Monday, July 30, 2007

On Critiques

"People ask you for criticism,
.....but they only want praise."
Somerset Maugham

I really don't know what I was thinking. Swept up in the auction atmosphere, some months ago I bid on and won, a thirty page critique by an author I admire, Stuart Kaminsky. One month passed, then two, then I shelved the book I was writing and took my series character on a different adventure closer to home. I had just started that book when I got a friendly reminder from the folks at Sleuthfest about my critique. Now, I don't belong to a writing group, I don't have that one trusted soul who sees my scribblings long before anyone else does (every time I show anything to my husband, he tells me I'm great. Good for the ego, but not especially helpful.) So I'm not used to showing anyone my writing before I'm ready.
Stuart Kaminsky is not my husband, and chances are, he's not going to tell me I'm great. How do you handle criticism in the early stages of a book?
HALLIE: With gratitude and taking copious notes. I think the biggest mistake I've seen authors make is to argue with the poor soul whose only misstep thus far in life has been to offer to critique a manuscript. The author goes into overdrive, explaining WHY it's written the way it is when s/he should shut up, listen, and try to understand why it's not working. Hey, everyone's early draft needs work. And I'm so jealous that Stuart Kaminsky is giving your 30 pages a once-over. Can't wait to read your "after" blog.

JAN: You've got to remember, Stuart Kaminisky wouldn't have volunteered to do this, if he didn't think he could do it with diplomacy. Unless a fellow writer is completely insensitive, he's going to understand that you are at a vulnerable stage. In other words, he's not going to rip you to shreds, he's just going to offer constructive advice, which you must have wanted when you bid on this particular prize. I've gone from worrying what my writers group is going to say -- years ago -- to hoping they can figure out what's wrong with a particular scene or chapter. Critique is a good thing. And if it's off the mark for your particular book, you'll know that too. Have confidence, Ro! This is growth!
HANK: Open mind! Insert good ideas. We're so--okay, I'll say it, I'M so-- competitive. I always want to get the A grade or win or be the best or get the pat on the head. But with a critique, we have to remember that's not the goal. It's not like you're getting a grade. You're getting the use of an expert's experience, ideas, opinion, imagination, secrets. And that someone has offered to help you get to another place. Praise is nice, and any thoughtful critiquer will give it. But the real value is in the fixes. The open doors. The pointing in the right direction so you can be the best you can be.
I've had 18 news directors in my 22 years in Boston TV. Each reads the scripts of my investigative stories before they go on the air. Some news directors are so savvy, I can't wait to see how they'll tweak to make the stories better. A critique from an experienced, careful, clever person? It's incredibly exciting.

Ro: You guys are so supportive! I love it.. I'm ready... Bring him on!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Re: Throwing things out..

This is my cluttered office. Geez, it doesn't look so bad...

Monday, July 23, 2007

On throwing out your life

"For the most part, we, who could choose simplicity, choose complication." Anne Morrow Lindbergh from "Gift from The Sea."

JAN: No Feng Shui for me. And after spending two days and filling two trash barrels cleaning out my office, I'm officially rejecting all the de-cluttering advice out there. Sure, I feel better with the clear surface of my desk, and this rare moment in time when I actually know where everything is. But what struck me most about the project was what I couldn't throw out.

Like the aging, yellow clips of my earliest newspaper articles at The News-Tribune in Waltham. The features about a local farmstand, a minor riot in the Latino neighborhood, a bilingual program at the high school. I was 21-years old. No brilliant writing, and surely no clips I would send off as part of a packet to impress a magazine editor. Since they were followed up by more sophisticated articles in more prestigious publications, what is the possible use for them? To prove I was young once? Uninformed?

And those half-baked short stories I'll never return to?? Why can't they go in the bin? And do I really need five copies of two different versions of my very first novel that will never be sold??I have a habit of never quite cutting ties to the past. Is that what this is about? Or do I secretly think that every single poorly written sentence I've ever written is precious? Tell me guys, is this some form of egomania, a hoarding disorder, or are there useless writings or things in your files and closets that you, too, just can't throw out?

