Sunday, February 28, 2010

Panels from Hell

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

This weekend I am going down to Carmel (a favorite spot of mine) to do a panel at the Harrison Memorial library with the very talented Hannah Dennison and, since I also just received my panel allocation for Malice Domestic, I am mulling over the whole 'what makes a successful panel' issue. Believe me I have seen some stinkers in my time - I dread being on the panel from hell more than just about anything (except perhaps being moderator of the panel from hell...) - but what makes or breaks a panel?

  • First of course, the topic has to be interesting and one that resonates with the panelists. I was once put on a panel about hot sex and had to admit from the get-go that basically there was no hot sex in any of my books! (The panel still was great, despite that:)). However, even with the most exciting of topics there's still a risk of boring the pants off the audience. I have seen plenty of excellent presentations on some of the most mundane topics (and let's face it, there's a limit to how many topics there can be on mystery writing...) and some of the most boring presentations on the hottest of there must be more to it than merely topic alone.
  • A terrific moderator - a good moderator can ameliorate against some of the worst panel sins (microphone hogging, long-winded answers, blatant and constant self-promotion) - but I've been on panels where it is immediately clear that the moderator hasn't even bothered to read up on the panelists work! In my mind a terrific moderator is prepared, professional, witty and unafraid to step where angels fear to tread in order to prevent the above mentioned sins from ruining a perfectly good panel presentation. What I think turns off many in the audience is a moderator who either sits back and lets the panel degenerate into a rant/lecture/ego-fest, or one who is so intrusive it is as if she (or he) was a panelist rather than a moderator.
  • Well prepared participants. There's no point being on a panel if you think you can just 'phone in' your answers without giving the topic any thought. Some of the worst panels I've been on have had an author who clearly spent no time at all thinking about anything except how to promote his (or her) next book at any given opportunity. The best panels I've been on have been where the moderator has given everyone a heads-up on possibly questions first, though this is still no guarantee that the panelists will have anything interesting to say about them!
  • Professionalism - as with all the worst panel sins mentioned, the most horrible panels occur when one or more of the participants completely takes over and (disregarding any professional courtesy to others on the panel) hogs the limelight. Equally well, the authors who ramble on for ten minutes answering the question are just as unprofessional in my book. I believe authors should treat the panel as a showcase for themselves as both a writer and a member of the writing community - so no unprofessional behavior please! My motto: Be gracious - dress for the occasion, act for the occasion, and shut-up when necessary.
  • Pass on the Jerry Springer moments. I've only witnessed one panel degenerate to this kind of in-fighting - but some authors do allow themselves to get carried away. As far as I'm concerned arrogance and vitriol needs to be left at the door.

So have you had any horrific panel experiences? Any tips from being on a panel or from being in the audience on what makes (or breaks) a panel? What was the best (or the worst!) panel you ever saw or participated in?

Toyota 0 - Deer 1 Toyota

John Ramsey Miller

I asked James Scott Bell to come in and post early this week because on my way home the other night I killed a deer. It was a small, but nice four-point buck, who presented himself broadside to me and I shot him with the front end of my Toyota Highlander, which I’d owned outright for exactly one month, having paid off the note after five years of installments. I was lucky I’m too old to have fast reactions or I might have been killed or killed somebody when I swerved to avoid him. I didn’t even leave skid-marks on Highway 49. Mr. Deer took out my grill, radiator, plastic engine cover, hood, fenders and my windshield and did two dollars short of $5,000 dollars worth of damage.

Here’s the thing. I wasn’t shaken up, but I was pissed off at myself for not seeing the thing until it was being eaten by my SUV. And I was mad that I’d have to waste all that young meat that had just been tenderized by thousands of pounds of flying Japanese hammer. My dear wife had to come the six miles get me in her Miata and there was no room for the animal. I think wasting a game animal is a sin, and I never kill what I won’t eat or what won’t eat my chickens or dogs. The point of this story is that a man in a pick-up the size of a Sherman tank (and its bed filled with split logs) pulled over, turned around and drove back to where I was standing, surveying the dead animal, which was behind me. This man drove off the highway, parked on the slope twenty feet above me, and rolled down his window. The first thing he said was, “Are you all right?”
“I am perfectly fine,” I said. “Would you like a nice freshly killed deer? I seem to have one on my hands.”

Turned out he was not a hunter, nor much interested in the animal’s meat. He raised meat cows, which are never referred to as “cows,” but “steers or Doughgees.” Evidently males are what you eat if you are not a vegan. What he offered me was a warm backseat to sit and make my phone calls. Wife. Insurance company. The deer’s parents.

I realize very often that this kind of thing is what living in the country is all about. Not hitting deer so much as people surprising you with their concern and unselfish assistance. Scott Cress was his name and he stayed with me until my wife got there and he invited her into the warm truck and she climbed in. After we all started talking, it turned out we knew a lot of the same people, and his brother-in-law is an acquaintance of mine. But Scott didn’t know me, but he stopped and took an hour out of his evening at home with wife and kids to make sure I was all right.

When the highway patrolman pulled up, my new pal, Scott, called him by his first name, and the patrolman asked me if I wanted the deer. A warm deer on the ground is a commodity in some places, even a deer with four broken legs and half its antlers gone God knows where. We all agreed what a shame it was. That nice young patrolman stayed there until the wrecker showed up and we had all driven away.

