Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ripped from the headlines




Nurse Kills Patient Over Grudge

That headline grabbed my attention a couple of years ago when it appeared in newspapers. Here’s the story behind it: a nurse in a plastic surgery office was accused of killing a patient following a plastic surgery procedure. It turned out that the victim had stolen the nurse’s boyfriend 30 years earlier, when both women were in high school. So this was the nurse's way of getting some long-overdue payback.

Talk about revenge being a dish that is best served cold.

That passing headline spawned an idea that stayed with me and eventually emerged as a subplot in one of my Fat City Mysteries (I won’t tell you which one, although you probably won’t recognize it in its fictionalized version). Here’s a link to the original article.

I was particularly struck because the story underscored how powerful our emotions can be, especially when we’re young. Who would have thought that a jilted girlfriend would actually murder the “other woman” who happened to turn up in her medical care, thirty years later? In addition to fueling a subplot for my story, the article also made me start reflecting on what was to become one of the themes in my book: jealousy and revenge. To write the story, I had to cast back on my own life experience to flesh out the character of the young person who would turn into a murderer.

I’m one of those people who was utterly miserable during middle school and early high school years. I was withdrawn, and had trouble making friends. There was a group of “mean girls” who made my life a living hell, especially in gym class. I think I can remember every joke they made at my expense, and every slight that was directed my way. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I met any of those girls today. Probably nothing. But during the writing of this particular story, I made a conscious effort to dredge up those old feelings of rage and humiliation. The process helped me be able to see my fictional murder from the killer’s point of view. That was important, because I feel that in most murderers' minds, their acts of homicide are justified. The victim has wronged him or her, and deserves to die.

I always try to get into my killer’s head, sometimes to the extent that I wind up empathizing with him. The killer may have used the wrong solution, but the homicide must seem justified, at least from that character’s point of view.

So I’m wondering to what extent other writers identify with the killers in their story? Do you have to tap into certain strong and scary feelings to portray the role authentically, the way an actor does? Do you want the reader to identify with the killer in any way, or at least find him sympathetic in some strange way?
Do tell.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Just Released - The Serpent and The Scorpion!



By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhwthorne.com

Well it’s blatant self promotion and birth announcement time! I’m so excited the second Ursula Marlow mystery, The Serpent and The Scorpion, comes out tomorrow and I can’t help myself! It’s hard sometimes to remember that it takes such a long time, 18 months typically, from manuscript to print, so for an author it’s like a very, very long pregnancy (and trust me I know what that feels like having had twins!) So now it’s time to celebrate – and I confess a few glasses of champagne have already been drunk (and the book isn’t officially in stores until Tuesday!)

When describing The Serpent and The Scorpion, Kirkus Reviews wrote “Pre-World War I England is a seething cauldron of conflicting ideologies as Bolsheviks, suffragettes, socialists and merchants of death battle for control.” I couldn’t have summed it up better – and reading this it’s obvious why I was drawn to this period in history!

All this month however I’m going to explore the themes in the book rather than the historical period in question - because I’m fascinated how, as an author, I find certain elements in a book suddenly coming to the fore. In my first book, Consequences of Sin, there were past betrayals and lost innocence. In The Serpent and the Scorpion, Ursula Marlow is still recovering from the events in Consequences and trying to make her way in the world as an independent businesswoman (a rarity in Edwardian English Society). The themes in this book are therefore a little different – the betrayals are more personal, the stakes are higher and Ursula is now older and wiser – yet still all too vulnerable. So I get to explore lust and greed, the pursuit of power and the cold calculation of those who relish the prospect of war with Germany. Whoever said history was dull and stuffy!

Next week I will be focusing on the theme of lust in my books: not just lust for another person but also lust for power, independence and revolution. The Serpent and The Scorpion is set in 1912 against a backdrop of socialist activism, militancy amongst the suffragettes and an escalating arms race. Oh and there are a couple of murders thrown in for good measure. My mother-in-law advised me when I started the manuscript for The Serpent and The Scorpion that I also needed “more sex…tastefully done of course!” and I’m pleased to say this aspect of lust is also taken care of. Ursula Marlow is named after a DH Lawrence character after all…

October is a big month for my fellow Killzone authors with Joe Moore and Kathryn Lilley having new books released as well, so it will be ‘champers’ all round for us here! Over the next few weeks I’ll be traveling on tour so I hope to meet some of you in person as well as in the blogsphere. For all the details about events, locations and times please visit my website at: www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com

Sunday, September 28, 2008

SEX and VIOLENCE

By guest blogger, Allison Brennan

Do I have your attention? Good.

allison-brennan When my publisher launched my first trilogy, they billed me as “Julie Garwood meets Thomas Harris.” I had to think about that a minute, but then realized that it’s pretty accurate. I write about romance (and with it, sex) between the hero and heroine, plus dark, disturbing serial murderers. Sometimes there’s sex on that end, too—but not the romance variety. I go deep into my villain’s head because if I don’t know or understand why he (or she) is so evil, then my readers aren’t going to know. I’ve been very proud and honored by the tag and try to live up to it each and every book. Not sure that I’ve made it yet, but I’m still working hard.

A friend of mine wrote an article at Romancing the Blog about why she doesn’t like to read dark and scary. Too many bad things going on in the world, she doesn’t need the realism in her fiction. There are many readers like her out there. Fortunately for me, not everyone shuns violence in their entertainment. But her comments got me thinking.

In Shakespeare’s time there were tragedies and comedies. Today is no exception. Some argue that the proliferation of sex in movies, TV and books is leading to a warped sense of romance and marriage. Some argue that the steady diet of violence in entertainment is causing more violence today. I disagree.

AE There’s a bunch of crap out there, but it doesn’t have to do with the quantity of sex or violence in the projects. Sex and violence goes back thousands and thousands of years. Whether you consider the Bible literature or truth, we all agree it was written long ago. Sex and violence was part of the culture as it is now. Wasn’t the serpent simply a seductive con artist convincing Eve to take something she’d been forbidden to have? Didn’t Cain slay his brother out of jealousy and cold rage?

I’d argue that romance in fiction validates our universal need to make a life-long connection with someone who loves us unconditionally. When love goes right, it truly makes the world go round. When it goes wrong . . . well, there’s a different story in there.

In addition, violence has been part of our society since the beginning. Societies watched as people were torn apart by lions and gladiators fought to the death, a far more gruesome visual than anything I could come up with in my mind. Public hangings were well-attended and celebrated by men, women and children. And beheadings? They give me the shivers.

serial-killer In Harold Schechter’s THE SERIAL KILLER FILES, he writes about the history of serial murder:

“The harsh fact is that we belong to a violent species, the kinds of outrages committed by serial killers have been an aspect of human society at all times in all places. As the Bible says, ‘There is no new thing under the sun’ – and that applies to sadistic murder as much as to anything else.

“Indeed, recent scientific evidence suggests that a taste for savage cruelty is encoded in our DNA, an evolutionary inheritance from our earliest primate ancestors.”

