Monday, January 17, 2022

Writing is just a job, let's not get dramatic

When does being creative become a job?

I'm presuming that everyone who dips into these pages is either actively involved or actively interested in the process of stringing words together in some semblance of order.

So when does that act of stringing words together transform from an art (hobby, pastime, wish, ambition) to a means of employment.

I don't mean the moment when you are paid for the first time. I mean at what point is the creative process deemed work like any other? In other words, it becomes merely what we do.

I've held that view for some time, probably because even before I made a living (of sorts) from writing books I was making a living (a regular one) from writing news and features. Thanks to that, I have shown open disdain for any notion of the muse alighting upon a fevered brow and, its stablemate in the big book of author's myths, writer's block.

As the late Terry Pratchett once said - and I believe I have quoted here before - writer's block was created by people in California who couldn't write. (Sorry, Californians, I think you're lovely)

That doesn't mean we can't get stuck, of course we can. Those of us who don't plan run the risk of wandering down a blind alley with our stories. But what do you do if that happens in the real world? You turn around and go back, because somewhere you have made a wrong turn. You don't stand there and wail, 'I can't go on any further. This walking business is just too hard!', then collapse on a chaise longue, your palm pressed to your forehead and sip absinthe, there always being a handy couch and some strong aniseed flavoured liquor available up a blind alley. Well, at least in Glasgow.

So, no - I don't believe in writer's block. If something's not working then fix it. We are the creators of our little world of words and we can change whatever the hell we want. If things have come to a standstill creativity-wise in whatever we are writing then it probably means we've gone wrong somewhere back along the road. And as we made that stuff up, we can remake it up.

It could also mean you are writing entirely the wrong thing. I've been there.

There's an old adage that writer's write. Authors far more successful and wiser than I (me? Who knows? I'm no English professor) often advise that writing every day, no matter what, is the way forward. It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be written, as they say. Today's nonsense is tomorrow's bestseller, with a little work and application.

And there we have another point - what is needed is such application, not inspiration. Inspiration is the initial idea. I often visualise Peter Benchley thinking something along these lines: I think I'll write a book about a great white shark terrorising an island community. And I'll call it MUNCH! Okay, maybe the title needs a little work but I will now sit down and get the damn thing written and fame and fortune will follow. Maybe I'll get to meet that young guy Steven Spielberg some day - I did so enjoy 'Duel'.

That's the inspiration, that's the muse crash-landing on the old napper - that tiny little electrical impulse in the brain that sets the creative juices flowing. After that it's down to hard work, even when you don't feel like it.

When I was in newspapers I couldn't say to my boss, 'You know what? I'm just not feeling it today. Is it okay if I don't write these stories?'

I would have been told in no uncertain terms, no doubt in some choice Anglo-Saxon, that such a position was untenable in the workplace. 

The same would be said if I was a carpenter or a plumber or an electrician, all creative pursuits in their own ways.

So here's my advice in a nutshell: just as a journey is begun with a single step, so writing a book (play, short story, script) commences with one word. Then another. Then another. Don't agonise too much over them, just pile them in. If you're a planner you should know where you want the story to go. If you're a pantster - like me - you may have some semblance of an idea. It might be vague but you should have some sort of notion. 

If you're lucky it will flow. If you hit a roadblock just treat it as such and either go through it, over it, round it - or back up.

Get that first draft done, ideally as quickly as possible. It might be as rough a badger's butt but at least it's down and then you can work at it. Don't listen to authors who say their first draft is always what's printed. If that is the case - and I am always sceptical - then it in no way demeans your work. Never mind what they're doing - concentrate on yourself.

Incidentally, I may appear to be lecturing. I'm not - everything I have said above is something I've said to myself many times in the past and in fact it was the very same talking to I have myself at the turn of the year.

Now.

I'm off to pile some words into my current project. I've been at it for two weeks and I've got 26,000 words done.