As I’ve said before, I am a mall-town boy, and I love living out in the middle of nowhere. A lot of the reason beside the amazing quiet and the privacy is because neighbors are just so gosh-darned neighborly. You get to know your neighbors slowly in a rural setting and friendships (like anything that cures as it ages) are better that way. They don’t trouble you, but if you need them they are right there. After the third generation of you grows up around here the locals even stop calling your descendants “newcomers.”

When I went into town the next day I saw the deer lying where my Toyota had left him, but by that evening, he was gone, just as I knew he would be. You see, Scott Cress raised cattle, but his day job was working for the state running a road crew. He told me he’d get the deer tidied up the next day so I didn’t have to look at it and cuss when I saw it, and he was as good as his word.

So now I’m hauling chicken feed in a fancy rental car that is a Chevy that looks like a 30’s roadster. So I have to drive a pug ugly silver Dick Tracy looking low rider for the next two weeks while they fix my Totoya with its NC plates and the all-important NRA sticker on the windshield.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jim's L.A. - Musso & Frank Grill

James Scott Bell

[I'm jumping in early for Mr. Miller, who will take my regular slot tomorrow]

Fellow thriller writer Brett Battles wrote a post this week at Murderati, on the use of actual locations in fiction. I am all for it. Since I grew up, and still live in, the greatest noir city on earth, I'd like to offer you from time to time a bit of my city. Take you to some of my favorite spots and tell you what they mean to me as a writer.

I'll start with with Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood.

As classic writers' hangouts go, you can't do much better than Musso's. Walk inside and history overtakes you.

It's the oldest eatery in Hollywood. Since 1919 the big green sign says. In fact, most of the waiters look like they were original hires. That's part of the appeal: red coated, old school waiters with accents and attitude. Don't expect perky twenty-somethings with fake smiles and flair.

And please don't call the place "Musso & Frank's" with the apostrophe S. While the S was sometimes on the end of Frank in early menus, it was decidedly dropped. Angelenos call it "Musso's" for short.

Probably every L.A. writer who ever lived has had a martini at Musso's, or at least seen them poured. Many a writer has had too many. Jim Thompson, the perennially struggling scribe of hardboiled novels in the 50's, often had to be helped home after a night at the bar. Likewise the notorious drunk Charles Bukowski, who references Musso's, and his drinking therein, in his novel Hollywood.

Of course, actors love the place too, and have since Valentino and Chaplin used to nosh there, most of the time at Booth #1 by the front window. Come at night and you'll walk by somebody in the movie biz, even if you don't know who they are. There's always a lot of "Let's take a meeting" talk over drinks and dinner.

You can find the history and some of the stories here.

I like to drop by Musso's when I'm in Hollywood, mainly to get my favorite dish (see below). In fact, I mention Musso's in all three of my Buchanan books. In Try Darkness, Ty Buchanan, lawyer, is staking out Musso's with an unlikely helper, the nun Sister Mary Veritas.

I had Sister Mary park at the curb. "Looks like a little early dinner at Musso's," I said. "Ever been there?"


"Want to go in? Have a martini?"

"Mr. Buchanan—"

"Ty, please."

"—don't mess with me."

"Not messing. They're famous for their martis. One of those and you'll be so theological you'll—"

"Thank you, no."

"A milkshake?"

"Some other time."

And in Try Fear, Buchanan has my favorite dish:

I checked my watch. Almost eleven-thirty. I was in Hollywood, so I drove down the boulevard to Musso & Frank. I found a meter in front, fed it, went in, and sat at the counter. And ordered liver and onions.

That’s what I said.

My mom used to make liver and onions, and I always liked it. With ketchup. The old waiter—there is no other kind at Musso’s—gave me a plate of sourdough bread and a dish with butter pats. He asked if I needed anything else.

“Ketchup,” I said. “For the liver.”

He leaned over, and with a slight Hungarian accent said, “Don’t tell the chef.” Then added, conspiratorially, “I like it that way, too.”

If you're ever out this way, doing the L.A. visit thing, and you get tired of the tourist spots and the faux stars posing in front of the Kodak Theater—and if you want a taste of authentic old Hollywood—come to Musso's. It looks pretty much the way Cary Grant and Sterling Hayden and Raymond Chandler saw it. Step inside, go back in time, enjoy. Just be aware that the prices are not the same as they were in 1950. But the portions are generous.

So what about you? Do you have a favorite hangout in your hometown?

And if you're coming to the Left Coast Crime convention next month, be sure to check out my walking tour of classic noir L.A., "From Angels Flight to Darkest Night" on March 12 starting at 11 a.m.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Trapped Between Centuries

by John Gilstrap

I've mentioned before that I have a day job with a trade association in Washington, DC, and I've alluded to the fact that the job keeps me on the road a lot. I might not have been clear, however, on the definition of "a lot." During the month of February, for example, I have not spent a single day in my office--every day has been on the road somewhere. The first two weeks of March aren't looking much better, although a chunk of that will be spent at Left Coast Crime in Los Angeles.

I get to spend most weekends at home, though, and I genuinely love what I do. Airports, airplanes and hotel rooms provide ample opportunity to take care of the writing side of my life, so for the most part, when I'm home, I'm there in both body and spirit. Good times.

Reading, books, on the other hand, is a pain in the neck when you have to schlep books on and off of airplanes. But there's a solution.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I finally broke down and bought a Kindle, and I'm already in love. Each morning, for the bargain basement price of $11 a month, the Washington Post is delivered directly to my briefcase, where it takes a spot right next to the books I've purchased, and one outstanding manuscript that a friend of mine asked me to take a look at. It's thinner than a children's book, weighs virtually nothing, takes up no space in my briefcase, and holds more books than I have probably read in my entire life. I've also subscribed to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and heaven knows what else I'll find enticing.