HALLIE: It is odd, what we can and can't throw out. Especially true after someone dies--I couldn't throw away my mother's eyeglasses. Bizarre.

My advice is don't throw away those early clippings. Some day you may be moved to create a memory album (would that be pathetic or what?) Looking back shows you how far you've come, something that one looses sight of in the thicket of life. Besides, the minute you throw one of those suckers away you know you'll be looking for it. I mean how much space is it taking up, really?

Who says cutting ties with the past is a good thing?

RO: I don't think it's egomania - unless you're also picking out the spot for the Jan Brogan Library. I don't have many of my old writings and newsclippings since I don't have any. OTOH, the ticket stub from the time the Knicks made it to the Finals? Got it. Any newspaper article that could turn into a storyline or character? In a bulging folder. My wedding dress? Now what the hell I am keeping that for? In a huge box under the bed, keeping the dust bunnies company.

Like Hallie, with her mom's glasses...I have my sister's handbag - phone, tic-tacs, metrocard, loosechange.

All of this stuff's important, and with the possible exception of the wedding dress, why shouldn't I keep them?

JAN: The Jan Brogan Library, You know Ro, I hadn't thought about it before, but.....

HANK: And will you carry all of our books at the JB Library? I like it. Anyway. Come visit and we'll talk about saving things. I have a file for every year called, um, "save." It has clippings, cards, photos. Photos, photos. Funny stuff. Invitations. Cartoons. Ticket stubs. Okay, and you're saying, that sounds organized. And it is. Except for all the other stuff I'm keeping thats not in the files.

The RSVP cards for my wedding. (Both weddings.) Letters from people. (On actual paper.) The scripts from the first radio stories I wrote in 1970. Every column I wrote or edited for Rolling Stone. Emmy programs from the past 25 years. Announcements of my book signings, interviews, fliers. (Maybe 2 or three of each.) My terrible effort at a first novel 15 years ago. (About a golf pro. And I don't play golf.) Test columns I wrote when I was maybe going to be an editorial writer in Atlanta. News releases I wrote for a political campaign, ("With just time for a quick corn dog, Matt headed to the...." I'm NOT kidding.) And let's not even talk about t-shirts with slogans and dates on them. Let's blog about that sometime soon.

But here's the thing. I hardly ever look at any of it. It's just--there. And it's comforting to know it's there. (A pal of mine, an author, came home to see her house burned to the ground a few years ago. Can you imagine? It makes my stomach hurt, even now, to think of it. All that remained--a box of her high-school writings and photos. The truly irreplaceable things.)

Is it a reminder, maybe, that I actually did something at some point? Which is bizarre, because it's not like I'm doing nothing now. Is it like our Ozymandias? Some desperate effort to prove we exist and are worthwhile even though someday, someone will just toss it all?
I'm still keeping it.

JAN: Yes, physical confirmation that we are living a life. And maybe just the tiniest touch of whatever human need is at the crux of that hoarding disorder.... Besides, you never know when you're going to go back to that very first novel.

Monday, July 16, 2007


"All the rest was indefinite, as the soundest advice ever is."
Herman Melville Moby-Dick (1851)

Did you take those Kuder preference tests in college? Kuder? Is that right? You know, the ones with thousands of questions, and with a number 2 pencil you had to fill in the little ovals signifying whether you would rather (a) be a forest ranger alone in the crow's-nest lookout of a national park or (b) be a nurse in a busy emergency room. Whether you'd rather (a) be at a party with a hundred strangers or (b) in a room with one friend. Whether you'd rather (a) take a vacation that was planned and with reservations all organized or (b)set off on a random adventure.

I'm probably making up the example questions, but they were like that, right?

And the point was, after answering them all, someone who could interpret all your responses would tell you--like some indisputable vision of the future--what you should be when you grew up.

