Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Elf on the Shelf

The office: messy but quiet
Thomas Kies’s interesting post “Writing Space” got me thinking about how space and ritual help us do whatever the hell it is that we do.

Last Sunday, my wife came downstairs at a little after 6 a.m., entered the kitchen for her first cup of coffee, and was startled to find me at the tiny kitchen table in the glow of my laptop.

“Why aren’t you in the office?” she asked.

I’d left the office a week earlier, finding the tiny kitchen table suitable for the pre-dawn hours. I’d begun the fall in the living room, in the leather chair, computer on my lap. (I’m writing this from the office once again.)

“I’m like the Elf on the Shelf,” I said and turned back to the glow of the computer screen. “I change locations all the time.”

She ignored me and left the kitchen.

For me, it’s not place as much as it is distractions –– or, rather, the avoidance of them. At 4 a.m., the house is quiet, and unless the stuff really hits the fan, so is the dorm to which my house is attached. I’m the lead dorm parent to 60 girls, ages 15-18. I don’t know everything, but I know the teenage species sleeps at four o’clock in the morning, so my 4 a.m. writing time almost guarantees peace and quiet.

And I need a ritual. It might be listening to the same playlist as I work on a book (Everclear and Third Eye Blind –– remember them? –– when I wrote Jack Austin novels; more like Coltrane for Peyton Cote). My coffeemaker is set to start brewing at 4:00.
Kitchen table
The first cup is ready at 4:03. I’m at the desk with my Yeti travel mug by 4:05. And if it’s a good morning, I can get a thousand words by 6, when I bring my wife her coffee.

Not superstition. Routine.

A routine that offers a way to help me, for lack of a better expression (and I apologize for the terrible sports cliche), enter The Zone. I love writing in airports. No place offers anonymity like an airport. The ability to know I won’t be disturbed is what I need in order to enter a mental space where I can work.
Leather living room chair
Isn’t that what we’re really talking about? Some people clean their desks in order to feel ready to write. I like to have my old copy of Strunk and White within arm’s reach. Most of us just need to figure out whatever it is that helps us to settle back into our story, re-enter that world, relocate that voice, and continue pushing the story up the next hill.

The Elf on the Shelf works in the dark. He’s got it figured out.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The End

When I was reading Rick’s post yesterday (“Permission to Fail”), I couldn’t help thinking how much he sounded like me. All except for the music part. While I enjoy listening to all kinds of music, don’t ask me to play an instrument or sing. I am not musically inclined!

Right now I’m finishing up my latest book. With less than a month left to go before my deadline, I’m in full-fledged panic mode. On the rare occasions I’m in a calm frame of mind, I know I can finish it on time. But a part of me wonders if it will be as good as I want it to be.

That’s where the perfectionist in me rears her ugly head. I keep telling myself all I can do is do the best work in the time I have, but I so want it to be perfect at every stage of the process. When it comes to writing, that’s just not possible and probably not even desirable. The mistakes you make along the way often teach you things that result in a better book in the long run. I have to learn to give myself permission to write ugly words or to have a story that isn’t quite together at all times.

I don't think most readers expect books to be perfect. I certainly don't. As long as it keeps me engaged, I'm happy.

What’s interesting about this is that when it comes to my painting life (I enjoy tole/decorative painting), I’m not that much of a perfectionist. There I’ve given myself permission to fail or to not be as good as I’d like to be. Some days I paint well, some days not. But I don’t stress about it. If only I could do the same in my writing life.

That’s all I have for today. Ghosts of Painting Past is beckoning to me. As the sign says "Keep Calm and Write On".

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Permission to fail

by Rick Blechta

I’ve been in the perfectionist business for most of my life, that is, I’m a musician by training and natural inclination. The main goal in music, no matter what the genre, is to attempt to express yourself perfectly. Or at least it’s that way for any musician who is serious about the gig.

I’m not one of those players who agonizes over it. Do I disappoint myself? Nearly always. I don’t remember the last time I played something absolutely perfectly — in other words on every level, I could not have played something better. Was it as good as Mozart or Beethoven (or a myriad of other musical geniuses) could have done? Absolutely not! But it was the best that I could do within the limits of my talent.

So, every time I play anything, I have hopes that this might be a perfect rendition, even if it’s just a major scale. The main idea is to get as close as one can and certainly play something well enough so that only tiny flaws remain — the kind no one but me would notice. I can accomplish that on occasion.

I often wish I hadn’t, but I brought that mindset to writing. I want to be perfect. I try to be perfect and my editors and copy editors help in that quest. I micro-edit to the nth degree and the only way I would stop is because I’ve been given a carved-in-stone deadline. Almost as important to me as trying to achieve perfection is not missing a deadline. Again that was something pounded into me by my music teachers: Never be late to a gig or show up without everything you need, period!

So writing novels for me can be very stressful, especially at the end of the process. There’s not a single manuscript I’ve turned in that doesn’t have typos, bad word choices, little awkward bits that have somehow escaped scrutiny. We all know they’re there.

What is really depressing is when I read some of my deathless prose after a number of months have elapsed, when time has brought clarity. It usually happens when I have to do a reading and I’m looking for just the correct passage to share. I’ll read something and it just goes clang. My usual quip is to say, “Who snuck in there when I wasn’t looking and added that horrible sentence to my novel?” Sure, it gets a laugh (even if it’s just from me), but the truth is, I failed, and that bothers me.

I’ve been known to edit reading passages I’ve selected — sometimes on the fly — correcting those little things that bother me. Fortunately, I’ve never been faced with a person in the audience reading along with me in a copy of the book. I can imagine them saying, “Wait a minute! That’s not what’s written in my copy!”

The thing is I’ve finally become more comfortable with the inevitable failures. I’ve given myself permission to have missed things, made poor word choices, written some bad sentences. I have to remind myself sometimes that I’ve done this, but I’m getting better at remembering that. I’m not going to beat myself up for mistakes. I will regret them, yes, but I’ve learned to forgive myself.