One story that has intrigued me since I read it in Schechter’s book is one of the first known and documented serial killers in America—the Harp cousins. They fought for the British—though apparently “their motives had less to do with politics than with the opportunities for rape, pillage, and murder that the conflict afforded them.” They ended up deserting, kidnapping a couple women, and moving to Tennessee—where they raided farms, robbed travelers, and tortured and killed for pleasure and profit.

In today’s books, violence is a way to exorcize our fears as much as to be scared. I explore violent themes, but in the end justice is always served—unlike in real life when bad people sometimes get away with atrocities. Okay, not true to life . . . but when I read I want to be scared. I want to turn pages rapidly, fearing for the survival of the protagonists, hoping for the demise of the villain. But in the end I want justice. It may not be pretty and wrapped in a pink bow, but it’s has to be present.

killing-fearIn the midst of all the violence, why not show the opposite? Love? Romance? Sex? A well-placed love scene adds emotional depth and hope to an otherwise dark story. Without the human connection that we all share, and that most of us have experienced, we only see the bad and not the good, not the potential, not the reason for fighting evil. When you’re fighting evil to protect those you love, the stakes are higher and the happily-ever-after sweeter.

I read broadly, light and dark, funny and serious. There’s a place for all tones and themes in fiction. But I’ll admit, I’m drawn first to the dark and dangerous, exploring the question of who and why? Who kills and why do they do it? Who wants to stop them and why are they dedicated? What demons do they struggle with? And, is there a place in their hearts and lives to share with someone else?

tempting-evil What do you like? Light, dark, anything in between? Are there places you refuse to go in fiction, as a writer or a reader? Do you like a little romance with your thriller, or do you prefer to keep all sex off page? Does it even matter? Inquiring minds want to know . . .

And because I have a new book out this week, I thought y’all might be interested in my new book trailer.

Comment (on anything!) by midnight tonight for a chance to win the first two books in my Prison Break Trilogy, Killing Fear and Tempting Evil.

Note: Future Sunday guest bloggers will be:

Oct 10, Camille Minichino
Oct 26, Chris Roerden
Nov 2, Carla Neggers

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I AM A THIEF, SO THERE.

John Ramsey Miller

www.johnramseymiller.com

Writers are thieves, always on the lookout for something to steal and store away until we can use it later. That which we take from others we will use to our own ends. The theft can be as small as a word or it may be the way a phrase is spun and may well pass the ears of others nearby without notice. Or we may hear a story somewhere, or a piece of a story that goes to some larger picture of less interest to but fits into something we have been working on like a single screw that completes a motor we’ve been tinkering with over time, but can’t get to run because of that missing piece. The talent of the thief is in using the pilfered article to make a story work like a well-tuned engine.

Once I was looking for something a character could say to another character that would completely negate their recent history, and allow one character to trust the other with his and the lives of others after she had seemingly betrayed him and he thought she would get them killed due to an alliance with the bad guys the he character was well aware of. I wracked my brain for hours looking for that one thing, and came up blank. When I told my wife what the problem was she gave me (without any effort at all) a single line that made it all fall into place, and broke through to him. It was all I could do not to cry as I typed the line, and it worked and made the scene make perfect sense immediately.

We steal descriptions of people for our characters. We steal the words from living people’s mouths. We steal feelings that others have. We steal the names of pets, the pets themselves. We steal experiences others have, we steal their lives piecemeal, picking through their histories to give to others we are creating from scratch. We build puzzles using pieces that we alter to fit people and situations, to make imagined lives real to our readers.

We steal for the greater good. We are constantly weaving the experiences and lives of the innocent into fictional stories, and we alter things so the authors of the true experiences they’ve lived or words they have spoken may not be recognizable to them as their own. If they do, they are almost always flattered to see their words or lives on a printed page, even after you’ve twisted them into shape to suit your purpose.

We write what we know, and we know what we experience and that which we don’t experience is ours as soon as we hear it or see it. I learned more that became useful in my writing from traveling around the country meeting people from all walks of life than I ever did in school, and every day I’m looking around and talking to people and absorbing small parts that I will steal and slip into the engines I am building that hopefully will purr to life.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Another Travel Story

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

I'd prepared a writing-oriented entry for this week, but as I was about to post it, I had second thoughts. I don't know, it just didn't feel fully formed. Maybe next week.

In the meantime, There's space to be filled, and I thought I'd share one of the funniest airplane incidents that's ever happened to me (and I travel a lot). This one happened this past Monday as I was settling into my seat for a flight from Washington Dulles to San Francisco.

I was in Row 9F of a 767 on this United Airlines flight--an exit row seat, which means that you have to assure the flight attendant that yes, I'd be delighted to hang around the burning airplane and help other passengers jump to safety. (I'm assuming that yelling words of encouragement from 300 yards away is essentially the same thing. "Remember! Stop, drop and roll!")

Anyway, I convinced the flight attendant that I was appropriately selfless, and she wandered up to the first class section to do whatever she needed to do. Fast forward a couple of minutes and a different flight attendant wandered into the emergency exit space with a United Airlines mechanic in tow. "Look at that window!" she scolded, pointing angrily at the little porthole in the emergency exit door. "It's completely fogged over. We can't possibly take off with visibility blocked like that."

Note for the record: No one seemed remotely concerned that the window next to my seat was equally fogged over, even though I bet there'd be a way better view of the blazing crash site through my window than hers. Of course, if it came to that, she'd be able to glance through the big open door to see me scampering away.

Anyway, the maintenance guy rolled his eyes and said, "Fine," and he excuse-me'd his way to the eixt door, lifted the handle and opened it. Then he leaned out and wiped away the condensation with a napkin. "Happy?" he asked.

That was the moment when the first flight attendant came tearing down the aisle from first class hollering, "No! No! No!" Her face was lit with a comical mix of anger and panic. When we made eye contact, though, she started to laugh.

She'd thought I was practicing my exit row duties.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

My Ghost Story

by Michelle Gagnon

I know, I know...it's a little early for Halloween material, but what the hey, it is my favorite holiday so I’m starting the celebration early. I kicked things off this past weekend when our local Sisters in Crime chapter took the “Official San Francisco Chinatown Ghost Tour.” I’ll describe that experience in more detail next week, suffice it to say it was well worth the money if for no other reason than I learned the true origins of the terms “hooker” and “Shanghaied.”

We opened the evening sitting around the lounge of a deserted Chinese restaurant sharing ghost stories, something I haven’t done since Girl Scout campfire time. So today I’m going to offer my best contribution to the genre. It’s been a long time since I thought of this incident, years, in fact. But it still makes a chill go down my spine…

People often ask why my books are set in New England when I’ve spent the past decade in the more temperate climes of the Bay Area. Initially it wasn’t a conscious decision, but when forced to reflect back on it I can safely say that for me, New England is just plain spooky. You get a sense of a past there that doesn’t exist in land of split-level ranch-houses and shopping malls. Add to that the fact that I grew up in a two hundred year-old renovated farm house with a ramshackle barn on the property that could easily have passed for the set of a horror film, and you’ll get some insight into my psyche.