I loved taking those tests, by the way, since I thought they were (a) fun (b) impossible to be wrong and (c) so incredibly transparent that if you wanted to take the time, you could make them come out however you wanted.

So Miss Laurie, our guidance counselor in high school, was the one who called me into her office to go over my about-to-apply-for-colleges answers. I had already been sent home several times for wearing skirts that were too short (this was, um, 1967) and I knew she was not optimistic about my future success. In anything. And "Slacker" (or whatever we called it in those days) was not something that was going to be revealed by that test.

I wanted to be the lawyer for the mine workers, by the way, at that time. Or a Shakespeare teacher. Or Mrs. Paul McCartney.

Anyway, she opened her test results, and said "You have very high scores in literature and persuasion."

She paused, then continued:
"Seems like you have a future selling books," she said."I guess you should work in a bookstore."

Ah yes, the good old days when my prescient mother advised me to learn to type so I'd always be able to find a job. Hey, it worked for her...actually she was a successful playwright and screenwriter and her being able to type meant my father, her writing partner, didn't have to learn.

They'd work together all morning while she took notes in shorthand on a yellow legal pad. All afternoon he'd go off to play tennis and she'd type scripts (original and two carbon copies - remember carbon paper?) on one of the first IBM electric typewriters. That thing was about the size of a Buick. It had been a gift from IBM right after she and my father wrote the screenplay for The Desk Set, a movie about a computer that can't do what Katherine Hepburn and a group of smartypants librarians can.

I can't even imagine how my mother managed it on a typewriter, electric or otherwise...I mean, have you ever seen a movie script? All the lines are centered. Today people use special software to format those suckers.
Anyway, I did follow her advice. When I was 15 years old and couldn't find a summer job, I spent weeks teaching myself to touch type. Never regretted it for an instant. The next summer I learned Gregg shorthand. It was very cool, but turned out to be a total waste. I can't read my own handwriting, never mind shorthand.

My father, who was a lawyer, really, really wanted me to be a lawyer. (I worked in his law office all through high school,)But since I was so hell bent on being a writer, he suggested I might want to study journalism. I went with it.I never took those Kuder (?) tests which sound like a lot of fun, but I'm pretty sure the results wouldn't have redirected me to say...nuclear physicist or astronaut. I snooze when NOVA is on. And I didn't get too worked up when they deplanet-ized Pluto. Or was it Neptune? There's a big hole in my brain where science and especially, physics should be.

I guess the best advice I ever got was from my mother - although I'm sorry to say I never acknowledged it during her lifetime - find a nice man who loves you and settle down! And I finally did.

BTW I've seen Desk Set at least 50 times..I love it when Spencer Tracyanswers the phone during the Christmas party and tries to name Santa's reindeer.. "uh, Rudolph, Dopey..."

HANK: Sidebar: one of my fondest memories. When we were deciding what to name this blog, I suggested "Desk Set." (It's one of my favorite--maybe my favorite--movies of all times. I love when Spencer Tracy is giving Katherine Hepburn the "test" as they're eating sandwiches. The "train to Chappaqua" scene, remember it? And she says: "I associate many things with many things.")

So Hallie, who I think was on speaker phone? said: you know my parents wrote that, don't you?

Now there's a conversation stopper for you. No, I didn't.

Anyway: advice. (Besides researching your blog sisters' parents.) Do you give it? Do you take it? Any advice on advice?

Monday, July 9, 2007

On Endings

"I always wanted to write a book that ended with the word mayonnaise." ...Richard Brautigan

HALLIE:Ah, endings. As I am struggling with one, endings are very much on my mind. I always think I know the ending when I start writing a novel, but about half the time I turn out to be wrong. That's because the characters change as I write them and, by Act III, won't be herded the way I'd intended them to go.