The problem is, to paraphrase Neil Simon, I haven't thought of a story yet.



Friday, January 14, 2022

A Nice Surprise

 My short story, "Lizzie Noel," will be published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. I'm simply thrilled. I had a story published there many years ago--"The Family Rose"--which was subsequently picked up by two anthologies, Death on the Veranduh, and Murder to Music

My agent, Phyllis Westberg, wasn't very enthusiastic about "Lizzie Noel," and my husband didn't like it at all. So, I never submitted it, although I thought they were both wrong. 

Besides, Ellery Queen had turned down a couple of stories after "The Family Rose," was published. 

Last July I re-read the story and quite liked it. I always had. I sent it July 20th and it took forever for the staff to read it. When I checked on it last month, I was told they were just now getting to the July submissions. When they did, they sent the contract with the acceptance letter. 

I was elated! I had another story that I submitted yesterday. It will be interesting to see if they read this one faster because they bought another recently. No one has seen this one. Phyllis loved short stories, and everything went through the agency except for the articles I did for BlackPast.org

A couple of years ago Folio Literary Management bought Harold Ober Associates. Phyllis Westberg retired, and Claudia Cross is my wonderful new agent. 

This week I've been thinking about an older shelved manuscript that I believe has become more marketable. It might not be a good idea to interrupt my thinking on the mystery I'm currently writing. On the other hand, I'm finished with the first draft of the mystery, the story line is there. Perhaps I can work on the mystery in the morning and tackle the historical novel in the afternoon. The historical doesn't require any more research. It's been polished and polished. But it's too long. 

Through the marvelous tutelage I received from Barbara Peters and Annette Rogers at Poisoned Pen Press, I became a better writer. If I go through the historical novel again, I'll bet I find plenty to cut. I'll start with a global search for words ending in "ing." And about a jillion other little things that need spiffed up.

With my first ever manuscript at PPP the number of times I used the word "just" just drove Annette crazy. But I just couldn't help myself. 

I envied Barbara's outdoor bravery in her blog. I have hamstring tendonitis right now and will start physical therapy. My temperament is ideal for lying around, so I appreciated Doug Skelton's post. 

It turned out that I don't now and have never had Covid. My home test was a very faint false positive. December was a bleak month. Two friends were killed as pedestrians in separate accidents, and I have a nephew in ICU with Covid who has been intubated for about five weeks. 

Like my other Type M buddies, I'm tip-toeing a little warily into the New Year. I'm grateful for unexpected breaks and praying for families of friends who dealing with unexpected tragedies. 


Thursday, January 13, 2022

Highs and Lows


This has been a week of highs and lows. I finished a manuscript I began a year ago, which capped a nice couple of months that saw me get a job that will take us away from New England for the first time in 25 years. However, Monday, I learned a dear friend and mentor passed away unexpectedly.

Highs and lows.

I started working on a new series, a new concept, four years ago. I had an idea for a character and a series set in a locale I know well, a New England boarding school, a setting rife with power, privilege, and money, all elements that make for interesting crime novels. So, four years ago, I went about writing and produced a convoluted plot that my agent struggled with.

Now I’m a believer in the Raymond Chandler adage “There are no dull stories, only dull minds,” so I believed in the plot and figured my dull mind just didn’t execute it well. I went back to work, re-envisioning the entire storyline and changing the point of view, producing a manuscript that is 20,000 words lighter. The manuscript will be in my agent’s hands within a month. A highpoint in a stretch that has left me feeling blessed. In late November I accepted a job at Detroit Country Day School, an opportunity my family is excited for. After living at a boarding school for 15 years, we will buy a house and embark on civilian life.

Then two weeks ago, Hugh Silbaugh, my friend, the man who hired me and mentored me, a guy my mother said was “like the older brother you never had,” was diagnosed with cancer. On Monday, we learned he passed, unexpectedly. News that rocked me, my community, and teachers he mentored and students he impacted across the nation. A low.