Really, the Kindle is the coolest toy in years. And yes, in case you've got a good memory, I am in fact the man who wrote an entry on this very blog about a year ago entitled, "Kindle Schmindle." I am man enough to admit that I was way wrong before.

So, with that side of my brain and persona slogging ever so slowly into the 21st century, I now confess that the other side--the creative one that tells stories--is moving back toward the 19th century. I'm handwriting my manuscripts more than I ever have, fountain pen to quality paper. I think I probably wrote 50% of Hostage Zero (July, 2010) by hand, and thus far, I've written every word of my next novel by hand. Barnes & Noble sells really nice leather-bound lined journals made of quality paper, and I take one with me wherever I go. No batteries to run out, no switch to turn off during takeoffs and landings, and a solid, tactile connection to my writing. It could be a passing fad for me, or it could be the future; only time will tell. For now, though, it feels right.

Sooner or later, of course, I have to type what I have written into a submittable form, and when I do that, I make many, many changes and corrections, so I don't want to overblow the intent here. Still, it occurred to me as I put down my Kindle and picked up this computer for the first time to write something other than an email, that even as things change on the surface, maybe important things never change much at all.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Mistakes Authors Make

by Michelle Gagnon

I recently read an excellent post by Rowena Cherry on some of the cardinal sins writers commit, and it really struck a chord, probably because in the past I've been guilty of most of them.

So here's my advice on how to to make blatant self-promotion (aka BSP) less blatant...

  • Mailing lists: only add people who actually agree to be added. I've opened my inbox to discover newsletters from people I served on panels with, people I helped out by reading their manuscripts, and people I've never even heard of. As it is, I receive a few hundred emails a day- the last thing I want is more to sift through, UNLESS I signed up independently. The irony is that some of these newsletters I probably would be interested in, but being added without my permission is such a turn-off, it puts a black mark next to that writer's name for me.

  • Newsletters: Send them out occasionally, and as John so aptly said on Friday, only when you have real news to report. If I'm getting a newsletter from someone on a weekly basis, I tend to delete it without opening, or to unsubscribe. Not many of us have exciting news occurring on a daily basis (I'm lucky to have one exciting thing happen a month, actually). I tend to send out newsletters 4-6 times/year, mostly clustered around release dates.

  • Newsgroups: A large portion of those hundreds of emails that I receive originate from various newsgroups and listservs. And invariably, on almost a daily basis, there's a post that starts, "If you like reading such-and-so, you'll love my new thriller about...The best way to get people interested in your book is not to push it every time someone starts a thread about Lee Child. Participate: if you enjoy those author's books as well, say so. Be an active member of a listserv, not just popping out of lurkdom to announce the release of your latest opus. Because unless the other participants have some familiarity with you, chances are it will do more harm than good. As you build up a presence, then you can-OCCASIONALLY- mention your next book. Better yet, just include the title and release date as part of your signature. As members start to recognize your name, they'll most likely become curious about your work, too. Anything else smacks of tooting your own horn.

  • Groups like GoodReads, 4MA, Shelfari, Dorothy L, and many others exist mainly for fans. I remember one time when the author of one group's monthly read discovered they were discussing his book. He joined the list, and popped up with all sorts of explanations. And the conversation promptly shut down. Because the truth is, sometimes fans are thrilled to have an author participate in their discussions- but if that's what they want, they'll usually invite you. If you show up unannounced, you become the equivalent of a party crasher. They clearly were not about to say anything negative about the book when the author was reading every word (after all, some of these fans have their own manuscripts tucked away in a drawer, and wisely didn't want to annoy someone they might seek a blurb from down the line). If you're going to take part in these groups, do so as a fan. If you want to directly promote your book, take part in GoodReads giveaway program, or buy advertising with one of the sites targeted to readers of your genre.

  • Likewise, if all you do on your Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter pages is post updates on your own work, everyone outside of immediate family will probably rapidly tire of it. It's the virtual equivalent of the guy at a cocktail party who won't stop talking about himself. Instead, post links to interesting articles you stumble across, writing-related or otherwise. Respond to people who take the time to comment on your links. Answer messages people send. The trick is to have a real dialogue, rather than perpetually shouting the title of your book from the rooftops.
  • Poking, hugging, and otherwise molesting social network friends: personally, I find the deluge of emails inviting me to join fairy kingdoms, battle mobsters, or start a farm annoying. I barely have time to maintain my ongoing feud with the Petriarca family in real life, for Pete's sake, never mind planting green beans that I could actually eat. Now, I know there are people out there who love those aspects of Facebook and MySpace; but don't assume that others want to participate. That checkbox, where you can invite all your friends? I recommend avoiding it. Same goes for virtual hugs, flowers, postcards, angels, and whatever else is out there.
Now, what you can do...
  • Make it easy for people to sign up for your newsletter, and to friend you on the social networking sites (in other words, clear and user-friendly website design is crucial). Also make sure to keep the information on your website current.
  • If you see that someone has read your books on Shelfari or Goodreads, extend a friend invitation- then it's their choice (this works better with people who liked your books).
  • Keep your author pages up to date across all social networking sites, focusing mainly on the ones you have the time and inclination to maintain.
  • Bring a notebook to any and all author events, making it clear that people only need sign it if they want to join your newsletter mailing list.
  • When you craft a newsletter, keep it short, to the point, and interesting.
  • On the newsgroups, follow my Southern friend's "ABC" rule- Always Be Charming. Getting into a spirited debate is fine, but there are people on the listservs who quickly become notorious for abrasive or obnoxious posts. That sort of behavior definitely won't help sell books.
And finally, remember that the most important thing is to achieve a balance. Don't spend so much time discussing other people's books that you neglect to work on your own.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Plot Thickens

By Joe Moore

When you write a story, whether it’s short fiction or a novel-length manuscript, there are always two major components to deal with: characters and plot. Combined, they make up the “body” of the story. And of the two, the plot can be thought of as the skeleton while the characters are the meat and muscle.

skeleton1 When it comes to building your plot, nothing should be random or by accident. It may appear random to the reader but every turn of the plot should be significant and move the story to its final conclusion. Every element, whether it deals with a character’s inner or outer being should contribute to furthering the story.

