Tag Archives: Writing

The New Year! and a not-so-clean desk…

It’s the new year and time to start fresh, right? Maybe not. This year, I’m taking a page from one of my MissDemeanors blog colleagues and saying no, I’m not starting fresh. At this time of my life I’m okay with my habits, and even the ones I don’t like, I’ve gotten used to.

desk-photoThis is particularly true when it comes to the state of my desk. Teapot, strainer and cup, those are essential (Even more essential is the Twining’s Lady Grey tea inside the pot). Calendar (yes, I use a paper one) to make sure I don’t forget phone calls, meetings or other deadlines. Pens, tape (for adding thoughts to my big wall outline), Mr Edgar Allen Poe and his nodding raven for inspiration and then…. well, all the rest. Technically “all the rest” could probably find a home somewhere neat and organized but that falls into the category of no resolutions. I’ve lived with the clutter this long…

The only drawback of this organizational style is the other desktop. The virtual one. I would have included a snapshot of that screen but too many people would recoil in horror. Bits and bobs of deleted paragraphs, possible chapters. Copied sections as a back up before a major revision. Thoughts jotted on virtual notes. It’s all there. Somewhere. I know this is a bad habit because tech support has literally recoiled in horror at the number of files on my desktop. They’ve called me later and said they had nightmares about it. Occasionally I start a folder called – things taken from desktop on such and such date. Like a bottom drawer that will likely never be opened again. I may actually tackle this in 2017. A clean virtual desktop. I’ve found my resolution!

“How do you get the work to hold the resonance of its history?” Claudia Rankine


screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-5-59-18-pmThat is an opening quote from an interview in the Paris Review with author Claudia Rankine. The entire interview, conducted by David Ulin and published in Winter 2016 is worth reading.

Rankine’s poetry focuses on social issues ranging from micro aggression, to racism to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To her, words matter. She recounts listening to the recording of the shooting of Philando Castile and hearing the words of the little girl in the backseat of the car say, “It’s okay, Mommy, I’m right here with you.” She talks about the ability of the words to transport her to the point where she is literally experiencing the child and her words.

Rankine is a poet who writes across many formats. She is a writer for social justice. How does that compare with writing mysteries? Should it compare? I’d like to think that it can. Not every page of a 300 page novel will stand up to the scrutiny of a poem. Not every word will achieve a lyrical meaning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t aspire to this.

Words matter has resonated across the country this year for many reasons. Whether high oratory, poetry, or a hastily written note in a lunch box, words matter. As I work on final revisions, where it sometimes feels like there are too many words to care about, I’ll keep this as an aspirational goal even if only means I get it about one third right.

To read the full Rankine interview visit: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6905/claudia-rankine-the-art-of-poetry-no-102-claudia-rankine

(This post originally appeared on MissDemeanors.com)

The Betas

(This post originally appeared on the MissDemeanors.com blog)

My Beta readers are the unsung heroes of the writing process. Every author has them, a fixed group or changeable one, dependable or sporadic, they are the kind souls who are willing to read a draft and speak honestly about it.

I have a crew and what a group they are. Scattered around the globe I usually send the chapters to them all at the same time. Then I keep working on something else and wait. Not patiently. After all, shouldn’t they drop everything they are doing – work, family, vacation, other books and read what I have suggested? In all fairness, they are unfailingly excited to receive their email with attachment. And they do read quickly (anything outside of a 24 hour turn around for me feels like a nail biting trip to Mars and back. I have actually Tweeted a Beta reader that she needed to start reading faster. Did that smack of desperation?!).

Some readers are naturals – they read carefully, thoughtfully and don’t hesitate to make ‘suggestions’. Others must be trained. Yes, you really do want their opinion. You may not take all their suggestions, but each and every idea is welcome and plays a part in strengthening the final book.

My Betas fall into two broad types. Some are the nit-picky comma and word choice gurus. Amazing! (I’m always surprised how many typos go undiscovered. Did logic REALLY look like topic each and every one of the 10 times I read it? Yes, it must have.). The other readers are big picture. Their emails critiques start off “some typos and weird punctuation to fix but what really concerns me is….” Honestly, I couldn’t live without either group. Each word and comma is important and needs a second set of eyes. At the same time the words and commas won’t matter if the plot point fails, or if the chapters drag on too long or (there are many ‘ors’ here).