Highs and lows. The things that make our lives and provide the inspiration for the art we try to produce.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

My Year in Books, 2021

 

Happy New Year to everyone. I successfully made it back from a very snowy Seattle pretty much on time. Quite a feat considering how many flights were cancelled the last week of the year.

Now it’s time for my annual reading wrap-up.

In 2021 I “consumed” 119 books, 2 more than last year. Consumed because it’s a combination of listening to audio books and reading. The largest category was mystery/thriller at 48%. This would go up to 66% if I included Nancy Drew, which I put in a separate Children’s/YA category. 10% of the books I read were in the non-fiction category, down from last year. This has been a trend ever since Covid struck. Before that, close to 50% of the books I read were nonfiction. Not sure why as reading non-fiction is very calming for me.

I also read some sci-fi/fantasy and general fiction. Also quite a few Children’s/YA books including 19 Nancy Drew books. These are mostly the 1960s/1970s editions, but I did read a few of the 1930s/40s versions. Mostly the ones where the stories drastically changed. Interesting to see the differences.

I listened to 20 audiobooks. Once again, most of those were the audio versions of the Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross, originally published in the 1960s/70s. I’ve finished those now and moved on to other things.

In the mystery category, the majority of them were cozies. This time I noticed an interesting trend, a large portion of them had a paranormal bent: ghosts, witches, vampires, etc. Prior to this past year I really didn’t read many paranormal cozies. Didn’t really find any that interested me. Over the last year I discovered quite a few that I find interesting.

The Oxford Key mysteries by Lynn Morrison are set in Oxford, England. Fun reads, good characters, interesting mysteries. I found out about them through an interview she did on a podcast. Either Leah Bailey’s or Alexia Gordon’s. Don’t remember which one.

I learned about The Vampire Knitting Club mysteries through a cozy group on Goodreads. Couldn’t resist reading a book with that title. This one is yes, set in Oxford, England. Really like the characters and stories. I’m on book 6 of 13 right now.

Another great series, though only 3 books long, is the Movie Palace series by Margaret Dumas. Really great books that feature an old movie theater, which has a ghost, an usherette who plunged to her death off the balcony of the theater.

I also read a lot of historical mysteries, quite a few of them the Redmond and Haze mysteries by Irina Shapiro.

My favorite book of the year in the non-fiction category is a true crime: The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer by Dean Jobb. I’d heard a bit about Dr. Cream before, but didn’t know a lot of the details. Now I do. 

I have two books that are vying for my favorite book of the year in the fiction category. One is Bluff by Jane Stanton Hitchcock. It’s more of a thriller than a mystery. One reviewer called it social noir. However you categorize it, it’s just a great read. The other book is The Vineyards of Champagne by Juliet Blackwell. This is a general fiction book set in France. Just a wonderful book. You may know Juliet’s name from one of her cozy mystery series.

That’s it for my reading wrap-up. Onto another topic next time. I’m curious, did you find yourself reading more last year than in previous years? Did you read different things?

Monday, January 10, 2022

Dystopian News and Focusing on Writing


 By Thomas Kies

I’m an unabashed news junkie.  My career for over thirty years was in newspapers and magazines so being a news geek just comes naturally.  I love the physical feel of a newspaper and we get our local paper delivered here twice a week (we really don’t have enough going on here for more editions than that), the News and Observer out of Raleigh every day except for Saturday, and the Sunday New York Times.  Additionally, I subscribe to the online versions of the Washington Post and my old newspaper, the Norwalk Hour. 

Put that together with all of the other free news websites available and I’m down a rabbit hole instead of writing. 

It is so darned easy to get distracted.  Just in a single Op-Ed section of a Sunday New York Times, there were pieces about how different countries were being affected by climate change, how the new covid variant was raging through the country, and how the divisive nature of our political and cultural landscape is slowly leading up to more violence and the possible end of our democracy.