In order to determine the significance of each element, always ask why. Why does he look or dress that way? Why did she say or react in that manner? Why does the action take place in this particular location as opposed to that setting? If you ask why, and don’t get a convincing answer, delete or change the element. Every word, every sentence, every detail must matter. If they don’t, and there’s a chance they could confuse the reader or get in the way of the story, change or delete.

Your plot should grow out of the obstructions placed in the character’s path. What is causing the protagonist to stand up for his beliefs? What is motivating her to fight for survival? That’s what makes up the critical points of the plot—those obstacles placed in the path of your characters.

Be careful of overreaction; a character acting or reacting beyond the belief model you’ve built in your reader’s mind. There’s nothing wrong with placing an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation—that’s what great stories are made from. But you must build your character in such a manner that his actions and reactions to each plot point are plausible. Push the character, but keep them in the realm of reality. A man who has never been in an airplane cannot be expected to fly a passenger plane. But a private pilot who has flown small planes could be able to fly a large passenger plane and possibly land it. The actions and the obstacles can be thrilling, but must be believable.

Avoid melodrama in your plot—the actions of a character without believable motivation. Action for the sake of action is empty and two-dimensional. Each character should have a pressing agenda from which the plot unfolds. That agenda is what motivates their actions. The reader should care about the individual’s agenda, but what’s more important is that the reader believes the characters care about their own agendas. And as each character pursues his or her agenda, they should periodically face roadblocks and never quite get everything they want. The protagonist should always stand in the way of the antagonist, and vice versa.

Another plot tripwire to avoid is deus ex machina (god from the machine) whereby a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly overcome by a contrived element: the sudden introduction of a new character or device. Doing so is cheap writing and you run the risk of losing your reader. Instead, use foreshadowing to place elements into the plot that, if added up, will present a believable solution to the problem. The character may have to work hard at it, but in the end, the reader will accept it as plausible.

Always consider your plot as a series of opportunities for your character to reveal his or her true self. The plot should offer the character a chance to be better (or worse in the case of the antagonist) than they were in the beginning. The opportunities manifest themselves in the form of obstacles, roadblocks and detours. If the path were straight and level with smooth sailing, the plot would be dull and boring. Give your characters a chance to shine. Let them grow and develop by building a strong skeleton on which to flesh out their true selves.

When you begin working on a new story, do you develop your plot or characters first? Do you believe that a book can be primarily “plot driven” or “character driven”?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When it comes to online reviews, the more, the merrier

I felt an overwhelming urge to post a review on Amazon today. I'd just finished a thriller, and wanted to give it a mixed report--it had good pacing and kept my interest, but the protagonist was so unlikable that I was rooting for him to fail. 

But in the end, I didn't post anything. In fact, I don't think I've ever posted an online review. Maybe it's empathy: As an author, I know what it's like to receive reviews, the good, the bad, and the really ugly. So I feel shy about judging my peers in public. (I'm updating this post because my fellow writers are keeping me honest in the comments: Another reason a writer might not post a review is to avoid alienating other writers, or causing a backlash. You never know when you're going to bump into the guy you slammed with a 1-star on Amazon.)

But I'm thinking I should change my ways. According to an article in the Economist, it's the sheer volume of reviews--not whether they're good or bad--that sells books.  People are much more likely to "click through" and buy a book if it has received lots of reviews, research indicates. Even when that volume includes a healthy slice of unfavorable reviews, the book still sells better. In fact, it's better to have some negatives--readers mistrust books that have only favorable reviews.

In her MySpace blog, author Deb Baker discussed the importance of her reviews, and issued an appeal for more of them. She's right on the money. When it comes to reviews in today's online marketplace, volume counts.

So I'm thinking we should join together and become an army of critics. We could post reviews of all the books we've read to get the numbers up. Or we could find a midlist writer who has, say, only 9 reviews, and bump him into the double digits (the threshold for boosting sales).  It doesn't matter if you liked the book or not. Just post your review.  It would be our own version of crowdsource marketing.

Do you like to post reviews, and do you think writers should post reviews about other books online? Have online reviews played a role in your book's success?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Inspired by Elmore Leonard's list, The UK newspaper The Guardian recently surveyed a number of established writers on their ten rules for writing fiction. The results were inspiring, funny as well as practical and I thought I'd share my ten favorites with you.

  1. The first 12 years are the worst. (Ann Enright)

  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. (Neil Gaiman)

  3. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst. (Joyce Carol Oates)

  4. Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious. (PD James)

  5. Don't romanticize your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page. (Zadie Smith)

  6. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane. (Colm Toibin)

  7. Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle)

  8. Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page. (Margaret Atwood)

  9. Try to think of others' good luck as encouragement to yourself. (Richard Ford)

  10. The two most depressing words in the English language are "literary fiction." (David Hare)

If you had to write your top ten rules what would be number 1 on your list?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Sense of Where You Are

James Scott Bell

I've been playing basketball most of my life. When I was a kid, falling in love with the game, I happened across a book called A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee. It was a profile of Bill Bradley when he was one of the best college hoopsters ever, nearly leading lowly Princeton to the national title.

