Friday, April 16, 2021

And Then There's the Dog

I understand what Donis wrote about in her post yesterday. I, too, have been dealing with "monkey mind." I'm doing distance learning (teaching from home) because my university has gone virtual for most classes. I've been doing Zoom meetings since last March. I've gotten better and more comfortable with the technology, but I've also been spending much more of each day in my house. 

I relied on the change of pace of moving from home to office and back again. Not being an early morning person, I got up around 9. I often sat down half-asleep, still in my robe, and woke up as I read what I had written the day before. The crime fiction, that is. Morning, work at home on novel or short story in progress. Then leave for my office at school around noon, in time to get a parking place when the faculty who did mornings left for lunch or headed home.

During the afternoon, I would teach my classes on Monday and Tuesday afternoon (3 hours each day). The rest of the week, I would meet with students, attend committee meeting, and do other teaching -related activities. And I would do my research and work on my nonfiction books -- which often overlap with my research for fiction because my areas are mass media/popular culture and crime history. 

Sometimes I was in my office from noon to seven or eight. Then I would go home and have dinner and write if I needed or wanted to get more done. Often as I drove the ten minutes -- 20 minutes for years until I move into the city -- often as I drove back and forth, particularly going home, I thought about what would happen next in a story. Worked out the scene and played out the dialogue in my head. 

I enjoyed that transition from home to office and back again. It was important because I got many of my best ideas in the cocoon of my car. Out of touch and in my own head. Sometimes I stretched the time out by doing errands before going to the office or home.

But for a year now, I haven't had that structure that was so important to my day. I thought in the beginning I would get more done because I didn't have that transition -- no need to watch the clock in the morning and get up and dressed. No need to plan my afternoon so that I got in everything I wanted to do and still made it home at a reasonable hour. An opportunity to do what I did in the summer and have more control over my worklife than during the rest of the academic year. 

What I didn't take into account is that even in the summer, I normally go into my office at school in the afternoons. I don't have to go. But going in, settling down with my bookcases with all of the books I need in reach, with my computer set up just right, and the library next door -- that is how I like to work on my academic books. Going into the office gives me structure and ensures I don't spend the day watching TCM and nibbling on snacks. 

And then there is the dog. During the pandemic, I decided -- as did many people -- to finally adopt a dog because I would be at home to take care of a puppy or help an older dog settle in. I got a puppy. An adorable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who arrived from Maryland when he was about four months old. Fergus came well-socialized by the breeder, healthy, and full of energy. Too much energy. He is exhausting. He goes to doggie daycare because I need him out of the house so that I can focus. He likes to be where I am -- when he isn't he is up to mischief. Or, in his crate barking because he isn't where I am. He is six months old now, and beginning to hang out in my home office napping or set on top of the radiator or the sofa looking out the window. He has his own pet steps to get up to the radiator. But this week he is at home because his vet put him on an antibiotic because he has been sneezing and may have a virus. And when he's not looking out the window or napping or in his crate or playing toss with his favorite doll or bone, he is up to mischief. And I really want to be in my office at school with my books around me. But he is adorable and soon he will be past the toddler stage and he is smart -- today he learned "down" -- will learn for treats. 

But still I long for my routine, for the rituals that settle my "monkey mind" and allow me to focus. I'm a plotter -- and, yes, for this plotter, it is harder than it used to be to get the structure of my works in progress to come together. I would love to be able to plunge in and see what happens. I think that would help me to shut out distractions. But I can't work that way. 

Fingers crossed that soon we will all be able to get back to what works for us. 


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Monkey Mind

I've been reading my blogmates' entries about lockdowns with interest and sympathy and some fear. We are doing better here in Arizona, quarantine-wise. This sunny southwestern state has lifted its mandatory restrictions (though mask-wearing is widespread and still required by most public buildings and businesses). Outdoor temperatures hover around 90º F for a high every day. My husband and I are fully vaccinated now, and I've actually gone out to eat with similarly vaccinated friends a couple of times. I've been asked to do a book talk at an outside library venue early next month and I said I'd love to. I see light at the end of the tunnel, though I expect I'll be wearing masks around strangers for the foreseeable future. 