In that barn, from the day we moved in until my parents finally left twenty-some odd years later, there was an aged, yellowing calendar on the wall. Since July 1952, no one had torn off a month. We bought the house from an elderly woman who had literally spent her entire life there, and had finally decided to move to a smaller, more manageable house.

Eleanor Cockrell told us that her father, a furniture maker by trade, had died suddenly of a heart attack in that barn mid-July, 1952. Apparently it never occurred to anyone to remove the calendar, or any of the spooky pieces of broken furniture scattered throughout. You would think that as a kid, having a barn like that to play in would have been a treat. Truth is, we barely went in the place. There was just something about it, an undeniable dark energy there.

Not that the rest of the house was any less spooky. I started suffering from insomnia when I was twelve years-old, and was therefore treated to years’ worth of odd late night bumps, creaks, and groans. Footsteps, where there shouldn’t have been any. If I closed the closet door in my bedroom all the way, at some point, maybe a minute later, maybe an hour, it crashed open again with a resounding “thump.”

“It’s an old house,” my parents would say, rolling their eyes. “Just wood settling.”

Strange things happened periodically, lights left on in rooms no one had been in, strange buzzing sounds bouncing around the house in such a way that even my parents were at a loss for an explanation.

But this one event I believe is indisputable. It was right before my parents were due to move out, and I was back home with a boyfriend clearing out years worth of old report cards and movie stubs (yes, I am a pack rat). Most of these treasured items were stored under the eaves in our attic. The Cockrells apparently hadn’t used the attic much in the winter, and Henry had built a large panel that could close off the staircase so only the bottom two floors would have to be heated. For the twenty odd years that we lived in that house, that panel had never been closed, not once. It wasn’t locked, but was almost too heavy to move, so we never worried about it.

It was one of those roasting hot, humid July afternoons that New England specializes in. My boyfriend and I were filthy from crawling around in the accumulated dust and dirt, dripping sweat thanks to the 100+ degree temperatures. As we headed downstairs to take a break, he muttered under his breath that this was the crappiest house he’d ever been in, and he couldn’t wait to leave.

That’s when it happened. Out of nowhere, the panel that hadn’t moved for decades slammed down on his head, sending him tumbling down the stairs and nearly knocking him unconscious. Hard to say if it was Henry taking offense, or another resident—I always suspected we had more than one of them rattling around, it was after all a very large, very old house. My boyfriend survived, but refused to return to the attic. And needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out in the end. Maybe Henry knew best, after all.

I love a good ghost story, so if you’ve got one to share, let’s hear it…

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Geek genes vs. Levi jeans

By Joe Moore

I consider myself to be tech savvy—maybe more so than the average PC user. I believe I have geek genes. My wife has Levi jeans. She is always calling me into her office to say that there's something wrong with her PC and could I fix it. It’s usually the result of pilot error.

I wasn’t born with a geek gene. I believe I got it while in close proximity to someone who was born with it: my son. I remember TRS-80 when he passed it on to me. Many years ago, he came home from school one day with a Radio Shack TRS-80. He had traded a friend an old CB radio for it. The TRS used a TV for a monitor and had a paltry 16k of RAM. No hard drive. Storage was on an external 5.25” floppy disk or an audio cassette tape. Within a week, I got my hands on a basic word processing module and was using the computer more than my son. I wrote lots of stories with it as I dreamed of becoming a novelist.

commodor64 Being an official geek at that point, I soon grew tired of the TRS-80 and moved up to the highly advanced Commodore 64. Same external storage but a whopping 64k of RAM. Now we were getting somewhere. I found a better word processor program and kept writing more stuff. My first novel was years away, but I was on a roll.

Somewhere along the line, I learned how to use an Apple Macintosh. Built-in floppy storage and a massive 128k of RAM. I could feel the power.

applemacintoshThen I purchased a dedicated word processing device made by Magnavox called a VideoWriter. It was a computer, printer and monitor built into one unit. I wrote my first book using it--an action adventure novel set in Cuba and South Florida.

My first real, bigboy computer was a 286 made by Emerson. It had 4MB of RAM and a 40MB hard drive. Today, you can find toys in a McDonalds Happy Meal with more memory than my Emerson.

Next came a Micron which I used for many years followed by my trusty Dell 8100 which lasted 7 years. Along the way, I replaced its RAM, hard drives, fans, optical drives--just about everything but the motherboard.

xps-630Which brings us to my latest: a new Dell XPS 630. It's considered an extreme gaming machine. I don't play PC video games but I do a lot of graphics design and my old Dell just couldn't keep up with the heavy lifting needed for the newest CS3 versions of PhotoShop and InDesign. My new machine has an Intel Quad-core processor, 4 Gig of RAM, 6 fans, and a terabyte of storage. When I turn it on, it’s like the scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where the city power grid dims.

Does having geek genes help me write better novels? Probably not. But when you're a geek, it doesn't really matter. All that does matter is staying on the "bleeding edge" of technology.

So whatever happed to my son who gave me the geek gene? He went on to become a federal agent for the Department of Defense. His specialty: computer forensics.

Which do you have: geek genes or Levi jeans? What was your journey like along the techno highway to get to your current computer? And the most important question of all: Are you a MAC or a PC?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Writers who do way too much


Note: Sorry for missing my posting day last week. For the explanation, see Phase Three, below.

Everywhere I go, I hear it: Authors are cutting back on book promotion.

At conferences and on blogs, I hear published writers announcing that they are “scaling down” the time and dollars they spend flogging their books. They’re chopping their advertising budgets, attending fewer conferences, and abandoning blogs. In extreme cases, they’re even turning down contracts for new books—which guarantees that you won’t have to do any promotion.

In a world where most authors get little promotion budget from their publishers, some writers who previously spent tons of time “getting the word out” about their books are becoming more like Greta Garbo. They vant to be alone. Alone, in the company of their word processor.

I call this process the Quitclaim Syndrome. The syndrome usually progress in the following phases:

Phase One: Writer gets published, then spends first year in a giddy travel/networking/book signing spree.

Phase Two: Writer spends so much time promoting Book One that s/he risks falling behind schedule on producing Book Two, but manages to make the deadline by dint of superhuman effort. By now, Writer has spent more money on promotion than the combined advances for all the books, which haven’t even been paid out yet. Royalties are hiding somewhere in a La-La land called FutureWorld.

Phase Three: Writer begins to experience the physical tics of over-multitasking: chronic fatigue, self-medication therapies gone wrong, and desk rage, if she has a day job. Medical intervention may be required. Writer is so exhausted that she plans the promotion of Book Two with a more realistic—even jaundiced—eye. Kind of the way a guy regards the prospect of paying for a fourth or fifth failed date in a row. What’s this worth to me? he asks himself. For way less money, I could have more fun sitting at home on the couch with a beer and a copy of Debbie Does Dallas.