What impressed me was Bradley's work ethic. He practiced for hours a day, in all sorts of weather, perfecting his shots, his moves. He even spent considerable time on the classic hook shot, in order to have a complete game.

So the summer between seventh and eighth grade I had my dad put up a basket on our driveway. I practiced every day, sometimes in the rain, sometimes into the night with the driveway lit up by a single floodlight.

I got books on basketball technique from the library and taught myself the proper way to shoot a jump shot. I learned you have to keep your elbow in, not flared out. I learned to give the ball a perfect spin. In fact, I became the deadliest shot in the history of Parkman Junior High School. In further fact, I was All League in high school and played a year in college. In furthest fact, had I been a couple inches taller and about five seconds faster, I'd be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Larry Bird? Pheh.

But I digress.

The other morning, as is my wont, I was shooting around a local park when I got into doing some hook shots. Now that's one shot I worked on a little bit when I was younger, but never really developed into something deadly. My specialty was the 15 - 20 foot jumper, and that's what I practiced most.

But this day, for some reason, it occurred to me that as I had taught myself the proper way to shoot a jump shot, maybe I ought to take another look at the hook. So I started to experiment with a different release point, looking for another feel. And in about five minutes I happened on a slightly modified shot, but that modification made a huge difference. The hooks started to fall.

I felt like a kid again, with the joy of discovering a new technique that works. After all these years, I had a stronger hook shot with only a few adjustments.

I bring this up because I get this feeling as a writer, too. I still get excited when I put a new spin on a technique and it works. That's why I continue to read books on writing, Writer's Digest magazine, blogs and lots and lots of novels, seeing what works, trying stuff out. My philosophy is if I learn just one thing, or get a new view on something I already know, it's worth it.

Don't ever think you have arrived. When you think that, even if you're multi-published, you start to atrophy. There are authors who once cared about the craft but now just mail it in, because they have an established following.

Don't let that be you. Respect the craft, and keep at it.

In his book, McPhee described Bill Bradley's ability to throw up a shot with his back to the basket – no look – and make it most of the time. When he asked Bradley how he could do that, Bradley replied, "You develop a sense of where you are."

Know where you are, writer, and how you can get better. Then practice. That's really the secret to succeeding as a writer. Maybe the only secret: practice –– day after week after year.

What about you? Do you have the same excitement when you learn something about writing that works? Do you practice enough? Even when it rains?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I almost missed my slot this week

John Ramsey Miller

After a hectic week of preparing for my youngest son's gallery opening--not his showing in a gallery--as in he owns a gallery. The one painting he sold was his.
Between the food, wine, and beer I figure he lost about two thousand dollars on the opening but it was a large crowd and they liked the food and drink. He's showing high dollar art, and as much as people like to look at $12,000.00 paintings, most people don't feel the need to own one. He has to learn his own lessons just like we all did. When he took me to see the place I thought I'd found out the source of Hoarders. "I want to put a gallery here," he said.
"Yeah, right," I said.

Kids operate on sheer will and they don't know why they shouldn't do a thing, and do not want to hear our negative views. I'll keep you posted on how it turns out.
Any way I was at the opening when I remembered it was Friday and almost eleven and I had forgotten to write a blog. I mean I forgot because I was working with my son to open his gallery. He has more talent than I do. Everybody knows it. But he's the baby and he's had me off the farm and writing in his office while I was waiting for one tradesman or a modem to be hooked up. I have to admit I enjoyed being downtown and interacting with people again. It's been good for him, good for me, and good for our relationship.

I talked books with people tonight, and it was amazing how many people at the opening knew who I was, but asked me if I'd written a second book. Now that is out of touch.
"Yes, I've published six since that one."
"Really. How did I miss that?"

Well, this is even less of a blog than usual, but it's all I got. I'm tired, proud and going to bed.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Finding the Time to Write

By John Gilstrap

“Where do you find the time to write?” It’s among the most common questions asked of me—by writers who find out that I have a day job, and by neighbors and colleagues who find out that I write books. As if we’re only capable of doing one thing at a time.

Back in the early nineties, when I was in my transition phase between thinking about firing up my writing muse and actually doing it, I was inspired by the story of Tom Clancy, the then-unknown insurance guy who had rocketed to fame with The Hunt for Red October. Clancy’s calendar was constructed of the same 24-hour days as mine, yet he was able to find the spare time to write a blockbuster novel. Ditto Stephen King and James Patterson and Linda Fairstein and Tess Gerritsen and . . . a lot of people.

The bottom line is this: If you want something badly enough, you don’t find the time to do it, you create the time to do it. If we waited until it was clear how we could afford any of life’s milestones—the courage to get married, the commitment to have kids, the money to buy a house, or the time to write a book—nothing would ever get done. You set the goal and you forge ahead. Along the way choices have to be made, meaning maybe the nightly reruns of Seinfeld aren’t as important as you thought. Or maybe you can in fact survive on six and a half hours of sleep a night instead of eight. The ticking clock being the constant, every choice made within its cycle is a statement of one’s priorities.

Let’s start with the basics: family and the day job. One nourishes the soul—gives us a reason to live—the other keeps food on the table. As far as I’m concerned, neither is expendable in the pursuit of publication.