Except when playing music.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Writing Space

Do you have your own designated writing space?  A place in the house where the creative juices flow?  A corner at Starbucks where your characters speak to you?  A seat on your back porch where scenes come to life?

I posted the question, “Do you have your own designated writing space?” on Facebook in the Fiction Writing Group.  Some of the answers I got were:

--Actually, I have a particular folding table and chair which I store when not writing.  For some reason the ritual of setting them up every time helps me get into the right mindset.  I set it up on the deck if it’s nice, in the office if not.

--I have a favorite spot at the library.

--Yup. We call it my “geek cave”. Where my various Star Trek, general Sci-fi paraphernalia reside.  It’s my sanctuary of sorts.

--Sorta, I do have a desk I'm supposed to use but it's got crap all over it.  Right now I write on the couch.

Some sent me photos of their work space.  Some pictures showed cozy corners of the house where the tops of their desks were neat and tidy.  Then there were others that were cluttered with papers, files, photos and books…like mine, as depicted above.

Some workplaces have given birth to some remarkable fiction.  J.K. Rowling was partial to writing in cafés and coffee houses in Edinburgh while single, on welfare, with her sleeping daughter at her side. Rowling said in an interview: “It’s no secret that the best place to write, in my opinion, is in a café. You don’t have to make your own coffee, you don’t have to feel like you’re in solitary confinement and if you have writer’s block, you can get up and walk to the next café while giving your batteries time to recharge and brain time to think.  The best writing café is crowded enough to allow you to blend in, but not too crowded that you have to share a table with someone else.”

Now, of course, her fame makes it impossible for Rowling to work in a coffeehouse so she works in a writing room in her garden.

Jodi Picoult writes in the finished attic office of her Hanover, NH home.  She said, “It’s clean and quiet and has everything at my fingertips—namely, the files full of research I’ve been doing, plus reference books and a quick Internet connection.  But it’s also just a staircase away from my family if anyone needs me.”

In his book On Writing Stephen King states, “For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction.”  He goes on to say that one of the most important parts of your writing space is the door. King claims that your room must have a door that you’re willing to shut and keep closed until you’ve reached your daily writing goal. It also tells people that you mean business. By closing the door, you’re saying to the world to stay out, that important stuff is going on behind it. He says the door not only serves to keep the world out, but it also serves to keep you in and focused, without having to look to see who may be passing by the entryway.

Here are a few examples of writers in their writing space.           

                                                   Agatha Christie                             

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

                                          Damon Runyon

All the examples above are far tidier than my work space.  But I'm comfortable there and I've produced two published novels (and one more to launch in July) within its confines.  And all on the same beat up laptop. So as long as it works for you, keep on writing.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

When Writers Teach

Those who can, do; those who can't, teach.

I like to think that I can write and at the same time, I like to think that I can impart some of what I've learned about writing to others. Before I got published, I kept my thoughts about writing to myself, thinking that I needed publishing credentials, otherwise I'd be spouting yet another unlearned opinion. Once I did get published I strained hard against first-book-itis, meaning that hubris and know-everything attitude first-time authors get. Sadly, I did slip once or twice.

After I got published I sought opportunities to monetize what I'd learned, mainly through teaching. I asked about teaching at my alma mater, the University of Denver, and I was told that because I didn't have an English degree or a Creative Writing MFA, it was a no-go. Over the years I did speak about writing at conferences, mostly gratis, and earned a recurring instructor gig at Lighthouse Writers. Like many of you already know, teaching is its own discipline. Good writers do not necessarily make for good instructors.

Here's what I learned:

There are only so many classes that can be taught on any writing subject. The creative part is inventing a new, catchy name for a workshop that's already been taught a bzillion times. The Importance of World-building becomes Crucial Steps to Setting. In your syllabus it helps to swap out terms that mean the same thing. Goal, Conflict, and Plot Twist becomes Direction, Drama, and Narrative Pivot.

Don't talk too much. If you're on a panel, share the mic. If you're teaching a workshop, throw in writer prompts. Personally I hate them because I'm one of those writers who struggles to bang out a coherent sentence and I'm awed by those who can in a matter of minutes, craft a paragraph of jeweled prose. But other writers love the opportunity to share so indulge them.

Get off your high horse. Most of your students are really sharp and well-read. I've had several occasions where I mentioned something in class and one or two of my students would immediately look up a reference on the Internet, or as us old-timers call it: THE computer.

Very few writers live on royalties. Even if you score a YUGE publishing deal, the money is dribbled out as if every dollar was squeezed from the publisher's liver. The first year might leave you fat and happy, but the checks start to shrink and soon, if you've already ditched the day job, you start hunting for side work that leaves time for writing. Possibly the most steady and lucrative way of keeping you fed and off the street corner is by teaching. Thankfully, a couple of years ago Regis University asked me to join the faculty of their Mile High MFA Creative Writing program. In their stable of poets and literary types, all very accomplished, I'm their commercial-fiction writing guy. I work part-time, meaning I still need other means of income, which are mostly freelance gigs and the occasional check for a short story. I also sell a painting now and then. Yes, I know many out there are astounded that I'm not filthy rich. In my youth, I did make a deal with the devil, but the check bounced. Bastard.

So go forth and write, fellow ink-stained wretches.*

* to quote Kurt Vonnegut

Thursday, January 24, 2019


Donis here. How interesting that for the past few days my blogmates' entries have dealt with the terrors of beginning a new book. Several of us must be in sync with the same stars, because I am in the throes of beginning a new book myself. I have recently completed rewrites on the first novel in what I hope will be at least a trilogy and possibly a series. The new book is a spin-off of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries, and is called Lust For Vengeance, The Adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, Episode One. It stars Bianca LaBelle, silent movie star of the silver screen, and is set in Southern California during the Roaring Twenties. And, yes, Bianca has quite the connection to Alafair Tucker. Release date for the new book has been somewhat up in the air because of the publisher’s merger (see below), but last I heard, it should be out around November, 2019.