It won't be long until our weather becomes so hot that doing anything outdoors for any length of time is impossible. I can only pray that when it happens we haven't become so cavalier in this state we have to lockdown again as well.

I'm already half-crazy as it is. 

When I was lunching with author friends yesterday, discussing our works-in-progress, as one does, I had to admit that I'm suffering from a bad case of monkey mind.  I have a finished manuscript awaiting acceptance, and in the meantime I'm trying to start another project – "trying" being the operative word, here. I've begun three different stories: another Alafair Tucker mystery, a fourth Bianca LaBelle Hollywood mystery, and a third novel that is so different from anything I've ever written I expect if I manage to finish it and find some way to get it published, I'll have to use a pseudonym. I can't concentrate on any of them for very long. I can't concentrate on anything for very long. 

I'm alarmed by my inability to stick with a thought. My poor mind jumps around from one thing to another like a monkey in a tree. I'd tell you more about it, but I have to do something else. Maybe later...

By the way, a lovely interview with me appeared April 9th at Marshal Zeringue’s Campaign for the American Reader in which I answered this very question and a few other fascinating queries about Valentino Will Die. You’ll be surprised at who I identify with…

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The rollercoaster continues

 I agree with Rick. Here we are in another  bleeping lockdown, only a couple of months after our hopes were soaring high because vaccines were arriving and our liberation was near, along with the arrival of spring. As an aside, we Canadians relate everything to the season and the weather. Warm, sunny, deluge, freezing, blizzard; nothing is ever the same old same old. Right now we are in the midst of a gorgeous, sunny, summer-like heat wave. The tulips are blooming, when in other years dirty traces of snow might still linger in the shady parts of the yard.

This weather should be enough to energize and lift the spirits, but instead this recent crushing lockdown has made us all slightly unhinged. People are doing nutty things like trashing businesses in Old Montreal, already struggling from lockdowns. Driving donuts inside rings of fire created by pouring gasoline in a circle in an empty parking lot. Holding huge, maskless beer parties in public parks in normally well-behaved Ottawa.

As writers, as observers and commentators of human nature, this should all be fascinating stuff. We kill people for a living, for heaven's sake. What's a flaming donut or maskless beer party? But while we're living through it, this mass hysteria is pretty scary stuff. The best we can do as writers is file it away in that mental file marked "random story ideas" and try to cling to our sanity. As many writers have already noted, keeping our focus and our energy in these times is exhausting. I am writing in fits and starts, finding it difficult to get any purchase on the crumbling ground of my concentration. 

Maybe it would be easier if I were a plotter. It seems to me that's a more methodical way to write, because you proceed almost point-form from one scene and stepping stone to the next. Once you have the structure and the essence, there is a built-in scaffolding to hang on to and keep your focus. I'd like to know from plotters whether this is a help to this pandemic writing challenge.

Unfortunately I'm mostly a pantser. I don't know the overall story or what's coming next or where I should end up. This scaffold-free creativity demands lots of energy, concentration, and inspiration. The muse doesn't need to be here all the time, because once I hit on a new idea to move the story forward, I happily run with the idea until it's done. But the muse needs to make frequent visits. Pandemic lassitude saps the creative mind of energy. It takes a lot of determination to force myself to sit in the chair and stare at the page, willing the next brilliant idea to flit in. It's so much easier to walk the dogs or browse Facebook. I haven't resorted to mopping the floors yet, but this morning I did vacuum them. Yikes.

Because this is my twentieth book, I do know that it will get written, that at some point as the deadline approaches, the required amount of panic and frustration will kick in to give me the energy I need. With each book, there has always been a time when I thought I didn't have an idea left in my head and the book was going to fall flat on its face. Somehow, by the end of the teeth gnashing, hair pulling, massaging and rewriting, a passably good book emerges. And so it will this time. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Rediscovering an old friend

By Rick Blechta

Ontario, where I live, is in yet another Covid lockdown. Actually, Toronto, where I specifically live, has been in some kind of lockdown or other since last Boxing Day, so we’re approaching four months of staying home — more or less.