Childhoods are fleeting, and soccer games are important. Don't sacrifice those. Stories are important, too, but imaginary friends should never trump their flesh-and-bone counterparts. Not in my world, anyway.

The day job is the day job. While I have always been blessed with jobs that I enjoyed, none of them have ever been about writing, except as incidental other duties. I imagine that it’s probably easier to settle in to write after a day of safety engineering than it would be after a day of, say, writing technical manuals; but toughing it out is what victory is all about. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

When all is said and done, there are a gajillion reasons not to write your book. Just about anything on earth is more appealing than addressing the Page One blinking cursor. There’s no shame in not creating the time. But the words will not write themselves.

None of us has enough time; but each of us has all the time there is. How do you create the time you need to fulfill your writing jones?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


by Michelle Gagnon

Like many other writers, I've set up a Google alert based on my name. Generally this lets me know when a review of one of my books has posted, or when they're bei
ng sold on ebay (the latter more than the former, sadly). However, due to an error on my part when I was establishing the account, it turns out that I receive news pertaining not just to me, but to pretty much every Gagnon in the English- and French-speaking world.

I was going to adjust it, but some of the tidbits trickling in were so interesting I decided to stick with the original search parameters. After all, I'm probably related to all of these people somewhere down the line. One of my aunts did a full family tree awhile back, and apparently nearly every Gagnon in North America is descended from one of three brothers who immigrated from Normandy to Canada back in the 1600's. I even have a list of what they brought over on the boat with them- the most interesting item being a jar of worms, since they weren't certain there would be any in the New World and, as farmers, this was a matter of great concern to them.

What I've learned: Gagnons tend to do well in school. Nearly every day I get a post about someone making the honor roll. Sadly, they also have an unfortunate predilection for a life in crime, although apparently they're not very good at it, since according to local crime blotters the overwhelming majority of them get caught. I wonder what kind of trajectory that indicates. How does Matt Gagnon go from the Dean's list to knocking over pharmacies? It's a conundrum.

One name tends to pop up more than the others, however, especially this week. Marie-Michele Gagnon is an alpine skiier from Quebec (where those farmers initially set up homesteads-apparently in some parts of Quebec, "Gagnon" is as common a name as "Smith" in the US.) This year, the twenty year-old made the Canadian Olympic team, and will be representing them (and us) in Vancouver.

I confess to experiencing a swell of pride when that news came over the wire. I've been inadvertently tracking Marie-Michele's career for some time now. She started popping up regularly as a finalist (and occasional winner) of downhill events. Since our names are so similar, it piqued my interest even though I've never been much of a skiing fan in the past (this is largely thanks to an unfortunate experience the first time I hit the slopes, when my best friend at the time took me down a black diamond as a joke. It turned out that it wasn't very funny, and I haven't been on skis since).

I was beyond thrilled to learn that Marie-Michele won the Nor-Am overall title for 2008-09 season--although I 'm not entirely certain what that means, it certainly sounds like she's doing well. And it's reassuring to know that although I clearly didn't get the skiing gene, at least one of my distant relatives did. Maybe I'm descended from the wrong brother.

Marie-Michele will be participating in the Ladies' Slalom and the Ladies' Giant Slalom next week. I'm feeling quite nervous for her. Come prime time, I'll be sitting in front of the television, clutching my honorary jar of worms, fervently hoping that she doesn't experience one of those terrible wipeouts that seem to occur regularly in these events. I hope you'll join me in wishing Marie-Michele the best--after all, she's a tribute to Gagnons everywhere. And if this doesn't work out for her, I sincerely hope she resists the temptation to turn to the dark side.

I'm tagging her in this post, because who knows- maybe she's been inadvertently tracking me as well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Flashback to the future

By Joe Moore

Flashback is a writing technique that allows the author to convey backstory while remaining in the present. It usually involves a situation in which something in a  current scene causes a character to reminisce or ponder a past event. The reason to create a flashback is to build character or advance the plot, or both. The secret to successfully employing this technique is to construct a smooth transition into and out of the flashback so as not to confuse the reader.

One of the easiest ways to enter a flashback is with the word “had”.

As Jim walked through his old neighborhood, a distant dog barking reminded him of the day he and his friends had skipped school to . . .

In addition, you want to shift the time progression from simple past tense (As Jim walked) to the past perfect tense (his friends had decided). Once you’ve entered the flashback and established the “past”, you can then revert back to simple past tense. At the conclusion of the flashback, use “had” again to transition back to current time.

Jim climbed the steps of his childhood home knowing those summer days with his friends had been the best times of his life.

In addition to transitions in and out of the flashback, it’s also important that the timeframe in which the flashback covers somewhat matches the real-time in which it’s experienced by the character. For instance, a flashback that covers the highs and lows of a woman’s previous marriage cannot be experienced during her stroll from the kitchen to the bedroom. But it would be an acceptable timeframe if she poured a glass of wine, strolled out onto her back porch and experienced it while sitting and watching the sun set and night fall. The reader must accept that the past and present timeframes are not unreasonably out of sync.

One final thought about flashbacks: it’s not a good idea to use one in the first few chapters. They can be quite confusing if thrown at the reader too soon. Wait until your reader has established at least a basic relationship with a character before taking them on a leap into the past. Flashbacks should be used sparingly. Better yet, use other techniques to relay backstory and avoid flashbacks altogether.

