to be precise, or as one of my witty confreres used to call it “crowd control with a beat”. If needs must, I can dredge up enough concentration to write in the middle of a rock concert or a riot (sometimes they combine these things). It’s not my ideal venue, but I can manage it.

Real pleasure, though, and definitely an aid to creating anything artistic is solitude. Sitting on the porch of a cabin, an ideal vista before me, a comfortable chair, something (non-alcoholic) to drink by my hand (but not too close since I tend to wave my arms around a bit when I’m conversing with my current crop of invisible friends) and I’m in heaven. An appreciable bit of my novels has been written in just such a place which, incidentally, appears in The Fallen One as Marta Hendricks’ eastern Ontario farm property (and it is indeed in the place the book describes – I’m just not going to reveal exactly where). It’s amazing how my creative brain, after maybe a day of getting into gear in a setting such as this, goes into hyperdrive. I can produce a 10- to 12-page chapter per day. At home, with all the interruptions that come with being there, I’m lucky if I can struggle through to 5 or 6 pages.

It’s the same with music. I do a fair bit of arranging, mostly for the soul band I’m putting together (more on that in a future blog), and I find the same necessity. Sometimes I’m forced to work with one of my wife’s flute lessons going on in the next room, and if I throw on headphones to cut down the noise a bit, I can still manage to write competing notes of my own and come up with something useable, but it adds a huge mental strain to the act of creation. To really accomplish a decent amount of good work, I need silence.

Aline spoke yesterday about finally clearing away the mental “character-clutter” upon the departure of her new manuscript to her publisher. This is something we writers know only too well. You have all this stuff loaded into your mental RAM and it’s hard to get it shut down and cleared out. (And sending a novel off without a clear title is a very brave decision, dear. That would drive me crazy!)

But that mental clutter (admittedly not a great word for it) is necessary to create. Your story must be present in your head (consciously and unconsciously) for creation to take place. It just tends to make a mess of your mental living room.

It’s not news if you’ve been reading my posts all these years on Type M to know that I struggle with this. I cannot afford to just write. My writerly income is nowhere near adequate for that luxury. My writing time comes in fits and starts. It’s a fact of life. But I think I can do better to optimize the space in which I create. Go upstairs and shut the bedroom door. Go to the local library. Hell, even sitting out in the car in the driveway might do the trick.

My question to you is this: can you create in a maelstrom, or do you need quiet with no interruptions in order to work, be you a wordsmith, a composer, a playwright, or whatever?

Monday, November 03, 2014

Letting Go

I've just finished my new DI Fleming book (title to be decided) and sent it off to the publisher.

It's never easy to let it go and it feels very odd afterwards. I can remember feeling like this after big exams at school and university; I always expected to be ecstatic at the new freedom to do what I liked, to read what I liked, to lose the sense of guilt about any moment wasted and yeah! to celebrate.

Somehow it never quite worked out like that. Oh, we had post-exam parties  but somehow they were always rather muted affairs. We were all exhausted, I guess, and what I really wanted to do more than anything else was lie on my bed and re-read something totally undemanding, like a childhood favorite – I seem to remember it was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess after Cambridge finals – until I dozed off.

When you've spent a year totally absorbed in a book, it leaves a big hole when you finish it. I always find it hard to bring myself to the point of sending it out; once you've got all the really hard bits done, it's the best fun to 'edit' it – i.e. go through it, fiddling with word order, polishing a paragraph here and there, deleting adjectives and adding some little twist you've just thought of.

And of course, there's always something more you can do; at least I find that. I'm never completely satisfied with what I've done and if I didn't have a deadline I could probably spend the next couple of months swapping a semi-colon for a colon or debating the use of the Oxford comma. Now it's gone, I should be celebrating but I just feel a bit flat, really. It's too quiet inside my head; a version of empty nest syndrome, I suppose.

And it feels sort of – well, rude, to go straight on to getting absorbed in the next book. Of course, the ideas have been lurking about for some time, breaking in on my work on the current book like an ill-mannered acquaintance intruding on a private conversation, saying, 'Oh, by the way, I've had another thought...'

Now, though, I'm free to move on. And as luck would have it, we have booked a holiday next week, so when I come back I'll feel refreshed, I hope, and free to turn my thoughts to the next book, without feeling too much like the hostess who has the sheets whipped off the beds of the departing guests before they've out of the door.