Phase Four: Writer reaches a fork in the road. To continue breathless promotion efforts, or not? Whereupon Writer either A) keeps promoting herself, but not nearly so breathlessly, or B) stops most promotion efforts except for the bare necessities.

Phase Five: Writer returns to more isolated, less frenzied writing schedule, and greater productivity.

Is anyone else seeing this as a trend? Is frenzied book promotion just not worth the effort as much anymore, because the costs are too high and there’s not enough payoff in terms of book sales? Does the whole thing interfere too much with the time it takes to write?
Thoughts?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why I Never Read Nancy Drew or The Power of Enid

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com



Perhaps Michelle’s blog post last week has put me in a confessional mood but I feel I ought to admit that I have never read a Nancy Drew book or a Hardy Boys' mystery. Not one. Not ever. And you know what – I’m not going to either. Sure when I’m on a panel discussion I sometimes I feel a wee bit embarrassed by this perceived lack of education but to be honest, I don’t really care. I’m Australian. My parents are British. We read Enid Blyton. Deal with it.



But then of course I get the blank stares – who the hell is Enid Blyton? So I think it’s about time to celebrate the power of Enid.

Even when I started reading her books in the late 1970’s she was old fashioned – full of bizarre references to Tongue sandwiches, anchovy paste, macaroons and orangeade. I had little idea what these were and I certainly never had midnight feasts at boarding school or discovered German spies on an offshore island – but still I was hooked.



The Famous five were early favorites: Julian, Dick, George (the tomboy), Anne and Timothy the Dog – constantly finding themselves in trouble with gypsies, circus folk, mad scientists and smugglers. I was never very keen on the Secret Seven - they were ‘dags’ (Australian for nerds). My other favorites, however, included the ‘Secret Series’ (such as The Secret of Spiggy Holes and The Secret of Killmooin) and The ‘Mystery series’ (such as The Ring O’Bells Mystery, The Rubadub Mystery). But my all time favorite was the ‘Adventure’ series – The Island of Adventure, the Castle of Adventure, The River of Adventure – you get the picture. Enid was never what you'd call innovative with her titles.


What was the enduring power of these books? I think the Harry Potter phenomenon captures something very similar – the ‘derring-do’ of the British child. I’d even go as far to call it an archetype – and I fell for it hard. How I wanted to go for holidays in a horse drawn caravan and encounter circus folk, or have famous aviator parents who flew you to mythical lands. Why couldn’t I get mumps and recuperate in an English village full of mysteries? Why wasn’t I allowed to sail to my own secret island?!

Believe it or not I think kids are still reading Enid Blyton – despite the fact that they are a product of a bygone era in which racial stereotypes and British imperialism is rampant. Despite all this, however, I’m happy to stand proud by Enid – and I bet that George (really gender confused Georgina) and Timmy the dog would whip Nancy Drew’s butt any day of the week.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Blank Page––Make That The Blank Screen

By John Ramsey Miller

www.johnramseymiller.com

I have never had writer’s block. I have had my share of fits of laziness, but I can always sit down at my computer and knock out a chapter or three. I credit my time, in the late eighties, that I spent as an advertising copywriter with Hoffman/ Miller Advertising. Each day I would sit at a typewriter––an IBM Selectric first, and later an Apple Lisa–– and I would knock words out in short or long lines. I knew I wasn’t writing
The Catcher In The Rye, but I took what I was doing seriously because I knew that companies and their employees depended on what I did to communicate what they offered, and that they depended on my judgment and creativity to grow their sales.

In those days, in a booming New Orleans, I would work on several accounts every day, so my mind was constantly changing gears between real estate, to jewelry, Italian clothing, oil & gas, tank storage farms, banking, foods, hot tubs, parking decks, mayonnaise, coffee & tea, chemicals, hospitals, restaurants, and other private, retail and wholesale clients whose needs varied. I wrote or directed to be written, brochures, catch lines, jingles, TV and radio spots, body copy and point of sale ads. There were always deadlines that couldn’t be missed no matter what else was going on, and we never missed one, although our suppliers did on occasion.

Most importantly, I learned to take rejection, and never to take it personally, and to get on to the next thing with enthusiasm and a clear head. We were a young agency and we often went up against other larger agencies and often we lost out, not based on our creative solutions, but because other larger agencies were seen as “safer”. We rarely had the advantage, but we often won with our creative approaches.

We’d begin campaigns by asking ourselves questions about what the client’s target customer was going to stop and look at, and what they might act on or would likely pass over. I was fortunate that I had a partner, Nathan Hoffman, who was and had a remarkable work ethic, and we didn’t care who came up with or got the credit for an idea that made sense.

I learned to take criticism of my ideas and copy and to make changes based on what other people who knew thought without feeling offended or slighted. If you don’t have a thick skin you can’t be successful in advertising or writing commercial fiction. Once we sold a new logo and accompanying campaign to a CEO of a large company, but before we left, he asked the cleaning lady who was emptying his trash can which one she liked, and she picked the old one and said she hated the one we’d agreed on because she “didn’t get it.” Even though she was accustomed to the old one because she knew it, she planted a bad seed in his mind and shook his confidence in the new logo. He had a point since a logo had to make sense to everyone and might be too radical a change too fast and leave some old customers baffled. We ended up doing an updated variation of the old logo, and nobody was lost in the shuffle. Once we had to throw out a campaign that was unfolding over several months because the client’s wife had a friend she trusted who was “bored” with the campaign and thought it ought to be more exciting. Explaining numbers of impressions needed over time to establish the client’s products was a waste of time. The client ate the expense of starting a new more exciting campaign because, and I quote, “I have to sleep with my wife.” All we could was what the client asked for.

I had one client, David Rubenstein, whose Rubenstein Bros. clothing stores told me. “John, you can agree with my ideas and do what I think is best against your better judgment, which is what I am paying you for, but if it fails, I’ll blame you. If you disagree, just say so, and if I go against your suggestions, I’ll take the blame.” Clients as perfect as David Rubenstein were indeed rare, but treasured by our agency.

So I think back on those days and what I learned, and realize that it helped me become the writer I am. I am easy to work with because I understand that it’s the end product that counts. Although I have a lot of control of my stories, I always listen to my agent and my editor because they know more than I do, and I am always ready to make whatever changes they feel will improve my work. And, you know, so far they have always been right.

When I am called upon to give advice to new authors, I can only go back to what worked for me, and most of it all goes back to those days when I was filling blank pages without knowing there was such a thing as writer’s block.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Day Job: The Cure For Writer's Isolation

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

For me, the dream of becoming a full-time writer turned out to be a bad one. My first book, Nathan’s Run, sold very well and a lucrative movie deal followed. Eighteen months later, a second bestseller and a second movie deal convinced me that maybe it was time to walk away from my career as a safety and environmental engineer and do this writing stuff full time. After all, isn’t that the dream of every artist—to get paid full-time for what you’ve always done just for the love of it?