What do you think about flashbacks? Do you use them in your writing? As a reader, do they work for you? Are flashbacks a necessary evil or a solid writing tool?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Exercise your creativity

So this week I've been walking with Mac, my newly adopted dog (No, that's not me in the picture, but the dog looks like Mac). During our jaunts we have to climb an enormous hill, and I wind up huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf. The experience has underscored the extent to which I'd fallen into a sedentary rut before I got Mac. Make that a trench. 

People often say that exercise is good for creativity. After just one  week I can't tell much difference in my writing juices, so I decided to do a bit of research into the question: Does doing exercise assist creativity?

The good news: I found references to studies which indicated that yes, exercise does increase creativity. The bad news: That boost doesn't happen for people who are physically unfit. In cases such as moi, the fatigue from exercise seems to overwhelm the creativity boost.

That may explain why I haven't noticed any surge in productivity or inspiration this week. But there's always hope: As I get in better shape, I should be able to reap the benefits of exercise.

What about you? Does exercise get your creative juices flowing? What kind of activity do you do?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Approaching Agents at Conferences

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Writers (and fan) conferences provide unpublished writers with a great opportunity to approach and talk about their work with agents. Recently there have been a few email threads on MWA as well as Sisters in Crime about how writers should go about approaching the whole 'agents at conferences' thing, and I thought I'd lay down what I think are some of the basic ground rules.

1. You need to do your homework.

Obvious, I know...but all too often this doesn't get done. I've been at conferences where writers have pitched an idea for a western/science fiction cross-over novel to an agent that only moments before announced that they do not represent either of those genres. It is a waste of everyone's time and energy to pitch your work to an agent who is clearly not interested in representing the kind of work you do. Almost every agent has a website or an entry in publishers' marketplace so do yourself a favor - check before you pitch. Don't rock up at a conference and pitch to every agent you meet - target your approach - check the attendance lists, research which agents represent the kind of writing you do (and the writers you admire) and make sure you know who you should pitch to (and by extension who you should not).

2. Your manuscript must be perfect (and finished).

I remember chatting to a writer at a SinC meeting once, and she told me she had met an agent at a conference who had requested to see her work - only problem was, it wasn't ready to be sent out. The writer asked me whether I thought it would be okay for her to send the manuscript out now (some 12 months later)...My answer - good luck with that! The agent probably has no idea who you are by now. The moral of this story is obvious - you need to be ready to send the complete manuscript before you pitch your work which also leads to ground rule number three...

3. Send exactly what the agent requests (no more, no less).

If an agent at a conference tells you to send a formal query letter abide by that request, if they ask for the first 5o pages send just the first 50 pages (don't send them your entire manuscript). Do what they ask you to do. I'm sure it frustrates the heck out of agents to have writers send them material they did not ask to see.

4. Be professional at all times.

A professional pitch at a conference is totally acceptable, shoving you manuscript under a bathroom stall is not. Make sure you appear confident (and sane) which means no stalking the agent...They are (remember) just human beings. Most agents I've met are approachable and kind. They will tell you if they are interested and will let you down gently if they are not - so just be yourself and act like a professional (you want to be treated like one, after all).

5. Have your pitch ready. Memorize it. Practice it. Perfect it.

You need to be able to tell an agent with confidence exactly what your manuscript is about in under 3 minutes (no agent is going to listen for half an hour as you outline every chapter in the book!). I'm more than happy to listen to someone's pitch and give feedback and I'm sure lots of other writers are too - the more feedback and practice you get, the more confident you'll be when you finally get the chance to speak to the agent of your dreams. As I rough guide I think you should have a high level 1-2 minute concept (the elevator pitch) and then have a more detailed synopsis you can tell, should the agent ask you for more details. I also find a one-page written synopsis is handy - because you can hand this to an agent if they express an interest - just be sure to have your name and email address on this just in case the agent wants to contact you about it (hey, you can dream can't you!).

Many conferences have specific sessions in which writers get to pitch their work to agents and editors. At the first writers' conference I ever attended I participated in a 'speed dating for agents' session and, although horrific and stressful, it gave me experience pitching my manuscript and interacting with agents about my work. Even when there aren't such sessions available, however, conferences provide a great opportunity for writers looking for an agent. As these ground rules show all you need to be is prepared.

So what about you all - do you have any other 'ground rules' or advice on approaching agents at conferences?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Do Not Go Gentle Onto That Good Page

James Scott Bell

Do not go gentle into that good night . . .Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas

Brett Favre, one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game of football, was supposed to be over-the-hill at 40. But he recently finished what is probably his finest season and almost got the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl. In the NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints, he took a beating. He was on the turf constantly, sometimes under 380 pounds of beef. In the second half he got his left ankle twisted, limped off, got re-taped, and came back into the game. But for a number of turnovers by his teammates and one ill-timed interception, the Vikes would have won. It was an inspiring performance, adding to his legend.

Robert B. Parker, creator of Spenser and one of the most prolific authors of our time, died last month at the age of 77. He was supposed to be over-the-hill, too. Some critics thought he was, but most readers did not. Parker was turning out books to the very end, and not just in his Spenser series. He had other series going, including Jesse Stone, which Tom Selleck has brought to TV. He also wrote stand alones and Westerns.

He was reportedly about 40 pages into a new Spenser novel when he died at his desk of a heart attack.

For a writer, baby, that's the way to go. I only hope I've just typed the last page.

Regardless, Favre and Parker are two guys who refused to go gentle into that good night. To write well, there has to be a part of you that is determined to rage, rage against the dying of the light––and against rejection, criticism and the slough of despond.

You've got to have some attitude.

