Thursday, March 05, 2015

That Time of Year

The Have-Read, To-Be-Read, and Am-Reading piles
Each spring I write (ever briefly) about the annual two-week stretch where the world stops and I make final edits to the novel coming out in June.

It's that time again. The proof pages to my June novel Fallen Sparrow arrived this week.

Some people love this stage of publication – you haven't looked at the manuscript in months, you can read it as a reader might, (hopefully) genuinely enjoying the book upon arriving at it with fresh eyes. Not me. I sit under a desk lamp, as if beneath an interrogation light, and sweat out every punctuation mark, slowly combing through the pages, hoping and praying that the plot holds up, that I don’t find a typo (which, of course, is unrealistic), and that I genuinely like the book while reading it as a reader might, but knowing all the while that, as my extraordinary editor reminds me in her letter, This is the last opportunity

Happy reading. See you in two weeks.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

What Tole Painting Taught Me

I’m back from a week in Vegas where I attended the Creative Painting convention. Had a great time. Came back to discover that fellow Type Mer, Vicki Delany, and I are going to be on the same panel at Malice Domestic. Pretty cool! 

While I was painting away at the convention, I was reminded of what painting taught me about writing. The post below originally appeared on Michele Lynn Seigfried's Blog as part of the Fatal Brushstroke blog tour last November.
One of the projects I painted at the convention
Like Rory Anderson, the main character in my book, Fatal Brushstroke, I’m a tole/decorative painter. (Decorative painting seems to be the preferred term these days, though I still often use tole.) I started painting in the early 90s, several years before I started writing. I’ve gone to conventions, taken classes, and worked on projects on my own.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot from painting that I can apply to my writing life. Whenever I get discouraged, the following bits of wisdom keep me moving forward.

  • You can only paint/write based on your ability at the time. Be patient. Don’t expect to be perfect right off the bat. It takes time and practice to learn a new skill. The more projects you work on, the better you’ll become.
  • Don’t constantly compare yourself to others. There will always be someone who paints better or writes better. That doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t valid. Just do the best you can. We’re often not the best judges of our own work, anyway.
  • You won’t know what a project looks like until it’s finished. Don’t fret over it while it’s in progress. About halfway through every painting project I’ve ever worked on, I look at it and think it’s not turning out as I’d hoped, so why bother? The same is true of every writing project, be it short story or novel. But I keep on plugging away and, at the end, I like the final result and feel it was worth spending time on.
  • You can always start over. Wood can be sanded, paint can be removed from most surfaces. In writing, chapters can be rewritten, characters can be changed. Just because you put it down on paper or typed it into a Word document doesn’t mean it’s permanent. We tend to think if something is written down or already painted it can’t be modified. Why? You started the project in the first place. You have control over it, you can change it.
  • Periodically look at a project as a whole. One of my painting teachers told me this when I complained about how a project was turning out. She held the project a few feet away from me and told me to look at it again. It looked better than I’d thought. Don’t dwell on every brushstroke, don’t dwell on every word and sentence. Look at the project as a whole. Sure, details are important but, in my eyes at least, the overall effect is more important.
  • You don’t have to do everything the way the instructions say. You can change paint colors if you want. You can omit part of a design if it doesn’t suit you. You can ignore writing rules as long as you understand them and know why you’re ignoring them.
  • Don’t give up. You never know what’s going to happen or how something is going to turn out until the end. A painting project looks better after it’s varnished. A writing project looks better after it’s polished.
And most important of all
  • Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Take a moment to celebrate your achievement. You finished a painting project! You finished a book or short story! If you’ve never painted or written a book or short story before, wow! you did it! If this is your second, third or nth short story/painting project/book, wow! you did it again! Remember to take time to celebrate your accomplishments. Lots of people say they want to write or paint. How many actually sit down and do it?

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


No, I’m not thinking of switching to the horror genre, nor trying my hand at penning a YA novel (although I have always been a fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula). I am also not talking about those LED thingies on all our appliances and electronic devices that you just can’t turn off unless you unplug the whole damn thing, in which case you’d spend half your life bending down to plug/unplug nearly everything you own.

What I am referring to are those people who just tend to suck the life and joy out of everyone surrounding them.

You know the type: high maintenance people with big needs, never very much help with anything and usually with constant complaints about nearly everything.

It’s easy to collect them, especially if you’re any kind of an empathetic person. I am and I do. These sorts of vampires can suck you dry of any energy or enthusiasm in one brief phone call. Maybe the legends of blood-sucking night creatures actually revolve around the sort of person who seems to have perfected self-misery and shooting themselves in the foot.

I had an email from someone the other day, and I am well aware that emails from this person are usually very negative. It’s as if they sense where my weaknesses are and the home in on them like a guided missile. I was just about to sit down and work on my very “sluggish” novella project. Now is the time for it to get into hyperdrive and really start humming along. I know what I want to write and it’s dammed up inside my head, threatening to gush out whether I want it to or not.

But I opened the email anyway. I know, I know. It’s like that horror movie where you know something awful is hiding in that closet, but you watch helplessly as the character insists on opening the door.

Instant despair. I just sat there blinking like an idiot when I finished the lengthy missive. If I really was going to be the terrific friend I’d like to think I am, I would have hopped on a plane and gone out to help sort out a life filled with turbulence due to a lot of misery. I can’t help it. I’m an empath and really feel that I could help. It’s a close friend, and well, it’s hard to turn away.

Knowing I couldn’t do that, I picked up the phone. By the end of that lengthy conversation, I was completely depressed and stared at my computer screen for a good five minutes, mind completely blank and feeling like I just wanted to go back to bed. Perhaps that would have been a good idea: start my day over.

Yeah, you’re probably thinking that I should just not turn on my computer’s mail program when I sit down to write. Problem is, I have to know what my design clients are up to. A new job may be in the offing, or there might be a problem with something I’d sent off to the printer the day before. I have good reasons to watch my incoming mail.

In thinking about it since, I realized that I have to steel myself against taking ownership of other people’s problems. If this means losing friendships, so be it. This empathy thing can easily become a very full-time job.

Its side effect of sapping one’s creative energy, however, has gotten me thinking.

Why is creative energy so much more fragile than physical or lower-level mental energy? On the day in question, I went on to be very productive doing the (admittedly rote) assembly of a large graphic design job I was working on (adding images to an already conceived layout). And I did a large amount of work out in the kitchen on some meat-curing I’m involved in. I shoveled snow. I vacuumed the upstairs.

But as for my grand writing plans? Zilch. Nada. The circus had left town — at least for that day. I tried again later in the evening with nothing useful happening. It was as if my writing idea vault suddenly had a big fat lock on it. Even though I knew what I wanted to say, it just wouldn’t come out.

Next morning, I stayed away from the computer for a couple of hours and had a very profitable time writing. It meant, though, that I had to get up at 6:00 when clients are never in their offices. The house was quiet, and the phone wouldn’t ring unless it really was an emergency.

It was lovely.

So here’s my question folks: why is creative energy such a fragile and whimsical thing? Any ideas? Please share them! I, for one, will thank you.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

An Eating Tour

By Vicki Delany

Last week I went to Raleigh, North Carolina on an extensive book tour. I travelled with my friend Linda Wiken (aka Erika Chase) and Type M’s own Donis Casey. Our escort and superb organizer was the indomitable Molly Weston.

Did I say, book tour? I fear it turned into more of an eating tour with a few book signings thrown in. North Carolina cooking, I have discovered, is FABULOUS!

And that's just great for me (if not for the waistline) because my new cozy series, the Lighthouse Library Series, is set in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. So all this eating was, of course, necessary research if I'm going to have veracity in the series.

I think I like hush puppies the best, followed closely by fried green tomatoes. I am not terribly fond of collards nor of okra (in the pic above to the left cooked with tomatoes).

But nothing, but nothing, beats shrimp and grits done well, as they were in the dish below. The cabbage was kinda an odd side though.

Oh, right, book tour...

Here are some pics of that:

Friday, February 27, 2015

On Not Plunging In

The antithesis of Albany’s current weather. Winter? Doesn’t exist!
Generally, when we write about attending mystery conferences, we mention opportunities to catch up with writer friends, meet and mingle with readers, see editors and agents, and appear on panels. We write about what we learn by attending workshops and interviews with bestselling authors. We write about how we soak up all that energy, and come home ready to sit down and write.

These are all excellent reasons for attending conferences. In fact, when I signed up for Sleuthfest this year, I thought of what fun it would be to hang out with friends, be on a panel, and do a pre-publication debut of my new book, What the Fly Saw. I have to admit – no offense to Floridians – that the chance to get out of snowbound, frigid Albany, New York and spend a few days in a balmy clime was not one of the reasons I wanted to attend. I'm not a warm weather person. But, I arrived this afternoon, and so far it hasn't been bad. I've gone from air-conditioned airport to shuttle to hotel room. There is no humidity. Much better than my last visit to Florida.

But I haven't gone to the conference yet. I'm in an overflow hotel across the street (busy boulevard) and – more important – I got up at five a.m. to make my 8:15 a.m flight. That wouldn't have been bad, but I got to bed at around 2 and had about three hours sleep. So I decided to pass on the last of the afternoon workshops and the Thursday evening kickoff events. Tomorrow, I'll go over fresh and wide awake.

Being in an overflow hotel does offer one advantage – the opportunity to hide out. This is also possible in the conference hotel if you dodge people you know and/or are willing to nod briskly and keep moving when you do encounter friends. It is much easier to hide out when you are in the overflow hotel because most people in your hotel will be heading to the conference hotel. In the overflow hotel, you have an excuse for not attending an evening event – you don't want to walk back to your hotel alone in the dark. This excuse only works if you purposely don't look for people you know who might be in your hotel and with whom you could walk. Of course, you also don't bother to consider the possibility that you would be safe walking across the street from one hotel to the other.

Obviously when you have gone to the effort and expense of attending the conference, hiding out in your room should not be something you do every night. Especially when you are attending a great conference like Sleuthfest. But I would argue that taking one evening for decompression before plunging in is acceptable.

The other opportunity that should not be missed when attending a conference is the chance to take an airport shuttle to your hotel. I say this without sarcasm. Yes, if you are rushing to plunge into conference activities, then waiting for your shuttle to leave and then going on a rambling journey while other passengers are delivered to their destinations can be tedious. On the other hand, if you decide to think of the shuttle ride as a tour of the area, it becomes much more interesting. Much can be learned about an area while a passenger on an airport shuttle.

The other first-evening pleasure you should consider – in-room dining. Room service or delivery. Tonight, I ordered a wonderful meal – including coconut flan – that was delivered to my hotel. And I ate it wearing old tee shirt, shorts, and flip flops.

I also got a little work done. Some reading I needed to do. Some notes I needed to make about a project. Bright and early Friday, I will plunge into Sleuthfest, and I'm sure I'll have fun. But Thursday was my transition day…and that is why I have no photos for this post.

(Special Note: After reading Frankie’s post, I felt compelled to go out and find an image that reflected her current location as compared to her usual location – just so you’d all know what she’s currently suffering through! —Rick)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Exciting Climax

I’m in the midst of writing the climax to All Men Fear Me, my latest Alafair Tucker novel. It’s the big reveal, when the reader finds out whodunnit, and more importantly, when Alafair finds out whodunnit. Maybe she confronts the killer. Then what does she do? When I begin writing a new mystery novel, I usually know who the murderer is, and sometimes I know how and why s/he did it. I may also have an idea how the killer went about trying to cover up the crime. I’m pretty good about doling out clues at appropriate intervals throughout the story. But here’s the hard part: Alafair, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.

And that is not easy, my friend, because I have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.

Alafair is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator. She doesn’t do this for a living, nor does she have any official authority to compel people to answer her questions. She also lives in an era when people are constrained by fairly rigid gender roles. In fact, question number one is: what is she doing trying to solve a murder, anyway? The first thing I have to do is give her a really compelling reason to get involved at all.

Then I have to give her the means and the opportunities to uncover information and make connections, and I can’t force the action to fit the outcome I want. In other words, I can’t have Alafair doing things that a woman with the resources she has couldn’t do. I can’t have her act against her own nature, either, just to advance the plot or create tension in an artificial way.
This is the reason I’ve been known to stare at the screen for an hour when I’m at a critical juncture, thinking “how can I get Alafair off the farm and into that office in town to search for the gun, before sundown, when she has a bunch of kids and a husband, all of whom want dinner?”

I could just have her up and leave and let everyone fend for himself, or I could contrive to have all the children and the husband go out to eat at whatever the 1917 equivalent of McDonald’s was. But if I did that, I have a feeling I’d hear about it from disgruntled readers. Not to mention a horrified editor. Sometimes I just can’t come up with a plausible way to do it, and I have to go at it from a totally different angle or rework the scene altogether.

This is one of the things I like about writing an amateur sleuth. She has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers. And sometimes, she’s smarter than I am. In fact, there have been occasions where Alafair came upon a clue that I was not aware of myself until it appeared on the page. Toward the end of my fourth book in the series, The Sky Took Him, Alafair was sitting in a hospital corridor, having a nice, normal, conversation with the family, when she noticed something at exactly the same time I did, an observation which provided both of us with a vital piece of information. It surprised the heck out of me, but it was plausible, very much in character for Alafair, and worked like a charm. Moments like this are why writing a mystery can be such fun.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The invisible foe

Barbara here. What do the West Edmonton Mall, feminist writers, and Justine Sacco have in common? They have all been in the news recently as targets of internet threats. The internet is surely the great invention of our era, connecting us across the world and providing access to knowledge, entertainment, and services at the click of a mouse. It is such an integral part of most of our lives that it's difficult to remember how we did things before. Book a flight, find a B&B, find the best Italian restaurant in town, bake oatmeal scones, compare features of lawnmowers... It's all there. And email and social media have made it possible to stay connected (and indeed to reconnect) with friends and family around the world. To share photos and anecdotes and birthdays.

But with this vast, unfettered playground have come the playground bullies, who have their own dark desires to fulfill  and who revel in the chance to unleash their cruel side without ever having to reveal their identity or look their victim in the eye. We've all encountered them. At their most harmless, they are the trolls who hijack the 'comments' sections of newspaper articles with absurd rants or who make crude personal attacks in place of reasoned argument. Most of us have learned to ignore them rather than respond and thus give them the forum they crave.

As writers, whose work is out in the public sphere, we have to learn to ignore a special kind of troll– the negative reviewer. By this I don't mean the carefully considered critique that finds our work lacking. As painful as these are for us to read, we generally recognize they are written in the spirit of appraisal rather than attack. But there are reviewers out there whose goal is not to appraise or critique but rather to trash. Because they can. Because they enjoy it. Although these are more difficult to ignore, because their negative reviews can affect the ratings of our books, we generally grit our teeth and try to ignore them too.

But many forms of internet abuse are far more destructive, because of formless and unknowable nature of the threat. Sometimes it becomes a multi-headed monster, as when a single, ill-advised tweet gets retweeted and retweeted until perfect strangers all around the world are savaging you (as happened to Justine Sacco), causing you to lose privacy, friends, and sometimes even your job. How to contain it, how to grapple with it and try to reverse it?

Sometimes the threats are graphic and criminal in nature, as in the case of the feminist writers who were threatened with rape and other violent retribution, but the persons responsible, being anonymous, cannot be called to account and dealt with. Not knowing where the danger lies, or how serious it is, can lead to serious anxiety, which is of course one of the abusers' goals. Such is also the tactic of terrorists making videos containing vague threats of destruction, the exact time and place unknown but specific enough (like the West Edmonton mall mention) to sow fear and get the reaction they want– a world held hostage to nameless and faceless bandits.

But to bring this back to writers, on a much smaller scale, I have begun to notice a small but increasing number of nasty personal attacks, some of which have made me feel vaguely unsafe. Writers are vulnerable because our work– and our soul– is out there for all to see, and we encourage interaction with the public. I have a Facebook page which anyone can view, and a website with contact information. Generally I love the messages and emails I receive, the vast majority from readers who have enjoyed my books or want to know when the next is due out, etc. Sometimes I receive pleasant, mildly chiding messages correcting a fact or a typo in one of my books, and these too I appreciate.

But I have received a few notes which seem just plain nasty, which attack the book or myself in a way that feels vindictive. As a crime writer I tackle social and moral issues, and I understand the messages in my books are not going to appeal to everyone. Sometimes I choose to respond, and the exchange of emails opens up a dialogue that ultimately enriches both of us. But in most instances I sense there is no basis for reasonable dialogue; that as with 'comment' trolls, the vitriol is the thing, not the message itself.

But it does leave me feeling vaguely unsettled. Vaguely threatened. I would be easy to find, if someone chose to go beyond the emailing of nasty notes. And as I embark on my new series, which will tackle even more global moral and human rights issues than I did previously– issues such as human trafficking, self-radicalization, and human rights– I suspect the subtle threats may increase. It gives a writer pause, not just about what they might choose to write about, but also about how publicly available they want to be. Which would be too bad.

I'd be interested in hearing people's experiences with this, both as readers and writers. Is the phenomenon growing, and if so, how do we respond?