People are busy, your Beta readers are friends, they’re not doing this for a pay check and yet they read something that isn’t as polished as it will eventually be, and then they agree to read it again (hopefully more polished). And, bless them, they read the final version to see how you’ve changed it (even after I assure them that they read was the final version with the exception of a few very minor word changes). More shocking is what they notice. They have read and absorbed and remembered more than I did. Writers are used to reading drafts. Most readers aren’t. Those who take this on willingly should be saluted. It’s a beautiful thing.

What kind of a Beta reader are you?


PD James and Setting


cows processing

Occasionally I browse through books on writing, not exactly looking for inspiration or rules but reminding myself that every writer faces similar struggles in the act of creation. Recently I reread parts of P.D. James’ Talking About Detective Fiction. It is an amazing book, mainly for her vast knowledge of the history of the genre; however, this time I focused mainly on the chapter titled Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint, People.

Setting is important in my books, mainly because they are set in a place perhaps not familiar to an English speaking (or reading) audience. Namely, Switzerland. James points out that most readers relate to the characters. It is true that today many mysteries are character driven, not plot driven. Where does this leave the setting? Of primary importance she says, noting that the setting is “where these people live, move and have their being.” She reminds the writer that they have a duty to breathe the character’s air, see with their eyes, walk the paths they tread and inhabit the rooms furnished for them.

Beyond the need of a setting to create a place for the character to spring to life, setting can inspire the story itself. This is true with my first Agnes Lüthi book, where an ice storm traps the characters in a château on the shore of Lac Léman. In Swiss Vendetta, the château returns to its medieval origin with the power out and modern conveniences made irrelevant. This informed the plot and the characters throughout the book. What does isolation and discomfort do to the psyche? It changes people. James’ uses Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as an example. Would The Hound of Wimbledon Common have evoked the same sense of apprehension? Probably not.

Superficially Switzerland is perfect. Literally picture postcard perfect. Every view can evoke an exclamation of delight. Look at the château, the pastoral landscape, the milk cows on parade with their flowered headdresses, the historic cities, the rivers, the lakes, the mountain, the Glacier Express…. The list is endless. To me Switzerland is the St Mary’s Meade of Agatha Christie. St Mary’s Meade was charming, yet bad things happened there (really so many people died under the nose of Miss Marple that it should be quite disturbing, but it isn’t). For the setting of my next Agnes Lüthi book I’ve chosen a boarding school as the center piece of the story. A charming, rural, idyllic setting where, yes, bad things will happen. To my mind, the setting isn’t only a place but it is an active participant. Certain events take place because of the setting. It can inspire a plot and also determine the course of the action.

P.D. James called to mind the words of John Bunyan when she set one of her detective stories in a beautiful setting. He said: “Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven.” I’ll keep this in mind as a cast my mind to the beauty of the landscape that is my chosen setting. Inspiration indeed.

Why gardening is like writing

GardeningI would like to wax poetic about the joys of the word and of the earth, but in fact what I’ve realized after today’s early morning gardening exploits is that gardening and writing are both work. There is a short term sense of satisfaction: the plants are in the ground, the words are on the page, but that satisfaction only lasts a few weary minutes. What we really want to see are the end results – the plants in full bloom and ground cover spreading – just as we want to see the completed page mesh with all the others, the final product polished and perfect.

Perfect? I think that’s also a fallacy. Should the plants have been closer, arranged differently, different plants entirely? Maybe I shouldn’t have planted them there at all (the soil was very rocky). In writing we have the same concerns: is this the right story, the right point of view, are my chapters hitting the high points, is that the right word? And never, ever perfection.

Fortunately, time helps. The plants grow (usually) and the book is finished. We have distance and perspective and are left with that very special sense of accomplishment that makes all the agony worthwhile.

Getting your debut book to print

Killer Nashville cover art.jpgLast weekend I was honored to moderate a panel at Killer Nashville on getting a debut book to print. My co-panelists Patricia Dusenbury, Danny Lindsey and Rona Simmons were such a pleasure to meet and we each had a different story to share. The morning of the panel we spent some time thinking about our message, sharing our stories of path to publication, and ruminating about what we wanted to do next or do differently. This conversation led to the realization that the most important question any author can ask is: what is my goal. That became the theme of our panel.