Now, this attitude is not the same as arrogance. Arrogance shouts and gets tiresome pretty fast. Attitude is just as ornery, but it's quiet. It does its work and keeps on doing it. It wants to prove itself on the page, not in the mouth. And it refuses to give up.

A knock on Parker in the latter phase of his career was that he wrote too much, sacrificing quality. Well, that's between him and his readers. He wrote, they bought, they enjoyed, maybe some got frustrated. But the relationship was lasting, and the man was doing what he loved.

If you love to write, you'll find a way to do it. No one can promise how that'll turn out. No one can guarantee you a publishing contract. But you'll never get close if you don't rage a little, and turn that into determination to keep writing, keep going, keep producing the words.

My grandfather and my mom both wanted to be writers. So they wrote. My grandfather wrote historical fiction and ended up self-publishing some of it. It's really not bad at all, but it's very niche stuff. Yet I remember him being proud of it, and it pleased the family.

My mom wrote radio scripts while she was in college in WWII. I have a whole bunch of them. Quite good. She worked on a small local newspaper when I was a kid. I remember, when I was twelve or so, finding a short story she wrote, a sci-fi kind of thing, that had a cool twist ending. She never got it published but it influenced at least one young writer––me.

So do not go gentle onto that good page. At the very least you'll know you're alive, and you won't walk around (as Murray says in A Thousand Clowns) with that wide-eyed look some people put on their faces so no one will know their head's asleep.

Rage a little, throw the heat, write.

How do you actually feel when you're writing? What's going on in your head? And how long do you expect to be writing?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Who Am I?

by Carla Buckley

Thank you to The Kill Zone authors for letting me sidle in here today, and thanks especially to John Ramsey Miller for hauling out the soapbox and giving up his day to me, and for the many ways he’s championed me these past months. One of the things I’ve been delighted to learn on my path to publication is that although thriller writers create the stuff of nightmares, they themselves are the kindest, most generous people around. Maybe it’s because they get all the ugly stuff down on paper and all that’s left is the good stuff.

My debut novel is about to be published. After writing full-time for fifteen years, working hard at my craft and producing seven novels (four of which were agented), I would have thought I knew a thing or two about the publishing business. But the only thing I’ve learned as my publication date approaches is how very little I know. Take for example, the concept of genre.

When I submitted The Things That Keep Us Here to my agent, she cautioned me. “I’m not quite sure where it fits. It’s part family drama, part thriller, part dystopian novel.” “Oh,” I said, brightly. “That’s not a problem, is it?”

I laugh at my naïve self. I truly do.

In order for an agent to pitch a project, she has to know what she’s selling so she can find the right editor. In order for an editor to drum up in-house enthusiasm, she has to know how to describe to sales, marketing, and publicity, what it is they’re going to be supporting. In order for those various departments to reach out to their various markets, they have to know what they’re pushing. In order for bookstores to buy in, they have to know where they’d shelve the book, so that in turn, the right readership can find it. Then we can all live happily ever after.

The thing is, I didn’t really know what I’d written.

I’m a huge mystery reader and so I started off by writing traditional mysteries featuring, in turn, an art investigator, a female firefighter (the research for that was fun), and a female implosion expert. It wasn’t until I became consumed by media reports that mankind was due for another pandemic on the scale of the 1918 Great Influenza Pandemic, that I threw mysteries aside. I wrote instead about a family caught up in a pandemic and it unraveled directly from my heart. Try explaining that to your agent.

“Well,” I said. “You sure it isn’t a thriller?”

“Not quite,” she said.

It wasn’t until it landed at Bantam Dell that my novel, whatever it was, found a home. My editor, who specializes in thrillers and mysteries, agreed: “This isn’t a thriller. It’s cross-genre, both family drama and thriller. It’s new.”

The last thing I wanted to do was sound stupid to my editor so I said, “Oh.” As if I understood exactly what she was saying. Was it because most of my action takes place within one family’s home, instead of sprawling across the world, taking the reader from the White House to the Kremlin to German scientists feverishly working on a cure? By telling the story from one family’s perspective, and therefore playing out the drama of a pandemic threat in every reader’s own living room, I thought it would make the ride that more thrilling. Don’t other thriller writers do the same thing--focus their story so intimately on the characters involved that you’re helplessly caught up in the story? Maybe it’s because I give equal weight to the thriller part and to the family part. Maybe that’s what makes me a hybrid.

I’m not the only author straddling two genres. As a member of the ITW Debut Author Program, I’ve gotten to know some other debut authors who are facing the same quandary: releasing a book that doesn’t quite fit onto one genre shelf. How their publishers handle finding a place for them in the book world varies, with some books being pushed closer to one category than another. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to watch cover art and titles adjust to reflect a dual personality, and it’s a learning process for everyone involved. My own novel was submitted under the title, Flu Season, and went through numerous incarnations before settling into The Things That Keep Us Here.

I’ve come to think that cross-genre is yet one more demand on the current publishing model, a world that is learning to adjust to ebooks, nontraditional publishing modes, social networking, and so on. As the world moves to a faster rhythm, how do publishers cut through the noise to position their products, and doesn’t having an unusual product make that process more difficult? Aren’t cross-genre books a bigger risk for authors and publishers and booksellers, alike?

An unpublished writer contacted me recently. She’s in the process of submitting a mystery to agents, and while waiting to hear back, has ideas for various other projects that intrigued her, some of which are hard to categorize: middle school vampire story verging on YA, women’s fiction with an element of horror.

“Do you have to stick to one genre?” she asked me. “Can’t I just mix it all up?”

What do you think I should tell her?