Friday, December 31, 2021

Quadruple Whammy

 I have been debating over the content of this post. It seems unnecessarily ghoulish to list unhappy events on this site. Especially when everyone is looking forward to a vibrant New Year. 

I'm in North Carolina visiting my daughter. We've had a very Merry Christmas. And an unusual number of deaths and illnesses in our family and friends during the last month. 

About an hour ago I learned I have Covid, which involved cancelling tomorrow's flight home. I'm throwing in the towel and making this very short. 

Nevertheless, I feel like the New Year will be a turning point with a happy ending. So onward and upward everyone. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Crazy Times & Resolutions

So this year we spent the holidays in Florida. It was a great vacation, one near family, one spent mostly outside, and one in which we met new friends at several family gatherings. The upshot  –– at a time when the COVID variant omicron rages –– is, in hindsight, predictable: a couple members of our crew tested positive.

The good news is our clan members’ symptoms are mild. (“Cold symptoms and body aches?” I told my wife. “With my sinuses and my old man’s hockey back, that’s my permanent state.”) I tested negative and flew home to Massachusetts

late Monday night, thinking of a significant change COVID has had on the world (and I’m probably late to the game in facing this realization) is that you now need to seriously weigh your health risks before seeing people or attending events before doing so much of what was once part of everyday life because you could now find yourself ill or quarantining.

Our close-contact exposure has us cancelling upcoming domestic trips. This is part of our collective new reality –– the need to weigh the risks of exposure; it’s something many of us probably did not do prior to March 2020, a true new reality.

Crazy times that aren’t ending soon.


Resolutions . . .

. . . as we head into the new year, here are mine  –– short and simple:

3) Fall in love with a new author. 2021 was the year of Megan Abbott, for me. I’ll be on the lookout for a new author to read widely.

2) Improve fitness. I’m avoiding putting specific goals here. But the more I exercise, the better I feel, so . . . 

1) Outline more effectively. I'm finishing a novel right now that has an ending I did not see coming until I was halfway through, which, if you believe in the no-surprise-for-the-writer, no-surprise-for-the-reader method, is excellent. However, if you try to keep three balls in the air, which I do, it's terrifying and can lead you wasting lots of time. It's something I'll continue working on in 2022.

Happy (early) New Year to all.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Best Wishes for the Coming Year

 This will be a short post. Wishing you all the best in the coming year. We are in the Seattle area where we're experiencing an unusual amount of snow. Had a nice Christmas with my mom and sister. Hoping the trip home will be uneventful. This is what we woke up to the day after Christmas.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

I got good reasons. Honest!

by Rick Blechta

I know I’ve missed two postings in a row and that’s never happened in over 15 years of posts here on Type M.

Two weeks ago it was because I was totally wrapped up in trying to finish a graphic design job that in retrospect I never should have agreed to do. My posting day just blew right by me before I knew it.

Last Tuesday was spent in a car driving to New York for Christmas with my wife’s 92-year-old mother as well as my brother and his family.

Unfortunately, my wife and I are now back in Toronto four days early because one of our relatives came down with Covid on Sunday. Being in another country and having Covid is not a thing I want to contemplate, so we threw everything into our car, and yesterday morning at 5 a.m. raced back to Toronto in order to get across the border before we started exhibiting any symptoms (or be contagious) since our exposure to this person was two days before. New we’re quarantining at home, waiting for the illness to show itself. 

I doubt very much we’ll dodge this bullet. Everyone we were with on Christmas Eve who had been together previously before we got together with them has come down with Covid. Every. Single. One. We thought we’d be safe because we’re all so careful. It was stupidly arrogant of us.

My wife and I have both had 3 Covid vaccinations, so we’re pretty sanguine about our chances, but we are still worried. The big one is my wife’s mother, regardless of the fact she is triple-vaccinated and in reasonable health. Ninety-two and Covid don’t mix really well.

Take this new Covid strain seriously, folks. It will find you and get you if you are not hyper-vigilant. If you haven’t bothered to get vaccinated, good luck to you. You’re playing a dangerous game. If you cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons, the only safe plan is to completely cut yourself off — and believe me, I feel for you.

It was my intention to close this post, my last of 2021, with the wish that we all find peace and happiness in the coming year, that things a year hence would find us all living our normal lives.

Now I’m just hoping that the last days of 2022 will find us all still here.

Monday, December 27, 2021

High Anxiety

 By Thomas Kies

When writing a thriller, I’ve been told that you need to keep ramping up the stakes, turn up the heat, and escalate the danger.  But throughout your story, you need to leave some room for your reader to take a breath and rest a moment or you run the risk of exhausting him or her to the point that they have to put your book down. 

We felt like we were at that resting point sometime over the summer.  My wife and I had gotten our vaccinations and the world seemed to be opening up again.  I was able to hold a couple of wildly successful book signings, attend some great functions, and even emcee a couple of events. 

Just seeing people again was exciting.  Back in April, I’d been asked to be the auctioneer at a school fundraiser at a local country club.  Before my part of the evening, we ate dinner and my wife asked, “What’s wrong?  Why are you so quiet?”

I glanced around the room and with a slight shrug I answered, “I’m not used to being in a room with all these people. The last time we were at any kind of event, it was over a year ago."

I managed to shake it off, ham it up, and we raised a ton of money for the school and for the kids.  On the spot, they asked me to come back in 2022.

Things were looking so rosy by October that I signed up for the Suffolk Mystery Writers Festival in March, Malice Domestic in April, and Thrillerfest in June. My wife and I booked a cruise to Alaska in May.

We were vaxxed and boosted and it seemed like the pandemic crisis had abated.

Then the omicron variant showed up.  

The stakes have ramped up, the heat is on, and the danger is escalating.  All bets are off.

It’s like those damned apocalypse movies you see on Netflix.  If everyone would just do what they need to do for self-preservation we’d all be better off.  But with every story, there must be a lunatic fringe.  

I have a reporter friend who had a trip booked for Europe in a few months and he bemoaned what was going on in the world now that omicron was the dominant strain.

I just said, “Plot twist.”

He asked me, “Would people believe all this if you had written it into one of your novels?”

Probably not.

This blog is blessedly brief because I’m writing in on Christmas Day and I really should be downstairs in the kitchen putting together coq au vin for dinner for tonight.

I’m wishing you a belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year with the hopes that our plot twists be few and trivial.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

A Debt Paid

 The Christmas Season is a time for celebration and recollection. I have much to be grateful for, to include the opportunity on Type M to share anecdotes and observations. This post I'll take the occasion to reflect on a debt paid to the acclaimed Denver Chicano artist, Stevon Lucero, who recently passed away from health complications (not Covid).  An imaginative painter, more of a shaman who used paint as his way to share his visions, he was known for his fusion of Mexican and Indigenous folklore, the metaphysical, and American pop culture. He was also a scholarly fan of science-fiction, from the cerebral to the cheesy. 

Photo: Stevon Lucero Metastudios

I'd stop by his studio at the CHAC Gallery and we'd chat about art and writing. He could make connections between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Batman and Carlos Castaneda. How this worked in my favor was that in my Felix Gomez series, I had written myself into a corner. I'd penned each book as a stand alone and never gave much thought to a series arc. Then I got stuck. What had happened was that in my third book, The Undead Kama Sutra, I decided to throw a curve ball to the readers. Carmen Arellano, vampire femme fatale extraordinaire, had been captured by alien gangsters. The reader expected Felix to rescue Carmen but he failed. At the end of the book, she was a captive of aliens in deep space and I had no idea how to rescue her. Felix's dilemma weighed on his mind and mine.