I’d like to say I’ve been kept very busy by writing, but the truth is, I didn’t have, I don’t know, the mental stamina for that these days. In speaking with other ink-stained wretches, and not just my littermates here on Type M, I know I’m one of many.

Not having performed in the past 412 days — but who’s keeping tabs that closely? — practising trumpet for the sake of practising is getting pretty old.

“You know the back of the basement is a real mess,” pointed out my very observant wife two months ago in a leading sort of way.

Little did she know what those simple words would unleash.

Yes, indeedy, the back of the basement was a mess. So with good intentions, going down to give it the old heave ho, I, well, got sort of sidetracked…literally.

You see, in the back of our basement on shelves and languishing for years was my model railroading equipment and tools. I began taking things off shelves, opening boxes and the wave of nostalgia was overwhelming.

In my late 20s and early 30s, I was really into this hobby — and I was pretty good at it. As our family arrived and grew, and faced with a ridiculous work load filling six days of the week, something had to give. I’d already been forced to give up performing music. Model railroading went next. I packed things up, put them on shelves I’d bought, and there it all sat for over 30 years. Sure I saw it from time to time, but I never felt inclined to go any nearer.

Until that day — as requested, remember! — I went down to straighten up the basement.

Something else happened a couple of days later that sealed the deal. I was browsing the site of the biggest model railroad retailer/manufacturer in North America. In the structures section was a model kit to build a charming clapboard-sided house. Nice, but what captured my heart was its name: Aunt Lucy’s House.

Our four-year-old granddaughter is named Lucy, or as we sometimes call her Miss Lucy.


I suddenly had to buy this kit, now and forever to be called Miss Lucy’s House.

And that kicked off the whole model railroading mania once again. With my wife’s enthusiastic approval (surprising, that), Miss Lucy’s House soon needed a vegetable garden, complete with a snake and rats(?!)), as well as a garage, a sporty car, and an adult Miss Lucy herself.

Then our grandson asked, “What about me, Grampa?”

So now I’m working on “Jackson’s Village Pizza” (Jax lives in the apartment upstairs), and Lucy lives on a soon-to-be-built side street with two other houses.

Going back to my hobby turned out to be a good decision. I feel more energized and enthusiastic about everything, and during our current lockdown, that’s a pretty big deal. I’m getting more writing done, more practising done and I’m ahead on getting our backyard ready for the warmer weather (with my son’s help). Life feels a lot better.

But the basement’s still a mess…

Monday, April 12, 2021

Getting back to work

Happy Monday to you from Douglas Skelton in a sunny but chilly Scotland.

As you know, I have been moving house. And if you didn't know, where have you been? Do you not pay attention when I'm talking? Yes, I mean you at the back there. Stop your giggling and behave!

I am now fully ensconsed in my new bolthole, having swapped the peace and quiet of rural Scotland for the excitement and traffic noise of the big city (the new place is Glasgow adjacent).

With the house now in some semblance of order. Books are shelved, pictures are hung, rugs are down and shampooed. Mickey the dog and Tom the cat are more or less settled.

Time now turn my mind to the day job.

That's writing, just in case you didn't realise. 

I have a new book to complete by July. I hit the halfway mark of the first draft just before all the moving madness began but now it's time to pick of those threads and see if I can weave them into something magical. Or at least readable. Or, at the very least, completed.

Halting a work in progress in the middle is a double-edged sword. On the one hand there is the danger that whatever muse was working to get me to the midway mark has flitted elsewhere and alighted on some other writer's brow. 

On the other hand, the break may help me see the piece more clearly and let me attack it with renewed vigor. Or something. (And I hope you noticed I used the US spelling there. I am nothing if not considerate.)

Time will tell, I suppose.

I've used the word time three times so far. Where's an editor when you need one?

I mentioned the muse earlier. People often think of such a thing in relation to creatives.

