Tuesday, September 25, 2007


"It takes two, baby..." Tina Turner

"I am a rock...I am an island." Paul Simon

RO: Chinese or Italian? Your relatives or mine? Wuthering Heights or 40 Year Old Virgin?

With all the choices that couples have to make - and all the agonizing that can go into even small decisions like what toppings to put on the pizza (at least in the Harris household)how in the world do couples actually write together. My husband (poor guy) can't pull out of the driveway without my editing him. How can there be so many successful writing teams? Married or not, I've got to think that a writing partnership is like a marriage, with all of the attendant give and take, joys and frustrations. Could you ever do it? Do you?

HANK: I always write as a team. A team of three. The real me, then the me who thinks I'm a good writer, and then the me who thinks I stink. We all talk. Oh yeah, there's also the Me who answers for the writing mentor I sometimes wish I had.

But I actually have written with a real other person. I've been a TV reporter for thirty years--for maybe 15 of those, I've had a producer, and we do investigative reporting as a team. Usually, we chat about what the point of the story is, and come up with a sort of thesis sentence. Then I write a rough draft. I give it to her for tweaks and adds and comments and fact checking. She gives it back to me, and we go back and forth with it. Finaly I say, OK, this is done. And get her to read it one more time. In the edit booth, when I hear how it sounds out loud, I often change it again.

It truly works. I think it all hinges on respect. Knowing each other's strengths. That the goal is to have the best story possible and that it doesn't matter whose idea anything is. That laughter is good. Could I do it writing fiction? With someone good? Hmm. You know, I think yes.
(Choosing a movie with my husband? We take turns.)

JAN: Definitely yes. Like Hank, I'm used to the collaboration of a newsroom. I also wrote a screenplay with a good writing buddy, and although we never sold the screenplay, we had a hoot writing it. It was a comedy we called Fatal Feng Shui, and I don't know how effective our humor was in the screenplay, but we cracked each other up writing it.
I also have tentative plans to write a thriller with my brother, who is an avid mystery reader (much more so than me), a chick lit book with my daughter, who will be home this winter on a college break, and the great American novel with my son, who doesn't know about this plan yet. Okay, maybe not with my son -- he probably wants to write the great American novel alone.
But it gets lonely writing alone. I'd love to try writing with a partner!

HALLIE: I have a series of 5 Dr. Peter Zak mystery novels from St. Martin's that I wrote with a writing partner, Don Davidoff. Our shared, authorial pseudonym is G. H. Ephron. Don is a neuropsychologist who runs a unit at Harvard's McLean hospital and he's also often called as an expert witness in criminal trials. So, roughly speaking, our model for Dr. Zak was Don.
Don took the lead on plotting, I did all the writing. Supposedly that's how the cousin partners who were Ellery Queen (Frederic Cannay and Manfred B. Lee) collaborated. It was a great partnership--we had virtually no overlapping skills. Working together for 8 years was enough. Now I'm working on my own nonfiction projects and novels.

HANK: I remember the Marvin Gaye version of It Takes Two, Ro, and now it's incessantly going through my brain. (cf. our blog on earworms...)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Email

"No fear. No distractions. The ability to let that which does not matter truly slide."

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, 1996

I'm starting to believe that email is a writer's worst enemy. It could be the enemy of anyone who works at home, or on a computer, but I think writers are the most vulnerable to its stealthy attack.

Here's why. If you are a writer, answering email feels like you are working. You are typing, after all. And sometimes it is work, but other times it's just conversation. And even if it is important work, it's still a distraction.

For writers, who love to communicate through writing, its an incredibly tempting distraction. In fact, it's much more fun to answer email than to remain stuck in the middle of a scene that isn t working, or wrestle with a feature story that's overly complex. I'm fairly convinced I've acquired ADD (attention deficit disorder) from checking and rechecking my email.

Clearly I'm lacking in mental self-discipline, so I've tried other solutions. With my old computer, I could take out the wireless card and put it in the basement. With my new computer, the wireless is built in. I've tried disabling the software, but it's too easy re-enable to be an effective deterrent. I've even tried unplugging the modem and shutting the whole system down, only my neighbor's wireless isn't secured, so my computer automatically started picking up my email through her system.