My goal was the start of a lasting relationship with an agent and publisher to launch a series. Series equals long term relationship with ‘the team’ made sense to me, however I’ve come to realize that if someone has a stand-alone book a long term relationship may not be as important. Several members of our audience expressed a sense of urgency due to age or health or another time factor. They wanted to see their book in print and the immediacy of self-publishing made sense to them. There were, of course, pre-conceived notions about the path of agent/publisher and self-publishing. One of the biggest seemed to revolve around marketing. In today’s world I think that anyone publishing a debut book will have to engage in marketing – even if you have a large marketing team coordinating an effort, there will be social media and local appearances that the author takes full responsibility for. Decide to embark on self-publishing and you’ll need to take on marketing whole heartedly – there was general agreement among the audience that once your book is launched you really do want it to sell regardless of any initial dream of simply seeing it in print. When you learn that Amazon launches 5,000 books a day you understand how hard it is to garner attention for anything being published.

There were also cautionary tales of self-publishing, not necessarily bad business practice or dishonesty but the need to do the research to find a publisher or platform that truly meets your needs. For example, if you are publishing a mystery find a publisher who understands what that cover looks like, not a publisher who has a stock of romance covers that will make you grit your teeth every time you see it (a ‘wrong genre’ cover also hurts marketing). There was one horror story of self-publishing that proceeded smoothly except for the fact that the finished books were in a warehouse in Asia and the fee to get them to the US was not included in the original cost. Read the fine print is the take away here.

My story, by contrast, has been a joy. I met my agent and signed quickly thereafter, she sold the manuscript within a few months and I have been thoroughly pleased with every aspect of the process – lovely cover, love the title, wonderful copy editor, supportive editor, encouraging marketing staff (I’m at the end of my adjectives now). At the Killer Nashville Conference I sat through many cocktail conversations and panels thinking that I needed to reach out to my agent and publisher to thank them, it is easy to forget to thank people who are wonderful, not as easy to forget the tales of woe.

For my path to publication I had some thoughts about the process, which I shared, including these points:

  1. To obtain an agent go to conferences. A face to face meeting gets you over a huge hurdle.
  2. Sign up for on line help. Specifically, Writers Digest First 10 pages or Synopsis critiques (there are others, but as a panel we had experience with these and they were entirely positive).
  3. Enter contests. There are contests for a variety of manuscripts/books. There are also contests for short stories, which provide an outlet for a new manuscript that doesn’t necessarily take months and months to write.
  4. Be ready to revise. Among my panel there was consensus that the suggestion of a major change often results in a knee jerk reaction of NO! I want that sad ending or happy ending or whatever the suggestion is. Take some time to think about it. Ask why. If you are talking with an agent or editor then you are speaking with an experienced professional. We all fall in love with our story, we also have to learn to kill our darlings. (This may not be correct but I believe that Patricia Cornwell first wanted to publish a thriller series with a very different character and someone said to her – what about a female coroner as your central character, that would be unique and make you stand out. Perhaps she jumped on the idea, but I suspect she was very disappointed they didn’t simply take the character she had already created and say Yes!)
  5. Be ready to revise again. Seriously. Two times I thought I had ‘finished’. Not so. I was fortunate to have a beta reader who suggested some structural changes that I incorporated prior to sending to my agent (without too much detail they were the kind of changes that meant cutting and chopping everywhere…. I had to think about them for two months to get up the courage. Even the idea of doing it was so painful I wasn’t sure I could. But I did!). I had another great reader make suggestions after the manuscript was sold and I knew they were the right changes – it meant taking a small suggestion and really going for it. I could have gotten away with an easier edit (trim a little here and there) but the better decision was to trim by re-incorporating. Harder, yes. But infinitely better. Ironically both changes came at critical moments which meant that they were made before I sent the manuscript to my agent (perhaps getting her to sign me) and then after we sold the manuscript, which means my editor thinks I am an editing genius! (Hope she’s not reading this.)

If you have a chance, take a look at my co-panelists’ books. They are great people and I enjoyed sharing an hour with them.

Patricia Dusenbury – A Perfect Victim; Secrets, Lies & Homicide; A House of Her Own

Rona Simmons – Postcards from Wonderland; The Quiet Room; Into the Light of Day

Danny Lindsey – The Pres; Justice


Killer Nashville and Plot Twists

Killer Nashville Plot Twists panel

Killer Nashville exceeded expectations in many ways, but as I digest the days of panels and speakers and most importantly dive into writing again I’m thinking about Plot Twists. At Killer Nashville three great panels touched on this: How to Write Effective Plot Twists, No Soggy Middles, and Creating Tension in Your Story. What I liked best about the panels is that there is no “perfect solution”. After all, every story is different, every author’s voice is different, however, there are many points that an author can reflect upon.