The ending of any novel has to be satisfying, bring things to a close. But in a mystery it's got to do so much more. It's got to pull all the plot strands together, or most of them, anyway. Expose all secrets, dispose of every clue and red herring. In some manner or other, justice must be served. And above all, the ending has to pack a powerful, credible surprise--even better if it packs an emotional wallop. That's a tall order.

Do you need to know your ending before you start?

RO: Jeez...was I supposed to do all that??? I always feel as if I need to remind people that I've only finished one book so far - forgive me for being so repetitious - but from my vast experience....I didn't know how the secondary story lines would shake out. I knew who my main bad guy was, but I changed his/her accomplices as the characters developed. And that was fun. The hardest thing for me was the last 2-3 pages. The reader already knows who did it and why.

You can't just write "OK, see ya.."

JAN: I need to know the ending -- at least by page 100 of the first draft manuscript. Not all the gritty details, but the general idea of who did it and how the plots will all intersect. That's where I am right now in my new book and boy, it's a lot of hair pulling. About this time in every book I wonder if I'm going to be able to make it work. Still, the "why" of the crime, which is the part of the story that interests me the most, often evolves or changes as the characters and their schemes develop in the next two hundred pages.

That's what happened with Yesterday's Fatal and I'm sort of counting on it with Conflict of Interest (working title). Anyway, I always tell myself that our very first ideas are not our best. And that the painful searching and rewriting is what makes for better mysteries. Yeah, yeah. Let's hope.

Anyway, I agree with both of you, the last twenty pages or so are the hardest to write. The fireworks are over and you have to gracefully leave the park.Give it meaning and all that.

HANK: And you know how critical it is for the reader...haven't there been books that you just want to throw against the wall when you finish? You slog (or skim or power) though the books--thinking, wow, this is interesting, how is the author going to write out of this one? And then it's twins. Or something outrageous, something impossible. Or ridiculous. Like--what's the book where someone jumps out of a helicopter using a blanket as a parachute? I honestly did throw that book at the wall.

Me? Well, here's a secret about the end of Prime Time at least. I thought I knew it, and was writing along with the knowledge of who did it and how it was going to wrap up all the loose ends. And then, after the middle of the book, I realized I had it all wrong. The person I thought was guilty--wasn't. And I understood who was. I literaly sat bolt upright in bed--and said out loud--Oh my gosh I was wrong. And I hardly had to change a word of the book aftewrwards. It was all already there.

So I was thrilled, actually. And loved finding out who really did it. Although probably having that be a surprise is not the best thing, if you want to make a career of this...and in Face Time (coming in October) yes, I definitely knew.

But contrarian me again--I adore writing the ending and the wrap up. Pulling it all together. Don't you find there were things you wrote that fit into the puzzle--that you didn't realize were there? It's satisfying for me, too. Kind of proof that it was a good story.

And Hallie, now I keep thinking about ending with mayonnaise. Thanks.

HALLIE: You're entirely welcome. My pleasure. BTW since I started this blog I finished my novel. Sort of. Now I'm back into Act III trying to figure out how to do it better so it goes down like buttah...or mayonnaise.

Monday, July 2, 2007

On ShamelessPromotion

"...but enough about me, what do you think about me?"- I'm willing to attribute it to Bette Midler, unless someone knows better

RO: In an online group of which I am a member, there is currently a thread of discussion which started out being about query letters and has (d)evolved, as they sometimes do, into a discussion of BSP. I had never even heard the term BSP - blatant self-promotion, until last year when my book was sold, but every author from JD Salinger to JA Konrath has a position on it, whether they articulate it or not. We all do..okay, maybe not Salinger, but 99% of us do. Why are some of us so conflicted about the fact that part of the job of being a published writer is helping the publisher sell the book?

In high school, there were the insufferable braggy people who always got straight A's and had to tell you about it. Leads in the play, every time. Teachers pets. The majorettes who got to wear lipstick and pluck their eyebrows. The ones who had lots of dates and bought their grosgrain-ribbon trimmed cardigans from the too-expensive Roderick St. John. (You see my own personal demons from back then.) Anyway, no one liked them, I didn't at least, because they were always puffing about their successes and their prowess. That was BSP, and it was unbearable.