When people buy Blackberries or the I-Phone for the ability to connect to the web, I think they are insane. The last thing I'd ever want is mobile access to my email.

So is email a problem for anyone else, and if it is, have you found a solution?

HANK: There's no question I'm addicted to email. I always think: there might be good news. And I can't wait to see it. I physically miss it when I don't check. It's ridiculous.

So. When I'm writing, I turn off the little music that comes up to announce I have new mail. I've realized I'm a perfect Pavlovian specimen when it comes to that little sound. It bings, and I can't stand it. I have to look. So I just turn off the sound.

I also set a time. When I'm writing, I can only look at the email once an hour, and I choose the time, very specifically. It's now--4:16. I can look at my email again at 5:16. I obey myself. This actually works.

My email has a little indicator where you can put a red flag on stuff you absolutely must respond to. Every one of mine is flagged, so that doesn't work at all.

Because it's true: the amount of time you can spend on email expands to fill the amount of time you have. I could do it all day, every day. And not be finished. Never, ever be finished.
And sometimes I power through a bunch of correspondence...and feel very virtuous. Then I wonder--did any of that matter?

Gotta go. I heard a bing.

RO:It's very easy to convince yourself that checking email, or Myspace or voicemail or whatever is "working." I think of it as working "light". It's not really working, but it's closer to it than going shopping, or kayaking or any number of things that you might be doing. It may be a problem if you do it every day or for more than an hour a day but, I think I have it under control. I can quit anytime I like, as they say....

HALLIE: Sure you can.

Actually email is like "research," or Marbles (my husband got me hooked on it after I took Solitaire off my system) -- the thing I do to put off writing. Then again, maybe email addiction is nature's way of keeping us from pouring too much dross onto the pages.

Related question--how come the more I have on my plate, the more I get done? I open email nine thousand times on a day when all I have to do is write fiction. When I've got an article due and training materials to write and work for a client and and and...I may not open email at all.

Do you check the mail that gets automatically shunted to your SPAM or SCREENED mail folder?
If an email shows up in your SPAM or SCREENED MAIL folder with the topic GREAT NEWS, can you NOT open it??
If you get an email dated three minutes ago, do you put off replying because the person will think all you do all day is email???

RO: Yes, yes, no. But, uh, did you just post this...does that mean all I do all day is...

HANK: Yes. Yes, easy to ignore. (But if one says: 'Congratulations!' That's harder.Also if one says: 'Why did you miss the meeting?' I generally fall for that one. And, no. (I feel great if I happen to be able to answer quickly. That's one more thing I "accomplished.")

JAN: No. No. (always skeptical) Yes. You think there's a 12-step program that can help me?

Monday, September 10, 2007

what's ON A NAME

Must a name mean something?” Alice asked doubtfully.“Of course it must,” Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: “my name means the shape I am—and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.”
***Lewis Carroll

HANK: Okay, first things first. My name is Harriet Ann. Mom's idea. We've discussed it, and she's still not sorry.

But in a book, the author is the Mom. So how do we choose? For me, two things happen. One type of character appears with a name already in place. Charlie. Knew her before I typed one word. It's as if I didn't make it up, that was simply her name. Franklin was Franklin Brooks Parrish instantly, it just came out of the computer before I even thought of it.

In real life, no one's name describes them, unless they change it later, or it's a coincidence. But in a book, a name has to work, and somehow make sense with the character. (Without being heavy handed of course. You’re not going to make a bad guy something like Dev Evilman unless it’s comedy or you’re Ian Fleming. And you’re not going to name a bad guy Ace Goodman. I guess.)

Some I struggle with a bit. Penny, for instance. Was instantly Penny. Then I thought no, maybe that’s not a hip enough name for an eight-year-old kid with contemporary parents. So I changed her name in the manuscript to Emma. Then Annie. Then Ella. And all the while, when she showed up in the story, I kept typing Penny. Because, apparently, that’s what her name is—Penny. And so she stayed.