At one First Friday Art Walk, I was chatting with Stevon when he said, "Mario, that was brilliant." Though I had no idea what he was talking about, I agreed with him. 

"What you did, vato. The psychic plane. In every book you build more about accessing the psychic plane. That's how you're going to rescue Carmen, using the psychic plane." He proceeded to explain about the supernatural vortexes at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Reflecting on what he'd said, Stevon was right. Only I as the author didn't see it but to Stevon, the path across the galaxy using paranormal portals was obvious. And so, his insights unfolded into Rescue From Planet Pleasure. After I wrote the book I sat with Stevon to share my thoughts. With his usual self-effacing manner, he told me that he'd moved on to other things. But at least I had the chance to thank him. 

While Stevon's memorial service was Roman Catholic, more or less, his funeral drew upon Mayan and Aztec traditions. 

A Darth Vader censer violated no rules in Stevon Lucero's universe.

Aztec dancers lead the procession back to the chapel.

Merry Christmas. Best Wishes and Happy Writing to you all.

Friday, December 24, 2021

The Bad Guy Question

Sorry to have been away. It was end of semester and I lost track of my day to blog while reading student papers and getting my grades in. 

Douglas's Monday post caught my eye. I've thought a bit about The Sopranos and the bad guy question. As I may have mentioned here, I've been working on a book about the factual aspects of gangster films. The publisher asked me to do nine films and include The Sopranos as my tenth entry because of the TV series influence on popular culture.

I hadn't seen all of the episodes of The Sopranos  because I didn't have a subscription to HBO when it was on. I only caught an occasional episode when I was staying at a hotel during a conference. Even so, the show was popular enough that I was able to watch clips and read the commentary by critics and fans. With the book in progress, I decided to watch all six seasons. A daunting undertaking (86 episodes), but fascinating.

Tony Soprano and his crew presented me with a dilemma. It was the same moral dissonance that I experienced with the protagonists in the other gangster movies that I watched or re-watched. As Douglas noted about Tony and Christopher in The Sopranos, the display of humanity by characters who do really bad things can be disorienting. 

Michael Corleone in The Godfather does not intend to become a mobster. He has served in World War II and returned home planning to have a life outside the "family business". But when his father, Don Corleone, becomes the target of a rival crime family, Michael kills two men as they are dining in a restaurant. Sent off to Sicily, he marries and suffers the loss of his innocent young bride when one of his men plants a car bomb. Back home in America, his brother Sonny is ambushed and killed. Michael comes home, seeks out Kay, the woman who told he would never become a mobster, and persuades her to marry him. When Don Corleone dies of a heart attack while playing with his grandson in the garden, Michael steps into a role that his other brother is unable to assume. Michael becomes the head of his crime family.

Although many fans rate The Godfather, Part II as a even better movie than the first, I have to say that I find Michael Corleone unredeemable. He has settled too comfortably into his reign as don. He enjoys power too much. He is a dark character, ruthless, cruel. He is not a tragic hero, and I don't care about his fate. Oddly enough, Tony Soprano does worst things, literally has blood on his hands. But the life he leads give him panic attacks. He needs to see a psychiatrist to cope with his anxiety. I care about whether Tony will live or die, and still feel frustrated by the way the series ended. Was Tony dead or alive when the screen went to black?

Ray Liotta's portrayal of real-life mob soldier, Henry Hill, in Goodfellas is another riveting depiction of an incredibly violent man. But Liotta's voiceover narration is engaging. Liotta's Hill is unrepentant and jaunty. He normalizes the violence that he and the other mobsters engage in. He draws us into the subculture, makes us complicit as we root for him because he seems less vicious than other members of his crime family. 

Thinking about these two gangsters and the others in the films and the television series I've watched has been useful as I plotted my 1939 historical thriller. I have a character who is a bad guy. He cheats, he lies, he kills. But the deeper I go into his motivation, the more I understand his "why." The more I try to step into his shoes, the better I am able to understand why he is who he is. This makes my feelings about him more ambivalent. I want to be on the side of my protagonist, but I find my bad guy more complex. I need to restore balance between the two.

At any rate, Douglas's post has given me more to think about as I work on my bad guy's back story. I'll ponder the matter after I've enjoyed my Christmas dinner with friends. Speaking of food, that reminds me of the Liotta's detailed description of the meal he was preparing in between the errands he had to do to prepare his female drug courier for a flight she was scheduled to make. . . .

Happy Holidays, everyone!  I'll check in with you again in the new year. Wishing us all less stress and more joy.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Cookies for Christmas

LaNell's Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies

I cannot improve on Barbara's Christmas message for this year. The best I can do to improve your holiday is treat you to my late sister-in-law LaNell’s recipe for boiled chocolate oatmeal cookies. These are oh, so delicious, and very easy. I have this recipe in LaNell’s handwriting, and have lovingly pressed it into my personal cookbook. It would be a shame not to perk up your Christmas with these cookies.

1 stick butter

1/2 cup milk

2/3 cup cocoa powder

2 cups sugar

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla

3 cups uncooked quick oats

1 cup chopped nuts

Combine first five ingredients in a saucepan and boil two minutes. Add 1 tsp vanilla. Remove from the fire and add 3 cups of uncooked one-minute oats. Add one cup of chopped nuts. Mix in well. Drop by teaspoons-full onto wax paper and let set. Yields about 40 cookies.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Happy Holidays!

 Today is going to be a very short post. Possibly two or three short paragraphs. We are in tough times yet again and all over the world, we are hunkering down to try to defeat another round of this never-ending plague. I hope everyone is staying safe and sane, hanging in, and trying to connect with friends or family in some fashion over the next ten days.

As my celebration for the holiday, I just finished third rewrites of THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE, the fifth Amanda Doucette novel set in British Columbia. I have sent it off to my trusted Ladies Killing Circle and dusted my hands of the whole thing until I get feedback. 

So to everyone, please take care and stay safe. Get your shots if you can, follow precautions, do the simple things that bring you joy, and have a very MERRY MERRY CHRISTMAS or WINTER SOLSTICE or whatever way you honour this time of the year. And may the NEW YEAR of 2022 be a better year, full of hope, friendship, and freedom from fear.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Do you need to like a character?

Do you need to like a character in order to enjoy them?

It's a question that has occurred to me many times over the years, most recently in a conversation I had this morning with bestselling author and friend Denzil Meyrick.

He's a huge fan of The Sopranos and if there's something to know about that series he doesn't know then, frankly, it's not worth knowing. I had tried to watch the show when it first aired here in the UK but didn't get into it. I can't explain why it didn't resonate with me at that time. Anyway, Denzil urged me to give it a second try so I bought the DVD box set (yes, I am very retro) and began to watch. Soon I was hooked.

He is also a big fan of 'Succession'. That's one I have tried to watch, mainly because Brian Cox is in it, but it didn't gel with me.

How can I enjoy one series about people who are not very nice, doing some not very nice things in a not very nice way but not another?