My son was nine years old back then, and this whole adventure was brand new. Here I found myself with a healthy bank account, some minor celebrity and a dream at my doorstep. How could I not walk away from the humdrum world of business? My wife and I moved to a little nicer house, to a better school system, and for the next seven years or so, I lived what was supposed to be my dream.

I should have known early on, though, that I had chosen poorly. Those were the halcyon days of the brand new Internet (at least as far as I was concerned), and AOL had a terrific authors’ room called The Writers Club, where I spent hours chatting with the likes of Tom Clancy, and the then-unknown Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Lorenzo Carcaterra and our own John Ramsey Miller. On any given day, I spent at least as much time in that chat room as I spent at my computer screen creating the stories that were now the sole means to pay the mortgage. I wasn’t ignoring my responsibilities—I was still churning out books—but I was hungry for company.

Here’s the thing: I am a classic Type A personality. I am an extrovert in the true meaning of the word—I draw energy from being around others. By spending my days in writer’s isolation, I was feeding my creative side while starving my need for social interaction. I made the best of it, turned out four novels and four screenplays for the studios, but I needed change.

The final blow came in 2004, when my baby boy left for college (he just graduated cum laude from Virginia Tech—way to go, Chris!), and my faithful foot-warmer and dear friend Joe (the dog) died at age twelve. My wife and I were truly empty-nesters. My wife had embraced the need for social interaction two years before and gone back to work, so that meant it was literally just me and my imaginary friends knocking around the house all day. It was a loser of a plan.

So, I sought and found a day job again—my wife calls it my big-boy job. I am the director of safety for a trade association in Washington, DC, just three blocks from the White House. If I could magically remove the commute from my daily equation, it would be perfect. On the other hand, without a daily trip on the subway, where would half of my characters come from?


Oh, and as for the writing . . . I am at least as productive, if not more so, as a part-time writer as I was when I was full-time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

True Confessions, or What’s Really on my iPod

by Michelle Gagnon

Recently my household has been debating the relative merits of lying (living with a toddler will do that to you-it's amazing what a person will say to get them to eat their vegetables sometimes). And that got me thinking about the truth, and the complicated relationship most of us have with it. How honest are we, really? When there’s a passenger in my car, I make sure to tune the radio to NPR (which, if I’m being truthful, I rarely listen to), instead of the club mix station that jars me awake on a long drive (or a short one: again, the truth hurts). So I’ve decided to seize this opportunity to come clean about several things I’ve managed to keep quiet for years.

Music:

I have wide and varied taste in music. For someone in her late-thirties, I consider myself to be fairly hip (although I suspect most teenagers would scoff at my collection). I’ve not only heard of No Age, I own a few of their songs. But if one were allowed unfettered access to my iPod, you would also stumble across (gasp) Kelly Clarkson. “Good music to jog to,” I would say defensively (which would also be a lie—I only run when I’m being chased). Now I know what you’re thinking, there’s no real shame in listening to Kelly Clarkson, a lot of people love her music. True. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover…the soundtrack to the Broadway show Rent. A remix of the song “Holding out for a Hero,” from the second Shrek movie. And the pièce de résistance: LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” Shocking, I know. But not nearly as bad as…

TV:

…what I watch on TV. I shake my head and tsk at cocktail parties when everyone deplores the sad state of programming that relies increasingly on reality shows showcasing our depravity. Then I go home and flip on “America’s Next Top Model.” I can’t help myself. When Tyra Banks reads the names off, one at a time, agonizingly slowly, emphasizing each syllable: “Only eight of you will continue on to become Americas...Next….Top…Model…,” I am absolutely riveted.

Mind you, I do have some standards. That Chef that apparently just screams at people for money? No need for him. Neither will I lower myself to watch anything that involves swapping family members, desert islands, trying to hook a millionaire, or D-list celebrities trapped in any sort of situation together. (Or singing. I’ve never really enjoyed watching people sing, for some reason). But “Top Chef,” “The Apprentice,” “So You Think You Can Dance”…I am your bitch.

As an aside, let me just mention that at one of those cocktail parties, a group of extremely cultured female friends was discussing how they only still possess their televisions so that they can watch films (with subtitles, I’m guessing). I joked, “Such a shame, now you have no idea what’s happening on ‘Project Runway,’” and they turned to me en masse and began to chatter excitedly, “Ohmigod, can you believe they voted off Kit? I was shocked!!!”

So I’m guessing I’m not alone in my shame. Just brand a big red letter “R” on my chest and let’s call it a day. Oops, I almost forgot the best of them all…

Movies:

Ok, this one I’m not so ashamed of. Heck, I’ve already said in other blog posts that “movie critic” would be my dream job, and it states right in my bio that my weakness is Hollywood blockbusters. Honesty at last, right? But in throwing that right out there in the open, I neglected to mention one thing: although I love movies, it has been a long, long time since I have watched what would qualify as cinema. I finally caved to reality and canceled my Netflix subscription, because I would invariably order a critically-acclaimed film, hold on to it for months, then mail it back unopened. I had a terrible habit of putting movies in my queue that a different Michelle would watch, a better Michelle, one who really enjoyed reading as she watched a movie. The real Michelle tossed that envelope on top of her DVD player with a slight twinge of guilt and settled in to watch “Independence Day” for the umpteenth time. On network television. With commercials. Terrible, I know.

So there you have it, skeletons marched out of the closet, dirty little secrets tromped out for all the world to see. Time to fess up: what are you hiding?


Speak Up!

by Joe Moore
scream Is it just me or has anyone else noticed how hard it is to talk after spending so much time in front of a computer writing thousands of words? It seems that the longer I spend writing, the more my ability to speak with others has diminished. When I'm at a social gathering or pretty much any situation where I try to communicate verbally, I tend to open my mouth and stammer or stutter as fragments of thoughts shoot out like shrapnel. Talking with others in real-time doesn't allow me to craft my speak with first drafts, second drafts, rewrites, spell check, and thesaurus comparisons for alternative words. After all, I've spent hundreds of hours in a dark room with my eyes going buggy from the glow of my monitors while I labor over choosing just the right verb, avoiding passive voice, trying to catch myself from falling into the trap of using useless adverbs and flowery adjectives, cliches, over-writing, under-writing, starting my thoughts in the wrong place, line editing, plotting, split infinitives, dangling--well, you get the idea. As a writer, talking to others has become hard for me.

I find myself ordering pizza on the Internet from Papa Johns and Dominos so I don't have to talk to the person at the store. I send faxes, emails, text messages, IM, anything to get out of talking to someone. I even email my wife in the next room.

Talking has become painful. It seems that the more I write, the worse I speak. I open my mouth and people give me a pitiful, "I hope he writes better than he talks" stare. I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that I spend the majority of my day in the company of imaginary people?

Is this a byproduct of writing novels or is it just me loosing my ability to communicate with my mouth? Maybe I should consider voice recognition software. I wonder if those programs can interpret verbal gibberish? So, is it just me or what?

Monday, September 15, 2008

You've got to be Brave. The Revision Process at One AM.