Here's the thing...

It doesn't really exist.

Writing is a job, at least it is to me. Sometimes it's a chore. It's something I do. It's how I (try to) make a living.

Inspiration - the muse - is that flash at the beginning of the process. In other words, the idea. The big 'What if...?'

After that, it's application. Sitting at the desk, thumping those keys. I'm a two-fingered typist and I tend to poke at the keyboard as if I'm trying to prod it awake. 

The work progresses one letter, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. Sometimes it's as slow as molasses in January. (Yup, another US reference). Other times it flows

Oh, dear. I can't think of a simile. 

This does not bode well for getting back to work on Monday.

Writing is something you work at. Books do not appear as if guided by some unseen hand. It has to be written and rewritten, honed, edited, smoothed, manipulated. In our genre (crime, just in case you've wandered in off the street) clues have to be dropped with the kind of legerdemain that could give us membership of the Magic Circle. Twists have to be twisted so subtly that no-one sees them coming. Characters have to step off the page and walk around the room. Dialogue has to sing (not literally, unless you're pulling a Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or Cop Rock. Remember that? Steve Bochco's short-lived show which saw cops burst into song, literally on the beat.)

So by the time you read this on Monday I will have selected a suitable soundtrack and will be back in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Back with Rebecca Connolly and her friends. Back, this time, in a dark world of murder and magic.

Cover me - I'm going in...

Thursday, April 08, 2021

What will the world look like, post-Pandemic?

It’s a question I keep coming back to. Tom’s post this week, in which he mentioned the changes 2020 brought regarding book promotion, only created additional questions. Among them, for me: What, in the book industry, will go back to pre-Pandemic? What new ways of doing things will remain?

My agent reports that she’s worked from the Berkshires almost exclusively for the past year-plus and doesn’t feel the need to maintain her New York office. In terms of reading and submitting, the move out of the City changed little.

In my day job, as director of writing and founder of the Lamplighter Literary Arts Summer Writing Institute for Northfield Mount Hermon, many online ventures have been successful, author readings among them. A.M. Homes read to a virtual crowd of 225 people over ZOOM, then hosted a spirited Q@A. Books sales? I have no idea. Nothing signed obviously. But the night did allow her to reach 225 potential book buyers. Was the connection between author and reader as authentic as a face-to-face reading and signing? No, but . . .

. . . but it was not bad. Not bad at all, really. People liked the story she read (if you haven’t read her, you should. She has ties to our genre, in fact. She produced Mr. Mercedes for TV). People laughed at her jokes. People found her, even over Zoom, totally genuine, humble, and sincere. And I didn’t need to spring for travel and lodging. Was the evening as compelling as a live reading? I won’t go that far. But the Zoom option was cost-effective and allowed many more people to attend.

So I wonder, come post-Pandemic, what goes and what stays? Will my daughter have six-plus snow days each year and go until damn near July to make them up? Better not. This year, I had several authors visit classes over Zoom, something the students embraced and got a great deal out of. That will stay.


I hope those come back. A Zoom conversation, especially with strangers, isn’t the same as a face-to-face one. But it’s a good option to have.


Speaking of live readings, here's the real Keeley when she was 6 reciting Shel Silverstein's "True Story."

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Emotions and Characters


In the last year, we’ve all experienced a lot of different emotions, each of them probably more intense than they would have been under normal circumstances. Fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, envy, relief...

Fear of going out and contracting the virus... For me, it was more a fear of not knowing the new rules and unknowingly breaking one of them.

Frustration that we can’t go to the usual places and do the usual things...

Anger at some of the events that have happened in the last year and how the government/police/community has responded... 

Envy that other people seem to: have more spare time than you do, are handling the pandemic better, getting more writing done, have gotten their shots while you’re still waiting to be eligible... 

Relief at finally getting that shot (or even just an appointment for one) and that you can go out a little more... 

Not everyone handles these emotions in the same way, which can lead to conflict. 

I think it’s a good exercise, when developing characters for a story, to take one or two of these emotions and figure out how each character responds.