All my husband's health problems have been taken care of for the moment, and now that things have calmed down at home, I'm trying to begin work on the second Bianca Dangereuse book. Before I ever started this new trilogy, I had an idea of where I want it to end up. But as usual, when I actually begin writing I realize that I really am not sure how I'm going to get there. Beginning a new book is always painful for me. Without fail, I try to get started, I write a bunch of drivel, I write a scene or two that go nowhere, I fall into despair. I'll never be able to produce another readable book as long as I live! Oh, wait. I said that last time. And the time before that. Eventually a couple of those pointless scenes mysteriously come together and suddenly I can see a path through the woods. It's that old magic. All you have to do is keep writing drivel and have faith. Just keep going. Nothing good will ever happen if you don't.

By now, everyone who follows the goings on in the book world has heard the big news about my* publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, with whom I have been with since my first book came out in 2005. Poisoned Pen Press has become the mystery imprint for Sourcebooks. Sourcebooks has acquired the “majority” of the Poisoned Pen Press list—about 550 titles—which will include my own. Along with some additional Sourcebooks titles, these works will become the new Poisoned Pen Press imprint at Sourcebooks, which has expanded its publishing program to include the crime and mystery category. In addition, titles from Poisoned Pencil, PP’s young adult mystery imprint, will be transferred to Fire, Sourcebooks’ young adult imprint.

Poisoned Pen is a well respected, award-winning publisher, but Sourcebooks has a much larger distribution, so I am told that this should be a great boon to the authors and make our books that much easier to acquire. Let’s hope it is so.

On a happy note, I learned recently that my latest Alafair Tucker Mystery, Forty Dead Men, was named one of Barnes and Noble’s best Indie books of 2018.
*Type M bloggers Tom Kies, Charlotte Hinger, and Vicki Delany also are or have been Poisoned Pen Press authors

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

For the sake of art

My current novel in progress has plunged me deep into unfamiliar territory. Literally. The prairies and badlands of Southern Alberta. I'm an eastern city girl born and raised in Montreal and living most my adult life in Ottawa. I spent childhood summers in the Quebec's Eastern Townships (Three Pines territory) and my recent summers at my lakeside cottage in rural eastern Ontario. I did suffer through a couple of years of grad school in Toronto, but that was before the city got interesting. I travel extensively, and have made a point of trying to go to the far corners of the earth, but that's different from knowing the soul of a place.

I wrote ten detective novels set in Ottawa, which I knew inside out, before deciding I wanted to explore farther afield. My choice of setting for my new Amanda Doucette series was very deliberate; I wanted to take the series across Canada and showcase the breadth and diversity of my magnificently complex country. Geographically, we go from craggy coastlines to vast inland lakes and forests to prairies and Rocky Mountains before reaching the Pacific. We go from the crowded, clamorous cities of southern Ontario to the windswept Arctic tundra of Nunavut. I wanted to bring readers along with me to visit all that.

It turns out to be a tall order. My novels are always deeply grounded in setting, which I try to capture vividly enough so the reader can see and feel it. Part of setting is the people, how they dress and talk, what they think and what they care about. I make a point of visiting the places and trying to do all the things Amanda would. Hence the winter camping in Quebec for The Trickster's Lullaby and the kayaking trip to Georgian Bay for Prisoners of Hope. Each book has given me lots of adventures, big and small, and it's been great fun as well as enlightening.

But in going west, I am starting to go farther from my roots and from the experiences that fashioned me. The Ancient Dead is set in Alberta, geographically and culturally a very different place. I have visited several times, most recently this past fall when I was specifically researching this book and trying to visit the exact locations and do the exact things Amanda would be doing. Now that I am back home writing the book, however, a thousand small questions keep cropping up. What time of the summer is the alfalfa crop harvested? What does the ICU at Foothills Medical Centre look like? How far north does the prairie rattlesnake extend? And what kind of curses would a farmer use? Writing each scene, I am either stopping to research the answers or putting in multiple question marks for a later time.

I do all this in the interests of authenticity, trust, and respect. Alberta readers will know if I get the alfalfa crop wrong. Calgarians will know I never set foot in the hospital there. Just as I hate it when cavalier writers get my home wrong, I don't want them turfing the book out because of a wrong note. If I have the audacity to venture into a place I don't know too well, I owe it to people to try my best to learn about it. As well, if readers know I got the small stuff wrong, how will they trust the truth of the bigger picture? Regional slang is particularly tricky. I've decided it's better not to use it than to use it wrong.

How on earth did we writers cope before the Internet? I wrote many books and short stories before the Internet was as rich and accessible as it is now, and I recall dragging home stacks of books from the library, making phone calls, and poring over maps and newspapers. I also remember just making stuff up. But the internet has put an extraordinary amount of detailed knowledge at our fingertips, and with that access has come an additional burden to try to get things right.

Bu the internet has its limits, especially when it comes to getting a feel for the culture. Reading local newspapers, biographical accounts, and blogs helps, but in the end I still have to make that extraordinary leap into my characters' heads and hope that, regardless of whether they grew up on the streets of Ottawa or on a ranch in Newell County, human concerns and desires – the stuff of crime fiction – are universal.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Is it just me…

by Rick Blechta

Lately I’ve been puzzling over why I enjoy reading some authors and not others. We all have our likes and dislikes, of course, but this goes beyond that.

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I recently discovered the celebrated Italian crime fiction author Andrea Camilleri and how much I’m enjoying the series he writes featuring Inspector Montalbano. Being in the writing business, of course I’m analyzing what it is that I find so enjoyable about the novels. Steal from the best, I always say!

Montalbano is exceptionally bad-tempered at times, and normally that would bother me, possibly to the point of bailing out on the story, but I coast right on past that. I enjoy the setting as well but in thinking back, there’s hardly any description in these novels, certainly not enough to give me a good “mental snapshot” of where the action is happening, and normally that would bother me too. I've never been to Sicily and there are certainly a lot of other readers who haven’t been, either, so it really isn’t fair to us to leave this out. But I coast right on past that problem too.

So what is it?

Well, Camilleri does have description of a sort. In place of the usual things used to set a scene, Camilleri presents us with the detailed inner thoughts of his main character. In building suspense in the stories, the author can’t make us privy to everything Montalbano’s thinking plot solution-wise, but he reveals to readers what this intriguing police inspector thinks about those around him, the politics of Sicily, food, whatever. It made me realize that if we were also given more detailed description of each story’s physical surroundings, the novels would become totally bogged down.

But that still didn’t answer my question: What is it about these stories?

Last night as I turned off the light after an hour spent in Sicily, it dawned on me. Camilleri’s plots are engrossing, but they unfold at a very leisurely pace for the most part. In thinking back to one or two North American police procedural novels I’ve read recently — and didn’t enjoy all that much — I realized that the action in them was too relentless. They raced from one physical altercation to another. The authors’ also employed the “jump-cut” technique of current TV shows and movies. While that can make a plot really cook along, it also becomes tiring — at least to me.

In North America it seems it has to be all action, action, action. I’m finding that wearing. When I think back to the Maigret novels as an example, I realize that action at the pace Simenon writes is more enjoyable for me. Camilleri’s novels have a very similar pace (which I don’t think is accidental) but it just works so well in Sicily. North American-style action sequences would just not work as well.

How do you feel about pace in a crime fiction novel?

Monday, January 21, 2019

Double Time

John's recent post, In Medias Res, and Frankie's comment, caught my attention this week. It reminded me of the comment my agent made when I was struggling with my second book. 'Write a few chapters,' she said, 'and then tear up the first one.'

As John highlighted, plunging into the middle of the action is very good advice. But then, as Frankie said, you have the problem of flashbacks.

The book then has to have two parts – the one that explains the background to the subsequent action, and the action itself. Of course it's generally accepted that what has happened in the past is often an excuse, or perhaps even a reason, for what happens in the present: read any plea in mitigation after a guilty verdict in a criminal trial, when the defending lawyer produces details of the defendant's hard childhood with a sadistic father and a mother who's a lush in the hope that pity will influence the sentence.

I'm comfortable with that. But there seems to be a fashion at the moment for books actually to have two separate time scales, with two distinct sets of characters and two main protagonists instead of one. Often they feel like two entirely different stories, though the link will emerge in due course.

I could cope with that as well – in a logical order, not if the two are interleaved, apparently almost at random. I have no sooner got immersed in one than, whee! Off we go into the other for a chapter or two. Usually, too, there is one plot that's more interesting than second one that you have to wade through to reach the next installment.

Being told a story is one of the oldest, and earliest, of human addictions. I love to be caught up in the actions, in the developing characters, and when my story is broken off I feel like a child would feel,waiting to see what happens to Goldilocks when Mummy says, 'I'll just stop there.' For the same reason I'm not a great fan of short stories; I've invested my interest in these guys and then the door is shut in my face.

Sometimes I've felt so irritated that I've considered cheating and reading the first time section all the way through,ignoring the second and then going back, but I guess all that would do is sabotage the story completely.

Perhaps it's just envy. I find continuity difficult at the best of times and the thought of creating two parallel stories that are totally consistent would be beyond me. I've never thought I could manage to be a trick rider, with a foot of the back of each of a pair of galloping horses either.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Dreaded First Pages

Image result for cartoons about writers

John has a wonderful post about the very topic on my mind this week--how to start a book. Nothing strikes terror in the heart of a budding or experienced novelist more than writing the first pages.

Years ago, writers were not expected to snag readers on the very first page. That has changed. Now to even get past an editor--let alone the reader--it's instant captivation or risk losing gentle reader to another author.

My contribution on this will be short because John Corrigan's post, In Medias Res, says it all. I had to look this up by the way. It means beginning in the middle of things. It doesn't necessarily answer the question of how to begin a novel. At a certain point in learning the craft of writing, the guidebooks no long work. You have to figure everything out for yourself.

To budding novelists: you simply must begin. Start the best way you know how and then fix these pages after you finish your book.

After everything is finished, I go to the library and read the first pages of best sellers and award winners. Something gels. I have a moment of inspiration. I'll begin my book that way, by George. That way might be dialogue or perhaps, something to set the tone as in the James Burke clip John used. Action scenes are popular. Statements about the theme of the book can be very effective.

Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere gives the whole plot on the first page. Foreshadowing to the max. I loved this book even though I knew how it would end.

Another unusual beginning I came across recently that set the tone of the book immediately began with court testimony. It was perfect characterization.

Rest assured that you will figure out something.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

In Medias Res

Some recent excellent posts, including “Plotting, Plotting,” by Vicki, have me thinking about that timeless phrase in medias res.

I’ve been considering launch points –– of scenes, of novels –– simply where to begin. I like dialogue –– like to read it, love to write it. In many ways, I think we often know people best by what they say. In terms of plotting and moving a narrative forward, I buy into Elmore Leonard’s great line, Skip the stuff no one reads, entirely, and so dialogue is my bread and butter.

I’ve been reading TV scripts of late and have been observing where the scenes begin, the launch points. The audience enters most scenes mid-stride, mid-conversation, which, for me, is both fun and useful because I’m consistently launching in the middle, starting a scene with someone speaking. No preamble necessary. The stage (setting) has literally been set visually.

How does this translate to fiction? And therein lies the rub. After all, how much in media res is too much in medias res? Tom Wolff begins The Bonfire of the Vanities with straight dialogue. We have no idea where the scene is set until half a page into the scene, but the tension is captivating and Wolff, like Ed McBain, accomplishes so much with how people speak that we almost know the setting by the way people talk. But consider this opening by James Lee Burke of Last Car to Elysian Fields:

The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot winds and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once again danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned a hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl. In the evenings I sat on the back steps of a rented shotgun house on Bayou Teche and watched boats passing in the twilight and listened to the Sunset Limited blowing down the line. Just as the light went out of the sky, the moon would rise like an orange planet above the oaks that covered my rented backyard, then I would go inside and fix supper for myself and eat alone at the kitchen table.

Stunning imagery. Burke’s lyrical voice shines through. And more importantly, Robicheaux’s latest internal crisis is hinted at. He is, after all, eating alone. The tone is ominous. We sense that we are starting after the fact. I want to keep reading to see what I’ve missed.

Where and how to begin? In medias res can have many different looks and take many different forms. And the beginning of a story is different than the beginning of a scene. Billy Collins says stepping from a poem’s title to the first line is like stepping from the dock into the canoe, which lets us know how tenuous launch points can be.

In Medias Res. So many choices.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

My Year in Books, 2018

It’s time for my annual reading wrap-up.

In 2018 I read 70 books, 11 fewer than last year. About half of those were nonfiction, heavily weighted in the true crime category. Most of the crimes, though, took place before the 20th century. The only one that didn’t was a book about the Green River Killer, “Green River, Running Red” by Ann Rule. I have a particular interest in it because the first bodies were found fairly close to the house where I grew up, though I didn’t live in the area at the time.

I also got into the history of food last year with books on ice cream, cakes and cookies. My favorite of those was “American Cake” by Ann Byrn.

As you might guess, I read a lot of cozy mysteries. Last year I read all of Eva Gates’ (aka our own Vicki Delany) Lighthouse Library series and enjoyed them immensely. I also had a fun time with Ellen Byron’s Cajun Country mystery series.

I also got into middle grade books. I discovered the Eddie Red Undercover mystery series by Marcia Wells and Marcus Calo and the Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud. This quote from Stroud’s website describes the latter books best: “There is an epidemic of ghosts in Britain. Their touch brings death, and only children have the power to fight them.”

My absolute favorite book of the year was “The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle” by Stuart Turton. It’s a very unusual mystery that kept me captivated throughout. I enjoyed every minute I spent with it and was very sorry when it came to an end. From Amazon’s description: “Evelyn Hardcastle will die. She will die every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. Some of his hosts are helpful, and others only operate on a need to know basis.”

2018 was also the year I sampled Kindle in Motion titles. I talked about my experience in a previous Type M post. You can read about it here.

That’s my book wrap-up for the year. As usual, I have stacks and stacks of books around the house and a slew of them on my Kindle, waiting to be read. I probably won’t get to most of them for a while since I have a book due to my publisher in a month. Happy Reading!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

When you're feeling poorly…

by Rick Blechta

For the past two days I have been in the grip of grip (as flu used to be known) and feeling pretty poor.

I'm going to have to cop out of writing a blog this week because, frankly, I don't have the energy or will.

Hopefully I'll be fit as a fiddle next Tuesday!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Writing from a Woman's POV...What Was I Thinking?

I loved the discussions by authors who visualize which actors and actresses would portray their characters if their books are turned into movies.  I have some thoughts on that which I will share a little later in this blog.

The reason why writers have strong opinions on this is our characters are very real to us.  What sometimes slides by us is that our characters are also very real (or should be) to our readers as well.
Both Random Road and Darkness Lane are written from the first-person viewpoint of Geneva Chase…a woman.  I’m male, I have both an X and a Y chromosome.

“Really, you write as a woman?” I’m often asked. “What the hell were you thinking?”

First, a little about Ms. Chase.  She’s blonde, tall (five-ten), athletic, blue eyes, attractive, forty years old, and a snarky smart ass.  Geneva is a reporter for her hometown newspaper in Sheffield, Connecticut, a bedroom community outside of New York City. As the first book opens, she’s seeing a married man, has been recently arrested for hitting a cop, has been married three times, and she drinks too much.

Geneva Chase is a hot mess.  Likable and smart as hell, but still a hot mess.

That doesn’t answer the question, “What the hell were you thinking?”

I started writing Random Road as an experiment.  One chapter I’d write from the male protagonist’s POV and the next chapter I’d write as Geneva Chase.  About ten chapters into the book, I discovered I was having much more fun writing as Genie.  Through her eyes, I could view the world as a cynical journalist.  Through her voice, I could make snarky, sarcastic observations.  I could say things I would never say out loud in real life. Simply put…she was fun!

A writer needs to be a keen observer of the world around him or her.  Writing as a woman, I needed to study how someone like Genie would dress, what kind of jewelry she’d wear, how she would speak and move.  I know more about women’s shoes, cosmetics, and fragrances than I ever wanted to.

A word to the wise, it’s a fine line between being extremely observant and being really creepy.

Now, back to your characters being real.  My editor, publisher, and agent are all female (as is my wife, of course) and none of them are afraid to call me out when Geneva isn’t ringing true.

But I’ve gotten some interesting comments from readers about Geneva.  I’ve had some women tell me how much they identify with her.  I take that as a genuine compliment.

I’ve had some men tell me how much they like the character and I actually had one guy tell me that he’s fallen in love with her.  That made me a little uncomfortable.

Then there was the time in Phoenix, at a mystery conference, I was on a panel called “Unconventional Women”.  Yes, I was the only dude on the stage.

When I write the character Geneva Chase, I'm not thinking about any actresses.  I have a good friend of mine in my head.  She's tall, athletic, beautiful and she's a genuine smart ass.  I worked with her for years at the last newspaper I was at.  She knows who she is.

So back to whom I’d like to see portray Geneva Chase.  I’m partial to Reese Witherspoon.  Maybe  Naomi Watts.   Two completely different actresses, but I think they’d do Genie proud.  Let me know if you have any suggestions.  I'd love to hear who you think could be Geneva Chase.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Plotting, Plotting

By Vicki Delany

I hate plotting. But I do it.

I used to be a ‘pantser’: a writer who doesn’t know where the story is going. Writes by the seat of her pants.
Vicki Writing (not exactly as shown)

This is different from a plotter: a writer who prepares a detailed outline ahead of time and thus knows where the book is going.

I’m not a total plotter. I usually write a good section of the book before I start plotting. I like to get the characters in my head, and an idea of what the story is going to be about. The only way I do that is by writing it. But then, when I’m maybe 10,000 words in, it’s time to start figuring the rest of it out.

Today was plotting day for Sherlock #6. I’ve started the story. I wrote the inciting incident. I’ve introduced (to myself as much as to anyone else) the guest characters. The murder in this book comes quite close to the beginning, so I know who died and how and what led up to it. I also know who dunit and why they dunit. Now, it’s time to get an outline for the remaining 70,000 or so words down on paper.

And I hate it.

So, why then do I do it you ask? I changed from a pantser to a plotter when I was signed by publishing houses that required an outline before giving a contract. I wrote the outline reluctantly and then found that it helped me write the book an enormous amount. Get the hard part out of the way, I found, and the rest is easy(er).

For a case in point, see Barbara’s recent post on shitty first drafts and the mushy middle (

One of my publishers doesn’t strictly require an outline, but I send it to them anyway. If there is anything they don’t like, I’d rather know about it now than when I’ve fished the book and incorporated that sticky point into the final product. As an example the outline for Body on Baker Street had Gemma and Jayne breaking into the police station in search of clues. UH, no, said my editor, that’s going too far.

So instead Gemma is thinking about breaking into the police station, when Detective Ryan guesses what she’s up to and puts a stop to it.  She manages to find out what she needs to know another (less illegal) way.

Today I plotted.  That involved a lot of pacing around the house. It helps that it’s -13 degrees today, without wind-chill, so I wasn’t temped to venture outside except to get more firewood from the garage. I paced, I thought, I cursed. I made notes. I tried to turn those notes into sentences.

By 2:00 I had a fairly good idea of what I want to do.  I still have a lot of ???? in the outline, but I’ll ponder those for the rest of the day and then try to finish the outline tomorrow.

It won’t be perfect, and things can change. But I’ll have a good solid road map that I can follow, and hopefully, not get bogged down in the soggy middle.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Starting the Year

Well, in spite of my best intentions, the last week of December and the first week of January zipped by, and I didn't get a lot of the items on my to-do-list crossed off. I did go to Virginia last week to visit my family. While I was there I spent some time in the public library. I had been using the New York Times for research on 1939. A terrific newspaper that I turn to often for all kinds of research -- but not a researcher's friend if she is trying to read (or, at least, scan the headlines) of an entire year. I can search by topic, but I wanted to see entire issues of a newspaper. So I spent five hours going through as much as I could of my hometown newspaper and getting a better sense of how the news of the year was being reported. That worked well because one of my characters departs from "Gallagher, Virginia" en route to New York City. It also worked because the Danville Register used the same wire services as the big city newspapers. I'm hoping to get the microfilm through interlibrary loan and continue reading.

Now, I'm juggling -- going back and forth between the 1939 book, my dress and appearance in crime justice book proposal (the first draft is done), and editing the manuscript of the third book in my Lizzie Stuart series (that is being reissued). I also have several backburner projects that I need to get started, and school is about to begin. So I'm taking a time-out next week to simply focus on finishing everything I can get done. I'm going to check my email only once a day -- in the evening. I am going to work at home and in the library. And I'm planning to get the updated proposal for the dress and appearance book and the first 50 pages of the 1939 book out to my agent before our upcoming lunch in NYC.

The good news is that an anthology to which I contributed a short story is now available. It was such a fun story to write. This anthology features "The Bronze Buckaroo" (and is available in both print and ebook. The Bronze Buckaroo was a "singing cowboy" who appeared in a series of movies in the 1930s. These movies was intended for an African American audience. The "race" movies in various genres featured mainly African American casts and played in segregated theaters.  In his other life, the actor, Herb Jeffries, was a smooth-voiced singer who signed with Duke Ellington in the late 1930s. My story is a genre-blender -- western/mystery/romance -- inspired by the films and by the cowboy serials that I used to watch as a kid. The movies can be found on YouTube.

My other good news -- something I'm excited about -- is that I've been invited to join the 2019 faculty for the Yale Writers' Workshop this summer. I'll be one of the instructors for Session II in June, devoted to genre fiction and nonfiction. I've already started to prepare. I can't wait to see the Yale campus and hang out with writers from different genres and students from all over the country and international. If you are interested the website is up and registration is open.

But right now, I've got to get to the office before the day is over and do some work there.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

How Do You Do It? Writing When Life Throws You Curves.

Happy New Year everyone. My new year started out on a sour note. My husband underwent another health crisis and ended up spending the night in the hospital...again. On January 2, he went in for a minor outpatient procedure that turned into something else. The something else has been addressed, and now he has to go back tomorrow (Jan. 9) for the minor procedure. If you are interested in a summary of events, I wrote about it on my own web site, here, but for this entry, suffice it to say that he’s okay and feels fine. Let’s hope it stays that way and the rest of the year is dandy.

As you probably know, we’ve been dealing with my husband’s health problems for ten years. This is why I am hesitant to sign up for conferences or long book tours that take me away from home for any length of time. In fact, I don’t know why I bother making plans at all. Things tend to happen fast with him, and I’ve had to cancel out of more than one thing at the very last minute. Not only is this expensive, since most of the time a conference won’t refund your money at the last minute for any reason, but it’s also not good public relations. I don’t care how compelling your reason is, if you arranged to speak at someone’s event and then leave them holding the bag when it’s too late for them to find another speaker, they are NOT going to be happy about it.

Of course, any Zen master would tell you that making plans is what leads to misery in the first place and you should simply be surprised by every moment as it occurs.  By that criterion I am the luckiest creature on earth.

After this latest medical event, another author friend of mine asked me how I manage to get any writing done when stuff like this happens. He has his own techniques for dealing with unforeseen events. As for me, I have no particular plan. I just keep slogging. It depends on how serious the crisis is. When horrible things are in progress, I mostly cope by doing crossword puzzles. Writing does not occur. When the crisis is past and we’re in the long, quiet, getting-over-it period, I do the best I can, depending on how much nursing duty I have at the time. Writing can be a nice distraction.

A major part of one of my novels, Crying Blood, was written while I was keeping vigil during one of Don’s longer hospital stays after major surgery. The book turned out very well, in fact ... if you like dark novels full of dread, that is.

One bit of good news: I'm excited to share that Forty Dead Men, my 10th Alafair Tucker Mystery, has been named one of Barnes and Noble's 20 Favorite Indie books of 2018! So that’s nice!

Check out the complete list here.

Thursday update: Don had his delayed kidney stone removal yesterday and the doc said all went well. We're home now. Tired, but unbowed. After a week of serious meds and cardiac consultations, Don's blood pressure was as low a 25 year old man's--until the minute we went back to the hospital yesterday morning, when it shot right back up. Fortunately, the anesthesiologist was a cardiac specialist and brought it down for the operation. Don has serious White Coat syndrome. He used to be pretty sanguine about these things. I guess that a dozen surgeries and countless "procedures" in ten years will do that to you.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Ahah! moments

After the last echoes of New Years parties, family visits, and southern get-aways have faded away, the beginning of January feels like turning the page. A time to say "All right, then, what's next? Where was I?" In my case, this is often accompanied by considerable panic as I realize the hard work that lies ahead. The work I've been neglecting. The commitments and deadlines that seemed far away in December but are suddenly looming. I'm behind schedule on my novel, and I've forgotten where I was going in it. Time is wasted while I find all my notes and read over the draft to figure out what to do. And in the not-so-distant future, I can hear the ominous whisper of taxes, which entails long days of hunting down receipts, tabulating, and organizing so that my accountant can make sense of the mess.

My usual writing routine went out the window during the holidays. For one thing, there was a one-year old in the house, along with out-of-town adult children, and for another, there was this constant thing with food. Buying it, preparing and cooking it, washing up after it, and thinking about what's next. But when January 2 arrived, it was back to just me, my dogs, and my to-do list. I've knocked off most of the easier tasks on the list, so now it's just me, the dogs, and my shitty first draft. It feels like standing at the foot of a mountain, looking up, and thinking, "Oh God, I want to go to the beach."

I am nearly halfway through the shitty first draft of THE ANCIENT DEAD, my fourth Amanda Doucette novel. First drafts are always shitty, so I'm not worried about that part. But after refreshing my memory about the story, I suddenly realized "I'm bored." Translated, this means that the story lacks energy and that the reader will almost certainly be bored as well. Bored readers are not good for business.

The halfway mark is usually the point at which most – dare I say all? – authors experience this malaise. It's been called the floppy middle or mushy middle, the point when you've breezed through all the high points and major twists that you had planned and realize you still have at least 100 pages to fill before you can start to wind the sucker down. Some writers have it all planned out, so perhaps this crisis doesn't occur, but for a modified pantser like myself, I don't even know how the story will end, let alone how I'm going to get there. I need something more to happen here!

The conventional wisdom is that you add an unexpected twist to add more complications or conflict. "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand" (Chandler's Law)  or "Drop a body down the chimney" (which I believe comes from Christie although I can't find the reference). But sometimes all that does is give the reader whiplash. Too many twists and turns, too many explosions, shootings, car chases, and dead bodies merely dilute the effect. I will need more moments of peril, and probably at least one more body, in the next 150 pages, but I know that's not the issue here. The issue is passion. The story needs to be energized by greater passion, and what this almost always means is that the protagonist needs to be more personally committed to the hunt. I thought I had her motivation figured out, but at some point in the re-reading, I thought "Why should she care?" She was going to a lot of trouble to solve something, including putting off her real work, for a motivation that didn't seem to warrant it.

As I tried to answer that question - why should she care? - a thought drifted across my mind. What if...? Is it possible that...? I rejected the thought. It was not actually a major change but it would have a ripple effect. It would mean changing the parts already written and alter the course of the backstory quite a bit. It would seriously mess up timelines too. But as I toyed with alternatives, the thought kept circling back through my mind, until I finally decided to at least give it a shot. To see what happened if I altered the backstory and rewrote the parts in question. I have not yet tackled that, but instead have been thinking ahead with that alteration in mind. So I'm not sure whether the whole thing will work, if indeed it is enough of an answer to why she should care. But it's always an exciting moment when an idea drifts in from left field to potentially shift the course of a story. It usually means the story will be deeper, richer, and hopefully better.

Stay tuned!

Monday, January 07, 2019

Christmas Past

They've all gone, every last one of them, now Christmas is over. The books that until last week were piled up in library displays, filled every bookshop window and featured prominently in Amazon promotions, selling no doubt in their thousands – they've disappeared. Yes, they're the books with 'Christmas' in the title.

You have endless choice. A random sample from Amazon: Hope's Cornish Christmas; Christmas at Mistletoe Cottage (or at Snowdrop Cottage – both are available); Christmas at the Chocolate Pot Cafe; Snowflakes and Mistletoe at the Inglenook Inn...

There are plenty of crime novels too: A Murder for Christmas; Mistletoe and Murder, and – my favorite title – Death by Eggnog. Or if you prefer something with a sharper edge, Christmas is Murder, a collection of stories edited by Val McDermid.

What I wonder is, where do they all go now? Do people only read books about Christmas at Christmas time? Do the bookshops pack them away in cupboards ready to be brought out again when December rolls round? I've sometimes noticed one on a library shelf but it feels odd to read it at a different time of year.

I've never written one. I've written a couple of books, though, which involve extreme weather conditions – deep snow, fog, a storm – and I've found it needs a lot of concentration to get into the zone when dark and dreadful things are supposed to be happening but outside the sun is shining and birds are chirping away in that irritatingly cheerful way they have.

I can't exactly wait to write until the weather is appropriately obliging and obviously a Christmas book can't be written in those weeks when Christmas spirit is everywhere and you can't do your grocery shop without hearing “White Christmas” and “Santa Baby”.

Magazines, of course, famously produce their December editions in July so I suppose you could have yourself a merry little Christmas with tinsel and a fake tree any time you wanted, but of course the book would really have to capture the weird, febrile excitement of that time of year. If you've written a Christmas book I'd love to know your technique.

It was Dr Johnson's' dictum that no one but a blockhead would ever write for anything except money, and it would interest me too to know how the economics stack up, whether the flood of purchases at Christmas time makes up for the lack of sales during the rest of the year. So far, at least, I haven't felt tempted to risk it.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Unofficial Start

I had to explain my Christmas gifts to my three daughters. No one, and I mean no one, understands what a bed jacket is anymore. But they were pleased to see Mommy dust off the sewing machine. Thankfully, they understand reading in bed. In fact, they understand reading anywhere and everywhere.
Our family gives a lot of books for Christmas. I will admit I've started haunting book sales early in the year because it's gotten really expensive. They've added spouses or significant others. All of my grandchildren are readers, too.
It's the New Year and I'm off to a sluggish start. I've always loved this time of year and some of the changes I make have been lasting. This year I'm going to move away from involvement with community and church activities and focus on what I need to be doing with my writing. I faced up to the fact that the committees, volunteer work, etc. was due to a rather undesirable component of my personality: vanity! I believed that it was really important that I stick with a group. They needed me, really really needed me. It's so not true.
It's a brand new year all around. I have a new agent: Claudia Cross. Harold Ober Associates was purchased by Folio Literary Management and my previous agent, Phyllis Westberg, retired. Poisoned Pen Press has been sold to Sourcebooks. I'm finishing a new mystery and a new historical novel.
My biggest challenge in 2020 will be sorting through years of paperwork. I have letters from writers that belong in university archives. There's a treasured letter from Cormac McCarthy thanking WWA for the Spur award. I was chairman that year, so it came to me. My husband and Don Worcester were great friends and I'm sure the University of Texas would love to have Worcester's hand written letters.
There's no reason to save old insurance policies and detritus. At the beginning of 2020 I hope to be able to report that my files are clean and I have a clear conscience.
Happy New Year and good fortune to writers everywhere. 

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Resolutions and Goals

New Year's Eve with family
Happy New Year, Type M Community!

I wrote this post (the newspaperman in me still wants to call it a “column”) on Jan. 1, 2019. It feels like that time again –– a time of new beginnings, of fresh starts, of clean slates. And it definitely feels like it’s time to set some writing goals for the year.

So this becomes an I’ll-show-you-mine, if-you show-me-yours post. Here’s my list:
  1. Write 90 minutes every day. (This is always No. 1 on my list. I strive to control what I can control.)
  2. Run five days a week. (This, too, falls under the control-what-I-can-control category. If I’m not exercising, which allows me to clear my head, I’m not writing anything you want to read.) 
  3. Finish a 40-ish-page TV pilot script I’m working on for a novel my agents are currently shopping.
  4. Finish the sequel to the novel being shopping within eight months.
A simplistic list? I guess.

Only two that equate to tangible accomplishments? Only two that anyone but me will ever see?

Sure. But, in truth, as a writer, you must define success for yourself because so much in this business is beyond your control. I work –– really hard actually –– to focus on small steps. Asking Did I do anything today to accomplish my goals? Or simply Did I take a step today to get better at my craft?

Writing is never about sales or reviews. It’s about self-exploration, experimentation, and telling the best story you can tell. Period. And I set my goals accordingly. I’d love to hear other takes on this topic.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Those Hallmark Christmas Movies

Happy New Year! I hope everyone’s holiday was filled with joy and laughter.

I spent Christmas in Seattle where I ate way too much and watched an excessive number of Hallmark Christmas movies. I probably wouldn’t have watched any of them if my sister weren’t a big fan. She tells me which ones are good and which are so-so. I’ve agreed with all of her assessments so far. And, yep, I’ve now acquired a fondness for those Hallmark Christmas movies.

They seem to have acquired a life of their own. You can buy T-shirts, mugs, blankets and all sorts of things where you can declare your love for these movies. Ion, Lifetime and Netflix all produce their own Christmas movies with mixed results. I’ve enjoyed the Netflix ones I’ve seen. The Ion and Lifetime ones are hit and miss.

Hallmark Christmas movies remind me a lot of cozy mysteries. Except for the purpose/goal (find romance and solve problem v. solve a crime), they really are very much alike. Both
  1.  have positive endings (romance is found/problem solved/killer brought to justice)
  2. often take place in small communities
  3. have no sex scenes, but there’s romance. While it’s not a requirement in cozies, a fair number of them often have a romantic element.
I’ve watched enough of the movies now to see certain trends.
  1. The main female character is usually heavily involved with her career or saving the family business that she’s inherited or both. She’s not looking for romance. Sometimes she even resists it.
  2. There’s often a lot of misunderstandings. Really, people, talk to each other! Of course if they actually talked to each other, a lot of the dramatic tension would go away. 
  3. They usually take place in a snowy climate. I can’t think of a single Hallmark Christmas movie that doesn’t have snow or the threat of snow. Some of the Ion and Lifetime movies are set in warmer places, though. 
  4. There’s often a boyfriend that, shall we say, doesn’t have the main character’s best interests at heart. I call him the “evil boyfriend”. Of course, she discovers the subterfuge and connects with a different person who does have her best interests at heart. 
  5. Often includes widowers and the never married. Rarely includes someone who’s divorced.
Anyway, those are my musings on the Hallmark Christmas movies. Now I must go back into my writing cave and finish my next book.

I hope you all have a wonderful 2019.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Wishing everyone only the best in 2019

Last week, being Christmas, I totally zoned out that it was also Tuesday. Since I was chained to the stove at the time — since I’m the “designated chef” for large family meals — it wasn’t until nearly 11 p.m. before I realized I’d blown it.

Well, not today!

However, we have both our grandchildren with us for a New Years sleepover — giving their parents the opportunity to not be on duty — I have my hands full today.

So, I’m just going to wish the Type M family the happiest and healthiest of New Years. Good riddance to 2018!

And my one and only resolution is to finish this damn work-in-progress. It’s about time to release it on an unsuspecting world.