I take notes at these events as if there is an exam (leftover from graduate school days?) and looking over them a few points stand out to me today. Mainly the idea of spending time on the villain. Sounds simple, right? Killer Nashville is mainly thriller and mystery writers and the advice and discussions crossover between the two…however I think that when writing a thriller the audience may know exactly who the villain is that villain should be evil (Hannibal Lector and his evil out of prison alter ego were both known to the reader/viewer and both were evil personified). I write mysteries and it’s not always as clear; after all, I want my audience to know the villain but not point to them on page 5 and say there they are, mystery solved. My villain needs to be concealed until the reveal and at the same time not so much of a surprise that the reader says, not possible.

As I return to work on my manuscript I’ll be giving particular focus to this development. Are they enough of a villain to be satisfying? And are the means and reasons they went undetected well-constructed?

I’m interested in hearing thoughts on the well-constructed villain. Any favorites, any weak ones. Agatha Christie’s villain in the Murder of Roger Ackroyd certainly wasn’t obvious by any stretch of the imagination but, to me, he was completely believable once revealed.

When writing is like Olympic Training

art paper menIf you are my agent or my editor you should stop reading. Or pour a stiff drink before continuing. Seriously.

Two days ago I was on the final, tweak-the-ending home stretch of the sequel to Swiss Vendetta. Then yesterday happened. First my husband read the draft. He was very complimentary but pointed out a few details for consideration (I have to listen to him since he’s Swiss and that’s where the books are set) and had a few questions. After these discussions my mind rolled through the solutions and I have a tendency to overcompensate. If someone says “I wonder if you should trim so-and-so’s role.” I think maybe I should cut them altogether and streamline the entire theme. You can see where this heads…. After this conversation I’m in full questioning/realigning mode.

But that’s not what really did me in. Truth be told, I can lay blame at the feet of a specific person. Christine Stewart. She is a friend and fellow writer (also a professional editor and consultant aka TheRealWriter) and is a great Beta reader for me. I’d sent her an email the evening before asking if she had a window of reading time available. I hit send and went back to work. Once my husband had my mind whirring I thought: What will Christine think about the draft? And it came to me. I knew exactly what she would say. And I started to reorganize. Mainly it’s the opening, and then how things cascade afterward, it’s not a change of story or of character or place, still….. In Olympic Games’ terms I suppose it’s like hitting your peak at training, with your bags packed for the Games, only to be told the Games have been rescheduled and are still six months out and you have to keep training at peak condition all that time. What? I was nearly finished, ready for the victory lap! Now it’s time to get back in the water and keep swimming. After all, in six months you will likely be an even better athlete…. To round out the metaphor I’m sure this will be a much better book.

Now, back in the water…..

(I also blog at MissDemeanors.com)


The characters we create

My friend Michele Dorsey just shared her thoughts about characters and it started me thinking.

My father and I wrote a few books together and it wasn’t unusual during a meal in a restaurant for one of us to tap the other and say…. Look! Big Frank or The Lizard (or one of our characters) just walked in. The conversation would go from there…. he’s lost weight, no it’s just the clothes he’s wearing. Did he come on his motorcycle? It is still amazing to me that we could have these conversations without batting an eye, as if that someone across the room was a relative we hadn’t seen for a few days or years. Even minor characters had an entire life not on paper that we could discuss as easily as we talked about a family reunion. Sometimes you think…. this can’t be normal. Have I left reality? Then you say, who cares.

(To read all of Michele’s thoughts…. read her post at Missdemeanors.com)

The spoken word… you still have to write it.

Dialogue. Dialect. It’s all spoken and it’s harder to write than it appears. I ponder this as I write a book set in a foreign country. Do a few foreign words convey the sense of place? How much is too much? Certainly Hercule Poirot seemed a native French-speaker with only a few well-placed words such as sirop and pour ça. The great writer Louise Penny makes her English speaking Francophones stand out while blending in. Once, in an interview, she confessed to surprise when counting the number of foreign words she dropped in her novels. Surprise is probably a good thing. Not too many, not too few…. Just right.

IMG_3070Recently I discovered the Vish Puri mysteries written by Tarquin Hall. I bought the first one at a hotel in Delhi, on the recommendation of the bookshop owner, and was immediately gratified. Hall is a Brit living in Delhi, where his hero resides, and the nuance of Indian English used by his characters is an immersion into their world. Of course, this isn’t dialect – it is the English of the country – however, it is dialogue that hints at more than the words themselves convey.

Now back to writing dialogue and hoping for more than simply speech.