When experiencing: 

Fear: do they lock themselves away? square their shoulders and confront their fear? make sure they’re never in a situation where they have that fear?...

Frustration: do they get angry? throw up their hands and quit? get someone else to do the frustrating task for them?... 

Envy: do they go into a deep depression? strike out at the person they are envious of? try harder? give up?...

Anger: do they keep it all inside and explode at a much later date? throw an object across the room? punch a wall? exercise until the anger lessens? protest an injustice?...

If you place people in a story who handle emotions differently, natural conflict arises. One can’t understand why another isn’t reacting in the same way. I think this is also a good way to get to know your characters better. During the course of writing the story, you just might need to use this information. 


On another note, I found Rick’s post yesterday very interesting. Even though I don’t take criticism terribly well, I actually like being edited. I want to be called out on things that just aren’t working. Part of being a professional writer is believing that editing is a good thing and handling the comments gracefully. You need to find a good editor, though. The very first editor I had was absolutely wonderful. We fit together well. She always delivered her comments gently, but firmly. And, believe me, she had some comments! In general, I took every one of them. The few times I didn’t, I tried to figure out what she was really having a problem with and addressed that issue. My books are much better because of it.

If you want to be a professional writer, you’ve got to learn to deal with the editing process, no matter how painful it can be at times.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Writing and the hard truths

By Rick Blechta

As anyone who’s ever had a book published knows, relatives, friends, friends of friends, even complete strangers will eventually find their way to you, asking for help getting their book published.

I had this happened to me again last week, and in a fit of (misguided) generosity, I said I would look over a few chapters of the novel the writer told me, “…is finally ready to be sent to publishers!” (The budding novelist was also asking for help with that.)

There were a number of positives in what I read, but there were also a number of rather huge problems. I first gave congratulations on the good things I spotted (a couple of good characters, a plot that looked — based on four chapters — as if it might go somewhere, and reasonably good writing, as in the nuts and bolts of punctuation, grammar, paragraphing, etc.

Then I had to move to the things that were definitely not good, the biggest of which was verbosity. The writer just went on too long about things that did not need to be told to readers. For instance, characters couldn’t just walk into a room without it being minutely — and I mean minutely — described.

There were also tons of what I refer to as “dead words”, as in they just weren’t necessary for any good reason.

I knew, based on just these two things, that no publisher or agent would be interested in the manuscript. The person I was offering to help seemed very nice, so I took some extra time and provided what I hoped would act as a template for the ms being, well, pretty massively revised.

As an example of more economical writing, I took two multi-paragraphs of description and rewrote them. At the end, one was now only two paragraphs long with about half the number of words, and the other had even fewer words and was one paragraph long. With a covering letter explaining the thoughts and reasoning behind my suggestions, I sent everything back.

As I feared, the reaction from this writer was somewhat hysterical. She’d previously shared her manuscript with her husband (“an avid reader of mystery novels”) and some friends (ditto), and they’d all loved what she’d written and thought it was great. “Now you’re saying that I need to go back and completely redo my novel!”

All I did was tell her the truth. Based on my own experiences, I knew I was 100% correct. Of course every writer thinks all their prose is deathless. The truth is, it isn’t, and you have to expect and accept that. As I’ve said on this blog several times before, “I’d rather be good than right.”

These days publishers aren’t willing to take the manuscript of a writer who shows some promise and do the heavy editorial lifting required to see a novel make it to print — assuming they ever were.

In a return email, I told this person that I was only giving her my opinion, but that, based on my experience with 10 published works under my belt, I felt I was on solid ground. “But by all means, if you disagree with what I’m saying, send your ms out into the world and see what feedback you get.”

I have good suspicions how this will end. I just hope she’ll have the resilience to accept the truth and continue polishing what I think might actually be a good story. She simply has a good bit of growing to do in the craft of writing. But I suspect she might well give up.

I fervently hope she proves me wrong on that score.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Announcing the Reissue of My First Book, RANDOM ROAD.