If those aren’t the ingredients for a dystopian novel, I don’t know what is.  How on earth can anyone concentrate on writing a mystery with so many crazy things happening all at once?

I do a number of things to give myself direction.  I’m very lucky that I live on a barrier island here on the coast of North Carolina, so when I want to clear my head, I’ll take a ten-minute walk to the beach.  Usually, by the time I’ve gotten back home, I can sit down and hit the keyboard.

If I get stalled, I’ll bribe myself.  I’m a coffee addict so before I top off my latest cup of caffeine, I’ll force myself to write at least another couple of paragraphs. 

If I get frustrated with my progress, I’ll get up from my desk and wander around the house, thinking of dialogue.  Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t. But it gets the creative juices flowing.

Here’s a question.  Do all writers hear voices in their heads?

For me, starting a new book is the absolute hardest because you’re creating a new plotline, new characters, and new locations.  Everything is being made up of whole cloth. 

Right now, I’m about eighty pages into my new project and yesterday, I went back to the first few chapters to smooth out the rough edges and polish the prose. That was fun!  This afternoon I’ll do another few chapters.

Hopefully, by the time I get back to where I left off, I’ll have hit that place when the story starts to write itself.  It’s where the characters take on a life of their own and you know where the book is going.

Right now, however, I don’t even know who the bad guy is.  Bu that really is part of the fun, isn’t it?

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Guest Blogger Mary Miley

Mary Miley

Type M is proud to start the New Year off right with our first guest blogger of 2022, the wonderful Mary Miley, author of 15 nonfiction books, 200 magazine articles and 7 historical mysteries, including her new mystery series set in Chicago during the truly roaring 1920s. The first, The Mystic’s Accomplice, hit US shelves last year and the second, Spirits and Smoke, was released in ebook last December and in hardcover on January 4, 2022. Spirits and Smoke features Maddie Pastore, a reluctant sleuth struggling to survive in 1925 Chicago, when gangsters ruled the streets and Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals. The word “Spirits” in the title refers both to bootleg hooch and to the ghosts a fraudulent medium conjures up in her seances; “Smoke” is present at the seances and is also Twenties slang for deadly wood alcohol, the murder weapon of choice in this whodunnit. I (Donis) read an advance copy of Spirits and Smoke, and I can vouch for the fact that it is a great read, evocative and fun, and Maddie is a character to root for! Visit Mary's website here.


Spirits and Smoke

    Mary Miley

With the new year came the release of Spirits and Smoke, the second in my Mystic’s Accomplice series. The story follows Maddie Pastore, a young widow struggling to keep herself and her baby boy safe during the violent years of Chicago’s Roaring Twenties. Maddie works as a shill and investigator for a fraudulent mystic, ferreting out information that Madame Carlotta can use in her seances to convince clients she’s the real deal. “I wasn’t proud of what I did,” says Maddie, “but I was proud of how well I did it.” But what to do when, in the course of her investigations, she stumbles across evidence that the deceased didn’t die of natural causes?

Maddie’s talents draw unwelcome attention from one sharp-eyed police detective. He doesn’t believe in Spiritualism but in a city stuffed with gangsters, con artists, and criminals, he’ll take whatever help he can get. Maddie brings him a puzzling case: why did teetotal banker Herman Quillen die of drinking “smoke” (AKA methanol or wood alcohol), and who is the gold-tooth man at Carlotta’s séance falsely claiming to be his brother and demanding that the spirits reveal where Herman hid the money?

For a historian turned mystery writer, the decade of the Roaring Twenties offers infinite possibilities for murder and mayhem plus access to some of the weirdest people and the most incredible true events in American history—I include several in this book. Prohibition is the defining characteristic of the era because it affected all Americans, turning most of them into lawbreakers. Corruption and violence leached into every level of society as cops, judges, juries, and politicians were bought off. No decade has been as violent: this is the era that saw not only the rise of organized crime but the high point of the Ku Klux Klan. Add to that the excitement of speakeasies, flappers, the women’s vote, jazz, radio, and vaudeville, and the potential for trouble is endless. 