Fast forward, though, to now. I must say I love to hear what's happened to other writers. What awards they win and what they sell. How they write and what they think and who they love and why they do what they do. I say: just tell me. Their successes? Whether it's selling a short story or a novel or winning an Edgar. Tell me about it. I love it.

How am I supposed to know about it otherwise? And success is better shared. (You can't have a champagne toast without at least two people..) And when something wonderful happens to me (for instance, well--ok. You know.) It's fun to tell the people who will understand. And they know I'll love hearing the same from them.

There is...excess, of course. We all recognize that. The sneaky stuff that sounds like it's about someone else when it's really about them. That's not bsp. That's just boring and needy. But hey, we can laugh.

Flashing back to high school...and it's scary how often that faves were the ones who said ..."I did terrible on the test....I only got a 95."Made me want to rip off their little circle pins. Anyway, I'm a grownup now. Everyone in publishing seems to agree you have to go out there and promote yourself, and writers decide for themselves where their comfort level is.

Fresh back from a four day trip to California, where I did nothing but sell myself, I have to say for the most part, I hate selling myself. It's odd, because I actually enjoy public speaking and meeting booksellers -- and with Hank sharing the sales burden as well as media escort Ken Wilson making the introductions in LA, it was a painless and rewarding trip. Still....I hate this need to always be promoting myself. And there is a tiny part of me that feels that when I give someone a signed copy of my book as a gift, it's along the same lines of giving them a framed picture of myself as a gift. It's all about ME. ME. ME. And at some point, even I am getting sick of ME.

(Ro's note...WE're not. I personally don't hear nearly enough about you, you, you.)

(Hank's note: Hey, wasn't it about me a little bit too? Kidding.)

JAN:I always thought it went back to Catholic CCD, where we learned that if you do a good deed -- it must remain pure. In other words, if you brag about the good deed, not only does it negate the good work, you actually get one of those venial sin check marks that muck up your soul. (At least until your next confession.)But now that you mention it, the unwritten rules of high school definitely reinforced the bragging ban. And everyday life does, as well. Probably the worst thing you can do in middle-ageddom is brag about your kids. In fact, it's probably worse to brag about your kids acheivements than it is about your own. So no wonder, I find this whole BSP thing pure torture. In fact, sometimes I fantasize about giving up writing and selling something other than myself. Like leather couches at a furniture store. Expensive luxury cars on a highway lot. Maybe I'd be good at selling ad space on the Internet... hmmmmm....lots of possibilities for a BSP-free career!

Omigod, high school and Catholic school in one blog...two of my worst nightmares made real again... is this what I have to look forward to, when I go on tour? BTW...say hello to Emmy...she's the doggie with the Jungle Red nails! (FYI, I did not do this in a shamelessly promotional moment, someone sent me Emmy's pic because I am looking for dog pix for a book proposal, but I thought Emmy's pic was appropriate.)

Well, Ken Wilson was a genius, and made us feel not so pushy and not-so-aggressive for oh-so-sweetly making sure people knew about our books. I'll be the contratrian here. I had a great time in Los Angeles and San Francisco. (And I know Jan would say just the same thing.) We met wonderful people at so many bookstores--M is for Mystery, The Mystery Bookstore, Mysteries to Die for, and Book 'Em Mysteries. Endlessly beautiful and enthusiastic Borders and Barnes & Nobles. I admit I bought waaaay too many books and t-shirts, waaay too many lattes, and loved meeting everyone. And I bow to their devotion to mysteries and authors and readers. And they love new books. I'll continue to be the contrarian--I loved the tour. It was exhausting, it was high-adrenaline. But you know, I poured my heart into Prime Time. And today I finished the copy edits of Face Time. I'm wiped. But I'm happier than ever.

Many tour stories to this space!