Well, I'll tell you. I don't know.

Let's make something quite clear here - just because I favour one over the other does not mean that it is better. It does not mean that any part of the production - whether writing, performance, direction, scoring, set design, catering or best boying - is superior or inferior. It just means I prefer it. Simple as.

Both deal with power and the toxic effect thereof. But one is about criminals wishing to make more money and the other is about rich people wanting to make more money and I do tend to lean towards crime fiction. (Yeah, I know - shocker).

But here's the thing. With The Sopranos, however, there is a duality that I didn't pick up from Succession (although admittedly I only saw part of the first season). It may be there, it just didn't ping on my radar (hence the reason I only saw part of the first season).

Yes, many of the characters are unlikeable but in Tony Soprano there is often a little bit of humanity, of regret. It often doesn't last long. That he does monstrous things is an inescapable fact but there is a depth of character there, whether in the writing or James Gandolfini's performance, that suggests a lot more.

I told Denzil that I felt the character wanted out of the life but he put it better - he said Tony Soprano regretted ever being in it but is realistic enough to know that the die is cast.

The other characters are equally as complex, though some are outright monsters. They all have that little spark of humanity - whether love for a child, a parent, even Tony's early affection for the ducks in his pool and Christopher's yen to break into movies - that lift them from the run-of-the-mill.

Then they do something like shooting someone in the head.

Their morality is different from yours and mine, something they share I believe with the characters in Succession.

Character, whether in long form TV, movies or books, is everything. And as the success of both series shows, no, we don't need to like a character to be interested in them.

But if I am to stay with that character then I do have to have some interest in what happens to them, whether it is their ultimate redemption or punishment. 

If a character doesn't come of the page or step from the screen and take root in my head then I am not committed to the piece. They don't need to be likeable but I do have to care and I think that is why I have stuck with the boys and girls in New Jersey and not the rich kids of a media mogul. 

But perhaps I should give Succession another go.

Maybe my head was in the same space as it was when I first tried to watch The Sopranos.

And, as I said, Brian Cox is in it.

It's Christmas this weekend (how did that happen?) and I'm not due back until we have stared 2022 in the face and asked it what it's intentions are even though there's no way we can prevent it from crossing the threshold. So let me take this opportunity to wish you all a merry Christmas and that the new year fulfils any promises it makes on that doorstep.

Here's a wee card for you all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Book Hoarder or Preserver?


I read an article recently about famous people and how many books they have/had in their personal libraries. I learned that, of the people mentioned, Karl Lagerfeld had the most at 300,000 books and Hannah Arendt had the least at 4,000 books. Michael Jackson had 10,000+ books and Thomas Jefferson had 6,487. You can read the entire article here.

That got me thinking about how many books I have in my own house. I did a very rough count and came up with (drum roll, please) between 2,000 and 3,000 books. Most are in bookcases in one room, others are scattered around the house, including a bookcase filled with about 100 books signed by the authors.

The title of the article I read was “10 Famous Book Hoarders”. Apparently, anyone who has 1,000 books or more is considered a book hoarder. I prefer to think of myself as a book preserver. I have all sorts of books from mysteries (by far the largest percentage of my library) to books on linguistics, books on the Coptic and Egyptian languages, history books, technical books like those on the Jave programming language, books on forensics and writing... The list goes on.

Okay, okay, I haven’t read every book in my house, but I do intend to read them. Just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Apparently, there’s a word for that: the Japanese word tsundoku – acquiring reading materials and letting them pile up without reading them.

I know I’ve made this vow before, but I am going to make more of an effort in the new year to read more of these books in my library.

How about you? How large is your library? Do you consider yourself a book hoarder?

Monday, December 13, 2021

Playing Pretend

By Thomas Kies

Last Friday was the third birthday of my twin grandchildren, Thomas and Caroline.  Not recalling what three-year-old children enjoy getting as a present, I asked my daughter, Jessica, what she thought the kiddos would like.  She told me, “They like to play dress up. They also like to play with a plain cardboard box.  So…”

I decided to go with something the kids could dress up as, rather than a plain cardboard box. I’d leave that for another time.  I went to the internet and found firefighter outfits, complete with hard hat, fire extinguisher, and wait for it, a real siren.

On their birthday, my daughter posted photos and video of the kiddos in their firefighter coats and hats (on backwards) with the siren wailing.  At the end of the video, the twins say, “Thank you, Grandpa Tom and we love you, Grandpa Tom.”

Yeah, it melted my heart.  I wished I could have been there, but we’re still being Covid cautious.

Oh, and I apologized to my daughter and son-in-law for the sirens. I'm not sure I convinced my son-in-law that I'm being genuine.

Watching the kids enjoy themselves, it made me think how much I liked playing pretend when I was a child.  

Is that why we enjoy writing?  Because we get to play pretend?

At my last Advanced Creative Writing class of the year, I talked a little bit about a writer’s voice.  It’s about the perception, not as the writer, but as the character.

People see the same scene, event, occurrence, but we all perceive it just a little bit differently from each other.  When we write, we have to get inside our characters’ heads and tell the story from their point of view.

We’re pretending to be someone else.

We’re the the bold protagonist, complete with all his or her flaws, including, sometimes their skewed perceptions.  On paper, we’re pretending to be as brave and as adventurous as they are. 

We’re the unscrupulous and homicidal villain, complete with their deeply flawed perceptions. As we're writing them, we're as evil and cruel and twisted as they are. 

When we’re writing, it’s not only okay to pretend, it’s our job. When we’re not writing, however, we are often still pretending, depending on where we are and who we're around. Are we the same person with our spouse that we are with our boss?

Are we the same person when we’re driving, and someone cuts us off and nobody can hear us cussing out the stupid driver who had just put us in danger?  I hope not.

When we’re young, we love trying out different personas and pretending we’re explorers, pirates, cops, and firefighters.  As we grow up, unless we become actors and actresses, we start to lose the joy of pretending, although we never really lose the ability.

For a time, I tried my hand at marketing and sales. I wasn’t a natural at it and I was uncomfortable trying to persuade someone to buy something they might not be interested in in the first place.  I also hated the idea of being rejected and told no.

Which is really weird, because starting out as a writer, you have to be able to accept rejection gracefully. Over and over again.

So, in my head, I channeled Jack Nicholson.  Before walking in to see a client, I asked myself, “How would Jack Nicholson handle this.  What would he say and how would he say it?"

And then it was fun. Why Jack Nicholson? Jake Gittes from the movie Chinatown didn’t give a damn about rejection. 

So, for me, writing is playing pretend.  I get to be all kinds of different people. Getting to be my protagonist, Geneva Chase, is the most fun of all.  She gets to say all the things that I may have in my head but could never say in real life. The lady is a real snarky, smart-ass.

This is my last posting before Christmas, so I’m going be genuine for a moment and take this opportunity to say have a wonderful and safe holiday.  Cheers. 

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Critique Group!

 I have finally joined a critique group. I have been writing for untold years and I have never been in a critique group before. The major reason for that is because, historically speaking, whenever anyone criticized my work my first thought was "You're an idiot." Then I'd reconsider and realize the suggestions were spot on and I needed to make a bunch of corrections. It's exhausting.