Anyway—the naming of Josh Gelston, the Atticus Finch-looking college professor Charlotte is so interested in—was truly hilarious. My first boyfriend ever, I think when I was about seven years old? Was named Phillip Gelston. I wanted a non-ethnic, sort of strong last name that wouldn’t instantly telegraph anything. Gelston worked.
But he couldn’t be Phillip, because of my own last name. So I started thinking about names that were one syllable, masculine, strong, traditional not trendy, very simple and that someone who is about 48 would logically have been named. So I thought: Luke. Jake. Max. Sam. Ben. Josh. Yes, Josh. Then Joshua Ives Gelston just came out of my brain. Which I loved.

Soon after Prime Time was released, I got an email with the subject line: Hello From Josh Gelston. Can you imagine how weird that was? And turned out, there’s a very cool guy, a caterer to rock stars who lives in New Hampshire, and his name is Josh Gelston! And he says, his brother is Ben.

So how do you choose names? And how much do you notice others? What's your favorite name of a character? I signed a book at Borders recently for a little girl named Maddie Drummond. DIBS.

HALLIE: The protagonist of the novel I'm working on right now is IVY. It's a name I would have named one of my daughters but my husband couldn't be convinced. Names can be really hard. I keep a file of neat names for use when I'm stuck. Did you know Holly Golightly in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's was originally named Connie Gustafson? And that was before computers and the writers best friend: "Search and Replace."

Place names are tricky, too. There's the foreign country in Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" - Ishmaelea (sounds like something out of the Marx Brothers). And what about the names authors give their fictional dogs? I always love Mother Theresa - the St. Bernard in Claire Cooke's "Must Love Dogs." Or the dog Bradley in Charles Baxter's "Feast of Love"

JAN: I'm oddly fixated on names. In fact, so are my brothers and both my children. We listen for names, remember, and almost always have strong opinions about them. It's weird. For me, names, especially female names, always have meaning, even if its the wrong meaning. In general, I'm pretty good about remembering names UNLESS I decide, in my wisdom, that you don't look like your name. For example, if your name is Patty, and you are a blonde, I think you are all wrong. In fact, I often think you are a Karen (always blonde) and will call you that. The other error I sometimes make is if you really, really look like a Peggy to me, I'll hesitate before I'll say your name because I'll question whether you really are Peggy or just look like a Peggy to me.

In naming characters, I find male names the hardest to come up with. That's because most men seemed to be named the same thing, depending on the generation, and there are fewer unusual male names that don't have strong connotations. I struggled with my protaganists boyfriend's name for weeks. The funny thing is that I finally decided on Matt Cavanaugh. A prosecutor in RI, I made him the the head of the criminal division. While writing the next book, I met the real head of the criminal division in RI, whose name was Matt and we became friends. In fact, he helps me with the book, and before I thanked him in my acknowledgments, I had to warn him that all my readers in Rhode Island would mistakenly think he's the model for the character.

RO: First and foremost, I love Dev Evilman! Can I use that? I had a hard time with names in Pushing Up Daisies and used placeholders most of the time I was writing it. Everything sounded boring, or obviously, stereotypically ethnic. My friends kids names are in there (of course nothing bad happens to any of them..)old colleagues, the fireman I lift weights with...no one was safe. And most of them stuck. One name I really liked my editor made me change, because she thought people wouldn't know how to pronounce it - Van Outryve. Is that hard? Whatever.

My protagonist's name is Paula, same as my sister's, who is no longer with us, but will be around as long as there's a copy of Daisies somewhere (someone's tag sale in 2016?)

HANK: I also offer a "your-name-in-my-next-book as an auction item for charity fund-raisiers. And that's just terrific. It's worked, perfectly, every time! Even, in the upcoming Air Time, where I'll be using the name Urszula Mazny-Latos to benefit the National Lawyer's Guild.
(And of course, Ro, Dev is yours.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

Writers Hit List Deux: The Quiz

Okay, enough kvetching. Quiz time! What's WRONG with each of these not so exemplary examples of problematic prose?

Match each problem to an example.