By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com

I’ve spent the whole weekend knee deep in revisions for my latest manuscript and I believe me, this aspect of writing is as challenging as writing the first full draft. Granted I forced my husband to be on twin duty the whole time, so he’s probably still recovering too, but it made me realize how much the writing process really is just that – a long and detailed (often arduous) process.

Writing historical fiction means that I have to incorporate a sense of time and place that is backed up by significant amounts of research. It also means that at every point in the revision process I find myself second-guessing historical accuracy. Not just the big stuff like making sure my characters aren’t jumping aboard the Concorde in 1912 but the little stuff, like the nuances of speech, use of slang, and the way people perceived the world around them. Sometimes I have to confess, if I don’t know and can’t find the answer I just go with my gut and make it up. Hey, this is fiction after all.

I view revising as adding the second and third coats of paint to a project – each layer adds a subtly and a depth to the characters, to the setting, and to the themes that swirl around the plot. What I find the biggest challenge is avoiding what I call 'tinkering' - changing my mind over a minute plot point only to find it has rolling ramifications and then (in total disgust) I find I have to go all the way back and return it all to the way it was. I guess this is what people call a ‘learning process’ but I seem to be a bit ‘learning challenged’ when it comes to this – and still find myself adding complexity where NO MORE is needed! 'Keep It Simple Stupid' is a motto I need to have branded to my forehead.


Those who want to see the writing process in action can find me sitting in my writing studio, a converted garage in the back of our house, bleary eyed at one o’clock in the morning, determined to finish the next chapter as I’m ‘on a roll’. I might be on the internet checking on a historical reference, looking up the architecture for a historic home or searching The Times database for an event the latest fashions for that year. I might even be using the delete key to liberal advantage as part of the revision process involves getting rid of all the extraneous stuff that I find stops the flow of the narrative (sometimes bringing tears to my eyes if it was a point of historical research I spent hours on!)

Yesterday I deleted a whole chapter – painful but necessary. I then merged two minor characters to streamline the plot. I decided one scene moved like molasses and I got bogged down in worrying whether the house should have gothic archways or not…Time passed. It was one am…Time to call it quits till the red pen, the axe and the delete key were brought back out to do it all again.

Ah the joys of revision. You just got to be brave…

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Judging a book by its cover

By guest blogger, Alison Gaylin

heartless This is a big month for me because I have two books coming out. HEARTLESS, my new standalone, launched in the states September 2, while TRASHED – which came out a year ago in the US – launched in the UK September 4.

Unlike Alafair Burke, who posted here recently, I was never trashedasked to make any changes to “Britishize” the book, which is set in L.A. and features a reluctant supermarket tabloid reporter who uncovers a grisly series of Hollywood murders. But what makes it feel like a new book to me is the cover. Check it out; TRASHED’s British exterior is markedly different.

TrashedBrit Not to jump into the whole “lipstick on a pig” dialogue but please look at this cover and tell me if any man would be caught dead carrying TRASHED to a checkout counter. (And don’t forget to factor in the chapter headers, which all feature sweet little striped satin hangers hovering over them).

I’m not surprised – LBD is a chick lit oriented imprint whose name says it all – and I actually think their covers are adorable. But I’m fascinated by all of this from a marketing perspective. A British friend assures me that chick lit is still huge in the land of Bridget Jones, but here’s the thing. I’m hoping I can fulfill my end of the deal. I’m hoping that the murders in TRASHED aren’t JenMay_Alison_6047_sm too gruesome, that there’s enough romance and shoes and pure girly fun to live up to what the cover promises. Over the next year, my other four books will be coming out – four months apart – on the LBD imprint. I can’t wait to see what their covers look like – I know they’ll be miles away from my US covers. That’s fine with me. I just want British readers to buy my books, and read them. Cover to adorable cover.

How important is a cover to you? Have you ever bought – or not bought – a book based on the jacket it’s wrapped in? (I sort of hope the answer is “yes,” because HEARTLESS’s cover is pretty great.)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Non-Glamorous Life

My children have accused me of being a boring person. I like to think I merely give that impression because I listen more than I talk, and I am usually content to be an observer of the world around me. And now I live in a boring place––very rural North Carolina––where nobody seems impressed by authors who didn’t write something practical and useful to their daily lives. For instance my coffee table at this moment has two books sitting on it: a copy of Storey’s Guide To Raising Chickens, and Basic Country Skills. I don’t advertise the fact (to my few neighbors) that I’m an author, because people out here would view making a living writing stories as suspicious behavior. But my new environment is making me a more relaxed, and much more focused, writer.

After fifty-eight years of living in major cities, large or small towns, my wife and I decided we wanted some solitude and more control of our lives. My wife, a proven country girl, and I sold our house in Concord, NC, and moved way out here off a gravel road named for a small clapboard church. It’s a place where most of the roads, that aren't just numbers, are named for churches or schools they run in front of, or harness shops, or are called things like Shortcut Road.

They knew me in town as a fiction author, while out here at the feed and seed store they know me only as “Blue Toyota Highlander” because that is what they put my feed sacks into after I pay for my order. One of the perks of living several miles from the middle of nowhere is that despite my fish-belly-white, chicken legs, I can go around the community in shorts without anyone making “sunglasses” jokes or caring at all. Sometimes, when it’s cool enough, I wear overalls or jeans with missing knees. And I have been honing my carpentry and necessary 4-H skills.

My writing studio is a converted feed storage shed, a 12X12 room (with a covered porch where my three dogs lounge while I work), which despite new oak floors, large double-pane windows, and sheet-rocked and painted walls still smells of sweet feed. Plus I can shoot my guns at stationary targets from the rear deck without a single complaint from neighbors, as they often shoot from their own decks as well. Most late afternoons I get a cold beer, or perhaps a Martini or a single malt, and my wife and I sit on the deck and watch the chickens milling about the yard in search of bugs and young plants. I have snakes: black rats, hog-nose, rough greens, kings, and corn snakes, which have free run of the place since they eat crickets, rats, mice, and poisonous snakes, and are left more or less alone by my dogs. My field is surrounded by thick woods. We raise and eat organic chickens, we buy grass fed beef from the farm next door. We eat fish I catch, fresh produce from our garden, wild hogs I shoot, venison I shoot, and free-range eggs we grow to counteract the effects of all those years of eating food from the shelves of grocery stores. This morning wild turkeys came to the chicken pen and gobbled at the rooster, that cockadoodledooed back at them. My grandson walked right up to them, and they didn't run, just watched him. I took a pictures.

You know you’ve arrived in the country when of your neighbors lists his occupation for the IRS as, “working in the woods”. People out here mind their own business, drive pickup trucks because they need to haul more than booming speakers, work hard all day, and enjoy the simpler things in life. I’m doing my part to fit in.