I think that one has to be incredibly careful to find a group of people to work with who are simpatico, and that's not easy. I function better on my own. I tend not to show my first draft to anyone. After writing thirteen published novels, I feel like I know the direction I want to go, and I don't want to be influenced by someone else's ideas.

However, since the pandemic I feel I've really lost my mojo, so I need the motivation to stay on top of things. I joined a great group, only six experienced authors, all published, all with a very good eye for plot and characterization. When others critique my work, sometimes I listen, and sometimes I don’t, but I am always shown an original way to approach the story/characters//plot.

Having to have something to show at every meeting has really made me pay attention to the way I write. When I teach writing classes, I tell the participants that a good way to pound out a first draft is to start at the beginning and go go go straight through to the end. Don't worry about quality or even making sense, just get that manuscript out. The real art of writing comes in the many subsequent drafts as you go over it and over it, shaping, changing, making it beautiful. Yes, writing is rewriting. 

Well. The truth is I don't' really do that, as a rule. Joining this group has taught me that I don't follow my own advice when I'm working on a first draft. Every book I've written has come about in its own individual way. My usual method seems to be like quilting. I write scenes out of order, like individual quilt blocks, then sew them together in an order that makes sense, advances the plot, makes a beautiful picture. 
Maybe next time I'll go from beginning to end. I've done it before. I've started at the end and written the beginning last, too. As long as a book comes out of it, whatever works is the right way to do it!

I hope my new critique partners are patient with me.


Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Killing your darlings

 On Sunday I had an interesting experience that led me to think about the skill of editing. Self-editing, that is. I am currently just finishing the second re-write of my fifth Amanda Doucette novel THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE, so what I discovered has special relevance. We writers often talk about having to kill our darlings, or scrub out a whole section of prose, possibly even a whole subplot, if it is irrelevant to the story or simply bogs the story down. Rewrites are often about killing our darlings, or at least asking 'Do you deserve to live?'

So far in this second rewrite, I have done very little killing. I have mostly been changing content as the story changed, massaging characters, and adding bits to fill in plot gaps or smooth over transitions. On third rewrite I will have to be more brutal.

The experience on Sunday night was a reading of my recently published THE DEVIL TO PAY at a zoom event as part of the City of Hamilton's LitLive series. There were five writers and one musician. Four of the writers were poets, all different but terrific and avant-garde, and then there was me, inserted into the middle of the evening. Each of us was given twelve minutes in which to read. I always find selecting a passage to read very challenging. I don't want to spend half the time explaining the set-up, so usually start near the beginning. But a good reading should stand alone in some way, be captivating and dramatic, and make the reader want to hear more (possibly even buy the book!). Unless the writer is a masterful storyteller and can infuse the reading with a theatrical edge, most readings longer than five minutes will put the listener to sleep. Reading for twelve minutes might put them in a coma. But no one wants to listen to seven rambling minutes of set-up - why I wrote this book, who each character is, blah, blah...

Instead, I decided on two minutes of set-up and then two shorter readings of roughly five minutes each. But a reading should also start a key point and end with a dramatic question, at least implied. What next? That's a challenge.

I found two possible scenes, both longer than five minutes, printed them out, and began to slash mercilessly to preserve the meat of the scene without any of the additional but not strictly necessary colour. Each word, phrase, and indeed paragraph was subjected to the questions 'Do I need you?' 'Will the listener understand what's going on without you?' And most importantly 'Will the dramatic impact be as powerful?'

With those questions in mind, the culling was actually easy. I knew it wasn't permanent. These words still existed in the original text and in the published book. They were just shut out for this event. But interestingly, as I read each of those edited scenes aloud at the Zoom event, I realized they sounded pretty good as they were and the audience, knowing no better, seemed caught up in the story. Somehow, listening to myself aloud, I had a better sense of what bogged the story down and what energized it.

So I realized, part of third rewrites will be to read aloud, or at least to imagine how it sounds, all 350 pages of the book and to ruthlessly cut out the superfluous. But reading aloud or listening is different than reading privately. Some readers skim effortlessly over the sentences and paragraphs that don't interest them and skip down to the next exciting bit. However, others like to read slowly, savouring the imagery and the language that helps to set the mood and enrich the backdrop. The former likes the 'lean, mean, just the facts, ma'am' style of writing, whereas the latter likes more atmosphere and complexity. They don't like 'talking heads'; they want to picture the scene, feel the mood, and know what the characters are doing and thinking as they talk.

Getting the balance right is tricky, and it's clear you can't please everybody. But asking the question 'Do I really need you?' is certainly a useful exercise. 

A related part of this Sunday experience was listening to the poets. I'm a storyteller, not a poet, and although I try to be precise, concise, and vivid in the words I choose, we storytellers have a lot to learn from poets about creating word images that capture impressions, thoughts, and feelings in the most powerful way. This is not a new lesson for me, but it was worth reminding myself. I will keep it in mind as I do this culling. Not only will I ask myself 'Do I really need you?' but also "Is there a briefer and more powerful way to say the same thing?' 

When I'm done all this soul-searching, let's hope I don't find myself five thousand words short on my word count!

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Starting off another reader

by Rick Blechta

I suppose having been a teacher for a major portion of my life that it really is in my blood now.

To be clear, what I taught was instrumental music, aka (among teachers) as “crowd control with a beat,” but once a teacher, always a teacher.

Our granddaughter, the Unquenchable Lucy, is now at the age (5) where she has a firm grasp on “ABC’s” as she calls them. We have her overnight every Monday to give her parents a break and her big brother a chance to have them all to himself, because, and trust me on this, Lucy is a force of nature. She can easily take over any situation — in a good way, though. She is a delightful little person.

We have an alphabet puzzle that she loves. Besides putting in the letters, I’ve taken to asking her what words begin with the letter in question. She always starts with an automatic answer she’s obviously been taught in school (“A is for Apple”). Last week I began asking for other words that she could think of. It took very little coaxing to get other examples. (Teacher, right?) Yesterday I pushed her further. One or two words wouldn’t do. I asked for three, four, even five. She did not disappoint and it was gratifying to see her excitement about doing so well.

Next week, I’ll start her off on spelling some of those words. She’s ready after already mastering spelling her name and those of the rest of her family.

It’s been over 35 years since I last did this with our two sons, and at that time I didn’t pay attention to this exciting process as much as I should have, working six and seven days per week as I did. Now, being retired, I have all the time in the world to enjoy it. Brother Jackson is off and running and loves reading. Now his sister is just on the cusp.

I have always believed that the most important educational gift anyone can receive is learning how to read. Everything follows from that, doesn’t it? A whole world of possibilities opens up.

This has nothing to do with grooming future consumers of what we writers produce.

When someone learns how to read, they’ve been set free.

Monday, December 06, 2021

That one-legged man, that contest, and me

I've been reading with interest the posts concerning focus and the need for it in our game. Or, as is often the case, the lack of it.

The reason the views of my fellow Type M authors resonated even more than usual was that I have become increasingly aware of how busy the next 18 months to two years are going to be for me and the importance of being focussed - if not Ernest - in getting through it.

At the very least, I will have to rekindle some long-dormant organisational skills.

So why am I going to be busier than that fabled one-legged man at a butt-kicking contest, I hear you ask? Well, I'll tell you.

It was recently announced that I have signed a brand new three book deal with my UK publisher, Polygon, for a further three books, which will bring my Rebecca Connolly series to a total of seven (three already out, a fourth next year and then the new deal kicks in). I am both excited and delighted that confidence has been shown in the books and I will do my very best to live up to it.

But that's not the reason for my feeling of extreme dauntedness. Is that a word? Probably not but I'll go with it anyway.

There are various pies in which I have a finger or three and all require the expenditure of time while, of course, I also have to occasionally run a vacuum over the house and wave a duster around.

And let's not forget Mickey the dog and Tom the cat who both require some attention.

But more than all this, there is another project in the offing that will vastly increase my workload. I can't tell you anything about it yet but it's happening. 

Yes, I know I am being mysterious but mystery is my business. I may get that on a t-shirt.

So in order to get around all this I will have to be hyper organised - a feat I have singularly failed to achieve in the past year or so. Frankly, I have been all over the place, organisation-wise, and that has meant some things have been neglected. Mostly that vacuuming and dusting thing but also keeping up with certain friends, and if any of those I have seemed to ignore of late happen to be reading this - albeit unlikely - I heartily apologise.

The thing is, I used to be very organised, at least professionally. Personally I have always been a mess. 

I was the editor of a weekly newspaper for many years. Each week began with a series of blank pages, much like writing a book, while those higher up made it their mission to complicate things by piling more work on me while also reducing staff numbers. I couldn't do that job, with all its attendant pressures, without some kind of focus.

So it looks like I will have to find that old me, wherever he is. What has become an increasingly languid approach to the job of writing will have to change and words will have to fly from keyboard to screen faster than a politician avoiding the truth.

I may...

 - whisper it, for there is shame here - 

... have to actually...

 - gulp - 


Yes, some element of story boarding may be necessary. 

I can hear the Scottish Association of Pantsters preparing to rescind my membership, rip off my epaulettes and drum me from the clubhouse to the beat of the Rogue's March.

The question is - can I organise myself sufficiently to not only plan the story but actually stick to it?

There, as they say, is the rub. Time will tell and I will keep you posted.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Focus Redeaux

In the words of Yogi Berra, it's déjà vu all over again. So what's going on, guys? When I was thinking about blog topics, I was tempted to write about my struggles with focusing on my manuscript or what we scribblers fondly refer to as the work in progress. Or not in progress. And lo and behold, both John and Rick wrote on the very same subject.

Truth is the world conspires to keep me from writing during the holidays. Everyone doubles down on activities. I don't want to miss a thing. I had a mini-Thanksgiving at my house. It was very small as the family was split in a variety of locations. Plus, I had had my Moderna booster shot the day before and just supposed it would me sick. The kick was very mild, but my granddaughter and her partner brought the whole dinner anyway and daughter Mary Beth came with a wonderful pie. It was a delightful small gathering.

This month my church, St. Luke's Episcopal, has something for everyone--ranging from special devotional studies to carol fests and an ugly sweater contest. My HOA will have its annual meeting. My Sisters in Crime chapter has a Christmas gathering. So does the Rocky Mountain chapter of Mystery Writers of America. And that's just to name a few. There are all sorts of special musical programs, and charitable events. I also have a part time accounting job and the end of year is especially manic for businesses.

Daughter Michele had a birthday party for me Tuesday and she is giving a Thankmas event Sunday for the family that will be split Christmas and spent Thanksgiving with in-laws.

So what is poor writer to do? Frankly, I have to endorse John Corrigan's comments. I believe the best approach to set aside a block of time, but for me it simply doesn't happen. I yearn for it and plan for it, but something always intervenes. Still, something goes sour for me if I leave my manuscript and as with John, I settle for very short lengths of time on weekdays from Thanksgiving until New Year. That's easy to do when I'm on a second draft--but it's a bad idea during the first creative draft.

During the second draft, I can at least read through some pages every day and spiff things up.

I'll soon leave for North Carolina to have Christmas with my daughter and her family. I plan to take my laptop with me, of course, and plan to hack away at my book.

Care to place any bets on how that goes?

Thursday, December 02, 2021


Last week, I wrote an email to my agent that many writers have sent: an explanation for why a manuscript was late. Last summer, I said I’d have a book on her desk by the fall. I drove my daughter back to New York City yesterday after the holiday, and winter’s first snow was falling steadily, so autumn has come and gone.

And so has my self-imposed deadline.

It leads me to think about deadlines and manuscripts and how and why books stall or get delayed.

I often hear people say, When I have more time [I’ll finish my book]. For some, time means everything. When I was an undergrad, a professor of creative writing told me I would need large chunks of time to write. That hasn’t been the case. For me, writing requires –– above everything else –– a clear mind, even if I only write in short spurts. When I sit down, focus is more important than time. I can finish a book a year writing an hour and a half each morning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said this of distractions: “At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door and say, 'Come out unto us.' But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act.”
Cluttered Bookshelf, Cluttered Mind?

Must’ve been hard to be a Transcendentalist without a clear head.

So how do I account for my delay? This fall, I had too many different things going on –– work, the pursuit of a work-related opportunity, and writing. My head was in too many places to focus when I sat down for 90 minutes each morning. That’s not happened many times previously. I’m not a believer in Writer’s Block. I’ve never had it. (I still produced some writing this fall but spun my wheels a lot.)

Now the dust has settled and I’m on the verge of a new professional chapter in my day job, I’ll get my head back in the book, and, hopefully, send my agent a completed manuscript by the spring.

I’d like to hear others’ views on the role Focus plays in their work.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Words of the Year 2021


Yesterday morning I read an article in the newspaper about Merriam-Webster selecting its Word of the Year for 2021. Not terribly surprisingly it has something to do with Covid-19, it’s “vaccine”. In 2020, their word of the year was “pandemic”. I hope the 2022 word of the year has absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic, but we’ll just have to see.

They choose their word of the year by looking at what words are looked up most on The word must be a “top lookup” in the last 12 months and must show a significant increase in lookups over the previous year. According to the article below, lookups increased 601% from 2021 and 1,048% from 2019!

And, apparently, the dictionary changed its definition of the word slightly. You can read all about it here.

The OED word of the year for 2021 is “vax”. The OED defines it as a colloquialism that means either vaccinate or vaccine. Apparently, its use has been relatively uncommon until this year. 

The American Dialect Society hasn’t yet chosen its word of the year. They’ll be doing that January 6-9, 2022 at their annual meeting. 

The Cambridge Dictionary chose “perseverance” as their word of the year. Their word of the year for 2020 was “quarantine”. Perseverance seems to be a bit more positive, which is nice to see.

The Macquarie dictionary in Australia chose “strollout” as their word of the year. Meaning: “referring to the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination program in Australia, with reference to the perceived lack of speed”

I’m not sure what I would nominate as a word of the year for 2021, but I rather like “perseverance”. What are your suggestions for the 2021 WOTY?

Tuesday, November 30, 2021


By Rick Blechta

These days, it’s difficult to keep one’s focus. (“Gee, now there’s something no one else has ever said before,” stated Captain Obvious.)

No, I’m not going to go on about Covid-19 — even though the current news about the new variant is definitely anxiety-provoking.

I’m beginning to feel as if life is speeding up. With everything going on in the world, it’s hard to stay on top of things to which one really needs to pay attention.

Whether you believe in manmade climate change or not, it’s perfectly obvious the earth is going through rapid changes that are going to severely impact life as we know it.

Then there’s political unrest from peaceful protests to all out, devastating wars.

The icing on the cake is the pandemic that just won’t stop.

The causes and solutions to every one of these issues have been discussed to the point where we just want to switch off, jump on our beds and pull the covers over our heads until it all goes away.

At present, hope seems to be in very short supply.

The result for a lot of us seems to be brain fog. There’s just too much to think about that we become overwhelmed.

The solution is obvious: switch off. It can’t be done permanently, of course. That would be foolhardy. But with the media, social media, and even friends and relations, pounding at us every day with Bad News maybe it’s just a good idea to ignore everything for a day or two.

Take a walk. Read a book. Don’t look at email, Facebook, Twitter, all of them. Don’t even open your mail.

When I sat down to write last night, there was no story in my head. It was as if it had all been erased. What had replaced it was the myriad of things that are troubling me at the moment. Couple that with overstressed brain fog, and I knew nothing good was going to happen. Something had to be done.

So after I post this email today, I’m not going to look at the computer, listen to the news, and tell anybody who wishes to talk to me that I’m currently unavailable.

Here’s hoping my little “reset” works! I’ll let you all know next time.


When I went to publish my post today, I noticed that John Corrigan’s post for Thursday has the same title. I didn’t steal your idea John; I swear it! I’m also not going to look at your post until Thursday. I wonder if we’re discussing the same thing?

Monday, November 29, 2021

Plot Twists and Being Lucky

By Thomas Kies

One of the topics I teach in my creative writing class at the college is how to write effective plot twists. In many cases it’s a lot like a magic trick. While the audience is paying attention to what the left hand is doing, the right hand is the one making the trick happen.

Covid is like the plot twist that just keeps on giving. 

My book SHADOW HILL launched last August. I’d finished writing the book in April of 2020, but the publication date was pushed back for obvious reasons. Trying to promote a book in the throes of so many people dying in a pandemic was a bad idea.

Once it had been announced that a vaccination had been developed at the beginning of 2021, it gave me hope that I could promote SHADOW HILL as it should. I hoped to be at the usual locations including the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale where I’ve launched every book so far in my writing career.  

About the same time that vaccinations were rolling out, Barnes & Noble made a sizeable commitment to the rerelease of my first book RANDOM ROAD. It was going to be on the front table of every one of their stores. I had visions of going from one B&N to another to do book signings. 

I’d signed up for Bouchercon that was going to take place in New Orleans just in time for the release of SHADOW HILL.

It was all falling into place.

Then…POW…the Delta variant stepped in. Add to that, a confusing and confounding reluctance of a sizable portion of the public to getting a vaccination that's left a high percentage of the population to being ravaged by the disease. 

Just as the world was emerging back into a relative sense of normalcy, it all went wrong. A local restaurant I was due to have a book signing closed when one of their employees was diagnosed with Covid.

We did manage to have a book event at that restaurant two weeks later when everyone tested negative and then we did another book event at a local country club. We sold out of books in both events.  

In the meantime, Bouchercon was cancelled because of Covid fears. Just as well since Hurricane Ida hit the same weekend the conference was supposed to take place. The old double whammy.

Ever optimistic, my fifth book, WHISPER ROOM, is due for publication in August of 2022. I’m scheduled to be at Malice Domestic in April and Thrillerfest in June. That same week, I’m hoping to do a book signing at a library in Norwalk, Connecticut. I’m looking forward to having a book signing at my favorited restaurant here on the coast in August.

The latest plot twist? Omicron, the latest variant of Covid. No telling how bad that’s going to be.

I’m not complaining. I’m really not. So many people have it so much worse.  

Steven Sondheim passed away on Friday and days before he died, he reflected, “I’ve been lucky.”

So have I. My childhood dream was to be a novelist. And I am. I’ve been lucky.

Back when I was working for a newspaper in Connecticut, I had an assignment in Manhattan. A colleague of mine was with me on the Metro-North train into the city. The entire one-hour trip, she whined and complained about pretty much everything under the sun.

When we finally got to Grand Central Terminal, we went straight to the iconic clock in the Main Concourse where we were to meet our contact. We got there early and as we were chatting and people watching, a woman came up to us and asked if we would take a picture of her and her daughter. She said, “This is the first time we’ve been to New York.”

It was difficult to tell how old her daughter was because she was in a wheelchair and her poor little body seemed to be bent at strange angles. It made me want to cry.

In spite of it, they both had huge smiles on their faces. 

The little girl had the biggest grin of the two of them. After we took the photo, the mother thanked us and told us how excited they were to be in the city and how much her daughter had been looking forward to it. 

After they left, my colleague looked at me said, “If I ever bitch about anything again, just slap me.”

So, yes, Covid is sending us another plot twist. But like Steven Sondheim, I’ve been lucky.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Fuel Handler of the Air Cav

Recently, Donald Hall posted this photo on Facebook and asked about the painting's origin, sensing a story similar to what I had shared about the painting I'd gifted to the late General Colin Powell. During Desert Storm, Donald Hall and I met when we'd billeted together in King Khalid Military City, Saudi Arabia.

My painting hanging in the Pentagon. Photo by Donald Hall.

The genesis to this painting, Fuel Handler of the Air Cav, goes back to my first tour of active duty. I was an attack helicopter pilot with the 7/17 Air Cavalry and we'd been deployed for desert training in the Imperial Valley of California, somewhere between Slab City (outside the Salton Sea) and the Chocolate Mountains. Late the first night, during a briefing in the squadron's TOC (Tactical Operations Center) we heard the commotion of a parade of big trucks roaring out of the darkness. A few minutes later, a female captain of the Transportation Corps strode into the tent. She was dressed in combat garb, covered head-to-toe in dust, and goggles had left a raccoon mask on her face. She reported that our logistical support had arrived--thousands of gallons of aviation gas and diesel plus tons and tons of ammo, mostly rockets. For some reason, our S-3 (the operations officer) was very dismissive of her even though at the time, I thought she had the hardest job of any one of us there. The moment stuck with me.

Fast forward eight years and I was recalled from the Individual Ready Reserve and sent overseas as a soldier-artist for Operation Desert Storm. I wandered about the battle area, mindful of my instructions--don't get yourself injured or killed--which I followed to the letter. What impressed me about the US military was that our combat forces were like rampaging titans but even they needed sustenance. Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach and to that you have to add, without gas, you ain't getting anywhere. So out in this desolate wilderness I found this female Specialist, doing her job, making sure our thirsty flying beasts got plenty to drink. When I was sorting through ideas of what images to paint, I thought back to that female captain also doing her job, and so this work is an homage to both women soldiers.

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Yawn-Worthy Hero

 I, too, have experienced what Barbara wrote about on Wednesday -- those moments of wondering "Why am I doing this?" with all that is going in the world. Shouldn't I spend all of my time writing about real-life events?

I have come to the conclusion that crime fiction writers make an important contribution. Aside from entertaining our readers and offering them an opportunity to escape from grim realities, we provide them with an opportunity -- a "safe space" -- in which to ponder the nature of "crime" and "justice". 

But for all my soul-searching, I've still been struggling with my historical thriller. Who cares about 1939? Over the past two years -- in the midst of the pandemic -- I haven't made much progress in completing my ever evasive first draft. The book that I should be able to write -- the book that might be my eighth published novel -- is harder to write than either of those two unpublished novels in my desk drawer. I have cycled through a range of emotions, from enthusiasm and excitement while doing the  research to not caring and being ready to jettison the whole idea and move on to my next Lizzie Stuart mystery. 

Writing this book feels like climbing a mountain. Even getting to the soggy middle feels like strolling it onto American Ninja Warriors and trying to leap from platform to platform on that first obstacle. 

Committing (once again) to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has made it no easier. My 50,000 word + goal for the month of November isn't going to happen. I am not going to morph into "Super Writer" and spend the next five days glued to my desk knocking out thousands of words a day.

But this month has not been wasted. I have confronted what I didn't want to admit. My protagonist bores me.  

I was excited when I had the idea of having a sleeping car porter as my "hero". In 1939, an educated African American man who is working as a sleeping car porter is true to life. My protagonist, Jacob Baldwin, is the graduate of a small college in the South. He is working to save enough money to attend law school. He believes in the American ideal of truth and justice. He is a striver.

When first seen, he is attending Marian Anderson's Easter Sunday performance at the Lincoln Memorial.  He spots Cullen Talbot, the white Southern plantation owner for whom his family once sharecropped in the crowd. He sets out to find out what Cullen up to. But Jacob as I have been writing feels like a character who is going through the motions. He has not come to life. 

The "hero" that is too good to be true is recognizable to most writers and many readers. Jacob is too noble. I've Googled online lists of character flaws and flipped through the books about creating characters that I own. But I already know what I need to do. 

What I have been saving as backstory needs to open the book. I have an ugly, shattering scene that I need to write about something that Jacob experienced when he was ten years old. Jacob is a black man in 1930s America. For all his idealism, he is filled with suppressed rage. The impact of what follows will be much greater if readers know this and can watch him unravel. 

As Cullen taunts him, playing his own game, Jacob will find it increasingly difficult to hold onto his distance from the fray. He will be forced to make some decisions that will challenge what he claims to believe. He may fail as a role model, but his motivation will be stronger. 

He has my attention now. He can carry the weight I'm placing on my shoulder. However, the book ends, he won't bore me. And I may finally get through my first draft.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving.

 I hope you all have a wonderful holiday. Eat what you want to eat, be with those you want to be with, and stay safe and healthy. For the past couple of Thanksgivings, I've posted my mother's recipe for "impossible pumpkin pie", so I thought I'd mix it up this year and give you my paternal grandmother's recipe for another one of my dearest favorites, old fashioned pecan pie. I'm using a ready-made pie crust for this recipe, because why make it hard on yourself?

My great-grandfather had a pecan orchard on his farm in eastern Oklahoma (the very farm I modeled Alafair’s home after in my Alafair Tucker mysteries). Every fall my family would go out to the farm and spend an afternoon picking up pecans that had fallen from the trees. This usually happened late in the season. The little pecans were sweet and delicious, but hard as heck to crack. By the time I was old enough to remember how it was done, my grandmother had a little pecan-cracking device, which made the task much easier. Pecan pie has always been one of my favorites, and it’s fairly easy to make. However, I warn you, Dear Reader, that it is not low-cal. But then you only live once.

Grandma Casey's Pecan Pie

one nine-inch unbaked pie shell


3 eggs

2/3 cup of sugar

1/3 cup of melted butter (if using unsalted butter, add 1/2 tsp salt. A pinch of salt gives the pie depth and keeps it from being too sweet.)

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup corn syrup (I like dark corn syrup, but light works just as well.)

1 cup of pecan halves (or pieces)

Pre-heat the oven to 375•F. Beat the eggs, then stir in the rest of the filling ingredients until well-blended. Pour into the pie crust and bake 40 to 50 minutes, until set. The pecans will rise to the top.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The cherry on top

 Last week I hit a milestone in my current work in progress. After about ten pads of foolscap scribbling, I wrote ... 

This has been an extremely challenging book to write. Many times it felt as if the words, the ideas, the plot, were being dragged out of me, inch by painful inch. I don't know the reason for this; perhaps the overarching angst of the pandemic, with its distraction of waves going up and down, the wait for a vaccine, the ongoing daily struggle to stay safe, and the increasing, astonishing craziness of people ranting on social media, throwing stones at politicians (in nice, peaceful Canada), blocking health workers from accessing hospitals, and guzzling horse dewormer.

I've been trying to write this book as this drama dragged on and on and often felt the pointlessness of it all. What did my made-up story matter, after all, compared to the catastrophe unfolding in the real world? So the book was written in fits and starts, with real life disruptions in between which made me completely forget where my story was going. All the usual writerly doubts were magnified. Doubts like "this story is crap, I can't write anymore, it's nothing but a jumbled mess," etc. 

But finally, I got to write The End. Now I know it's a book, and I know what it's about. Now I can fix it. Rewrites are all about fixing the jumbled mess. Normally when I am writing, I keep a separate file containing all the things I have to fix. Add this, take away that, change this, develop that. Plot holes and inconsistencies need to be plugged, characters need to be tweaked to fit the job I have ended up giving them, or their job has to be tweaked to fit what they've become. Settings and background are enriched. 

This time, I never did keep that file. I spent so much time wandering in the wilderness that I had no idea what needed tweaking or changing until I finally limped across the finish line. So I now have to keep all these things in my head as I reread and adjust the story. So the rewrites may be as arduous as the first draft.

This is not to say that the book is bad, or that I'm unhappy with it. Against all odds, I think I have managed to write a pretty good book, although readers (and my editors) will be the judge of that.

One of the challenges I faced was choosing the title. The title is like the cherry on top of the sundae. Until it's in place, the book doesn't feel truly finished. For me, a title should capture the essence of the book. It is my final statement about what the meaning of the book is. Titles come to me in various ways at different stages of the writing process. Sometime I know it before I start to write, like HONOUR AMONG MEN, sometimes a phrase that I write suddenly leaps out at me as the perfect title, as in FIFTH SON. 

Wreck Bay, site of the 1960s commune,
as it is today.

This book has a few themes but the historical backdrop to it is the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s, coinciding with the anti-Vietnam war movement. As I was writing, the Dylan song "Blowing in the wind", kept floating through my head as a reflection of the struggles of the central character. Dylan was the voice of that movement and that era. So the first title I came up with was Blowing in the Wind. But I wasn't sure whether younger readers would know the lyrics well enough to get all the references, so I sprinkled a few lines from that song through the book (in dialogue and other ways). However, although copyright laws allow me to use a song title, they don't allow me to use even a single phrase of the lyrics if the song can be identified by that phrase. 

Back to the drawing board. Or rather back to the internet to research other 60s protest songs to find one that would work using the title alone and that would reflect the character's struggles just as well. Fortunately, having been part of that protest movement and having listened to all those artists many times over, I had some basis for where to look. And I soon found a title that was not only just as good, but in fact better. THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE. This is a phrase so well known that people can finish the sentence even if they have never heard of singer/ songwriter Phil Ochs.

Now THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE is heading into its first rewrite, with its cherry sitting firmly on top, capturing its essence perfectly.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

How long should you give a book you’re reading?

by Rick Blechta

Today’s post is going to be a short one.

I’m sure we’ve all begun books where after a certain number of pages a thought crosses your mind, Why am I bothering to read this? For whatever reason — poor writing, poor characters, poor plotting, maybe just general apathy, etc. — you simply haven’t engaged with the book.

When do you throw in the towel, or perhaps I should say, when do you fling the offending book across the room and look to other tomes and better stories?

I’m a person who is rather empathetic so I tend to hang on for longer than I should. I also tend to bail on a book earliest when I don’t like the protagonist. Either I find them obnoxious or two dimensional.

One personal story about rich reward of not bailing on a novel happened back when I was heavily into SciFi. The novel was Dahlgren by Samual R. Delany (no relation to Vicki!). I picked up a copy on a whim (I liked the cover).

It remains the singularly most confusing story I have ever encountered. It seemed as if the author threw normal life into a blender and hit frappé. Most of the time I couldn’t make heads or tails about what was happening. I only kept plowing forward because I found the main character (the Kid) strangely compelling, as was the quality of writing. The story made no sense at all — think (possibly) unreliable narrator times twenty.

For whatever reason I stuck it out to the end, then sat back and just said out loud, “Wow!”

Perhaps that’s why I will continue on past where most people give up. I’m hoping for another experience like Dhalgren. Thus far, no good…

So, I’ll go back to the question I posed back in paragraph three: when do you give up on a book and why?

Monday, November 22, 2021

Places in the memory

Book Week Scotland has only just ended.

This is an annual clambake of all things bookish thrown by the Scottish Book Trust and supported by Creative Scotland and the Scottish Library and Information Council. 

In previous  years it has seen authors going hither and yon to talk about their books, writing in general and meeting readers in events held within libraries, books stores and other venues.

Naturally, last year it was badly hit by the pandemic, with many events going on-line, but you can't keep a good book promotion down because this year, arms filled with vaccine, pockets with masks and hands liberally coated with various gels and unguents, many of us were once more traversing this great land to promote the written word. And ourselves, of course, for there is no ego like an author's ego. 

Well, maybe an actor. 

Or a rock star. 

Or a politician. 

OK, there are many egos like an author's ego but this isn't about those others. 

Early reports, however, indicate that in many cases audience numbers are down, with readers perhaps still hesitant to come out thanks to "the Rona." It's understandable but let's hope next year life is back an a more even keel.

One of my events took me back to Inverness, where my protagonist Rebecca Connolly is based. For those who don't know, Inverness is seen as the capital of the Scottish Highlands, situated on the Beauly Firth and at the head of the Caledonian Canal, that great waterway carved out of the Great Glen, linking various lochs to take shipping from west to north east and thus avoid the long and arduous passage up the west coast and traversing the blustery north.

I love the highlands, which is why I decided to set this series among their rolling hills, ragged mountains and lochs whose depths conceal many mysteries. This time I stayed in an inn with history going back hundreds of years situated on a road that was once a main arterial route in the days before internal combustion and oxygen having to be made available at petrol pumps to bring us round after the price shock.

I had some time to wander around the city, naturally signing copies of my books in the local Waterstones bookstore, and, on the way to Grantown-on-Spey to visit a fabulous independent store, the Bookmark, I took time to wander in a vast forest of Scots Pine so tall that it wasn't the breeze that stirred the tops but the breath of angels.

There are memories in these wild places for me. The route there and back took me past Pitlochry in Perthshire, where the autumn colours still clung to the trees as if reluctant to part from us. It was here I went camping for the very first time with my wife and even as I sped past all these years later I could smell the bacon frying in the morning. 

I passed the turn off for Kinloch Rannoch, 18 miles to the west, and my idea of heaven. We used to rent a cottage near there at least twice annually for many years.

The Beatles sang of the places they remember and it came into my head as I thought of Kinloch Rannoch and Schiehallion, the fairy mountain, rising from the mist. I thought of walks around the woodland, the leaves golden brown in the soft autumn sun, and wondering at the peace of the Black Wood, the largest tract of the ancient Caledonian forest in Scotland. I thought of the dogs that were once my companions on these walks and, naturally, of my late wife who loved the area as much as I love it. I thought of its history, rich with incident, red with blood as much of the highlands are. And I thought of Rannoch Moor;  vast, bleak and dark in its mystery. 

The thoughts ran through my head as if on fast forward as I sped north, passing the chasm of Killincrankie where once a battle was fought and, centuries later, I once walked with my wife and friends in dead of night as we made our way back from the pub to our campsite. 

But then I was beyond the area and all these memories were but ghosts in my rear view mirror.

Looking back, I believe that I was always at my happiest there and I have the urge to return and let Mickey (my dog) romp in the pawsteps of his much-loved predecessors. 

Maybe I will, if only one more time, for the good times. As the Carpenters once sang.

(Here are some images from the area)

Charlie, a dog who has long since left me, just seems to fit in.

One of the views with the ruins of a once grand house just visible beyond the tree

Dunalastair Water

Bleak Rannoch Moor

The autumn colours on the River Tummel are always breathtaking

Schiehallion rising above the mist

Even in the rain, the valley is spectacular


Friday, November 19, 2021

The Sacred Process

 I almost misspelled the title of this blog, making it "The Scared Process" rather than "The Sacred Process." Actually, one word is as good as another. There have been a series of posts by my beloved Type M blogmates about their writing process. 

The truth is that writing a book is about like raising kids. Anyone who has had more than one quickly learns that what applies to one child doesn't the next. I thought after I wrote my first novel all subsequent books would be really, really easy. Ha!

There has been one constant, however. When I'm doing my best work it's a quota of five pages a day, five days a week. That's for the first draft, not subsequent drafts. The truth is that when I don't stick to that I deliberately let life interfere. 

Life, of course, just interferes naturally, without one bit of encouragement from me. When my kids were little I got up very early in the morning and hoped by some miracle I would get my writing done before they popped out of bed. That didn't happen often. Consequently, I learned to write anytime, any place, and under horrendous circumstances. 

Now I don't feel like I'm under any kind of pressure and it's not good for my productivity. Because I slithered away into historical novels I jeopardized my slot with mystery novels. Nevertheless, I'm in the middle of a new mystery that I feel very passionately about. I have a good idea (I think) for the following book, if I have the guts to write it. But I cannot summon up my old stern inner strictness. I'm prey to all kinds of ill winds: meetings, and socializing, and lazy lunches, and too much reading, and binge TV. 

Five pages a day--not polished--is a fairly wicked, but not excessive output. I've learned that when I stick to the quota, on the days I really, really don't want to write my work is just as good (or bad) as days when  words come easily and ideas merge. I've noticed that when I settle for fewer pages, I write more self-consciously and piddle around. When I push for the five and am semi-desperate to just get them done better ideas come out of nowhere. 

Again, I talking exclusively about first drafts. My first draft is totally linear. I never write scenes out of sequence. The following drafts are a different process altogether. That's a critical and intellectual undertaking. At one time I was a first draft junkie. Now I like straightening out a manuscript the best. 

Strangely, I've never known two authors who approach writing the same way. 

Talented, best-selling author Sandra Dallas, once said in a keynote speech that she "didn't understand the writing process." She said she just knew that it worked.