A. Purple prose
B. Wrong timing/order
C. Profligate use of adverbs
D. Sliding point of view
E. Stilted Dialogue


  1. When Corrigan looked up, he saw Mary gazing at him like a lost puppy. He looked away, got up, and made for the door. As she watched him leave, her look hardened.
  2. "That's great," she said delightedly.
  3. She had seen all she need to see, she decided. It was time to go home. She could understand why the sales clerk ignored her, and felt confident that putting back the dress was the right decision. She loved shopping, and hoped this would be the day she found her wedding dress. She unsnapped the clasp of her bag, and dug out her keys.
  4. "Do you really think so?" she asked.
    "I do," he responded.
    "I'm so glad you came to visit, Dan." she said.
    "I wondered if I would see you again.
    "It would have been difficult for me to have stayed away," he said. "Just the thought of your constant care for the pets people entrust to your care is an indication of your true personality."
    "Do you really think so?" she asked.
  5. "Oh, Dan, do you honestly and truly think so?" she asked, her heart beating like a trip hammer, her breath coming fast, like a butterfly's wings.
    "I do, yes, I do," he responded. He could feel his pulse quicken, and wondered why he'd never noticed the shimmering gloss of her hair, the curve of her spine, the depth of her eyes, bluer than the bluest blue. In this one moment, he felt he had never seen the sun rise before, never noticed how the light refracted over the water. He had never lived, really, not until now.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Writer's Hit List

"You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you." -- Anne Lamott (Bird By Bird)

HALLIE: It is that simple, when you start a manuscript. But it's got to be a lot more than that when you send it out. When I was at Killer Nashville, a great mystery conference a couple of weeks ago, I sat on a panel with agent Donna Bagdasarian and acquiring editor Maryglenn McCombs. Kelly/PJ Parrish moderated a fascinating discussion of why an agent/editor/reviewer stops reading.

It was lovely to vent some spleen.

Here's the list:

  • Profligate use of adverbs
  • Bad grammar, syntax, you know the drill
  • Failing to follow manuscript submission guidelines
  • A predictible plot
  • Wooden dialogue
  • Too many characters
  • Too many subplots
  • No main character or main plot--no backbone to the novel
  • An ending that just happens, as opposed to the protagonist making it happen
  • Too many killers
  • Violence or sex that's overly explicit and gratuitous
  • Sliding point of view
  • Zigzagging timelines
  • Purple prose
  • Too much backstory too soon

HANK: Now on page 205 of a first draft that I sometimes love and sometimes want to throw RIGHT INTO THE TRASH. Putting down one word after the other. And perfect timing, Hallie, to give me such a perfect list of Ephron Don'ts.

May I add another to your list? One I am battling right now? Coincidence.

This is true: I had been thinking about this friend, a woman I ran into in line at a restaurant a few weeks ago. A person I rarely see. Her son was going off to college, she had told me then. Yesterday, I wondered, sort of randomly, how he was doing. Then I went to a grocery store, not even our usual grocery store, and there she was. Now, that really happened. But if it had been a scene in a book, you'd say--oh, please. She just HAPPENED to see her in the grocery store?

When coincidences, authors' coveniences, happen in books, it just drives me crazy. But on the other hand, coincidences happen. So what makes a chance occurence believable and clever? And what makes one a gimmick that would have Hallie and Donna and Maryglenn throwing the book across the room?

RO: One thing that turns me off - jeez, I hope I'm not guilty of doing it - is too much dialogue. Too much "he said, she said" is like following a ping pong match. It's challenging to find the right balance. Sometimes I really enjoy writing snappy dialogue, but too much of it feels like a screenplay and not a book.

JAN: Sometimes I think that for me, being so damn auditory, it's all in the voice. If I like the attitude of the narrator and rhythm of the sentences and the last lines of the chapter, I'm likely to forgive the author anything. If I find the narrator dull, self-important or a bit too preachy, I turn off, even if the images and the prose are flawless.

But I guess the only thing I absolutely can't tolerate is bad dialogue. Especially exposition in dialogue. Cliche or stiff dialogue is tough sledding, but long-winded stiff or cliche dialogue is the worst. When I teach a class in writing dialogue, I tell students that if they don't have an ear for dialogue (which not everyone does) just to keep it short. That covers a lot of sins.

HALLIE: I agree...or, as E. B. White said, "I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash."