Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Best Writing Advice Ever

Jenn McKinlay, Donis Casey, Rhys Bowen, "pimping" our latest books

I, Donis, did an event last week at a library in Sun Lakes, Arizona, along with Rhys Bowen and Jenn McKinlay. If you are a lover of cozy mysteries, Dear Reader, you are familiar with both of these best-selling authors. The crowd was enthusiastic and the panel was lively, and I had a great time talking about writing, the writing life, our books, characters, you name it. At the end of the session, a woman in the audience asked if had any helpful advice for aspiring authors, and Jenn McKinlay replied, “Don’t think too much.” Just keep writing.

That is the best piece of writing advice I’ve heard in a good long while, and one that I need to take to heart. The most important thing is to get those words onto the page. You can fix it later. You can have the most brilliant idea every conceived on God’s green earth but what separates the men from the boys is the ability to get it down on paper in an effective way.

Both Jenn and Rhys are not just talented, they are disciplined and effective. Both of them produce two or three (or sometimes four or five) books a year, and they are wonderful books, too. Rhys, whose Royal Spyness and Molly Murphy series are two of my favorites, has been writing professionally for all of her adult life, and with any art, the only way to get to Carnagie Hall is to practice, practice, practice. One of my favorite adages, and one I repeat constantly, is that you can study music theory until you have a Ph.D., but unless you practice the violin until your fingers bleed, you’ll never be a virtuoso.

Jenn told the crowd that she writes a book from beginning to end without stopping, without making any corrections. As she writes she keeps a list of things she will go back and fix once she has the first draft finished. My technique is similar. I always intend to write from beginning to end without stopping. If I get stuck or can’t quite figure out what to do next, I just write something, a filler, or leave a blank and plow onwards. Get that first draft done. By the time you write the last word, the story may have taken quite a turn from the way you thought it would go when you were writing the beginning.

But now you have something to work with. You can go back, if you need to, and craft the beginning to fit the end. You can cut out all the blather and redundancies that you put in there on the fly. You can tighten up that saggy middle and add another clue that will make things clearer.

I know all this very well and this is what I tell anyone who aspires to write a book. Yet sometimes I’m not so successful in taking my own advice. I’m working on a manuscript right now, and I keep obsessing over one particular scene. I sit down every day to go, go, go from beginning to end, but for the past several days I keep going back to a family dinner and messing with it. Big mistake, and I know it. If I get the whole story down, the dinner scene will resolve itself. So today my fervent resolution is to take Jenn McKinlay’s advice and not think so much. To hell with the dinner scene. Onward to the end!

The eighth Alafair Tucker novel is on the publisher’s schedule for release in November. My deadline for the complete manuscript is April 20. That is the day that no matter what, I’ll be forced to pronounce the book done and send it in to her. Sometimes this is the only way a book ever gets finished. You simply have to turn it in.

I’ll get it done. I always do.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New beginnings

Barbara here. What an interesting, meandering examination of gender, identity, and character creation we have been having over here at Type M in the past couple of weeks. Several of us have also talked about changing hats and writing a new style, or creating a new series, and how that has enriched and invigorated their writing.

Writers face three challenges in continuing to write a long-running series. Firstly that they start to repeat themselves and fail to grow as writers, which most of us dread. Series allow us to stay with old friends we know so well that it takes little effort to get into their heads. It allows us to stay in comforting surroundings, using the neighbourhoods and background colour that has become as familiar as our own back yards. These two advantages are also the greatest pitfalls. Comfortable and familiar does not encourage risk, growth, or leaps of imagination.

The second challenge is that the series dictates the kind of story that can be told. My Inspector Green novels are police procedurals, and no matter what curves I throw at Green nor what detours my stories take, a police procedural has the particular flow of a police investigation. Moreover, all the stories have to take place in Ottawa (well, I cheat a little) because that is where Green has jurisdiction.

The third challenge derives from reader expectations. Both Rick and Vicki had alluded to this notion that a reader buys a book expecting a particular kind of story, and may rebel if they don't get it. The Green stories are gritty and realistic, but with a heavier emphasis on psychology than on blood and gore. If the next book turned out cozy (or serial-killer horror), I would likely get a slew of complaining emails. Writers, and their publishers, deviate from the winning "formula" at their peril.

But writers get all kinds of story ideas involving different heroes and places, and those stories can't be shoehorned into a police investigation in Ottawa. Writers of long-standing series sometimes solve this feeling of straitjacket by writing occasional standalones. Or by writing a second series, which is sufficiently different in tone, form, and setting that they can explore new vistas and experiment with new styles.

This is why the start of 2015 marks a new beginning for me as well, as I embark on a new three-book contract for a completely different series. There are ten books in the Green series, and it seemed like a solid place to take a break and explore something new. Green will be back, and I suspect I will be delighted to reconnect with him when I am ready. But for now, I am deep in the world of a very different character.

First off, my main character is a woman. I always thought it amusing that authors were often mistaken for their main character, or that the lines between author and character blurred, because Green was quite clearly distinct from me. Although as any author knows, not as distinct as one might think.

My new character is also not me. Amanda Doucette is a lot younger than me, the age of my daughters in fact, and is still searching for her place and her path, which allows her to have adventures and experiences which I get to share vicariously. Always fun for a writer. But she shares many of my passions and my values, and is in some ways who I might have been had I been young in today's world. I became a psychologist to help people; she became an international aid worker. She is resourceful and smart, determined and action-oriented, yet she struggles with what she has seen. She is a powerful and interesting person for me as a writer to spend time with, and I hope readers will think so too.

The setting of my new series is a wholly different concept as well. Each book will take place in a different setting across Canada, the first one in Newfoundland and the second in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains. I hope to explore wonderful locales across the country, taking myself on adventures and never growing tired of one place. Some of these adventures I will take in person, as on last fall's Newfoundland trip, but some of it will be within my own living room, as these photos attest.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Vicki’s post from last week, as well as others here on Type M recently, plus some side discussions I’ve had with people, have got me thinking how the crime fiction genre has gotten divided and subdivided and then subdivided again over the past several years, to the point where it’s getting quite, well, silly in many way. Publishers, readers and writers, we’re all guilty in this…crime.

Several years ago, I was describing a novel I was working on to an interested bookseller. “Oh, it’s a chase thriller then.” Huh? “There’s a category for this kind of story?” “Certainly. I have customers who will read nothing else.”

I’ve found out since that there are now very specific categories called things like “woman in peril”, “crafting mysteries”, “food mysteries”. Vicki has started a new series that I guess should be called a “library mystery”. All of this on top of the older categories made up of things like “thrillers”, “hardboiled”, “police procedural”, “amateur sleuth” and “cozy”, to name a few of the main ones.

But now it’s all sliced and diced and readers and publishers are demanding that your novel fall into a neat, little pigeonhole. From a marketing standpoint, I can see why publishers and booksellers might want this. It used to be that you only had to deal with whether you were writing standalones or a series. Bookstore owners usually knew what they were selling so they could tell you about a specific book. Even if you preferred a certain kind of story, you could often be persuaded by someone’s enthusiastic endorsement. If you’re purchasing a book and lack that personal description and recommendation, you might well hesitate to put done as much as forty dollars on a hardcover.

So for various reasons, we’ve become a lot more exclusive these days. It goes far beyond economics and marketing. As I’ve already mentioned in a recent post, many people won’t step outside the little box into which they’ve put themselves. I guess some of it has to do with comfort zones, and for sure, those are important. If a person is not up for a “blood and guts” storyline, it would be a shame to sell them a book that contains this sort of thing.

But these “product placement” boxes may also lead to comments like, “This story is unlike anything we’ve seen. We wouldn’t begin to know how to market it.” Now, unless the writing being commented thusly on is drop-dead, best-ever stuff, the person saying this might well be tempted to take a pass, be they agent, publisher, bookseller or book buyer. I know it happens. One of my novels was stillborn because my description of its plot led to a very similar comment being made by my then-agent. That’s a shame. I still believe it might have been a very interesting story, but I have little enough time to spend on writing to take chances with a dodgy plot line somebody might not be interested in buying into.

Often the best and most groundbreaking writing comes from something experimental or just plain different. These days, for some very good reasons — but also some very bad ones — experimental writing and storylines have a much harder go of it. We’re probably missing some exceptional writing and stories because of it.

Here’s your homework: come with an exact and specific category in which to place your work if you’re a writer. For readers, describe your ideal sort of book. You must be very, very specific so that you can go right to a bookshelf in a store to find it. For my current novel, Roses for a Diva, it would have to be something like “woman in peril, psychopathic chase, musical thriller”.

Sounds enticing doesn’t it? And I’ve also given away a large part of the plot, too!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Just Who is Your Main Character?

John raised some interesting points in his recent post when he talked about not using real people in books. I don't either, at least not consciously, though as I've written here in the past I did base a major character on someone I had met many years before, someone I'd completely forgotten about until something jogged my memory. I suspect there are more fragments of real people in my books than I realize.

The other thing he said that intrigued me was that he constantly has to tell people, 'No, I am not Jack Austin. No, my wife isn't Lisa Trembley.'

When you've written am extended series, people do tend to assume that you and your heroine are, to some extent, the same person. I was on a panel once where the chair decided that we were actually to come as our detectives, answering the questions in the way that he/she would. I commend it to you as an idea; it was great fun, but it was quite enlightening as well.

Working out how to present myself was a challenge as DI Marjory Fleming is nearly six feet tall, slim and athletic-looking, while I'm – well, not. But I did think to bring in half-a-dozen eggs for the chair from her flock of hens to, as WS Gilbert put it, lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

The most memorable question asked the country-loving farmer's wife 'Marjory' what did she think of her author? The reply was basically, couch potato, spends all her time with her nose in a book – often a cookery book,ugh – lives in a town of all dreadful places to live, has never been known to have a good yomp up a hill.

I wasn't allowed a reply, as me, but at the very least I would have expressed my contempt for her total lack of culinary skills since it has always seemed to me that if you can read, you can cook.& Oh, I forgot. She doesn't read either. No, I'm not Marjory Fleming.

But John raised the question of identity. Whose mind is it behind the character's thoughts, decisions, judgements, values – unless our own? In fact I suppose every character we create comes from some aspect of our own brain; where else could they come from? So are we the villain as well as the hero? Just a thought.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Toting your heater

Since we are Type M for Murder, and murder is homicide, and about half of all homicides in the U.S. are committed with firearms, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about guns. First of all, talking about guns is like talking about grammar and punctuation; there's always an exception to the rule!

A lot is written about guns for mystery writers but I don't see much information aside from the hardware; advice like revolvers don't have safeties, don't call a magazine a clip, etc,. Instead I decided to write briefly about the legalities of carrying a gun in the U.S.

What astonishes a lot of non-gun people is learning that in most places in the U.S. as a private citizen you don't need a permit (or license) to own or buy a gun. (Automatic weapons like machine guns do require a special federal license and a lot of red tape to purchase.) The laws vary from state-to-state and some municipalities have their own restrictions, and these laws change as the debate over gun rights ebbs and flows. Federal law says that if you buy from a dealer (such as a gun shop, sporting goods store, Walmart), you have to fill out a form attesting that you have no record of violent felonies, never been convicted of certain drug crimes, not have any protective orders against you, not have mental health restrictions, etc., Then you pay ten bucks and the dealer runs your name through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. The law doesn't restrict sales or transfers between private individuals in the same state, however, in some states all gun transfers require a background check. Also, federal law prohibits the sale of guns across state lines unless it goes through a dealer. And how does a gun cross state lines to get from dealer to dealer? Through the US Mail.

Once you have a gun, carrying it is another matter. In Colorado you are allowed (assuming you are entitled to possess the gun) without a permit to carry a loaded pistol in your car or truck for protection of life and property. The caveat is that if you get into trouble and the police find that gun, they're very likely going to slam the cuffs on you for a stay at the iron-bar hotel. You are prohibited from carrying a loaded shotgun or rifle in your conveyance and the ammunition must be stored separately. You can get a concealed carry permit which does allow you to carry a loaded handgun. The requirements (such as training) for that permit vary from state-to-state. You have "Shall-issue" which means that if you're entitled to own a pistol, then you are issued the permit. "May-issue" is a lot more restrictive and you have to prove why you need the permit. In some states, like New York or Hawaii, getting a "may-issue" permit is almost impossible. "No-issue" means what it says, and we're talking Guam and Puerto Rico. And then you have other restrictions such as no firearms allowed in places that serve alcohol, on public school grounds, on federal property, that sell marijuana, etc., However, many colleges do allow concealed carry on their campuses. Some states have reciprocity agreements that recognize a permit from another state, but that requires that you do your homework. Remember, concealed carry means "concealed" and if you flash your piece without good cause, then you've violated the conditions of that right to carry. An example would be that if you have a concealed-carry permitted pistol, get into an argument with someone and to prove your point, you show your gun...then WHOA! You could be accused of menacing with a deadly weapon. And if you do get a concealed carry permit you're advised to buy legal insurance because should you ever have to use the gun, you can lawyer up and protect yourself from over-zealous prosecutors and getting sued by your attacker!

"Open carry" is another patchwork of laws. Basically open carry allows you to carry your gun in public. In most places that means unloaded unless you're in the act of hunting and have the appropriate hunting permit. Some states allow the open carry of handguns and others do not. Interestingly, a lot of businesses that sell guns, such as sporting goods stores and gun shops, do not allow open carry. If you bring a gun onto the premises, it had better be in a case, often with a trigger lock, and definitely not loaded.

For law enforcement the rules are different. If a cop or agent is authorized a firearm, then he or she can carry concealed without a permit. And Congress passed the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act which means that such a law enforcement officer or retired law enforcement officer can carry a firearm in any jurisdiction in the U.S. But there are exceptions.

Whew. So many rules. Fortunately with the mighty Internet, you can type in "gun laws" and the name of wherever you live or want to do research and find plenty of information. Just don't shoot yourself.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Clearing Time for Writing

Last summer I heard Craig Johnson speak. He's one of our family's favorite authors. Craig is a mesmerizing speaker and there were 500 people in attendance.

After he gave his talk there was a huge line waiting to buy his newest book, Any Other Name. An even longer line snaked across the Old Library Park with armloads of previously purchased books. It was the most organized set-up I’ve seen. Several employees from Old Firehouse Books politely went through the lines and handed each person a yellow sticky note instructing the customer to write the desired name to be used in the autograph and put in on the title page. It was an outdoor event. The evening was lovely, and the sound system was superb.

No one seemed to mind waiting in the long line because we were all among booklovers. I met a delightful lady who recommended a number of titles. She appreciated audiobooks. Naturally, I whipped out my card told her about the variety of books published by Poisoned Pen Press.

I was impressed with Craig’s energy. He greeted each person like they were a long lost friend. Since I was at the tail end of the line, I took the opportunity to ask him how he managed to participate in so many events and simultaneously write so many wonderful books. He said he was able to write anywhere at any time. He used a computer or a spiral notebook or anything else that was handy. It didn’t matter. He said he used to be very precious about his writing and had to do it in a certain place at a certain time of day. But he had to give that up.

Then he said what we’ve all heard a jillion times–the secret is to keep at it and write every day. He knows how to think! He gave up a method that wasn’t working anymore and rebooted himself with a new operating system. Wow!

There are many times during my life I’ve had to admit my usual modus operandi simply wasn’t working anymore. I’ve gotten trapped psychologically into believing I’m handling things when I’ve not. My latest pitfall is the myth of  believing I can “clear time” for writing. That has never ever worked for me. It’s not working now. It won’t work in the future. This Christmas has been especially disruptive. It was full of mini-exchanges that drifted into January. Something always happened to blow the “cleared time” sky high.

 My best approach has always been to write five days a week. Naturally that expands to include weekends at certain stages.

There were many questions I wanted to ask Craig. One concerns social media. Does he use hired help? How many blogs does he follow? What all does he do?

In the meantime, my life needs more Tweaking, not Tweeting. I need to get comfortable with a social media approach and go back to a more consistence approach to writing.

Some people never write when they are promoting. Some, like Craig, write every day no matter what the circumstances. Some take long breaks between drafts of a book. Some write in multiple genres.
So how do you do it, Type M'ers? Have there been times when you’ve had to switch methods? How did that work for you?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I Am Woman: A Personal Approach to Gender

I read Rick's and Barbara's recent posts regarding gender in our genre, and I enjoyed their respective insights. I will stumble into the discussion here — the way I did into my new series and in turn my experience with the topic.

After writing my first six novels using the first-person point of view of hard-boiled males (both PI and amateur-sleuth), I taught a woman named Kylie, an early childhood-education major taking my night class at Northern Maine Community College. She was probably my age at the time (early thirties), and she worked harder than anyone I'd ever taught: she was a single mother (I'd see her dropping her toddler off early each morning at the same Head Start program my infant attended). Then each of us would leave to work for the day — me, to teach technical writing and composition at NMCC; she, to do menial labor (multiple jobs) all day before attending night classes.

My work at NMCC taught me many things. Among them: that most of my struggles are First World problems — that I have it a hell of a lot better than most. And Kylie, unbeknownst to her, drove that point home, wearily showing up each night, always prepared, always ready to lead discussions, writing and rewriting essays, and every bit earning her "A."

I never forgot her. And a few years later, I found myself writing a scene featuring a mother and a daughter at a kitchen table in Aroostook County, Maine, arguing about the way the younger woman was raising her daughter. The grandmother couldn't grasp the realities of single-motherhood.

I don't base my characters on people I know. (No, I'm not Jack Austin. No my wife isn't Lisa Trembley — Stop asking!) But many of my characters possess the attributes of people I have watched/known/or met. A nervous habit. A way of pronouncing a particular word. A hand gesture. These are things I notice, details I can use that (hopefully) bring a scene to life for the reader.

But as I wrote that kitchen-table scene, I knew Kylie was (in part) the daughter. And the more I wrote and allowed the character to breathe, the more I realized how heroic the character was. I knew she was representing more than just herself, that if I wrote honestly enough (I believe deeply in Hemingway's adage "All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.") that my character Peyton Cote would resonate with other single mothers, who experience the same hardships, challenges, and rewards that Kylie did and Peyton does.

Did I succeed? Who knows. But the effort was and continues to be there.