I can sit at my desk, cruise the Internet and watch all manner of wildlife crossing my field or my driveway. But, best of all, I can commute to the office in my boxer shorts without worrying that anyone will come by unexpectedly. I love my friends, but because it’s just too inconvenient for the vast majority of my city dwelling friends to pop in, it allows me fewer interruptions and longer spells at my desk.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Character Motivation Redux

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

The writing process fascinates me. Reading Joe Moore’s excellent post about the Nemo family got me to thinking how I would answer the question about motivating characters. Even as I write this, I’m still not sure. Fact is, I’ve never thought of the process that way. Interview my characters? I can’t imagine doing that. As I’ve posted before in this space, my characters have the annoying habit of staring back at me until I tell them what to do.

For me, I think, plot is character is motivation is drama. The various elements of storytelling are so interwoven and interdependent that I don’t know how to break them into their separate component parts. When a character’s child is stolen, the motivations are inevitably cast. The kidnapped child is motivated to survive and/or get away. The parent is motivated to get him back. The kidnapper is motivated to see his plan through to the end. Maybe it would be more nuanced for me if I wrote love stories; but as a thriller writer the whole motivation thing has never been a problem for me.

Sometimes I think the best advice we can give to struggling new writers is to think less and imagine more. Given the set of circumstances you’ve conjured, put yourself in your character’s position and start pretending. It was easy when we were kids, after all, before we attended creative writing classes and people started putting labels on the things that came naturally. When I was a boy and I played with my friends, the non-sports games were always of the role play variety, and nearly always involved imagined gunplay. (I cleared the neighborhood of marauding Apaches when I was very young, and then kept the Nazi threat at bay as I approached adolescence.) But here’s the thing: I became the character I was pretending to be. My bike was a motorcycle, and the pine cones were grenades.

When I started writing stories in elementary school, that reality transference continued. The reality of the imagined world trumped the reality of my actual surroundings. It still happens to me when I’m really in the zone—it’s the great thrill of writing. I don’t have to think about motivating my characters because all I have to do is report on what I’m seeing, hearing and feeling through their senses.

Being a big fan of Inside the Actor’s Studio, I’ve often thought that the Method, as described by the guests on that show, has a lot in common with my writing process. Once I create a premise that feels real, I don the emotional garb of the character from whose head I’m writing, and I embark on a great pretend.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Are ebooks the future of publishing?

by Michelle Gagnon

So a few months ago I posted about ebooks on the Bookbitch blog. I was an unexpected convert, one of those people who waxed eloquent about the smell of the paper and crack of the spine. But last year I purchased a Sony Reader for my husband to take on a trip to Europe. For months after his return, the Reader sat forgotten in a kitchen drawer.

Then came the day I was packing for a vacation, doing my usual tortured book shuffling, trying to figure out how I was possibly going to bring everything I wanted to read. I remembered the Reader, and decided to give it a whirl—if nothing else, it would free up some room in my suitcase. I was trepidatious, convinced my eyes would tire after a few hours of reading, or that the simulated page turning would prove irritating.

I returned home a convert. I’d read six books in a week, a tiny fraction of what the Reader was capable of holding, all in a device smaller than a trade paperback. No tired eyes, and once I got the hang of it I didn’t even notice that I was reading the books in a completely different format. In fact, turning pages was easier than it would be with a “real” book. I was hooked. In fact, now I own a Kindle too—my husband gave me one for my birthday, so that I’d stop hogging his.

And that got me thinking about what these new electronic readers mean for the future of publishing. Amazon Kindles are flying off the proverbial shelves. There’s a generation of kids who are acclimated to reading everything off a screen. On the opposite end of the spectrum is a generation of baby boomers with aging eyes, and the new readers offer up to six different font sizes, eliminating the need for large format books. As the prices of these devices come down, and more books become available electronically, I foresee them attracting an ever-increasing share of the reading population.

And you know what? IMHO, this is a good thing. Readers are readers, it doesn’t matter to me whether my books are bound or scrolled across screens. And environmentally speaking, it’s hard to argue with a format that doesn’t destroy any trees, and leaves a negligible carbon footprint.

If I’m correct, it’ll be interesting to see how this changes the publishing landscape. Some people have posited that publishers as a whole will be eliminated, that being able to sell books directly to vendors will eliminate the need for them. Frankly, I don’t think that will happen. Every book needs a good editor (at least, I know that mine have always benefited from having one), and I believe that the publishing houses do tend to provide a filter for what reaches the public. Sales and marketing teams are still necessary to get the titles into the public eye. And every book needs an attractive cover.

But imagine the savings for them. No longer will they have to gamble when determining a book’s print run. No more remaindering. Every author could potentially earn out their advance. The risks and costs for publishers will be greatly reduced, which might lead to a more even split of the proceeds.

Going a step further, imagine what else could change. Recently, to celebrate the release of her latest book, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s publisher offered free downloads of her first novel for a limited time. Brilliant marketing idea, in that it offered the possibility of garnering new readers at little or no cost. Currently, the Kindle offers a free download of the first chapter of every book, then gives you the option of purchasing it. I love that feature, and nine times out of ten I end up buying the book. Which then downloads to the device in a minute or less: instant gratification.

Further down the line, picture interactive book covers. Alternate endings that the readers can choose, or links to backstories on the characters. It could be a brave new reading world.

Of course, there are concerns. Piracy is an issue, one that the music industry has been grappling with for years. That initially prevented them from seizing opportunities, something that Apple readily exploited by exploding onto the scene with iTunes while major labels were still churning their wheels with outdated marketing models.

And as a huge fan of independent bookstores, I fear for their demise as much as all of their other supporters. If ereaders really take off, it could prove an insurmountable obstacle for them. I’m hoping it won’t be, because there will always be a need for the kind of knowledge base and informed guidance they do such a wonderful job of providing. But bookstores on a whole will be facing an uphill battle.

Of course, I’m not saying that books will stop being printed entirely. There will probably still be limited editions for collectors and everyone who loves the feel of a real book in their hand. I still buy books, even ones that I've already read electronically, when I’ve enjoyed them so much that I couldn’t resist adding them to my shelves. You can’t gift wrap an ebook, and as of right now they’re still not ideal for reading in the tub or at the beach.

So tell me what you think. Are ebooks the wave of the future? Or have I just fallen under the thrall of my spiffy new Kindle? (Speaking of which, on October 1st one lucky subscriber to my newsletter will win a Kindle and be inducted into the cult. There's more info on my site if you're interested).

Finding Nemo's Needs

nemo I was over posting on Absolute Write the other day and a beginning writer ask the question, how do you find out what motivates your characters? I suggested it could be done with something as simple as an interview. I said to interview your character as if you were a newspaper reporter asking probing questions about their life, quest, current situation, and other topics that could yield the answers. Come up with all the questions first. Then conduct the interview. It sounds simplistic, but it works.

As authors, we know how vital it is that all our characters have a goal. They must want something, and that something is what drives them. But it's more than just a want. They must also have a need. If we don't know what our characters wants and needs are, neither will our readers. With nothing to root for, the reader will lose interest. And in the end, they won't care about the outcome.