Chicago was the epicenter of crime in the 1920s. Sure, there was crime before Prohibition, but it was largely local, not terrible violent, and not all that profitable. The opportunity to supply the thirsty public with illegal booze raised the stakes to unthinkable heights. With literally billions of dollars in play, the murder rate doubled as bootleggers organized themselves into international gangs, the predecessors of today’s drug cartels. With my research, I was able to weave real people (like Alice Clement, Chicago’s flamboyant female policewoman) and real events (like the murder of gang leader Hymie Weiss on the cathedral steps) into what Kirkus Reviews calls “plentiful historical detail and a sparkling cast of characters.” 

______________

http://marymileytheobald.com

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

New Years reflections

I'll start this first blog of 2022 with a wish for a speedy, complication-free recovery to my fellow bloggers, their families, and everyone else who's been affected by Covid, which as you know, unless you've been completely unplugged, is absolutely rampaging across the globe. These are unnerving times and not what we'd hoped for as we enter the third year of this plague.

Welcome to 2022 indeed. Bah.

The next point I want to make is about the meaning of New Years and all this talk about accompanying resolutions. As Douglas said, New Years is supposed to be about new beginnings and endless possibilities. But it has never felt like the right time of year to celebrate new beginnings. New life. New hope. For us Canadians, and for much of the far northern world, January 1st means staring down the two darkest, coldest, and bleakest months of the year before the warmth and light of March. I love winter. I love getting out to play in the snow. Ottawa where I live has plenty of exciting activities. Tobogganing with your kids, cross-country and downhill skiing, skating on the canal, snowshoeing or hiking the crisp, white trails through forests of maple and pine. I have done all of them, and still enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking.

Snowshoeing up a mountain

But there are often about three good hours in the day during which to enjoy them. This morning it is -17 C outside, which will warm up to -11 by two o'clock. The sun sets at 4:30. The day, indeed the week, is planned around weather forecasts, which fluctuate wildly. Most times, it takes about fifteen minutes to get dressed up to take the dogs for a walk, let alone go skiing. It's hard work. So much of my day is spent inside, even before the long, dark evenings. During the pandemic, with its isolation and restrictions, even cinema, theatre, shopping, and dining out have often been off limits. January 1st as the promise of new beginning? It doesn't feel like a time to be starting afresh with new resolutions and new determination.

February view from my TV room

The Jewish New Year falls in September. Although that might herald new beginnings in the southern hemisphere, it is the start of the end in the north. Crops ripen, daylight wanes, temperatures begin to drop. It's a beautiful time of year, but it's the culmination of what has been, not a celebration of what's to come.

To me, the perfect time to mark the new year is spring. Maybe the spring equinox. That is truly the time when spirits feel renewed and hope rises. In my case I watch the snow melt at the fringes of the garden and the first spring crocuses poke up. Days become longer than nights, and neighbours come out from behind their snowbanks to greet each other. Smiles everywhere. My thoughts begin to turn to the cottage. 

My morning coffee place

This year it feels especially sensible to put off hopeful thoughts of 2022 for a couple of months. The virus has us by the throat again, exhausting essential workers, stressing business owners, and once again confining to quarters many of us, especially seniors like me. All my hopes of seeing friends and family are on hold with the words "let's see how the case count is in a month". So I limp along with social chats and books events with Zoom and What's App. I read, I write, I watch TV, and try to keep the dogs and myself exercised and entertained. It's a time for small pleasures. 

The time to think big will come.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Looking forward with hope

By Rick Blechta

Some folks are energized by a fresh new year. Some find themselves fighting off depression.

I belong in the former camp, and much like Mssr. Skelton, I always make resolutions for the new year. Sometime I even keep them!

This year, it’s tougher. My family’s recent brush with covid and the ongoing issues — Ontario where I live is going into a limited lockdown again tomorrow (this should have been done before Christmas, but our government decided not to heed the warnings, sigh) — it’s harder to see a clear path ahead.

I’ve found the trick with resolutions is to not make them too tough. How many times have I made the exercise one into “I’m going to walk 5 miles every day” and then fail by the end of the month?

So considering what we’re currently facing and how the way ahead is more clouded than ever, I’m being particularly modest this year.

Here in no particular order is my list of resolutions for 2022:
  • Go out for a walk 4 times a week (as long as it’s not slippery. I don’t need another fall!)
  • Write at least 1000 words per day — even if I throw them all out the next day
  • Make the bed every day (I’m four for four on that, in fact I even started before the new year!)
  • Weigh less on December 31, 2022 than I did the previous New Year’s Eve
  • Contact at least one old friend per week for no reason other than to hear their voice
  • Keep at least four of the above resolutions.
I know my list sounds uninspiring, but it is carefully-crafted and doable, I believe. If I keep to it, I will leave 2022 behind feeling satisfied with my progress.

Three years ago, one of my resolutions was to practise every day. That one has been a great success. In 2021, for example, I at least warmed up on 349 days, and on five of the empty days, I was sick.

Six years ago, my resolution was to reorganize our kitchen, making sure everything was in a logical place, and then sticking to the reorganization by putting everything back in its place when I was done with it. That too worked really well. Now I don’t even think about it. I just put everything away.

Two big, although modest wins.

That’s what I aim to do this year. Go into 2023 feeling good about myself because I stuck to it.

And in these dark times, isn’t that a big plus?

Monday, January 03, 2022

New year, new beginnings (yeah, I know it's a cliche but it works)

Happy New Year to you all!

How many have made new year resolutions? 

My new year resolution is not to make new year resolutions, so I guess I've broken it already.

Some people look back at this time of year but I have learned that it's a bad habit, as Will Munny says in Unforgiven. I force myself to look forward. After all, look what happened to Lot's wife. 

It's natural to think about making changes at this time of year, whether it be appearance, circumstance or outlook. Those bad habits may die hard but sooner or later you have to stick a stake through their hearts. Things that aren't working have to be assessed and redefined. New beginnings kick off with that first step.

So, what is ahead for me?

A busy year, I think - and further details will emerge in a few weeks time. I have lots of writing to do and hopefully there will be festivals and events in libraries and bookshops. 

And because it's going to be extremely busy there are changes I will have to make changes to my daily routine. 

Basically, I will have to stop faffing around and get my butt in gear. My day will have to be structured in a way that it hasn't been since I stopped working for a living.

I also have to at least nod towards those new year regulars - losing weight and getting, if not fit, then at least fitter.

Don't get me wrong, I've not reached the stage where the scales groan when I stand on them but I do need to shed a few pounds.

As for the fitness side I'm ok for a guy of my advancing years but I'm not about to run any marathons. Or walk them. I think perhaps even crawling will be troublesome.

So I've begun monitoring my steps with one of those apps. You know, the ones that tell you if you've reached the 10k target. I did it on my first day so colour me self-satisfied. That was yesterday so we'll see how I do today.

Of course, walking Mickey (my dog) goes a long way in increasing the tally, as does climbing the stairs in my home. 

But that's not enough. I must do some exercises too.

There is one problem with that.

I'm a lazy cuss and I'd much rather sit on the couch and watch TV. I don't think working the remote counts as exercise.

So - my routine has to be up early. Write in the morning from 8am (or 9am at the latest). Make sure I hit or exceed my daily word count (ideally three thousand words. They don't need to be good, they just need to be written). Do whatever else I have to do in the afternoon - that may be other projects or, as I will be writing one book while editing another, doing those edits. 

Of course, there also has to be time to see to Tom and Mickey, clean the house, cook (those takeaways must stop), see friends, go shopping. All that jazz.

As we say in Glasgow, Come ahead if you think you're hard enough.