They say that writing a book is a little like telling a joke and waiting two years to see if anyone laughs.  I wrote my fourth book, Shadow Hill, in 2019.  It was originally set for publication for July of 2020.  But, even before the pandemic struck, the publication date was moved to September of 2020.

Then all hell broke loose, and the new date was set for July 2021.

I was fine with that.   In addition to the delay, Poisoned Pen Press/Sourcebooks, my publisher, is reissuing my first book, Random Road, for April 13 (about a week from now) to gin up some interest in Shadow Hill.  The new edition of Random Road contains an introduction by the author, a conversation with the author, a reading group guide, and the first pages of the sequel to Random Road entitled Darkness Lane.  It also sports a dynamite new cover. 

Something I didn’t expect happened.  The interest level and buzz for the reissue has been so intense that the publisher asked to move the publication date of Shadow Hill one more time, to August 10, to extend the marketing efforts for Random Road

Additionally, Poisoned Pen Press/Sourcebooks has redesigned all the covers of my former books and asked me to start work on a fifth Geneva Chase mystery.  By the way, the redesigned covers are fantastic!!

2020 was a strange year and I watched while a lot of my author friends launched their books during the height of the pandemic.  Many of them had to pivot in the ways they marketed themselves and their novels.  

Many bookstores were closed altogether and, even now, they’re open at reduced capacity.  Nobody did book signings.  No mystery conferences were held. You couldn’t visit book clubs. 

Online video was nearly the only way to reach potential readers.  I think that even as life returns to normal, we’ll find that online will remain a powerful marketing tool.  Shameless self-promotion…I’m doing an online conversation with the Poisoned Pen Bookstore on Thursday, April 22, at 8 p.m., Eastern Time. 

So, this is my celebratory blog for the re-release of Random Road and it’s mercifully brief.  

I hope you’ve been vaccinated and were able to be with friends and family this past weekend.  I know that the only thing that will make me happier than seeing my books released is when I can visit my own family and see my grandchildren. 

In the meantime, stay safe and stay healthy.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Strange Days

 I (Donis) came very close to missing my day to post. I literally didn't know the date – and I don't mean just what date I'm supposed to post. These days, I often don't know what day of the week it is,  or the date, and sometimes I even forget the month. As I posted two weeks ago, I am now fully vaccinated and could carefully begin integrating into the world again, but I find I have forgotten how to do that. The idea of going out to lunch with a friend fills me with trepidation. I suppose the only way I'm going to get over that is to actually do it. If I can find a brave friend who is willing to go with me. Who should I ask? I've kept in touch with friends by email, Skype, Facebook and Zoom, but I haven't seen any of them in the flesh for over a year. Have they changed?  Sometimes I feel as though I've aged ten years during the last year.

This feeling  hasn't been helped by the fact that I've been a bit ill lately. Nothing serious, I think, just allergies, but bad ones, with knockout sinus headaches, fatigue, swollen eyes, even occasional nausea and vertigo. The irony is that this allergy attack began exactly two weeks from the day I had my second COVID shot, so I didn't even get to celebrate my new immunity. 

I'm feeling better now, thanks for asking. I've done a couple of Zoom classes for local writers' groups and written several articles and guest blogs to promote my February release of Valentino Will Die. Just today (March 31) my guest article for Marshal Zeringue's My Book, The Movie blog came up.I got the chance to pick the guy I'd like to play Rudolph Valentino if my book Valentino Will Die were made into a movie! And it took a while, but I think I've found my fictional silent screen adventuress Bianca LaBelle. Check it out here to see if you agree with my casting. 

In my waking life, I'm living in a timeless, immobile place on the earth right now, but in my dreams I've been traveling the world, looking for something. Monday night my husband and I were searching around the Italian hills on a Vespa. I was in South America, looking for I don't know what in the Amazonian jungle. Last night I was hiding from the Nazis in the German forest with a group of other women, looking for a way out, or waiting to be rescued. These are strange days. I don't know know what I'm hunting, but I'm certainly scouring the world to find it.