So what is the difference between want and need? Think of Marlin, Nemo's father in FINDING NEMO. Marlin's only son, Nemo, is captured by a scuba diver and placed inside a fish tank in a dentist's office. Marlin sets out to find Nemo. But he has a big problem, one that's quite unusual for a fish: he has a terrible fear of the open ocean. So with just that much information, we now know his want and need. He wants to find his son, but to do so he needs to overcome his fear of the ocean. The reader (or viewer in this case) will root for Marlin to make it through all the perils he faces in order to find Nemo and rescue him.

Every character must have a want and need. The most critical are the ones for our protagonists and antagonists. But I think that even the smallest, one-time, walk-ons must be motivated. If we determine the goals of every characters, we will have an easier time writing them, and the reader will have a more distinct picture of the character in their minds.

In planning our stories, it's important that we determine our main character's wants and needs first. In doing so, we'll always have a goal to focus on as we write. So what are your main character's wants and needs? Can you express them in one sentence like we did with Marlin? Let's find your Nemo's needs!

Note: Join us on Sunday, September 28 when our guest blogger will be bestselling author Allison Brennan and on Sunday, October 26, when Agatha award-winning author, Chris Roerden is our guest.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

As a writer, do your characters invade your “real life”?


“Careful, dear. You’re acting like your character.”

That was my husband’s warning to me last week, after I survived a risky (and slightly smelly) stand-off with a mentally challenged dude on board a tram in Portland. For the roily details, see last week’s post,
Too close for comfort.

I escaped from that little adventure with nary a scrape. In fact, I ended the episode with a thumbs-up sign and a jaunty little wave; but seriously, my part in the encounter was stupid. I could have gotten my ass seriously kicked by that guy, or worse.

All of which got me to thinking: To what extent (if any) does our writing affect our choices and actions in “real life”? Is there a bright red line that is never crossed between fantasy on the page and reality? Or do you find that there is ever any psychological “page-bleed,” as they say in the publishing world?

In my case, last week’s tram episode was completely out of character for the “real me,” Kathryn Lilley. Ever since I was an adolescent, I’ve always been a shy, retiring soul. I’ve traditionally avoided eye contact with strange men, much less interaction. In the past, I would never have tried to remove a mentally disturbed person on public transportation. (And let’s be honest—what I did was supremely stupid. I’ve been told by a number of Herman Munster-sized, macho-macho guys that the only reason I’m alive today is that I’m a woman, and that I stayed utterly calm throughout the encounter. Seriously, my heart rate didn’t even increase. I have no idea why.).

But ever since I started writing the Fat City Mysteries, I’ve found that I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the emotions of my main character, Kate Gallagher. And now, I’m like one of those actors who stays “in character” between shooting scenes of a film. In many aspects of my life, I find myself coming up with quicker ripostes, more assertive actions—bottom line is, I’m acting more like Kate.

So my question is, is this experience a unique and unhealthy response to getting too deeply involved in the writing or characterization process? Have the rest of you experienced anything remotely similar?

But just as a reassurance to myself, I have made a solemn vow—no matter how much Kate Gallagher inhabits my thoughts and feelings, going forward, I will never, ever again attempt to toss someone off a tram.
It can be way too hazardous to your health.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Oh, The Glamour of it all

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne
www.clarelangleyhawthorne.com



How I wish that air travel was like it used to be – glamorous, exotic, even adventurous. Now it is a grueling ordeal which, after the recent long haul flights to and from Australia, makes me wonder why I even bother to fly at all (probably because I have no choice).

Our flight to Sydney was actually good – we had two rows of four seats for us all risking that no one would, in their right mind, want the middle two seats in the final two rows in economy if they knew there was a three and a half year old sitting on the aisle. Our plan paid off and the boys got to stretch out, so we actually got a fair amount of sleep on the 15 hour flight over. But landing in Sydney in the middle of a thunderstorm,with each twin threatening to throw up and crying the eternity it took for us to land amid the lightning and rain, soon brought home the realization that flying is no fun at all.

Once on the ground we also had to wait on the tarmac as lightning prevented any of the ground crews from operating the jetways with the result being that four jumbo jets (at the very least) all deplaned (a word which I never thought existed) at the same time once the storm passed. Two hours getting through customs and immigration – and we’re bloody Australian citizens - meant that we missed our connection to Melbourne and could not get on another flight for four hours. Great, four hours in Sydney airport with three and a half year old twin boys after a 15 hour flight. The thing that got to me the most was that no one seemed to give a shit. Not at the airlines, not at customs. That’s what flying is all about now - endurance.



Can you put up with the power play of the customs guy who refuses to let you go in the shorter line because (and I quote) “Just because I said no” (bastard!) despite two little boys in tow.

Can you put up with the Qantas staff who shrug and say ‘oh well’ when you are faced with a four hour wait after a long flight mainly due to the fact that Qantas had originally cancelled your international connecting flight (without telling you) forcing you on to a domestic flight which meant clearing customs etc. in Sydney – which meant you were screwed.

On the return flight, there were no spare seats so the boys got to sprawl over us instead (I was in a mini Yoga session trying to contort my body so I could sleep amongst the toddler heads, feet and arms). Qantas flight staff appeared maybe three times the whole flight and couldn't even be bothered handing out a kids activity pack (good thing I always have about 100 hours worth of entertainment packed into a backpack and miracle of miracles our in flight entertainment did work – the family behind us had none that worked!) I guess at least the return flight was smooth but still the food was lousy, the service (if you can even call it that) was indifferent and this was on an Australian airline – which used to be a safe haven – an expensive but welcome change to the American flying experience.
No more.

So as I gear up for my first ever book tour which my publisher, Penguin, is actually paying for (!) for The Serpent and the Scorpion my excitement is tinged with trepidation. Because lets all face it – flying today is not what it used to be. Flying even in Australia is not what it used to be and that’s damn depressing.

So much for jet-setting to glamour and fame.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lost in translation

By guest blogger, Alafair Burke

burke-alafair So I got an email today from an editor with my UK publisher, which will publish Angel's Tip in November under the title City of Fear. All of my prior books were published in the UK in the identical form as the US editions. This time, however, the UK editor has ach-bunk suggested deleting cultural and  commercial references that might not be recognized on the other side of the pond: e.g., deleting an Archie Bunker reference and changing Tasti-delite, a ubiquitous NYC not-quite-ice-cream-like "food," to a Starbucks.

starbk I honestly don't know whether UK versions of US-based books are typically changed to delete cultural references. Are they? Should they be? If I read a book based in the south and a character chows down on some ridiculous fried something or another at a food shack called Lucy's, I don't need to know about Lucy's to get the general picture. On the other hand, if readers in the UK don't want to feel left out of the story, I can certainly understand. What do you think?

Alafair Burke is the author of what the Sun-Sentinel has hailed as "two power house series" featuring NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School. She is a graduate of Stanford Law School and frequently serves as a legal and trial commentator for radio and television programs. She lives in New York City.

Note: Join us in the Sunday Kill Zone when our guest bloggers will be:
Allison Gaylin, September 14
Allison Brennan, September 28
Chris Roerden, October 26